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Posted by on Jan 13, 2019

Success or Significance?

Success or Significance?

The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord marks the end of the Christmas season.  Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan signaled the formal beginning of His mission.

For today’s gospel scene we see the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus in visible form.  For the evangelist Luke, contrary to the three other evangelists, the baptism of Jesus is not important in itself, for he does not even describe it.  He is more concerned with the coming of the Holy Spirit on Jesus.  And after this initial scene, Luke will be at pains to mention the Holy Spirit as often as possible in connection with the ministry of Jesus.  Seventeen times in his gospel he will mention the Holy Spirit in connection with Jesus.  This is Luke’s way of telling us that Jesus was inspired (inspirited) in all his actions, empowered with his heavenly Father’s energy, enabled always to act as a beloved Son fulfilling a beloved Father’s wishes. And so, it is not a mere coincidence that, with the appearance of the Holy Spirit in this baptism scene, the son-ship of Jesus is emphasized, “You are my beloved Son.”  Essentially, Jesus is a Son in his innermost being.  And the Holy Spirit is the burning fire of love which unites him to his heavenly Father.  For him to receive the spirit is to experience his son-ship at a new depth.  It is the Holy Spirit that leads Jesus to accomplish his mission and made the Father say, “with you I am well pleased.”

I remember two years ago, I was on a vacation back home in the Philippines.  After celebrating Mass at my home parish, one of my friends from high school came up to me for a small chat.  He grew up in a poor family but worked his way to success with sheer talent and perseverance.  He is a self-made man.  He heads four businesses today that are making good money.  “There’s nothing more I can ask for, Father. God is good.  He has given me everything that I need and more,” he shared with me.  But after a short pause he added, “except that I never knew if my father was proud of what I have accomplished.”  His relationship with his father has been strained since after college.  After that conversation, it hit me.  The human heart is not made for success.  It is made for significance.

Success is a matter of doing.  Significance is a matter of being.  And since we are not human doings but human beings, it makes sense that our heart yearns for something more than just success.  It yearns for significance — the significance of meaningful relationships, mission, and yes, affirmation.  Success does not always lead to significance, but significance always leads to a deep sense of success.  Like the voice from the heavens that affirmed Jesus in His baptism, every human heart longs to hear the words, “in you I am well pleased.”

Isn’t it a wonder that, according to studies, almost eighty percent of substance abusers are successful people, and almost fifty-five percent of these successful people end up committing suicide?  Without meaning to pass judgment, could it be that significance was missing on top of their successes?

The Baptism of the Lord reminds us not only about Jesus’ mission, but our very own mission to make a difference, to be a significance in the lives of others by showing them what really matters in our Christian lives.  So that like Jesus, the Father would say to all of us, “In you I am well pleased.”

Fresco by Giotto di Bondone in the Scrovegni Chapel – 1303

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Posted by on Oct 20, 2017

God’s Relentless Pursuit of Humanity

God’s Relentless Pursuit of Humanity

Jesus began to address them, once more using parables. “The reign of God may be likened to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He dispatched his servants to summon the invited guests to the wedding, but they refused to come. … Then he said to his servants: ‘The banquet is ready, but those who were invited were unfit to come. That is why you must to out into the byroads and invite to the wedding anyone you come upon.’ The servants then went out into the byroads and rounded up everyone they met, bad as well as good. This filled the wedding hall with banqueters …” (Mt 22:1-14)

Today’s parable is a potent reminder of God’s relentless pursuit of humanity. A King prepared a banquet for the wedding of his son. Take note: It was the King who invited. When he invites, you are mandated to go. People were invited but they refused. Almost begging, the King sent another invitation and each had their own petty excuses.

Religion, they say, is man’s search for God. But the biblical God is different. He searches for man. He longs for him. He initiates. One of the very first words God said to man in the Scriptures are: “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9). Those are not words looking for location and direction, but the words of a lover luring his unfaithful beloved back into the right relationship.

When the English poet Francis Thompson described God as the “Hound of Heaven” (a hound is a dog breed with a strong sense of smell, relentless in pursuing subjects), many were scandalized. But he was right. God is a Divine “hound” whose search for His beloved humanity is relentless and constant.

If the image of God as a hound in pursuit is scandalous, what more is God’s courtesy in His pursuit? He is God. He doesn’t need to ask. Instead, He invites, asks, and proposes. God risks the embarrassment of rejection. If you were in God’s place, I’m sure you would not take that risk.

I once saw a Korean guy who went to the flight attendants, asked for the microphone, and publicly proposed marriage to his girlfriend on the plane. The guy said, “I have something to ask you and you’re free to choose from the four possible answers. You can either say “Yes,” “Of Course,” “Why Not,” and “Absolutely.” So much for freedom, huh? The choices left no room for the possibility of rejection. God took the risk of rejection because that is the way of genuine love. If we were created in a way that we could not say “No” to God, then our “Yes” to Him would be of no value. God longs for our free and genuine “Yes.” For that, He is willing to suffer the embarrassment of an ignorant “No” from a worthless yet arrogant humanity.

God continues to invite us today, through the Holy Eucharist. This is God’s banquet, his wedding reception. That is why all the elements of a party are present in the Eucharist…

For all the beauty of the Eucharist, how many people truly understand the Eucharist so as to be excited to partake of it every week? How many of us who attend are always motivated with real rejoicing in being here?

October 15, 2017

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Posted by on Feb 26, 2015

God’s Relentless Pursuit of Humanity

A Good Homily Sheds Light

Preaching_of_the_Gospel_Fr_Lee_AcervoOne of the biggest changes that Vatican II made in the liturgy was replacing the sermon with the homily. Sometimes the words are used interchangeably, but they are very different. The sermon in the Tridentine or Pre-Vatican II liturgy was a time for teaching and making announcements. It was a presentation of some element of faith that may have tied in with the theme of the Sunday.  The homily, on the other hand, is  a more conversational approach to this pivotal part of the Mass that bridges the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Our response to the scripture and the homily should fill us with praise and thanksgiving for what God is doing in our lives. This leads us to enter into the mystery of praise and thanksgiving that is the Eucharist.

A Renewed focus on preaching

Over the last 30 years there has been a lot of emphasis on preaching. Most recently, Pope Francis has focused on the importance of the homily in his apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel. The Pope has made it clear that good preaching is critically important to the life of the church. He writes, “the homily cannot be a form of entertainment like those presented by the media, yet it does need to give life and meaning to the celebration. It is a distinctive genre, since it is preaching situated within the framework of a liturgical celebration” (n. 138).

The disciples on the way to Emmaus were talking or conversing. They were engaging in homilia, as was the Stranger who accompanied them. The homilist, who can be a priest, a deacon, or an authorized lay person, listens to the needs and concerns of the assembly and discerns God’s message for the assembly. This role is similar to that of the prophets and the Ultimate Prophet, Christ. Although we tend to think of a prophet as someone who foretells the future, prophecy is much more about proclaiming, announcing, and forth-telling. That is why we refer to the scripture passages  and the gospel as something that we proclaim.

The homilist may share something about his or her life if it is relevant to the message, but the homily is not about the homilist.  The homily must follow the conventions of good public speaking, but it is more than public speaking.  For the homily to shed light, the preacher cannot just re-tell the story in the gospel for that Mass.

Pope Francis notes that “the homily has special importance due to its eucharistic context: it surpasses all forms of catechesis as the supreme moment in the dialogue between God and his people, which leads up to sacramental Communion” (EG, n. 137). Given this context, the homily cannot be improvised or done extemporaneously. Preparing a homily takes many hours of prayerful reading of the text, reflection, study, drafting, and practicing.  Being a good preacher is something that comes out of a broader lifestyle of prayer, reflection, and reading the signs of the times. Good homilists are very familiar with the lives of the people in their congregations. They are aware of all of the cultural influences, the centrality of mass media, and economic and social conditions.

Cardinal Agostino Vallini, vicar of Rome, expressed the challenge of preaching a good homily well when he said, “We want our words to set people’s hearts on fire” and want the faithful “to be enlightened and encouraged to live a new life and never be forced to suffer through our homilies.”

Shed light and set hearts on fire — the two-fold challenge of good preaching!

Image of Fr. Lee Acevo preaching – public domain

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Posted by on Apr 24, 2008

God’s Relentless Pursuit of Humanity

St. Mark the Evangelist – Following the Lord’s Call Doesn’t Always Happen the Way Others Expect

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St. Mark was a young man in the earliest days of the church and by the end of his life had played an important role in spreading the Good News of Jesus in Asia and North Africa. He even touches us as well, through the Gospel which bears his name.

We first hear of Mark in the Acts of the Apostles on the day Peter was released miraculously from prison. Peter returned in the night to the home of Mark’s mother, a gathering place of the community in Jerusalem (Acts 12:12).

Mark may have been the young man in the Garden of Gethsemane who ran away naked when Jesus was arrested, but the young man is not named, so we don’t know for sure (Mark 14:50-52).

Later we hear of Mark traveling with Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey. Early in that journey, Mark left them and returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). No explanation is given for his departure from the mission. Paul was very unhappy about it and later refused to take Mark along on his second journey. As a result, Barnabas did not travel with Paul on the second trip, going instead with Mark to Cyprus (Acts 15:37-39).

Mark spent many years with Peter. He is mentioned in various contexts in later chapters of Acts and in the first letter of Peter, always in terms of his faithfulness in proclaiming the Good News of Jesus.

The thing that really strikes me about Mark, though, is that he didn’t follow the path that had originally been set for him – that first journey with Paul and Barnabas. Something was not right. He left, despite the knowledge that the older adults in the community might not understand and be angry with him, thinking him a failure or a quitter. He returned home to Jerusalem.

If he had not followed that sense (or quiet voice) that told him that going with Paul and Barnabas might be the wrong thing for him to do, it’s entirely possible that Mark would not have been the one to accompany Peter in his work and journeys. The Gospel According to Mark might never have been written. It is generally understood to be the one that tells the story of Jesus based more on the memories of St. Peter. It was most probably the first of the Gospels written, maybe even before 70 A.D. Our understanding of how the early Christians had experienced the life, death and resurrection of Jesus would be different.

As an older adult now, seeing young people struggling to find their way in faith, to find the Lord’s path for them (regardless of how they phrase it), I find great comfort in the story of Mark. It’s OK to change course on one’s life journey, to try one path, find it’s not quite the right one, and move to another one. It’s OK not to follow the career for which one studied – or the one chosen by someone else. It’s OK to ask embarassing questions of leaders in our community. It’s OK to insist on justice and compassion. It’s not only OK, it’s essential to listen to the quiet voice and follow the Lord as He calls each one of us. We are all richer for it.

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Posted by on Oct 18, 2007

God’s Relentless Pursuit of Humanity

Saint of the Day – St. Luke

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“In my first account, Theophilus…” (Acts 1:1) St. Luke begins his second volume with an introduction only slightly less formal than the elegant opening lines of his gospel. These introductions to the two volume work of the deeds of Christ and the Holy Spirit reveal a sophisticated Greek far removed from the marketplace and dockside everyday, or Koine, Greek that characterizes so much of the New Testament.

Without St. Luke we wouldn’t really the know the depths of Jesus the storyteller. We wouldn’t know much about His relationships with women. Without the Acts of the Apostles we wouldn’t have any idea about the formation and expansion of the church after the Resurrection. In fact, we wouldn’t have a window on the controversy between St. Peter and St. Paul over whether Christians needed to observe the Mosaic Law. The creation of the Church and her institutions are shown to be the work of the Holy Spirit in the early Christian community and not necessarily the direct creation of Christ during his earthly ministry. (In fact, is interesting to note the Pope Benedict XVI, as the young theologian, Joseph Ratzinger, raised several eyebrows by affirming this view of the centrality of the Holy Spirit in the creation and development of the assembly of the baptized faithful.)

In Luke and Acts, we see the movement of salvation history, beginning in Jerusalem and ending in Rome. The saving message given to Jews now becomes the property of the Gentile world. The result today is a worldwide community of faith, incarnated in countless cultures and languages.

St. Luke, along with St. Paul, gave us a freedom from the Law of Moses to live in the freedom of Christ and to be guided by the Holy Spirit.

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