THE FEAST OF THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD: LET THE WORK OF CHRISTMAS BEGIN

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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.

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 AS THE LIGHT TO ALL NATIONS

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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

New Year: The Octave Day of Christmas Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God

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Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, 2020!

Or shall I say, happy new decade–welcome to a new decade, the 20s of the 21st century.

I noticed that on New Year, nobody greets merry Christmas anymore. Many think that with New Year, Christmas is over.

Not for the church.

New Year always fall on the 8th day or octave of Christmas. New Year is very much a part of Christmas. In fact, it is right at the middle of Christmas. We are still very much in the Christmas season which will last until the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord on the 2nd Sunday of January.

The 8th day of Christmas is specially dedicated as a feast of Mary as Mother of God.  It was in 431 AD, 400 years after the birth of the church, that the Council of Ephesus solemnly proclaimed Mary as Mother of God, in the original Greek word, Theotokos which means “God-bearer.”

The motherhood of Mary is very much at the heart of Christmas. As we have mentioned last Christmas midnight mass, Mary’s fiat (yes) to be the mother of God was a turning point in the Christmas story. The turning point involved the incarnation as God’s coming down from heaven to become human and Mary’s yes which represents humanity’s aspiration of going up to God. Mary’s yes is the prototype of humanity’s yes, or more precisely, Mary’s yes represents humanity’s yes par excellence.

In the midst of the different rituals and practices that the world observes during the New Year, the church offers Mary as a fresh approach to beginning the New Year.  Through this celebration, we are invited by the church to learn from Mary.

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

First, like Mary as theotokos, we are called to be God-bearers. In Christmas, we celebrate 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 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 2020!

Feast of the Holy Family: God’s Vision for the Family

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The Holy Family by Aidan Hart

Christmas is a season for the family. It is the time of the year when all the members of the family needs to be 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, on the last Sunday of 2019, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. The Feast of the Holy Family is very much a part of the Christmas season. The Christmas story of God becoming human also involves the coming of God into a human family—the family of Mary and Joseph. God became man and dwelt amongst human family. Jesus, the son of God, experienced the joys and the hopes, the griefs and anxieties that any ordinary human family goes through. Thus, Christmas is the birth of God in the family in whatever situation we find our families today.

As we commemorate the dwelling of Jesus in our family on Christmas, we are called to become truly present to each member of our families.  To be present to one another is to truly listen and accept each other. To be present to one another is to forgive and ask forgiveness from each other. Pope Francis wrote that forgiveness is essential in any family since there is no perfect family,

“There is no perfect family. We do not have perfect parents, we are not perfect, we do not marry a perfect person or have perfect children. We have complaints from each other. We disappoint each other. So there is no healthy marriage or healthy family without the exercise of forgiveness. Forgiveness is vital to our emotional health and spiritual survival. Without forgiveness the family becomes an arena of conflict and a stronghold of hurt. “

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In the 2nd reading, St. Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, talks about forgiveness and more on what it means to bring 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.

Joseph, Mary and Jesus, like any human family, encountered many hardships and problems. In the gospel today, we hear of the the Holy Family 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.

Thus, Christmas calls us to face the real situation and issues of our families inasmuch as it is a joyful time of gathering as a family. The joy that Christmas brings to the family is not an escapist joy nor it is the fleeting joy that numbs us and forgets all about the pain and sorrow within the family.

Like most families in our world today, the holy family was not a well-to-do family; they had to work hard to make ends meet. At an early age, Jesus learned the value of hard work and dedication. Jesus grew up to be a carpenter, just like Joseph (Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3). The holy family developed in the grace of God. They became open to God’s grace through their constant prayer as well as striving to do the will of God in their everyday lives.

Through these ways, the holy family is a model for every human family. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI spoke about this, especially the value of prayer, in a beautiful address on December 28, 2011, at a Wednesday audience,

The Holy Family is an icon of the domestic Church, which is called to pray together. The family is the first school of prayer where, from their infancy, children learn to perceive God thanks to the teaching and example of their parents. An authentically Christian education cannot neglect the experience of prayer. If we do not learn to pray in the family, it will be difficult to fill this gap later. I would, then, like to invite people to rediscover the beauty of praying together as a family, following the school of the Holy Family of Nazareth.

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When Jesus became a grown up man and had to leave Joseph and Mary to begin his ministry, Mary and Joseph had to step aside for the mission of Jesus. They had accepted the fact, early on, that God’s mission even goes beyond the family.

When Jesus began his ministry, he preached the good news of God’s kingdom. In God’s kingdom, Jesus will gather a new family under God the Father which goes beyond family, blood, race, and culture. Mary has to give way to the new family that Jesus proclaimed and remained obedient and supportive of the mission of her son despite her lack of understanding. As Pope Benedict XVI states,

Then, when Jesus began his public ministry, [Mary] had to step aside, so that a new family could grow, the family which it was his mission to establish and which would be made up of those who heard his word and kept it (cf. Lk 11:27f).[1]

We find this in the gospel particularly in a scene in the gospel of Mark (Mark 3: 31 – 35). At a time when Jesus was persecuted and falsely accused, his mother and brothers were concerned about his welfare. So they went out to Jesus who was in the country preaching the gospel to the people. Surrounded by a crowd while Jesus was preaching, the word was passed on to Jesus: “Your mother and your brothers are outside asking for you.” Jesus’ response was “Who are my mother and my brothers?”

American scripture scholar Raymond Brown commented that Jesus’ response raises the issue of who really constitute his family now that the Kingdom of God is being proclaimed. As his natural family stands outside, Jesus looks at those inside and proclaims, “Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is brother and sister and mother to me.”[2] Jesus’ response to the crowd is consistent with his other words to those wishing to follow him as he continues to proclaim the Kingdom of God:

Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life (Mark 10: 29 – 30).

In these remaining days of 2019, let us thank the Lord for the many blessings and guidance God has bestowed upon us throughout this year. As one family modeled after the Holy Family, let us, once again, ask God for every spiritual blessing and grace towards a fruitful New Year 2020.

 


 

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 2007, #50.

[2] Raymond E. Brown, J.A. Fitzmyer, and K.P. Donfried, eds., Mary in the New Testament (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978), 52 – 53.

 

Feast of the Holy Innocents: In Memory of All Innocent Victims of Injustice and Violence

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Today, December 28, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents, all those 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. (Serm. 373, 3, quoted in the Catena Aurea).

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.

While we are overjoyed as Christians at the coming of Christ, many people do not share our sense of elation. On Christmas Day, eleven Christian hostages were killed by Islamic State terrorists in Nigeria. The Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP) claim they killed the captives to avenge for the killing of their leaders Abu bakr al-Baghdadi and Abul-Hasan Al-Muhajir in Iraq and Syria.

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.

 

St. Stephen, Protomartyr: Living the True Spirit of Christmas

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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.

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 Mass at Night: The Wonder of Christmas

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In the first reading of the Christmas mass at night, 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 greatest challenge of the spirit of Christmas: Christmas is to see and walk towards the light amidst the darkness of our lives and our world

The gospel story is the epitome of the triumph of the light despite the darkness that covers our world. 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.

The wonder of Christmas is the story of God coming down from heaven and embracing the world and humanity despite all its darkness, messiness, sinfulness, and muddiness.  The wonder of Christmas is God’s becoming human by not resorting to human power, prestige, wealth and fame.

The wonder of Christmas, however, is not just God coming down to become human. The wonder of Christmas is also human going up to God by welcoming God’s word and plan in human life. The greatest joy of Christmas for humanity is this very sublime dignity that God has imparted to all of us through Jesus Christ–the opportunity to partake of God’s divine life and all its qualities–peace, justice, wisdom, joy, unity, generosity and prosperity.

Saint Athanasius, the renowned fourth-century bishop of Alexandria and the greatest apologetic of the doctrine of God as the Trinity, in his classic work, Incarnation of the Word, said that the incarnation of Christ occurred not just in order for God to become human but also for human to go up to God. Similarly, the Benedictine monk Julian of Vezelay (c. 1080 – 1165) highlights the double movement of the Christmas wonder–God’s becoming human and human becoming divine:

And so from his royal throne the Word of God came to us, humbling himself in order to raise us up, becoming poor to make us rich, and human to make us divine.

It is in this light that Mary’s yes is very important to the Christmas story. Mary’s fiat (yes) is a turning point in the history of the world. The turning point involved the incarnation as God’s coming down from heaven to become human and Mary’s yes which represents humanity’s aspiration of going up to God. Mary’s yes is the prototype of humanity’s yes, or more precisely, Mary’s yes represents humanity’s yes par excellence.

Mary’s yes is replicated by the shepherds who came to worship the baby in the manger and the different characters in the Christmas story that we have heard during the 9 days of Simbang Gabi or Christian academy. They are all part of the wonder of Christmas.

The wonder of Christmas is not just the birth of Jesus. The wonder of Christmas is also the response and participation of Mary, John the Baptist, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Joseph, and many other prophets and characters who allowed God to make them an instrument of God’s plan and dream for all humanity and creation, are all part of the Christmas wonder. The wonder of Christmas is not merely God’s action; it includes and necessarily involves human response and participation.

We can never, therefore, experience the wonder of Christmas if we become passive observer of the great event of incarnation. You are part of the wonder of Christmas. God wants you to be part of the wonder of Christmas. We can be 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

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.