8th Day of Simbang Gabi / Misa de Gallo

December 23, 2009

Readings: Mal 3:1-4, 23-24 / Lk 1:57-66

We are almost at the end of our nine-day novena in preparation for Christmas. Our last minute preparations are reaching fever pitch, and excitement hangs heavy in the air, even as Mayon volcano’s ashes hang heavy in Albay, where the heavier air of uncertainty looms larger. Everywhere else, most specially in Metro Manila, the traffic flow in most cases has come to a halt, and tempers are rising, much faster than the nippy cool morning air goes lower

Two days before Christmas, it does not seem appropriate to speak of suffering, of purification, of cleansing. But I am sorry… we must preach in season and out of season, and the very first reading of today’s liturgy culled from Malachi, although it speaks about the certainty of the coming of Him “whom we seek,” poses a question and asks all of us now awaiting him, whether we can “endure the day of his coming.” Yes … one tradition of the Old Testament capitalizes on the image of the “day of Yahweh” as a day that is symbolically frightful, a day of terror, in keeping with the apocalyptic style of writing that became the fad towards the latter centuries prior to the birth of the Messiah.

But of course, we know better than interpret that literally. It needs to be contextualized in the literary tradition or the literary “genre” used by the prophet Malachi to drive home a simple important lesson: Christ the Lord is coming. How, and what the circumstances of that coming would be is not the intended lesson of the oracle, but the simple truth that the Lord will come – and be ruler of all the nations! (Another image used to drive home the lesson that He will be Lord of all and sovereign over all).

But there are lessons that we can learn from the sub-themes (equivalent to sub-plots in a story) that we see from the readings. And one such sub-theme in Malachi is the truth about the awaited One coming to purify, to cleanse, to refine. Using the symbolic image of the precious metal silver, he makes much of the image of fire that will be used to refine the gross metallic compound, in order to come out with nothing but pure silver, not an alloy.

As I took breakfast this morning (December 20, 2009), the ANC program featured stories of our fellow Pinoys who passed through fire and all sorts of suffering before they could reach the point where they are now. Some stories were real tear-jerkers for me. Easily moved to tears, I have to confess that their stories touched me and gave me a perfect jumping board for the reflection that, this morning, I was trying already to mull on, and plan for.

Yes … life is like Him “who will sit refining and purifying silver.” Life is a great teacher, and blessed is the man or woman who learns precious lessons for life. And one element in life that teaches more quickly and deeply than all others is called the school of hard knocks – the school of suffering. I could not help but admire the story-tellers who told it like it is, sanitizing nothing of their rich experience, telling all the viewers of ANC just how difficult it had been for them while their “kuya” who was the sole breadwinner for many years, sacrificed everything just to send all his brothers and sisters to school.

What they recounted in many ways resounded with my own experience. And for about half an hour, I felt so close to the family telling their story. I felt one with them and I had the big urge to connect with them in real time. But I saw more than just tears from the man and woman (brother and sister) who told their stories. I saw hope … the very same tears of hope that the prophets of old told the Israelites, despite their pain, despite their tears, despite their untold suffering: “Lift up your heads and see; your redemption is near at hand.”

Malachi speaks of the sending of Elijah before the “great and terrible day.” But I ask you to focus, not on the terrible day, (dies irae in Latin), but on what follows, on the net effect of this important event. It cannot be anything else but good news. For everything that translates into closer intimacy between and among families, between and among peoples, cannot but be good news. The reading from Malachi tells us this good news: “to turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with doom.”

One of the things that struck me in the storytellers’ account in this morning’s show on ANC was precisely this – the undeniable truth that suffering purifies individuals, and molds families closer to one another. The pain the siblings experienced, the sufferings they faced as they struggled to survive, and get an education, was precisely what gelled them together into one. They became so close to one another, and the dross of temporary setbacks, became the pure silver nuggets of lifelong learning, and learnings for life that cannot be substituted for by anything material.

I am sure you all could find reasons to identify with such stories. And if and when you do, then the readings today will have become good news to you. They are for me, nothing less and nothing else but a lesson on hope – purifying hope, that makes us the wiser for the experience. Zechariah, an old man, along with his equally aged wife, Elizabeth all of a sudden received a challenge that was more proper of their younger counterparts. But the Lord’s choice fell on them. From then on, life became a little messy for them. He lost his voice and ability to talk. Curious neighbors and relatives did not leave him in peace. They milled around him, unbidden, uninvited, and probably unwanted. Elizabeth herself could use a helping hand provided by her solicitous cousin, Mary. And Mary rose to the occasion and went in haste to her hillside dwelling, to do an errand of charity.

In their temporary pain, and temporarily upset simple lives, Mary became the living message of hope, of care, and of compassion from above. Uncertain herself about the meaning of what the angel told her, and most likely suffering due to that uncertainty and anxiety, Mary became for Elizabeth and Zechariah, the beacon of what it means to make the most out of one’s pain and suffering, and come out of it all a winner!

I have had a most difficult six months in my new field of work. Inheriting a school that has its own history and tradition for the past 61 years, in a foreign place where everything is new and strange, I met with not just a little resistance. There were times I wanted to just pack up and go, and leave them to their own devices. But so far, I have remained steadfast. I don’t know whether the morrow will be better for me and for everyone, but I do know one thing … a little rain has to fall on everyone’s life, and after the rain comes the flowers coming into full bloom.

The reading we reflected on a few days ago, from the Song of Songs, comes back to haunt me in a good sense. “Come my fair, my beloved one, come; the rains are over and gone.”

Take it from the storytellers of this morning’s program … take it from Zechariah, Elizabeth and Mary and Joseph … Take it from Malachi and all the prophets … We need to be purified, if we are to offer fitting sacrifice to Him who gave everything and sacrificed everything for us!


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