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THE WAY TO TRUE HAPPINESS: 4TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME YEAR A ON JANUARY 29, 2023 (R. 1: Zephaniah 2: 3; 3: 12-13; Psalm 146: 6-7, 8-9, 9-10; R. 2: 1 Corinthians 1: 26-31; Gospel: Matthew 5: 1-12a) FR EMMANUEL INEDU OCHIGBO

When you compare Christianity with other religions, you will discover one unique thing about Christianity, that is, Christianity is not just about a set of teachings; it is primarily about a person, namely Jesus Christ. In Christianity, the teacher and the teaching are one. Jesus is not separate from his teaching. Last Sunday, at the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus went about recruiting his disciples saying “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). He did not say, “Come, let me teach you;” he called them to make them into something new, to bring about an ontological change in them, that they may become one with him. So in Christianity, three elements are one: the Teacher, the Teaching and the Student (Disciple).

Having called his followers last Sunday, today he begins their formation with the Sermon on the Mount. The sermon is not about morality, it is about Jesus. Since his mission is to make us to be like him, he is drawing a self-portrait here on the mount and inviting his disciples to become like him. Archbishop Fulton Sheen notes that “Two mounts are related as the first and second acts in a two-act drama. The Mount of the Beatitude and the Mount of Calvary. He who climbed the first to preach the beatitudes must necessarily climb the second to practice what he preached.” So, the Beatitudes all form the portrait/picture of Jesus.

Jesus said, “Blessed are…” The Greek adjective used here is makarioi, which can be translated into English as blessed or happy. That explains why some translations will say “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, while others will say, “Happy are the poor in spirit…” So, the invitation that Jesus is offering his followers is an invitation to happiness, which comes not in the way of the world but from becoming one with Jesus. It is the happiness that the world cannot give to us, and cannot take away from us. After he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” he later revealed himself as an embodiment of that poverty when one of the scribes volunteered to follow him wherever he went. Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8: 20).

When he said, “Blessed are they who mourn…” it was not far from him, for the Prophet Isaiah had already described him as “[A] man of sorrows and familiar with sufferings” (53: 3). What about when he said, “Blessed are the meek…”? In Matthew 11: 29-30 Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am peaceful and meek in my heart and you will find rest for your souls.” What about “Blessed are the peace makers for they will be called children (sons) of God.”? Already, Isaiah prophesied, “For there is a child born for us, a son is given to us…this is the name they will give him; Wonder-Counsellor…Prince-of-Peace” (Isaiah 9: 6). And when he died on the Cross, the Centurion exclaimed, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15: 39).

So, the beatitudes are not just the teachings of Jesus but the life of Jesus himself. He makes no distinction between his teaching and his life, similarly, he makes no distinction between himself and his followers. He says his sorrows will be theirs; his joy will be theirs. His followers are to be like him in all things. He asked us to expect to be treated as he was treated, and that we should respond like he responded so we might be rewarded like he was rewarded.

Have you ever been given a kiss that blistered? Have you ever been betrayed by an insider? Have you ever helped a friend who later used the same help to harm you? Have your friends, family, classmates, co-workers ever turned against you because you stood for the truth? Have you been denied your right because you did the right thing? Compare notes with Jesus, he was there before you. One of my professors once said, “Jesus lost the only election he contested.” That was when Pilate asked the crowd (among whom might have been those Jesus healed) to choose between Jesus and Barabbas and the crowd preferred Barabbas the terrorist to Jesus the Savior. In the midst of such treatments, he said “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.” And truly, he did not curse those who persecuted him, he rather prayed for them, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” The Apostles and the early Christians took after him. Paul and Silas sang and praised God while in prison (cf. Acts 16: 25), and Stephen prayed for those who stoned him to death (cf. Acts 7: 60). So, Christianity is not just about head knowledge, but the transformation of life into a life lived in and as Christ.

A monk was once meditating by the riverside. He saw a scorpion being washed into the river by the flood, he then bent down and picked up the scorpion to prevent it from being drowned, but the scorpion stung him. He threw it back into the water and nursed his finger for a while. When he felt better, he went back to pick the scorpion and he was stung again. He threw it into the river and nursed his finger. When he felt better, he was about to pick it the third time when a passer-by yelled at him, “Brother Monk, are you crazy! The scorpion has been stinging you and you keep helping it.” The Monk then replied, “It is the nature of the scorpion to sting, while it is the nature of the Monk to help. So, let the scorpion keep on stinging and let the Monk continue to help.” My dearly beloved in Christ, I am not suggesting that you go and start picking up scorpions with your bare hands after this Mass. The point is that we must never allow the bitterness of someone else to contaminate our sweetness. In order to attain the blessedness/ happiness that Jesus has promised us, two important rules we must keep: Rule 1: Never give up on doing good things. Rule 2. Always remember rule 1.

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BUT HOW DID WE GET HERE? 3RD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME YEAR A ON JANUARY 22, 2023 (R. 1: Isaiah 8: 23- 9: 3; Psalm 27: 1, 4, 13- 14; R. 2: 1 Corinthians 1: 10- 13, 17; Gospel: Matthew 4: 12- 23) FR EMMANUEL INEDU OCHIGBO

The Church in Corinth is very dear to Paul. After he founded the Church in Corinth, he is now in Ephesus. Corinth is a port city like San Diego and so it has its own share of wealth and there are all kinds of people. The diversity of people in the city of Corinth becomes a challenge for the Church in Corinth. The Church has to learn how to live with this diversity. But not much progress is being made; things seem to be degenerating and the news gets to Paul in Ephesus that the Church is now divided based on allegiance to Paul, to Apollos or to Cephas. Paul’s response to the Corinthians shows that he is quite upset with the Christians in Corinth. He must be wondering, “How did we get here?” He then writes to them taking them back to their foundation. “Has Christ been parceled out? Was it Paul that was crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” The Gospel of Salvation is not a matter of political parties within the Church, it is about our Lord Jesus Christ, who is our salvation.

But what caused the divisions in the Church in Corinth? It is certainly not far from selfishness, the desire to dominate others and impose a particular way of thinking on them. Jealousy must have also played a crucial role in the crisis. When jealousy hits good people, it does not only spoil the goodness in them but they also lose the attractiveness of the gospel. This division that stems from jealousy and selfishness, which threatens the Church was there even before the Church in Corinth. At the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus, the disciples of John the Baptist were jealous of those who began to follow Jesus. Some of the Apostles of Jesus became indignant of James and John (sons of Zebedee) in their effort to obtain first places in the kingdom.

What about us? Have we outgrown what Paul is preaching against? With the different Christian denominations springing up every passing hour, antagonizing one another, can we say we are one in Christ? Let us not even talk about different Christian denominations. Focusing on the Catholic Church, do we not sometimes have different prayer groups antagonizing one another and struggling for superiority? For some, members of the Legion of Mary are holier, while others think that members of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal are the sole custodians of the Holy Spirit. The one that makes me laugh, is when I find some Catholics argue about whether our Lady of Fatima is superior to Our Lady of Guadalupe or not, or whether our Lady of Lourdes is superior to Our Lady of La Salette or not. Such arguments make me wonder whether these people realize that they are talking about the same Blessed Virgin Mary.

It is quite disheartening to see a parish bitterly divided over issues like what color to paint the Church, whether to hold hands or not while praying the Lord’s Prayer, which position to place a new statue or picture and which devotion is better. How did we get here? Sometimes, we unknowingly make a god out of the liturgy, forgetting that the liturgy itself like ourselves is at the service of God. One would have expected Paul to have used the opportunity of the Corinthian crisis to win followers to himself, but he did not do that. He knew the Corinthians were missing the point. Paul did not want them to line up behind human leaders; he changed the debate, and pointed to Christ.

Stepping outside the Church, we still see people missing the point. It is no longer enough to be a Padres fan, you also need to hate the Dodgers. It is not enough to be an Arsenal fan, you must prove it by hating Chelsea or Barcelona. Did I hear you say you are a Democrat? Ok, that means you hate the Republicans. Wait a minute, you can’t be a true Republican if hatred for Democrats is not oozing out of you. But how did we get here? It has become so difficult to see any American these days, all you see are Republicans or Democrats. But how did we get here?  The light Isaiah prophesied about has found fulfilment in Jesus Christ as we see in the Gospel. Jesus has handed the light over to us to share with the world. But we can only do that effectively if we are united. It is okay to ask questions and to disagree but we must not forget our main goal. Our denominational affiliations must not supersede our common identity in Jesus Christ. In the face of disagreement, we must not forget that we are still brothers and sisters. The more the world continues to over emphasis our racial differences, the more we must correct the world that there is only one race that matters, and that is the human race. Let us build strength from our diversity. As the saying often attributed to St. Augustine goes, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” When the wise man points at the star for the foolish man to see, the foolish man focuses instead on the wise man’s finger. May the Holy Spirit open our eyes to see beyond our differences so as to enjoy the beauty in our diversity, until we come to our heavenly inheritance, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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LET OTHERS ALSO SHINE! 2ND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME YEAR A ON JANUARY 15, 2023 (R. 1: Isaiah 49: 3, 5-6; Psalm 40: 2, 4, 7-8, 8-9, 10; R. 2: 1 Corinthians 1: 1-3; Gospel: John 1: 29-34) FR EMMANUEL INEDU OCHIGBO

Today is the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time. The Ordinary Time of the Church’s Year is the longest season of the Liturgical Calendar. It is broken into two parts. The first part begins after Christmas Season, that is, after the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and ends on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. The second part begins on the Monday after Pentecost Sunday; and ends on the Saturday before the First Sunday of Advent of the following Liturgical Year. The liturgical color for this season is green.

A few days ago, a friend commented, “Thank God we are now in Ordinary Time, nothing serious is happening in the Church, so we can take time off and relax.” In response, I told her to be careful and not let the name, “Ordinary Time” mislead her. A Christian must never take time off from being a Christian. The “job” of being a Christian is 24/7. “Ordinary” does not mean that it is inferior to the other seasons. It describes a season that is not restricted to a particular aspect of the mystery of the life of Christ. Advent Season focuses on the preparation for the mystery of the Incarnation, the Birth of Christ. Christmas Season focuses on the mystery of the birth of Christ. Lenten season focuses on the mystery of the suffering, passion, and death of Christ. Easter Season focuses on the mystery of the Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ, culminating in the mystery of the Descent of the Holy Spirit. The rest of the year falls under the Ordinary Time of the Year.

Having reflected on the specific aspects of the mystery of Christ in the other seasons, Ordinary Time becomes a time when Christians bear fruit in their lives based on their reflections on the life of Christ in the other seasons. Instead of seeing Ordinary Time as a “Christian Time-Out,” Ordinary Time is when the real work should begin for Christians. It is time to blossom in the world based on the grace we have received from the life of Christ, which we reflected on in the other seasons. The liturgical color, green, reminds us of the green leaves of plants. The greenness of leaves is a testimony to the nutrients the plant has received from the ground, from the sun, and from the atmosphere. The plant with the green leaves goes further to flower and bear fruits to feed the world.

The relationship between Ordinary Time and the other seasons of the liturgical year is like that between the Gospel according to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. Luke is the author of both works. In the Gospel according to Luke, we see the life of Jesus Christ, and in the Acts of the Apostles, we see the life of Christians patterned after the life of Christ. For example, the event of the martyrdom of Stephen shows that Stephen rehearsed and lived the Crucifixion of Christ. So, Ordinary Time is when we get into the hard work of showing the world, what we received from Christ in the other seasons, it is the time we blossom and shine as Christians to sanctify the world.

In today’s first reading, God reminds the Church, the new Israel, through the Prophet Isaiah, “I will make you a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” The season of Ordinary Time is the time to live out this responsibility of being the light to the nations. The light does not necessarily add anything to what is in existence, it reveals the beauty that is in existence. For example, John became a light in the Gospel passage when he revealed Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” He knew something good about Jesus that others did not know. He knew that would turn people’s attention from him to Jesus, but he went on to shine his light on Jesus, to reveal him to the world.

As we begin this first part of the Ordinary Time of the Liturgical Year, let us examine ourselves as Christians. Do I shine my light on others to reveal the beauty in them for the world to see? Do I divert people’s attention from the beauty of others? When I read a post on social media, do I only point out what I think is wrong so as to distract people from the rest of the work? Do I describe people by their disabilities or their abilities? Am I afraid of letting others shine? Why do we persecute people when they are alive only to canonize them when they die? My dearly beloved in Christ, I have another suggestion for New Year’s resolution as we begin this New Year. Let us agree as a family, as friends, as coworkers, etc. to meet in-person or virtually once every week or every month. The agenda for the meeting is to go round the table to tell each member one wonderful thing about them, just shine your light on one of their good qualities. Let us resolve for this year that if there is something negative about them, we will not say it to anyone except to God in prayer. We will only shine our lights on their good sides, and by so doing, their good sides will suffocate their bad sides. Let us not wait until their funeral before we say how they were the best creatures of God. Let us say it while they are still alive. As we accept this resolution, may the light that shines from Christ through us dispel all the forces of darkness, until we come to our heavenly inheritance; through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

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WHAT A PARADOX! THE EPIPHANY OF THE LORD YEAR “A” ON JANUARY 8, 2023 (R. 1: Isaiah 60: 1-6; Psalm 72: 1- 2, 7-8, 10-13; R. 2: Ephesians 3: 2-3a, 5-6; Gospel: Matthew 2: 1- 12) FR EMMANUEL INEDU OCHIGBO

Shortly after my priestly ordination in Nigeria, I was assigned to the Cathedral in my home diocese as Assistant Cathedral Administrator. I invited an older priest to direct a retreat for the young adults of the Cathedral. While preaching on the first day of the retreat, he pointed out that there are four groups of people in the Catholic Church who must work harder if they must make it to heaven. I became very concerned when he listed the four groups, I found myself in two of them. He listed the following as the four groups: Altar servers, Choristers, Church Wardens/Ushers/Hospitality, and Pastoral Council. Altar Servers (I became an altar server at the age of seven), Choir (I joined the choir from my mother’s womb. She was pregnant with me and kept going to the choir, so I had no choice but join her. All through my Seminary formation, I was also a member of the choir. Two years before my graduation, I became one of the Choir Masters, and a year after my priestly ordination, I became the Diocesan Music Director of my diocese).

The four groups according to him are so close to the altar that they can easily end up being far away from God. For the altar servers, when they come to Mass, they are usually so preoccupied with what they had practiced that they do not listen to the readings, they do not pay attention to the homilies, and they do not pray. Their goal is to avoid making mistakes while serving.

Similarly, choristers can easily forget that they are to lead the congregation in worship. It is not uncommon to see choristers flipping through their singing sheets or books while the readings or homilies are going on. At other times, while prayers are going on, they keep on whispering tunes into the ears of one another or running commentaries. The instrumentalists use moments of readings, homilies, and prayers to continue their private rehearsals in low volume. It is also not uncommon to find members of the choir escaping from Mass at any point during the Mass that they are not “performing”, only to come back when it is time for their next “performance,” like the Mass is a concert.

The third group is made up of Church Wardens/Ushers/Hospitality. In Nigeria, in addition to welcoming and ushering worshippers to their seats, the ushers also help to maintain order during Mass by going round the Church to watch out for those who distract others at Mass and to wake those who sleep at Mass (I would like to say – for the record – I never allowed ushers to wake people up at Masses I celebrated. I always told them that if people fall asleep during the homily, it is a signal to me that I need to step up my game). They also direct people to the offering box in front of the altar. The priest who preached at that retreat observed that while moving around in the Church to make sure that people pay attention at Mass, these ushers themselves do not pay attention. He observed that while directing people to drop money in the offering box/baskets, they themselves do not drop any money from their pockets.

Finally, for the Pastoral Council members, they know how the Church should be run, and they make all the policies. They are quick at pointing out how the youths are not dressing properly to Church, but their own children would not even come to Church so you can’t talk about how they dress. When such council members come to Mass, rather than pray, or listen to the word of God for their own edification, they spend more time evaluating the priest, his style/length of homily, his style of administration, and to see if there is need to call the attention of the bishop to him.

Reflecting on these four groups, I have added a fifth group to the list; it is a group I glaringly belong to right now, namely the priests or the preachers. From my experience, it can be very tempting to be very preoccupied with thinking about what to preach to you that I forget to think of what to preach to myself. That is why, after the Mass, when I go back to my room, I quickly run to my mirror, I look at the “young man” in the mirror and I say to him, “I hope you heard what the priest said at Mass today.”

My Dearly Beloved in Christ, today is the solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord. It is the day we celebrate the revelation of the Lord to the Gentiles. On this day we reflect on the visit of the magi to the newborn King. We also reflect on their gifts to the king. They brought three gifts; the gift of gold to honor his Kingship, the gift of frankincense to honor his divinity, and the gift of myrrh to honor his humanity, which was destined for death.

From today’s Gospel passage, we see three different reactions to the birth of Christ. The first reaction is that of Herod, which is characterized by fear, hatred and hostility. Herod was afraid that this little child was going to interfere with his life, his place, his power, his influence, his comfort zone, and so his first instinct was to destroy him. We still have people who are all out to destroy Christ in the family, in Schools, in offices, even in the Church because they feel he interferes with their comfort zones. What kind of homilies do we enjoy listening to, the ones that tell us to remain in our comfort zones or the ones that challenge us to grow in the way of Christ?  

The second reaction is that of the chief priests and scribes characterized by complete indifference. They answered correctly the question posed by Herod about the child to be born, but it made no difference to them. They were so engrossed in their Temple ritual and their legal discussions that they completely disregarded Jesus. He meant nothing to them. Like the four or five groups we talked about at the beginning who can be so involved in the life of the Church yet having nothing spiritually to show for it. The Jews, who had the scriptures and the prophets foretelling them plainly about the birth of the Messiah, did not hasten to find the Messiah, but the Gentiles who only borrowed the scriptures, found the Messiah, and worshipped Him.

The third reaction is that of the magi characterized by adoring worship. They were driven by the desire to lay at the feet of Jesus Christ the noblest gifts which they could bring. In the magi, we learn the lesson that those who live at the greatest distance from the means of grace often use most diligence and learn to know the most of Christ and his salvation.

The four or five groups we talked about at the beginning was not meant to attack any group, but to draw our attention to the risk of losing out even though as Catholics we have got all the means of grace, namely the Word and the Sacraments. This challenges us to take more seriously the Christ in our spouses that we have taken for granted, the Christ in our parents, children, or siblings that we have taken for granted. This is the challenge to take more seriously the wonderful gifts we have in our country recognized by other nations, but which we have taken for granted. It is very possible to be a minister, who leads others to Jesus, and yet not find Jesus ourselves. Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, but today, he continues to be born in our lives and various circumstances. Christ is our Lord, who has come to reveal the glory of God. I pray for you as I pray for myself for the grace to always recognize him, and to come to him in sincere and constant worship and adoration until we come to our heavenly inheritance, through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

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STOP AND PONDER! SOLEMNITY OF MARY, THE HOLY MOTHER OF GOD YEAR A ON SUNDAY JANUARY 1, 2023 (R. 1: Numbers 6: 22-27; Psalm 67: 2-3, 5, 6, 8 R. 2: Galatians 4: 4-7; Gospel: Luke 2: 16-21) FR EMMANUEL INEDU OCHIGBO

Happy New Year! This is not a new year of the Church. The Church’s New Year began since the last Sunday of last November. The New Year we are celebrating today is the secular New Year. It is the New Year of the world. It is ok for the Church to celebrate the New Year of the world because, even though we are not of the world, scripture acknowledges the fact that we are in the world. Since we are in the world, it is our responsibility to sanctify the world by the way we live our lives.

As Christians, our power to sanctify the world comes from Jesus Christ, who came not to condemn, but to save the world. During his public ministry, Jesus went about teaching, doing good works, and calling people to follow him as his disciples. As Christians, we are followers of Christ, and so we are his disciples.

On the first day of the secular year, the first of January every year, we celebrate the solemnity of Mary, The Holy Mother of God. Today’s second reading, Paul’s Letter to the Galatians reminds us that “God sent his Son, born of a woman.” Who is this Son? He is Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. He is God himself. The woman is the Blessed Virgin Mary. If her son is God, then, it is not out of place to call her the Mother of God.

Why the choice of this date for the celebration of Mary the Mother of God? We can look at it from many angles. But I would like to look at it this way. As we said earlier, the Scripture that says we are not of this world, also acknowledges the fact that we are in this world. Our responsibility as Christians/disciples of Christ is to sanctify this world by the way we follow Christ, and by the way we relate to this world.

As we begin the secular year, the Church presents the Blessed Virgin Mary to us as the first and best disciple of her son, Jesus Christ. The Church wants her to mentor us as we begin a new secular year. Mary followed her son by submitting to the will of God from the beginning of her earthly life until the end.

Mary had the singular honor of being the Mother of God, but that did not prevent her from facing the challenges of this life. In spite of the difficulties she faced in this life, she pondered everything in her heart, and she submitted herself to the will of God. Her conception of Jesus Christ raised suspicions regarding her virginity. Even to this day, some Christians still raise questions regarding the authenticity of the virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. After she gave birth to Jesus, she, along with Joseph and Jesus had to escape Herod’s sword by becoming refugees in Egypt, Africa. In her presence, religious leaders attacked her son; she watched her son carry a cross that was not for him; in her presence, her son died a death that was not meant for him. His lifeless body was laid on her lap, yet she pondered everything in her heart, and she continued to align her ways with God’s will.

As we begin this new secular year, the Church invites us to live our lives, to respond to the challenges of this world like the Blessed Virgin Mary, by pondering everything in our hearts, and doing God’s will. Being the Mother of God did not insulate her from the challenges of this life. Similarly, being a Christian will not insulate any of us from the challenges of this life. As we begin this new secular year, you may be considering a resolution for the New Year. Maybe this is a time to consider the resolution to ponder things in our hearts like Mary before we act. Maybe, before reacting to that rumor, before reacting to that false allegation against you, stop and ponder, and ask God, “What is your will for me in this case.” Before reacting to what you term failure in your relationships, education, business, job, health, etc., stop and ponder, and ask God, “What do you want from me at this time?” Many times, we react to things and situations, and we end up regretting because we did not seek the will of God. The Blessed Virgin Mary aligned her will with God’s will. She trusted entirely in the grace of God. Today, she is crowned in heaven. As we begin this new secular year, let us unite our prayers with the prayers of the Blessed Virgin Mary by saying, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

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