Sunday, 14 September 2014 : 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (Homily and Scripture Reflections)

Liturgical Colour : Red

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, today is truly a great feast day of the Church, of such a great importance for us, as in it lie one of the greatest aspect of our faith itself. And this is none other than the exaltation and the glorification of the Holy Cross, on which our Saviour and Lord Jesus Christ had hung upon as He went on His mission of salvation to save us all from death because of our sins.

The Holy Cross is not just any cross, but it has been made holy and sacred because it was on that wooden cross, made from a tree, that Jesus had emptied Himself completely from His divinity, and suffered a grievous and horrendous pain as He laid dying, hanging from that cross. The Holy Cross is a reminder for all of us, of He who once hung there out of His love for us, so that we may have new hope in this life, and that we may look beyond death that is once our fate.

The cross was the favourite punishment method by the Romans, the conqueror of the known world at the time, where they used it to punish rebels against the Roman authority, as one of the most severe methods of punishment, reserved only for those who brought about great harm and threat to the Roman state. The victims of crucifixions were left to hang on the cross, made from a tree and carved to form a cruciform plank, so that the victims were left to hung between the heaven and the earth.

This punishment was both designed to bring the greatest amount of suffering to the victim, by denying the victim a quick death, giving them a slow and increasingly painful suffering, and also to give the greatest humiliation possible, as the victims were stripped to mere loincloth or even naked, stretched wide on that cross, often on the roadsides and high places like hills, so that many would be able to see the humiliation and suffering of those who dared to test the might of Rome.

Thus, the cross was a symbol of ultimate humiliation and suffering for all who see them at the time of Jesus, during the peak of the Roman Empire. But yet, many centuries prior to the time of the Romans, the prophets have foretold of the suffering Messiah, namely through the prophet Isaiah, who prophesied how the Messiah would come and bear the suffering for all of mankind. It was also mentioned how He would suffer, even long before the time when the punishment was common.

For in crucifixions, the victim would either be tied to the cross or in especially serious and severe occasions, the victims would be nailed upon the cross. The latter method would be more grievous and painful, and even more humiliating, and was indeed reserved only for the worst enemies and the greatest of punishments for the enemies of Rome.

And the prophet Isaiah mentioned that the Messiah would be pierced, and that piercing indeed represented how Jesus, the Lord and Messiah would be nailed on the cross. He would also be lifted up high, like when Moses lifted high up the bronze serpent in the desert. This too is a premonition of what was to come when the Lord came to save His people from destruction and death.

When the people of God, the Israelites were saved from their slavery in Egypt, they went through a long Exodus and journey through the desert in their progress to reach the land promised to them through their ancestors. In that journey, which was not an easy one, God was with them along the way, and He blessed His people, giving them great providence and food along the way.

Yes, if we read through the Book of Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, we should all realise how blessed this people had been. God destroyed their enemies and all those who went on to fight against them were crushed and have their forces utterly beaten, and God gave them into the hands of His people. And we all should be aware that God Himself freed them from the chains of the Egyptians with great might, with ten plagues, each of which were of terrible ferocity.

God even sent His people the bread from heaven to eat, in the form of manna, and large birds for them to catch and eat as well. He gave them clear and sweet water to drink, and we have to imagine that, having crystal clear and good water to drink in the middle of the desert is no mere small feat. Nothing is of course impossible for the Lord, and He loves us beyond anything else.

And it is that love that prevented Him from totally and completely annihilating that people which had risen up against Him, despite all He had given them and blessed them with. Having been given and endowed with so much graces, the people of God made complaints after complaints of their supposedly ‘miserable’ existence and life in the desert, and even longed for the ‘good’ life in Egypt where they once lived in slavery.

They spurned His love and kindness, complaining even against what they have been given to eat, bread from heaven itself. This was why, eventually, God took action against them, to remind them that He is Lord over all, and that those who constantly defy Him and oppose Him will meet their end in eternal suffering and destruction. He sent them therefore, fiery and poisonous serpents that attacked them, struck them and killed many of them.

But we have to always remember and take note that it is not God who desired our destruction, as it had happened with the Israelites. In fact, it was the people’s own stubbornness and refusal to return to the light of God which had caused their own destruction. The serpents represented the suffering and the punishment that the people must endure for their sins, and the ultimate effect is indeed none other than death.

Ever since mankind had first disobeyed against the Lord, they have sinned against the Lord in their hearts and in their bodies, such that they were no longer worthy of the Lord. The consequence of sin is death, as sin separates one from the Lord. The Lord who is all good and perfect cannot tolerate the imperfections caused by evil to be in His presence, and therefore, naturally, sin led mankind to death, and if nothing had been done, then all mankind would have faced death eternal, and eternal separation from the love of God.

And that is hell. Hell is the total separation of a creation of God from the very love of the Creator and Lord of all. And this total separation is final and unchangeable. Thus, this is what hell is truly about, not the fires and the images of hell that we are commonly exposed to, but the suffering in hell is far greater than we can ever imagine, since it means that the total separation from God’s love, that should be unimaginable to us all, because it was God’s love that is everything to us, how we live and why we live in the first place, and we are able to walk and enjoy this life on earth because of God’s love that is with us and in us.

Hell is what is due to mankind as the punishment for our sins, and in hell, it is the despair and the state of total hopelessness which is the greatest suffering, as all the souls in hell know that there is absolutely no hope of escaping that state, eternally damned and separated from God’s love, and it is this eternal and constantly repeating despair, hopelessness and guilt of having betrayed the Lord which brought about the greatest suffering for the souls in hell.

But is this what God intends for us? Is this what He intended for the people He loved and which He had created in His own image, as the pinnacle and the greatest of all His creations? No! This is exactly why He wants to save us, and so great was His desire, that the very truth was laid bare for all to see and hear, as we often heard in the famous phrase from the Gospel of St. John, chapter 3 verse 16, namely that God loved the world and His people so much, that He sent His only Son into the world, so that all those who believe in Him would not be lost and perish, but gain eternal life.

This is the very essence of what we are celebrating on this day, that is the glory and the mystery of the Holy Cross of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, whom the Lord Himself had sent, a part of Himself, His own Word made incarnate into flesh as one of us, and to walk among men, so that He might exercise His power and bring salvation to all those who believe in Him. And the way how He did that, was through the cross of suffering, which He transformed into the cross of glory and triumph.

As I had mentioned much earlier on in this homily and reflection, that the use of crucifixion and the punishment of the cross was indeed to punish and to bring the greatest suffering on the sufferer, and also to humiliate the sufferer, and in this case, this suffering One is Jesus, the Messiah and Saviour of all. Even though He was guiltless, blameless and without sin, He offered Himself freely as part of God’s long planned salvation for His people, so that through His death, He might open a new path for them, into salvation and eternal grace.

To those who observed His death and especially among those who followed Him during His ministry would indeed question, why would such a holy Man and the Messiah no less, suffer such a humiliation and suffering so great if He was indeed chosen by the Lord. And we know that even throughout history and until today, there are still many those who refused to believe in the crucifixion of Christ because they deemed it impossible and unreasonable for such a great One to suffer such a humiliating death.

Yet we know that Jesus Christ, Son of God, Messiah and Lord of all, chose this way because indeed, He loves us all very dearly, and He would not want us to be sundered forever from His love, that is hell. He does not desire for us to inhabit hell, simply because, that was not His intention for us. His intention is for us to live happily with Him in love and harmony. And that was why He chose to come into this world, that is to bring all peoples to Himself.

But sin lays between God and us, as a great and seemingly insurmountable barrier that prevent us from returning to God our Lord. Therefore, if we read the Book of Leviticus, we know that there is such a thing as sin and burnt offering, where animals such as lamb were slaughtered and then burnt on the altar, and the blood together with the animal constituted a worthy offering to God, who then accepted it as the partial reparation and remission for the sins committed by God’s people.

But the people of God remained in sin, and also they inherited the original sin of their forefathers, ever since they rebelled against the will of God and followed Satan into his rebellion instead. This original sin and other sins that mankind committed kept them separated from the love of God, and due to the immensity of the sins of mankind combined together, no amount of sacrifice would be able to redeem mankind from their sins, save for one.

Yes, the one sacrifice and the only one, when the Lamb of God, our Lord Jesus Christ Himself offered His own Body and Blood as the only worthy sacrifice for the immensity of the combination of our sins together. Only He who is perfect, perfectly unblemished and pure, without any taints of sin, and He who is Lord of all, had the worthy offering to make in order to save us from our sins.

And thus He suffered, all the sufferings and humiliations He endured, all the spittle and the mockery from the people He endured, and the cross of suffering He carried on His back, enduring lashes after lashes and mockery after mockery as He made His journey towards Calvary. Yet He did not give up. We cannot even comprehend the kind of suffering which Jesus endured for our sake.

Why so? This is because the suffering He endured was much more than just the apparent physical suffering, even as great as that suffering was. He endured the weight and the consequences of our sins, and all of this bore down on Him as a great weight beyond any other weight. He was blameless, and yet He was crushed for our sins. This was also yet another fulfillment of the prophecy of the prophets.

But Jesus endured all of them with perfect obedience and perfect love for us. He is truly the new Adam, as St. Paul had said, as the One who went to correct all the wrongs that began with Adam, the old Adam, our forefather who sinned against God. Just as Mary His mother is the new Eve, whose obedience and faith, rebuking Satan and his lies, Jesus is the new Adam through which God renewed mankind.

Jesus therefore changed that symbol of ultimate shame, the cross, designed as such by the Romans, into a symbol of hope and glory. He turned the cross from a symbol of death and destruction into a symbol of salvation and liberation from sin, from the slavery of the forces of evil, and the guarantee of life eternal as promised by the Lord. Thus, the essence of the cross and the crucifix we have today signify this important turning point, which Christ had made the cross into our hope, through His death on the cross for our salvation.

Sadly indeed, despite all that the Lord had done for us, many of us mankind still acted like the people of Israel of old, disregarding the love of God and even ignoring Him altogether. How many of us actually realised the love that God had for us? Every single step He took on His passion journey towards His death, He did it out of His love for us. He did not want us to perish, but it is many of us who chose perishing in the world rather than embracing God’s love.

Remember, that in Jesus we have been saved, out of God’s love. He wants to forgive us our sins, but this is only possible if we too play our part, and believe in Him. We can start this through our own actions and our own daily lives. Have we acted in accordance what our Lord had taught us? Have we practiced our faith and what we believe in our lives? Have we loved our brothers and sisters as much as we love ourselves?

We have much work to do in front of us, brothers and sisters in Christ. Our lives will indeed be difficult, if we choose to follow the Lord and walk in His path. But our Lord had made His cross a sign of victory and triumph, the Holy Cross, that even Satan and his forces will tremble and flee from. Satan knows that the cross was his ultimate undoing. His defeat lay at the cross that had liberated mankind from the burden of their sins. He knows that his doom is coming, and he cannot avoid that final defeat.

However, Satan will grow desperate and he will do all he can to stall as many souls as possible on his way to doom. Remember that he has all the power in this world to tempt and persuade us to divert our path from the path of salvation into the path of doom. Temptations of the evil one is plenty in this world saturated with materialism, consumerism and love of the self. Selfishness and violence is on the rise, brethren, and if we do not guard ourselves against Satan’s advances, we will fall.

Therefore, let us all work together, brothers and sisters in Christ! We who have been saved by the suffering and sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ must be strong in our faith and in our dedication to God, so that Satan will not stand against us. Remember the Holy Cross and Jesus our Lord whenever temptations of Satan come to prevent us from seeking the Lord. Proclaim the Holy Name of Jesus and staunchly rebuke Satan for his attempts to tempt us.

Jesus has indeed been given the Name which is above every other names, for first He is God made flesh, and thus, it is the Name of God Himself, Master of all the universe and over all creations. Then, through His perfect love and obedience, He had become an example for all mankind and for all creation, and no one in creation can do anything other than to obey this Lord and Master who had given His all to save His beloved ones. And even Satan had to obey the Lord, with fear and great trembling on his knees. Such is the power of the Name of Jesus Christ. Do not use His Name in vain!

And even in the Roman Empire, which was pagan and idol worshipping, the Lord also gained a final victory. Many Emperors of Rome persecuted the Christians, the faithful ones in the Lord, but their prayers and the blood of the martyrs eventually triumphed, the triumph of the Holy Cross, when the Lord made them strong and grow in might, so that more and more people would come to listen to the words of salvation in the Gospels and the Scriptures.

Ultimately, the famed Emperor Constantine saw a bright sign of the Lord, Christ Himself in His insignia, as the victorious and conquering King, and went on to win a great victory that eventually led to the repentance and conversion of the Roman Empire into a great, Christian Empire belonging to God. Thus, the Cross had triumphed against the enemies of the Lord, led by Satan and his fallen angels.

Therefore, let us all take an opportunity, every day in our lives to look at the cross, at the crucifix on which lie the Body of Jesus our Lord, as a reminder that He died out of His infinite and enduring love for us, so that we who have seen Him and believed, will not die but live a new life everlasting, just as Moses lifted the bronze serpent and all who had been bitten and saw the bronze serpent did not die but live.

We have been bitten by the serpent, Satan, and his poison is threatening to destroy us, that is sin. But if we trust in the Lord Jesus, and look at the victorious cross, the Holy Cross of Christ, we will not die but live too! Let us carry together our crosses in life with Christ, so that just as He told His disciples, that we may have a share in His resurrection, and therefore be granted new life eternal, freed from all vestiges of sin and evil, and rejoice for eternity with our loving God. May Almighty God bless us this day and every day of our lives, that we will always be faithful and dedicated to the Cross of Christ! Amen.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013 : 18th Week of Ordinary Time, Memorial of Saints Xystus II, Pope and Companions, Martyrs; and St. Cajetan, Priest (Scripture Reflection)

Liturgical Colour : Green or Red (Saints Xystus II and Companions); White (St. Cajetan)

Brothers and sisters in Christ, today, the case of the Canaanite widow and her daughter, and how the daughter was healed by Christ our Lord because of her mother’s faith, should stir all of us, all of our hearts. That the woman had shown her great faith and trust in God, placing all of her heart and faith in the power and ability of our Lord, recognising Him as the heir of David, the awaited Messiah of Israel, the Saviour of the world.

Yes, brothers and sisters, the woman, the Canaanite woman, not of the chosen race and the chosen people of Israel, had recognised the Lord and put her entire heart and full faith in Him when so many other people of Israel had failed to do so. Not only that many of these people had failed to put their full attention and faith in the Lord, but they even complained against Him and grumbled against Him, when He had shown them so much love, compassion, care, and kindness.

So great is His love that He listened to their complaints, giving them food, the bread of heaven in the form of manna for them to eat in the morning, and quails for them to eat in the evening, as well as crystal-clear and sweet spring water from rocks for them to drink and satisfy themselves when they complained that they have not enough to eat or drink.

Yes, the Lord even promised them, as He had promised Abraham their forefather, the Promised Land of milk and honey, where the land is so rich that it will yield fruits manyfold and bring with them great riches for God’s people, that is Israel to enjoy for eternity. He fulfilled that promise and brought His people to the land that He had given to them and their descendants.

And yet, they still complained, and they did not truly love the Lord their God, nor did they give Him their full dedication and faith. When the explorers sent by Moses reached the Promised Land and saw the warlike peoples of Canaan living in the land, with giant men and powerful warlords, the people chose to follow their own human instincts and immersed themselves in their own human fear, that they again complained against the Lord for having brought them to that ‘dreaded’ Promised Land filled with enemies and prospects of death.

Despite all the good things that the Lord had given them and would have given them in perpetuity, for eternity, they rejected the kindness of the Lord, because they trusted themselves more, in human power and fear, and not in divine power of our God. And therefore, because of their rebelliousness, they deserved death. The Lord rejected them from His presence and denied them from entering the Land He promised them.

Then we can contrast this, to the widow, the widow who does not belong to the people of Israel, the Canaanite woman dismissed by many in Israel in Jesus’ time as pagans and people doomed to hell. Yet, she proclaimed the Lord and recognised in Him the salvation that is to come for her and the whole world. She asked humbly for His mercy and showed her faith to Him, even when Christ seemingly rebuked her and mentioned that He was only sent to the people of Israel. She answered well and proved her faith to God, and as a result, she received her due reward, the same reward promised to the people of Israel of old, but which they rejected because they trusted more in the power of man rather than in the power of the One and almighty God.

It does not mean that the people of Israel are bad or that they are rejected by God. Remember that Jesus Himself is a Jew, and He belongs to the House of David, because He is His heir, and the widow rightly proclaimed that He is the Son of David, the One to whom God will give eternal kingship, glory, and power over not just Israel, but over all mankind, over all the world. Instead, the readings today highlight that, first, we must be always faithful and trusting in the Lord our God, and we should be fast to praise and slow to complain.

It is our nature to feel that we do not have enough when we actually already have more than enough. It is part of our natural greed and desire for things and material goods. And it is also our nature to first think about ourselves and our needs before that of others, and we are quick to praise ourselves in general, whenever we achieve something, but it is generally considerably more difficult for us to give due thanks and praise to others, when they have done something that had benefited us in one way or another.

This happened to the people of Israel in the desert, that despite the freedom God had given them from the backbreaking and hard labour under slavery in Egypt, despite that He had showed them His might and power in opening the sea, giving them His own Laws and commandments, making sweet and crystal-clear water to gush out from rocks and even giving them food from His own table in heaven in the manna, they did not feel that they have enough, and indeed, complained that their previous life in Egypt had been much better, and even brought the Lord to the test, in doubting whether God could provide for them in their journey in the desert.

Yes, brethren, the path of the Lord is not an easy one, and there will certainly be numerous obstacles lying in our path if we choose to follow the Lord. The evil one certainly does not stay idle and let us, the followers of God, His disciples to just go free without any difficulties. This is why, it is often much easier and much more pleasurable for us, to settle on things that seem to be easier and more relaxed, even though to do that means that we sin against the Lord our God.

We cannot have this mentality, brothers and sisters in Christ, because to settle for such a thing would mean that we prefer the slavery under sin and Satan, instead of the freedom God had offered all of us through His suffering and death on the cross. Do not follow the path of the Israelites who chose to rebel against God and complained against His love and kindness. Our Lord knows what we truly need, brethren, and He will not leave us without love or care, because He always watches over us, at all times.

Today, brothers and sisters in Christ, we celebrate the feasts of Pope St. Xystus II or Sixtus II, as well as St. Cajetan. Both of them are holy and pious men dedicated to God in their own ways. Pope St. Xystus II lived in the middle era of the Roman Empire, and reigned as the leader of the Universal Church during the height of the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire in the middle of the third century. He reunited the divided factions of the people of God after healing the rifts that existed after heresies wrecked the faithful, and brought them back to God, once again as one people. He was martyred along with several of his companions following a brutal repression and persecution of the faithful by the Emperor Valerian.

St. Cajetan on the other hand was a priest who lived in the middle of the Renaissance Italy, during the sixteenth century. He helped much in the Church’s attempts to combat heresy of the Reformation which spread like wildfire during his lifetime. He dedicated much of his efforts and works to love and serve the poor, the lonely, and those without love, committing himself towards caring for all of them. He founded a religious order, the Theatines, which has a similar vision to him, that especially focus on the virtue of service and committing acts of love to others, as part of the faith.

Therefore brothers and sisters, today, let us be resolved to have the faith of the widow, to seek the Lord with great humility and persistence, and ask Him to show mercy and love upon us sinners. Let us not harden our hearts the way the people of Israel had done when they journeyed through the desert. Let us reflect on ourselves and our own weaknesses, and seek the Lord to enlist His aid, in helping us to overcome these weaknesses.

Let us also follow the example of Pope St. Xystus II in his commitment to the cause of the Lord, and the faith and love, as well as the dedication he had shown him, just as the widow had shown her faith to God, by her recognition of the good that the Lord had done for us. Let us also follow the example of St. Cajetan, in his own devotion to the Lord, which he showed through his love and service, and all the care he had given to all the children of God in need, in need for love, care, and compassion. In doing those things, St. Cajetan showed his love and faith in God. We too can do the same, brothers and sisters in Christ. Show Christ our love, just as He had shown us His love from the cross.

May the Lord bless us all with strength, faith, and perseverance to go on in our lives, no longer complaining but from now on putting our whole and complete trust in the Lord our God who loves us. May Pope St. Sixtus II and St. Cajetan, and all the company of saints and angels in heaven intercede on our behalf before the Lord who is loving and merciful, that He will forgive us our trespasses and deem us worthy of His presence and His kingdom once again. Amen.