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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

BLESSINGS THAT MAKE LIFE WORTH LIVING: STARTING AFRESH WITH CHRIST AND MARY BY OUR SIDE

















Catholic Homily / Liturgical Reflection

Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God(C)

January 1, 2009


There is something absolutely heartwarming in the first reading we hear year after year, supposedly one of the oldest poetic pieces in the Bible, uttered by Moses to Aaron and his sons. It warms the heart not only because in it we find a threefold blessing, but also because the name of the “Lord” (Yahweh) is mentioned directly in as many times.


Here we are face to face with an image of God as nurturing, caring, life-enabling, intimate, protective, warm, gracious, kind and solicitous … in short, an image of God, not only as Father, but also as Mother.


Not too often do we get to hear reflections revolving around the idea of God as both paternal and maternal. In this world that emphasizes a whole lot of distinctions between black and white, east and west, north and south, rich and poor, women and men, old and young, the haves and the have-nots, the powerful and the powerless, male and female, Jew and Greek, believers and Gentiles, etc … we tend to see reality, including God Himself, in terms of clearly delineated categories. We forget that parenthood per se, which encompasses paternity and maternity really finds integration in the commonalities that make parenthood what it essentially is: nurturing, caring, life-enabling, facilitating, empowering, and growth enhancing presence!


Presence! This is an apt word to sum up the riches of today’s liturgy in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God! Presence is essentially what the threefold blessing we heard today (and every year at New Year’s Day Mass). I have it on the authority of so many psychologists and researchers that even on the human plane, the warm, nurturing, caring, secure presence of the first “object” a child relates to – the mother – assures the child of getting a “secure base” from which to launch his or her relational personhood to life, to the world, to others and to self! Healthy personhood starts out on a basic sense of healthy attachment to a parent figure, particularly the mother.


The people of God, led by Moses and Aaron, was just a newly born community as they went for their journey of salvation in the desert. They were a fledgling infant struggling to find themselves a niche in the promised land which was at that time, nowhere near and within arm’s length. They were immersed in all the uncertainties of a desert, nomadic existence for all of 40 years! They were, for all intents and purposes, suckling babes dependent on the graciousness, kindness and enabling presence of their Lord and God.


That presence was made into palpable reality through Moses and Aaron. That heartwarming presence assumed concrete expression in the threefold blessing that was uttered by Moses. The presence of God was mediated by God’s messenger, God’s prophet, God’s emissary to His beloved people. The “birthing” of God’s kindness and graciousness, of His refulgent face, of His peace, came through the mediation of Moses’ ministry as prophet.


Mediated presence! This leads us to that special coming of the Lord in His Son through the mediation, through the cooperation of a woman “blessed among all women.” The “birthing” of God’s incarnate Son, Jesus Christ could not have taken place without the cooperation of this woman who, for the most obvious and cogent reasons, is now revered rightly as the “mother of God.” God’s presence, very literally, in His Son Jesus Christ, took place because this woman said, “Let it be done to me according to your word.” Her availability, her openness, her nurturing, caring, gracious presence to both her God and her people – her maternity (parenthood traits, if you will) – was behind the mystery that took place on Christmas day. Blessed by God, she became, in turn, a blessing to the world of human beings. Redeemed by her Son, too, she became in turn, not only the “cause of our joy,” but also the efficient, instrumental cause of our salvation. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Mary.”


Now is the time to get down to brass tacks, as it were… What does all this have to do with us? Obviously, the privilege and the grace of “birthing” the Son of God could only be offered to one – our Blessed Mother. But the riches of God’s blessings and graces in and through Christ and “mediated” by Mary, the Mother of grace, is something we all could share in at least in terms of our participation, our cooperation, and our own brand of “mediation.” We all, by virtue of baptism, been incorporated into the mystical Body of Christ. As members of Christ’s Body, we all share in the riches of grace. We all, like Christ Himself, are all prophets, priests and kings. We all are called to bring the Good News of Christ. “Go therefore, make disciples of all creation, teach them all I have commanded you, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”


Let us try one such duty of ours for size. Moses’ threefold blessing to Aaron and his sons, ultimately, referred to just one reality. They all referred to things that make life worth living – the palpable presence of God looking down kindly on me, on you, on us all, on all nations! And that caring, nurturing, enabling presence will then lead to peace, gracious peace, peace that represents absolute well-being in its wholistic, total sense.


Here is where we all could use some introspection. How much facilitative are we of peace? How much of peace indeed shines in our face and total countenance? At the beginning of this new year, are we a picture of confident, hopeful enthusiasm, or are we the epitome of angry, cynical, and hopeless pessimism? Are we giving birth to hope or are we becoming the efficient, instrumental cause of people’s discouragement, of their losing trust and faith in a God who looks so graciously and kindly on us now in and through the loving countenance of a woman we now call Mother of God, Mother of Christ and Mother of us all?


To push the image a little further … how much of a prophet have we been in the past year? How have we given birth to new and committed believers by our mediating, nurturing, evangelizing presence? How much effort have we placed on spreading the Good News to others?


The late Holy Father, Venerable John Paul II, as early as 1979, has been talking about the need for new evangelization. Among others, this means the “birthing” again, of a new impetus, a new drive, a new fervor, shown in new methods of bringing Christ and his good news to others. This may well be just the answer many people need to get to make their life worth living. Mary our Mother did just that. She went in haste to Judea, not only to help her cousin out in her hour of need. She brought the “good news” she was carrying in her womb, and no less than his precursor felt and “saw” that presence. The baby leapt in Elizabeth’s womb for joy.


Mary, Mother of God, and Mother of us all, guide us with your caring presence that we may also become in turn, what you were – first to be evangelized, you became also the first evangelizer. May we be, like you, mediated blessings from God that make life worth living.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

RESPONSIBILITY, NOT PRIVILEGE

























Catholic Homily / Reflection
FEAST OF THE HOLY FAMILY (C)
December 27, 2009


The Feast of the Holy Family stands in stark contrast to what the current craze of the TV “infotainment” world offers what one program calls the “six continents” – REALITY TV! At a time when shows portray what media practitioners and purveyors of entertainment refer to as “reality as it is,” when slogans like “no holds barred” refer to more than just a carefully choreographed wrestling match, shows like “Survivor” now appear so tame compared to the new shows that continue to titillate the curiosity of viewers, shows that veritably leave nothing more to the imagination of patrons.

In a “socially constructionist” inspired world, where reality is not so much what we perceive, as what we create or construct together, one wonders whether the usual excuse that purveyors limply say (we-just- create-shows-that-people-want-to-see kind of thinking), really holds water.

But this is beside the point of this reflection for today…

All I wanted to say is this… Everything we do in Church these days … All the feasts we uphold and struggle hard to celebrate… the very life and liturgy of the Church, her Creed, Code and Cult, to be a little more theological and technical, including the feast of the Holy Family, are all counter-cultural.

Countercultural, though, is not to be taken to mean strange, bizarre, unrealistic, and not doable. Let us focus our reflection on today’s feast, the Holy Family. Take the case of the First Reading, taken from Sirach. It is a reading from which God’s obvious sympathy and commitment to family life simply ooze out unmistakably. Without going into details that may sound politically incorrect in our times, there is no denying the fact that there are certain virtues like kindness, respect for parents, deference and filial obedience to parental authority that Sirach speaks about, that serve to weld the family together. In a culture and context in which 50 % of marriages statistically end up in divorce, where broken and “blended” families seem to be more the rule rather than the exception, where meaningful connectedness in the context of family seems to be hard to come by, Sirach’s divinely inspired words sound like life-giving and soothing waters in a dry and parched desert of family relatedness or the lack of it.

Add now to the mix the exhortations of Paul in his letter to the Colossians. He speaks of kindness, compassion, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, and love. Again, these are virtues that stand in stark contrast to the “best” – or, more properly, the worst – of so-called “trash TV.” Reality, no matter how bad, no matter how depressing and disappointing, is best served with a generous dose of family values or virtues such as those mentioned by Paul. Reality, or that which we choose to create for ourselves, could use a little help from some old-fashioned talk about “virtue” or at least, what in ancient times, we called “good manners and right conduct.”

Contemporary culture, spearheaded by the Western world, prizing as it does egalitarian values and personal autonomy, is loathe to accept the equally cultural value prized by the Jews of the times of Jesus that refer to a certain level of “male privilege” over women and children. We have to be careful that we see the essential meaning of Scripture and sift it from what is human and culture bound, that is, differentiate what is specifically Christian from what is specifically cultural in the times of Paul, lest we run into problems that fundamentalist Bible-wielding (Sola Scriptura!) Christians are hard pressed to explain convincingly.

And this is exactly where the guidance of the living Church comes to our aid. This is exactly where the Feast of the Holy Family, presented and offered by Holy Mother Church in our times can be of help and guidance to us. Coming as it does in the heels of the Solemnity of Christmas, the feast teaches us one very important lesson that should jut out of all three readings today. Christ has come to renew all things. Christ has come as man to change the course of human history. His coming also means a change in the way we relate to one another as human beings, as members of communities and societies, and definitely as members of that basic unit of society called the family. His coming into our lives, and our accepting him as Lord and Savior, means to say that being subject to him and God’s will necessitates a transformation in the way we live our lives together, in the way we treat one another.

The virtues enumerated by Sirach, those listed down by Paul, habits of the heart and of the hand that Christian believers lived by definitely changed the lives of the early Christian families. From a totally hierarchical and somewhat culturally blind obedience to men as patriarchs who enjoyed the traditional “male privilege” and “absolute male power,” Christians learned to appreciate “co-responsibility,” mutual respect and love, solidarity, partnership in life and love, and mutual caring. In Christian families, it should no longer be a question of who holds the power, but one of who holds responsibility for, (not over) others.

Reality TV shows us what our “unredeemed” selves can be quite capable of creating. Today’s liturgy and celebration, which presents the family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph as ultimate model and example, show us what our “redeemed” selves are definitely capable of co-creating, together with others.

Yes, I am referring to a message I go back to, time and time again, without tiring, without giving up. That message is one of hope and courage. I urge individuals to go and re-connect with their families … physically, morally, psychologically, and most of all, spiritually. Today is a good day to forgive one another’s faults and foibles. Today is a perfect day to allow the Holy Family gather us into one common family of mankind, to help us find our roots in civil society, in the Church community, in the parochial community, in our neighborhood. Surely, there are things we can do together. (In the Philippines, the otherwise cynical and comfortable middle class, the ultra rich, and the teeming masses of the hoi polloi, the poor and ordinary powerless, many a time uneducated, citizens, can now find time to rally together behind the social teachings of the Church, and work together to attain what our seemingly hopeless political situation cannot seem to guarantee, let alone begin. Perhaps, now is not the time anymore to wrangle endlessly about who should be president or not, about who is intellectually challenged and who is not, about who should not be in the list of presidentiables and who should be… We have lost precious time and energy allowing too much politics to take control over our lives. It is high time we took up the challenges of the Holy Family of Nazareth, the words of Sirach and Paul, and did something together for a change, and make the country move forward, never mind who lives at Malacanan.)

The feast of the Holy Family teaches us not about privilege of power and prestige. It teaches us about virtue, about humility and selfless service. For all that these virtues ultimately refer to is Christian responsibility, not privilege.

I end with a prayer for the Philippines, now once again rapt more in agony than excitement, at the coming national elections …

Jesus, Mary and Joseph, come to the aid of our sorely divided and fragmented nation and people. As we prepare once more for our national elections, deep wounds of disunity and distrust still plague our common polity, our membership in the one body of Christ that is the Church. We are like little children fighting over inconsequential things. We remain divided in terms of those who have and those who have nothing; those who are educated, and those who are not; those who have connections, and those who can only rely on themselves; those who are very much Church-connected and those who are absolutely unchurched. Nowhere is this division into distinct camps so visible as in the phenomenon called national elections. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, assist our people. Mold us into one family united not by our likes and dislikes, but united by virtues of compassion, humility, mutual service, love and solidarity.

O Blessed and Holy Family of Nazareth, make our people revel, not on status and privilege, but on mutual responsibility for one another. Amen.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

CHRISTMAS PLAIN AND SIMPLE: On How Best to Celebrate Christmas



















Catholic Homily

Christmas Day (C)

December 25, 2009


Preaching on Christmas day has always posed a big challenge to us preachers (well, at least to me, over my past 27 Christmases, including this one, as a priest). The problem is compounded for pastors in parishes who, being alone, could rely on no one else but themselves to celebrate all four Christmas liturgies: Vigil Mass, at Midnight (which officially begins the Christmas season), at Dawn, and the Mass during the day itself. Even a cursory glance at the readings for all four celebrations is enough to convince anyone that there is a developing, unfolding character to the themes espoused by the readings and the prayers.


The better read among us who are a bit more theologically literate would see in the different liturgical celebrations a gradually deepening presentation of the whole mystery that Christmas stands for - the coming of the Savior, the Christ.


From a rather factual “narration” of the events leading to the birth of Jesus (Midnight Mass), known by liturgists and theologians as an exposition of “Christology from below,” (ascending Christology), the readings shift towards a presentation of the “meaning” of said event/s, that is, a more theological understanding, not only of a historical happening, but more properly, of what theologians call the “Christ-event” (Christology from above, or descending Christology).


No. It is not my intention today to overwhelm you with this talk of “ascending and descending Christology.” Leave that to those who are trying to earn a few more letters after their name. My aim is plain and simple: to help my readers and hearers re-appropriate Christmas for what it originally was – a celebration for all and sundry, without exception, without distinction, without any form of barriers whatsoever. Let’s start out with what Scriptures clearly tell us …


First and foremost, we see that the celebration involved the following different figures: at the Midnight Mass, we see the shepherds out in the cold night fulfilling their duties; the angel who appeared to them and proclaimed to them “good news of great joy;” “the multitude of heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests;’” Joseph and Mary; and later, the wise men from the east bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Even men in high places were somehow affected by his birth. Herod grew increasingly suspicious of what he considered a potential threat to his throne, as we shall later see. Even the lowliest of creatures took part in the living tableau that was Christmas night: sheep and oxen, in contrast to the loftiest of realities which no woman, man or child could ever think or dream of – the star shining on Bethlehem!


Go and read Scriptures again and again … The first Christmas was a celebration plain and simple … and that celebration simply and plainly involved everyone and everything: poor and smelly shepherds along with sheep that were just as rank and fetid; angels sent from on high; a star shining unusually brightly; more angels pitching in to make up that huge heavenly choir that had but a few though meaningful lines as never-ending refrain: “Glory to God in the highest and peace to all men of good will;” poor ordinary men and women represented by Mary and Joseph; wise men and “fools” who were sensitive enough to notice that there must be something to the birth of this child, who was announced to be the “son of the Most High,” “Christ and Lord.”


It was a celebration plain and simple alright, from the superficial viewpoint, but manifestly, on deeper analysis, for a profound reason. It was a joyful event for everyone and everything, for simply stated, “Today is born our Savior, Christ the Lord,” as today’s responsorial psalm puts it.


We moderns sure know how to celebrate. We have become resident experts on doing celebrations, in fact, with one glaring problem, at least when it comes to Christmas … we have separated the celebration from the reason for the celebration. Thus, for many, Christmas has become mere “holidays,” a generic, meaningless revelry as empty as tinsels and as puffed up as corpulent Santa Claus. The reason for the season has been quietly edged out of the whole Christmas celebrations.


We need to do a lot of catching up as Christians in the way we celebrate Christmas. For decades, we have silently and slowly been co-opted by the prevailing culture of consumerism and soul-less holiday celebrations that eat up most of our energy, leaving precious little for the ensuing days that would allow the celebrations to sink deeper down our spiritual consciousness. Have you ever noticed how right after Christmas, Christmas carols are no longer played in the airlanes with the same enthusiasm as before Christmas? Have you ever noticed how the Christmas excitement suddenly falls flat in malls and shopping centers right after Christmas day? For many, Christmas ends just when it has just begun.


Let us be countercultural once more! I guess this is what we as members of the Church ought to be essentially in this post-Christian culture of consumerism and material fun and mirth-making. Allow me to remind you of the essential REASONS for the CELEBRATIONS summed up in a few lines. Christmas is, first and foremost, a celebration of the Scriptural datum that proclaims for all to hear: SALVATION IS IN OUR MIDST. Secondly, this gift of salvation that Christ has come to bring is not just for a handful of shivering shepherds out in the cold that night, but it is a UNIVERSAL gift for everyone. Thirdly, we celebrate the Child King, because He is the “image of the invisible God,” a reflection of the GLORY of God, a representation of God Himself. Fourth and last, this child, represents the fullness of God’s revelation. Jesus is the WORD INCARNATE, the Son of God who has come to “pitch his tent in our midst.”


These four are, to say the least, supra worldly realities that are hard to fathom, difficult to dwell on, and tough to really understand. These are not the stuff out of which our shallow celebrations are made of. They are a far cry from the usual symbols that we all make so much of: food and gifts galore … Christmas trees and lights in abundance … Santa Claus, reindeer … the list could go on. The first Christmas at Bethlehem had nothing to do with most of the stuff we now equate with Christmas.


G. K. Chesterton was right… the only valid way to celebrate Christmas is to stand on one’s head and see everything upside down.

Merry Christmas to all of you!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

NOT TO US, LORD, NOT TO US, BUT TO YOU!






















9th Day of Simbang Gabi / Misa de Gallo

December 24, 2009

Readings: 2 Sm 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a-16 / Lk 1:67-79


The power and position and authority of David were all getting a little bit into his head. Well-meaning definitely, he thought he ought to God a favor. Feeling sorry for the ark of the covenant that was reposed in a tent, while he was safely ensconced in a house of cedar, he thought of constructing a house for the Lord.


But Nathan the prophet, who initially thought it was a good idea and supported him, later pounced on this initial sign of hubris, after a dream, and put David right back in his place. No … it is not for you to build a house for God, for God Himself will build a house. God reminded David that it was Him who took him from pasture, who made him ruler, who entrusted to him a great responsibility. God made known to David who was calling the shots. And it was not David, powerful though he was then, who should decide on such an important cause.


But of course, the house that David referred to was a material one, and the house that God had in mind was something that David, in his short-sightedness, could not have known.

The Lord was leading his people – and his people’s leader, to something greater! The Lord was showing David something else and something more, something “that no eye has seen, nor ear heard.”


We all know what it is like. Just when we thought we had the brightest idea, the most brilliant solution to some persistent problem, all of a sudden, something happens that puts us right back in our lowly place. We are surrounded by people like that – politicians and leaders (including leaders in religious life) who think that everything done by their predecessor is less brilliant than their own, so they spend all their time trying to undo what others before them have done.


It is one sign, among many, of narcissism, a tendency to be so self-centered and so beholden to one’s own talents – real or imagined – that one is led to think less of the capabilities of others and think of themselves as better than most people. Twenge & Campbell (2009) refer to this as the “narcissism epidemic.”


King David had that narcissistic streak, the same narcissism that led him to betray his most trusted officer and to covet his wife Bathsheba.


We live in an age of entitlement. This probably explains the sudden rise in popularity of “extreme makeovers” through plastic surgery, the phenomenon behind the culture of twitting, Facebook, and MySpace that all capitalize in the me, mine, and myself – and the best that is about me. The “mining industry” of Imelda of yore, now pales in comparison to what the whole world is up to. Everyone now feels entitled to be a performer and an artist and a singer via You Tube and the motto seems to be, simply put: broadcast yourself!


Is there any wonder why half of marriages solemnized end up in divorce within the first five years? Is it any wonder why even young priests ordained quit within the first two years of ministry? Is it to be wondered at that there are now fake paparazzi that people can hire just to make one feel like a celebrity for a day?


David has that streak of narcissism. Let me build a house for the ark. Let me take care of it. But God, through Nathan, put him right back in his place.

“It was I who took you from the pasture and the care of the flock to be commander for my people Israel. I have been with you wherever you went, and I have destroyed all your enemies before you. And I will make you famous like the great ones of the earth. I will fix a place for my people Israel; I will plant them so that they may dwell in their place without further disturbance.”


So you think you want to solve my people’s problems?


I don’t know what’s with us as a people, but I just think we have been fooled by politicians and leaders once too often! We all pin our hopes on saviors and self-proclaimed messiahs. We suffered through a series of coup d’etats that ruined our economy and set us back a decade just because some narcissist thought that he had the solutions to the country’s problems! And I have bad news for you who are seated in the pews. By the rule of thirds, one third of your leaders in Church and elsewhere are narcissists. Haven’t you noticed? People with whom you can never win an argument against? People who act like they have a direct line to heaven? People who begin their sharings at Parish Council meetings with statements like “I prayed over this and the Lord has told me to tell you this …” People who you simply ought not cross or else they banish you forever from the face of the parish directory (or the face of the earth!).


We live in an age of entitlement. We rub shoulders with individuals who will work only if they are in the limelight. We live with individuals who will speak only if they had the monopoly of the microphone. And when they are no longer in the limelight, they simply do not cooperate.

One thing about the liturgy is our individualities are not supposed to shine vis-à-vis our nature as a covenanted people – as community. This is one practical reason why the priest celebrant does not wear street clothes, for the simple reason, that he has to leave behind his individuality as a person and act “in persona Christi.” He is supposed to be an alter Christus on the altar, not a pop music artist, not a performer, and not a political candidate. He acts in the person of Christ, when the liturgy is celebrated.


This whole liturgy today, with its readings, is an antidote to narcissism. Not I, not I, but God who works through me. No longer I, no … not I, but Christ who lives in me. “Forever will I sing the goodness of the Lord.” All this is what we mean to say when we gather to celebrate today.

This, too, is what Zechariah meant when he acclaimed: Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; for he has come to his people and set them free!”


Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to your name give the glory!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

REFINED, THAT WE MAY OFFER DUE SACRIFICE
















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!

Monday, December 21, 2009

A MOTHER’S PLEA; A MOTHER’S GIFT





















7th Day of Simbang Gabi/Misa de Gallo

December 22, 2009

Readings: 1 Sm 1:24-28 / Lk 1:46-56


Hannah is not unlike any other mother in this world. She is her own son’s best admirer, benefactor, and protector. Every mother has it by instinct to worry about, and work for her son’s welfare and best interest. Any mother would go to any lengths just to be able secure a safe and sound, and prosperous future for the fruit of her womb.


Hannah knew where to go and whom to approach. She brought her son Samuel to the temple, near where the prophet was, near where the gatekeeper of heaven’s favors stood – near where Eli stood. But she did not go there alone. She tagged her son Samuel along. She came to the temple laden with offerings, with gifts that a poor woman could ill afford – a three year old bull, an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine.


But she went there with more than just offerings. She went to the holy presence, by the altar of sacrifice with more than just those three gifts. She came with a gift – a big gift that was much bigger than her actual material gifts.


We sure can identify with good old Hannah. When favors are granted us, we ask ourselves this important question, “What return can I make?” People worthy of respect from others are first and foremost, respectable themselves. They are not free-loaders. They do not take what is given them for granted. They do not focus only of the gift and ignore the giver. They look back, go back, and give back, in some way.


We simply love Hannah for her sense of gratitude … for her wonderful capacity to recognize and acknowledge the good done to her. We commend her for going back to Eli to give thanks.

It is interesting to note that in Latin, the word for “giving thanks” is “gratias agere.” Literally translated, it means to “do graces.” What return can we make for the good that is done to us by God? We need to do graces. We need to give tit for tat. What is graciously and freely given as grace, we return in kind – in terms of graces in return … grace upon grace; grace for graciousness, and gratefulness for being so gratified, meaning so favored, in a good sense!


But how many of us could go beyond merely giving tit for tat? How many of us can bear to give more than what is customarily expected from us? How many of us could do a Hannah and give, apart from a bull, an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine, the very object of one’s plaints and pleas to the Lord – her very own son?


Now, this is a tall order! Now, this is impossible to do … This simply cannot be … I simply cannot do an Abraham and offer Isaac my only son as a living sacrifice!


Yesterday, we spoke about heroes. We found out just how hungry we are for heroes and for greatness. We are so deprived of them that we turn everyone into heroes (after the whole world has declared them to be such, far ahead of us!).


But in truth, heroism is so very difficult. We had a lot of them aspirant heroes during the first EDSA peaceful power revolution. Thousands of Filipinos rode on the wings of euphoria at the triumph of democracy, and thousands of aspiring politicians rode on the popularity of our most beloved former president, the secular patron saint of democracy, and turned out decades later, to be no better than the ones they denounced vociferously, and replaced, with eagerness and alacrity!


The heroes that we acclaimed, turned out to be duds and disappointments … and it did not take them too long to do just like – if not, worse than – the very hated personalities that they booted out of office.

What was missing? My theory is this … they just received the graces of leadership on a silver platter, offered by a people whose sense of euphoria, made them lose their objectivity and prudence, and allowed anyone who ranted and raved against the dictator, to be taken too seriously.


And now, 24 years later, the same old rotten political system of patronage has become even more well-entrenched. They failed to give tit for tat. They failed to do graces. Theirs was a violent model that was used to rape, pillage, and plunder the future of a people who were so busy rejoicing and gloating over the demise of the old regime, that they failed to notice that a new regime, exactly the same, if not worse, than before, was slowly creeping back into place.


There are two women who guide us in our reflection today. Hannah, a woman and a mother, went to the temple with plaints and pleas on behalf of her son, Samuel. But there was another woman, blessed among all women, who offered more than just two turtledoves to the Lord. She offered herself. She offered her Son. She offered all she had – with lots of love to spare.


And this is where the two women part ways with us. They did not give tit for tat. They went beyond – far beyond what was expected of them, for that is what love is all about – prodigal and generous beyond measure, unfettered by selfishness and human respect, unlimited by what the world considers as “enough.”


There was nothing more that Hannah should have done. She did “graces” by graciously offering what was prescribed by the Law. She offered enough. But the thanksgiving of biblical proportions would not be limited to the minimum. To do graces would mean to imitate the giver, to approximate what the Giver was to the Gifted, and give much more than what was given.


This, she did, by offering her son: “As long as he lives, he shall be dedicated to the Lord.”

Isn’t this all about the prodigality and self-diffusive and effusive love that the Bible speaks about? Isn’t this the same effusiveness that is behind the prayer that we just used to respond to the first reading of today? – My heart exults in the Lord, my Savior.


Isn’t this the same prodigality and effusiveness that we see in the beautiful rousing prayer of one who “has been exalted by the Lord?” “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked upon his lowly servant.”


Two women today show us the way of gratitude. And what we see from them is more than just tit for tat. They went beyond … for they gave back to Him who “who has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly … who has filled the hungry with good thing, and the rich he has sent away empty” …


The list goes on. What return can then make to the Lord who has given us all? Think about it. Christmas is all about the prodigality of God’s love for us. Gratias agamus Domino Deo nostro! Verum et justum est, aequum et salutare! Deo gratias!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

ARISE MY BELOVED, AND COME!





















6th Day of Simbang Gabi / Misa de Gallo
Monday of the 4th Week of Advent – Year C
December 21, 2009

Readings: Sg 2:8-14 / Lk 1:39-45


Love is pure energy. It flames. It burns. It energizes even as it consumes. It purifies even as it cauterizes.

Such is the tenor of one of the Bible’s more intriguing books – the Song of Solomon! It sounds almost like soft porn. It is actually a paean to God’s love couched in words, symbols, and images that would speak to anyone whose heart has ever beaten like mad in the exhilarating experience of first love.

There is palpable excitement in the language – a deep sense of wide-eyed anticipation and runaway expectation … “Hark, my lover – here he comes springing across the mountains, leaping across the hills!” The poetry and the pulsating rhythm are both unmistakable. The image and rhythm build to a climax … they almost make the image of the gamboling gazelle come out alive in the page we are reading. I can’t help as I write, but hum in my head Carey Landry’s beautiful rendition of this passage … “Set me like a seal on your heart, like a seal on your arm. Set me like a seal on your heart. How right it is to love you!”

Even as I feel touched to the quick by the music and poetry of it all, I cannot but recall in my mind’s DVD player, the pure burning and cauterizing energy currently being spewed out of the mouth of Mount Mayon in Southern Luzon in the Philippines – a volcano that has spitted out pure flaming energy 40 times in 400 years!

And I cannot but see the parallelism and the connection – the relationship, if you will, between the two.

Both speak of arising. Both evoke images of getting past the dead of winter, the still of dormancy, and the simplicity of ordinariness toward a rousing call to become something great and beautiful for God! “See, the winter is past, the rains are over and gone!” See Mary, it’s not all that bad! We know you don’t fully understand. We know you don’t get it all. You are just an unknown lass in a forlorn, forgotten place. But some angel has now called you to “rise” and has given you some big thing to do … something definitely beyond your usual duties, even beyond your ken! For you are called to give birth to him who will be born of the Most High!

There is a faint image of rising here. Rising from your lowly place. Rising from your lowly land to go to the “hill country of Judea.” Something more than just a childish dream beckons … something more than just a figment of the imagination. One day you are a lowly lass, and another day you are called to become mother of the Son of the Most High.

But you went … dutifully … with love … for love means arising, moving, going, being told to do what you never chose to, but you followed all the same because you love. And even if you did not understand it, you obeyed, even if it meant dying a little, for love is stronger than death!

Take it from Muelmar Magallanes – all of 18 years old, and already a posthumous hero! Was he anybody great, who would make heads turn when he was just a lowly construction worker? Would he have merited a second look when all he did was maybe mix cement and sand and water, and obey orders from others, and being paid a subsistence wage to feed a young family and an extended family? No … he wouldn’t get anyone’s attention.

But the world took notice. Time International did take notice. For you did something so great. And it was great because you did it for love. “For greater love has no man than this: to lay down one’s life for others.” You did precisely that, for love is stronger than death!

We Filipinos are hungry for greatness, like Nelson Mandela told his countrymen, as he tried to galvanize a nation of 42 million, so sorely divided on all imaginable fronts. We are hungry for heroes, and unfortunately, we recognize heroes only and only when the world has recognized them ahead of us. No one took notice of Efren Penaflorida. No one of made much of Muelmar Magallanes’ feat. But when the world honored them, then the politicians and non-politicians alike joined the bandwagon to honor those worthy of honor! Too late the hero …

We are hungry for heroes for we are a people with such short memories. We had a hero back in 1983, and the overwhelming majority of the young people here below 26 years old do not even know him and what he did, and for what he died! We are hungry for heroes, but we despise all those who are poised and ready to do good that the big media networks all but ignore. Instead, we follow those made to appear bigger than life, courtesy of a whole lot of media “praise releases” with a lot of help from a “politics of association” that would sanitize one’s name because it sounds like someone we adulate and almost worship.

We are hungry for heroes because we don’t remember. We don’t remember because we have failed to appreciate mega narratives that go beyond “teleseryes” and “telenovelas” (Korean, most especially now!). We have failed to see the meta narrative of God’s magnanimous love as recounted in Scriptures – the one big story line that is underneath all the history, the poetry, and the songs of Scripture.

Today, 6th day of our novena, we are reminded once again of this unfolding and ongoing meta-narrative of God’s love. We are told this through the Song of Songs that I would certainly love to sing at this very moment … Set me like a seal on your heart! It is told by the psalmist who, on recognizing this great love, now declares: “Exult, you just, in the Lord! Sing to him a new song!”

It is a story told and retold even by innocent babes yet unborn (unless they are silenced forever by the evil of abortion!), for even the baby John the Baptist “leaped for joy” in Mary’s womb. This is the same story told by the simple woman Elizabeth who declared in a loud voice, a voice as strong as her love: “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

It doesn’t take much to be great. It doesn’t require much to be a hero. Take it from the Beatles … All you need is love … and lots of it. All you need to do is rise! Rise above petty intrigues … rise above and beyond hate and envy and greed and selfishness.

Can it be done? Yes … babies yet unborn can do it. Little people can make it to the Staples Center at Los Angeles to receive the CNN hero of the year. Lowly insignificant laborers can do … and all you need is love … all you need is love…

Today, I would like to think we can do it. And we can do it because we have the assurance from no less than God, who, gamboling about in glee like a love-crazed gazelle, now tells us: “Arise my beloved, and come!”

I end by quoting … (can we sing it together?) Carey Landry’s song:

Set Me Like A Seal on your heart
Like a seal on your arm,
Set me like a seal on your heart,
How right it is to love you.

For love is stronger than death,
Stronger even than hell.
The flash of it is a flash of fire
The flame of Yahweh Himself.

Come then my love, come my beloved
No flame can Quench our love
For love, if real has no end

Saturday, December 19, 2009

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!”