Sunday, February 24, 2013

Homily - 3rd Sunday of Lent (Year C)

3rd Sunday of Lent (Year C)

First Reading: Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15     Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12    Gospel Reading: Luke 13:1-9

The story is told of a young corporate executive named Bill who gave in to temptation and was discovered as being guilty of embezzlement. He was called into the office of the company president. He feared the worst.
Mr. Johnson asked, “Bill, did you do it?” Bill ducked his head in embarrassment and muttered, “Yes, sir.”
Mr. Johnson continued, “You made a bad decision. I know that you realize it. You are the second one in this room who made a bad choice. Thirty years ago I did the same thing you did, and a very kind and forgiving man gave me another chance. I'm going to give you the mercy and grace that I received that day. Now get to work.” Hearing this, Bill was stunned. Quitely, he left the office laden with gratitude and unforgetable relief.
In a similar way, God gives to us what we do not deserve. Whenever we commit sins, He forgives us and gives us another chance, for “The Lord is loving, compassionate, kind and merciful.”

We are in the Holy Season of Lent and today is its 3rd Sunday. The Scripture Readings today underline our need for repentance on one hand and hearten us with the reality of a patient, kind, compassionate and merciful God on the other. As our Lenten preparation proceeds and our anticipation of Easter heightens, so also must our efforts increase at daily conversion. Today, therefore, we are called to come to God with a repentant heart and experience His generous love and abounding mercy. He is not far from us; He is not hiding from us, but is eagerly waiting for us always.

In the First Reading of today from the Book of Exodus, we hear about the story of the burning bush, which is one of the most poignant events recorded in the Hebrew Scripture. Moses’ encounter with God over the bush that was on fire but not consumed represented a turning point in his life. From that time onward, he recognized God’s call, turned toward Him in a thoroughgoing conversion and thereafter lived accordingly.
This is also one of the most significant occasions and a very dramatic scene of God's Self-revelation in the Old Testament, identifying Himself with the God of his fathers - “the God of Abraham, the God of Issac, the God of Jacob” on one hand, and as “a loving, compassionate, kind and merciful God” on the other, who knows well of Israel’s suffering, who is deeply concerned about His people and who really cares for them. When calamity struck the Israelite people such as the 400 years of slavery in Egypt, they saw that as being the consequence of their persisting unfaithfulness to God. As we hear in today's reading, because God is patient and merciful, He gives them another chance - “I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry of complaint against their slavery, so I know well what they are suffering. Therefore, I have come down to rescue them from the hands of the Egyptians and lead them out of that land into a good and spacious land flowing with milk and honey.” The Israelites were not just any people; they were God’s Chosen People. And God's response is not to blame them for sinning, but to come down and rescue them from the Egyptians and lead them to a land flowing with milk and honey.
God then directs Moses to liberate the Israelite people from Egypt. He is also told that he is the one to deliver this message to Pharaoh. Moses is stunned: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Although God assures Moses that He will always be with him, Moses wants God to provide an identity more specific than 'the God of the ancestors.' God’s enigmatic and confusing response says everything and says nothing: “I AM WHO I AM.” By revealing this divine name, God is not saying that He just exists, but that He is always, and will be with His people always. The call of Moses takes place at the Mountain of Horeb (another name for Sinai), where God’s covenant with the liberated people will later be solemnized – calling them to bring to the whole world the good news of God’s generous and merciful ways. It is God's initiative to come down and ask Moses to be his servant in delivering the people from slavery into freedom; from sin into faithfulness. God deals with us today in the same way He dealt with the Israelite people in the Old Testament when they strayed and became unfaithful.

Today’s Gospel Reading according to St. Luke begins with two warnings about the need for repentance and ends with a parable about a non-productive fig tree and a kind, merciful & patient vine-dresser. The warnings include two examples of untimely deaths, one reported to Jesus and then used by him to illustrate the urgent need for repentance, the other reported by Jesus himself as a further illustration of his point. They are - the first, the uprising of some Galileans which Pilate repressed with bloodshed and the second, the fall of the tower in Siloam which claimed 18 victims. Two very distinct, tragic events: one caused by man, the other accidental.
Now, according to the mentality of the time, people made a link between suffering and sin. Therefore, they were inclined to think that the disgrace which struck the victims was due to some grave fault of their own and that God must have allowed it because they were so sinful. Without correcting the popular, but erroneous, notion that tragedy was a deserved punishment for sin, Jesus warned his listeners against comparing themselves with others, and of growing lax concerning their own need for reform. For Jesus sin is a tragedy, but tragedy is not a sin. This then is the point to which Jesus wants to bring his listeners: the need for repentance & the necessity for conversion. He does not propose it in legalistic terms, but rather in a very realistic way as the only adequate response to the events that place human certainties in crisis.
After giving a clear warning on the consequences of sin, Jesus then turns around and tells a dramatic parable about a barren fig tree that wasn't productive for three years. A well-known symbol for Israel, the fig tree provided both fruit and shade for humanity, and a place for birds to nest. After planting, the fig tree was expected to produce fruit after three years. If it did not, it was cut down and replaced with another. In Jesus’ parable, the owner of the vineyard wanted to get rid of the non-fruiting fig tree. His position is perfectly reasonable - Why should a non-fruiting fig-tree continue to sap the goodness of the soil? Why not go for more vines, more grapes, more wine, and forget about the non-fruiting fig tree? But the way the gardener pleads with the owner portrays a patient, loving and compassionate God who gives a second chance and opportunity for the unproductive fig tree to grow - “Sir leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future.”
Through this parable, Jesus primarily implied that the Divine vine-dresser was about to come in search of fruit in Israel. Would there be any to be found? Like the non-fruiting fig tree left to grow for yet another year, Israel had been given one final chance and opportunity to bear good fruits as evidence of its repentance. Yes surely, “God is loving, compassionate, kind and merciful,” but one day He will hold us accountable for our lives, our behavior. Those who choose to ignore these will find themselves liable to the same fate as the barren fig tree.

In the Second Reading of today, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul speaks of Israel’s history which was spent in the wilderness en route to Canaan, the promised land. He compares the Hebrew exodus experience to our baptismal experience. He says that God’s saving deeds in the Exodus are a prelude and foreshadowing of our own Baptism by water, our liberation from sin, our feeding with spiritual food & drink and our journey to the new promised land, viz. heaven.
Yet the events of the Exodus are also given as a 'warning' - that merely being the children of Abraham is by no means a guarantee that we will certainly reach the promised land of our salvation. Despite all the spiritual blessings they received, the Israelite people ultimately displeased God through their grumbling and unfaithfulness - they failed to please God and their corpses littered the desert.”
St. Paul therefore suggests that followers of Jesus Christ would do well to learn from the mistakes of their ancestors in the faith they have embraced, so as not to fall into the same pattern themselves. God gives us gifts as He always has manna and water in the desert for the Hebrews and the Eucharist for us. But just because we have God’s gifts, i.e. His grace, we needn't be complacent. We still have to bear fruit; we still have to be vigilant; we still have to turn ourselves around from sinning. At any moment, we could perish—not as God’s punishment for being 'greater sinners' - but because, like the Israelites in the wilderness, we stumble into evil desires, fall into grumbling and forget all His benefits.
Conversion to Christ and baptism into the community of the Church requires continual effort in order to keep from backsliding into old habits or taking a detour into the alluring ways of the pagan or occult. Moreover, the process of daily conversion should include a sense of gratitude for the gifts with which God guides our way.

So, what is the message for us today? What do the Scripture Readings teach us?
Firstly, the Holy season of Lent should be for us like the season of reprieve given to the fig tree, a grace period in which we let 'The Gardener,' Christ, cultivate our hearts, uprooting what chokes the divine life in us, strengthening us to bear fruits that will last into eternity.
Secondly, Lent sounds a serious warning on the consequences of living in sin. Repentance is an urgent message that cannot be put off, and one that must be heard this very day. Jesus calls us today to 'repentance' — not a one-time change of heart, but an ongoing, daily transformation of our lives.
And finally, let us bear in mind that “GOD IS LOVING, COMPASSIONATE, KIND AND MERCIFUL.” So, let us come to Him joyfully singing His praises and offer Him always our thanksgiving for His bountiful love and abounding mercy. And this is the Good News of today.


Monday, February 18, 2013

Homily - 2nd Sunday of Lent (Year C)

2nd Sunday of Lent (Year C)

First Reading: Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18      Second Reading: Philippians 3:17-4:1       Gospel Reading: Luke 9:28b-36

There is a story told of a certain woman who was always bright, cheerful and optimistic, even though she was confined to her room because of illness. She lived in an attic apartment on the fifth floor of an old, rundown building. A friend visiting her one day brought along another woman – a person of great wealth. Since there was no elevator, the two ladies began the long climb upward. When they reached the second floor, the well-to-do woman commented, “What a dark and filthy place!” Her friend replied, “It's better higher up.” When they reached the third landing, the remark was made, “Things look even worse here.” Again the reply, “It's better higher up.” The two women finally reached the attic level, where they found the bedridden saint of God. A smile on her face radiated the joy that filled her heart. Although the room was clean and flowers were set on the window sill, the wealthy visitor could not get over the stark surroundings in which this woman lived. She blurted out, “It must be very difficult for you to be here like this!” Without a moment's hesitation the shut-in, pointing towards heaven, responded, “IT'S BETTER HIGHER UP.”
She was not looking at temporal things and earthly sufferings. With the eyes of faith fixed on God, she was joyfully looking forward to the ultimate glory that awaited her.

Last  week, the 1stSunday of Lent – 'Temptation Sunday,' the Gospel Reading led us to the desert with Jesus, where he prayed and fasted for forty days & nights and was tempted by Satan – and we had a “desert experience” of spiritually disciplining ourselves through prayer, fasting & works of piety. This week, the 2nd Sunday of Lent, the Gospel Reading takes us to the mountain-top to contemplate the mystery of the Transfiguration of the Lord Jesus and invites us to have a “mountain-top experience” of spiritually strengthening in us the cardinal Christian virtues viz. Faith, Hope & Love.
Each year, on the 2nd Sunday of Lent, the Gospel Reading speaks of the Transfiguration of Jesus; so, it may not perhaps be wrong to call it 'Transfiguration Sunday.' All the three Evangelists of the Synoptic Gospels, viz. Matthew, Mark & Luke, mention this important event in Jesus' life with remarkable agreement. In today's account from Luke, we note that it is only Luke who describes it without using the word 'transfigure.' Also, it is only Luke who has Jesus going to pray and the disciples asleep; and it is only Luke who mentions what Jesus was talking about with Moses and Elijah. Why did Luke add these distinctive features?

But, before going into the explanation and meaning of the Transfiguration of the Lord, let us first put the event in the proper context - Jesus was just about to set out to Jerusalem and to the cross; and he had told his disciples that it was in Jerusalem that he would be handed over to evil men to be put to death, but that on the third day, he would rise again...whatever 'that' meant. The disciples were anxious and Jesus knew what was in their hearts. He knew what they had had to bear over the past three years since they had become his disciples. But he also knew that what was about to happen in Jerusalem would shake even the strongest, even the most devoted among them. And so, Jesus took three of his most intimate disciples, Peter, James and John, and went up onto a mountain to pray. We do not know which mountain but, in general, mountains in Scripture are holy places, places where God is especially felt to be present. Traditionally Mount Tabor is identified as the mountain in question, but it really does not matter.

While he was praying...
In the Gospel of Luke, prayer precedes every important event that takes place in Jesus' life – his baptism, his choosing of the apostles and sending them on a mission, his passion. So also, it is when Jesus is praying that the Transfiguration takes place - “While he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white.” Also, in Luke, whenever a character is at prayer, amazing things happen – Mary, Zechariah, Elizabeth and Simeon – as we already know – were visited by angels. So prayer is an important prelude to anything happening for Luke. This is something we ourselves might want to keep in mind in this season of Lent. We need to pray so that our Easter event this year can be truly remarkable.

Overcome by sleep...
The Transfiguration of Jesus took place while the three disciples were asleep. They wake up and see Jesus in glory speaking to Moses and Elijah. It is a strange thing, this sleep that returns every time that an important event in the lives of the elect of God is about to take place! For, when God decided to create the first woman, He "caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh." Also, it was while they slept that God spoke to many important people of the Old Covenant: Jacob, Joseph, Samuel, to name a few. It was also during sleep that Joseph, the spouse of Mary, received from the Angel the revelation of the mystery of the Incarnation. But, what relates directly to the mystery of the Transfiguration is the sleep that fell upon the very same three apostles: Peter, James, and John, at the time of the Agony of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Indeed, after having prayed to his Father, Jesus said to Peter: "Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour?" Truly, sleep is important in the life of a Christian, because the eternal life to which he is called consists precisely in rest and residing in God...

Moses and Elijah...
In the Transfiguration, the union of God with humanity in the one man, Jesus Christ, was made manifest in a special way. Jesus becomes transfigured, i.e. the veil is lifted and his disciples receive a glimpse of his divinity shining forth through his humanity. The presence of Moses and Elijah attests to Christ’s complete and total fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, and although the two are 'in glory' Jesus is found speaking with them about his forthcoming death - “his exodus that he was to accomplish in Jerusalem.” The original 'exodus' was the passage of the people from Egypt to the Promised Land, whereas this exodus is infinitely greater. It will be the passage of Jesus from this world through his passion and death to the glory of the Resurrection.
As so often in the Gospel, the messages seem to be contradictory - death and glory sitting side by side. In the Transfiguration, Peter, James and John saw that there was more to Jesus than what they could see and hear and touch - they got a glimpse of the future glory of Jesus’ resurrection. Our celebration of Jesus’ Transfiguration during Lent reminds us that the 'Lenten penance' will give way to the 'Easter joy.'

Voice from heaven...
The power of this vision also lies in the presence of all three persons of the Blessed Trinity. As in the Baptism of our Lord, the Father speaks from heaven, this time enjoining upon the disciples obedience to his 'Chosen Son,' and the Holy Spirit is evoked in the cloud that envelopes everyone. There is a voice from heaven, “This is My Son, the Chosen One. Listen to Him.” God is telling them that Jesus knows what he is talking about - and salvation will come through him - even if how it happens does not always make sense to the disciples.
The disciples were overcome by the experience - and who can blame them! A vision that is both frightening and exhilarating! It would be wonderful for such an ecstasy to never end. Peter tries to interpret it - and, in a way, make it manageable and permanent - “Let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” as a lasting memorial of what has happened.

The transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain is also awaiting each of us after death. It calls us to have “the virtue of hope,” the hope of our future glorification. On the mountain Peter, James and John had a privileged experience of Jesus’ transfiguration. This was not simply something the disciples were to see and experience as happening to Jesus alone. It was also an invitation for them to undergo a transfiguration of their own. That is what St. Paul says in the Second Reading of today from his Letter to the Philippians - “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body.” St. Paul urges us therefore to stand firm in our faith and to live a life of discipleship with Jesus now, so that we share in a glorious future later.
The First Reading of today from the Book of Genesis is also an encounter with God, where God reconfirms to Abraham his promise of land and many descendants. Today's text reminds us that Abraham and Sarah did not come to such faith easily but against the constant backdrop of barrenness and hopelessness. And today, we too are called to practice the virtue of faith,” to trust completely in God in the ups and downs of our own life.
Abraham asks God for a sign that he will indeed inherit the land. God calls for a sacrifice to emphasize the irrevocable nature of the covenant. The slaughtered animals are conventional symbols of the time to underline the seriousness of the oath that has been undertaken on both sides. But wholly unconventional, and indeed miraculous, is the sign that God uses to introduce his solemn promise: the smoking fire pot and flaming torch that pass through the slaughtered animals. God breaks through the darkness that envelopes Abraham to speak his sacred promise. The 'deep sleep' is preparing Abraham for the divine presence which passes between the two halves of the animals, which stands in parallel by the disciples' sleep in the Gospel Reading of today.

Now, God establishes a New Covenant with mankind in Jesus through his sacrifice on the cross on Mount Calvary. It speaks of the virtue of love.” Here, we see the love, the power and the glory of God Himself shining forth in human flesh. Jesus is the Father's pledge of eternal love for us. He is the pledge of our future redemption - that our broken, tired, anxious flesh will one day come to be like his. Through this we become God's adopted children and heaven becomes our new promised land. During every Eucharistic celebration, we ponder this mystery, which is a sacrament of our redemption, where bread and wine are transformed into the glorious body and blood of our risen Savior.

Finally, don't we sometimes feel like the whole world is collapsing on our heads? At times like these, we need to go up the mountain of prayer and ask God to open our eyes that we may see. When God grants us a glimpse of eternity then we shall realize that all our troubles in this life are short-lived. Then shall we have the courage to accept the apparently meaningless suffering of this life, knowing that through it all God is on our side. All it takes is a little glimpse of heaven to empower us to take up our daily crosses and follow Jesus, knowing that the 'cross of Lent' is followed by the 'crown of Easter.' So, let our eyes of faith be fixed on God, and let our hearts be filled with hope, and let us joyfully look forward to the ultimate glory that awaits us all, bearing in mind always - “IT'S BETTER HIGHER UP.” And this is the Good News of today.


Monday, February 11, 2013

Homily - 1st Sunday of Lent (Year C)

1st Sunday of Lent (Year C)

First Reading: Deuteronomy 26:4-10        Second Reading: Romans 10:8-13       Gospel Reading: Luke 4:1-13


A young mother wanted to quit smoking. She knew it was bad for her health and the people around her. For her, it had been a vicious cycle of quitting and restarting. Each relapse was inflicting a heavier toll on her body and self-esteem. One tension-filled day, while on a busy run to do the shopping, the urge to light up a cigarette was overpowering. Without knowing why, she pleaded to her three-year old son, seated beside her on the car’s front seat, to do something. He answered with disarming seriousness, “All right, Mom! But please do not look.” She peeked anyway. The little boy was bowing his head in prayer, with his eyes closed and the palms of his hands joined. The mother knew that she could not betray the faith of her praying son. The desire for a cigarette left her. From then on, she had more strength to cope with her weakness. Her little son, by “calling on the name of the Lord,” had helped her to overcome temptation and addiction.
Last Wednesday, i.e. 'Ash Wednesday,' we began our Lenten pilgrimage and today is the First Sunday of Lent. Lent is a Holy Season, a time of grace, a period comprising forty days during which the whole Church renews itself through prayer, fasting and works of piety.

On this first Sunday of Lent, the Opening Reading of the Liturgy from the Book of Deuteronomy is, rather unexpectedly, the very ancient ritual by which the Israelite people gave thanks to God for the land they had received by offering something of the first-fruits of that land. At the end of their forty years wandering in the desert, Moses speaks to the people and he prepares them for their new life in the Promised Land. That is what the Lenten season is meant to do for us also.
The Hebrew people had been liberated from slavery and had every reason to be grateful to God. In today's reading, Moses reminds them of the great things God had done. He tells them to recall and declare always how God changed their life from that of an Aramaean nomad, from that of a slave in Egypt. He then led them through the desert and gave them a land flowing with milk and honey. And finally, now that they will have a land of their own, they are told to celebrate the first harvest in the Promised Land.
The deliverance from their Egyptian captivity was the first stepping stone to a completely new life in the Promised Land. However, the trials of life in the desert caused them to waver in their resolve to be loyal to the God who saves. But in the midst of trial and hardship matched by stern discipline, whenever they called on the name of the Lord, He saved them. A similar discipline is necessary for us, as we deal with the daily temptations encountered in our pursuit of Christian living.
Again, just as Moses in the First Reading wanted the people to express their faith, in the Second Reading of today from his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul calls on the Christians of Rome to "confess with their lips that Jesus is Lord." He reminds them, and us too, that we must truly believe that Jesus rose from the dead if we hope to be saved. Through Jesus, God's great mercy embraces us and makes us "justified," or right with God.
Scripture scholars tell us that in this passage, St. Paul records a new testament of faith made by the early Christians just before being baptized. Christ, now, is the visible presence of God amongst His people. In the early Church, two cultures of people were listening to the preaching of the apostles and becoming Christians: the Jews and the Greeks. These two cultures were very different. How could these two very different groups of people having different cultural and religious backgrounds get along in the same Church? Paul's answer is: Our belief in the Lord Jesus, risen from the dead, makes us one. This is what matters - It is calling on the name of the Lord that saves us.
The forty days of Lent correspond to Jesus’ own forty days spent in the desert. For him, it was a period of preparation for his coming mission. Traditionally, every year, on the First Sunday of Lent the Gospel Reading speaks of the temptations of Jesus in the desert; so, it may not perhaps be wrong to call it 'the Temptation Sunday.' At the end of the forty days – as described in St. Matthew and St. Luke – Jesus had three encounters with the Evil One; St. Mark too mentions about the temptation, but he does not give the detailed account of the event.
This is Year C of the Liturgical Year, and so today we have St. Luke's account of the temptation. According to St. Luke this incident takes place between the baptism of Jesus and the start of his public mission, beginning at Nazareth. Immediately after his baptism, the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness for a time of prayer and fasting. The so-called 'temptations' came as inner reflections about his baptismal experience and how to do what he now perceived his divine mission to be.
It might be worth noting that we may not be dealing here with a strictly historical happening. This passage takes us back to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Yet this was not the report of a single incident, but a commentary on the entire course of Jesus' ministry. Time and again Jesus must have been tempted to authenticate his mission by a display of miraculous power or to undertake the role of a political Messiah. So, rather than just seeing them as three consecutive temptations happening almost simultaneously at a particular moment, we should perhaps see them as three key areas where Jesus was tempted to compromise his whole mission during his public life. They were not just passing temptations of the moment, but temptations with which he was beset all through his public life.
The three temptations of Jesus are the three essential weapons that the devil has in his arsenal to destroy humanity: The first is of appetite (pleasure/materialism) – to change stones into bread; the second is of arrogance (pride/boasting) - to worship the devil who can give power and wealth; and the third is of ambition (power/fame) - to jump from the top of the Temple. We notice that Luke reverses the second and third temptations from Matthew’s version in order to make Jerusalem the climax of the temptations just as it is the final destiny of Jesus’ mission. We also notice the hidden assumption in the temptations of the devil. The devil is attacking Jesus' own identity - "If you are the Son of God," then he says, "do what I ask you to do." Jesus refuses to fall into the trap of the devil. Does Jesus have a need to prove who he is? Of course not. Isn’t everybody trying to protect their self-identity? Is not everybody looking for their own self-definition in bodily pleasures or material possessions, power, control, ambition? Jesus resists all temptations by turning to the Holy Scripture. With each temptation Jesus responds with quotes from the Bible and therein is victorious in times of temptation. Again, some of us may struggle with this concept. For if Jesus is the Son of God, how and why could he be tempted? Someone has said, 'You are not tempted because you are evil; you are tempted because you are human.' The account of the temptations thus places heavy emphasis on the humanity of Jesus. Jesus was like us in all things but sin. He was tempted in every way that we are, but he persevered because he was true to his roots and was ever so conscious that he was “Filled with the Spirit.”

Moreover, the temptations presented to Jesus recall the experiences of the Israelite people - they wandered in the desert for forty years; Christ wandered for forty days! The Israelite people grumbled about not having enough food, but Jesus says “It is not on bread alone that we live but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Israel constantly tended to chase after false gods (e.g. the golden calf), but Jesus recognizes only one God. “You must worship the Lord your God and serve him alone.” Israel tested God at Massah and Meribah to provide them with water, but Jesus refuses to manipulate God. “You must not put the Lord your God to the test.”

These temptations also mirror the most common temptations Christians experience today – the three P's viz. Pleasure, Pride & Power OR the three A's viz. Appetite, Arrogance & Ambition. The temptation to extreme pleasure (appetite/materialism) is a constant attraction in every one's life; and so is Christ's warning -"man does not live on bread alone". And the second temptation to pride (arrogance/boasting)! - the "I will not serve" of the rebellious, still merits the response given by Christ - "You must worship the Lord Your God and serve him alone." And, finally the third temptation to power (ambition/fame), probably the most insidious temptation of all, as someone has observed - 'power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.' Hence Christ's advice - "Do not put the Lord your God to the test!" remains valid for those who would climb the ladder of ambition.

And finally, before we leave today’s Gospel, let us not overlook its final sentence: “When the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from him for a time.” According to St. Matthew, Jesus had only three temptations and that was the end of it; but according to St. Luke, the battle with evil was not over for Jesus. It would occur again and again at various stages in his life, right up to and especially at those last hours in the garden and on the Cross. For us, too, the battle against evil never stops. Even if we are successful in fending off temptation, we cannot rest on our laurels, because the devil is ever waiting and constantly looking for an opportunity. We always have to beware and ready!
A story -
A young seminarian, struggling over lustful thoughts and desire, came to his spiritual director and asked, “At what age do you think all these go?” The eighty-year old priest confidently replied, “Eighty, son, at age eighty.” “Eighty?” the seminarian gasped desperately and started to leave. Suddenly, a young voluptuous lady crossed the street and the priest’ eyes were glued to the crossing beauty. Still gazing at the lady, he called back the seminarian and said, “Son, did I say eighty? Well, make that eighty-five.”

To conclude - The story of the temptation of Jesus in the desert is very appropriate as we enter the season of Lent. The Church invites us today to go into the desert ourselves and spend forty days to know the will of God in our lives, to understand the ugly schemes of the devil and to gather spiritual strength through prayer and self-discipline. The desert might be any place or moment where and when we can be by ourselves in silent prayer and reflection. Let us fervently pray to God to bless our Lenten efforts, remembering what St. Paul says to us today - “EVERYONE WHO CALLS ON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED!”

*                                                     ***************************

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Homily - Ash Wednesday (Year C)

Ash Wednesday (Year C)

First Reading: Joel:12-18     Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2      Gospel Reading: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18


A story is told of a man, who while driving a car met with a terrible accident. A few people soon gathered at the place of the accident and came forward to offer him immediate help that he needed. But the man said , “Oh! There’s nothing wrong with me.”
But sir, you’ve just been in a terrible car accident. You’re bleeding and have some deep bruises. There may be internal damage!” someone from the crowd said.
But the man said again,“There’s nothing wrong with me!”
Another man then suggested, “At least have a doctor check you out, sir. We have an ambulance right here – it wouldn’t take very long.”
But the man again insisted,“I told you, there’s nothing wrong with me!” And he walked away from the car accident.
After this, his wife, when she heard of her husband's accident came there, picked him up and drove him home. Later, he died from internal bleeding.

'There’s nothing wrong with me' can be a dangerous statement to make. Spiritually, it is probably the worst thing a person could possibly say. For a person to stand before God and say, 'There’s nothing wrong with me' – that’s incompatible with Christianity, and unacceptable to God. Man is sinful and there is always something wrong with him. So, a true Christian is someone who humbly stands before God and says, “Be merciful, O Lord, for I have sinned.”

Today is “Ash Wednesday,” and this marks the beginning of the new liturgical season of Lent. Lent is a Holy Season, a time of prayer, fasting and abstinence. It encompasses 40 days and its observance is specifically linked with the celebration of Easter. As a matter of fact, it is a preparation for Easter, spiritually, of course.

As we begin our Lenten pilgrimage today, it is perhaps befitting for us to consider the various specific terms associated with this Holy Season, and have a closer look into their proper meanings and real significance:

The word “Lent” comes from an old English word which means 'spring time.' It, therefore, reminds us of spring cleaning and new life in nature during the Spring season – say for example, new leaves appear on the trees. In the same way, the holy season of Lent is a time for our spiritual renewal, by giving up our old sinful nature and being reconciled to God. It, therefore, calls us for 'metanoia,' a complete change of heart through repentance.

40 Days:
The period of Lent consists of '40 days,' corresponding to Our Lord's fast for 40 days in the wilderness, after his baptism at Jordan by John the Baptist, before he began his public ministry. This has its root in the Old Testament, when the people of Israel traveled through the desert for 40 years on their way to the Promised Land. One might rightly wonder why these people took such an extensive time, while they didn't have to travel so long a distance. Actually, God took this time to form them into His own people, by establishing with them a covenant through Moses on Mount Sinai and disciplining them to walk in His commandments. In the same way, 40 days of Lent is a time for us to reform ourselves through a rigorous spiritual discipline.

The season of Lent always begins on a 'Wednesday;' in fact, 'Ash Wednesday' to be more specific, and concludes on Holy Saturday, just before Easter Sunday. Consequently, the 1st day of Lent cannot be any other day of the week except that it necessarily has to be a 'Wednesday,' considering the fact that 6 Sundays in Lent are not counted among the 40 days of Lent; it is because each Sunday represents a 'mini Easter' – a celebration of Jesus' victory over sin and death.

We begin the Lenten season on a Wednesday and we apply 'ash' on our forehead on this day – so, it is named 'Ash Wednesday.' Often the ashes are made by burning the palm leaves used in the Palm Sunday service during the past year. Ashes are a sacramental, and the symbolism of ashes has a very strong appeal:
Firstly, because ash is the oldest kind of soap, which was used to make things clean – therefore symbolic of purification. Also, in the OT, the Israelite people used ashes in the rituals of purification. Ashes were a sign of grief, mourning, humiliation & penitence. When Job loses everything, he sits among the ashes.
Secondly, ashes remind us of a common origin and also of our nothingness – that we are but merely dust and ashes. The Book of Genesis tells how man was created from the dust of the ground. We are reminded not only of our beginning but also of our end. On the First Day of Lent, ashes are imposed with the words - “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Those words apply to us all.
While ashes may signify and remind, they also invite. They invite us to repentance. So, it is with the spirit of repentance that we receive ashes on our foreheads - “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” Ashes invite us to turn again to God and to receive a new life. Ashes are not the end, but are just the beginning. They begin a season that moves through silence and longing into a season of joy and resurrection.

Violet color:
'Violet' is the color of Lent, representing our sorrow for our sins, and is symbolic of our repentance.

The above evidently shows that in our Liturgical Calender, 40 days of Lent is a Holy Season, a time of grace, during which we spiritually renew ourselves through genuine repentance and prepare for the forthcoming Easter. Let us now consider the Scripture Readings of today, which basically focus upon this same theme:

In the First Reading of today, from the Book of the Prophet Joel, the Lord God calls upon us to return to Him with all our hearts, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning. He calls us for a true repentance and tells us to split apart not our clothing, but our hearts. In the Old Testament, people tore their garments as a sign of repentance – but oftentimes it remained merely an external sign and there was no genuine repentance; their hearts of stone would not change and they would not let go of their worldly ways to embrace holy ways. We, therefore, are called today to examine our most inner self, those evil ways that we have to let go, once and for always, and to return to the Lord, saying - “Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.”

In the Second Reading of today in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, St Paul appeals to all of us to be reconciled with God through Jesus Christ. God the Father sent His only begotten Son to save us from sin and death by dying on the cross. He who was without sin took our place and was treated as a sinner, so that we might receive God's grace and become righteous in the eyes of God. So, let us come to the Lord with gratitude and humbly implore - “Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.” St. Paul further asserts, “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation,” when we are to show our gratitude to God for His mercy and love, by walking in the way of righteousness.

But, how do we walk in the way of righteousness? In today's Gospel Reading according to St . Matthew, Jesus Himself gives us good advice to follow while performing righteous deeds. Specifically, he tells us how to pray, how to fast and how to give alms.
Regarding prayer, he says: "When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you."
About fasting, he directs: "When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites . . . anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you."
And finally, regarding alms-giving, he tells us: "When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you." He tells us to be 'low profile' regarding contributions, so that "your alms-giving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you."
Clearly, Jesus very strictly warns us against hypocrisy in practicing our works of piety. He tells us that our Lenten efforts are to be seen by God; they are not meant to impress our neighbors, or else we miss the reward from our heavenly Father. Also, the three works of piety, viz. Prayer, Fasting & Alms-giving, have been the essential practices the Church has encouraged in its members as a form of penance, since the early centuries.

So, today, as we begin the Holy Season of Lent with the sign of ashes, a communal and visible sign of repentance, let us begin it in a proper penitential frame of mind, seeking out sin and disruption in our lives and replacing these things with a constant dependence on God and His grace. Let us come to the Lord today with a humble heart, acknowledge our sinfulness and ask pardon for all our failures and shortcomings, and implore, “BE MERCIFUL, O LORD, FOR WE HAVE SINNED.” Let us abandon the practices of our old self and put on a new self, and let us approach Lent, not with trepidation and fear, but rather with joy, as the season of opportunity. Let us rejoice in our gracious God who desires not the death of the sinner, but his/her redemption. And this is the Good News of today.

Wish you all – A joyful and prayerful Holy Season of Lent.