The Cross: the ‘sacrament’ of Christianity

Homily for the feast the Exaltation of the Cross (14 September 2014)

Today the Church celebrates the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. We celebrate today the significance of the Cross as the ‘sacrament’ of Christianity. As a sacrament, the cross is a sign that points to us the Christ who died on the cross for our sins and for our salvation and a symbol that makes Christianity real and relevant in us.

I have mentioned few times before, the more we strive to follow Christ more closely, the more we feel the weight of the Cross, the more we realize the sufferings we have to bear. Yet, this must not weigh us down, rather this must be a source of  encouragement for us because as Fr Frank Moloney SDB would put it: ‘The Cross is the place where we see how much God loves us, and where we see how much Jesus loved his Father.’ So the cross is a concrete expression of God’s love for us. Thus, the cross is to  be exalted. It is to be celebrated. It is to be embraced.

The cross comes in many ways, in many forms, through people around us and through situations unfolding before us. For me, it comes through the many times of difficulties and challenges I had to face and overcome. It also comes through the many difficult times of trials and sufferings of the people I loved and cherished. At times, I can’t help but say in my prayers: ‘Lord, why do you answer my prayers for other people, but not my prayers for my own family or for myself?

I might seem to be selfish of me in that but it’s true that at times I feel the cross I had to carry is that heavy to bear. However what keeps me going is the truth that in Christ, the cross no matter what it is, or how heavy it is, it has great value, it has meaning, it sustains life, it is life as a Christian.

So to exalt the cross, we need to carry it with Christ. Therefore, we must never give up carrying our own Cross just as Jesus didn’t give up the cross.

How not to give up carrying the Cross?

First, we reflect on the First Reading:  If things don’t go on our way, let’s trust that God has something better for us. In our first Reading however, the people of Israel took matters into went against God by their complaining. They lost patience. And this is one enemy of trust. They forgot to trust that God has been leading them all the way in all events of their life as a chosen people. But thanks be to God, He showed the Israelites He is still their God and He never left them despite their complaints against him. He showed them, he still cared for them by giving them opportunity or another chance to live.

This teaches us therefore that to carry our cross faithfully and to never give up is to turn to God in repentance and humility, to look up to God for help, for support, to acknowledge  our weaknesses and dependence on  God. Another message of the cross as Fr Pat O’Sullivan S.J. would suggest is that ‘when we experience negativity in our lives, in whatever form it takes, we do not transmit that negativity on to others, but take it into  our hearts and transform it, so that it becomes a source of life for us and others.’ (Prayer and Relationships: Staying Connected- An Ignatian Perspective,p83)

Second we take into heart what we declare as a response to our Responsorial Psalm today: ‘Let us not forget the works of the Lord’. If we feel the Cross is too heavy for us, let’s  trace the story of our salvation, on how God walked with us and still does, in every moment in history, directing all our ways, giving us the proper care, the blessings, the guidance, the graces we need in our journey. Let us just remind ourselves always ‘how many things God has given us, blessed us, and graced us with, even without us, asking for them?’ If we learn to count our blessings, the cross would be lightened, and even gives more meaning in our Christian life.

Third, we reflect on Gospel and on the second reading today: Let us renew our faith in Christ as our only Lord and Saviour, the one upon whom God’s riches is dispensed, the ‘way, the truth and the life’ for us. He is the one who makes the cross a sign and a symbol of our redemption. He is the one who changed the meaning of the cross from being a punishment to a reward for true and everlasting life. Only in Christ that  we can see  that the Cross has not the final say. In Christ, we realize that the cross is only but a necessary gateway to life. Because of Christ, the cross has become exalted and thus worthy for our celebration. Thus, it is important to have Christ and the cross together for apart from Christ, the Cross has no meaning at all.

So let us not give up on the Cross, rather, with Christ let us carry it everyday, celebrate its significance in our lives, as well as we continue to live in the hope for the life beyond the Cross.

I would leave you with a reflection on the beauty of the cross by St Andrew of Crete. He said:

So great and outstanding a possession is the cross that he who wins it has won a treasure. Rightly could I call this treasure the fairest of all fair things and the costliest, in fact as well as in name, for on it and through it and for its sake the riches of salvation that had been lost were restored to us.

Had there been no cross, Christ could not have been crucified. Had there been no cross, life itself could not have been nailed to the tree. And if life had not been nailed to it, there would be no streams of immortality pouring from Christ’s side, blood and water for the world’s cleansing. The legal bond of our sin would not be cancelled, we should not have attained our freedom, we should not have enjoyed the fruit of the tree of life and the gates of paradise would not stand open. Had there been no cross, death would not have been trodden underfoot, nor hell despoiled.” (from the Office of Readings # 2 for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross)

We, Christians have the cross to be the sign and symbol of our Christian identity, just as a flag is a symbol to our national identity. It is a great gift and a privilege for us. Let us cherish this, say it with devotion and  celebrate its salvific value, and be proud of it as our Christian identity- in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

What does Christian discipleship entail?

Homily for 22nd Sunday in Ordinary time year A 2014

Few weeks ago, a parishioner came to me thanking for my prayers for her son. She was very thankful because as she said, her son’s mental health has been restored to its original health. I said to her: ‘It’s not me who’s done it. It’s the one who looks after us from above.’ I just felt so privileged to be a witness to God’s wonderful work. This is the beauty of Christian discipleship. If we follow Christ closely and listen to his words attentively, we would see with the eyes of our faith, what God is doing right before us, right in our day and age.

However, Christian discipleship is not only about feeling awe and wonder of our God. It is not only about watching Jesus performing miracles. It is not just about recognizing Jesus as the Christ, the messiah, the Son of the living God as Jesus would show to Simon Peter as in last week’s gospel wherein Jesus ‘ordained’ as the rock upon whom he would build his Church. It is also not about a promotion in the case of Peter, from being a fisherman to being the first Pope in the Church. Rather as in today’s Gospel, Christian discipleship is also ‘denying ourselves, taking up of our cross, and following Christ.’

  • What does it mean to follow Christ today?

First, getting behind Christ. Jesus is very strong on this. In last week’s gospel, he called Peter the rock, but this week’s gospel (Mat 16:21-27), he called him ‘Satan’ not because Peter was possessed but because, Peter was trying to get in the way of God. In a way Peter was telling God what to do. Peter was looking at things only from the human perspective and expectations. He was expecting of a messiah who is invincible, powerful and strong. But when Jesus told him that He had to go through suffering, trial and eventually death, Peter tried to hinder the way of Jesus because his expectations of a messiah was challenged. From being rock that serves as the foundation, he became the rock that stumbles. How many times when we are challenged by the message of Jesus and we think we couldn’t take it, we tend to deny him, or set him aside, or took no notice of his words?

How many times we are like this? When things are on our side and are going on our advantage, we take the credit to ourselves, but when things don’t go our way, we blame God. I’m actually caught up with this these past few days. As I have mentioned above, I felt good to know the person I’m praying for got on so well. I felt good to know my prayers are being answered. But when I learned of my eldest sister’s death, (one whom I have been praying for, for a while now), I somehow put the blame on God, on why did he answer my prayer for other people and he didn’t answer my prayer (or what I expect to be) for my sister. Upon reflecting this gospel though, I realize I should not be telling  God what  to do. He knows best, I believe. Rather I should just be getting behind Christ and seeking comfort and wisdom from his words.

Getting behind Christ therefore means we learn from him, as he lived his life in relationship with his Father (constant prayer and communication), in relationship with his disciples (listening and understanding their weaknesses and limitations, at the same time encouraging them to make good use of them for the kingdom) and in relationship with other people (by being sensitive to their needs and doing something for them).

Second, as St Paul would urge us in the Second reading (Rom 12:1-2): Let us not model ourselves on the behaviour of the world. Let us live our lives not based on the standards of the world, or the expectations of the world, but on the world to come. This is a big challenge, because the world always offers for us an easy, immediate and seemingly beautiful alternatives or options to live our lives: leisure, power, money, influence, security. These can sometimes take us away from Christ, because of their momentarily promise of gratification. As Christians though, we need to understand there is more to life than money, or power or wealth. Christ has shown us that there is life after this. So as early as now, let us long for that life and start living lives worthy for the eternal life.

Third, like Jeremiah in the First Reading (Jer 20:7-9), we continue to preach the message of God to the people around us, through our lives. lifestyle and our dealings with one another. People might not like us if we do live it out. Well, in Jesus’ time, many people didn’t like him, his words, and his ways either. Yet, He knows what he’s up to and he’s sticking to it no matter what. As Christians, followers we are also expected to know what we are up to. We are up to eternal life, happiness forever, life in heaven, being a worthy citizen of the kingdom of God, and let’s stick on to it by living our lives as signs and symbols of the kingdom to come. We can do this by continually bringing Christ to others and by striving to bring others to Christ. People might criticise us, as they did to Christ, but we must never stop, nor discouraged, nor feeling hopeless, because it is not for our sake, but for the sake of life with God forever. Yes, the horrible events happening in the Church could sometimes make us question our faith, discourage us, disappoint us, or disillusion us, but Pope Francis, has this encouragement for us, in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). The Pope wrote: ‘The evils of our world- and those of the Church, must not be excuses for diminishing our commitment and fervour. Let us look upon them as challenges which can help us to grow. With the eyes of faith, we can see the light which the Holy Spirit radiates in the midst of darkness, never forgetting that ‘where sin increase, grace has abounded all the more’ (Rom 5:20) (EG 84).

So as we continue our celebration of the Eucharist today let us ask ourselves: As a disciple of Christ, are we living out the Christian values and promoting the Christian ideals and aspirations?

If so, then let us show it in our lives. Amen.

Friendship with God

Homily for 21st Sunday in Ordinary time 2014

 While reflecting on the gospel today, I was confronted by the question of Jesus: ‘Who do you say I am?’ I realized this is not only a question addressed to Peter but also to me. Yes I believe that Christ is my Lord and Saviour, but there is something behind my faith in him that makes Jesus so real and personal to me. Jesus has become so real and I  can be as personal to him because He has become my personal friend.

I then tried to put my friendship with him into categories. I did this by looking at the number of friends I have on Facebook. As of late, I have a total of 1,244 friends. I noticed that I have ‘friends’ on Facebook who are friends of my friends who just wanted me to be their friend too. Then another category is that I have friends who are my relatives  (distant and  immediate). Then I have friends whom I can really say true friends, those who ‘are hard to find, difficult to leave, and impossible to forget’ (a beautiful description of a true friend I read in the magnet on our fridge.)

Christ as my friend falls into the third category but He is much more than all my friends.

The thing about friendship with Jesus though is that we can’t see him through our human eyes. We can only see him in the eyes of faith. That is why the gift of faith is so essential in this friendship.  And like Peter, before we can declare or profess Christ as our Lord, our messiah, we need God’s grace to help us see Christ and to hear his message. God’s grace  is already overflowing for us in Christ. Someone even defines grace as God’s riches at Christ’s expense.

This then calls us to seek friendship with Christ or we let Christ be our friend.  ‘If your friendship with Christ’, St John Paul II said to the young people during  World Youth Day in 2002, ‘your knowledge of his mystery, your giving of yourselves to him, are genuine and deep, you will be “children of the light”, and you will become “the light of the world”. Wow! What an expectation, and what a great grace and honour it would be to be a light of the world, especially in our time. It’s a challenge.

Friendship with Christ is beautiful. In him we learn to love as he loves and care as he cares for others. And one more beautiful thing about this friendship with Jesus is that he would empower us, strengthen us, makes us see God’s wonders in a new light, trust us even of the things of the Kingdom. Wow! What a thing to aspire for in a friend! Like St Paul, we could say with great confidence: ‘It is no longer who lives, but Christ who lives in me’ ( Gal 2:20).

Friendship with Christ helps us to be humble because in Him we can see our true selves, we can see who we really are, what we are now, what we are meant to be and do and what we are capable of. St Peter could attest to this. After seeing  a huge catch of fish when Jesus told them to go out into the deep (Lk 5:1-8), Peter said: ‘Depart from me Lord, for I am sinful man.’ Such an expression of humility.

Friendship with  Christ is our assurance to live our lives fully.  He gives meaning to our life. Yes, in him we can expect the cross, the trials, the challenges in life, but if we keep focused on him, we can overcome all those.  He has been tried, he has been challenged, yet because He is so focused on doing the will of his Father for the establishment of the Kingdom, He is now in glory. So we never give up despite the difficulties in life. If Jesus gave up and climb down the cross because He couldn’t bear the sufferings for our sins, perhaps we can give up too, but we  know he didn’t, so are we. Let us be consoled for the meantime though of our hope that Christ will come again in glory   in his second coming and judge us according to how faithful are we, how loving are we, how caring are we as his friends.

Friendship with Christ is not a one-way-traffic. I mean we can’t just let Christ force himself to be our friend. Friendship is always  a two-way traffic. So we need to do our part. In a manner of saying, we need to meet Christ halfway. This is  going back to the gospel for today. To be his friends, Christ expects some things from us

One expectation is that we need to know Christ more personally and more intimately- that knowledge and closeness with Jesus that like St Peter we could declare: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.’ I have a big expectation on myself on this and  I would throw it to you: ‘It is my expectation that people would say of us: ‘Are you Christian? Because I could really see Christ in you.’

Another expectation is that we don’t have to be perfect in everything we do. Jesus doesn’t look at us as a sinners but as someone who is capable of becoming a saint. God knows we are not perfect. Rather we just learn to be humble and acknowledge that as human as we are, we are far from perfection. It doesn’t mean rather, we are just to be content with it. Like St Peter however, we are to constantly look up to Christ, for guidance, for encouragement, for support, for forgiveness and reconciliation, for wisdom,  for life. Apart from Christ, we can do thing. If we think we can fulfil our expectations on our own, we need some checking out.

Another expectation is that we are to be faithful to our Lord and to the Church. This is thing to be noted because we are in the consumeristic time, result-driven mentality and profit-driven attitude. In Christ, we can’t measure the result of what we do for him. Only God knows if we are worthy of Him or not. Only God knows if we are becoming like his Son in our way of loving, or not. Mother Teresa had realized this  early on, the could only say: ‘God has not called me to be successful; He has called me to be faithful.’ If we look at the Church too, there might be things that might disappoint us, discourage us, or disillusioned us, but these must not lead us astray or be unfaithful to the Church. Though it is a Church of sinners, it is still the same Church that Christ has built upon Peter- the Rock, and thanks be to God for keeping that rock standing firm over the centuries, amidst storms of scandals and anomalies, amidst trials, persecutions and seemingly insurmountable challenges, even the gates of hell. For two millennia now, the Church moves on, through the Ministry of St Peter carried on by his successors. And let’s pray that this Church we belong to continue to be a witness to the world, a beacon of light, of hope, of respect of human life, of solidarity and of peace.

So today, let us ask ourselves: Who is Christ for me? What does Christ expect of me? Am I fulfilling these expectations?