5th Simbang Gabi – December 20: The Annunciation of Mary

007-Annunciation-icon

We are now on our 5th Simbang Gabi or, as I call it, Christmas academy. I hope our reflections in this Christmas academy is helping you deepen your understanding of the meaning of the incarnation of Jesus–the original event of Christmas.

It’s just 5 days before Christmas and today we come to a turning point of the Christmas story.  Today we hear the most famous and most important annunciation story which will change the course of human history.

We have heard this story many times before but it is always good to reflect on it over and over again because of its sheer significance not just to the Christmas story but also to the whole of human history.

In today’s gospel we hear the angel Gabriel came to Mary and greeted her

“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”

Mary must have been truly alarmed at the words of her unexpected visitor. Contrary to how some may portray her, Mary did not immediately grasp the angel Gabriel’s words. Mary was greatly troubled. We cannot fully understand the annunciation story unless we examine closely the confusion that Mary experienced.

“But she was greatly troubled at what was said
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”

Mary was especially troubled when the angel told her

Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.

Mary said to the angel,
“How can this be,
since I have no relations with a man?”

Mary was troubled because of the impossibility of it all. Although she is already betrothed to Joseph, she is not yet married to him. In other words, she is a virgin, how can she become a mother?

The confusion of Mary stemmed from the limitations of the human condition. To understand how she can become pregnant only means that she needs to go beyond the human condition and faculty. She only understood how she can become pregnant when she realized that her pregnancy is of no man but of God. As the angel said, “For nothing is impossible for God.” In other words, this is not a human enterprise but the work of God. The birth of God-becoming-human is God’s undertaking.  God is inviting Mary to participate in the work of God by becoming the bearer of the Son of God.

And the angel said to her in reply,
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
Therefore the child to be born
will be called holy, the Son of God.

Mary surrendered all her doubts and confusions and willfully entered the mystery of God’s mission.  Consequently, by entering into the mystery of God’s mission, it unleash the fullness of her humanity.  She learned to let go of her human pride and self-sufficiency. This also indicates that Mary’s response was far from being passive and submissive.  On the contrary Mary’s yes was a single courageous and proactive act of living.

Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word.”

Mary’s fiat (yes) is a turning point in the history of the world. It is the very moment of Incarnation, when God-the-Word from heaven became flesh and began to live among us as one of us. The world would never be the same again. Jesus will be the unique bridge between God and God’s creation. In a way, this moment of conception is just as important as the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. This very moment is the actual beginning of salvation. As Reformed theologian Willie Jennings says, “Salvation begins with Mary’s yes.”[1]

The turning point involved the incarnation as God’s coming down from heaven to become human like us and Mary’s yes which represents humanity’s aspiration of going up to God. Christmas, therefore, is not just the celebration of the incarnation of Jesus but Mary’s humble fiat. Christmas is not just the celebration of Jesus coming down to us but Mary’s coming up to God as well. The joy of Christmas is not just God becoming human but also Mary’s acceptance of Jesus being born in her womb. Mary’s fiat is, therefore, the epitome of how to celebrate Christmas most meaningfully. Christmas is an invitation for all of us to follow the example of Mary’s fiat to become the bearer of God.

Mary has become the prototype of the profound impact of the incarnation of Jesus upon a human being as well as the model of acceptance of Jesus’ incarnation in one’s own life. Mary’s yes is the prototype of humanity’s yes, or more precisely, Mary’s yes represents humanity’s yes par excellence. Cardinal Hans Ur Von Balthasar said, “The Marian fiat has become the archetype, principle and exemplar of the faith response of the entire Church.”[2] Mary became the first of the redeemed and, hence, the prototype of the church.  As Cardinal Schoenborn said, “Mary is the seal of perfect creatureliness; in her is illustrated in advance what God intended for creation.”[3] And as Karl Rahner said, Mary is the most genuine person, “the holiest, most authentic, and happiest human being, to say something of her who is blessed among women.”[4]  As such, she represents most profoundly who we truly are and what we will truly become, Rahner further explains,

She is the noblest of human beings in the community of the redeemed, representative of all who are perfect, and the type or figure that manifests completely the meaning of the Church, and grace, and redemption, and God’s salvation.”[5]

To celebrate Christmas, therefore, is to become Marian, to enter into that communion with Mary’s ‘Yes,’ which, ever anew, is giving room for God’s birth. Like Mary, we are  only capable of giving room for God’s birth through God’s grace itself. As Presbyterian theologian Cynthia Rigby said, “We too are ‘virgins’ who are incapable of bearing God,” until God deigns to be born in our ordinariness as in Mary’s.

Like Mary, may we truly say yes to Jesus becoming flesh and dwelling within and among us. Like Mary, may we all become God-bearers. This is the greatest challenge of Christmas and the perfect Christmas spirit.

The Christmas story continues … Abangan ang susunod na kabanata, bukas! (watch out for the next chapter tomorrow). Tomorrow, we will see how Mary in practice became a bearer of God.

 

Here is the schedule of Simbang Gabi at the Baclaran Shrine (Philippine Time). All Simbang Gabi masses at the shrine, both evening and early morning, are streamed live. Click this link to watch and listen to the Simbang Gabi at the shrine.

simbang-gabi-2018

 


 

[1] Willie Jennings in Jason Byassee, “Protestants and Marian Devotion—What about Mary?” Religion Online, 1. Accessed at https://www.religion-online.org/article/protestants-and-marian-devotion-what-about-mary/, 6.

[2] Hans Ur Von Balthasar, Explorations in Theology II Spouse of the Word, essay: “Who is the Church?”, trans. A.V. Littledale (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 161.

[3] Christoph Cardinal Schoenborn, O.P., Text translated from German by Joseph Smith, S.J. The original in German appeared in the Melanges offered to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger on the occasion of his 60th anniversary [(“Weisheit Gottes-Weisheit der Welt”), EOS, Verlag, St. Ottilien, 1987]. Loyola House of Studies, Ateneo de Manila University, Quezon City, Philippines.

[4] Karl Rahner, Mary – Mother of the Lord (Herder and Herder, 1963), 24.

[5] Rahner, Mary – Mother of the Lord, 37.

 

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4th Simbang Gabi – December 19: The Annunciation of Samson and John the Baptist

simbang-gabi

Welcome to the fourth Simbang Gabi, or as I have called it, Christmas academy. In this academy,  we are going back to the original Christmas story and discover the true meaning of Christmas. These nine days novena masses are also helping us deepen our understanding of the incarnation of Jesus, how God becoming flesh and dwelling among us can impact our lives.

The Christmas story is primarily the birth of our Lord God-became-human. The birth of Jesus is foreshadowed by many other birth stories. These birth stories depict the birth of a child, which in human condition, were impossible cases, but realized because of God’s grace and intervention. These birth stories are slowly building-up and anticipating the greatest birthday of all time: God-becoming-human.

The birth stories in today’s readings involve elderly women who had never borne a child, in short, barren or sterile. In a society where having children, especially boys, was a wife’s primary duty, to be unable to produce children was a terrible shame. It was the ultimate failure.

Through God’s grace, however, their barrenness were seen less as a curse than as a preparation for something special. What is special to these stories is that the child to be born will have a very special role bestowed upon them by God. It is like saying that God had played a role with the mother in the birth of this child. He was, in a way, God’s child.

Today we hear two annunciation birth stories–the birth story of Samson and John the Baptist. Both stories shows the mighty power and blessing of God which will become the source of strength for these two characters.

In the First Reading, we hear of the birth of Samson. Manoah his father came from Zorah, in the territory of Dan. (Dan was one of the twelve sons of Jacob.) The wife, whose name is not given, is sterile – the greatest curse a married woman could suffer in her society.

When the child is born, his mother names him Samson, a word which means ‘sun’ or ‘brightness’. This could be an expression of joy over the birth of an unexpected child or refer to a nearby town, Beth Shemesh, ‘house of the sun(-god)’.

Samson grew to become physically very strong but in other respects very weak, particularly where women were concerned. And it was a woman, the notorious Delilah, who would bring about his downfall.

Samson can be seen in a way as a symbol of his people. The misdeeds of the Israelites are often pictured by the prophets in the light of the foolish pursuit of foreign women, some of them of ill-repute, and falling victim to them. During the Judges’ period, the people constantly prostituted themselves in worshipping Canaanite gods.

The passage ends with the words: “The child grew and the Lord blessed him: and the Spirit of the Lord began to move him.” This final remark refers to his future feats of strength. Compare this with the words about Jesus after he had returned to Nazareth following his presentation in the Temple by Mary and Joseph: “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him” (Luke 2:52).

In the gospel, the angel Gabriel breaks the news to Zechariah about her wife bearing a child despite her barrenness and old age. Zechariah finds it unbelievable and he is afraid too, this may be because he doesn’t know how to break this news to his kinsfolk without being labeled as being out of his mind. But God spares Zechariah from this undue burden. He intervenes and does all the talking for him. Zechariah is rendered ‘speechless and unable to talk until the days these things take place,’ (v. 9).

In many ways, we can draw some parallels between our lives today and the lives of the mothers of Samson and John the Baptist. We experience a lot of barrenness on many levels in our lives. Many are considered as failures and cursed despite all their best efforts to make a living in society.  Many are losing faith and thinking that it is impossible to enjoy the prosperity that God has promised to all. Despite the progress our world has made there is a lot of fruitlessness and desolation in the lives of many of our people. Many who have worked hard have not reaped the true fruit of their labor.

We ask …

Why, despite all the hard and long work of ordinary labourers, they still do not have enough food to lay on the table, good education and health to provide to their children and  a bright future that they can leave to their children?

Why despite enormous wealth the world has produced, the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer? The global economy is growing but many people do not receive any benefit from it, worst, it has intensified their poverty.

Why despite all the efforts and advances in the past at empowering people, promoting democracy and tolerance, we allow authoritarian leaders to violate human rights and destroy life especially of the poor and vulnerable in society?

Why despite the advanced information technology which was originally envisioned to connect us, we have heightened divisiveness in society and narcissism among individuals?

Why despite the advancement in science and knowledge about nature, we are on the verge of catastrophic environmental destruction because of climate change?

We also ask the church: Why despite more than 500 years of Christianity in our country, the church has not become a credible witness and the faith has not become a great resource for social transformation as there is so much apathy and indifference of many Catholics to the many social ills in our country?

Why has it come to this? Perhaps, we have become proud and self-sufficient. We have become selfish and protective of our own kind. We have become individualist and more concerned about our own security and comforts. We have believed the lie that the powers-that-be has imposed upon us in order to maintain the status quo.

Ironically, yet auspiciously, it is in these desolate realities where God is sowing God’s seed and grace of God’s mission and dream for all of us. It is in these impossible cases that God is slowly birthing God’s people and kingdom just as God made possible the birth of Samson and John the Baptist despite their barren and sterile mothers. For God, our desolation and barrenness are less as a curse than as a preparation for something special.

But we gotta believe, trust and hope. We gotta have faith in seeing God working and walking with us in the barren areas of our lives. We need to go beyond and cease focusing on own enclosed security, comfort and agenda. We need to accept God’s invitation to transform us in God’s grace so we can be born again to become forerunners of Jesus.

Like Samson and John the Baptist, each of us has been called to be a forerunner of Jesus, to prepare the way for the growing and fulfillment of the mission of God’s kingdom that Jesus has inaugurated. We are forerunners of Jesus by the witness of our lives and courageous proclamation so that the gospel of Jesus can continue to transform other people’s lives, especially those who have not yet had the experience of knowing him.

The Christmas story continues … Abangan ang susunod na kabanata, bukas! (watch out for the next chapter tomorrow). The stage is set for the next, and most important annunciation, the annunciation of Mary.

We will hear about this tomorrow.

 

Here is the schedule of Simbang Gabi at the Baclaran Shrine (Philippine Time). All Simbang Gabi masses at the shrine, both evening and early morning, are streamed live. Click this link to watch and listen to the Simbang Gabi at the shrine.

simbang-gabi-2018

 

3rd Simbang Gabi – December 18: The Annunciation of Joseph

St-Joseph

Welcome to the third Simbang Gabi, or as I have called it at the start of the Simbang Gabi, these nine days novena masses are a Christmas academy. In this academy,  we shall go back to the original Christmas story and discover the true meaning of Christmas so as to prepare ourselves for the birth of Jesus into our lives and our world.

The Christmas story has plenty of annunciation stories. Annunciation is the story of God choosing certain people, usually ordinary, uninfluential and poor. They were chosen since their birth to participate in Missio Dei, God’s mission. Annunciation is God’s story of breaking the good news to chosen people about Missio Dei, God’s plan and dream for humanity and the whole cosmos.

All of us have our own annunciation story. For each of us were chosen by God for a mission in this world. No one is born in this world without a purpose, a mission and a calling. Like the characters in the Christmas story, our deepest calling is to participate in the Missio Dei. Through the inspiration of the characters that we will encounter during these Simbang Gabi, may we discover our true calling that comes from God.

The most famous annunciation story of all time is that of Mary which we will read in the gospel of the 5th Simbang Gabi. In the gospel today, we will hear the annunciation story of Joseph.

Like Mary’s story, Joseph’s story is vital to the Christmas story.  Without Joseph’s cooperation, our Christmas story will be incomplete.

So what can we learn from Joseph’s annunciation story?

Joseph is the silent character in the bible, never said a word, but always did the right thing.  As they say, a man of few words.  Joseph was the perfect example of the saying: Action speaks louder than words.

Joseph was a true gentleman. A true gentleman never leaves his woman. I know of men who so love their woman.  But when their woman got pregnant, suddenly the big burden of responsibility dawned upon them, they become terribly scared and pathetically, abandon their woman.

Joseph became terribly scared and confused too but he never abandoned Mary. Joseph was faced with a horrific dilemma. He discovered that Mary to whom he is already betrothed but with whom he has not consummated their relationship in marriage, is already pregnant. There could be only one explanation; she had been unfaithful and was having another man’s child. It was a very serious matter and, if brought out into the open, would have made Mary liable to death by stoning.

As a righteous man and devout follower of the Mosaic Law, he would want to break the union with someone who had seriously broken the Law. And yet, because he was such a good man, he did not want to expose Mary to a terrible punishment. Few men would accept such a situation with such calmness and self-restraint. Most would find it a terrible blow to their manhood.

It is at this point that God announced to Joseph the true situation of Mary.  God assured Joseph that no other man is involved, that she has conceived through the power of God’s Spirit. Joseph, without saying a word, accepted God’s explanation. More importantly, Joseph accepted God’s invitation to enter into the Missio Dei and become part of the dream and mission of God for humanity.

Joseph was a dreamer. Joseph had big dreams for himself and Mary.  But when Mary and God’s dream intertwined with his own dream, Joseph did not allow his own dreams to prevail over and above the dream of Mary and the dream of God for him. Joseph the dreamer, found a way to integrate his own dream with God’s dream and Mary’s dream.

What is your dream? How do you see your dream a part of God’s bigger dream for you and for the whole world?

Joseph was the faithful husband and father.  He obeyed the angel’s advice to go to Egypt when Herod decided to kill all newborn male babies in Israel.  And he raised the boy child Jesus through hard work and dedication.

Joseph’s story is that he was able to go beyond his own world. He understood the meaning of his life beyond himself.  He was able to transcend his own needs, his own desires, his own ambitions and connect them with the greater mission that God has in store for him.  And because of this he became great.  If Joseph left Mary and decided not to fulfil the invitation of the angel, he is forgotten forever.

We are called to be the new Joseph’s in our times today.  God is inviting us out of our own small world in order to engage and connect with others for a greater purpose other than our own ambitions, plans and desires.  Like Joseph may we see our lives in the greater interconnection of our lives with the life of God through the incarnation of Jesus.  Lock in our own world we can achieve little.  But connected with each other and with God we can do great things.

As we come closer to the birthday of Jesus, let us be like Joseph in welcoming the birth of Jesus in our lives, in our world!

The Christmas story continues … Abangan ang susunod na kabanata, bukas! (watch out for the next chapter tomorrow).

 

Here is the schedule of Simbang Gabi at the Baclaran Shrine (Philippine Time). All Simbang Gabi masses at the shrine, both evening and early morning, are streamed live. Click this link to watch and listen to the Simbang Gabi at the shrine.

simbang-gabi-2018

2nd Simbang Gabi – December 17: Jesus Entered Human History

panunuluyan

I remember an incident when I joined the Redemptorist mission at Sawanga, Bacon, Sorsogon in 1982. It was the Christmas break during my second year at the seminary. The mission was spearheaded by Fr. Manny Thomas, CSsR. We were there to give missions as well as to celebrate the Simbang Gabi with the people. As soon as we arrived in the barrio and introduced ourselves, some people were asking me whether I have relatives in the barrio. I told them, not that I am aware of. They told me that there are a number of families in the barrio with my family name, Echano, so they surmised they are my relatives.

I have almost forgotten this experience until, years after, I attended a special gathering of my relatives from my father side, the Echano’s. During conversations, I heard that my great, great grandfather spend some time in Sorsogon and other places for work. The line of conversation went as far as to suggest that during this time, my great great grandfather may have had some liaison with some local women in the area. It may not be farfetch to think that these affairs may have borne fruit. Upon hearing this, I suddenly remembered my experience in the mission in Sorsogon.

I must confess, I felt amused to hear that I may have had a charmer great, great grandfather. It is, indeed, interesting what one can discover in going back to his/her own ancestry. One can find interesting and fascinating details about the lives and background of one’s ancestors.

Try researching your own ancestry. I’m sure you will find colorful characters among your ancestors. Many of them, maybe both sinner and saint, tried to live life to the fullest given their strengths and weaknesses and the particular circumstances they found themselves in. Your ancestors’ character will also give you a greater understanding of who you truly are.

In today’s 2nd Simbang Gabi, in the opening of the gospel from Matthew, we hear of the ancestry or genealogy of Jesus.  It is introduced with the words: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”

This may be one of the dullest Gospel readings of the year. It consists of a long list of names, God knows, I could not even pronounce all of them correctly.  This can even be a good exercise for tongue twister. Seriously, many of them doesn’t ring a bell to most Christians. But they are interesting characters, if we could only find the time to examine each of them.

Interestingly, there are four women mentioned – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Mary.  What Matthew had done by including them in the list is a big, big ‘no’ for the Jews in the sense that most of them, if not all, were sinners and foreigners because they all bore sons out of questionable union or wedlock. For example, Tamar, who got married to the two sons of Judah and herself was impregnated by her father-in-law; Rahab was a Canaanite harlot; Ruth, a Moabite woman and therefore a foreigner; Bathsheba, the mother of King Solomon with whom King David committed adultery;

There are also a number of scoundrels in the list. Even David, one of the most outstanding servants of God, was an adulterer and a murderer (apart from those he killed in war).

By including sinners and weak human characters is exactly the point of the gospel: Jesus fully entered our human condition, with all its virtues and vices. When the Son of God became a human being, indeed, he became one of us. The Gospel makes no effort to “sanitise” his origins, or the members of his immediate family. There is no shortage of skeletons in Jesus’ cupboard.

The incarnation of Jesus–Jesus, Son of God, becoming one of us–implies that God intended to become part of our human history and lineage. God immersed into everything of our human experience, even the messiest, the muddiest and the sinfulness of our humanity. This is so comforting especially for many of us experiencing great vulnerability and weaknesses. This gives us a lot of hope and the courage to persist because despite our frailties, God will not judge us, instead, he will give us thousands of chances and will continue to believe in the goodness that lies underneath our faults and failures.

Saint Athanasius, the renowned fourth-century bishop of Alexandria and the greatest apologetic of the doctrine of God as the Trinity, in his classic work, Incarnation of the Word, said that the incarnation of Christ occurred not in order for God to become human but for human to become God,

“For He was made man that we might be made God; and He manifested Himself by a body that we might receive the idea of the unseen Father; and He endured the insolence of men that we might inherit immortality. For while He Himself was in no way injured, being impossible and incorruptible and very Word and God, men who were suffering, and for whose sakes He endured all this, He maintained and preserved in His own impossibility.”

The Christmas story continues … Abangan ang susunod na kabanata, bukas! (watch out for the next chapter tomorrow).

 

Here is the schedule of Simbang Gabi at the Baclaran Shrine (Philippine Time). All Simbang Gabi masses at the shrine, both evening and early morning, are streamed live. Click this link to watch and listen to the Simbang Gabi at the shrine.

simbang-gabi-2018

3RD SUNDAY OF ADVENT: THE REAL JOY OF CHRISTMAS

christmas-joy

Christmas is the season of joy. It is about the joy of the coming of the Lord among us. As in one of my most well-loved Christmas Carols, Joy to the World!

Joy to the world, the Lord is come
Let earth receive her King
Let every heart prepare Him room
And Heaven and nature sing

The readings for this 3rd Sunday of Advent are all about joy. St. Paul in the Second Reading commends the Philippians:

“Brothers and sisters: rejoice in the Lord always.
I shall say it again, rejoice.”

The word for rejoice in Latin is gaudete. Thus, this Sunday is called Gaudete Sunday.

The Church boldly  exhort people on this Third Sunday of Advent, ready or not, to rejoice. The joy that the church exhort the people is not, however, cheap and superficial joy.  It is not an escapist joy that numbs us and forgets all about the pain and sorrow in this life. As the song of Redemptorist Fr. Oli Castor goes,

How can I possibly sing a joyous Christmas song
when there’s so many people who know not where they belong

The joy of Christmas is not the fleeting joy that serves as an escape from the sad reality of our lives, which sadly has been the scourge for many of our people come every Christmas. It is rather the profound joy borne out of God’s immersion into the messiest and muddiest experiences of our humanity.

The readings also speaks of joy but not the shallow and cheap joy. In the first reading, from the prophet Zephaniah, the part we read this Sunday comes from a hymn celebrating the survival of the faithful remnant, a passage that commentators judge was added after the Babylonian Captivity. It is sung, therefore, by a group that has passed through tough times. In the midst of those difficulties they have come to know the presence of God so vividly that they can picture that the Lord “will sing joyfully … as one sings at festivals.” How did they get to be rejoicing survivors? In an earlier chapter the prophet had said,

Seek the Lord, all you humble of the earth,
who have observed his law;
Seek justice, seek humility;
perhaps you may be sheltered
on the day of the Lord’s anger (Zeph 2:3).

In the Second Reading, when Paul exhorts the Philippians to rejoice, he is in a captivity of his own, in Roman custody. Like others who have been able to deal prayerfully with the enforced solitude of incarceration, he is able to urge rejoicing on much the same basis as Zephaniah’s surviving Judahites: he has come to know the presence of the Lord. It is not wishful thinking but personal testimony that stands behind his pep talk:

Have no anxiety at all, but in everything,
by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving,
make your requests known to God.
Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding
will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

In the gospel, the crowds John encountered in the desert had, themselves, little reason for joy about the happenings in their lives during that time. Yet they share a joyous and hopeful expectation of the coming of the Messiah who will deliver them from their lethargy and gloom. The people in long rows, gathering to be baptized in the wilderness, was expecting the Savior who is to come. In this context of joyful expectation, John exhorts the people to take concrete small steps towards making changes in their lives and the actual situation. The work for a better world is preparation for the coming of Christ. It is also a sign that the coming of Christ is near.  Each segment (the crowd, the tax collectors, the soldiers) asked John the Baptist the question: “Teacher, what should we do?”

He said to them in reply,
“Whoever has two cloaks
should share with the person who has none.
And whoever has food should do likewise.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him,
“Teacher, what should we do?”
He answered them,
“Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.”
Soldiers also asked him,
“And what is it that we should do?”
He told them,
“Do not practice extortion,
do not falsely accuse anyone,
and be satisfied with your wages.”

Rita Ferrone notes that Pope Francis echoed this passage in his address to 2014 Collegeville Conference on Liturgy, Music, and the Arts:

The crowds asked Pope Francis, “What then should we do?” To the pastors he said “Get out of the sacristy! Go and be with your people; smell like your sheep!” To the wealthy nations he said, “Give up your trickle down economic theories! Address the injustices that hold the poor in bondage.” To the religious he said “Answer the questions of the CDF,* but don’t let their investigations dismay you. Continue in your ministry!” [1]

Christmas is a season of joy borne out of the coming of the Lord in our midst. The coming of the Lord is both exciting and demanding. Christmas joy is the Lord Jesus Christ walking with us as we take small and steady steps in reforming our lives and transforming the world we live in.

Before Christmas, what little change can we make within ourselves and in our family, workplace and community we belong?

 


 

[1] July 7, 2014, Rita Ferrone, Church Reform, Pope Francis

 

Simbang Gabi: Our Gift to Our Lord Jesus Christ

shrine_christmas

Tomorrow, December 16, the Philippine church begins the well-loved and enduring Filipino Christmas tradition called Simbang Gabi (Filipino for “night masses”). Simbáng Gabi is a devotional nine-day series of Masses practiced by Roman Catholics and  Aglipayans in the Philippines in preparation for the birth of Jesus Christ. The Simbáng Gabi Masses in the Philippines are held daily in all parishes, shrines and major chapels throughout the country from December 16–24 and occur at different times ranging from as early as 3 to 5 AM. Yes, that early!

In recent years, especially in urban areas where people find it difficult to attend the early morning masses because of their work, parishes celebrate evening masses of the Simbáng Gabi. This begins at the 15th of December and ends on the 23rd, (erroneously described as “anticipated Simbang gabi” since Vigil or anticipated Masses are only applicable for Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation). However, the propers and readings used for these Masses are those which are prescribed for the day.

White is the liturgical color for Masses celebrated within the context of these novena masses. Violet is used for any other Masses said during the day, as these are still considered part of the Advent season. Filipinos celebrate this Mass with great solemnity and the Gloria is sung.

The Simbang Gabi is the most important Filipino Christmas tradition. Simbang gabi is deeply rooted in the history and culture of the Filipinos.

The Simbang Gabi originated in the early days of Spanish rule over the Philippines as a practical compromise for farmers, who began work before sunrise to avoid the noonday heat out in the fields. It began in 1669. Priests began to say Mass in the early mornings instead of the evening novenas more common in the rest of the Hispanic world. [1]

After hearing Mass, Filipino families usually partake of the traditional Philippine Christmas delicacies,  either during breakfast at home or immediately outside the church, where they are sold. Vendors offer a wealth of native delicacies, including bibingka (rice flour and egg based cake, cooked using coals on top and under), puto bumbong (a purple sticky rice delicacy which is steamed in bamboo tubes, with brown sugar and coconut shavings as condiments), salabat (hot ginger tea) and tsokolate (thick Spanish cocoa).

Many Filipinos believe that if a devotee completed all nine days of the Simbáng Gabi, a request made as part of the novena may be granted. The danger of this, is again, it may lead us to focus on ourselves, which the celebration of Christmas in the secular world has all too often led us–with all the focus on material gifts, parties, and merry-making. The real focus of Simbang Gabi is supposedly, the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ into our world. Thus, Simbang Gabi is, first and foremost, focused on how our lives can become gifts to Jesus Christ and for others, especially the poor and the needy. That is why in more recent years, the church has called Simbang Gabi more appropriately as Misa Aguinaldo (gift mass).

Indeed attending the Simbang Gabi is a sacrifice. We go out of our daily routine by waking up early in the morning especially in this cold season trying to complete the 9 days masses. It is a sacrifice made not just because of an obligation, nor because we have a petition nor because of a panata (promise) in exchange of a favour from God. It is a sacrifice made out of love, first and foremost, a gift to our Lord Jesus Christ who will be celebrating his birthday.

Simbang Gabi also marks the second part of Advent which focuses on the preparation for the birth of Jesus Christ. Up to the 16th December, the season of Advent is a period of preparation for the Second Coming of our Lord.  On December 17th, Advent changes gear, the focus is on preparing us to celebrate Christmas.

Thus, in these last eight days before Christmas, the relationship between the readings changes.  Each of these days, the first reading is taken from the Hebrew scriptures, and chosen to match the gospel.  The gospels are taken from the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. The gospel brings us closer to the celebration of Christmas.  The sense of anticipation and fulfillment builds as we read the story of the preparation for Jesus’ first coming into this world for us.

In this light, Simbang Gabi is going back to the Christmas story, the original Christmas story.  By going back to the Christmas story, we will be introduced to characters that we might be hearing only at this time of the year like Manoah, Samson, Hannah, Samuel, Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah. We will see that the lives and stories of these characters will come together in Jesus Christ.  Each character will see the totality of their lives in God’s greater plan of God coming down to become one among us.  They are just supporting characters to the main character which is Jesus. The stories of these characters are not separate stories, each story is part of a larger story—the Jesus story; the story of the coming down of God and becoming one of us.  All these stories are slowly unfolding towards a climax—the birth of Jesus.

That is why I call Simbang Gabi a school or an academy that will teach us the real meaning and message of Christmas.  The daily lesson and insight of each Simbang Gabi will teach and help us how to become gift to our Lord Jesus Christ and to one another. In this way, Simbang Gabi is truly a most meaningful way of discovering and experiencing the meaning of Christmas.

The profound meaning and calling of Simbang Gabi is reflected in this year’s theme of the Simbang Gabi at the shrine: Sambayanang Namumuhay sa Pag-asa: Minamahal, May Lakas, May Handog ( A People Living in Hope: Beloved, Strong, Gifted).

Here is the schedule of Simbang Gabi at the Baclaran Shrine (Philippine Time). All Simbang Gabi masses at the shrine, both evening and early morning, are streamed live. Click this link to watch and listen to the Simbang Gabi at the shrine.

simbang-gabi-2018

 


 

[1] Roces, Alfredo (1 October 2009). Culture Shock! Philippines: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette. Marshall Cavendish Reference.

2ND SUNDAY OF ADVENT: JOHN THE BAPTIST, THE GRINCH AND SCROOGE

st-john-the-baptist-icon

Showing in theaters worldwide since last week is The Grinch. The Grinch, based on Dr. Seuss’ holiday classic tells the story of a cynical grump who goes on a mission to steal Christmas.  He especially hates the Christmas season, making particular note of how disturbing the various noises of Christmastime are to him, including the singing of Christmas carols.

Similar to the Grinch is another popular anti-Christmas figure named Scrooge from Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol. Scrooge is a cold-hearted miser who despises Christmas. Scrooge was also turned into a popular movie shown on Christmas several years ago. 

Ironically, despite their hatred of the season, Grinch and Scrooge give an important lesson for Christmas. The story of Grinch and Scrooge is about transformation. We love to see the spirit of Christmas bring out the best in people. One of the essential lessons of Christmas, indeed, is personal transformation.

The story of Grinch and Scrooge also try to show us a different side of Christmas beyond the predominantly commercial and materialistic celebration of the season. There is more to Christmas than all the gifts, material things, merry-making and shopping. Unfortunately, commercial and business establishment, have used these two characters by highlighting their grumpiness and greediness as the opposite of the spirit of the season which is supposedly generosity and gift-giving. Deriding the character of the Grinch and Scrooge, is indeed good for business, as it justifies the mad frenzy of shopping and accumulating material things in the guise of generosity and gift giving.

Interestingly, the Grinch and Scrooge, resemble some similarities to John the Baptist, the main character of the gospel in today’s second Sunday of Advent. Luke in the gospel today, presents John the Baptist as a kind of anti-establishment figure but showed the people the true way of preparing for the coming of the messiah. 

First, Luke, at the beginning of the gospel, gives a list of the powerful people in the world at that time:  

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, 
when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, 
and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee,
and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region
of Ituraea and Trachonitis, 
and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, 
during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, 
the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.

Luke’s enumeration of the famous figures during the time near the birth of Jesus was not just to serve a historical function but to employ sarcasm against these political figures. With so many powerful people around, we wonder why God chose John the Baptist, an eccentric and lowly person, to proclaim the coming of the Messiah. Indeed, God, as Mary proclaimed in the Magnificat, “has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the humble.”

Secondly,  Luke locates John’s preaching to the people, not in the center, that is, the temple in Jerusalem, but in the wilderness or the desert. Despite John proclaiming in the desert, which is an inconvenience to many people especially the rich and powerful, the people went into the desert. It was not John who went to Jerusalem, but it was the people who went to the desert to hear John. In the Bible, God leads people into the isolation and barrenness of the wilderness or desert in order to effect transformation.

Thirdly, John’s lifestyle represents a counter-symbol to his contemporaries. Jesus once said: “John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He has a demon” (Mt. 11:18). He was arrayed in a “camel’s hair” garment, secured by a leather belt, and his diet was locusts and wild honey (Mt. 3:4). His dietary fare was that generally consumed by the poorer elements of society. He stood in bold relief to the wealthy, indulgent Jews of his day. 

Finally, John the Baptist way in preparing the way for the coming of the Messiah is not through external force but internal transformation:

“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
Every valley shall be filled
and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The winding roads shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

He preached a “baptism of repentance,” a cleansing from the old ways of “greed and darkness” and a commitment to a new way of living. 

Following the cue of John the Baptist, the church has set aside Advent as a privileged moment of retreat, a kind of going into the desert, in preparation for Jesus birth.  Advent is a quiet time of joyful anticipation which stands in great contrast with our culture’s turbulent consumer-bonanza during Christmas season.

Advent as a time of joyful anticipation is reflected in the other readings today. The prophet Baruch, in the first reading, says, “take off your robe of mourning and misery,” for God is leading his people “with his mercy and justice for company.” God’s people “are wrapped in the cloak of justice from God,” and they “will be named by God forever the peace of justice.”

St. Paul, too, in the second reading, speaks of joyful anticipation, of waiting for “the day of Christ Jesus.” He encourages the Philippians to grow in “love, understanding, wealth of experience, clear conscience, and blameless conduct,” and he concludes with a wish: “that you may be found rich in the harvest of justice which Jesus Christ has ripened in you.”

Grinch and Scrooge like John the Baptist point to personal transformation as one of the essential challenges of the Christmas story. But Grinch and Scrooge missed out the elephant in the room while John the Baptist did not. Christmas is more than just sharing and giving of gifts to each other. Christmas is celebrating and receiving the greatest gift of all. John the Baptist showed us that Christmas, most important of all, is the joyful preparation and anticipation of the coming of Jesus in our lives which calls for all of us a baptism of repentance.

1ST SUNDAY OF ADVENT: SALVATION IS NOW!

end

HAPPY NEW YEAR everyone!

Perhaps you think I am getting confused about time. This is not January 1 nor is it the lunar new year or the beginning of the Muslim year. But this is the beginning of a new year for the Catholic Church.

Last week we celebrated the Feast of Christ the King and the last Sunday of the outgoing Church year. Today is the First Sunday in Advent and the beginning of a new Church year. It is also the beginning of a new cycle of prayers and Scripture readings, Cycle C.

Advent comes from the Latin adventus which is a translation of the Greek word parousia, commonly used to refer to the Second Coming of Christ. The season offers the opportunity to share in the ancient longing for the coming of the Messiah, and to be alert for his Second Coming. This is reflected in our readings for this first Sunday of Advent.

The First Reading and the Gospel both talk about a time when the Lord comes—for justice. The First Reading from the prophet Jeremiah proclaims;

In those days Judah shall be safe 
and Jerusalem shall dwell secure; 
this is what they shall call her: 
“The LORD our justice.”

In the Gospel, Jesus warns people not to be overcome with the pleasures and anxieties of the world but to be ready for his coming. In his second coming Jesus will set things right, and ransom those who “can stand up straight and stand secure before the Son of Man. 

Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy 
from carousing and drunkenness 
and the anxieties of daily life, 
and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.
For that day will assault everyone
who lives on the face of the earth.
Be vigilant at all times 
and pray that you have the strength 
to escape the tribulations that are imminent 
and to stand before the Son of Man.h.

In order that we may be ready for Christ at his second coming, St. Paul in the Second Reading, exhorts us: 

Brothers and sisters:
May the Lord make you increase and abound in love
for one another and for all,
just as we have for you, 
so as to strengthen your hearts, 
to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father 
at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones. Amen.

The texts for this first Sunday of Advent are warning about the end of the world inasmuch as they are commentaries on living in the present. Jesus’ words are a wake-up call telling us to be present in any given moment and being decisive about the present. Since we do not know the hour or the day, let this be the hour, let this be the day, let this be the time that we live and die. This day, this moment, this life, is the time to bear fruit. Thus, the essence of Advent spirit is readiness for action: watchfulness for every opening, and willingness to risk everything for freedom and a new beginning.  We should all work and capture every opportunity for the elimination of disease, poverty, injustice and death itself although this will only be fully realized at the second coming of Jesus Christ.  

An appropriate phrase that captures the Advent spirit is carpe diem. Carpe diem is a Latin aphorism, usually translated “seize the day”, taken from book 1 of the Roman poet Horace’s work Odes, written 23 years before Christ. The phrase is part of the longer carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero, which can be translated as “Seize the day, put very little trust in tomorrow (the future)”. The ode says that the future is unforeseen and that one should not leave to chance future happenings, but rather one should do all one can today to make one’s future better.  [1]

In our world today we see a lot of suffering and disease, injustice, poverty and war.  Our nation is in darkness, we are in a crisis.  The temptation is to sulk into the present and linger in our frustrations, anger, despair, anxieties.  Worst is to be passive and thus justify the greed, lust, pride around us.  So we no longer condemn the evil around us and no longer appreciate the beauty and blessings around us.  We no longer hope, no longer wait, no longer expect. We’ve stop living and dreaming.   

Advent seeks to awaken us from our weakening spirit, passive attitude and fatalistic mindset. Advent seeks to instills in us defiant hope, transformative attitude and patient confidence in God’s action. Advent reminds us that we can look forward from our darkness to the fact that God’s Light will always overcome the darkness of the world (Isaiah 9, 1 – 7).  We just have to learn how to wait for God’s grace, long for Jesus’ power and actively prepare for the coming of the Kingdom of the Messiah.

 


 

[1] Carpe Diem, Wikipedia, accessed 1/12/2018 at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carpe_diem

Advent: A New Understanding of Time

Dali-persistence-of-memory
The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali

This coming Sunday marks the beginning of a new year in the church with the celebration of the first Sunday of Advent.  On the First Sunday of Advent, I usually greet the people in the shrine “a Happy New Year!” They are dumbfounded to hear this at the end of November. Wait a minute, some of them would ask, you mean to say the church does not celebrate new year on January 1st? I tell them that the church also celebrates new year in January but for the church, the true beginning of the year is the first Sunday of Advent. 

This awareness that a different calendar exist in the church somehow rattles our understanding and experience of time since, pardon the cliché, time immemorial. For us, we simply understand time as just the usual chronology of events measured in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks and years.  Time gives dimension to our experience like having a beginning and an end. The new awareness of a different time in the church, however, makes us think that there is more to time than the chronological and quantitative dimension of time. Time is something we have taken for granted for so long yet has profound and transformative power. 

The readings for the weekday and Sunday masses during Advent season may have also confounded our chronological understanding of time. It is indeed confusing to think that if Advent is the beginning of the new year in the church why are the readings during this season about the final events and end of days.  In other words, why begin with the end? Does the church have a reversed understanding of time? 

The celebration of Advent, indeed, exposes the different sense of time we employ in the ordinary world and the church. The church through its liturgical year calls us to ponder time in the context of the mystery of our salvation in God. The Church’s liturgical year is a celebration of the Paschal Mystery – the mystery of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ – his Person, birth, ministry, passion, death and resurrection – and the Holy Spirit.  Time in the sense of the church is God’s plan as revealed in time. God’s salvation is not only revealed in the fullness of time, but in the gift of time itself.  It is a gift, as it is a creation of God, and the dimension in which we go about receiving redemption.

Thus, God’s salvation is not separate from the seasons of nature. Just as nature and our lives are responsive to the seasons of the year – Summer, Spring, Winter and Autumn, the Church’s liturgical year follows nature with its distinctive seasons and feasts which sustains the Catholic community’s life and mission. 

It is not just the church, however, who has a different perspective of time other than the chronological time. Even the scientific world has for a long time presented a more dynamic understanding of time. Thanks to Albert Einstein who more than 100 years ago proposed that the universe has no universal and absolute clock. Einstein’s concept of time is encapsulated in his theory of relativity which states that time and space are not as constant as everyday life would suggest. Time, according to Einstein is a relative concept and the higher you live above sea level the faster you should age. 

Even the ancient Greeks had two words for time: chronos (χρόνος) and kairos (καιρός). Chronos refers to chronological or sequential time, while the kairos signifies a proper or opportune time for action.  While chronos is quantitative, kairos has a qualitative, permanent nature.

Kairos denotes the right, critical, or opportune moment. In etymological studies of the word, the primary root of the word traces back to the ancient Greek association with both archery and weaving. In archery, kairos denotes the moment in which an arrow may be fired with sufficient force to penetrate a target. In weaving, kairos denotes the moment in which the shuttle could be passed through threads on the loom. The moral lesson is that we should pay more attention to kairos even as we cannot abandon the chronos

The New Testament writers adopted this two distinctive Greek understanding of time. In the New Testament kairos was used to mean “the appointed time in the purpose of God,” the time when God acts (for example in Mark 1:15: “The kairos is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand!”). Kairos was used 86 times in the New Testament to refer to an opportune time, a “moment” or a “season” such as “harvest time,” whereas chronos  was used 54 times to refers to a specific amount of time, such as a day or an hour (e.g. Acts 13:18 and 27:9).

It is in this Biblical understanding of time adopted from the Greeks that we should read the texts of the liturgical readings during this Advent season. The texts are not so much a warning about the end of the world inasmuch as it is a commentary on living in a time of crisis and turbulence. What Jesus is talking about is now. Since we do not know the hour or the day, let this be the hour, let this be the day, let this be the time that we live and die. This day, this moment, this life, is the time to bear fruit. The essence of Advent is readiness for action: watchfulness for every opening, and willingness to risk everything for freedom and a new beginning.  We should all work and capture every opportunity for the elimination of disease, poverty, injustice and death itself although this will only be fully realized at the second coming of Jesus Christ.  

Christianity is fundamentally a religion of conversion. Christianity is an invitation for us to a change of heart and mind; to a transformation of our thinking and living according to God’s thinking, ways and attitude. It is also an invitation to live and act in time in accordance to God’s perspective of time. As the song goes,

In his time, in his time
He makes all things beautiful
In his time

Lord please show me everyday
As you’re teaching me your way
That you do just what you say
In your time

 

SOLEMNITY OF CHRIST THE KING: THE TENSION OF CHRISTIAN LIFE

On this last Sunday of the Liturgical Year, the church celebrates all over the world the Feast of Christ the King. It was Pope Pius XI who instituted the feast in 1925. The Pope’s intention was to set Christ’s reign against totalitarian ideologies in the ‘Thirties. The Feast has become a reminder and counter-symbol to the totalitarian governments of Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin.  Today, more than ever, we need to celebrate and proclaim Christ as King amidst the rise of strongman and authoritarian rulers in many parts of the world.

In any era of history, kingship is always associated with power, prestige, and wealth. In proclaiming Jesus Christ as king, the church presents the kingship of Jesus and the kingdom he inaugurated as diametrically opposite to having power, wealth and influence. Jesus kingship is all about sacrifice, humility and service.

Jesus’ anti-king of earthly nature is reflected in our readings today.  The second reading, for example, proclaims that Jesus kingship is borne out of his suffering and death for our sakes

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood,
who has made us into a kingdom, priests for his God and Father,

The Gospel presents Christ the King on trial who is about to suffer and die. As we all know, the Jews accused Jesus of blasphemy for claiming to be God, and they wanted him to die by the most shameful and painful death, Roman execution.  Hence, they brought Jesus before Pilate the Roman governor and accused Jesus of causing sedition against the Roman Empire and Caesar.  “We found this man inciting our people to revolt, opposing payment of the tribute to Caesar, and claiming to be Christ, a king” (Lk 23:2).  Today’s Gospel presents the first part of the trial conducted by Pilate who questions Jesus about his kingship.  In his dialogue with Pilate, Jesus implies that Pilate does not understand the spiritual or transcendent nature of Jesus’ kingship (“My Kingdom does not belong to this world”).  Jesus admits that he is a king but declares that his Kingdom is not of this world.  Neither his present nor his future reign operates according to the world’s criteria of power and dominance.  Jesus’ Kingdom, the reign of God, is based on the beatitudes, and he rules through loving service rather than through domination.  His authority is rooted in truth, not in physical force.

Pilate knew that Jesus was not guilty but chose political expediency over truth. In the end, it was Pilate who was in trial. And history judged him harshly.  Jesus did not succumb to the mockery of Pilate and the Jews but at a high cost–his suffering and death on the cross.

Today as we celebrate Jesus as king, we are reminded of the sacrificial nature of Jesus as king and the radical social demands of belonging to his kingdom. If, indeed, we honor Jesus as king, we need to follow Jesus in standing against any use of power, influence and wealth to dominate over others. If, indeed, we honor Jesus as king, we need to follow Jesus in standing for the truth despite the prevalence of lies and systematic cover-up of truth. If, indeed, we honor Jesus as king, we need to follow Jesus in offering even our own lives so that God’s kingdom of love, peace and justice may prosper and prevail.

To celebrate Jesus as king unveils the important and permanent reality of tension of our earthly existence. Jesus’ response to Pilate unearths this tension between this world vs. Jesus’ kingdom.

“My kingdom does not belong to this world.
If my kingdom did belong to this world,
my attendants would be fighting
to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.
But as it is, my kingdom is not here.”

As followers of Christ we live in the tension of “being in this world but not of this world.” It is the tension of becoming a member of a new community under God and being a part of the ethnicities, nations, and families whose membership does not preclude unbelievers. The whole of the New Testament makes it clear that response to the reign of God and the kingship of Jesus has everything to do with how we live out our earthly citizenship—how we work, pay, buy, sell, and vote. We believe, however, that our final destiny goes beyond this world to a whole new world radically transformed through God’s dynamic and powerful grace. It is in that sense that Jesus’ kingship “does not belong to this world” and “is not here.”

In the midst of the rising influence and power of strongman and autocratic leaders today, proclaiming Jesus as King will incur persecution, character assassination even death from instruments of the system that breeds and sustains these strongmen and autocratic leaders. As Jesus as king suffered persecution and death, we who wish to be part of his kingdom, will not be exempted from the pain and sorrow of standing up for the blossoming of his kingdom. But fear not, the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus and God the Father has bestowed upon us, will give us the strength and guide us through the dark road of navigating the tension of being in this world while living God’s kingdom already here but not yet; only to be fully realized at the end of time.

Christ, perfect ruler, source of perfect peace and justice: reign now and forever over all peoples, languages, nations; over our hearts. Amen.