Refreshing our faith in Lent

40 Shades of Lent by Fr. Nicanor F. Lalog II
Third Sunday of Lent in Cycle B, 07 March 2021
Exodus 20:1-17  ><}}}*>  1Corinthians 1:22-25  ><}}}*>  John 2:13-25
Parish Church of St. Joseph in Baras, Rizal.

One thing we notice in Lent is the “noble simplicity” of celebrations: no flowers at the altar, simple music without percussions, without Gloria no Alleluia meant to refocus our attention back to God in a more personal level.

That is why during Lent, our faith is refreshed or rebooted in order to “reset” it back to God himself than with rites and rituals and other formalisms that have made our relationships with him and with one another stagnant.

When faith and religion get fixated on formal codes of worship and belief, detached not only from God but even with people like those in the margins, then it had become an idolatry.

Since the Passover of the Jews was near, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. He found in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the money-changers seated there. He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables, and to those who sold doves he said, “Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.” His disciples recalled the words of Scripture, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

John 2:13-17
Photo from turbosquid.com.

Our personal, relating God

On this Third Sunday of Lent until its final Fifth week, we turn to the fourth Gospel of John to deepen our personal relationship with the Father in Christ when each gospel is compacted with signs and language rich in meanings to reignite our faith with “zeal” that “consume” us like Jesus.

Observe John’s formal introduction of this episode of cleansing of the temple by presenting to us its chronemics, the non-verbal communication of time and space to indicate the presence of God in Passover (time), Jerusalem, and temple (space/place). Keep in mind that the fourth gospel is called “the book of signs” because John would always use events, buildings and places, and people as signs pointing to Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God.

In this episode that immediately happens at the start of the Lord’s ministry as seen by John, something very wrong have happened with the very signs of God’s presence so revered by the people during their important feast of Passover right in their temple in Jerusalem: God had been eased out from the lives of the people and from their worship itself!

The gospels teem with many references at how the people at that time led by the temple officials and religious leaders have turned into worshipping rites and rituals than God himself, forgetting to serve the people by sticking to the letters than to the spirit of the Laws that Jesus always attacked.

It is similar to our own time where our faith and church worship have become empty of God and spirituality filled with human inanities led by some priests who tinker with liturgy, forgetting its noble simplicity, that less is always more. In our efforts to make God “present” with so many “shows” and gimmicks in the liturgy and church buildings, the more we have removed the Divine, unconsciously creating a cult around ourselves.

Notice some churches devoid of the holy with all the flat screens and tarpaulins all over. Worst is how priests have promoted this culture of shouting and clapping of hands during and after Mass as if God were deaf!

So many other things are sadly going in our celebrations where emotions are heightened without really stirring the hearts nor souls with God’s presence. Good liturgy flows from our personal and faithful relationship with God anchored in prayer life, not with shows and activities.

In the first reading, God reminds us in his Commandments that more than laws, these are meant to bring us into a relationship with him our God. See God speaking in the first person, addressing everyone with conversational personal pronouns, “I am the Lord your God” or “I am the Lord thy God”.

More than a mere body of commandments, the Decalogue are a covenant by God with people he had freed from slavery, pledging his unfailing fidelity to them who are expected to be wholeheartedly attached with him as their Lord and God. The Decalogue is first of all a call to intimacy with God expressed with our respect for one another.

This Lent, God invites us to renew our personal relationship with him in Jesus who had come to bring equilibrium in our lives through his Cross where our vertical relationship with the Father is intersected by our relationships with one another in Christ, through Christ, and with Christ. Without this, our faith or any religion will drift to extremes, either to joyless conformism as seen in fundamentalism and traditionalism or exaggerated expressionisms happening nowadays, disregarding the norms of liturgy and of sanity as well. In both instances, there is human manipulation strongly present that pretend to serve God but actually massage somebody’s ego, totally forgetting the people who suffer most.

Photo by author, 2019.

Jesus himself as the new temple

When Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was newly elected in office, he wrote a bishop in Europe suffering with cancer. According to reports, the former Pope tried to uplift the spirits of the sick bishop by telling him that “Jesus saved the world not with activities but by suffering and dying on the cross.”

Beautiful words from one of the most spiritual and theological man of our time! Here lies too the fullness of our relationship with God expressed in our worship when our “zeal” for him is consumed in our oneness in Jesus Christ, our new temple.

At this the Jews answered and said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. Therefore when he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they came to believe the Scripture and the word Jesus had spoken.

John 2:18-22

John now presents to us Jesus more than a prophet cleansing the temple with full authority, being the perfection of every worship that is “in Spirit and truth” (Jn.4:23) because as the Messiah of God offered on Good Friday which is also the feast of the Jewish Passover, his Body becomes the new temple.

Of course, sacred buildings are still important as well as rites and rituals but they are signs pointing to the realities of Jesus Christ, the Emmanuel or God-is-with-us truly felt in ourselves, in our lives when we have that oneness, that intimacy in him in our personal and communal prayers that flow down to our interpersonal relationships with others especially the poor and the suffering.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Last October, I had the most severe test in life when my only brother was diagnosed with an ailment affecting his spine, becoming immobilized for three months. I took him to my parish so I can look after him. What was most difficult for me was seeing him suffer, writhing in pain even in the middle of the night, sometimes begging me to ask God to take him so his sufferings may finally end.

I thought already knew how to pray, that I was tough and strong especially in my faith but, like a child, I would always hide and cry to God for my only brother who in his entire life has always been sickly and afflicted with many illnesses.

One morning in our daily Mass, tears swelled in my eyes during consecration as I held the Body of Christ in my hands with my voice breaking as I said, THIS IS MY BODY WHICH WILL BE GIVEN UP FOR YOU.

How I wanted to stop the Mass at that moment to cry in joy as I felt Jesus so true, in his flesh and blood, truly alive and personal!

Until now I could not explain what or how I felt that I cried at that time except that the night before, I assisted my brother in bed and cleaned him up. It was very difficult and even messy but a great moment of God’s grace and mercy for me expressing my love for him through my brother. That is when I realized that to truly touch Jesus is first of all to touch him among our sick brothers and sisters; that there is an intimate connection between the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and everyone especially the sick and suffering. And, for us to truly receive the Body of Christ, to experience the Holy Communion in him, we must first have his eyes and heart and hands among those deprived around us (https://lordmychef.com/2020/10/28/the-body-of-christ/).

Photo by Ms. Ria De Vera, Good Friday 2020.

Brothers and sisters: Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

1 Corinthians 1:22-25

Faith in God is not meant to be explained nor analyzed. Though we do not stop studying and learning our faith doctrines and teachings, we are reminded this third Sunday of Lent to keep our zeal for God burning. Let us pray to Jesus that like him, may our zeal for the Father consume us by seeing him in persons not on things that are often self-serving. Amen.

Have a blessed and refreshing Sunday in the Lord with your family and loved ones!

Photo by author, 2019.

Contrasts in Lent, contrasts in life

40 Shades of Lent by Fr. Nicanor F. Lalog II
Thursday, Second Week in Lent, 04 March 2021
Jeremiah 17:5-10   ><}}}*>  +  <*{{{><     Luke 16:19-31
Photo by author at Silang, Cavite, 22 September 2020.

How lovely is the season of Lent with its shades and hues of violets that reveal to us in many beautiful ways, O God, the many contrasts in life, enabling us to see and appreciate its deeper realities and meanings when seen in your light.

Lead us back to you, dearest Lord, and let us stop believing that happiness in life lies in external impressions like wealth, power, and fame but in what is going on in the depths of our heart like believing in you, holding on to you, just having you.

Thus says the Lord: Cursed is the man who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh, whose heart turns away from the Lord. He is like a barren bush in the desert that enjoys no change of season, but stands in a lava waste, a salty and empty earth. Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose hope is the Lord. He is like a tree planted beside the waters that stretches out its roots to the streams. It fears not the heat when it comes, its leaves stay green; in the year of drought it shows no distress, but still bears fruit.

Jeremiah 17:5-8

What a beautiful and simple contrast in this life, so easy to remember yet we also forget or ignore: with you, there is life; without you, no life too.

This reality becomes clearer in the contrasts presented by your Son Jesus in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus whose name means “God has helped” from the Hebrew el azar. No name was given to the rich man for he is more like us, Lord, who lavish ourselves with beautiful and expensive clothings, dining sumptuously in total disregard of Lazarus whose body was covered with sores, licked by dogs, gladly eating the scraps falling from the table of the rich man.

That’s a load of contrasts we take for granted in life yet so obvious though we hardly notice because we remember more what the rich man had without realizing that it was Lazarus who had more life despite his poverty.

Photo by author, August 2020.

Open our eyes, Lord, to the significance and meanings of these contrasts: purple garments and fine linen of the rich man versus the sores covering the body of Lazarus; and sumptuous meals of the rich man vis-a-vis Lazarus gladly eating scraps falling from the rich man’s table.

The rich man relied only to himself with his wealth, celebrated life with things like food and clothes while Lazarus had you in himself, gladly eating scraps from the rich man’s table and going on with life’s sufferings like body covered with sores.

Surely there were other things that eventually brought Lazarus into heaven but clearly, the rich man’s self-indulgence with worldly things and securities that made him forget and totally disregard Lazarus did him big time!

While still here on earth, especially in this season of Lent, may we see the many contrasts in life and choose always where there are more of you, no matter how dark or light it may be. Amen.

Things we ask God

40 Shades of Lent by Fr. Nicanor F. Lalog II
Wednesday in Second Week of Lent, 03 March 2021
Jeremiah 18:18-20 ><}}}*> + <*{{{>< Matthew 20:17-28
Photo by Dr. Mylene A. Santos, MD in Candaba, Pampanga, February 2021.

Almighty Lord, so many times we feel asking you many questions but would not dare to because we are afraid of you, we fear we might offend you and commit sin, or maybe because we are afraid of what or how you might answer our query that we would not like it all!

I am sure that even before a question is formed in our minds, you knew it already for nothing escapes you, especially our innermost thoughts and feelings like when we are deeply hurt like your prophet Jeremiah in the first reading:

“Heed me, O Lord, and listen to what my adversaries say. Must good be repaid with evil that they should dig a pit to take my life? Remember that I stood before you to speak in their behalf, to turn away your wrath from them.

Jeremiah 18:19-20

Must good be repaid with evil…?

Surely you have heard this question so many times, Lord. And surely, you also know it is more than a question but a cry for help from you, a cry for your affirmation because there are times when we know you are on our side, that we are doing something good that is why people even loved ones are so against us like in the experience of Jeremiah.

Thank you for the courage and strength to be faithful to you; when people repay our deeds with evil, it means we are not ignored. Our efforts are bearing fruits because of you.

Keep us strong, Lord, and help us persevere amid difficult and trying situations in life. And yes, let us keep on asking you for more questions because that is when we rely more on you!

On the other hand, please forgive us, Lord, when we ask too much from you like the mother of James and John.

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee approached Jesus with her sons and did him homage, wishing to ask him for something. He said to her, “What do you wish?” She answered him, “Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your kingdom.” Jesus said in reply, “You do not know what you are asking.”

Matthew 20:20-22

Indeed, there are times we do not know what we are asking from you, Lord. Sometimes, we ask for your affirmation in the wrong sense, according to the standards of the world, of quid pro quo, of things in exchange or in return for good things we may have done as if it was solely our efforts.

During this Lent, help us realize that what we need to ask you about or ask from you are those essentially needed so we can be faithful in following you, in doing your works, in speaking your words. Teach us, dear Jesus that ultimately, what we need to ask you and ask from you is nothing else but YOU.

O dearest Jesus, reign in our hearts and fill us with your humility, justice, and love! Amen.

God’s encompassing love

The Lord Is My Chef Sunday Recipe for the Soul by Fr. Nicanor F. Lalog II
40 Shades of Lent, First Sunday, Year B, 21 February 2021
Genesis 9:8-15   +   1Peter 3:18-22   +   Mark 1:12-15
Photo by author, ancient fortress of Masada in Israel, 2017.

Lent may be the most sparse in outward signs and decorations like flowers in all liturgical seasons but it is the most dense in meaning and imageries. Although it is often seen as a drab with its motif of penitential violet and subdued music when both Gloria and Alleluia are omitted, Lent sparkles with profundity and depth leading to joy deep within if we truly dwell into its main message of God’s encompassing love for us.

Take our gospel this First Sunday of Lent this year taken from Mark. It is the shortest compared with Matthew and Luke who both give us details, but, Mark’s brevity is so precise and thought-provoking, too!

The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him. After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

Mark 1:12-15
Photo by Dr. Mylene A. Santos, MD, 2020, Infanta, Quezon.

Life is a daily Lent.

Of all the seasons in our liturgical calendar, Lent is my favorite because for me, it captures best the reality of life that is at the same time so beautiful but in some aspects ugly, nice but painful. There is always that contrasts of light and darkness that indeed, life is Lent, a daily Exodus filled with trials and difficulties that lead to joy and fulfillment in God.

See how Mark shows this so well in his brief narration that begins after the scene of the baptism of Jesus by John at Jordan. Immediately after that, Mark tells us without fanfare, “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan.”

Is it not this is how life really is?!

At once after praying, after celebrating the Mass that is when you get into a debate with your wife or husband, son or daughter or siblings. Sometimes it happens while you are still in the church you get into arguments about parking. Right after you have resolved to be a better person and turn away from sins and its occasions, that is when your friends would come and ask you to join their “gimmicks” or that is when your “ex” would come or text you, entice you to go out again.

Photo by author, Egypt, 2020.

The desert is the image of that place of so many battles in life, where we cried in pain, where we were rejected, where we were hurt. Our life is like the desert, so hot and humid at day, so cold and freezing at night. Worse of all, the desert is our life because that is where we fight Satan who always deceives us with his many temptations that eventually lead us to wrong decisions, hurting not only us but those dearest to us, dividing our families, separating us from one another that in the end, we feel trapped in a terrible mess.

But, it is not that all bad because Jesus joins us in our battles and struggles in this life, in this desert that we find ourselves in a similar situation, “He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.”

Yes, life is difficult but it is in those situations we find its meaning and beauty. Though there are so many trials and sufferings, God never leaves our side, sending us angels like family and friends, even strangers who come and stay with us in life, believing in us, helping us, and most of all, loving us — right in the desert.

Photo by author, an oasis in the Dead Sea area of Israel, 2017.

Like an oasis where life springs abundantly, Jesus joins us in our many struggles against Satan by giving us the strength and courage to remain faithful to God, to experience fulfillment and salvation by giving us little pockets of Easter in the midst of our daily lent.

See that “After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God. Amid the bad news of John’s arrest, Jesus began his ministry and mission of love and mercy for us all, It was in the middle of such disturbing situation that Jesus came boldly proclaiming, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

The same is true with us today as we enter the first full year of the pandemic that had altered our way of life so drastically, causing us so much pains in the many losses we have suffered in life and properties, God comes closest to us in Jesus especially in the Mass (https://lordmychef.com/2021/01/23/from-fishermen-to-fishers-of-men/)!

Most of all, as we shall see in this Season of Lent, even in the midst of sins and evil, that is when God comes closest to us to experience him and his saving grace.

Beloved: Christ suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God. Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the Spirit. In it he also went to preach to the spirits in prison who had been disobedient while God patiently waited in the days of Noah… This prefigured baptism, which saves you now.

1Peter 3:18-21
From Google.

Baptism as the key to Lent.

The key to understanding the Season of Lent is to see it in the light of the Sacrament of Baptism. Originally as a preparation to the mother of all feasts in the Church we call Easter, Lent was the period when candidates (catechumens) for baptism were prepared. That explains why the Easter Vigil we celebrate is too long because it was only during that time when people were baptized especially when the Church came under persecution.

In Jesus Christ, we are washed clean of our sins, we are cleansed and purified to get by in this life in the desert as beloved children of God.

He knows so well our human situation, our living in the wilderness that Jesus had to leave Paradise for a while to be with us here on earth, going through all our human experiences except sin so we may return to the Father’s home in heaven. Remember how we mentioned Lent as a journey back into the Father’s home: Ash Wednesday is the porch and every Sunday is a room we enter until we reach the Father’s inner room on Easter to be one with him in Jesus.

Photo by author, Chapel of Holy Family, Sacred Heart Spirituality Center in Novaliches, QC, 2015.

In the first reading we have heard the story when God made a covenant with Noah and his children after the great flood which prefigured Baptism that cleansed the world of all the sins and evil. God had felt sad in creating the world when people turned away from him living in sins that he decided to destroy everything by sending a great flood. However, he found Noah as the only one along with his family still living uprightly. So, God asked Noah to build an ark where they stayed during the flood along with the different animals representative of every species. In effect, Noah prefigured the new Adam in Christ who came to be the new beginning of the human race, clean and without sin. After the flood, God sealed a covenant with Noah with the rainbow as its sign.

God added: “This is the sign that I am giving for all ages to come, of the covenant between me and you and every living creature with you: I set my bow in the clouds to serve as a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds, I will recall the covenant I have made between me and you and all living beings, so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all mortal beings.”

Genesis 9:12-15

As I was telling you at the start, Lent is so rich in meanings. When you look on the Crucifix and find those arms of Jesus outstretched when he died on Good Friday, that is the new rainbow of his covenant with us we celebrate daily in the Holy Eucharist.

Remember when you look at Jesus Christ crucified, he is the rainbow promised to Noah by God that he would never destroy all mortal beings again.

Photo by author, Chapel of Holy Family, Sacred Heart Spirituality Center in Novaliches, QC, 2015.

During the first Sunday of the COVID-19 lockdown that fell on the Fourth Sunday of Lent that was also my 55th birthday last year, we decided to carry around my previous parish the Blessed Sacrament so that the people may at least adore God after churches were ordered closed and public Masses suspended.

On the last leg of our route, it began to rain but I told our driver to go ahead with our “libot” until suddenly, as we turned to a long stretch of road in the middle of rice fields, there appeared over the horizon a rainbow! The sight made me cry as I felt God assuring me on my birthday that we can pull through this pandemic, that he is with us and would protect us, keep us safe.

And he kept his promise. Our parish had the lowest incidence of COVID-19 in the town of Santa Maria. From then on every Sunday afternoon, we would borrow the F-150 truck of our neighbor and I would carry the Blessed Sacrament around our parish, blessing the people who knelt at the side of the road. Eventually, it led us to innovations like “walk-thru” and “drive-thru” Holy Communion when I would announce the distribution of Holy Communion after our online Masses in front of our Parish Church and in some designated areas along the highway.

It was the most memorable Lent I ever had in my life when everything felt so real like Jesus in the desert being tempted. Yes, life is like in the desert where the devil and wild beasts attack us.

Have faith, be firm, and take courage in Jesus Christ for we are all covered and protected in his power and might, love and mercy. He is the Father’s best sign of his all-encompassing love for us sinners. Amen.

A blessed week to you!

Photo by author, 2019.

Email me at <lordmychef@gmail.com>.

The joy of Lent

40 Shades of Lent by Fr. Nicanor F. Lalog II
Friday after Ash Wednesday, 19 February 2021
Isaiah 58:1-9     <*(((><  +  ><)))*>     Matthew 9:14-15

Today I remember, O Lord, our old days of yore when Fridays were of simple food of all fish and veggies without any meat, of how we were told to remember this day so special because of Good Friday even if it were not the Season of Lent.

Austerity and low key were all over as peg to make your presence, O God, during Lent that the prevailing mood was more of joy than of being somber and serious as most people would think these days of fasting and abstinence as self-inflicted sufferings and pains.

Forgive us this modern age of instants and affluence, fasting has become centered on our very selves, with our “piety” like the Pharisees (Matt.9:14) who questioned Jesus why his disciples did not fast unlike them and the followers of John.

Enlighten us on this first Friday of Lent to realize anew that this is a season of joy and rejoicing because when we fast, we become empty of ourselves, of our filth and sins so we can be filled with your Holy Spirit to become your vessels of justice and love and joy with one another.

This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.

Isaiah 58:6-7

How lovely and beautiful the world must be if we shall heed your words, fulfill your longing from us in true fasting more focused only in making you present among us who have gone to choose darkness over light.

O God our Father, give us the wisdom and courage to return to you so we can offer ourselves for others to feel you as we await the great rejoicing of Easter, the very joy of Lent. Amen.

A Lenten Prayer in COVID-19

40 Shades of Lent by Fr. Nicanor F. Lalog II
Ash Wednesday, 17 February 2021
It is Lent again, Lord;
forty days of prayer
forty days of sacrifices
forty days of good works
forty days of silence and self-control
forty days of preparations for Easter.
Forgive us that we always forget our daily life
is essentially a daily Lent:
a daily exodus of going to the wilderness
filled with temptations 
and calls for fidelity 
to your love and person.
In this time of COVID-19
when so many of us are suffering,
help me, O Lord
not to be carried by feelings
and emotions of the Lenten Season;
give me the courage to see
beyond ordinary things,
to care more and share
even with the least that I have,
to find more reasons
to forgive and understand
most of all, to be fair and just with everyone.
Let me find my way back to you, Lord
in this time when everything and everyone I have
is quickly disappearing or have been gone or lost;
despite the face masks we wear,
let me look more into the eyes
of others to see your image and likeness;
let me wash my hands clean of evil and deceit
as I keep distance from occasions of sins
and most of all, let me empty myself of pride
to realize and experience again
my one and only, first true love is you,
alone, O dearest God.  Amen.
Photo by author, Pulilan bypass road in Bulacan, February 2020.

A real Lent in a time not so real

40 Shades of Lent by Fr. Nicanor F. Lalog II
Ash Wednesday, 17 February 2021
Joel 2:12-18   >><)))*>  2Corinthians 5:20-6:2  >><)))*>  Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
Photo by author, chapel at Franciscan Monastery at Mt. Nebo in Jordan overlooking the Promised Land or Holy Land, May 2019.

Today we begin our annual Lenten pilgrimage with Ash Wednesday in the very different situation and conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic now in its first full year. Although this may be the most unusual, both unreal and surreal Lent since the end of Second World War, this could also be our most real Lent so far.

Being real means getting into the very core of our very selves, focusing on the more essential that are invisible to the eyes. Since the popularity of social media and smart phones, life has become more of a big show than of living that we care more of lifestyles than life itself.

All three readings today invite us to get real, to confront our true selves, stop all pretensions by letting go of our many excuses and alibis. No more ifs and buts. Just our bare selves before God for tomorrow or later may be too late. St. Paul’s words perfectly express the challenge and beauty of Lent 2021:

Brothers and sisters: We are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.

2 Corinthians 5:20, 6:2

Lent is a journey into inner self 
to reach out to God through others.

The forty days of Lent are a journey characterized by three important acts so central not only to Christianity but also to the other two great faiths of the world, Judaism and Islam. These are fasting, prayer and alms giving. Through these acts, we journey back into our very selves in order to reach out to God through others.

And we start by cleansing our very selves through the putting of dry ashes on the crown of our head instead of the more usual imposition on forehead to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The use of ashes as an outward sign of our inner cleansing beautifully tells us of its being natural cleansing agents long before the invention of chemical solutions. As such, being closest to earth, ashes remind us so well of our mortality, “for dust thou art and unto dust shall you return”!

However, though we are all marked for death as the ashes signify, they are blessed at the start of today’s Mass to remind us too that we die in Jesus Christ because ultimately, we return to God who is our true origin and end.

Hence, the need to cleanse our very selves by emptying ourselves of all the dirt and filth of sin inside that have marred our image and likeness in God. More than the outward appearance of putting ashes on our heads to signify cleansing is its internal significance of cleansing within by self- emptying through fasting.

In fasting, we cleanse our inner selves by denying ourselves not only of food but also of the usual things that fill us especially in this age of affluence and consumerism. Not only of material things but anything that make us forget God and others, that make us forget that we are mere mortals, weak and imperfect.

By fasting, we empty ourselves of our pride to be filled with Christ’s humility, justice, and love so we realize the world does not revolve around us. That we do not need so many “likes” and “followers” like in social media that inflate our ego but still leave us empty and lost.

And now is the perfect time, as St. Paul reminds us.

When we look back in this past year, so many of our relatives and friends have died, some alone, due to COVID-19 and other illnesses. The pandemic had grimly reminded us of life’s fragility and the need to be more loving always because we’ll never know if we can still be with everyone.

Fasting reminds us who and what are most essential in this life like God, life, and loved ones. Not likes or followers, luxuries, money, fame, or food.

In Tagalog, the word for meat is “laman”; to fast and go without meat literally means “walang laman” which also means “empty”!

When we fast and become empty, then we create space for God and for others.

That is why it is easier to pray and be one with God in meditation and contemplation when our stomach and senses are empty because we become more sensitive to his presence in Jesus. Silence in itself is a kind of fasting, the very key to any form of prayer.

Who needs to look gloomy when fasting when we are filled with the most wonderful and essential in this life who is God as Jesus tells us in the gospel, “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites” (Mt.6:16).

In the same manner, whatever we save in our fasting, whatever we deny ourselves, we give and share with others in alms giving. Try opening your Facebook. What fills up your page? Your selfies? Your me-time? Your work and errands? Whatever fills your FB page, most often it always gratifies you for better and for worse. And yes, of course, they all indicate how glamorous and fabulous is your life.

This Lent 2021, so many people have lost their jobs. So many are struggling to make ends meet. Others’ sufferings have become more unbearable not only with financial difficulties but simply due to difficult conditions traveling to undergo chemotherapy or dialysis.

Life has been so unreal, even surreal for all of us since last year. And God is the one most sad of all in what we have been going through in this pandemic. But he cannot do anything for us because we still rely so much with our very selves, with our science and technology that all feed on to our pride and selfishness. Every day we hear of news of all kinds of abuses and lack of kindness going on, even among states and governments in the allocation of vaccines.

The pandemic is not purely medical and biological in nature but something spiritual.

Now, more than ever, is the Prophet Joel’s call more true:

Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning. Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God. For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment.

Joel 2:12-13

If there is anyone who wishes this pandemic to end so we can see and be near with each other without any fear of getting sick, of dying, that must be God. Like St. Paul, let us implore everyone to be reconciled with God right in our hearts by taking our fasting, praying, and alms giving seriously. Amen.

We are the master of the world but God remains our Master

The Lord Is My Chef Breakfast Recipe for the Soul
Wednesday, Memorial of St. Scholastica, Virgin, 10 February 2021
Genesis 2:4-9, 15-17     >><)))*>  +  >><)))*>  +  >><)))*>     Mark 7:14-23
Photo by author, Camp John Hay, August 2019.

Praise and glory to you, God our loving Father and Creator of heaven and earth. Yes, we may be so small in this vast universe but it is in our smallness you have made us so great by creating us at the center of all your creation, the master of our world!

the Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being. Then the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and he placed there the man whom he had formed. The Lord God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it. The Lord God gave man this order: “You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. From that tree you shall not eat; the moment you eat from it you are surely doomed to die.”

Genesis 2:7-8, 15-17

Forgive us, dear God when we always forget that our freedom is never absolute; that from the beginning there has always been exception in doing everything.

Yes, we are the master of our world but YOU remain our Master; hence, the primary task of keeping this relationship with you always intact, always maintained, always whole and never separated from you.

From this relationship flows everything that is beautiful in your creation, O God: from each one of us who is a microcosm of the universe, a paradise within with all the gifts and abilities to become according to your plan and, on to the whole world you have given to us as a gift we must take care and nurture by responsibly enjoying it, neither harming nor destroying it.

Photo by author, Petra at Jordan, May 2019.

Alas, like what Jesus reminds us today in the gospel, we have defiled our inner selves with evil and sins so that from our hearts come unclean thoughts and actions.

Though we may no longer have those issues of unclean food like during your time, dear Jesus, we remain focus on so many trivial things that we ignore the real evils right in our hearts.

Through the prayers of St. Scholastica, help us to consecrate ourselves to you, O God, to be pure and simple in our thoughts and ideals, words and actions that reflect your true beauty and majesty in simply being good and holy. Amen.

Everything begins in God

The Lord Is My Chef Sunday Recipe for the Soul
Fifth Week in Ordinary Time, Cycle B, 07 February 2021
Job 7:1-4, 6-7 >><}}}*> 1 Corinthians 9:16-19, 22-23 >><}}}*> Mark 1:29-39
Photo by author, January 2021.

Mark continues to show us a slice in the daily life and ministry of Jesus Christ. We have seen last week how everything began at the synagogue where Jesus preached and healed on a day of sabbath.

The Lord is clearly telling us that everything must begin and end in God. Always.

This Sunday we see a complete 24-hour look not only into the life and ministry of Jesus but most specially to his very person as the Christ, the Son of God as he continued his preaching while proclaiming his good news of salvation to everyone.

And to truly experience him and his gospel, we have to make that effort of meeting him.

On leaving the synagogue Jesus entered the house of Simon and Andrew with James and John. Simon’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever. They immediately told him about her. He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up. Then the fever left her and she waiting on them.

Mark 1:29-31

Day time with the Lord…

Photo by author, morning inside our parish church during last summer’s lockdown.

We all know by heart God’s third commandment to keep holy the sabbath day. This commandment was perfected in Jesus Christ when he rose again on Easter, the day after sabbath which is our Sunday celebration.

It is true that sabbath day is Saturday but when Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week, the early Christians who were all Jews shifted their day of worship to Sunday. Such shift was very remarkable, proving beyond doubt the truth of the Resurrection of Jesus for the Jewish followers of Christ to abandon their Saturday worship.

In Jesus Christ, we find sabbath not just a stop in work and everything but a return to God who is our life. Such is the centrality of God in our lives that sabbath is the day of the Lord because it is the only day without any other day at par with – walang katapat kasi walang katapat ang Diyos! See there are seven days in a week, an odd number because there is one day without any “partner day” like for example Monday-Tuesday, Wednesday-Thursday, Friday-Saturday.

Photo by author, parish altar one morning in November 2019.

Sabbath which is Sunday for us Christians is solely for the Lord!

The four disciples of Jesus must have known earlier of the fever of Simon’s mother-in-law; they must have been worried but they went along with Jesus to the synagogue to pray and worship God first, casting aside all their worries for they were with the Lord.

It was after coming from the synagogue, when Mark tells us how “they immediately told him about her” that they witnessed and experienced an outpouring of grace in their home and family.

That imagery of Jesus grasping the hand and raising her up is so rich in meaning that tells us how God helps those who help themselves.

Imagine how even if we do not pray daily nor celebrate Mass weekly yet God never fails to bless us every day. How much more if we come and meet him every Sunday!

Here we find how every true worship of God with the community extends to our families when we bring home Jesus if we are with him so we can immediately tell him our concerns in life. Jesus comes daily to us, always wanting to hold our hands and raise us up to be well and better than before like Simon’s mother-in-law but, are we willing to meet him especially in the Holy Eucharist?

In the first reading, we find Job crying to God, lamenting his many sufferings and the sad condition of life in general, something like what Qoheleth had written. It is not a cry of revolt by Job but more of a complaint coming from the heart of a faithful servant caught between despair and hope who finds life’s nothingness without God. Despite his losing all his children and workers in a day along with his properties not to mention his getting sick, Job never turned away from God and kept on calling to him in the silence of his heart from daytime to evening until the Lord heard him and blessed him fourfold.

When it was evening, after sunset, they brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons. The whole town was gathered at the door… Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. Simon those who were with him pursued him… He told them, “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.” So he went into their synagogues, preaching and driving out demons throughout the whole of Galilee.

Mark 1:32-33, 35-36, 38-39

Remaining in the Lord even in darkness…

Photo by author of seminarians meditating in silence after their evening prayers, November 2020.

It was still Saturday but sabbath day had already ended at 5PM (having started at 5PM of Friday) that people have started to come to Jesus to seek his healing from their sickness and possessions by evil spirits.

Darkness did not stop Jesus from serving the people despite the difficulties of seeing them, of being so tired and hungry at night, even sleepy. Likewise, darkness did not prevent Jesus communing with the Father by rising before dawn to go to a deserted place to pray alone. What a very beautiful image of Jesus as our Good Shepherd lovingly serving the sick and the poor and as our Eternal Priest making time to pray, ensuring prayer as center not only of his ministry but of his life.

According to recent studies, Filipinos rank as the highest users in the world of social media for the sixth straight year in a row, spending an average of more than four hours and 15 minutes daily (https://www.rappler.com/technology/internet-culture/hootsuite-we-are-social-2021-philippines-top-social-media-internet-usage)

That is 28 hours a week, meaning we lose one whole day or 24 hours weekly just for Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms! Not included are the hours spent watching television. How about time with God and with our loved ones?

Photo by Ms. Ria De Vera during our Christ the King procession, November 2020.

Please allow me now to be a little personal as this is also my last full week in this first parish I have served for nine years and seven months.

If there is one thing I have learned so well from here is the value and importance of less.

Since my ordination in 1998 until 2010, I have always been celebrating Masses in major parishes like the Malolos Cathedral, the Santissima Trinidad in Malolos (a pilgrimage parish), and the Parish and National Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Valenzuela. Every Mass, every sacrament there was really big time with large congregations coming.

Totally the opposite here in my first parish assignment under the beloved disciple of Jesus, St. John Evangelist. Small church building without a garage nor a patio in one small baranggay with about 12000 souls to care for.

Our Patron Saint, San Juan Apostol at Ebanghelista of Bagbaguin, Santa Maria, Bulacan.

My predecessors saw this as too small that they did not have daily Masses. But I felt in my prayers that is the only thing Jesus wanted me to do here: make him present in the daily Masses and other sacraments.

We started with just five people attending our daily Masses while Sundays were half-filled. Before COVID-19, we have increased attendees to our daily Masses to about 20 people and our Sunday celebrations have become almost seating capacity.

At first I felt sad and disappointed but the people here kept on telling me it is a miracle already that “so many people” were coming for the Masses. Slowly, I have come to accept our situation that that’s the way it is. And that is where I felt God blessing us so abundantly with our less!

Modesty aside, in the past nine years we have sent more children to receiving the Sacraments of Holy Communion and Confirmation (without any fees but with free snacks) since 1998 when this started as a quasi parish. We have almost baptized every adult person who have not yet received the sacrament too.

COVID-19 stopped everything, affecting our collections so bad but we just kept on serving and proclaiming Jesus with our daily Masses seen online, motorcade of the Blessed Sacrament every week, distribution of the Holy Communion every Sunday to those who attended our online Mass including through our innovative “drive-thru” Communion.

01 November 2020.

We never beg the people for donations but they all poured in, enabling us to continue helping the poor like helping them bury their dead, even renovate our church with the finest liturgical vessels and things!

One thing has become clear with me: always begin in God, keep him as our center in everything and all else follows.

Remember those days when you were centered in Christ; despite the problems and trials, we were never forsaken by the Lord. Even if we have lost some of our life’s battles, we have still emerged victorious because we have become stronger and fulfilled inside.

We all come and go, especially us priests but, our mission as disciples of Christ remains the same everywhere which is to make Jesus present, make God known to everyone like in the gospel today. This we can only accomplish when we remain one in him, totally free for him and free from other attachments to be free for all.

Like St. Paul, may we all strive especially us your priests to be “all things to all men” -omnia omnibus (1Cor.9:22) by being free to lovingly serve others especially the weak and the poor in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Photo by Mr. Red Santiago of his son praying in our parish, November 2019.