Friday, March 27, 2015

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord Year B

Readings: Is 50:4-7; Phil 2:6-11; Mk 14:1-15:47

The Joyful mysteries that blend into the Sorrowful Mysteries, is a phrase that captures best what we celebrate today. On Palm Sunday morning, a 6-year old boy had a bad strep throat, and the family decided that he would stay in bed while the rest of the family went for the Palm Sunday Mass. When the family returned home carrying their palm branches, the boy asked what they were for. His mother explained that people held them over Jesus’ head as he walked by. “Wouldn’t you know it” the boy fumed. “The one Sunday I miss Church, and Jesus shows up!’ Yes, on Palm Sunday Jesus shows up in a dramatic event that opens the Holy Week festivities towards Easter, the prelude to the Holy Triduum. There are three parts in today’s celebration that highlight what we celebrate on Palm Sunday:

First we have the blessing of the palms in the beginning and the solemn procession. The blessing ritual simply makes sacred the natural symbols of palms to assume a religious significance. The celebrant prays, “bless these branches and make them holy.” That also explains the advance choice of a young colt of a donkey that had never been broken which could then be used for religious purposes. Once broken, such an animal would be unclean.

The second part, the procession: the triumphal entry into Jerusalem that blends with the solemn entrance process today, is a prophetic event. The Gospel proclaimed before the process reminds us of the prophecy. We hear that "This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: ‘Say to the Daughter of Zion, 'See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.'” The event therefore was not by chance. It was highly symbolic. The Gospel of Matthew refers to Isaiah 62:11 and Zechariah 9:9 for that prophecy. Jesus chooses to enter the city 4 days before the Passover. Crowds are moving towards the city. As Jesus nears the city gates, more crowds join in and blend into the acclamation. The use of the donkey is also deliberate by Jesus as it was symbolic because it was mounted by kings in processions in times of peace. In this first part of today’s liturgy, Jesus wants to communicate the fulfillment of a prophecy: that he is the promised peace-loving and gentle king who has now come. He is greeted with a well known pilgrim song - psalm 118 “Hosanna (O Lord, give salvation) son of David. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” That was an acclamation to the one who comes to bring salvation from the hands of the Romans, pointing to salvation from everything that oppresses human beings – above all sin. We therefore celebrate prophetically the triumph of Jesus over sin through his death and resurrection that becomes a reality in the Paschal Mystery of Christ.

The third part of Palm Sunday, the Liturgy of the Word, plunges us into the Sorrowful Mysteries of Christ in his Passion and Death. 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 of Mark, except a few words on the cross. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me". The message we take home on this Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord is threefold: 1) the passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ touches us deeply.  2) It moves us to repentance, and prepares us to follow the example of Jesus in which he completely lets go and humbles himself to the point of “assuming the condition of a slave, even accepting death, death on the Cross” for our salvation. 3) Palm Sunday points beyond Good Friday to the resurrection, but reminds us that there can be no resurrection without Good Friday; no Easter joy without entering through the Passion and death of Our Lord, in order to rise with Him on Easter Vigil.

©2015 John S. Mbinda

Friday, March 20, 2015

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 words that sum up the message of this Sunday. All three readings this Sunday lead us to meet Jesus who is the resurrection and the life. It is around this central theme, that the Church celebrates the third Scrutiny with those preparing for the Easter Sacraments. In the prayer over the candidates this Sunday, the presider 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 readings 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 faced by millions of people every day all over the world. 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, there is good news for you. The prophet Ezekiel prophesies 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 highway accident in which 3 others died with him in 1966.

In the perspective of stewardship, the episode of the raising of Lazarus to life offers three challenges. The first challenge is the grace of initiative to respond to God’s grace. At times when we are spiritually dead, we need someone to roll away the stone that blocks the door of faith and trust, so that we can begin to be alive again and breathe the fresh air of God’s grace. Indeed we are our sister’s and brother’s keepers; we are stewards of our brothers and sisters. It is a sin of omission to see your brother or sister spiritually dead (in a state of sin) and choose to do nothing. Rolling away the stone that keeps such persons in the tomb is bold evangelization – the fourth sign of a dynamic Catholic. The second challenge is listening to God calling us and inviting us to come out of the tomb. Some people just prefer to remain in their sleep. We need to wake up. Anthony DeMelo sums up this point beautifully. “Spirituality means waking up. Most people, even though they don't know it, are asleep. They're born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed children in their sleep, they die in their sleep without ever waking up!” Responding to the voice of Jesus calling us to come out of our tombs leads us to be the best version of ourselves and become God’s instruments of transforming others by waking them up from their slumber of sloth to life again. “Transforming people one at a time is at the heart of God’s plan for the world.” (Matthew Kelly) The third challenge is the imperative of “untying and letting others go!” This is a powerful image of stewardship. Being raised from the dead; from our spiritual slumber is not enough. Imagine if someone had not challenged us to wake up from our spiritual slumber! We would still be lying there in the burial clothes around our body unable to untie ourselves. We need stewards, who care about us; who clean our wounds, bandage them and care for us until we recover from the shock of being robbed of God’s grace, beaten up and left on the roadside to die! The message of this Sunday may be summed up in a few points. 1) Stewardship challenges us to roll the stone away for someone this week; 2) It also challenges us to help others hear the voice of Jesus calling; 3) It further challenges us to help to untie those still in bondage by sharing with them the best way to live so they can be free and be the best version of themselves.  That is evangelization, the fourth sign of a dynamic Catholic. Be bold, be Catholic, be a dynamic Catholic!  

©2015 John S. Mbinda

Friday, March 13, 2015

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 key message is that Christ transforms our spiritual blindness in 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 second scrutiny symbolically restores the spiritual sight of the catechumens, so that they can see Jesus and follow him. For those already Baptized, Christ transforms 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 who heals our spiritual blindness. The three readings help 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 light are seen in goodness, right living and 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 transforms us to see and embrace God’s vision, mission and purpose. Our Baptism commits us to be faithful 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 gospel story, Jesus not only gives the blind man his sight, physical light, but he also gives him the light of faith – spiritual sight. Furthermore, Jesus leads the blind man to a confession of faith by asking him if he knows the Son of Man. The blind man responds, “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 gospel story is also about you and me in moments of our own spiritual blindness and darkness. In our own human weakness, vices take hold of us and we become spiritually blind. The message we take home this Sunday is threefold: 1) Christ has transformed our spiritual blindness and given us the light of faith, so we may proclaim Christ boldly despite opposition from those still in darkness. 2) As disciples and stewards we are challenged to be the light of Christ wherever we are, even in times of opposition. 3) Just as in the Gospel story, we must not allow relativism and the distortion of the truth to dim our light, because Christ is our Light.

©2015 John S. Mbinda

Friday, March 6, 2015

Third Sunday of Lent Year A, Scrutinies

Readings: Exodus 17:3-7; Romans 5:1-2,5-8; John 4:5-42

The readings this Sunday focus on Evangelization, the fourth sign of a dynamic Catholic. Thirst and water, spiritual dehydration and self-scrutiny, are the metaphors that focus on the central message of this Sunday. If you are thirsting for spiritual nourishment, there is good news for you this Sunday. The readings focus on the symbolism of thirst and water, leading us to self-scrutiny and our need for spiritual nourishment. 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. The symbolism of thirst and water is very central in all three readings. In the Exodus story, the Israelites are in the open desert. They are too thirsty and begin to complain to Moses who is instructed by God to strike a rock in order to get water for them to drink. If you have ever experienced dehydration, you know how deadly it can be. Almost 300 people in the US die annually of dehydration. 2.2 million children die of dehydration annually in the world. Body drought that causes “brain fog” is the strongest type of stress and depression. Spiritual dehydration is similarly fatal. Without spiritual nourishment we simply deteriorate from weakness to weakness until we die of sin spiritually.

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 who sees her spiritual drought asks the woman for some water to drink, but his intention is to use water to lead her to discover the best way to live; to discover her own spiritual thirst; her need for new life in Christ, the water of life. 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 private life, she is led gradually 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 discovers the best way to live. She puts the jug down and becomes a disciple and an apostle sent to her village where she tells her people: “Come and see”, come and see the person who showed me the best way to live! So she goes home not only transformed 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 is threefold: 1) Like the Samaritan woman, this too is our day of Scrutiny, conversion and change. 2) Like the Samaritan woman we are led to discover our spiritual thirst and our need for nourishment from the Water of Life. 3) At the end of the Mass today, we too like the Samaritan woman are sent to invite others to “Come and see”, to come and see someone who has shown us the best way to live so that they too may become the best version of themselves. Now, that is evangelization.

©2014 John S. Mbinda

Friday, February 27, 2015

Second Sunday of Lent Year B

Readings: Gen 22:1-2,9,10-13,18-18; Rm 8:31-34; Mk 9:2-10
Generosity, the third sign of a dynamic Catholic is the theme running through the readings of this Sunday. The readings help us to reflect on the generosity involved in self-surrender to the seemingly irrational demands of God. The drama of Abraham’s generous acceptance to sacrifice his only son Isaac, leads us to be aware that God asks us to give up the things we value most during this Lent to test our generosity. Lent is an excellent moment to examine how generous we are in paying the cost of our calling as disciples and stewards. Abraham's readiness to sacrifice Isaac is an excellent example of great generosity. The episode first gives us God’s request for the cost, and then the rewards of Abraham’s generosity. Yes, whenever we respond to God’s request, there are blessings in the end. "Because you have not refused me your son, your only son, I will shower blessings on you…" Paul in the second reading provides an interpretation of God's promises to Abraham and Sarah citing excerpts from the First Reading of today. But Paul is very much aware of the paradox of God's demands on us. The point Paul makes is that God in offering his only Son is out of generosity. "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 and jump on that “magic carpet” of trust and self-surrender, no matter how much we might give up.

The Gospel is about the dramatic episode of the transfiguration on the mountain before the three disciples, Peter, James and John. The event is a clear manifestation of Jesus as the Son of God; an anticipation of his glory, through his death on the cross and the resurrection. Thus the transfiguration sets the stage for Jesus’ prediction of his suffering, death and resurrection. That prediction in Mark is the beginning of the intensifying enmity between Jesus and the religious leaders eventually leading to his trial, death and resurrection. The central message of the episode therefore is that God offers us his only Son Jesus out of his generosity, in order to save us through the Cross. There is a certain parallel between Abraham's readiness to offer his only son Isaac to God, and the fulfillment of that story in God’s generous offering of his only Son to die for our salvation. The transfiguration was a window to let the disciples see the glory of Jesus, leaving no doubt that he is truly the Son of God. The voice coming from a cloud was perhaps the most convincing. "This is my Son, the Beloved: listen to him". Thus the Gospel not only leads us to the mystery of Christ, but also invites us to listen and to surrender ourselves completely to his word that Christ may reveal himself to us. What message do we take home this Sunday? 1) Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice Isaac is an excellent example of great generosity. The story gives us an idea of the cost, as well as the rewards of one's surrender to God. 2) Just as Jesus surrenders himself to the point of death on the cross for our salvation, we too are challenged to embrace the Lenten discipline by being generous with our time, talent and treasure. 3) We are therefore invited to open our hearts to be transformed by Christ. Concretely that means going through our Lenten discipline in order to be the best version of ourselves and so enter into the glory of Christ’s resurrection.

©2015 John S. Mbinda