3RD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: THE AUDACITY OF GOOD NEWS

Everyday, we are bombarded with bad news. From the enormous suffering and gloom brought about by the pandemic to corruption in government to scandals in the church to natural and human-made calamities to marriage breakdowns and domestic violence, all these bad news seemed to diminish our hopes that things will get better than will it get worse.

Behind these bad news, however, there are good news that do not surrender to the despair brought about by the bad news. Most of these good news represent the utter goodwill and generosity of hearts of many people–the many frontliners who have generously given their time even their lives to caring for the sick and dying of covid-19, the anonymous people who help victims of calamities, and those who continue to take the side of the poor, oppressed and powerless even at the risk of their own lives.

Every good news is meant to inspire and prod us to never give up despite the many almost insurmountable challenges we face each day. It is in the same spirit that we listen to the proclamation of the gospel in every Eucharist we attend. The word gospel itself is derived from the Anglo-Saxon term god-spell, meaning “good story,” a rendering of the Latin evangelium and the Greek euangelion, meaning “good news” or “good telling.”

In the readings for today’s 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, we hear of the audacity of good news amidst the bad news that has engulfed the chosen people of God in biblical times.

In the First Reading, we hear of the repentance of the people of Nineveh despite being a pagan city. Despite that Jonah, the prophet sent by God, secretly did not want the pagan city, Nineveh, to convert and be saved because this city was an enemy of the Hebrews. Better for it to perish in flames than to repent in ashes and sackcloth.  

In the gospel, Jesus began his ministry of the proclamation of the good news at the same time that John the Baptist was arrested by Herod. The arrest of John may have been a very bad news for many people. John the Baptist represents hope in the midst of the oppressive occupation of Israel by the Romans. John the Baptist proclaimed the coming of the messiah which would bring back their glory days under God’s rule.

The Gospel goes on to give us a summary of Jesus’ message: ‘Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven is close at hand’. Repent’ for Jesus means something far more than simple sorrow for sins. The Greek word used, metanoia, literally means a ‘change of mind’ – a change not just in an intellectual sense but involving a transformation of attitude at a deep personal level.  This means looking at one’s life and one’s hopes for the future in a totally new way, open and receptive to the – usually surprising – action of God. The Kingdom of God meant this kind of radical change of heart.

It is good to note the kinds of people Jesus chose for Apostles: from the fishermen brothers Simon and Andrew to Matthew and John, they were all flawed yet graced. Leaving their family and their livelihood, they are to become his intimate companions and followers. Life with him, and association with his ministry of healing and proclaiming the Good News, will transform them from being fishers of fish to being fishers, ‘catching’ people for the Kingdom.

The inauguration of the public ministry of Jesus is an ongoing story. We are all called to participate in the inauguration of the Kingdom by Jesus by becoming the Good News, through witnessing the values of God’s kingdom in the midst of the darkness and misery of the world today, and through drawing others constantly (those who ‘live in the darkness and shadow of death’) into the freedom and light that Jesus has brought into the world.

FEAST OF SANTO NIÑO: BECOMING A CHILD OF THE KINGDOM OF GOD

sto-nino

While the rest of the Catholic world celebrates the 2nd Sunday in ordinary time, the Philippines Catholic Church celebrates the feast of Santo Niño (Holy Child Jesus). Vatican granted the Philippines Church a special permission to celebrate the Feast of the Santo Niño every third Sunday of January because of the Filipinos’ exuberant devotion to Santo Niño.

The celebration of the feast of Santo Niño is a beautiful expression of the wedding between the Christian faith and the Filipino culture. Santo Niño symbolizes, on the one hand, the introduction of the Christian faith to the Filipino people.  On the other hand, Santo Niño symbolizes the celebration of the Filipino culture. The relic of Santo Niño is the first Christian image that set foot on Philippine soil, originally as a gift from explorer Ferdinand Magellan to Rajah Humabon and his chief consort on account of their baptism in 1521.

The native Filipinos welcome the relic of Santo Niño and the whole Christian faith, however, according to their cultural sensibilities. The cultural appropriation of Santo Niño is beautifully expressed in the dance called Sinulog. Before the Spanish conquistadores came, Sinulog was already danced by the natives in honor of their wooden idols and Anitos. The natives then adapted the Sinulog as a dance ritual in honor of the miraculous image of the Santo Niño. Thus, Sinulog became the link between the country’s indigenous past and its Christian present.

While devotees dance the sinulog, they chant “Pit Señor.” “Pit Señor” is the short form of “Sangpit sa Señor,” a phrase in Cebuano that means, “to call, ask, and plead to the king.”  Indeed, the image of Sto. Niño depicts an innocent boy Jesus with a smiling face yet dressed as a king. Dressed in the robes of a king, crowned and holding the sceptre, the globe and the cross, Sto. Niño reminds us of the link between God’s Kingdom and the mystery of spiritual childhood. These enigmatic contrasting elements provide us with one of the profound reasons to believe that Sto. Niño is our protector and has the power to grant and answer our prayers as many miracles have attested.

The readings of today’s feast invites us not just to venerate the relic of Santo Niño but more importantly to imitate the ways and values of Santo Niño.

In the first reading, Isaiah prophesied that “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” This light will be a child who will be born among them, “upon his shoulder dominion rests.” The description of the child sends a strong message to the oppressors of Israel. The child is not someone to be babied, not a weakling, but a strong leader.  The child will defeat machineries of oppression and rule over Israel with wisdom, peace, justice and good judgment.

In the gospel today, Jesus called a child and put the child among his disciples :

“Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

When Jesus used the symbol of the child it has nothing to do with romanticizing the child. Jesus brought out the symbol of the child in the context of the Kingdom of God when he asked:

“Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

Who is the child in Jesus’ society during his time whom he considered as the greatest in God’s kingdom? Who are the children that Jesus referred to? The image of child or children represents the poor, the anawim, the insignificant, powerless, the “little ones” in Jesus and the Biblical times. They have no status and position in society. Who are the children in God’s eyes today? They are the poor who continue to be poor despite the massive display of wealth by the few, they are the victims of calamities–natural and human made, they are the victims of violence and extra-judicial killings, they are the powerless who are manipulated by powerful politicians and misled by fake news and misinformation, they are the sick and the dying who have no one to care for them, they are amongst us who are desperate and have no one to turn to but fellow poor and God.

When Jesus said to turn and become like children does not mean to become a child but to become anawim, poor, to become like one who depend on no one else but God. They are the least, the humble, the hungry, the thirsty, the prisoners, and the sick. They are people who need other people, and they are people who need God’s protection. They long for God to reign in their lives.

In other words, to become like little children is to become poor. We can only enter the kingdom of God if we become poor. No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God—they cannot enter the Kingdom of God. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, are the greatest in the Kingdom of God.

The second point that Jesus wishes to impart to us in the gospel today is that by becoming children or poor we can take the side and advance the plight of our fellow poor people. Jesus said,

 “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me … Let no one despise these little ones, these children… Whoever despises one of these little ones who depend on God. … Beware! Their angels, their guardians, will see what you have done to them and will surely protect them. After all, they depend on God’s protection.”

He reminded his disciples that whatsoever they do to the poor, they did it to him. This is reiterated by Jesus at the end of time when he will return in glory to judge the world,

“Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

How do we become a child of the Kingdom of God today? We become a child of the Kingdom of God today, by upholding the aspirations of the poor, powerless, marginalized, victims of injustice, intolerance and inhumanity in our own communities, parishes and the wider society. In the midst of all the calamities and miseries we experience today, the image of Santo Niño is a powerful symbol of protest against the values and conditions that contradict the Kingdom of God—power, domination, wealth, violence, pride, injustice, exploitation, inequality and poverty.

The feast of Santo Niño is a beautiful festivity overflowing with profound spiritual meaning. It is nice to dance the Sinulog but let us make our celebration of the Santo Niño go beyond mere pageantry. May it truly transform us into children of the Kingdom of God. To become children of God is not to become childish in our faith.  To become children of God goes beyond having a zealous devotion to Santo Niño. To become children of God is to become poor and to cast our lot and struggle together with the poor, the least, the lowly and the most abandoned in our society today.

By doing so, we become the greatest in the Kingdom of God!

BAPTISM OF THE LORD: LIVING THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS THROUGHOUT THE YEAR

Today is the last day of the Church’s Christmas season. Jesus’ birth has now been celebrated. His public life comes next. His baptism begins it.

The end of Christmas is not just the putting down of all Christmas decorations–the Belen (Nativity Scene), Christmas tree, Christmas lights and others. The end of Christmas is not going back to our ordinary past lives as if there is no change in our lives. As we say in Filipino–balik sa dating ugali or BSDU (back to old ways).

The end of Christmas is also a beginning–the beginning of Jesus’ mission. This is what we celebrate today–the baptism of Jesus as the beginning of his mission.

As we commemorate the baptism of our Lord, we are also invited to return to our own baptism. The end of Christmas calls us to relive our baptismal identity in our daily ordinary lives. The end of Christmas is the beginning of the work of Christmas.

The readings for today’s Baptism of the Lord talks about the meaning of baptism and mission of Jesus. The first reading from the prophet Isaiah, talks about what kind of a servant Jesus will be.

Thus says the LORD:
Here is my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen one with whom I am pleased,
upon whom I have put my spirit;
he shall bring forth justice to the nations,
not crying out, not shouting,
not making his voice heard in the street.
a bruised reed he shall not break,
and a smoldering wick he shall not quench,
until he establishes justice on the earth;
the coastlands will wait for his teaching.

In the gospel, we saw how the Baptism of Our Lord was the united action of one God, three Persons. The Father called out from heaven, “This is my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” The Spirit descended on Jesus after he was baptized, “the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.”

In reliving our baptism in the context of today’s realities, it might also be helpful to look back at the history of the sacrament of baptism.  R. Alan Streett, Senior Research Professor of Biblical Theology at Criswell College, Dallas, Texas, in his book, Caesar and the Sacrament: Baptism, A Rite of Resistance, examined the origin of the sacrament of baptism within the context of the Roman Empire and its relationship to Roman power.

Streett claims that Christ-followers borrowed the term sacramentum and used it to express their loyalty to Christ and his kingdom. Tertullian (160 CE‒225 CE) identified baptism specifically as the Christian sacramentum and contrasted it to a Roman soldier’s pledge of loyalty to the Emperor and Empire (Tertullian, Bapt. 4.4–5; Idol. 19.2). Just as a soldier upon his oath of allegiance was inducted into Caesar’s army, so a believer was initiated by the sacrament of baptism into God’s kingdom. Each vowed faithful service to his god and kingdom.[1]

When Christ-followers submitted to baptism and pledged their allegiance to a kingdom other than Rome and a king other than Caesar, they participated in a politically subversive act. Through the sacramentum of baptism they joined a movement that rejected Rome’s public narrative, ideology, hierarchical social order, and Caesar’s claim to be Lord over all.  Baptism, thus, became a rite of resistance, a politically subversive act.[2]

As a sacramentum, baptism was, in Richard DeMaris’ term, a “boundary crossing ritual”. When crossed, it meant breaking formal ties with the past, declaring loyalty to another Lord, and accepting a new and alternative identity—that of a Christ-follower. Hence, baptism was a political act of subversion, a rite of resistance against the prevailing power structures that often led to persecution and even death.[3]

This historical context and lesson about the beginning of the sacrament of baptism challenges us to relive baptism today as a transformed public life that reflects Christ-likeness in the midst of a culture of violence and human oppression. The sacrament of baptism calls us to radically redefine our lives in accord with covenantal kingdom principles. This is not easy; to break with the predominant culture and follow Christ is often costly.

Hence, the Baptism of Our Lord is a reminder for us of the counter-cultural witness of our baptismal identity today. At the end of this Christmas season, we have been empowered by Christ, who became flesh and dwelt among us, to practise the true spirit of Christmas throughout the year.

Our celebration of Christmas does not end with the infant Jesus, but with the adult Jesus being baptized and beginning his saving mission. We who have been baptized with his Spirit take up his work of salvation during Ordinary Time, continuing his mission of bringing the Good News to others.

I would like to end with a litany called “The Work of Christmas” composed by Howard Thurman, an African-American theologian, educator, and civil rights leader.

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.


[1] R. Alan Streett, “Baptism as a Politically Subversive Act,” The Bible and Interpretation, December, 2018. Accessed at https://bibleinterp.arizona.edu/articles/baptism-politically-subversive-act#_ftn3.

THE EPIPHANY OF THE LORD: CHRIST IS THE LIGHT TO ALL PEOPLE

Today we celebrate the second solemnity of the Christmas season—the solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord.  Epiphany means ‘manifestation’ or ‘theophany’ understood particularly as the manifestation of Israel’s Messiah to the Gentile nations. The Gentile nations are all the nations outside of the Jewish nation. They are represented by the three Magi who journeyed from the East to pay homage to Jesus. The magi were guided by the light of the star that pointed to Bethlehem where Jesus was born.

And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was (Matthew 2: 9).

Christmas is the season of the manifestation of Christ as the Light.  The first manifestation was on Christmas day when Jesus was born as a sign to the world that God’s promised light had come to earth. This is splendidly pronounced in the prophecy of Isaiah in the first reading during the Christmas midnight mass:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone (Isaiah 9: 1).

The second manifestation of Christ as light during Christmas season is the solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord. Epiphany proclaims that the Son of God came for all people, Jews and Gentiles alike. His saving love is available to everyone, everywhere, in whatever state of life they may find themselves. There is no one outside of God’s love.

Christmas proclaims that Christ as light shines in the midst of darkness in the world. Yes, there is so much darkness in our world today—war, poverty, injustice, violence, terror, sickness, inequality and despair.  But darkness will give way to the light of Christ—the light of peace, love, justice, joy, hope, and unity. This is eloquently expressed by Isaiah in the first reading today,

Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come,
the glory of the Lord shines upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth,
and thick clouds cover the peoples;
but upon you the LORD shines,
and over you appears his glory (Isaiah 60: 1 – 3).

The feast of the epiphany proclaims furthermore that the Light of Christ shines even beyond Christianity. Christmas is not just for Christians but for all. Jesus came not just for the Chosen People, the Jews, but Jesus came to save all people, Gentiles as well as the Jews. The wise men, though were pagans, came to faith in Jesus through the grace of God.

The wise men are represented today by the non-Christians or other religions, those who do not yet know and those who have not yet made that journey to Jesus. They too can be led to the light of Christ. We saw through the story of the wise men that through the grace of God the wise men were led to Jesus. Even though they did not know Jesus they had a desire to meet Jesus. In their own way, with their beliefs, they lived as best they could and this eventually led them to Jesus. As Vatican II says,

“Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.” (Lumen Gentium §16)

This does not mean, however, that the Church does not have to spread the Gospel, to just sit back and be lazy. The Church’s primary mission and vocation has always been to proclaim Jesus as savior of all humanity.  Jesus’ last command before his ascension was to baptize all nations, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. God in God’s mysterious ways, however, uses all channels even beyond the Catholic faith so that God’s light and love maybe proclaimed and experienced by all of God’s creation.

Today’s feast teaches us that for God there are no foreigners, no outsiders.  Epiphany tells us that there is no “Chosen People” whether they be Jews or Christians (or Catholics).  All are called—be it the Mother of Jesus, the rich and the poor, the privileged and the lonely, the healthy and the sick, the saints and the sinners to the light—Christ our Lord and Savior.

We pray with Anne Osdieck,

Lord,
shine your light on us all.
May your star chase away our darkness
and fill us with your radiant love.
Make us your epiphanies
overflowing with
wonderful
care for
each
other.[1]


[1] Anne Osdieck, Praying Towards Sunday, The Sunday Website at Saint Louis University. Accessed 07/01/2018 at http://liturgy.slu.edu/EpiphanyB010718/prayerpathmain.html

Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God: How to Start the New Year with Mary

Mary-and-devotees

Welcome, New Year 2021!

January 1 is a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics not because it is New Year ’s Day, but because it is the octave (8th day) of Christmas.  On this Octave of Christmas the church celebrates the Feast of Mary the Mother of God.  It was only in AD 431, 400 years after the birth of the church, that the Council of Ephesus solemnly proclaimed Mary as Mother of God, in the original Greek, Theotokos. “Theotokos” is a Greek word which means “God-bearer.”

As we begin the New Year, we are invited by the church to learn from Mary.  In the midst of the different rituals and practices that the world offers for the New Year, like writing New Year’s resolutions, making noise and exploding firecrackers, the church offers Mary’s example as a fresh approach to beginning the New Year.

What can we learn from Mary as we begin the New Year?

First, like Mary as theotokos, we are called to be God-bearers. Last Christmas, we celebrated the incarnation of God in each one of us. God identified with all our experiences –our joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties. As we begin the New Year, we feel renewed and strengthened that God is with us and accompanies us to a new beginning. Like Mary, as we begin the New Year, we bear God in our lives every step of the way. The challenge for us is to nurture and sustain God’s incarnation all throughout the New Year by our trust and confidence in Christ who dwells in us. By our firm confidence in the Emmanuel we will show others to Christ who is also dwelling in their own lives.

Second, like Mary, we are called to ponder the Good News of Christ dwelling in us and being completely open to its bearing in our lives. In the Gospel today, we read how Mary incessantly pondered on the birth of Jesus throughout her whole life.

And Mary kept all these things,
reflecting on them in her heart.

In the gospel of Luke, Mary represents the ideal believer, for she hears the good news and ponders it in her heart, and fully responds to it. Her heart becomes the place of discovering Jesus, who he truly is. Mary’s entire life focused on that process of pondering who that child now born to us really is. We make a major mistake if we think that from the moment of the Annunciation Mary completely knew, or understood, the full significance of her Son. Mary pondered on who that child would be from her “Yes” at the Annunciation.

I am reminded of a Christmas song which expresses the genuine questions and feelings of Mary about the birth of Jesus. The song is “Mary, Did You Know?” The song has become a modern Christmas classic, being recorded by many artists over the years across multiple genres. It may be helpful to reflect on the lyrics of the song:

Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you

Mary did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
And when you kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God

Mary did you know, Mary did you know, Mary did you know

The blind will see, the deaf will hear and the dead will live again
The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of the lamb

Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you’re holding is the great I am

Mary did you know, Mary did you know, Mary did you know

Mary spent her life pondering the visible Word of God that was and is her Son. Human as she is, just like each one of us, she had questions and did not fully comprehend the mission of Jesus.  This did not, however, deter her to continuously learn and open herself to the wonders and challenges of Jesus’ mission. She grew in knowing him, in comprehending the mystery of God Incarnate.

As Mary pondered that visible Word, as we begin this New Year, we too are called to continuously ponder the incarnation of Jesus in our lives. In spite of the many obstacles and problems we have to hurdle, like Mary let us become open to the mystery and wonder of Jesus’ incarnation.  Despite all the evil, terror, uncertainty and crisis prevailing in our country today, let us not lose that sense of wonder, that sense of hope, that sense of goodness, that sense of life.  Like Mary we cannot afford to be passive, cynical or fatalistic about this coming year because Jesus is our guide and strength.

As we begin this New Year may we rest our hands on the hand of Mary, Our Mother of Perpetual Help that she will lead us to her Divine Son, Jesus; that she will bring us closer to Jesus, and to all whom Jesus loves—the oppressed, the afflicted, the marginalized, and the Poor of Yahweh.

I end with the Aaronic blessing from the Book of Numbers in the first reading today:

The LORD bless you and keep you!
The LORD let his face shine upon
you, and be gracious to you!
The LORD look upon you kindly and
give you peace!

Through the prayers of Mary may we be blessed and be a blessing this New Year 2021!

Feast of the Holy Innocents: Christmas in the Midst of the Suffering of the Innocents

Today, December 28, in the midst of Christmas festivities, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents. They are the young boys in and around Bethlehem, two and under, whom Herod had massacred. We do not know their number or their names, but the Church lists them as among her martyrs. Some have disputed that they should not be called martyrs since they did not submit freely for the sake of Christ but were “merely victims” of Herod.

Nevertheless, the Church has long numbered them in her ranks of martyrs. St. Augustine says of them:

And while [Herod] thus persecutes Christ, he furnished an army (or martyrs) clothed in white robes of the same age as the Lord…. O blessed infants! He only will doubt of your crown in this your passion for Christ, who doubts that the baptism of Christ has a benefit for infants. He who at His birth had Angels to proclaim Him, the heavens to testify, and Magi to worship Him, could surely have prevented that these should not have died for Him, had He not known that they died not in that death, but rather lived in higher bliss. Far be the thought, that Christ who came to set men free, did nothing to reward those who died in His behalf, when hanging on the cross He prayed for those who put Him to death.

(Sermon 373, 3, quoted in the Catena Aurea).

St. Augustine implied that the baby Jesus, while spared from the cruel massacre of Herod, will share the tragic fate of all the innocent victims when he was crucified on the cross. By sharing the fate of the innocent victims of suffering, Jesus carries their suffering within his own relationship with the One he calls abba, our Father. This gives us the guarantee that the suffering of the innocent will not be wasted. Jesus’ suffering and the suffering of the innocent will ultimately bring about the disappearance of the old world order marked by injustice, and the appearance of “new heavens and a new earth, the home of righteousness” (2 Peter 3:13).

Our times is not much different during the time of Jesus’ birth. As we spent the past few days in Christmas revelries, many innocent people continue to be killed due to so many conflicts and wars that persists even in this information age. Not just wars, innocent people continue to die of hunger, common illnesses, extra-judicial killings and massive poverty that afflict more than a half billion people on the planet. We also know well that many innocent babies are killed through abortion.

The feast of the Holy Innocents in the middle of the Christmas season reminds us that the real Christmas is still far from reality in our world today. Until there are wars, hunger, poverty, abortion, religious persecution and other maladies which brings about the killings of the innocents, we cannot fully celebrate the realization of Christmas throughout the world.  Until there are still Herods who wields power over the poor, vulnerable and powerless, we cannot remain complacent and continue to work towards justice and peace that are the fruits of the Christmas spirit. Until there are parts of ourselves who like Herod want nothing to do with the gospel values that Christ proclaimed, we cannot fully celebrate and experienced the joy of Christmas.

The feast of the Holy Innocents is a reminder for us that the work of Christmas is a work that we need to undertake throughout the year.

THE HOLY FAMILY OF JESUS, MARY AND JOSEPH: GOD’S DWELLING INTO OUR FAMILIES

family2

Christmas is the season for the family. It is the time when the whole family gather together to celebrate Christmas. Each member of the family wherever he/she is, even if it is from the farthest point on earth, needs to come home to their families on Christmas.

Today we celebrate the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. The Christmas story of God becoming man also involves the coming of God into a family—the family of Mary and Joseph. The coming of Christ transformed the married life of Joseph and Mary. When Joseph and Mary freely accepted God’s plan into their lives, their lives no longer revolved around their family’s plans but the bigger plan of God for the whole human family. The future of the family of Joseph and Mary also became connected to Jesus’ mission of redemption. As Simeon prophesied in the gospel today while holding the infant Jesus,

“Behold, this child is destined
for the fall and rise of many in Israel,
and to be a sign that will be contradicted
—and you yourself a sword will pierce—
so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”

Obviously these words refer to the baby born just a few days ago. They capture the fulfillment of the Christmas story. The child brings peace; he is a fulfillment of the Lord’s word that a Messiah would come; he is an entrance of the Word into the whole world, not just to part of it: he is sent to Gentiles as well as to Israel; he is a revelation and he is a glory.

The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph is God’s identification with our families. God became human and dwelt amongst our families. God is born into our families in whatever situation we find our families today. Joseph, Mary and Jesus also had to face many issues and problems. They suffered persecution when Herod ordered the execution of all young male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem, so as to avoid the loss of his throne to a newborn King of the Jews whose birth had been announced to him by the Magi. Joseph and Mary carrying the baby Jesus had to flee to Egypt to escape from the terror unleash by the tyrant Herod. The Holy Family, while raising up Jesus, had to endure the hardships and exploitation in 1st century Palestine under the Roman empire.

God entered into the joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties of our family. Thus, Christmas is facing the real situation and issues of our families inasmuch as it is a time of gathering as a family. As we gather as family, let us truly be present to each other. To be present to one another is to forgive and ask forgiveness from each other. To be present to one another is to truly listen and accept each other. St. Paul, in the 2nd reading, spells out further what it means for bringing Christ into our family:

Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,
heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,
bearing with one another and forgiving one another,
if one has a grievance against another;
as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.
And over all these put on love,
that is, the bond of perfection.
And let the peace of Christ control your hearts,
the peace into which you were also called in one body.
And be thankful.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,
as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another,
singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs
with gratitude in your hearts to God.

As we continue our celebration of the feast of Christmas may we experience more profoundly God’s presence in the midst of all the joys and the hopes, griefs and anxieties of our families.

Feast of Saint Stephen: First Martyr of Christmas

saint-stephen-the-martyr-23

After all the merry-making, all the festivities, all the food and drinks, all the joyous gatherings we attended yesterday on Christmas day, we celebrate today the feast of St. Stephen, first martyr of the church.

We hear in the liturgy today the bloody death of Stephen, and of Jesus’ warnings of persecution, death, and hatred for his name’s sake. Is the liturgy playing kill joy during this Christmas season?

No, in fact, within 2 days, we will celebrate the feast of the Holy Innocents. The feast of the Holy Innocents commemorates the massacre of young children in Bethlehem by King Herod the Great in his attempt to kill the infant Jesus (Matthew 2:16–18).

On the contrary, the Church’s long tradition of celebrating the memorial of St. Stephen after Christmas does not serve to demote Christmas, but to continue it. The liturgy after Christmas wish to manifest more clearly that when Jesus comes to dwell in our hearts, his incarnation in our lives cannot remain without effect. Jesus was born into this world in order to teach us how to die to the values of the world and live in the values of God’s kingdom. St. Stephen’s faith-filled martyrdom focuses our attention on this truth.

At my reflection last Christmas midnight mass, I mentioned that Christmas is a defiance! The more the world is plunged into senseless impunity of killings and violence, the voice of Christmas shout much louder for peace and justice. The more the world is plunged into hunger and poverty, the aspiration of Christmas for sharing of creation’s resources for all becomes greater and greater. The more the world is plunged into materialism and vanity, the proclamation of the spirit of Christmas which is love, forgiveness and acceptance of all becomes stronger and stronger. As the world is plunged into sadness and misery, the challenge to spread the joy of Christmas all the more become urgent especially among the abandoned, homeless and lonely.

Our times is not much different during the time of St. Stephen. As we spent the past few days in Christmas revelries, many innocent people continue to be arrested, tortured and killed due to their political and religious beliefs and actions in behalf especially of the poor, oppressed and marginalized in society.

The feast St. Stephen in the middle of the Christmas season reminds us that the real Christmas is still far from reality in our world today. Until there are people who are persecuted, tortured, unjustly arrested and killed, we will not stop denouncing the evils in our society and personal lives. As long as there are injustice, oppression and killings, we cannot silence the voice of Christmas proclaiming God who dwelt amongst us especially among the poor, abandoned and persecuted.  

I remember in 2015, around Christmas time, we displayed gruesome photos of the extra-judicial killing around the shrine. The killings were justificed by the government as a collateral result of its bloody war on drugs. Many of the devotees who went to the shrine were shocked when they saw the pictures although many also expressed support to the photo gallery. On social media,  we were called all sorts of names—bastard priests, demons from hell, members of the yellow cult, rapists and pedophiles, coddlers of drug lords, thieving hypocrites playing politics—many of them coming from the devotees. It is utterly distressing that in a Christian country like ours, the killings is tolerated, even supported by a majority of people who are mostly Catholic.

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St. Stephen’s is one the first deacons of the church. As a deacon he had a twofold task. He was assigned to the service of the tables, the “service of love” to the poor, so that the Apostles would have more time for preaching. But since he also the gift of preaching, he should also perform this ministry of truth. And Stephen, trusting in Jesus, devoted himself whole-heartedly to these tasks. He was stoned to death because his preaching of Jesus as the Son of God was considered blasphemy.

But St. Stephen make no compromises concerning the truth. He proclaims the Jesus who revealed himself and whom he had come to know. But he does not proclaim this truth by way of violence or hatred, but in love and in self-giving. Until the last moment he forgives the men who kill him. As Jesus prayed for those who killed him, so St. Stephen prayed, “Lord, do not count this sin against them!” And his witness, his death was fruitful for the Church. The remembrance of this witness, for example, probably helped Saul later to accept Christ’s message, and thereby to become the great Apostle Paul.

The example of St. Stephen shows us that the world needs the witness of the truth in love and in self-giving, despite the violence in the world today. This is an essential implication if we would take seriously the challenge of living out the true spirit of Christmas.

Christmas Midnight Mass: The People who Walked in Darkness have seen a Great Light

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Tonight’s liturgy and readings of the Nativity of the Lord, Christmas Mass during midnight, is full of contrasting words and images.

In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah proclaims,

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone” (Isaiah 9: 1).

These prophetic words from Isaiah truly express the paradoxical challenge of living the spirit of Christmas: Christmas is to see and to walk towards the light amidst the darkness in our lives and our world

The second reading, St. Paul in his letter to Titus, also speaks of contrast. St. Paul speaks of the contrast of the two comings of Christ: (1) “the grace of God has appeared,” that is, in the Christ event (and Bethlehem marks the inception of its appearance); (2) “while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory…” Jesus already came into this world but he is still to come in the fullness of his glory.

Of all the readings, the gospel has the most contrasting images. Christmas is the birth of the king. But the new king wasn’t born in a palace, his birth wasn’t hailed by heralds fanning out to every corner of the empire. Instead, his family were refugees: They couldn’t find room at the inn; Mary gave birth in a stable; and the child had to rest in a manger.

There is darkness in the night, and yet the radiance of  God’s love is in the child. The winter is cold, but the baby brings the fire of God’s love to earth. The baby is so small and helpless; and yet he is the Word, who in the beginning was God and was with God. The humble animals surround the child, but the angels of God sing his birth. The child is poor and lowly in origin, and yet all the power of God is his. The stable is lowly, but it is the king of kings who is born into it.

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It is in these contrasts, indeed, that we can find the wonder of Christmas. Christmas is not the eradication of contrast but the acceptance of diversity. It is the welcoming of the other who is unique and different from me and you. It is not the elimination of differences. Moreover, Christmas is not the absence of conflict. Chrismas is not the escape from the chaos, misery and suffering in our lives.

Contrast, is at the core of God’s incarnation. The wonder of Christmas, most of all, is the immersion of God into our human experience, even the messiest, the muddiest and the darkest side of our humanity. The wonder of Christmas is God’s becoming human by not resorting to human power, prestige, wealth and fame. God became fully human without God stripping of God’s divinity and human becoming divine without human stripping of humanity.

This year, 2020, for many of us, is perhaps, the toughest year of our lives. Who would have thought, at the beginning of this year, that a pandemic would spread so fast into every corner of the world, making millions ill and killing thousands because of the virus. Many lost their jobs, many became hungry, homeless, depressed and abandoned. Many are worried and uncertain about the coming new year and beyond.

Because of the pandemic, many were saying that Christmas this year will be the saddest Charistmas of their lives. Many, in fact, did not have any money to spare to spend for their usual noche buena. Many Christmas parties and reunions were cancelled. The usual Christmas decorations and the firework display were either subdued or cancelled altogether.

But we cannot accept the reality that we cannot experience the joy of Christmas just because of the pandemic. On the other hand, the tremendous misery and difficulties brought by the pandemic did not dampen the spirit of Christimas. On the contrary, we rediscovered the wonder of Christmas in the compassionate embrace especially of those who suffered most and miserable during the pandemic. The pandemic gave us great fervour to feed the hungry, provide shelter to the homeless and give comfort to the sick and lonely. Indeed, the pandemic did not fizzle out the light of Christmas. The utter darkness that we now find ourselves, all the more convince us to be super spreaders of the good news of Jesus gospel and bearers of Christmas light. The Christmas spirit has become a pandemic itself, as the song of the Redemptorist goes,

gawing pandemya ang pasko, (Make Christmas a pandemic)
hawaan ng pag-asa ang bawat tao (contaminate every person with hope)

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, the prophet Isaiah proclaims thousands of years ago. We proclaim it now, once again, that in the darkness of the pandemic, we have seen the light of Christmas, we have felt love, acted with justice, truth, and peace and most of all experinced God as Emmannuel–God-with-us.

No amount of suffering and misery can dampen the Christmas spirit. No amount of gloom can postpone the joy of Christmas. No amount of tyranny can silence the true calling of Christmas. In other words, Christmas is a defiance! The more the world is plunged into darkness, the light of Christmas shines brighter. The more the world is plunged into death and suffering due to the pandemic, the original Christmas event of Jesus dwelling among us all the more bonds us into deeper social solidarity. The more the world is plunged into senseless impunity of killings and violence, the voice of Christmas shout much louder for peace and justice. The more the world is plunged into hunger and poverty, the aspiration of Christmas for sharing of creation’s resources for all becomes greater and greater. The more the world is plunged into materialism and vanity, the proclamation of the spirit of Christmas which is love, forgiveness and acceptance of all becomes stronger and stronger. As the world is plunged into sadness and misery, the challenge to spread the joy of Christmas all the more become urgent especially among the abandoned, homeless and lonely.

During the past 9 days of the Simbang Gabi we listened once again to the Christmas story. We heard how God’s story entered humanity through the lives of ordinary people who did not come from the nobility, wealthy and powerful. The response and participation of Mary, John the Baptist, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Joseph, and many other prophets and characters showed how God’s plan and dream for all humanity and creation has defied all wordly odds and proclaimed a true message of hope, peace and love.

Like the characters in the Christmas story, we are not passive observers of the great event of incarnation. We are all part of the wonder of Christmas not through the baby-cult, admiring the cute baby Jesus on the manger from the outside but not receiving Christ from the inside of our being. The wonder of Christmas is the reception of the Christmas story into our lives and like Mary, John the Baptist, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Joseph, and many other prophets and characters, it is allowing ourselves to become instruments and heralds of the building of God’s kingdom, here and now.

This Christmas, let us once again welcome in wonder and awe the greatest event of God’s coming into our lives. Together with the whole world let us bow down and adore our savior Jesus Christ our Lord. Let us humbly receive the birth of Jesus in our hearts and resoundingly accept our becoming part of the Christmas wonder.

A most blessed Christmas to all!

9th Simbang Gabi: Zechariah’s Christmas Song

We are now on the last Simbang Gabi, the last day of the Christmas academy.

Congratulations to all those who finished the Christmas academy and completed the Simbang Gabi. May the grace of a more meaningful Christmas be with you.

For those who have not completed the Simbang Gabi, oh well, there is always next year.

I remember the first time I completed the Simbang Gabi. It was on a remote barrio in Sorsogon on a December, 1981 mission by the Redemptorists headed by Fr. Manny Thomas. The barrio had no electricity, no phone, no internet, and definitely no malls and bars. But we had fresh fish from the sea, bountiful fruits, vegetables, rice and root crops from the land. Most of all, we had a happy and united community celebrating Christmas and having a complete Simbang Gabi for the first time in their lives. It was one of the most meaningful experience of Christmas in my entire life. It was celebrating christmas at its simplest and most original spirit.

For the past 9 days/nights, through the liturgy and readings, we went back to the original Christmas story. It’s so easy to drift away from the original Christmas story amidst all the material trappings and commercial layers that the world had manufactured around Christmas.  Thus, it was essential during these 9 days Simbang Gabi, to go back and retell over and over again the original Christmas story.

Every Christmas, the church calls us to be amazed again at the wonderful mystery of God’s entry into history and the human race. Every Christmas is an invitation to a re-enchantment of the incarnation of God. By God’s coming into the world, we believe that the world can be changed by God’s activity and God’s love. The world can be a different kind of place—a place of peace and justice, a place of welcome and wonder and a place of mystery and surprise through Jesus our savior. If we really allow the Christmas story to touch the very depths of our being, it will change us at a very deep and personal level.

Tonight the Christmas story concludes with a hymn–the great hymn of Benedictus (meaning ‘Blessed’ from its opening word in Latin). The Christmas story has given us three songs which have become staples of the churches Advent-Christmas liturgy: the Magnificat, the Benedictus and the Nunc Dimmittis (which we will hear during the Feast of the Holy Famiy, the Sunday after Christmas). Sadly, but not surprisingly, these hymns are not generally identified as Christmas songs.

Zechariah’s song, the Bendictus, is sung or said every day in the Divine Office at the end of Morning Prayer or Lauds. Luke puts it into the mouth of Zechariah, the husband of Elizabeth and father of the newly born John the Baptist.  Benedictus marks Zechariah’s re-found voice after the inability to speak throughout Elizabeth’s pregnancy. It calls his son to be a preparer of the way of the Lord and when we meet the adult John later in the gospel we find him drawing on Isaiah’s language of a road in the desert which requires a certain levelling out fill in the valleys, lower the mountains, straighten the crooked roads and make the rough ways smooth – a veritable highway for God.

Like the magnificat, benedictus has become so familiar to us that we tend to miss its revolutionary nature.  It calls us to re-think, re-evaluate and prepare the way for the values of God’s kingdom. As the Benedictus tells us, John was to shine a light on those walking in darkness and whilst a light in the darkness can be a comfortable thing it can also be about bringing things into the light, exposing what is wrong, unrighteous, and unjust. This was and still is an uncomfortable message for those who have many possessions, those who rely on their own worldly success, those who ignore the needs of the poor and hungry those who have no concept of their neighbour let alone a desire to love them.

Benedictus ends with one of the most beautiful lines in scriptures which may serve as the summary of the Christmas Good News:

“In the tender compassion of our God,
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet in the way of peace.”

The dawn has already broken upon us! And this we shall commemorate in the solemnity of the nativity of our Lord tonight!

Let us join Zechariah in singing his song of salvation as we bow down before our savior Jesus Christ and allow him to be reborn in our hearts.