Saturday, 25 February 2023 : Saturday after Ash Wednesday (Homily and Scripture Reflections)

Liturgical Colour : Purple/Violet

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, today as we continue to progress through the season of Lent, each and every one of us are reminded through the Scripture passages today of the need for all of us to heed the Lord’s call for us to return to Him, abandoning our sinful actions and stubborn attitudes, listening to Him calling us to follow Him and to return once again to His loving embrace. Each and every one of us as Christians have been given the privilege of receiving the truth of God and we have witnessed this same truth being delivered and passed down to us through the Church and by the Wisdom given to us through the Holy Spirit. That is why all the more we should be more obedient to the Lord and dedicate ourselves and our time more to Him, and being more faithful to Him. But the reality is that, many among us Christians are lukewarm in our faith.

In our first reading today, taken from the Book of the prophet Isaiah,we heard the prophet speaking to the people of God about how if they were to stop committing sins and wickedness in their lives, distancing themselves from the many actions they had done in the past which were unworthy of their status as God’s chosen people. Historically and contextually, the prophet Isaiah made this comment and reminder to the people of God during a time when the people had been facing a lot of hardships and trials, difficulties, challenges and troubles. Back then, the remnants of the people of God only remained in Judah, the southern part of the once great and glorious kingdom of David and Solomon, as the northern kingdom that had separated and then committed grievous sins against the Lord had finally been destroyed, and most of its people were brought away by their Assyrian conquerors to distant lands in exile.

Then, the same forces of the Assyrians came up against Judah and Jerusalem itself, and almost conquered the city and the kingdom, bringing the same fate to all of the people of God there if not for God’s most timely and loving intervention. God crushed the forces of the Assyrians upon the prayers of the faithful king of Judah, King Hezekiah and the people of Judah, and through the intercession of the prophet Isaiah himself. Through all these experiences and examples, the Lord wanted all of His people to know that if they chose to remain in their state of sin and rebellion against Him, they would suffer the same fate as those who had rebelled and sinned against God. The Lord reminded all of them that on the other hand, if they were to repent from their sins and turn back to Him, they would receive the grace and blessings, the wonderful things that their faithful predecessors had once received.

In our Gospel passage today, we heard of the Lord calling one particular tax collector named Levi, whom He called to follow Him, to become one of His disciples. This Levi as we all should know, would become St. Matthew, one of the Twelve Apostles and the Four Evangelists. Back then, the tax collectors were greatly hated and reviled by most of the society, and especially by the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law, who deemed them as irredeemable sinners, wicked and greedy, and even as traitors to the Jewish nation, as their roles in collecting taxes and money for the Romans and the other rulers of the land, made them complicit in the minds of the people in betraying their own people to these rulers and conquerers. They were therefore often ostracised and rejected, hated and despised by much of the community of the people of God.

It was exactly to these people that the Lord went to minister, reaching out to them and calling on them to follow Him, just as He had done with Levi. While those Pharisees and teachers of the Law shunned and reviled the tax collectors and others whom they deemed as wicked sinners and those unworthy of God, God came straight at those people and reached out to them, showing them His love and kindness, the desire to be reconciled and reunited with them. He showed that He loved us all equally, and everyone had the same chance to be reconciled with the Lord and be saved, and in fact, as the Lord Himself said, it was those who were seemingly the furthest away from His salvation who needed the most help. That was why the Lord went straight at them and called them to come back to Him, and the response was truly amazing, as those tax collectors and others came to the Lord, and for St. Matthew, he even dedicated himself wholeheartedly to Him.

On the contrary, many among those Pharisees and teachers of the Law refused to believe in the Lord, all because they were full of pride and ego, thinking that they were superior and better than all others, and that they could not have been wrong in their way and judgments, and as such, they viewed the Lord’s actions negatively, in line with their prejudices and biases that they maintained, and refused to let go. They hardened their hearts and minds against the Lord and His teachings, His truth and Wisdom and hence remained in the state of sin and darkness, being dragged down by their own pride and wicked desires and greed for power, fame and glory. All these are reminders for each one of us that we should not let ourselves be swayed by those temptations, and we should instead follow the example of Levi, in rejecting the wickedness of sin and return to the Lord with faith.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, as we continue to progress through this season of Lent, let us all therefore reflect and discern carefully on our lives so that we may learn to walk down the right path in life, and journey well in faith. May all of us continue to live our lives with renewed zeal and dedication to God, keeping in mind what we do and say, so that we do not end up walking down the path of sin and wickedness. Let us remind ourselves that sin and disobedience against God will lead us down the path of ruin, while obeying God and persevering in faith in Him will lead us to true justification and happiness with God. Let us choose the right path and commit ourselves to follow the Lord, becoming good and worthy examples of our faith for others to follow, so that more and more may be inspired to follow the Lord through us, just as St. Matthew and many other innumerable saints turned sinners had done to inspire us.

Let us all remember that the Church is truly a hospital for sinners, and that even the worst of sinners who turn to the Lord and repent sincerely from their sins will be forgiven, and can become the greatest of the saints. Let us all look forward to a life truly worthy of the Lord and journey well through this holy and blessed season of Lent. May God be with us always and may He empower and strengthen us so that we may always be true to Him, and be strong in facing and enduring the many challenges of this world. Amen.

Saturday, 25 February 2023 : Saturday after Ash Wednesday (Gospel Reading)

Liturgical Colour : Purple/Violet

Luke 5 : 27-32

At that time, after Jesus healed a paralytic man, He went out, and noticing a tax collector named Levi, sitting in the tax office, He said to him, “Follow Me!” So Levi, leaving everything, got up and followed Jesus.

Levi gave a great feast for Jesus, and many tax collectors came to his house, and took their places at the table with the other people. Then the Pharisees and their followers complained to Jesus’ disciples, “How is it, that you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”

But Jesus spoke up, “Healthy people do not need a doctor, but sick people do. I have not come to call the just, but sinners, to a change of heart.”

Saturday, 25 February 2023 : Saturday after Ash Wednesday (Psalm)

Liturgical Colour : Purple/Violet

Psalm 85 : 1-2, 3-4, 5-6

Listen, o YHVH, and answer me, for I am afflicted and needy. Preserve my life, for I am God-fearing; save Your servant who trusts in You.

Have mercy on me, o YHVH, for I cry to You all day. Bring joy to the soul of Your servant; for You, o YHVH, I lift up my soul.

You are good and forgiving, o YHVH, caring for those who call on You. Listen, o YHVH, to my prayer, hear the voice of my pleading.

Saturday, 25 February 2023 : Saturday after Ash Wednesday (First Reading)

Liturgical Colour : Purple/Violet

Isaiah 58 : 9b-14

If you remove from your midst the yoke, the clenched fist and the wicked word. If you share your food with the hungry and give relief to the oppressed, then your light will rise in the dark, your night will be like noon.

YHVH will guide you always and give you relief in desert places. He will strengthen your bones; He will make you as a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fall. Your ancient ruins will be rebuilt, the age-old foundations will be raised. You will be called the Breach-mender, and the Restorer of ruined houses.

If you stop profaning the Sabbath and doing as you please on the holy day, if you call the Sabbath a day of delight and keep sacred YHVH’s holy day, if you honour it by not going your own way, not doing as you please and not speaking with malice, then you will find happiness in YHVH, over the heights you will ride triumphantly, and feast joyfully on the inheritance of your father Jacob. The mouth of YHVH has spoken.

Friday, 24 February 2023 : Friday after Ash Wednesday (Homily and Scripture Reflections)

Liturgical Colour : Purple/Violet

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, today as we listened to the words of the Scriptures, all of us are called to focus on the matter of fasting as highlighted throughout the Scripture readings today. During the season of Lent, there are two days in which we are all required to fast, which is the Ash Wednesday at the very beginning of Lent, and then on the Good Friday of the Passion of the Lord, the day when we commemorate our Lord Jesus Christ’s suffering and death on the Cross just before Easter. We are also called to Abstinence on those two same days, and all Fridays throughout the season of Lent and throughout the entire year. This practice of fasting as well as abstinence are all meant to help us to redirect our lives and attention towards the Lord and away from the many temptations and wickedness of sin and evil all around us.

In the past, the Church practiced a much stricter regime of fasting and abstinence than it is today, which is still actually practiced by our brethren in the Eastern Catholic Churches as well as our separated brethren in the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox faith. They fasted essentially for the entire season of Lent and adopted a stricter form of abstinence in which unlike our current practice of only not allowing the consumption of red meat in Abstinence, they all abstain from all consumption of meat and fish, and also even egg and milk during the whole duration of the season of Lent, in conjunction with fasting right up to the glorious moment of Easter Vigil. This practice of fasting did have its roots from the Jewish traditions and the customs of the Apostles and the early Church fathers, as a means to self-mortify one’s body and flesh so as to restrain the temptations of the flesh and the worldly pleasures, and help one to refocus their attention towards the Lord, as intended.

However, in its implementation, this practice of fasting had veered off from its original intent, as the people of God fasted and did all that was asked of them, but it had not been done with true sincerity and understanding of why the fasting was done in the first place. As the prophet Isaiah highlighted it in our first reading today, the Lord lamented the actions of the people who did not have true faith and commitment to Him, as they continued to act in ways that were contrary to His Law and commandments. The people complained that God did not notice their actions, their fasting and other faith practices, but God countered with the detailing of how they had not been sincere in living their lives with faith, as was evident in how they continued to sin even though they fasted, and did what the Law prescribed them to do.

It means that the people were only doing all those for maintaining superficial appearances and formality of obedience to God’s Law and commandments. They were merely going through the motions when they practiced fasting and other expressions of their faith, while their hearts, minds and souls, their bodies and whole beings were still enslaved to sin and evil. They still did things that were against the Law of God, in acting selfishly and in hurting others, in doing things that brought about scandal to the Lord and to His Holy Name, among other things. All these show us that it is indeed possible for one to do everything that has been told to him or her to do, obey the Law and commandments of God, and yet, remaining in the state of sin and separated from God, because he or she has no real and genuine faith in the Lord.

In our Gospel passage today, we heard of the Lord Jesus speaking to the disciples of St. John the Baptist who came to Him asking why the disciples of the Lord did not fast in the manner that they and the Pharisees had done, and the Lord responded that they would indeed fast at the right and appropriate time, when the Lord would be taken away from them. Not only that, but those who follow the Lord and call themselves as His disciples will give Him the kind of fast that He desires. It means that unlike the Pharisees or the disciples of St. John, especially that of the former, for which fasting means observing and being particular about the details and the rituals of fasting, rather than to focus on the reason and purpose why they fasted in the first place, the Lord’s followers ought to remind themselves of why they fast, and they should fast because they desire to become closer to the Lord.

Hence, brothers and sisters in Christ, as we continue to progress through this season of Lent, let us remind ourselves that as we fast, abstain or do whatever practices that we are going to do throughout the duration of this holy and blessed season, we ought to do them not because we seek fame or praise for our actions, or because we feel obliged to obey the rules and laws regarding the Lenten practices, be it by the Church or the practices within our parishes and communities. Instead, we should do everything because we truly desire to rend our hearts, our minds and souls, our whole being, regretting all the sins and wickedness that we have committed in life, and for all our disobedience against God and the lack of faith in Him. We should make good use of this season of Lent to draw ever closer to God and to follow Him more wholeheartedly.

That is why, brothers and sisters, all of us are called to do whatever we can, even in the smallest things we do, in what we say and how we interact with one another, in bringing God’s love and truth, His light and hope to the midst of our lives and our communities. Let us all be more loving and forgiving towards others, and be more generous in giving, of both time, attention and maybe material help, to all those around us who are in need. God has placed them in our reach because it is through us that He expected us to share our blessings and good things, to help those who are less fortunate. That is why we should not ignore the calling that God has given to each one of us, to be more loving and charitable, especially to those who are less fortunate than us, in whatever way it is. We must remember what the Lord Himself had told His disciples, that whatever we do for the sake of our brothers and sisters, who are least and last among us, we do it for the sake of the Lord Himself.

May all of us therefore continue to grow ever stronger in faith, draw closer to the Lord and do whatever we can so that this season of Lent will be truly meaningful and fruitful for us, in helping and leading us on our way and journey back towards the Lord. May all of us become sources of inspiration and strength to one another so that each and every one of us may become ever more committed and faithful to the Lord, and help many more souls on their way to salvation. May God bless us all in our Lenten journey, in our every good works and endeavours. Amen.

Friday, 24 February 2023 : Friday after Ash Wednesday (Gospel Reading)

Liturgical Colour : Purple/Violet

Matthew 9 : 14-15

At that time, the disciples of John came to Jesus with the question, “How is it, that we and the Pharisees fast on many occasions, but not Your disciples?”

Jesus answered them, “How can you expect wedding guests to mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The time will come, when the Bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then, they will fast.”

Friday, 24 February 2023 : Friday after Ash Wednesday (Psalm)

Liturgical Colour : Purple/Violet

Psalm 50 : 3-4, 5-6a, 18-19

Have mercy on me, o God, in Your love. In Your great compassion blot out my sin. Wash me thoroughly of my guilt; cleanse me of evil.

For I acknowledge my wrongdoings and have my sins ever in mind. Against You alone, have I sinned.

You take no pleasure in sacrifice; were I to give a burnt offering, You would not delight in it. O God, my sacrifice is a broken spirit; a contrite heart, You will not despise.

Friday, 24 February 2023 : Friday after Ash Wednesday (First Reading)

Liturgical Colour : Purple/Violet

Isaiah 58 : 1-9a

Cry out aloud for all you are worth; raise your voice like a trumpet blast; tell My people of their offences, Jacob’s family of their sins. Is it true that they seek Me day after day, longing to know My ways, as a people that does what is right and has not forsaken the word of its God?

They want to know the just laws and not to drift away from their God. “Why are we fasting?,” they complain, “and You do not even see it? We are doing penance and You never notice it.” Look, on your fast days you push your trade and you oppress your labourers. Yes, you fast but end up quarrelling, striking each other with wicked blows. Fasting as you do will not make your voice heard on high.

Is that the kind of fast that pleases Me, just a day to humble oneself? Is fasting merely bowing down one’s head, and making use of sackcloth and ashes? Would you call that fasting, a day acceptable to YHVH? See the fast that pleases Me : breaking the fetters of injustice and unfastening the thongs of the yoke, setting the oppressed free and breaking every yoke.

Fast by sharing your food with the hungry, bring to your house the homeless, clothe the one you see naked and do not turn away from your own kin. Then will your light break forth as the dawn and your healing come in a flash. Your righteousness will be your vanguard, the glory of YHVH your rearguard. Then you will call and YHVH will answer, you will cry and He will say, I am here.

Thursday, 23 February 2023 : Thursday after Ash Wednesday, Memorial of St. Polycarp, Bishop and Martyr (Homily and Scripture Reflections)

Liturgical Colour : Purple/Violet

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, today as we listened to the words of the Lord in the Scriptures, we are all called to remember that each and every one of us have been given the choice from the Lord to follow the path that He has revealed before us, or to turn our back against Him and walk away from Him, by continuing to live in the state of sin. All of us have been given the freedom to choose, the free will to discern the path that we are going to choose in our path forward in life. That is why the Lord reminds us today, through His Church, at the beginning of this Lenten season that we should be very careful and vigilant in how we live our lives so that we do not end up falling into the path of sin and evil, and we do not end up making the wrong choice because we are swayed by the temptations of the world.

In our first reading today, taken from the Book of Deuteronomy, we heard of the Lord’s reminders to the people of Israel, which He gave them through His servant Moses, who led the people of God in the great Exodus from the land of Egypt, where the Israelites were enslaved. First, we must understand how the Lord has led them all out of Egypt through Moses and his brother Aaron, performing great wonders and miracles, and leading them even through the sea itself, as I am sure we are all aware of. During the journey to the land He has promised to them, God gave His Law and commandments, and made a Covenant with them on Mount Sinai. But the people even at that early stage already showed signs of rebellion and unwillingness to obey God’s Law and commandments.

They made for themselves a golden calf to be their god, and offered sacrifices to it, despite having witnessed and experienced all the things that God had done for them, in saving them from their troubles and slavery. Those who disobeyed the Lord and persisted in the rebellion were crushed by God, and at that day, when Moses returned from the Mount of God, three thousand people in total perished by their refusal to repent from their sinfulness, while the rest also had to endure the bitterness of their disobedience. Then, in another well-known occasion, at the place known as Massah and Meribah, the Israelites rebelled again in opposition to God because they complained and disagreed about their state in the desert, despite God having provided for their every needs, every step of their way.

In all those occasions, including the time when God finally led them all to the boundary of the Promised Land, and when they refused to enter because of the reports from the scouts they sent to find out more about the place, which brought fear to their hearts, God punished all of their whole generation for their continued hard-hearted attitude and wickedness, their stubbornness and refusal to believe in Him. They were barred from entering into the Promised Land, and the journey which was supposed to be a relatively short one, ended up becoming a sojourn in the desert lasting a whole period of forty years, in which the entire generation of those who had rebelled and refused to follow God, save that of Caleb and Joshua, who remained faithful to the end, perished and died. Like what happened in one occasion when the rebelling Israelites were struck by the plague of fiery serpents, many died for their rebellion and sin.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, what those examples and experiences highlighted to the people of Israel back then and also to all of us is that, those people made their choice of action, in rebelling against God and in disobeying Him by their own free will. They have been given so much by God, provided and helped throughout their journey, and even throughout that forty years period of punishment and delay, God still provided the people with everything that they needed to survive and even flourish in the middle of a hot and lifeless desert. Whatever the people did in disobeying God and rebelling against Him was therefore their own free will and free choice, as there were also those who remained firm in their faith in God, and did not fall into the sinful and rebellious ways. What is clear is that the path of disobedience and rebellion lead to death and destruction, while faith leads to salvation and liberation in God.

God Himself has said that those who kept their faith in Him will be blessed and will receive the fullness of His grace, and while the path that He was leading them towards will not be an easy one, but there is great merit for one to choose to remain faithful to God and to obey His Law and commandments. In our Gospel passage today, the Lord Jesus told His disciples that unless they take up their crosses and follow Him, there will be no salvation and path forward to eternal life for them, and He said clearly that even He Himself, as the Son of Man and Saviour of all, would have to endure great persecution and sufferings, as He eventually did at the moment of His Passion, when He chose willingly to bear the whole entire great and unimaginably heavy burden of our multitudes of sins, so that by His suffering and death, He might bring us all to the assurance of eternal life.

The Lord reminded us all that following Him is something that we should do, and we have the free will to choose that or to continue to live in the state of sin as what we may be more accustomed to in this world. His path is likely going to be a difficult and challenging one, as we often will have to resist the many temptations all around us, and as was evident from the example of the Israelites in the past, many of them and our predecessors failed to do so. Many veered off and fell off the path that God had led them through, and were tempted and ensnared by sin instead, tempted by their pride and ego, their greed and desires, their jealousy and lust, among others. But this should not discourage us from following the Lord. Instead, it should keep our flames of faith burning bright and strong, as we help one another to remain faithful to God.

Today, we should be inspired by the great examples and faith shown by St. Polycarp, a great Church father and our holy predecessor, who was a bishop of the Church, the Bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor. St. Polycarp was known to be one of the disciples of St. John the Apostle, the last surviving Apostle of the Lord back then, and he was entrusted with the care of many of the faithful in the often persecuted but still thriving Church. He was regarded as one of the three greatest Apostolic Fathers, the successors of the Apostles, together with Pope St. Clement of Rome and St. Ignatius of Antioch, each of whom were great role models and sources of inspiration in their own right. St. Polycarp corresponded frequently with the other Church fathers and was a great example to his flock, caring much for their spiritual needs.

And during a time of great and intense persecution of the Church by the Roman state, which carried out many rounds and episodes of persecutions and attacks against the Church and the faithful, St. Polycarp helped to lead his flock to remain faithful to God, and to endure the hardships and challenges that they had to face in the defence of their faith in God. In the end, St. Polycarp himself was arrested and persecuted, when he was already in the advanced age of eighty-six years old. Even then, in that old age, he remained strong in his desire to love and serve the Lord, and in persevering through the hardships and sufferings that he had to suffer, together with the rest of his flock, which was truly an example of them carrying their cross with the Lord. St. Polycarp died a martyr, inspiring countless others to follow the Lord more faithfully and with greater love, and I hope he has inspired us similarly too.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us all therefore renew our faith and commitment in God as we enter into this holy and blessed season of Lent. Let us make good use of this time and opportunity that God has given us so that each and every one of us may distance ourselves from the many temptations of sin, the allures of worldly fame, glory, pleasures, and the pressure from our pride, ego, greed, jealousy, ambition, and more. Let us all control all those desires and negative things within us, and help one another to be strong in enduring the challenges and trials of this world, carrying our crosses together faithfully with God. May the Lord continue to guide us and strengthen us, and give us all the courage to continue to live our lives as good and dedicated Christians, blessing our every works and efforts, our every endeavours at all times. Amen.

Thursday, 23 February 2023 : Thursday after Ash Wednesday, Memorial of St. Polycarp, Bishop and Martyr (Gospel Reading)

Liturgical Colour : Purple/Violet

Luke 9 : 22-25

At that time, Jesus said to His disciples, “The Son of Man must suffer many things. He will be rejected by the elders and chief priests and teachers of the Law, and be put to death. Then after three days He will be raised to life.”

Jesus also said to all the people, “If you wish to be a follower of Mine, deny yourself and take up your cross each day, and follow Me! For if you choose to save your life, you will lose it; but if you lose your life for My sake, you will save it. What does it profit you to gain the whole world, if you destroy or damage yourself?”