Wednesday, 8 February 2017 : 5th Week of Ordinary Time, Memorial of St. Jerome Emiliani and St. Josephine Bakhita, Virgin (Homily and Scripture Reflections)

Liturgical Colour : Green or White (Saints or Virgins)
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, in today’s Scripture readings, all of us heard about the account of the creation of Man, how God created the first of our kind and gave him life. He blessed them and gave them many things, and also the command and stewardship over the earth. It was also mentioned that God laid an important commandment to man, that he must not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, a story which we are surely well acquainted with.

In that story we heard of how the first man, Adam and the first woman, Eve disobeyed God, when Satan disguised as a serpent tempted them to eat a fruit from the tree, and therefore gaining knowledge over good and evil to become like God their Creator. That was how mankind sinned and therefore were cast out of the Gardens of Eden, and were forced to endure sufferings on earth as a result of their disobedience.

But now let us ask this question to ourselves. Was it the forbidden fruit from the tree that had caused mankind to sin and to become wicked? Or was it because they themselves were unable to restrain their greed and failed to resist the temptations of the devil? This would become significant if we look into the Gospel passage today, where Jesus mentioned to the Pharisees and to the teachers of the Law, in their dispute about the rules of the laws that the latter tried to impose on the people of God.

We have to understand the dynamics and the historical developments of that time if we are to understand why Jesus struggled with these people, who refused to budge and adamantly tried to advance their own thinking against the truth revealed to all by God through Jesus. At that time, the Pharisees strictly enforced the rule of food prohibitions, or what is now known as the kosher rule.

They followed the old rule of Moses, which the Lord passed down to the people in the guidelines of what they ought to eat and not to eat. But at that time, the people of Israel were travelling in the desert, and they were truly rebellious and refused to obey the Lord and His ways. That was why God imposed on them the set of laws, rules and regulations that He had put in place so as to help them to control themselves and to help guide them on the way towards righteousness.

But God never intended for the laws to become a burden for His people, or as a tool to make people to lord it over others just because they conform to the rules, and while others did not. It was never God’s intention for His people to misunderstand the real meaning of His laws. Yet, that was precisely what the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law had done.

These people were too focused on the external applications of the Law, to the point that they were blinded to their own shortcomings and failures. They were so focused on the purity of their externals and all the observations of the laws they so carefully guarded, they had forgotten the most important commandment of all, that is to love and serve the Lord with all of their might and strength.

Many of the things which they had done, they did them in order to be seen and to be praised by the people who saw them. Many might have seen how they have observed fully the entirety of the laws of Moses, all of its rules and tenets, but on the other hand, as just mentioned, their intention for doing all these were wrong. God did not have the place of honour in their hearts as He should have.

It was just as how it was at the time of Adam and Eve. At that time, they disobeyed God and therefore sinned. It was not because of the fruit they ate that they have sinned, but because from their own hearts, wickedness had arisen, the inability to restrain their greed and desires which Satan used in order to bring about our downfall. In the same manner therefore, what Jesus said was very true, that what made someone impure is not something that we eat and bring in from the outside, but rather what came out from ourselves.

God created all things good and perfect, and therefore it is not right indeed to say that anything is impure or unclean. Rather, it was what had come out from our hearts that had led us into sin. It was our vulnerabilities and our tendency to fall into the temptations of worldliness which had brought us into sin, rather than anything else outside ourselves.

It is often that we, like the Pharisees and the elders, refused to see this truth because we are proud, and we do not want to lose our face, knowing that we are not perfect inside us, but dirty and wicked. And therefore, we put on masks of purity and piety, in order to hide the fact that we are sinners and delinquent rebels before God and men. But what we are doing is that we are just running away from the problem, and often, we end up in denial, which leads us all into an even greater sin, that is the refusal to repent from our sins.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, this is where perhaps we should look up to the examples of the holy saints we venerate and glorify today, namely St. Jerome Emiliani and St. Josephine Bakhita. St. Jerome Emiliani was an Italian priest whose deeds among the orphans and those who were suffering then, was greatly noted by his contemporaries, as he worked hard to ensure that these people were properly taken care of and not abandoned.

St. Jerome Emiliani established places for these people to settle in, renting houses for this purpose, and increasingly, there were more and more pious and loving people who followed in his footsteps and stepped in to help the orphans and the poor people to be able to have a decent living. Eventually a religious society founded upon the ideals and the works of St. Jerome Emiliani was established, through which many people would go on to follow in the footsteps of this great and holy saint.

Meanwhile, St. Josephine Bakhita was a former slave turned a pious nun, born in Sudan in northern Africa, and was sold to slavery at a very young age, when she was kidnapped by slave traders who sold her to the slave market. She was also sold and resold a few times between slave owners, which experiences troubled and traumatised her greatly.

Eventually she was bought by an Italian vice-consul, and through difficult moments, managed to make her way to Italy, where she received the faith and became one of the converts. She also managed to gain her freedom, and upon baptism, she chose to join the convent of religious sisters, becoming one of the Canossian sisters.

She eventually continued to serve God and His people dutifully, renowned for her great piety and faith, in her zeal in the service of God, and in how her holiness shone through her actions in life. She never forgot her experiences in life, how she had suffered through slavery and all the other injustices, and yet, as the perfect example of Christian love and virtue, it was told that when one youth asked her if she would forgive her captors and slavers, she immediately said without hesitation that she would forgive them, for without them, she would not be a Christian, a religious, and indeed, later a saint.

The examples of these two venerable saints can be our inspiration in life, brothers and sisters in Christ. We must follow in their footsteps, doing good in our lives, and not be trapped by our pride, our folly and our stubbornness to accept God’s grace, forgiveness and love. We must learn to be faithful as St. Jerome Emiliani and St. Josephine Bakhita had been faithful, and learn to love as they have loved.

May the Lord help us all, so that we may emulate the lives of His wonderful saints, and practice what they themselves had done, in our own lives. May the Lord bless us all and our works, so that they will bring much good to this world, and bring righteousness and justice upon ourselves, that we will be worthy of the Lord, and worthy to receive His promise of eternal life, purified from all of our sins. May God bless us all. Amen.

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