Saturday, December 19, 2009

Finding God in a Helpless Child

Feast of Epiphany of Year C
(Matt 2:1-12)
January 3, 2010

I no longer remember its exact details, but the story I read in high school goes something like this: in a German prison camp during the Second World War, some prisoners escaped. Since no one could tell where they were and how they were able to make their way outside, the German guards retaliated by picking up men at random to be hanged—unless the escapees returned. Since not a single one returned, these men were hanged. Among them was a boy. As he hanged from the gallows, someone asked: “Where is God?” There was silence among the onlookers. Much later, a voice was again heard: “Where is God?” Then a voice came: “There he is, hanging from the gallows.” That someone could recognize God in the boy who was hanging from the gallows brings to mind a theological observation that one notes from the story of the Magi.

In today’s Gospel (Matt 2:1-12), we are told of civil and religious authorities—Herod and the experts of scriptures—who were caught unawares about the coming of the Messiah. On the one hand, Bethlehem was a village under Herod who should have known the place and its people. On the other, the religious authorities had the Scriptures which tells of the birth of the Messiah: “And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the princes of Judah, since from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd me people Israel” (Matt 2:8). Indeed, it was the priests and scribes who furnished King Herod the information about the future ruler. And when Herod eventually knew about him, he rejected him, thinking the child would be a threat to his kingship. In sharp contrast, we are also told of Magi, astrologers who studied the stars, so much aware of the coming of the new King. To know him, the Magi did not have the Scriptures; they had only a miraculous star to tell them. And by means of the star, they were led to the house of Joseph. In this pericope, Matthew thus makes a contrast between astrologers from the east who accepted Jesus and the King and religious leaders of Israel who rejected him.

The Magi story is a part of the introduction to Matthew’s gospel, and functions as an overture to the whole Matthean account of Jesus’ life, ministry and death, in more or less the same way that the Prologue of John introduces the reader to the theology found in his gospel. In particular, the Magi story serves to prefigure what happened in the life and ministry of Jesus and the early Church. Looking back, we know that both the civil and religious authorities, whom Herod and the interpreters of the Scriptures represent, refused to recognize Jesus as the One sent by God. God chose them as his people, and gave them his Word—the Scriptures—so they could walk in his ways; but when the time came, they failed to recognize the Messiah. They were scandalously slow in coming to faith in the Messiahship of Jesus. In sharp contrast, the Gentiles, whom the Magi represent in today’s gospel, knew nothing about God except through what was available to them through the natural phenomena, like the star, and yet, when confronted with the Message, they believed in Jesus the Messiah. In other words, the story was recalled by the Matthean community to explain a phenomenon in the early Church: the early Christians saw the contrasting reactions of the Jews and Gentiles to the ministry of Jesus and the apostles: while the Israelites rejected him, the Gentiles accepted him. In the understanding of the Matthean community, this sheds light on why the majority of the members of the Church came from pagans, not from Israelites, even though Jesus was a Jew.

How explain the contrast? For Matthew, Herod and the religious authorities, even though they had the sacred tradition, failed to recognize the Messiah because of their unbelief; they closed their eyes to the revelation of God in the child. The Magi, on the other hand, had faith. They believed that God spoke to them through the miraculous star. They believed that in the ordinariness of the child born in Bethlehem , God was there. Hence, the feast of the Epiphany is really about God’s revelation, and our acceptance or rejection of that revelation. It is possible that people who are supposedly religious may fail to recognize the coming of God in their lives. It happens when they presume to know the working of God, and limit his action to what they have already learned in their theologies. They put limits to their faith. But God is a God of surprises! He reveals himself in ways that are unknown and ordinary, and that people do not expect. He can reveal himself in a helpless child at Christmas, a child no different in appearance from the children of a small, poor village like Bethlehem . And we can detect his presence even in the negative experiences of our lives, in much the same way that a Jewish prisoner of war in a German camp came to recognize him in the boy hanging on the gallows. What is important for us, of course, is to detect his presence, to recognize his revelation. And we can do it only with the eyes of faith.

Religious Environment for a Family

Feast of the Holy Family of Year C
(Luke 2:41-52)
December 27, 2009

With the advent of international trade and globalization, nations are no longer far removed from one another. National barriers are falling apart, and the global village, which decades ago was only a dream, seems no longer a remote possibility. But for all their advantages—new ways of communication, for example, have made the world smaller—globalization and international trade have brought values that are foreign to Christian faith, however. One of their known attendant values, because too widespread, is consumerism. Created has been a mentality and lifestyle that prefer having to being. That is why we live in a secular environment in which people think that it is important to have enough of the world’s goods, and spend one’s life in enjoying these goods. Because of this environment, many people crave for items and services that are not needed. Such values enter into the family, and it is not surprising that many families have succumbed to it. They think that the more material things the family possesses and enjoys, the better it is. If one visits a family even in the poorer parts of the metropolis, there he will see appliances and gadgets displayed for all to see, even though one senses that they were acquired at great cost to the family itself. The consumerist mentality can be seen in the attitude of children who put prime value on these devices.

Today is the feast of the Holy Family, and the Sunday gospel provides us with pattern on how our own families ought to live if they are to be called Christian at all. In Luke’s portrayal of the Holy Family, it is difficult to sever it from his description of the events that lead to the nativity of Jesus. It may be recalled that for Luke, Mary is a hearer of God’s word. In his plan to reveal himself and save humanity, God finally spoke his word to Mary who, despite its seeming impossibility, accepted it in faith: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:39). Luke does not have much to say of Joseph, but if we look at Matthew’s portrait of him, it will be noticed that he, too, is described as a hearer of the word: a devout observer of the Mosaic law (Matt 1:19), and at the same time, obedient to God’s communication through an angel who told him not to be afraid to take Mary, who was with child, into his home: “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took his wife into his home” (Matt 1:25). What about Jesus? Of course, he is God’s communication himself, and even though such an understanding of Jesus is Johannine (John 1:1) and quite foreign to Luke, yet it is not inconsistent with Luke’s theology to say that the life of Jesus as a child has the concern of God for its center.

This brings us to the heart of the Sunday Gospel (Luke 2:41-52). This story is traditionally known—one who prays the rosary will easily recall--as the finding of Jesus in the Temple . It may be doubted, however, that this is intended to satisfy curiosity about the boyhood of Jesus. It is most likely that the story is remembered on the principle that what happens to a person in his adulthood is prefigured in the events of his childhood. That is to say, one should not be surprised that Jesus performed mighty deeds and spoke powerful words during his public ministry, for even in his childhood, he was already known to be endowed with much wisdom and power. Thus Luke: “On the third day they came upon him in the temple sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. All who heard him were amazed at his intelligence and his answers” (Luke 2:46-47). However, since today is the feast of the Holy Family, what is of relevance to us in this story is a minor theme of Luke: Jesus’ claim that in his life and mission, the claim of God his Father has priority over anything: “Why did you search for me? Did you not know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49b). His relationship with his Father transcends his relationship with his human family. The latter has meaning which derives from his intimacy with the Father.

Clearly, the Holy Family, as Luke portrays it, lived in an environment which is informed by divine values and concerns. Consequently, Luke teaches us that to be Christian, our families ought to live in an environment in which God’s plan has priority and informs the very life which each member lives.. Our Christian families, in other words, makes God the center of our life. The values of the Gospel form even the air we breathe, our vision in life, and our motive for action. Since God fills up each member of our families, and our relationship with those outside, we will be able to lead holy lives, clothing ourselves “with heartfelt mercy, with kindness, humility, meekness and patience.” We can bear with one another, and forgive grievances. Our families would then be bound love, each member experiencing peace ( Col 3:12-15, First Reading). That is to say, in an atmosphere which is informed by Gospel values, it would be easy to live in harmony with one another, to live as one family like the Holy Family. And precisely because of that environment, it would not be difficult for each member of the family to resist the bombardment of secular values, like consumerism, since a different way of valuing things has already been ingrained in the outlook of each one. The environment of holiness itself is the protection of our families from the onslaught of values foreign to Christian outlook and understanding.

Salvation comes from the Lord

Fourth Sunday of Advent of Year C
December 20, 2009

During the unlamented dictatorship, some soldiers planned to stage a coup d’etat to topple the Marcosian rule. The communists, on the other hand, stuck to their strategy of armed conflict from the countryside. At any rate, both groups wanted to give expression to the people’s clamor for an end to the dictatorial regime. But despite their conviction of their ideological approaches, and for all their tested and even sophisticated strategies and tactics, neither of them succeeded in their effort. Ironically, what eventually took place seemed almost impossible—people power put an end to the Marcos regime in a way no one—not even the brightest of the left and the right—ever envisaged in his wildest dreams. The people power which was ignited by the call of Jaime Cardinal Sin for men and women to gather at EDSA, even though without strategic planning, shamed both groups, for it proved to be more effective in dislodging the power of Marcos. There could be various explanations for the people power phenomenon, but for those who have faith, that was a result of God’s action for his people who cried out to him. It was an answer to their prayer for liberation.

And somehow, that event illustrates to us where to pin our faith in. To be sure, we seem to lack trust that God could accomplish things. We so much depend on material things (Ps 20:8; Isa 31:1), on the military or politicians, on our creativity. How often, for example, people thought that if a new political leader emerged, the nation would be renewed, only to find out that the new leader merely did what his predecessor had done. Even when it comes to physical health, there are some who completely rely on medicine and technology, and who regard as charlatans those who call on God in prayer and supplication. Oh yes, we think that our happiness, well-being and salvation rest on our own powers.

But the biblical experience is different. When David, for example, was confronted with the Philistines, he did not put in faith in his sword, but in the hand of God, and answered them: “You come against me with sword and spear and scimitar, but I come against you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel that you have insulted. Today, the Lord shall deliver you into my hand” (1 Sam 17:45). This faith is echoed in the Psalms: “A king is not saved by a mighty army, nor a warrior delivered by great strength. Useless is the horse for safety; its great strength, no sure escape. But the Lord’s eyes are upon the reverent, upon those who hope for his gracious help, delivering them from death, keeping them alive in times of famine” (Ps 33:17-19).

And today’s Gospel, the Evangelist Luke invites us to look at our faith. Salvation comes from the Lord (Ps 18:3); all we need is to trust in his Word. This is precisely why Mary is blessed (makaria). Unlike Zechariah who did not believe that the words of the angel about the conception of John would be fulfilled, she trusted that what the Lord promised her would see realization (Luke 1:45). With faith she accepted the message of the angel, even though to human appearances this was impossible. With humility she said: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:39). Yet, the same may be said of the faith of Abraham. God promised him a great nation (Gen 12:1), and even though he did not know how it would be done, he put his faith in him (Gen 15:5). He even hoped against hope (Rom 4:18), he being nearly one-hundred years old, and still without a son. But it was by putting his faith in God’s word that he became the father of many nations (Rom 4:15-21).

Today, we are still caught in a web of evil: political, economic, psychological and even demonic. How we look to politicians to save us!—as if they could not betray the interest of the nation. But we should realize that it is foolish to expect salvation from violence (Ps 44:7), from foreign government (Lam 4:17), from a powerful army (Ps 33:17) or from men (Isa 26:18). In the final analysis, we must recognize that God alone is our savior: “But as for me, I will look to the Lord, I will put my trust in God my savior; God God will hear me” (Micah 7:7). And God will save us if like Mary we trust in him (Isa 30:15), if we take refuge in him (Ps 37:39-40). Mary provides us with a pattern by listening to God’s word and doing it (Luke 11:27-28). We walk in his path (Ps 25:5), our hearts clean and our desires not vain (Ps 34:3-5). In short, Like Mary, we ought to be obedient, doing God’s will, as Jesus himself was: “Then I said, ‘As is written of me in the scroll, Behold, I come to do you will O God’” (Heb 10:7).

Monday, December 7, 2009

Rejoice: God Is In Our Midst

Third Sunday of Advent of Year C
(Luke 3:10-18)
December 13, 2009

The rejoicing of Europeans on the 20th anniversary celebration of the fall of Berlin wall last November 9, 2009, which signified the unification of Germany and the end of the cold war, brings me back to a local celebration on commemoration of the return of Gen Douglas MacArthur. During Leyte Landings Golden Anniversary, thousands came to celebrate the event with much joy. Not a few of them wanted to reminisce the experience when even just the news that Gen. MacArthur would certainly return was enough to lift up their spirit. For the prospect of his coming brought to mind the gaining of freedom from Japanese atrocities, and the restoration of the American rule in what was formerly known as the Philippine islands. It was thought that his return would put an end to destruction and be the beginning of a new era of progress and development for the Filipino people. Indeed, when Gen MacArthur did return, people were literally dancing on the street, joyful at the thought that liberation was at hand!

Today has been traditionally called Gaudete Sunday, because the readings tell us to rejoice. Thus the second reading: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice”(Phil 4:4). We are told to rejoice because, more than what Gen MacArthur did to the Filipinos, not only is the Lord with us, renewing his love for us, but also he will reveal himself as our Savior, forgiving us our iniquities, freeing us from dangers and misfortunes (Zeph 3:15-18), liberating us from all forms of evil.. As we await the coming of the Lord this Christmas, we ought therefore to rejoice. Our religion may stress the value of suffering, pain, and patience, but it is a religion of joy. For in the final result, God would put an end to our experience of misery, suffering and evil, when Jesus returns in glory. What we should feel is best captured by the Psalmist:: “Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice; let the sea and what fills it resound; let the plains be joyful and all that is in them. Then let all the trees of the forest rejoice before the Lord who comes, who comes to govern the earth, to govern the world with justice and the peoples with faithfulness” (Ps 96:11-13). That, in fact, is what Advent is all about: rejoicing in the coming of the Lord (Phil 4:5b)

This is the good news. The Messiah is coming to vindicate his people. Of course, in the Gospel, John the Baptist describes his coming in terms of judgment: “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:15-17). As we prepare for the second coming of Jesus, we do not interpret this in terms of the purifying and refining action of God, as John the Baptist probably did, but in terms of the outpouring of the Spirit of Christ, who will perfectly share with us his very life in the final age. We will be brought into communion with the Father and the Son, and share the joys of the blessed.

But even as we hope for its fulfillment, joy is already in us. And our joy is first of all internal. It is the joy in the knowledge that God forgives us despite our sinfulness; that God loves us and has deigned to dwell with us. Once we experience this, nothing will ever separate us from God: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future thing, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ” (Rom 8:38-39). When we know that God is with us, we will be a happy people, no matter what the circumstances are: whether we get a good sleep, food, friendship, or whether we experience failure, are laid off from job. We can also thank with Job (Job 1:21), recognizing that everything comes from God (1 Tim 6:7).

But our joy does not simply come from the certainty of our hope. Rather, the joy itself is already an experience of what God will do once and for all when Jesus comes. To have this anticipated joy, we have to attune ourselves to him. We allow God to come to our midst, to our hearts, knowing from experience that a life that has no place for God is a miserable one. Just as one who has suffered under the Japanese during the Second World War understands the rejoicing at the news of Gen MacArthur’s return, so one who experienced and recognized his sinfulness and the evil he has done to human relationship will rejoice at the coming of the Lord to him.

Of course, joy comes to us in various qualities. When one, for example, gate-crushes to an alumni homecoming celebration, he could be happy with wine and dance, but he does not experience the joy of those who have been classmates, who know the history of the class and the reason for their celebration. Similarly, if we wish to experience joy, we must be aware of our own spiritual journey, our ups and downs, and the history of our own life. Knowing our own history and therefore identity, we can easily respond to what the joy of Christ’s coming demands. If we realize this, we will feel, even without being told, the need to prepare ourselves for his coming to our midst, doing something about our own conduct, as John the Baptist demanded reform in his hearers’ social conduct (Luke 3:10-14). Only in this way can we really enjoy the coming of the Lord in our midst.

The Eucharist is an anticipation of God’s coming. There Jesus is present, forming us into one body in which brotherhood, knowledge and love are to reign (cf Eph 4:12). Hence, partaking of it is likewise a source of joy.