Sunday, February 18, 2018

Lenten Reflections: The Scriptures and Our World

    While attending Mass on Ash Wednesday I remembered about these reflections I had written back in 2006 when I used to teach Religious Education at St. Timothy's Catholic Parish in Southern California. When it comes to writing, I'm kind of a perfectionist, and therefore needed to do some revisions and corrections. Some other amendments were required by the changes not only in personal circumstances but also, and most blatantly, by the overall turn for the worse that is evidenced by the present political situation.

    There is one clarification I want to make, though. The selfie I'm posting with the ashes on my forehead is from four days ago. No, I don't look twelve years older now. The pic is new.

    No more preambles. Let's get started, and God bless you all.

    Lent is a time when we are supposed to reflect more profoundly upon Jesus’ endless love for us, about His horrendous death for our redemption, about what He expects from us—not for Himself, but for each other’s sake, as He comes to us in the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, the immigrant, the abandoned, the stigmatized, the sick, the homeless.

    These brief reflections are not intended to be deep theological comments, but simply some practical applications of Lenten Gospel readings to our daily lives.  That's something I was taught from early childhood-and something I always found to be entirely true. No matter what our situation, dilemma, concern, or endeavor may be, we can always look for answers in the Bible—and we can be sure that the reply, the solution, the comfort, the idea we needed to get, find, or experience will be there for us. That's what my family taught me and it always worked for me. It's easier and simpler than you think. That's why I feel I should show others what was always shown to me. 

    One beautiful, well-known passage that we hear on Ash Wednesday is from Matthew 6;2-4, when Jesus says,
    “When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”

    Far from living in a totally careless society as the media sometimes portrays it, most people these days are involved in charity in one way or another, whether as sponsors or as volunteers—or both.  Most of us truly enjoy devoting our time to community service, and those of us who are parents tend to beam with happiness when our children cherish every opportunity to help others.  I will not deny that I have always obsessively pursued my kids first with my camera and then with my cell phone on camera every served those less fortunate--mostly when my older children were still young enough for me to volunteer with them.  And, beyond the photo albums, I loved, and still love, to enlarge, frame, and hang some of those pictures, and have the walls bulging with them. I won't say how many copies of a local paper I'd  buy every time my kids were featured in it because of their volunteerism.  And society at large is not free from that "showing off" fever.  Besides the common appreciation certificates and community service awards, sponsors are frequently offered plaques displaying, at least within a certain range, the size of the donation made.  In effect, sponsors are given different titles, or ranking, depending upon the magnitude of their gift. That's how people can become bronze, silver, gold, or platinum donors.

    Whereas there is nothing wrong with the natural pride of having done something good, or even with the human expectation of some earthly recognition, we tend to overdo it.  When taking pictures, are we careful not to invade the privacy of the recipients?  Do we really treat them as our equals?  There is nothing wrong in feeling the internal pleasure of having done something for someone in need,  in taking some discreet pictures of one’s own children while volunteering, in including community service as part of our resumes, or in honoring those who have given beyond expectation.  But frequently we go over the limits.  One “thing” is to wear a T-shirt showing our participation in a walk or other fundraising event, and another one is to go around with a pin saying in full words something like, "I helped a sick child today." 

    Shouldn’t we remember that charity is an act of love, as opposed to an elegant, upscale way of satisfying our own ego?   Perhaps we should read St. Matthew’s passage a little more often.

    Another extremely important Lenten Gospel reading is the one, during the first Sunday of Lent, about the devil trying to tempt Jesus. To each temptation, Jesus replies with quotations from the Old Testament. As Fr. Jim Rafferty pointed out in his homily in 2006, that reading from Mathew 4; 1-11 clearly shows, like numberless others, the close inter-relationship between the Old and the New Testaments.   He also reminded us that the three different temptations are about humans’ main weaknesses, namely for the carnal, or mundane pleasures, for prestige, and for money and power.  Jesus resists temptation and shows us how we should resist temptation as well.

    But I will only emphasize what, to me, is the most forceful condemnation of foolish risks.  My Mother, now with God. always used to say that human life is too precious and too sacred to risk it for the sake of a sports stunt or competition.  She would point out, and repeat, that, notwithstanding his very athletic nature,  St. John Paul II, then Pope John Paul II, was openly against violent and dangerous sports. 

    Notwithstanding my words, and trying to make up for my far from optimal coordination,  I think I rode all roller coasters geographically available. I bungee jumped nine times, and even skydived once. It was a tandem jump, where I was just harnessed to my instructor.  Yet, I find in the second temptation, or, actually, in Jesus’ reply thereto, the strongest condemnation of unnecessary risks.  In effect, the devil took Jesus to a temple, made Him stand on a high parapet, and challenged Him to throw Himself down, counting that God would send His angels to hold and protect Him.  Jesus replied, “Again it is written, You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” (Matthew 4;7).

    That is something of which all young people should be reminded of before participating in any activity with the peer group.  How many times one classmate, playmate, or teammate dares another do something unnecessarily risky, or laughs at someone who, due to lesser practice or lesser ability, is unwilling to try a certain activity or stunt?  How many times the whole group makes fun of a boy or girl who lacks the necessary training, skill, or, simply, desire, to climb on, jump from, or jump over something? 

    Should that child risk breaking their head only to please so-called “friends” who do not seem to care about their safety, feelings, and self-esteem?  Shouldn’t that child remember that nobody is supposed to put God to the test?  Let’s think about it for a moment.  We know that God’s tender loving care for all and each one of us humans is unlimited.  We know that He can, and does, listen to absolutely all the countless requests for protection that He may receive every second.  Yet, isn’t it to be a little too arrogant to expect God to protect us while doing something that we simply want to do in order to please a member of the peer group?  We should rather let God protect those who are confronting danger for the sake of another, as when saving someone, as well as those who find themselves confronted by danger either through no fault of their own or due to mistake, inadvertence, or even some degree of fault without any desire for anything to happen. I'm talking about everyday occurrences, such as forgetting to lock the door before going to bed, failing to notice a stop sign, or speeding a little because of being late for work.  The person didn't expect a burglar to come in or to get into a collision. It is only natural to ask God for protection if we hear footsteps in the middle of the night or see another vehicle bearing down on us. It is totally true that, no matter what, no request from any of us is annoying to God. His love is endless and He does care about each and all of us. Yet, why to  “overburden” Him with claims for protection if we voluntarily engage in an activity that we could have avoided altogether?  Moreover, by doing what some group members are trying to make us do, would we be fulfilling their expectations?  Or would we be just giving them the pleasure of laughing at us? Would those frienemies be truly happy for us if we did it?  Surely not.  All they are looking for is some fun—and we shouldn't feed into that. We shouldn't provide them with the unhealthy amusement they're looking for.

    Nowadays, coaches appear to expect more and more—and even more, and so does society at large.  It looks like there is no limit to new roller coaster designs, skate park features, extreme sports ideas, and increasingly fancier gymnastic stunts.  The issue is that not everybody can keep up with the pace. In reality, the vast majority of us cannot.  Is it worthwhile to risk injury or death?  Shouldn't we think that there are lots of other things that we are still supposed to accomplish during our journey on this earth?  Do we really want to shorten that journey? Don't we want to be able to see some more of our most cherished dreams come true?

    Jesus had both the infinite courage and infinite love to go through unimaginable suffering when He died for us on the Cross—but He did it for a reason.  Yet, He did not throw Himself down the temple’s wall to please Satan. 
    When feeling that we must do something risky, even though our heart is racing, our hands are sweaty, and our airways appear to be closing to the point of choking, we should stop for a second and, before doing anything foolish, think:  Should Jesus have thrown Himself down the parapet of the temple?
    Another key passage of total application to our times is the reading from John 4;5-42, on the third Sunday of Lent.   In those times, Jews used to consider Samaritan women to be ritually impure.  They were forbidden to drink from any cup that had been handled by a woman from Samaria.  Yet, defying the unfair societal laws of His days, Jesus not only approaches a Samaritan woman but also asks her for a drink—something that was in violation of the norms of His time.   The woman herself was surprised and asked Jesus, “ ‘How can You, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?’ – For Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans.”   

    Besides being the passage that institutionalizes Jesus’ ministry to the Gentiles, it is also one of the key passages that show His condemnation of racism and discrimination in any way, shape, or form. 

    Back in 2006 when I wrote these reflections, I said that even if racism seemed to be much less of a problem at the time, still there were many subtle ways in which prejudice still lingered around.  Then I'd have never imagined that twelve years later racism would be on the rise again.  Although total eradication would not be possible, it was not foreseeable that it'd become open and rampant again.

    Twelve years ago I wrote that nobody would openly question the societal propriety of equality—and never imagined that twelve years later, the president of a leading nation could use obscene language to refer to other countries, could identify immigrants with criminals and mock the disabled--and could still remain in office.

    At the time when I wrote these reflections, I didn't think that society would arrive to be openly and bluntly racist again.  As regrettable as those attitudes are, the ones I described then seemed to be nothing by comparison to what is happening today.  The examples I gave twelve years ago were of people keeping on making hurtful comments about appearances, backgrounds, accents, disability, and occupational status.  I mentioned that the boss was introduced by their first and last name, whereas a secretary was still introduced only by their first name.  I mentioned that still many citizens by birth did not allow foreigners to assimilate--even if those foreigners were citizens as well.  Yet, once again, then I said that those racist overtones were not openly expressed, but in subtle, insidious ways, quite often even disguised as efforts to protect those foreigners and their different heritages.  Then I said that it was done by still adhering to obsolete stereotypes--as if everyone from a certain nationality necessarily had to like a certain kind of food or enjoy a certain kind of music.  Then I said that it was done by many tuning their ears to immediately perceive the slightest foreign or even regional accent.  I also pointed out that amongst children and teenagers it appeared to be regarded as socially incorrect to be a new or less popular student--because all that seemed to matter was to be part of the “cool” group.  What was so 'cool' about that?  Wouldn’t 'cruel' be a better word?   Would it be even cooler to have the courage to defy those obsolete rules as Jesus defied the unfair laws of His time?  Wouldn't it be cooler to do what Jesus expects us to do? 

    Concerning that "cool" stuff, there is one last point I want to make. It is from the very account of the Passion, which we will hear on Palm Sunday (Mark 14; 1-15; 47).  I will not address the excruciating pain Jesus underwent for us, as he got beaten up, crowned with thorns, forced to carry His own cross, had His hands and feet pierced by nails, and was crucified.  We all know how infinitely He loved us—and how infinitely He loves each one of us every day of our lives.  
    All I want to address is the fact that the multitudes had shouted against Him, had claimed for Him to be crucified.  They had witnessed His miracles and had marveled at them.  They had been thankful to Him for His mercy.  They knew He had resurrected the dead, had given sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf.  They knew He had made the paralytic walk.  Yet, at one point, they were all against Him.  That should help us question the validity of popularity, peer acceptance, or a positive media image.  Are those actual measures of our own worth?  Do we need others to like us, to give us their approval, for us to know what our infinite value is?  Is the most popular classmate the best, the kindest, the nicest one?  Haven’t you noticed that those who are not among the popular crowd are more likely to have better spiritual and moral qualities--and perhaps even better skills?   The only skill they may not have is the ability to manipulate others and take advantage of them. Yet--is that ability a true skill?

    Moreover, how many saints have been ridiculed, vilified, defamed, tortured, and killed by their contemporaries?  Needless to say, it's okay, and only human, to want others to like us. It's all right to be happy when they do.  The important “thing” is never to do anything we don’t want to do only in order to get someone’s approval. It's important to never base our self-image on popularity among the peer group or on a club or team membership.  It's important to never allow an inappropriate, unkind, nasty comment that someone else may make to cast any doubts about our own value, dignity, and worth.   

    I wish you all the opportunity to find reconciliation and peace of mind during this Lenten time so as to rejoice with Jesus on Easter and always.

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