FOOLISHNESS & DEFEAT VS WISDOM & VICTORY

Novena in Honor of El Dulce Nombre de Maria
Dulce Nombre Cathedral-Basilica, Guam, USA
1st Day, August 29, 2008

Based on 1 Cor 1:17-25 / Mk 6:17-29

N.B. I am posting on a daily basis the series of homilies I am currently preaching at the Dulce Nombre de Maria Cathedral-Basilica at Hagatna, Guam.

We start out our novena with a story of seeming failure and defeat. The story that the liturgy presents us sounds almost like a telenovela, replete with individuals scheming and taking resort to manipulative tactics, hushed whispers behind curtains, and conjuring up sinister plans that end up in utter failure for one man who was acclaimed as a man greater than whom no one else born of woman had ever been.

Let us not mince words this time. John the Baptist, from the human plane, was an utter failure, a story of defeat along with a side story of worldly wisdom gone wrong.

Not much of a piece of good news, you would rather say perhaps? Hardly something worthy of the start of our novena in honor of a Lady portrayed by both Scripture and Tradition as one who steps on and crushes the head of the serpent in a marvelous story of victory? Indeed … the world everywhere is still full of a whole lot of these telenovela-like situations of both defeat and victory.

We live in a world filled with ambiguity. We find truth in what we pray our Lady for so often, enmeshed as we all are in this “valley of tears.” We see a lot of stories of seeming victories – China putting up a massive and majestic coming out party seen by no less than 4 billion people all over the shrinking world, stories of heroism despite so many problems all over the world, lives of ordinary people lived in fidelity, in trust, and in harmony with each other. But we are also aware of countless stories marred by disappointment upon disappointment. The psalmist of yore knew first hand that situation that up till now befuddles all men and women of good will: “Why is it that in disappointment all I endeavor end?”

One reason, among many why we go to Church, is we look for meaning. We look for answers to many questions. We look for divine guidance from above. Liturgy, apart from its main scope of giving fitting worship to God alone, also aims at affording us the opportunity to stop a while, leave the cares of our daily lives, in order to engage in meaning-making. We pause awhile, not only to think about God, but also to think about how to make our personal God really present in our daily lives.

This novena in honor of our Lady is no exception. We pause a moment and think about our lives. And the good news that I bring in the name of the Church is that it is worth our while to do so, and that the Blessed Mother, whom the poet Wordsworth refers to as “our tainted nature’s solitary boast” can, and indeed does help us to put back meaning into our personal and communal lives.

On this first day, I start with something simple, something foundational, and something that juts out so clearly in today’s readings. St. Paul gives the opening salvo to this effort at meaning making. He reframes what the world usually thinks of as defeat and unmasks the cross as the ultimate symbol and efficacious sign of our salvation. He makes much of the distinction between what the world claims as folly, and reveals for us the other side of the reality of pain and suffering willingly accepted for God’s and others’ sake. He speaks about worldly wisdom and pits it against the surpassing wisdom of the Cross. He makes it possible for us to look at various types of defeat and disappointment and see beyond them, and in faith and hope, see more, not less. He shows us that the same attitudes of faith and hope can turn darkness into light, despair into hope, and defeat into victory.

And this is the same message of the woman above all women, for whom and in honor of whom we gather for nine days beginning today. It is no secret to all of us that all the approved apparitions of our Blessed Mother mostly took place in areas of seeming defeat and depression – in poor, insignificant – even, barren – areas: Lourdes, at the foot of the Pyrenees, Fatima in rural, and rocky Coimbra, Portugal, and so many others. In almost all of her earthly apparitions, it seemed like Mary took up the cudgels for all those whom the world considers as foolish and weak, in order for them to experience the revelation of victory that God Himself works for all those who love Him.

Our Gospel reading today is another story of seeming utter defeat – the beheading and martyrdom of John the Baptist. Worse than this, one cannot have – a story of one who spends his short lifetime preparing for the coming of one greater than he is, who spends all his life in semi-privation, only to be rewarded with a violent death that he did not deserve. John the Baptist, from a purely human viewpoint, can only be called a loser.

But people of faith, hope, and love see things differently. As we start this novena, we would like to take stock of how much or how little, or how different is our way of seeing things. I would like to think that the Blessed Mother is with us these nine days, and for always, as we continue to search for meaning, despite all the seeming meaninglessness that surround us. She also grappled with meaning. The Gospel of Luke tells us how she pondered on everything in her heart. In between the lines, we can see also how she struggled, how she tried to keep afloat in a turbulent sea of disappoinment upon disappointment. But the same Gospel tells us that “she treasured everything in her heart.”

This may well be what we all need to do … to treasure … to reflect on, and mull over in faith, hope, and love whatever it is that comes our way. When we do, we just might see more, much more, and even see beyond. Foolishness and defeat, much like the reversal of fortunes for the powerful and the proud being brought down from their thrones, will be transformed into higher wisdom and glorious victory in God. And then, we will have all the more reason to claim as we just did after the first reading: “The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord.”

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