BY THE STRENGTH OF THE LORD
4th Sunday of Advent(C)
5th Day of Simbang Gabi / Misa de Gallo
December 20, 2009
Readings: Mi 5:1-4a / Hebrews 10:5-10 / Lk 1:39-45
The word “bayani” (hero in Tagalog) has become a by-word in the Philippines of late. We got two this year, from no less than internationally renowned entities. CNN hailed my youthful “kababayan” (province-mate) Efren Penaflorida as hero of the year. Muelmar Magallanes was hailed as hero of the year by Time International magazine after saving the lives of 30 others but lost his own during the worst floodings the Phillippines have had in decades. We had a number of unsung and unknown heroes during the height of the twin typhoons that ravaged a big portion of Northern Philippines. Whilst people pleaded for help, about to be overtaken by rampaging floods, young Filipinos who were techno-savvy were busy providing equally unknown individuals orchestrating help for them – help that the government was ill prepared to give … to thousands who needed it, all at the same time!
We cry for heroes who make it … even if, sadly, we hail them only and only when the international community has declared them and recognized them to be such. I don’t know what is wrong with us that we cannot appreciate our own home-grown heroes. Ironically, most of the heroes we recognize as such have been recognized as such, only when the rest of the world has shown us the way.
Sad … but true. But I am veering away from what I am supposed to do. My job as preacher is to make sense of what Scripture, with its meta-narrative of salvation, tells us … in bite-sized pieces … three readings, in fact, - the most we can have on any day. The three readings share common cause on at least one truth – the truth about strength that does not come in size, in numbers, in bulk, and in magnitude. They talk about simple, lowly, and humble strength – strength that is not guaranteed by force, by fist, by means foul, but by means fair, such as unassuming lowliness, littleness, humility, and simplicity.
Ephratha was nothing like the Big Apple (New York)! It was a forlorn little district in Bethlehem, itself insignificant backwater in those times. But look at what the prophetic utterance from Micah would have us understand! “You, Bethlehem-Ephratha too small to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel.”
Similarly, little people stand no chance in the big league contest that life has become in our times. Zechariah was old and feeble, and Elizabeth was barren – left behind by the times, as it were. They lived out in the boonies of Judah, over hill, over dale, with nothing significant to be proud of. They were, at best, a stand-in for the least, the last, the lowest; at worst, they were part of the forgotten, the preyed upon, the least consulted ones.
But lo and behold! The angel of the Lord was sent to little people like them. The promise of the Lord befell the small Ephratha – from whom will come the ruler in Israel – itself small, forlorn, and forgotten by all the big league players around it. Their strength did not come from progeny, from privilege, and from inborn prestige. Their strength came from no less than the Lord, who wanted, not their “sacrifices and offerings,” but only their commitment to the Lord represented by a ready and willing response to Him: “Behold, I come to do your will.”
Nelson Mandela was no match to those who, prior to him, held office and position in South Africa. A former prisoner, he stood no human chance against the powers that be, against the influential “gatekeepers” of the sorely divided culture that was South Africa. He stood no human chances, pitted against a prevailing culture that says it is part of the white man’s burden to be inherently superior to all other colors, and that people of color should just follow what history tells them to – stay right in their lowly place.
Peekay, too, was no match against that same culture in the movie “The Power of One.” Zechariah was too old and yucky to be considered as one who could make things happen. So, too, was Elizabeth. And so, were Mary and Joseph, particularly Mary, who, despite being poor herself, “went in haste to the hill country of Judea” to do an errand of charity. Being needy herself, she went in aid of someone just as needy – Elizabeth.
They were strong! They were powerful beyond imagination. And they were so, not on account of what they had, not on account of what were given to them, but on account of who was behind them!
They were powerful because the Lord was with them. This was the greeting of Gabriel to Mary: ho kyrios meta sou … the Lord is with you. Poor and weak though you are – and young! – you stand with the Lord, you walk with the Lord. And you are powerful beyond measure … you are blessed … even blessed among all women, for blessed, too, is the fruit of your womb!
I am old enough to look back a whole lot. I am a priest long enough to reflect on experiences. And what do I see? A lot of weakness on my part, (and a lot of silliness, too!) … a lot of imperfections … there is a whole lot I can still learn, even with a few more letters that follow my already long name … and more than three decades teaching! What do I see? It is when I am most confident that I had it all that I miserably failed. It is when I thought I had everything going for me, that I fell flat on my face. But when I am least prepared, and leave everything on the hands of God, then God indeed takes over. God does things for me. God stands in for me, stands beside me and before me. And I am strong, not because I hold on to my own guns, but because I hold onto the power of Him who, in my weakness, is really my strength!
The Philippines, “el nuestro perdido Eden” (our Lost Paradise), even if remains “region del sol querida” (so sun-blessed), is lowly and small (and made even smaller, and humbled by so much dirty politics and corruption!). The Church herself, in the context of so much irreligion and secularism, has been almost rendered mute and even seemingly indefensible before the onslaught of so much anti-clericalism and hatred from all fronts (including some who claim to be catholics!)
But today, 5th day of our novena, I refuse to crumble and cringe before the seemingly infinite powers of the evil one who is ultimately behind all this orchestrated conspiracy of evil – what the late Pope John Paul II calls “sinful solidarity.” I would like to take common cause with the poor and the weak, the old and the infirm, those who are looked down on because of race, color, or creed or anything else. I take up common cause with Ephratha … with Zechariah, with Elizabeth … with the Promised One because “He shall stand firm and shepherd his flock by the strength of the Lord!”