unto the depths of mercy

an astonishing image of god is recounted in an old jewish writing; a wise jew pictures god praying to himself that his mercy win over his justice:  “may it be my will that my compassion may overcome mine anger, and that it may prevail over my attributes of justice and judgemet, and that i may deal with my children according to the attribute of compassion and that i may not act towards them according to the strict line of justice” (rab, ber. 7a).

such a picture of god praying to himself engages us; for indeed it is difficult for us to comprehend how god’s justice is reconciled with his mercy.  the jewish thinker’s insight is instructive for us, mercy and justice are reconciled in god for god freely chooses it to be so.  it is therefore god’s loving choice towards his children that he deal with them with greater mercy and compassion; i.e., over and beyond the strict line of justice alone.  love and mercy after all are brought about by willing; it is indeed and forever will be a choice.

a couple of decades ago, a venerable pope also wrote about mercy.  his insight goes beyond that of the older religion:  dives in misericordia tells of how god’s justice springs forth from his mercy.  it is not only that god freely chooses his mercy to be greater; but that, in truth, god’s justice is rooted in his mercy (wojtyla).  we are therefore shepherded much more deeply into the heart of god; in awe, the church understood that god’s efforts to teach man with his justice is in reality a gift from his mercy.  a doctor of the church puts it this way, “nothing can disturb god except for man hurting himself” (aquinas).  fed up with such sinfulness,  man hurting himself with his sin, god intervened in justice and mercy incarnate: our lord jesus.

a bishop added a much more radical reading of what the catholic document is telling us, “god’s justice is his mercy” (tagle).  here we can only say in explicitation: the other face of god’s love is mercy.  god freely chooses to allow us to grow in justice; not giving up and showing us how much he loves us until the end (jn 13, 1), even while we are sinners he already [and always] turns to us his face of mercy (rom 5, 8).

consider the kingdom

the wisdom reading this sunday extols the omniscience that is god’s; yet it also is a call to respond to god by learning from him [sirach 9, 17].  st paul contributes to this call to the faithful by asking his hearers to act in accordance with the faith they received; i.e. to the extent that they go beyond social boundaries and stratification, “christians are to receive slaves as brothers” [philemon 16].  both readings burden the hearers with their task of responding to god and acting in accord with who they really are.  a wonderful saint reminds us, “be who you are and be that well” (st francis de sales).

jesus in the gospel also tells of a story that clarifies this message for us.  the parables of  constructing a tower and going off to war are both meant to help his followers to consider the weight of christian discipleship.  he asks us this sunday to freely choose the kingdom while being aware of the responsibility of our call.  a german christian thinker had this to say about our task to keep the costliness of the grace that is given us: “costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of christ and follow him; it is grace because jesus says: “my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (bonhoeffer).

such mindfulness of the commitment that is ours, the same german thinker contrasts to those who makes light of it: “cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline.  communion without confession.  cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without jesus christ” (bonhoeffer).

are we catholics guilty of making light of our commitment before our lord, or are we exerting effort in being faithful disciples no matter how costly it is?

it is good for faithful christians to periodically ask themselves:  “what do we really possess that is not from god?  did we not only receive all these, including our very selves, as gifts from his majesty and goodness? given these naked truths that we hold onto is there really space for pride and boasting in our hearts?  can we not imitate st paul in his boasting about his need for god? [2 cor 12, 9]”

the readings however are not only suited for personal growth, i.e. our perfection through the virtue of humility.  in fact personal actualization is not the point of the good news at all for today!  this sunday’s lectionary alerts us to the presence of others:  first that of our loving god before whom we can only also respond in humble love; and jesus furthermore calls our attention towards the beggars, crippled, lame and blind [lk 14, 13], our fitting table companions. 

the first  and second readings herald a posture of the heart that is right before god.  that is, only faithful men and women with humble hearts are able to open themselves before god and meet him as god [sirach 3, 17]; and the writer of the letter to hebrews in his turn admits his inability to save himself  thus confessing the lordship of our saviour jesus christ [heb 12, 24].  going beyond personal perfection therefore, humility in these readings opens us up to god and his saving work through us.  it is therefore not only ourselves or our relationship with god that is at issue this sunday.  god’s hand through men and women of humble hearts accomplishes faithful and genuine service to others especially the poor.

jesus paves the way to such a gathering of humble hearts and faithful hearts by putting us to task:  “When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment.  Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you.  For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” [lk 14, 12-14].  humility therefore wins for us a place at the lord’s table, one with the poor, oppressed and weak, they whom jesus pronounced as blessed!

“lord, will only a few people be saved?”  thus opens our good news this sunday and we are moved to anticipate jesus’ response to such a vital question about our destiny.  “dare we believe that all men be saved?” (von balthasar)  chimes in a playful reflection of a catholic thinker.  indeed querries about salvation have circled the mind of every christian faithful.  recently, it is even a proselytizing technique employed by our fundamentalist siblings who woe new members through fear; “are you already assured of a place in heaven?” they ask.

jesus’ response however unsettles us.  while one may even say that he did not even bother to answer directly the question that was thrown at him,  somewhat akin to the question “who is my neighbor,” jesus’ retort boils down to an invitation “follow the example of the good samaritan who is neighbor to the mugged man.”  this sunday he invites us again “strive to enter to salvation.”   perhaps in its very unsettling avoidance of talk about numbers – few and or many, jesus’ response is in itself is good news for us!   jesus is telling us, bother not about questions of numbers and salvation of others, but you yourselves are invited, the way is open for you, will you enter? 

the first reading through the prophet isaiah tells of saved men and women coming from the ends of the earth [spain, greece and north africa:  the ends of their known world] gathering to the mountain of the lord [is 66, 19].  the prophet is speaking here of the wondrous surprise that is god’s salvation for all people even from far away unknown lands!  here the very gratuity and purity of salvation as his gift from the kindness and freedom of god’s heart surprises us.  indeed the gospel adds to this picture of the universal salvific will of our lord, “people will come from east, west, north and south to recline at table in the kingdom of god” [ lk 13, 29].  in god’s heart therefore is the absence of a prejudice in th favor of a few number, a particular race or gender; when it comes to salvation, indeed, he wills that all men and women be saved [1tim 2, 4-6].

the second reading and the psalm for this sunday reminds us of a truth that is significant for the fullness and realization of our salvation.  we ought to “proclaim the good news to the whole world” [mk 16, 15] through the wordfs we speak and the lives we live.  the reading from the letter to the hebrews reminds us of our duty to grow in righteousness, holiness and strength in living according to god’s will  in peace with others [heb 12, 12-14].  the psalm and the reading from hebrews gently remind us about our part in god’s work of salvation.  a latin father puts it very simply thus, “god wills salvation for you, but he cannot save you without you” (augustine).  filipinos have an old saying nasa diyos ang awa nasa tao ang gawa.  as if giving us a fitting translation of the old filipino saying, the founder of the jesuit order also has this to say, “pray as if everything depends on god; work as if everything depends on you” (ignatius).

the present cardinal of manila reminds us of jesus’ salvific mission as one with his desire to give us fullness of life [jn 10, 10].  the cardinal tells of jesus’ desire to save us from our sins and all the effects of sins.  the effects of sin include poverty, ignorance, unjust distribution of wealth, selfishness and all that enslaves humans and keeps them from being fully alive (rosales).  our task  therefore is to cooperate with jesus to free ourselves from sin and its effects to be fully human.  indeed our duty does not stop with only ourselves being free and alive in jesus; we are to strive for the “salvation of the integral human person and every human person” (paul 6).  the christian path to salvation therefore is laid before us this sunday; we are to work with jesus to provide for: proper and life-giving access to knowledge and education; noble and righteous livelihood; healthy living and praxis; family formation and training; freeing and life affirming religion and witnessing.

a wonderful appreciation of the unity of god’s design can be gleaned through the solemnity we now celebrate.  mary’s assumption, body and soul, into heaven is a special grace given her by her son by virtue of his glorification [1cor 15, 20].  the assummption this year falls on a sunday; our solemnity today is closely linked with jesus’ resurrection on the first day of the week.  furthermore, god’s choice of mary is a love option that is effective from her conception (december 8) to her passing (august 15).  such is the beauty of the mysteries we hold, it finds unity and order by being close to the heart of god.  in our turn, god’s touch makes  us holy and also allows us a unity that is effective in our life. 

though only declared officially last 1st november 1950 by pope pius 12, mary’s blessing has been in the mind of the church as early as the 2nd century.  rooting the fathers’ reflection then on sacred scriptures [there are biblical personages who were brought up to heaven; e.g. enoch, moses and elias] the faithful both from east and west have very early on venerated the virgin mary in the singular favors granted her by god; her assumption is one of these graces. 

what is the significance of this solemnity for christians today?  the blessing given by god to mary, the grace for which we sing his praises and thank him for, has to do with our blessed mother’s being assumed to heaven both body and soul.  the unity of her person as embodied spirit was kept by god.  this mystery then calls onto us to cooperate with god in maintaining such integrality also in our lives.  we catholics are called to sanctify not only our souls but also our bodies.  better put, our journey to heaven starts with the very physicality and worldliness of our bodies.  our road to holiness is a bid to keep our integrity as chiristians also in our bodiliness.

jesus’ story about the end times in the gospel is very clear on this [mt 25, 31-46].  the journey to heaven is through the giving of food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, shirt to the naked, compassion to the sick, imprisoned, stranger and dying.  we thank the lord today for his gift to mary and his reminder to us that indeed we cannot only speak about heaven as a church without minding worldy and physical realities that effect the unity of our lives.  christians are very much grounded.  charity is union with god and  others; charity also effects in ourselves the very integrity that is given by jesus to  his brethren.

the courage to love

“..what do we see at the beginning of this new millennium?  war, genocide, new forms of destructive weapons, hiv/aids, an ever increasing gap between wealthy and poor countries.  a world governed more and more by an economy that is disrespectful of minority cultures and of the deepest human needs.  an aggressive individualism that fosters selfishness prevails; each for his or her self.  we face a breakdown of what holds people together in family and cultural groups.  our poor earth is abused by greed.  the weak are easily crushed and put aside.  we all want to be winners, though in reality so few can be.  many will lose, only to become victims” (vanier).

one cannot help but agree with the description that is given above.  one also understands why contemporary men and women choose to live in fear; for there is much to be afraid of.  scampering for security out of fear, however, is not out of sync with the direction of our contemporary world.  however ‘practical’ the craze for security is, it also results to destitution; i.e., more insecurity, more suffering, more exploitation and more deaths because of poverty.

the readings this sunday gently invites us to move our of this tight grip.  fear breeds anger, depression and anxiety.  in its wake,  fear brings us closer to death and darkness (nouwen).

responding to our predicament, jesus says, “do not be afraid” [lk 12, 32].  in the gospel, he further develops this invitation with a couple of parables that highlight the responsible stewards’ wakefulness and fidelity.  the first and second reading each one gives support to this call of the gospel to not be afraid. the reading from wisdom does this by inviting christians to remember the salvation that is given them by god and  the second reading recalls the example of abraham who lived a life of faith in god; free from fear.

it takes courage to live in such a world and choose to be a disciple of jesus. a cardinal once spoke about “choosing to live in times when the church has suffered rather than thrived, when the church had to struggle, and when the church had to go against the culture.  such times, he said, are preferred for they call for real men and real women to stand up and be counted . “even dead bodies can float downstream.”  indeed many people can just go with the flow when believing in god is respected, “but it takes a real man or a real woman, to swim against the current” (sheen). we truly are living such fearful times, but it is an exciting time to be a christian as well, for we can joyfully choose to be true to our lord.

it might take all of our might to live out the gospel that is preached to us.  one last reminder: responding to jesus’ invitation this sunday is not only a matter of recklessness, cowardice or heroism.  ultimately saying yes to jesus and his way is choosing to have the courage to love.  what is at stake in the decision that lays before us is a life that is either lived in fear or in love.  and yes again, nothing is more practical than to choose to love…

our readings open up a lively discussion about the meaning of life for christians.  the first reading challenges us to examine ourselves and harks about the transitories of human life and what he may hold on to as significant. the writer of the first reading does not even offer a response to his rantings and it is up to the second reading to give us a retort and thus invites us to peg our lives onto heavenly truths.  summing up the points raised by both readings, the gospel in turn invites us to take the perspective of eternity in looking at the way we live.

qoheleth of ecclesiastes may strike us as having a pessimistic view of life.  he shocks us into realization for there is truth in what he says to us this sunday. he means to call attention to the fleeting truth of what people may hold dear.  what one thought to be original has already been said before;  hunger and dining follows one another repetitiously while the same goes for sleep and waking or joy and pain.  all are vanities for they pass away.  the first reading this sunday is not meant to dishearten us but to awaken in us a heart that can only rest in god (augustine).  the seeming negativity in the voice of qoheleth is representative of us who may find it difficult to rest in the mysteries of god and hence chose foolishly realities that are fleeting and transitory.  much more to the point perhaps, the first reading aids us to get in touch with who we are before god.

the second reading begins with an imperative:  “you were raised in christ , seek what is above,” [col 3, 1].  paul tells us to aim high in life.  a meaningful existence can only be had by living for heavenly realities.  while this may come accross as an invitation to be otherworldy, the truth of embodied values and concern about earthly details to live out heavenly truths may call us back to “worldliness.”  all spiritual journeys, it has been said, begins with earthly concerns.  an ancient letter to a certain diognetus puts it well, “we are are citizens of particular countries among other citizens; being christians, however, we nevertheless are citizens of heaven”  (200ad christian).  perhaps a more familiar phrase from that old text is clearer, “christians are in the world but not of the world.”

the gospel rounds up the points raised by both readings rather well.  it invites us to take on the perspective of everlasting life in assessing how we live.  when we look at the details of daily life from the point of view of eternity, “will our concern matter?”  again this is not to push us to an allergy towards life that is well lived (nietzsche).  the invitation however is to pick up a particular view of life that enables us to discern values.  the gospel invites us to look at life with jesus’ road map in hand.  given we are following him as disciples, the following questions are important:  how are we to live like jesus? what should be more important for us?  are our standards the same as the standards raised and lived by our lord?  practically heaven is “the ongoing discovery of god’s mystery by living in the most intimate presence of god and each other” (bamberger).

the former father general of the society of jesus puts it this way, “nothing is more practical than finding god, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way.  what you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. it will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you will spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.  fall in love, stay in love and it will decide everything” (pedro arrupe).