Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the LordYear B

Readings: Is 50:4-7; Phil 2:6-11; Mk 14:1-15:47
It was Palm Sunday, and the family's 6-year old son had to stay home from church because of strep throat. When the rest of the family returned home carrying palm branches, the little boy asked what they were for. His mother explained, "People held them over Jesus' head as he walked by." "Wouldn't you know it," the boy fumed. "The one Sunday I don't go to church, and Jesus shows up!  Yes, Jesus shows up on Palm Sunday morning. He makes a triumphal entry into Jerusalem. That entrance becomes prophetic: the one who enters the city in triumph is the same one who is led out of the city by jeering crowds to be crucified. That is what we celebrate and commemorate on Palm Sunday - the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. This is where Jesus will accomplish the Paschal mystery through his passion, death and resurrection. The Palm Sunday procession opens the Holy Week festivities towards Easter. The procession proclaims Jesus, who through his death returns into the glory of the Father. As we carry green branches and joyfully acclaim Jesus, we become part of the crowd accompanying Jesus on his prophetic entry into Jerusalem in order to pass from this world to the Father. We thus become part of the pilgrim people of God on their way to the New Jerusalem. There are two sides of the Palm Sunday liturgy: the joyful mystery and the sorrowful mystery. There is the joyful entry into Jerusalem and the immanent passion and death on the cross. The one who is joyfully acclaimed is the same one who is soon to be condemned by the crowd to die on the cross for our sins. Thus Jesus becomes a perfect model of what our journey of faith must finally involve - being humiliated, persecuted to the point of accepting death on the cross, so that God may raise us up on the last day.

The Passion of our Lord according to St. Mark offers us an opportunity to be with Christ on the way of the cross, starting at the garden of Gethsemani. Yet here at Gethsemani we find those who should have watched with Christ, the disciples asleep, overcome by human weakness. They too run away on seeing Jesus arrested. They all leave Jesus completely abandoned, isolated, tormented and ridiculed as a king. Even at the cross the disciples keep their distance, afraid, and Christ seems to have been abandoned by everybody even his own Father. This isolation is dramatized by the great silence of Jesus throughout the passion story except a few words on the cross. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me". What message do we take home on this Passion Sunday of the Lord? 1) The greatest drama of our faith today is the ease with which Christ is abandoned suffering on the cross and in the lives of so many people. 2) Just as the joyful entrance into Jerusalem soon ends into the sorrowful mystery of the Lord’s passion, we too are caught up in that mystery as we accompany Jesus in his final hours of suffering. Discipleship is never without the passion and the Cross. Therefore, we must not run away from the scene like the disciples. Rather, we must remain with our Lord, isolated and abandoned, which is the central point of Mark’s account of the passion.

©2018 John S. Mbinda

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Fifth Sunday of Lent Year B: Option A

Readings: Ez 37: 12-14; Rom 8:8-11; Jn 11:1-45

Life and death; hope and despair are the key phrases that sum up the message of this Sunday. All three readings this Sunday lead us to meet Jesus who is not only the water of life and the light of the world, but also the resurrection and the life. It is around this central theme of our faith in Jesus as the resurrection and life, that the Church celebrates the third Scrutiny with those preparing for the Easter Sacraments. In the prayer over the candidates this Sunday, the celebrant says these words: "Free from the grasp of death those who await your life-giving sacraments, and deliver them from the spirit of corruption." The purpose of the third scrutiny is to help the elect and candidates to deepen their faith in Christ who is the life and the resurrection. The readings therefore provide a sharp contrast between life and death; hope and despair. They also remind us of real life experiences of the destructive forces of death in real families. We are reminded of the pain of death of loved ones faced by millions of people all over the world everyday. The prophet Ezekiel in the first reading urges the devastated nation of Israel to look beyond the destruction of Jerusalem to a new future, when God’s Spirit will restore Israel. If you are facing grief or strife in the family, here is a message for you. The prophet Ezekiel offers hope for those who believe in the God of life. You and I have many times encountered the shattering effects of death in the family as I did just one year before my ordination to priesthood, when I suddenly lost my dad in a tragic automobile accident in which 3 others died with him in 1966.

The Gospel opens with the announcement that Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, is ill. Jesus’ immediate response is that this illness will not result in the death of Lazarus, but that it will be an occasion for God’s glory to be revealed to all, and that the Son may also be glorified. Even though Jesus had a deep love for Lazarus and his sisters, he remains in the same place for another two days. By the time Jesus arrives, Lazarus is already dead for four days. The dramatic episode of the raising Lazarus to life is a reminder that Jesus is the source of life; he is the life and the resurrection. Just as in any funeral we have witnessed, there are tears in this story too. There are tears in the eyes of Mary and Martha as they tell Jesus, that if he had been there, their brother would not have died. The whole account is a beautiful catechesis that Jesus offers as the episode develops. On meeting Jesus, Martha says: “If you had been here, Lord, my brother would not have died.” “Your brother will rise to life,” says Jesus. “Yes, I know that he will rise again on the last day,” replies Martha, reflecting on Jewish belief of life after death. Jesus uses the occasion to lead the two women through a gradual revelation of who he is: "I am the resurrection and the life. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die". The whole episode is a powerful revelation of who Jesus is from his absolute control over life and death. In other words, Jesus has the power to transform death into life; to bring hope in the midst of despair; and joy out of grief. What message do we take home this Sunday? 1) Like Martha and Mary we are led to believe that Jesus is the resurrection and source of life that he promises to anyone who believes in him; 2) We are led to strengthen our faith in the life after death. The first reading reminds us that the Lord will transform death into life for those who believe in the God of life. 3) The entire liturgy celebrates the God of life, who in Jesus Christ conquers death that we may have life.

©2018 John S. Mbinda

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Fourth Sunday of Lent Year B: Option Year A

Readings: 1 Sam 16:1,6-7,10-13; Eph. 5:8-14; Jn 9:1-41

Light and darkness, sight and blindness are the contrasting images that help to focus of the central message of this Sunday. The central message is that Christ heals our spiritual blindness in our Baptism and makes us witnesses of the truth. That is the meaning of the second Scrutiny celebrated this Sunday for those preparing for the Easter Sacraments. The celebrant prays over the Candidates and anoints them with Holy Oil in a rite of exorcism that symbolically restores their spiritual sight so that they begin to see Jesus and to follow him like the man born blind in the Gospel. The purpose of the second scrutiny is to symbolically restore the spiritual sight of the catechumens, so that they can see Jesus and follow him. For those already Baptized, Christ renews our vision as it were from 10/10 to 20/20 vision, so that we can begin to see as God sees (cf. 1 Sam 16:7). The verse before the Gospel introduces the central point of our celebration. "I am the light of the world, anyone who follows me will have the light of life" (John 8:12). The entire liturgy therefore celebrates the mystery of Christ - the light of the world; the light that dispels the darkness of our minds and our hearts. We celebrate Christ who heals our spiritual blindness. The three readings therefore help us to see a sharp contrast between light and darkness; spiritual sight and spiritual blindness. In the first reading, Samuel struggles as it were in darkness, trying to find a king, but can only succeed to find the young David when he begins to see as God sees. In the second reading, Paul reminds us that we were once darkness, but now because of our Baptism we are light in the Lord. We are therefore challenged to be children of the light, for the effects of the light are seen in goodness, in right living and in truth.

The story of the man born blind in the Gospel is not so much about the man being healed, but about seeing as God sees. Here we meet a blind man with spiritual sight as compared to the intellectual Pharisees who are spiritually blind. The Gospel reminds us that our Baptism illuminates us to see and embrace God’s vision, life, goodness and truth. Our Baptism commits us to be bearers of the truth and to confront the spiritual blindness of the world with the truth. The passage clearly contrasts light and darkness, faith and the refusal to accept the truth. The passage leads to a controversy with the Pharisees. Because they are in the darkness of their own prejudice, they refuse to recognize Jesus as the messiah; they refuse to acknowledge that Jesus has the power to heal the blind man. The blind man gives Jesus the opportunity to show forth once again his own true divine identity for all to see and believe. In the story, Jesus not only gives the blind man his sight, physical light, but he also gives him the light of faith – spiritual sight. When Jesus asks the blind man if he knows the Son of Man, he says, “Who is he sir, that I may believe in him?” Jesus says to him, “You have seen him, the one speaking with you is he.” The man then says, “I do believe, Lord.” On the other hand, the Pharisees, because of their prejudice, are totally blind to Christ and even attribute his miracle to Satan. The story is not simply about the healing of the man born blind and the Pharisee refusing to accept the power of Christ to perform such a miracle. Rather, the story is about you and me in moments of our own spiritual blindness and darkness. In the selfishness of our hearts; in our inclinations for pleasure; in our material covetousness, we become spiritually blind and lose our spiritual sight. The message we take home is threefold: 1) In baptism, Christ has healed our spiritual blindness and given us the light of faith, so that, like the healed blind man, we may proclaim Christ boldly despite the opposition from those still in darkness. 2) Just as the blind man after being healed by Jesus began to witness to Jesus Christ, we too are challenged to spread the light of Christ wherever we are, even in times of opposition. 3) Just as in the Gospel story, we must not allow dishonesty and the distortion of the truth to dim our light, because Christ is our Light.

©2018 John S. Mbinda

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Third Sunday of Lent Year B

Readings: Exodus 17:3-7; Romans 5:1-2,5-8; John 4:5-42 (from Year A)

Self-scrutiny, thirsting for the water of life and conversion are some of the words that help us to focus of the message of this Sunday. The readings focus on the symbolism of water, leading us from self-scrutiny to the realization of our own thirst for God. The readings help to connect with the first of three Scrutinies celebrated this Sunday with those elected for Baptism on the First Sunday of Lent. The Scrutinies are a time of soul-searching and repentance during which the candidates for Baptism and us too seek to uncover all that is weak, defective or sinful in our lives. They also provide an occasion to strengthen our positive qualities. In the ancient Church, the Scrutinies were moments for assessing the catechumens before they were judged worthy for Baptism on Easter Vigil. In this context, we look closely at the readings of this Sunday. The symbolism of water is very central in all three readings. In the Exodus story, the Israelites complain of being too thirsty, and Moses is instructed by God to strike a rock in order to get water for them to drink. Even after abundant water gushes forth from the rock, they continue to grumble. Though they doubt the Lord, God in his compassion continues to lead them towards conversion. Paul in the second reading also speaks about God’s love that has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit in Baptism. This outpouring of the Holy Spirit is compared to a real drinking of the Spirit that quenches our spiritual thirst.

In the Gospel, Jesus is at Jacob's well seated there in the mid-day sun and he is thirsty. A Samaritan woman arrives to draw water. Jesus asks the woman for some water to drink, but his intention is to use water as talking point in order to lead her to discover her own spiritual thirst; her need for conversion; her need to turn around towards God. Jesus knows that she has quite a reputation in her village, having been married five times and living with a sixth man! In the course of an interesting dialogue, Jesus who is thirsty for her conversion gradually leads her to scrutinize herself, but goes further to tell her about her secret life. Though embarrassed at Jesus’ scrutiny and insight into her life, she is led gradually first to confess that she knows that the Messiah – the Christ is coming, and when he comes he will tell us everything. At that point, Jesus reveals his true identity to her. “I who am speaking to you... I am he”. She is first surprised and then becomes completely converted and accepts the water of life that Jesus offers to quench her spiritual thirst. This woman who first came for a jug of water, now puts the jug down and becomes a disciple sent to her village where she tells her people: “Come and see”, come and see the person who has changed my life! So she goes home not only cleansed but also refreshed after drinking the life-giving water that only Jesus can give. As we celebrate the first of three Scrutinies with the candidates for Baptism, the readings invite us too to scrutinize ourselves and so discover our spiritual thirst for the water of life before we become spiritually dehydrated. The message we take home this Sunday may be summed up in three points: 1) Like the Samaritan woman, this too is our day of Scrutiny and conversion. 2) We are led from discovering our spiritual thirst, to recognizing our thirst for God's mercy. 3) Just as the Samaritan woman is converted and discovers her vocation as a disciple of Jesus to her village, we too are called to experience new life in Christ, and sent to be witnesses of Jesus Christ, so that many others may come to believe in Jesus Christ who has changed our lives. 

©2018 John S. Mbinda

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Second Sunday of Lent Year B Revised

Readings: Gen 22:1-2,9,10-13,18-18; Rm 8:31-34; Mk 9:2-10

Are you ready to follow Jesus this Lenten Season? Do you trust Him to guide you? These are the two basic questions that Jesus is asking you and me today. But first a story. A certain man was climbing a mountain when he suddenly noticed a deep cliff on the side of the mountain. He stopped to look at it and it was just amazing. As he leaned over to take a picture he fell. While going down the cliff, he miraculously got hold of a tree limb. He hung there in panic not knowing how he would get back. He then began to pray asking God to help him, but still in panic he shouted, “Is anyone up there?’  He heard a voice tell him, “yes, I am here, I heard your prayer. Now let go and I will catch you!” The man hesitated a little and then said, “Is there anyone else up there?”

I tell this story because the readings confront us with seemingly irrational demands of God to let go and surrender ourselves or what we hold dear to Him. The drama of Abraham accepting to sacrifice his only son Isaac, illustrates this point. The story leads us to become aware that God asks us to give up the things we value most during this Lenten season. Lent is an excellent season to examine those things we hold dear, and see the extent to which we are willing or unwilling to let go. Abraham's readiness to sacrifice his only Isaac is an excellent example self-surrender. The episode gives us an idea of the cost, as well as the rewards of one's surrender. There is suffering involved, but there are many blessings from God. "Because you have not refused me your son, your only son, I will shower blessings on you…".

Paul in the second reading refers to the First Reading to show the paradox of God's irrational demands on us; a God who, like Abraham, offers his only Son. "Since God did not spare his Son…we may be certain…that He will not refuse anything He can give". Both the story of Abraham and Paul's catechesis invite us to let our fears go, trust God and surrender ourselves, no matter how much we must give up. The Gospel features the dramatic episode of the transfiguration that sets the stage for Jesus’ prediction of his suffering, death and resurrection. That prediction in Mark is the beginning of the intensifying confrontation between Jesus and the religious leaders, eventually leading to his passion, death and resurrection.

The good news in the readings may be summed up as follows:
1) God surrenders his only Son, just as Abraham does in the first reading;
2) Jesus challenges us to trust and let go, no matter the cost, because there is no one else up there!
3) The readings challenge us to take a moment to reflect on what it is that you need to let go in order to follow Jesus more closely this Lent.

©John S. Mbinda