Saturday, August 24, 2013

“Strive to enter through the narrow gate”

          “Lord, will only a few people be saved?”

          This question posed to Jesus is crucial as it touches profoundly God’s eternal plan for man’s salvation. Today, this question is also posed to us because we are often bothered by some of our Christian brothers and sisters in other sects or denominations who claim that, for instance, only 144,000 will be saved (the Jehovah’s Witnesses said, although there is a correction to this: the Jehovah’s witnesses hold that the 144k will rule in heaven, while there will be a great multitude of others saved as well). But we have to emphasize that this assumption is totally false. Why?

First, it is because the number 144,000 in the Book of Revelation is simply the product of 12 multiplied by 12,000. Now, 12 is a very significant number in the Biblical tradition as it refers to the 12 tribes of Israel, the chosen people of God in the Old Testament, and to the 12 Apostles who are considered the pillars of the new people of God, the Church, that Jesus established. Besides, multiplying 12 by 12,000 signifies “vastness” or “multitude” so that the number 144,000 means two things: that salvation is through the Church, the people of God, and that a “vast multitude” will be saved as described in the Book of Revelation as worshipping the Lamb (Cfr. Rev. 7: 9). Besides, St. Thomas Aquinas warned against this type of speculations saying that it is better not to speculate about the number of those who are to be saved, for such is known to God alone.

Second, the assumption is false because it presupposes a wrong notion of the doctrine of predestination. By asking whether only a few will be saved, we imply that there are those who are predestined to heaven (hence, no evil deed or sin that they committed could bring them down to hell) and also those who are bound to hell (hence, no good deed could save them). But this concept of predestination is wrong because it abolishes or nullifies human freedom. Men and women go to heaven or hell depending on how they use their freedom. Sin is the abuse or wrong use of freedom. God will not throw you to hell. If you go there, it is because you wanted to: because you reject God and His grace, and you chose to live in sin. If you go to heaven, it is not because you are forced by God’s will or grace alone: it is because you love to and you fought for it. St. Augustine once said: “God who created you without your consent, will not save you without your consent”.

Now, I said, if you could enter heaven, it is because you fight for it. Notice how Jesus answered the question of the Jews: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough”. First, He means that salvation is for everybody. All men are called to a life of holiness, to be in communion with God. The First Reading testifies to this: “The Lord says, ‘I come to gather nations of every language;” It adds: “They shall bring all your brothers and sisters from all the nations as an offering to the Lord”. For this reason, we pray in the Psalm: “Go out to all the world and tell the Good News”. Why would Jesus command His disciples to go to the ends of the earth if He didn’t mean that salvation is universal? This is the correct understanding of the doctrine of predestination: God, in his eternal plan of salvation, predestined (willed) that everybody should be saved. This notion of predestination does not violate human freedom because God leaves it to man’s free decision whether to accept or to reject His invitation. Remember St. Augustine’s words: “God who created you without your consent, will not save you without your consent”.

Secondly, by saying “Strive to enter through the narrow gate”, Jesus tells us that the only way to win our salvation is to wage war against our defects and sins. In this context, we understand our Lord’s words in the Gospel according to St. Matthew 11: 12: “the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force”. Only those who will struggle to enter through the narrow gate will enter the kingdom of heaven.

Today, the gate of heaven is becoming narrower. If you want to uphold the truth about God’s design for human family, sexuality and marriage, the world will make it hard for you. A Catholic senator or congressman, for instance, who may want to be coherent with his faith will find a narrower road ahead of him, either because of his own weaknesses or because of a corrupt system. The same is true in the case of a Catholic government doctor or health worker who will have to choose between the dictates of her conscience and her obedience to the State that promotes a law that is contrary to her morals and faith.

Each of us will have to confront our “narrow gates” in life if we really want to win heaven. Some will have to be very patient in facing their trials and difficulties. The Lord allows them because He can get something good out of them. The Second Reading assures us that our trials are God’s ways of treating us, His children. As the Letter to the Hebrews puts it: “Do not lose heart when (you are) reproved by (God); whom the Lord loves, He disciplines. He scourges every son He acknowledges. Endure your trials as ‘discipline’; God treats you as sons (and daughters)”. When your doctor tells you that you have to be operated in order to take away the cause of your illness, you will have to endure the initial pain knowing that what comes after is healing. The same is true with the Lord. In one of her mystical experiences, St. Teresa of Avila heard Jesus telling her, “This is how I treat my friends”. She answered, “No wonder you have very few friends”.

Even for those who feel they are already very close to Jesus will have to struggle and suffer a lot. A small frame that contains a very beautiful prayer hangs on the wall of my room. It says, “I asked God to spare me pain. And God said, No! He said, ‘Suffering draws you apart from worldly cares and brings you closer to Me”. Then, it continues, “I asked God to make my spirit grow. And God said, No! He said I must grow on my own. But He will prune me to make me fruitful”. Pain and suffering can make or unmake us. But if we know how to unite them with the cross of Jesus, they can draw us closer to Him. How we deal with our daily crosses can be a litmus test of how well we know our Lord and identify ourselves with Him. Haven’t you heard in the Gospel that those who were knocking at the door cried out, “Lord, open the door for us… We ate and drank with you and you taught in our streets”? They did not say, “We suffered with you as you taught us to carry our cross”. Jesus answered them, “I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!” They were not able to enter because they did not share in the Cross of Jesus. These are the Christians who wanted only to follow Jesus in His resurrection, but would abandon Him in His passion.

Do you still want to know if “only a few people will be saved”? The answer is this: Everybody is invited to enter heaven. But only those who are strong enough to struggle and to fight against sin and their defects will enter it. We may be the last to enter through the “narrow gate”. Yet, it is never too late. Let us just ask the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary to help us so that we may be counted among those who are last but who will be first. Amen.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Rewards of Faith

A Homily on Faith * 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

St. Augustine, a 4th century theologian and Father of the Church, describes faith in these words: “Faith is to believe what we do not see; and the reward of this faith is to see what we believe”. Today’s readings bring us to the core of what it means to believe. They remind us that true faith and trust in God essentially involves action. Only when our faith is united with action can we receive the rewards of faith, that is, “to see what we believe”.

The Book of Wisdom tells us that to believe entails full trust in God’s promise to save. “The night of the Passover was known beforehand to our fathers, that, with sure knowledge of the oaths in which they put their faith, they might have courage”. In today’s world of advance technology and scientific achievements, how easier it is to put our trust in material things and their warranties! (We buy this tablet or that latest edition of iPhones because they promise us more utility or comfort, or even fame by just having them). And how difficult it is to abandon our plans, projects and even our problems into God’s hands! For some, it is easier to get a life insurance than to trust in God’s assurance!

When the Letter to the Hebrew defines faith as “the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen”, the author was not thinking of a beautiful theory. In fact, he substantiated his definition with the examples of faith of our forefathers, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Jacob. Theirs was a faith that involves action: Abraham “by faith sojourned in the Promised Land as in a foreign country… He was ready to offer Isaac as holocaust reasoning that even God was able to raise him even from the dead”. These are concrete examples of what Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI calls “the transformative power of faith” – a faith that transforms lives, that converts vices into virtues, a faith that moves the mountains of pride and selfishness – two of the many sins that we find very difficult to overcome in us. If we truly believe, our faith will slowly but surely make us new persons. They say that love can transform lives. This is true only because love believes and trusts!

The Gospel tells us three important rewards of a transformative faith: First, faith helps us redirect our investments from what is purely material to what is also spiritual. Jesus says, “Make safe investments in heaven, where no thief comes and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also”. Our heavenly investments are the good deeds that we do in this life. We contribute to the education of poor but deserving students. We provide financial or material assistance to the charitable works of the Church – the Caritas. We give spiritual and financial support for the formation of future priests. We give excuse when we see the defects of others. We are ready to forgive when others offend us. These are what it means to invest in heaven!

Jesus does not warn us against accumulating worldly wealth. Instead, He warns us against accumulating only treasures of this world without considering that our true treasure must be heavenly. Worldly treasures can deviate our hearts from the true wealth. “Where our treasure is, there will our heart be also”.

 Secondly, faith makes us vigilant of the many manifestations of God’s presence in our lives. When our heart is focused on the wealth of this world, we become, in a way, deaf to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, blind to the signs of Jesus’ presence, and insensitive to the insinuations of the Father. When we become deaf, blind and insensitive, it is difficult to serve and to please God. Would you hire a deaf, blind or unresponsive household servant?

But when we believe that our Master and Lord is just biding His time because He wants us to be truly ready for His coming, then, we will certainly do what Jesus tells us today: “Be ready, dressed for service and light your lamps and be like servants who await their master’s return… Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival… You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come”. We must light our lamps of faith, opening our eyes to the many signs of Jesus’ presence in the poor, the afflicted, the needy, the sinners, the lonely and the brokenhearted. Doing spiritual and corporal acts of charity can be our way of being vigilant!

Lastly, faith reminds us that God has given us lots of talents and blessings and that to whom more is given, more is required. As the famous line of Spiderman goes: “Greater power demands greater responsibility”. The Gospel today expresses it thus: “Much will be required of the one who has been given much, and more will be asked of the one entrusted with more”. Oftentimes, we are not aware that God expects more from us simply because we ignore the fact that we have received lot of good things from God. When we are insensitive to the blessings that the Lord has given us, our tendency is to be attentive to the blessings God has given to our neighbors. The result is envy and jealousy. Our faith teaches us that we all receive good things from God. How do we appreciate them? How do we invest them so they bear the expected much fruit?

In faith, let us ask the Lord, with the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to increase our faith, so that we may strive to make investments in heaven, to be well-prepared and vigilant in our life here on earth, and to use our talents and God-given blessings for God’s glory. When we possess this “transformative faith” that believes what is not seen, we shall, then, receive its reward: “to see what we believe”.   

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Soar high like an eagle

An old, well known story is told of a chicken farmer who found an eagle’s egg. He placed it with his chickens. As soon as the egg hatched, the young eagle grew up with all the other chickens. Whatever the chickens did, the eagle imitated.  He thought that, like them, he was just a chicken. Like the chickens, the eagle learnt to fly only for a short distance. That was what he thought he was supposed to do. That was all what he thought he could do.  Consequently, that was all he did. What you do follows what you think you are! Agere sequitur esse (Action follows being).

Watching a majestic bird soaring high one day, the eagle was very impressed and asked the hens: “What is that?” “That’s an eagle, the king of the birds,” the hens replied. “He belongs to the sky. We belong to the earth, we are just chickens.” So the eagle lived and died as a chicken, for that’s what he thought he was. Taking a lesson from this story, St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei said, “Don’t fly like a barnyard hen when you can soar like an eagle”.

My brothers and sisters, oftentimes the earthly goods can blind us of our true identity. They can deceive us into thinking that our definitive home is this world. Earthly wealth can deviate us from our ultimate goal, that is, heaven, by directing our attention more on the things of this world rather than on the things that are above. Earthly goods can make us think we are just chickens, when in fact, we are, like eagles, created to soar high, touch the sky, and contemplate the sun. This seems to be the reminder for all of us, that we can get from our three readings today, the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Qohelet, (most probably King Solomon), in the First Reading, helps us notice of the vanity of seeking only the wealth of this world. “For here was a man who toiled in all wisdom, knowledge and skill and he must leave all to someone who has not worked for it”. In our contemporary and quite agitated world, we can express this reality by saying that “We work hard all these years at the expense of losing our health to gain more wealth. Afterwards, we spent all our wealth to regain our health”. “Vanity of vanities, says Qohelet, all is vanity!”

In the Second Reading, St. Paul emphasizes that greed for wealth is idolatry that we must put to death in ourselves. He says, “If you are risen with Christ… set your minds on the things that are above, not on earthly things. For you have died and your life is now hidden with Christ in God”. The Apostle is simply saying: “Look up. Soar high. Be like the eagles, not like the chickens!” Think that the wealth of this world is passing. It is better to store up treasures in heaven.

“Be on your guard and avoid every kind of greed, for even though you have many possessions, it is not that which gives you life”, Jesus explicitly warns us in the Gospel. Then, to emphasize His point, He told the parable of the foolish rich man who, after amassing earthly wealth, said to himself: “You have a lot of good things put by for many years. Rest, eat, drink and enjoy yourself”. But then, that very night, his life was taken. Jesus ended with a stern warning: “This is the lot of the one who stores up riches instead of amassing for God”.

But, my dear friends, this does not mean that to be wealthy is evil. The universal goods of this world – money, possessions, etc. – are meant to be used as instruments in order to store up heavenly treasures. Earthly goods are instruments for accumulating heavenly wealth. If God has given you more than enough wealth, in fact, excessively enough, it is to teach and to invite you to be generous just as God Himself is never outdone in generosity. St. Thomas Aquinas noticed that it is quite difficult for one to be materially generous with others if he could hardly find any food with which to feed himself. Another way of becoming like God, aside from forgiving others, is showing generosity to others. Generosity makes us soar high like the eagles; stinginess makes us stoop down on the ground like barnyard chickens!

Earthly goods like wealth, power and fame can become evil if they are worshiped as end in themselves rather than as means towards a greater and nobler end. These goods enslave us if we seek them for their own sake and not for the sake of serving others and of glorifying God. When a businessman, a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer, seeks money, power and fame for their own sake instead of that of others, they become slaves. But as God’s children, we are called to freedom: we are born free! Jesus has already freed us. Hence, we should be like eagles, not chickens.

Yet what the world considers vanity of vanities, if used properly according to its rightful purpose, can be a means towards doing lots of good to others. Let us continue to seek wealth, but with the aim of helping those in need. Let us redirect our concern from seeking worldly treasure, fame and power to seeking to please God. Making God smile can be the greatest treasure that we could find. Let us avoid every kind of greedy attitude for whatever earthly good. Our greatest longing should be how to love God above all things. We can only do this if we are certain that our purpose is to soar high, not to stoop down, if we are convinced that we are eagles, not chickens! Let us turn to Mary, our Blessed Mother for Her assistance and intercession. Amen.

"Sacerdotes, 'consagrados en la Verdad'"

Estar inmersos en la Verdad, en Cristo, de este proceso forma parte
la oración, en la que nos ejercitamos en la amistad con Él y aprendemos a
conocerle: su forma de ser, de pensar, de actuar. Rezar es un caminar en
comunión personal con Cristo, exponiendo ante Él nuestra vida cotidiana,
nuestros logros y nuestros fracasos, nuestras fatigas y nuestras alegrías -es un
simple presentarnos a nosotros mismos ante Él. Pero para que esto no se
convierta en un autocontemplarse, es importante que aprendamos continuamente a
rezar rezando con la Iglesia.