Today's Wisdom

Those who do not pass from the experience of the cross to the truth of the resurrection condemn themselves to despair! For we cannot encounter God without first crucifying our narrow notions of a god who reflects only our own understanding of omnipotence and power
Pope Francis

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Difference between Christianity and Religions - EXODUS

Can you imagine life if you did not exist? Let me first thank God for my life and for my existence. Thanks also to the many people I learn from and those who supported me and sustain me; for God works in everyone and everything to perfect us and each one of us. I have two little cats at home.We fear to lose them. You see why we should protect each other and help each other. Because when I help you in good conscience I am actually helping myself. God calls each one by name "Samuel, Samuel..." Samuel was so close to Eli and thought that Eli called him so he ran to Eli and said "Here I am!", but Eli told him to go lay down again. Samuel listened to that tender voice of God calling him again and this time Samuel said, "Speak, for thy servant hears." (cf. 1 Samuel 3). Do I listen to God who speaks through others? I do not need to be a prophet to hear his loving voice!

In fact the Bible has deep meanings in every word that God inspired the writers to write. But our understanding develops in the Church (Cf. Vatican II; Dei verbum). For more on the development of the idea of God in the Bible see here.

Since we have just celebrated the "Theophany" of God in the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist, I will reflect here on water, the abode of death for ancient cultures. Water in which man dies also signifies blessings from above. Rain that watered the fields and helped grow food was, for the ancients, a life-giving source that the gods bestowed on men. But this is another story. Let's keep our focus on Exodus because there is much to learn from it. In Exodus chapter 14, the Hebrews cross the waters, but how do they cross and not die? Pharaoh and all his host follow them but the Egyptians could not cross and died in water. For their earlier stubborn refusal to let the Hebrew go, the Egyptians had received the 10 plagues and, for fear of more, let the Hebrews leave, but in the last minute found that they are losing slaves who could have served Egypt and wanted to catch them. Why could not they catch the Hebrews to bring them back to slavery? Where was that? In his commentary, the Biblical scholar Richard J. Clifford, S.J. gives answers to the above questions: The God of Israel is compared in Exodus to the Baal to show that, like the Baal, God is the fearsome divinity bringing thunders and fire upon his enemies but only God is superior and in charge of heaven, earth, and the netherworld. The power of God can therefore make waters stand or get emptied to allow his servants to cross the Red Sea while his enemies are drowned by the same water when they attempt to catch the Hebrews. They cross and find themselves at the narrow area of the Red (Reed) Sea or rather the Sea of Reed which means bitter - Bitter water of myrrha cannot be tasted (Cf. Exodus in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary; Pp. 50-60). The people of God must experience pain here and in the desert (for lack of water and food) and be lost without God for 40 years to be prepared to enter the promised kingdom. Repentance is required before tasting God (in the Eucharist and in eternal life). In the New Testament Jesus said "Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able." (Luke 13:24). A great effort is required for entrance into the kingdom.

EXODUS Beyond History
Now Exodus is not an escape. It is a crossing from slavery under powerful tyrants to liberty. In my opinion, subject to Church authority to correct if not accurate, it is the restoration of human dignity to the original one created by God in his image, but deeper than this it is the exit - Exit from the self. In Exodus, water and exit from the self are joined as an expression or symbol of being in the true God.

How is that? First, in baptism, we are initiated to die and be buried with Christ in order to rise with him. It is only the first step in becoming Christians; for we have to undergo the difficulties of life without hatred or complaints and participate in the body of Christ by building it or expanding it where we are and where we go. None of the above can be completed without the grace of the Holy Spirit who acts in all sacraments to make us holy.

Exodus or exit from the self represents the central character of Christianity. It represents the eternal act of boundless love of God the Father towards his eternal image the Son. The Son receives the Father (divinity) and with gratitude exits from himself or gives himself (divinity) to the Father. The Holy Spirit is the eternal force of love that relates the Father and the Son in the boundless love that he is. According to the Jesuit scholar Fr. Henri Boulad, S.J., this is the Augustinian reasoning based on Scripture and the Fathers faith. Christian faith is not contrary to reason.

Ideologies and major religions of the Far East say to God "I am You" but a true Christian tells God "I am yours." In heaven, the elect do not melt in God as in other religious mystic sects, but remain distinct from God whose glory is their light (Revelation 21:3; 21:23).

The above little reflection briefly explains what sets Christianity apart. God is not only transcendent and not only immanent, but penetrates humanity and transforms humans to be with God in heaven if they only listen. The One through whom everyone is saved is JESUS CHRIST our God and Lord.

Since water is part of this discussion let us add more reflections from other scholars. Fr. Georges Farah, PhD, also taught the deeper meaning beyond water in Scripture. The story of Jesus walking on the waters of the sea is more than a mere event to show his power; for it reminds the listeners of Jesus' victory over the waters of the sea considered the abode of death. He is the One who takes Peter by the hand to deliver him from death. He is the One who leads the Church, new Israel, out of the bondage of death and "slavery in the land of Egypt". According to Georges Farah, every event recounted in the Gospel has multiple meanings; all meant to encourage the young church to persevere in the times of darkness.

Joseph Ratzinger, another renowned scholar who became Pope Benedict XVI, commented on Jesus walking on waters and coming to the apostles (Mark 6: 45-52): The apostles were crossing the lake. Jesus alone is on land while they are wearing themselves out in rowing without making any headway since the wind is contrary. Jesus is praying and, in his prayer, he sees them struggling on. So he comes to meet them... But what is decisive is that while praying , when he is 'with the Father' he is not removed from them. When Jesus is with the Father, he is present to the Church...Conversely the Church is, so to speak, the object of the encounter between Father and Son and thus herself anchored in the Trinitarian life. Here Ratzinger emphasizes the necessity of the Church as minister of salvation (See Dominus Iesus here).

In other words, it is not water that matters most but the presence of Jesus our God to us if we let him in.

From Baptism to the Eucharist Back to Georges Farah, in the Eucharist, God allows himself to be eaten by us. God goes all the way to unite himself to us in the Eucharist. In John 6 we read "So Jesus said to them, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him." The least we can do is thank God for the grace of love that he comes to us in the Eucharist which imparts life in Christ to those who take it in the state of grace. 

While Exodus showed us the mystery of the Trinity in a symbolic way, and water is used in baptism to initiate us in the Church. the Eucharist brings us to eternal joy which Christ wants to bless each one with and for which he died on the cross and rose from the dead.

Joy or Threat of Death Today
But do we feel that joy imparted by Christ? Alas, fear has become a global concern in the last few years with the increasing communication about violence and the killing of Christian (and other) victims in the Middle East and other countries in the world by extremists who claim they are acting to avenge the God of Islam. The most recent attacks on January 7 and 8 in France did not spare any soul of the "infidels" and resulted in more hatred towards Islam by the average person in the civilized world. Commenting on the event from a geopolitical perspective, Dr. George Friedman, an expert on global intelligence, wrote an article in Stratfor here where he practically dissects the near impossible situation of terrorism today and warns that the more-than-ten centuries war between Islam and Europe/the West will likely continue. Of concern, he maintains that Muslims in Europe and elsewhere do not share the values and principles on which the Western civilization is built. Is coexistence possible between nations and cultures today?

Weeks earlier in December, 2014, Henri Boulad, S.J. addressed the European Parliament in Brussels where he mounted a strong defense of Christians in the Middle East who since the Islamic conquests of the 7th century have been subjected to a "dhimmi status" (second degree) with periods of calm and periods of persecution and today count for only 2% of the local population. Fr. Boulad reminds Europeans that their crusades and colonization were historical reactions to the aggression of Muslim forces into Europe. The propaganda of self-imposed guilt is run by a suicidal obsession with political correctness. "Telling the truth has become a crime today. Denouncing Sharia, as a flagrant contradiction with the most basic human rights, is being accused of racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia … Europe is seen as driven to retreat and to sell off with ease her values and principles that she has taken centuries to acquire. She is slowly losing her freedom of expression, her resilience to resist, and her immune system." Urging Western experts (whose knowledge of Islam is rather bookish, theoretical and academic) to consult Eastern Christians "who have bathed for centuries in Islamized societies and have a different approach, a different sensibility" in the dialogue with Islamic scholars, he raises his voice "Beyond all divisions - East and West, Islam and Christianity, Left-Right - what is important is to save man, his values, his freedom, and his dignity" and finishes like a hero "EUROPE, TAKE CARE NOT TO LOSE YOUR SOUL! Because on this soul depends the fate of Eastern Christians."

At the same time in Nigeria too, the terrorist Boko Haram executed and/or raped some 2,000 innocents in the name of Allah.  But on the new year's eve celebration of the birthday of Islam's founder, addressing the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University and its scholars. a passionate Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (a moderate Muslim) called for a religious revolution of Islamic religious discourse and education after what he termed "centuries of ideologies that have been sanctified" against the the entire world. (Listen to the address with English subtitles here.)

A Recent Event: Steps in Joy in the Philippines
While fear prevails in many parts of the world, six million Christians joyfully attended and sang in the outdoor Mass presided over by the outreaching Pope Francis in Manila, the Philippines as reported on the 18th of January by BBC (See the report here). How is this man able to galvanize that huge following everywhere he goes unless he has much love for the poor and forgotten?

Have we forgotten the deep meaning of Exodus or Jesus walking on waters? Exodus or exit from the self is the difference between Christianity and religions... Christianity is Christ present to us. If Christ calls us as with Samuel, let us follow him...Let us repent and grow in faith.. Christianity is the way to God; for he said "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). What would have been the fate of Christians if the apostles did not open their Judaic tradition to the 'pagans' and their understanding to the Greeks and Romans? Christianity advanced the world in all fields particularly in "knowing God" who loves everyone. To know God is not an exercise of the body or the mind but in grace to strive to find him in the depth of love (see my lecture here). I saw remains, bones, and tombs of martyrs and saints in the catacombs in Rome and the monasteries in Lebanon and Egypt. Martyrs and saints continue to adore him in their hearts and on their knees. See Pope Francis who is leading a reform of the Church, and preaching reconciliation everywhere he goes. In each local church, there must be a renewal of Christian life, and in every society Christians need to recall the promises of Christ and stand for the truth, help the needy and the elders, and pray for reconciliation in the family, with friends, and with all others. I need to reflect on God, his eternal selfless love, his words in the Bible and his saints everyday even if for a few moments, because this is my only salvation!

A Little Closing
In a lecture I gave in 2006 to young adults, I outlined some fundamental dimensions for Christians:
1. Social: Strengthen your faith and involve yourself in social activities and charities (Knights of Columbus is only one example); involve yourself if possible to stand for the truth of Christ in social encounters in universities, schools and professional organizations that challenge the faith.
2. Spiritual: Learn from the Bible and saints; Exercise yourself in spiritual exercises gradually with a spiritual director (Example here); Participate in Mass; Learn and continue to fast and give alms.
3. Vertical Dimension: Build a relationship of love with God who loves you. For this seek spiritual direction from the pastor or a monk who has experience with Christ.

We are not saints (yet). We have responsibilities towards our families and society which mean that we need to balance our approach in every word we utter and every action we make. In a polarized world with fear and threats of violent death, I find St. Augustine's words to be appropriate "Be moderate in everything except in love".

The above can be considered as a proposal subject to approval by Church authority.

Hymn: The magnificent hymn "Love Divine" was sung by the ranks of dignitaries and the Choir of Westminster Abbey in the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011
"Love divine, all loves excelling, joy of heaven, to earth come down... Finish then thy new creation, pure and spotless let us be"...
All of them sang regardless of their ranks...all of them bowed but probably not many thought of the words "Finish then thy new creation, pure and spotless let us be." A new creation is God's unfinished work awaiting the promised glory. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Three Saints Who Lived in the East

If a record-breaking crowd (six million) of Christians in Manila attended the Sunday Mass celebrated by Pope Francis and followed him everywhere he went, then it is not only the pope's charming personality that attracted them nor their material poverty that made them brave stormy weather to attend the outdoor Mass, but rather a need to be close to God. It is this same touch of hearts that the Holy Spirit uses to give us an opportunity to humbly partake with saints in becoming Christ-like or holy children of God. Pope Francis praised the people of the Philippines for their heroic trust in God in spite of recent natural disasters. The missionary work of the Church is so great in the East that we can hope many saints will be produced there by the grace of God. In scriptures, God's holiness sets him apart. He is described as "consuming fire" or "the Lord of hosts". Yes, But in Christianity the essence of God is love - "God is love" (1 John 4: 8). His love is his power manifested as a consuming fire and his holiness makes him close to every soul.

In fact, the East has always been a fertile ground for holiness as it witnessed the lives of saints such as Abraham, who, according to tradition, walked with God from Ur to the land of Canaan, Elijah the great prophet of Israel's faith, Moses who spoke with God on Mount Sinai, and many more saints. When the Word of God became man in Palestine, worked wonders, taught with authority, yet was crucified outside Jerusalem because he said he was equal to - and one with - God, he accepted death out of love towards the Father and all his fellow human beings. Through his unlimited love he opened the gates of heaven and continues to save many people in the world starting with the witness of his most blessed mother the Virgin Mary, the Apostles and disciples who, with many, witnessed him after his Resurrection and saw his Ascension. It is from the "Middle" East that the Church, founded by our Lord and God Jesus Christ, grew and expanded in the known world in spite of persecutions throughout the Roman empire. It was in Antioch (today north of Syria into Turkey) that Christ's followers were first called Christians, and in Antioch too Paul preached and Peter founded his first Petrine See before founding the See of Rome where he was martyred. Consequently the Successor of Peter, Bishop of Rome and Pope of the Catholic Church, not only carries "the keys to heaven" given by Christ to Peter, but also carries the title "Servant of servants" used by St. Pope Gregory I.

With this very brief introduction, let us consider 3 saints from the East. St. Anthony the Great (his icon inserted here is found on Fr. Ibrahim El Haddad's Facebook page as the Church celebrated the saint's feast on January 17).  Anthony lived in Egypt (c. 251-356 AD), was rich but on hearing Christ's words to the rich young man ""Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor" decided to literally follow Christ, distributed his belongings, became ascetic and went into the solitude of the desert to listen to God. For years, the hermit was sought by people for spiritual advice and only left his place when needed by the Church to strengthen his fellow Christians in the Arian persecution.  St. Anthony the Great is considered the father of monastic tradition. When St. Athanasius had to go to Rome, he published Anthony's biography which introduced the monastic tradition to the West;  a movement that flourished in the following centuries and continues to serve humanity in many forms and schools including the Franciscans, the Dominicans, and the Jesuits which remain the largest monastic order in the world today.

Charbel Makhlouf lived in Lebanon (1828-1898). The youngest of five children born Youssef to Maronite Catholic parents Antoun Zaarour Makhlouf and Brigitta Elias al-Chediac, he studied at the parish school and since his early years spent much time in prayer and contemplation of God. His mother wanted him to get married but he secretly left home in 1851 and taking the name "Brother Charbel" he joined the monks at the Hermitage of St. Paul in the Qadisha Valley. In 1853, Charbel took his monastic vows, studied for the priesthood, and was ordained returning to the Monastery of St. Maron.  Rigorous asceticism and a profound union with God accompanied by miracles continued to characterize Charbel's life for the next 23 years. After his death, hundreds of thousands visited his tomb and many claimed to have been miraculously healed through his intercession. He was beatified in 1965 and canonized in 1977 by Pope Paul VI but his healing continues to-date as reported by witnesses. We visited his cell in 1974 and saw the profound effect this man continues to leave on his followers.

Lorenzo Ruiz was born around 1600 AD in Manila of a Chinese father and a Filipino mother, both Christians. In his youth he served as altar boy with the Dominicans. A professional calligrapher, he was a full member of the Confraternity of the Holy Rosary, got married and had two sons and a daughter. His life took an abrupt turn when he was accused of murder.He was therefore sought by the authorities according to two Dominicans who knew him. At the time, three Dominican priests were about to sail to Japan in spite of a violent persecution in Japan against Christians. Lorenzo asked to go with them as he wanted to escape. But only when they were at sea did he learn that they were going to land in Japan. They landed at Okinawa and were soon arrested and taken to Nagazaki. Fifty thousand Catholics who once lived there were dispersed or killed by persecution.  They were subjected to severe torture. As any ordinary person Lorenzo was not prepared to die. However, in the last few hours he became bold with his interrogators and refused to renounce his faith. He was immediately put to slow death with other Christians by hanging upside down in pits...On September 29, 1637 Lornezo died a martyr for the faith. According to Latin missionary accounts sent back to Manila, Lornezo's  last words were "I am a Catholic and wholeheartedly do accept death for God; Had I a thousand lives, all these to him shall I offer."   Lorenzo Ruiz was beatified by St. Pope John Paul II in the first beatification ceremony outside Rome. He was canonized by St. Pope John Paul II in 1987, the first Filipino saint and Patron Saint of the Philippines.

[And the LORD came and stood forth, calling as at other times, "Samuel! Samuel!" And Samuel said, "Speak, for thy servant hears."] (1 Samuel 3:10).This was Samuel's response to God's whispering in his ears...Fr. Henri Boulad, S.J. commented last Sunday "Today, God still comes and whispers through what you do: your spouse, your child, newspaper you read, Facebook, Internet ...When will you listen." I think listening to God is the beginning of becoming a saint!

Today's Quote

"Behold I make all things new." (Revelation 21:5)


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