9th Simbang Gabi: Zechariah’s Christmas Song

advent-recollection

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.

 

 

 

8th Simbang Gabi: Christmas–The Graciousness of God

st-Joseph-husband-of-Mary
Painting by Sr. Bambi Flores, MPS

Welcome to the 8th Simbang Gabi. We are now into the 8th day of our Christmas academy.  I hope our reflections in this Christmas academy continue to deepen your understanding of the meaning of the incarnation of Jesus–the original event of Christmas.

In our readings today, we hear about the birth of John the Baptist. In the first reading, the prophet Malachi speak about one who will go before the coming  day of the LORD.  We take these words to point to John’s role as a precursor for the coming Lord Jesus.  The psalm also describes a relationship similar to the relationship that John had with GOD, that of being obedient to GOD and desiring to learn the ways of the LORD so that he could prepare the pathway for the LORD.

In the gospel today, we heard of the birth of John. There was a bit of a wrangle between Elizabeth the mother and the neighbors and relatives about the name of the boy.  The neighbors and relatives wanted the name Zechariah following tradition to name first born son after his father. But Elizabeth and Zechariah wanted him to name John.  The name John did not come from the parents but from God. Like Jesus (Mt 1:21), the name of John was given to his parents by the angel Gabriel before he was born (Lk 1:13).

The name John, in Hebrew “Yehohanan” or “Yohanan” means “Yahweh is gracious.” God was gracious to both Elizabeth and Zechariah who gave them a child even in their advanced age and Elizabeth’s barrenness.

We have also experienced a lot of barrenness on many levels in our lives. We have experienced many failures and lots of fruitlessness and desolation in our lives.  Yet it is in these desolate realities where God is being born within us. Just as God made possible the birth of John the Baptist despite his barren mother, our desolation and barrenness are less as a curse than as a preparation for something special.

Indeed, John will become a symbol of the merciful kindness of God, preparing the people for the coming of plentiful salvation in Jesus Christ. From birth until his martyr’s death at the hands of the tyrannical Herod, John’s life will be fully dependent on the grace of God.

John’s life shows us a life that is fully dependent on the graciousness of God.  This is living life to the fullest. John showed us that living life to the fullest is to fully give our lives to others and to God.  The more we decrease our attention and attachment on ourselves and increase our attention and focus on others and God, the more we live free and fulfilling lives.

Like John, our lives is a preparation to the plentiful redemption in Christ. Like John we are all precursors for the coming greater glory of Christ that will give life to others.

This Christmas, above all, like John, may we truly experienced and remember the graciousness of God despite all the failures and frustrations in our lives this year.

 

 

7th Simbang Gabi: Being Open to God’s Dream

belen
Photo by Fr. Ariel Lubi, CSsR

We are now on our 7th Simbang Gabi or, as I call it, Christmas academy.

Today’s Simbang Gabi coincides with the 4th Sunday of Advent. The gospel for today is the same gospel we read last 3rd Simbang Gabi.

We usually associate dream as a vision, ideal and goal. Or we say that something is a dream because it is impossible to achieve in reality, as in the expression, its just a dream, or as the title of the song goes, “Impossible Dream.”  Dream is therefore a vision which we want to reach but we often times deem as impossible.

We can apply these notions of dream to the original Christmas story. The original story of Christmas is the story of God’s dream.  God’s dream is God’s vision for all humanity and creation. God’s dream is for the whole of humanity and creation to share in the life of God. The only way to achieve this is for God to come down from heaven and break into human history and life, in ways unimaginable and impossible for human beings. God will come down not as God but as a human being. This is impossible and unheard of since the only way to become human, or for human conception to happen, is through the sexual union of a man and a woman. Thus, God’s dream is impossible in human terms.

But God’s way is different. God becoming human will not be a product of human evolution, nor it will be an achievement of humanity, but the intervention of the transcendent God in human history from outside.

God’s dream was planned even from the beginning of time. In the first reading, Isaiah prophesied, “A virgin will bear a son and name him Emmanuel.” The birth of Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, was the plan of God even from the beginning of time. This tells us that God is always with us, from the beginning, now and in the age to come.

In the gospel of today’s 4th Sunday of Advent, Joseph had a dream where the angel of God revealed to Joseph how God’s dream will come about. In his dream, an angel told Joseph that Mary whom he is betrothed, is pregnant. But his pregnancy was from no human being, therefore she is still a virgin. Mary is pregnant through the Holy Spirit of God. Mary had accepted readily even though she didnt fully understand. The angel of the Lord further told him in the dream that he should not be afraid of the pregnancy, even though he was not yet married to this woman.

In Joseph’s dream, the state of affairs is not what it appears to be. Mary is not unfaithful, but faithful. Mary is with child, but a virgin. The infant is not only an earthly child, but also a heavenly One. Yet the infant is not heaven-bound, but an earth-bound Emmanuel. Joseph is not the father, but in a father’s role names the Child Jesus.

Despite all these dilemma, Joseph became open to the mystery of God’s dream beyond both his human and religious understanding. The dream changed Joseph’s life and ours. Joseph was faithful to all that he cling to humanly and religiously, even as he was open to the mystery of God that takes him beyond all the categories of his religious practice and imagination.

Christmas is the story of the fulfilment of God’s dream for all humanity. Christmas can be our story too if we allow God’s dream to happen in our lives. We can live God’s dream if we, like Mary and Joseph, cooperate with the Spirit of God at work. Something altogether new will happen, mystery abounds, “God is with us.” Like Joseph and Mary, the dream becomes a reality when we are willing to relinquish control and open ourselves to the unexpected.

 

6th Simbang Gabi: Mary as God-Bearer, the first Missionary

The Visitation, James B. Janknegt, 2008
The Visitation, James B. Janknegt, 2008

We are now on our 6th Simbang Gabi or, as I call it, Christmas academy.

I hope our reflections in this Christmas academy continue to deepen your understanding of the original meaning of the Christmas story–the incarnation of Jesus.

We continue the gospel reading from Luke from yesterday’s text. As soon as the Archangel departed from Nazareth, Mary was no longer the same woman as before. She was radically transformed. The first thing that the newly transformed Mary did was to embark on a journey, to go on a mission.  The annunciation experience was too great to bear alone. She couldnt pass on this event not to share the good news. This life-changing event also inspired Mary to serve and be available for her elderly cousin, Elizabeth who despite her old age, was pregnant, likewise, through the grace of God.

The Angel didn’t command Mary to go to help her cousin Elizabeth. He didn’t even suggest that it would be a good thing for her to go. He just stated the fact that Elizabeth was pregnant and that was enough for Mary to spring into action.

Most of us take for granted that the journey Mary took to reach Elizabeth was a long and arduous journey. Many of us only focus on the spiritual side of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth but fail to appreciate the equally significant physical dimension of the visit. Mary’s journey to visit Elizabeth covered a distance of between 128 and 160 kilometers. She took off from Nazareth, a Galilean city west of the Sea of Galilee and travelled to Ein Karem, the Judean village where Elizabeth and Zechariah lived. In Mary’s day, a person traveling by foot could cover about 32 kilometers per day. If Mary walked to Elizabeth’s home, it would have taken her four to five days straight. If she accompanied a caravan, she would have arrived in about three days. Luke does not mention whether Mary may have gone on foot or as part of a caravan. We don’t know if she traveled alone or whether St. Joseph accompanied her, or SS. Anne or Joachim.

map-journey-visitation

In any case, such a journey would have been dangerous, especially for a young girl alone. By embarking on this journey, Mary demonstrated her courage as well as her desire for confirmation of God’s plan. She overcome any fear she may have had about surrendering to God’s call on her life or facing the possible danger involved in confirming his will. Such complete surrender freed her to act in confidence.

At the sight of Elizabeth, Mary’s tiredness were turned to joy and greeted Elizabeth, very likely “shalom,” which means peace in Hebrew. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greetings, three joyful things happened: John the Baptist leaped in her womb, Elizabeth herself was filled with the Holy Spirit, and burst out saying:

“Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?
And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment
of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Mary was able to bring incredible joy to Elizabeth and to the fetal John the Baptist, because she was bringing Christ.  The Holy Spirit inspired Elizabeth to bless Mary among all women because of the blessed fruit of her womb and because of her faith that the Lord’s words to her would be fulfilled. In other words, she was blessed because of Jesus and because of her faith in her embryonic saviour and son.

In going to Ein Karim, Mary became the first missionary, the first bearer of the Good News–the official term, theotokos–which is the first title accorded to her by mother church. Despite being pregnant with Jesus, the word incarnate (logos), in her womb, she journeys through the hill country to the town of Juda. English theologian John Saward refers to this image of Mary on her journey to Elizabeth as the “Logos carrying Virgin.”[1] In this journey, Mary became the first disciple and missionary of the Logos (Word). Indeed she is the Theotokos—bearer of God in our world.

What is this story telling us about Christmas?

Christmas is not just a celebration but also a call to mission. The incarnation of Jesus overflows with life, joy and goodness that it cannot be kept just to ourselves. Furthermore, the Chrismas spirit should not be lived only at this time of the year. As the song goes, araw-araw ay magiging pasko lagi (everyday will always be Christmas). And another Christmas song goes, at magbuhat ngayon, kahit hindi pasko ay magbigayan (from now on, even though it’s not Chrismas, we should give to one to another).

The Christmas spirit must be lived, shared and proclaimed to others, to the whole world, throughout the year. Like Mary, we are all called to be Theotokos—God-bearers. We need to share the good news of Emmanuel, God is with us, not just with our lips but also with our feet, with all our heart and soul. We need to share the good news that our lives is “impregnated” with God despite all the despair, gloom and hardships, our sinfulness and the messines of our lives.

In response to Elizabeth greetings, Mary, filled with the Spirit, will break out into that wonderful hymn of praise that we call the Magnificat, a hymn that will proclaim the message of liberation Jesus will later deliver by word and action. We will see this tomorrow.

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

 


 

[1] John Saward, Redeemer in the Womb: Jesus Living in Mary (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1993), 120.

5th Simbang Gabi: Mary’s Yes

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 boils down to 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.

 


 

[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.

 

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

simbang-gabi

Welcome to the fourth Simbang Gabi, or as I have called it, Christmas academy.

The Christmas story is primarily the birth of our Lord God-became-human. But 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.

 

 

3rd Simbang Gabi: Joseph the Dreamer

St-Joseph

Welcome to the third Simbang Gabi, or as I have called it, 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, poor even sinner and broken people. 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?

We don’t hear much about St. Joseph in the Bible. He is simply described as the “husband of Mary,” a “carpenter,” and a “just man” in the Gospel accounts. Neither his age nor his death is ever mentioned in scripture.

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 when he learns that Mary to whom he is already betrothed but with whom he has not consummated their relationship in marriage, is already pregnant. Joseph was faced with a horrific dilemma.  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. But he never abandoned Mary.

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 one day in a dream God announced to Joseph his plan. The annunciation story of Joseph happened through a dream. After his dream, Joseph did not hesitate to follow his own dream in the bigger dream of God. Joseph was not selfish to allow his own dreams to prevail over and above the dream of Mary and the dream of God for him. Joseph the dreamer, saw his own dream fulfilled in 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).

2nd Simbang Gabi: God Entered History

panunuluyan

Welcome to the second Simbang Gabi, or as I have called it, 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.

I remember an incident when I joined the Redemptorist mission at Sawanga, Bacon, Sorsogon in 1981. 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 tongue twister exercise. 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.

Significantly, 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 not just women but 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).

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.

The incarnation, therefore, is a two-way process. God became man in order for God to embrace the whole of human experience. But the incarnation event is also about the humanuty;s embracing the values, standard and mindset of God. Christmas is not just the coming down of God to humanity but also humanity’s going up to God. As 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:

“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).

1st Simbang Gabi: Towards an Authentic Christmas

singing-with-children

Welcome to the 1st Simbang Gabi, or as I have called these nine days novena masses leading to Christmas, 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.

One of the greatest crises today is the crisis of authenticity.  Today, we live with so many fakes from fake news, to fake products to fake food to fake people to fake religion. Sometimes, we don’t know who’s or what’s authentic anymore.

But why do fakes flourish? It is cheaper to buy fake products inasmuch as it is easier to live in the lie than in the truth. In many cases facing the truth requires a tremendous amount of courage for truth can be very harsh. Most of us have an intense desire to escape from our problems and to even construct a false reality just to avoid facing the truth.

This is also true of Christmas celebrations. Sometimes we don’t know what’s the real Christmas anymore. Every year we put out a massive effort for the Christmas festivities. Christmas has become a hectic season of Christmas parties, eating, drinking, exchange gifts, Christmas carols, family reunions, etc. More and more Christmas has become more materialistic and consumerist which offers a fleeting moment to escape and forget all the sorrows and pains of life. Behind our frenzied Christmas celebrations, however, there is an intense longing deep within us to truly experience the meaning of Christmas–the coming of the Son of God in our lives.

The stories in the liturgical readings of Simbang Gabi can help us recover and experience the original meaning of Christmas.

This is true of our readings today.

In the first reading today, Balaam, a foreign prophet was hired by Balak, king of Moab, to curse Israel. Yet the messengers of the king of Moab could not induce him to act against the Lord’s will. Balaam replied: “Even if Balak gave me his house full of silver and gold, I could not act contrary to the command of the Lord, my God. But wait until I learn what else the Lord may tell me (Num 22:18-19).

Balaam had hoped for guidance from the Lord that would be agreeable to the king. “Wait overnight,” he says, “and maybe tomorrow I will learn something else from the Lord!” The story now takes a turn of grim humor. Because Balaam deludes himself with the hope that the Lord might change the message to one more congenial to the king, the donkey on which he was riding went off the road and talked back to its master. When Balaam tries to beat the donkey into submission, the animal answers back: “Am I not your own beast, and have you not always ridden upon me until now?” The moral of the story is that we cannot forever dodge the truth, and bluff our way along. We must be honest with ourselves, with others and with God.

In the gospel today, the chief priests and the elders in Jesus’ day challenged Jesus’ authority to heal and to teach:

“By what authority are you doing these things?
And who gave you this authority?”

To this question, Jesus replied with another question

“I shall ask you one question, and if you answer it for me,
then I shall tell you by what authority I do these things.
Where was John’s baptism from?
Was it of heavenly or of human origin?”

The religious leaders feared the people’s wrath and would not dare to say that John the Baptist was a fake. Yet under no condition were they willing to agree that John who pointed to Jesus as the promised one could ever have spoken with divine authority. So their reply to Jesus was: We do not know. But if people from all ways of life persistently called John a prophet and remained loyal to him even when it was politically dangerous because of Herod the Tetrarch, then the odds are highly in favour of John that he was a genuine prophet and spoke with divine authority. The religious leaders remained passive or neutral and were even in denial that John speaks in the name of God despite the strong consensus among many good people.

As we begin this Simbang Gabi, the church invites us to be attentive to the truth about ourselves and our faith. Let us learn to accept the true realities especially the sinful conditions and messy situation we have made of our lives and the world. We cannot escape and forget the ugly realities of our lives even if we drown ourselves in celebration and partying. The Simbang Gabi is an opportunity for us to celebrate an authentic Christmas. Through the Simbang Gabi may we truly accept and experience God in the midst of the realities of our lives.  Through the stories of the characters in the Simbang Gabi may we learn to discover our own story woven in the story of Jesus who became flesh and dwelt among us.

3RD SUNDAY OF ADVENT: FROM WORLDLY JOY TO DIVINE JOY

divine joy

There’s always a different feeling whenever the Christmas season starts. It evokes an indescribable feeling of profound joy, excitement and longing.

Indeed, Christmas is the season of joy. It is the season of festivities: Christmas parties, eating, drinking, exchange gifts, Christmas carols, family reunions, etc. All these celebrations and rejoicing give us plenty of joys, even if fleeting, to escape and forget the pain and sorrow in life.

There is a far greater joy in Christmas, however, than all our wordly joys.  Christmas is the sublime event when God’s joy entered into our joys. In order to fully experience the joy of Christmas we need to give way to God’s joy or to elevate our joys into divine joy.  The joy of God must increase and the joy of the world must decrease. Our joys must give way to the biggest joy – the coming of our saviour Jesus Christ. 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

This third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday.  Gaudete is Latin word for rejoice. Gaudete Sunday invites us to partake with divine joy as God became one among us. The readings for this 3rd Sunday of Advent describes for us the meaning of divine joy.

In the First Reading, the prophet Isaiah prophesy about the joy when the Messiah comes:

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
the ears of the deaf be cleared;
then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the mute will sing.

Those whom the LORD has ransomed will return
and enter Zion singing,
crowned with everlasting joy;
they will meet with joy and gladness,
sorrow and mourning will flee.

In the Gospel Reading, when John the Baptist in captivity sends his disciples to ask Jesus whether Jesus is the one the Israelites have been waiting for, Jesus says they should tell John what they hear and see:

the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.

Christmas is the profound event when our joys are wedded to God’s joy, as the song goes, “when heaven and nature sing.” We elevate our wordly joys into divine joy when we truly experience God’s immersion into the messiest and muddiest experiences of our humanity. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

Christmas is not the time to escape and forget our pains and sorrows but rather to confront and find God in the dirtiest and messiest of our realities. Christmas is the time to experience Jesus’ liberation from our captivities and live with joy at our being released from our fears, blindness, deafness and leprosy.

The coming of the Lord is both exciting and demanding. We are all in captivity to the familiar, to our ways, to our expectations.  Jesus is changing, rearranging us, our values, our ways of seeing, listening, living. 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.