Friday, June 22, 2012

God Writes Straight in Crooked Lines

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist,
Luke 1:57-66.80, June 24, 2012

IT IS INTERESTING to recall that in 1986, as the rebellion of Enrile and Ramos against Marcos and Ver in what turned out to be People Power or EDSA I was going on, many social analysts were convinced that, in the final result, the New People's Army (NPA) would emerge triumphant, should the revolt continue for long, not, as many people thought, the seemingly inevitable replay of Martial Law by Marcos nor the then likely military junta of Enrile and Ramos. It was feared that the military would be divided, civil war would ensue, and after the force of Marcos and Ver weakened, the NPA would simply come on the scene, and reap victory.

This scene was considered likely, because people thought in terms of power. Those who have power have the strength, and the powerful have the victory. But history is unpredictable, even ironical. During the election that preceded the revolt, Cory Aquino was thought to be a weak opponent, and the incumbent even claimed that the right place of the woman was not leadership, but the bedroom (Of course, that might make sense in a macho culture). But she who was considered weak and whose rightful place was the bedroom turned out to be a surprise: she, Cory Aquino, restored the democratic institutions. Of course from the viewpoint of faith, it was she — despite her perceived weakness — whom God used as instrument to free the Filipinos from an institutionalized dictatorship.

The example in recent Philippine history gives us a glimpse into the ways of God, which seems to be the theme of today's Gospel on the birth and circumcision of John the Baptist (Luke 1:57-66.80). Luke tells us that the birth of John was surrounded with joy because God had given some surprise to His people. Elizabeth, whom people despised because of her barrenness, was shown the compassion of God by the birth of John. And her relatives and friends, who appreciated God's mercy, were delighted with what God had shown her. But what they could not recognize was the surprising way the Lord dealt with her son. When the eighth day came after the child's birth, the right of circumcision was performed, as prescribed by the law ( Gen 17:10-12; Lev 12:3). The giving of the name was associated with this rite.  The name Jesus, for example was given at the circumcision (Luke 2:21).  At this ritual, her relatives and friends wanted to name the child Zechariah. 

Of course, the right to decide on what name to give belongs to the parents, but others are expected to help in choosing it.  The name of Ruth's son, for example, was given by her neighbor women ( Ruth 4:17). It is not surprising, then, that Elizabeth's friends and neighbors wanted to name the child after his father, Zechariah (Luke 1:57-59). At the time when Luke wrote the Gospel, it was probably a custom to name the child after his father. In the Bible, we have the example of Tobit who was named after his father (Tobit 1:9). But despite the objections of her relatives (Luke 1:61), it being that there was no one among her relatives with such a name, Elizabeth insisted that he should be called John (Luke 1:60-61). This is what the Lord, through an angel, commanded at the annunciation of John's birth (Luke 1:13).

It appears that Elizabeth's relatives and friends, like most people, judged events and persons in the light of tradition. Of course, tradition is valuable, but it may become a disadvantage when one becomes a prisoner to it, and closed to the working of the Spirit of God. God had a different mind for the child, and naming him John was a sign that something surprising was at hand. We are not told how Elizabeth knew about the name given by the angel, but we can be sure that she had already perceived that something different was happening. 

That the child was to be called John shows us that God thinks and moves in ways that do not conform to the human mind and movement. As the prophet puts it, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts" (Isa 55:8-9). God accomplished His purposes in ways unknown to us, like the fashioning of human life: "Just as you know not how the breath of life fashions the human frame in the mother's womb, so you know not the work of God which He is accomplishing in the universe" ( Qoh 11:5).

The way God works is often inscrutable, for He chooses new ways that are impossible to trace. The work of the Spirit, being a mysterious power, is difficult to fathom, just like the wind: "The wind blows where it wills; you hear the sound but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes ( John 3:8). The vocation of Jeremiah is a classic example in the Old Testament. The prophet wanted to become an intercessor for his people, but God denied him of his prayer (Jer 14:11-12); instead, He called him to become a Cassandra, one who predicts misfortune or disaster to kings (Jer 34:2-3).

In the New Testament, the early Church did not anticipate the admission of the Gentiles to the community; it was God's work that even the apostles did not envisage: "The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter were surprised that the gift of the Holy Spirit should have been poured out on the Gentiles also, whom they could hear speaking in tongues and glorifying God. Peter put the question at that point, 'What can stop these people who have received the Holy Spirit, even as we have, from being baptized with water?'" ( Acts 10:45-46). Of course, the biggest surprise is Jesus himself. Who would think that the child that was born to poor parents in an insignificant village is the Son of God?

What is therefore ultimately important is that we listen to the Lord, to what He wants, not to our own, even if ours is conceived in the best intention. We allow God to work His own purposes through us. For even the best that we think is not exactly the best for God. After all, Elizabeth's friends and relatives thought that naming the child Zechariah was the best thing that could be done. We must allow God to reveal His surprises to us.

Which brings to mind a point Pope John Paul II raised in his Apostolic Letter “Novo millennio ineunte”  in preparation for the celebration of the Jubilee Year.  One of the pastoral priorities he indicated was the primacy of grace. By this he meant we have "to open our hearts to the tide of grace and allow the word of Christ to pass through us in all its power: Duc in altum! On that occasion [when the disciples toiled all night at the sea and caught nothing], it was Peter who spoke the word of faith: 'At your word I will let down the nets.' As this millennium begins, allow the Successor of Peter to invite the whole Church to make this act of faith, which express itself in a renewed commitment to prayer."

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