BAPTISM OF OUR LORD: THE WORK OF CHRISTMAS BEGINS

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Photo Courtesy of Ancient Faith Ministries

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 no change happened 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.

The Second Reading spells out what baptismal living looks like: “reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly.” This is the rebirth to which God calls us.

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 development 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 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.

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. In this light, 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.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

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Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God: Starting the New Year with Mary

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Happy New Year, 2019!

We, Filipinos, have a lot of superstitious beliefs and unusual practices to welcome the New Year. Foremost among these are the lighting of fireworks and making loud noises which we believe is meant to drive away the evil spirits. As kids we were encouraged to jump as high as we can when the clock hits 12 on New Year’s eve, because of the belief that it will help us grow taller. I have jumped every new year’s eve that I can remember since I was kid, but it ain’t true, never happened. We also believe that placing 12 different kinds of round-shaped fruits (grapes, oranges and watermelon) on the table during New Year’s eve will bring good fortune for the coming year. On the morning of New Year many wear clothing with polka dots as many believe they symbolize prosperity in the upcoming year.

I noticed, however, 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Through the prayers of Mary may we be blessed and be a blessing this New Year 2019!

Thank You, 2018; 2019, Here We Come!

On this last day of the year 2018, I would like to say thanks to all the readers who have followed this blog throughout the year. I hope this blog site has deepened your Christian faith and devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. I look forward to another year of writing interesting and enlightening blog and your continuous support and following of this blog.

In behalf of the National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, I wish to greet you and your loved ones a Blessed New Year 2019. Through the prayers of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, may God grant you every blessings and graces for a wonderful and fruitful new year.

See you next year (that’s tomorrow, hahaha)

 

FEAST OF THE HOLY FAMILY: GOD DWELT IN THE HUMAN FAMILY

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The Holy Family by Aidan Hart

Christmas is the 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 2018, 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 man 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. Christmas is the birth of God in the family in whatever situation we find our families today.

Joseph, Mary and Jesus, like any human family, encountered many hardships and problems. They suffered persecution when Herod ordered the execution of all young male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem, so as to avoid the loss of his throne to a newborn King of the Jews whose birth had been announced to him by the Magi. Joseph and Mary carrying the baby Jesus had to flee to Egypt to escape from the terror unleash by the tyrant Herod. The Holy Family, while raising up Jesus, had to endure the hardships and exploitation in 1st century Palestine under the Roman empire.

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.

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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Similarly, 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.

The dwelling of Christ in the family transformed the married life of Joseph and Mary. When Joseph and Mary freely accepted God’s plan into their lives, their lives no longer revolved around their individual’s plans but the bigger plan of God for the whole human family. The future of the family of Joseph and Mary became essentially connected to Jesus’ mission of redemption.

Mary and Joseph, however, did not immediately grasp the mission of Jesus. We heard in the gospel today how they lost the little boy Jesus in the temple. And when they found him among the learned in the temple, they did not fully understand what Jesus told them about his mission.

When his parents saw him,
they were astonished,
and his mother said to him,
“Son, why have you done this to us?
Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.”
And he said to them,
“Why were you looking for me?
Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
But they did not understand what he said to them.
He went down with them and came to Nazareth,
and was obedient to them;
and his mother kept all these things in her heart.

Mary and Jesus raised Jesus well. Mary and Joseph’s worthy upbringing of Jesus contributed much to his human growth and maturity.  “And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.”

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 2018, 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 2019.


 

[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.

 

Christmas Day Mass: Jesus, Our True Savior!

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Photo by Redemptorist Manila

Today we begin the Christmas season. Yes, this is just the beginning of Christmas in the liturgical calendar of the church. All that we have done in the past four weeks, in what we call the Advent season, are just preparations for Christmas.

For many of us, this maybe the climax of a long Christmas celebration which may have began as early as September. Many of us are perhaps exhausted, sleepy and have spent all our money from all the food, drinks and celebration of the past weeks. Despite these, the church invites us, all Christians, to celebrate the deeper mystery of Christmas. The incarnation of Jesus, the main event of Christmas, after all, is not dependent on how much money, material things, food, drinks, external decorations we have now but how much are we open, humble and alive to the promptings of the profound spiritual reality of the coming of Jesus in our lives.

The gospel on this Christmas day, is from the opening of John’s Gospel. There is no mention of Bethlehem, of Mary, of shepherds, or the stable and the manger. Nevertheless, this is a magnificent passage which delves into the deeper meaning of Christmas.

The most quoted text in the gospel is the words:

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn 1:14)

Literally in Greek it reads, “the Word became flesh and pitched his tent/tabernacle among us.” These words allude to the tent of meeting (or tabernacle) that was the place of God’s presence among the people during their wandering through the desert in the Exodus (Ex 25:8-9). Now, it it not just the tent/tabernacle but Jesus is God’s presence among human beings.

He came into the world yet “his own” did not accept him (Jn 1:11).  “His own” could be Jesus’ immediate kinship group (Jn 7:1-7; 19:27), or his clan or people.

He came to what was his own,
but his own people did not accept him.

Sadly, this pitiable reality has been repeated throughout history. Even if God has already come down to redeem us, yet humanity still looked for another saviour who it perceives can grant its immediate needs. This is also true today. The world has recently become attracted to saviours who promise quick fix solution to the problems of society. Their solutions, however, often involves hating, excluding, ostracising certain groups or race for the sake of the security and comfort of the majority.

Indeed, Jesus is not the typical savior that the world knows. Jesus as savior came not to solve our problems or answer all our questions or fulfill all our personal ambitions or praise all our successes but to reveal all our problems, to challenge all our certainties, to expose us to our vulnerabilities, and to lead us to His Kingdom.  In Christ, God entered the world to overturn our world.  And we are confused and not contented.

How beautiful the world would have been if the Messiah who had come was a superhero, who would wipe out all our enemies and get rid of all evils in this world.  Then our world today is like a paradise, peaceful, prosperous and everyone is happy.

But he is not a God who came to be served but to serve.  He is not a God who lord it over everyone but became the slave of all.  He is not a God who is undependable but a God who is just and compassionate to all. He did not come to the world to lecture us, to scold us, to judge us.  He did not come for the healthy and strong but for the sinners.  He did not tolerate our sins but gave us the strength to rise above our weaknesses and sins.

He entered into our history, identified with our struggles, lived in the midst of our evil world, experienced our fears and anxieties and marveled with our dreams and aspirations.  As Pope Francis, when he visited Tacloban in 2015, said: “We have a Lord who is capable of crying with us, capable of walking with us in the most difficult moments of life”.  He is one of us.  He is indeed Emmanuel, God who is with us!

Jesus is our true savior. Let us not be seduced by fake saviors in our world today. Let us reject all their lies and manipulations. Let us renew our loyalty to Jesus, our true savior.

Only Jesus can liberate us from our particular enslavement. Jesus entered our world to bless it and to liberate us from all form of enslavement whether oppression, hunger, homelessness, addictive habits and substances, fear, anger, resentment, hatred, or loneliness. At the same time, we are called to work together with him, to help others break the chains of their enslavements, so that, in the words of the prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading,

“All the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God”.

A most blessed Christmas to all!

 

Here is the schedule of Christmas Day masses at the Baclaran Shrine (Philippine Time). All Christmas Day masses at the shrine are streamed live. Click this link to watch and listen to the Christmas Day masses at the shrine.

christmas-schedule-2018

 

 

 

 

Christmas Midnight Mass: The Wonder of Christmas

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

In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah proclaims,

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

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

The second reading, St. Paul in his letter to Titus, speaks of the two comings of Christ: (1) “the grace of God has appeared,” that is, in the Christ event (and Bethlehem marks the inception of its appearance); (2) “while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory…”

In the Nativity, Christ comes first in great humility in anticipation of his coming again in majesty and great glory. It is especially fitting that this note should be struck at the Midnight Mass of Christmas, for much of the traditional imagery speaks of the Lord’s Second Coming as taking place at midnight. This imagery, for example, is found in the parable of the ten virgins: “At midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom!’” (Mt 25:6).

Lest we sentimentalize Christmas into a “Baby Jesus” cult, we need to remember that it is only in the light of the Second Coming that we can celebrate the first coming.  We are kind of living in-between times. Jesus has already come more than 2,000 years ago but we still await the fullness of his coming when we partake of his glory at the end of time.

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

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

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It is in these contrasts that we can find the wonder of Christmas. Indeed, Christmas is not the eradication of contrast. Christmas is not the absence of conflict. It is not the deleting of differences. On the contrary, it is the acceptance of diversity. It is the welcoming of the other who is unique and different from me. Contrast, is at the core of God’s incarnation: God became fully human without God stripping of God’s divinity and human becoming divine without human stripping of humanity.

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 become 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 will not be complete with just the birth of Jesus. 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 cannot be complete with 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!

 

Here is the schedule of Christmas Day masses at the Baclaran Shrine (Philippine Time). All Christmas Day masses at the shrine are streamed live. Click this link to watch and listen to the Christmas Day masses at the shrine.

christmas-schedule-2018

 

9th Simbang Gabi – December 24: Zechariah’s Christmas Song

candles_shrine

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

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. Instead, 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 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, we need 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 to the human race. Every Christmas is an invitation to a re-enchantment of the incarnation of God. By 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 deep, personal level.

Tonight the Christmas story concludes with a hymn–the great hymn of Benedictus (meaning ‘Blessed’ from its opening word in Latin). Indeed, 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.

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.

 

Here is the schedule of Christmas Day masses at the Baclaran Shrine (Philippine Time). All Christmas Day masses at the shrine are streamed live. Click this link to watch and listen to the Christmas Day masses at the shrine.

christmas-schedule-2018

 

7th Simbang Gabi – December 22: Magnificat – the Christmas Song of Mary

magnificat
Inay Maria ng Magnificat

Welcome to the 7th Simbang Gabi. We are now into the 7th 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 today’s readings we hear words of thanksgivings from both the first reading and the gospel. It is a celebration of thanks to the Lord, who does great things to humble people who trust in God. In the first reading, from the 1st book of Samuel, Hannah gives thanks to God because he has given her a son, Samuel. She dedicates him to God. Samuel will be a very great prophet of the Lord. In the gospel, Mary, a young, humble, unassuming girl boldly sings out her joy and thanks to God who will upset the world’s values through Jesus, the Son to be born from her. With Hannah and Mary we sing out our joy and thanks to God.

Both of these thanksgivings, on the lips of women, mothers, anticipate what God will do through the agency of their sons. Both image God’s saving activity concretely as toppling unjust structures and disarming oppressive regimes. “The bows of the mighty are broken,” declares Hannah, and Mary echoes, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones.”  “The well-fed hire themselves out for bread,” Hannah says, and Mary answers, “He has filled the hungry with good things.” These are songs of the anawim, the poor who have no recourse or resource of their own and must wait for God to save them.

Indeed, these thanksgivings echoes the Christmas carols of joy and gratitude we hear during this season. The magnificat, the song of Mary, however, expresses more than just gratitude and joy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian killed by the Nazis for his opposition to Hitler, comments that the magnificat of Mary has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind. These are the tones of the women prophets of the Old Testament that now come to life in Mary’s mouth.[1]

In the magnificat, Mary becomes an emblem of hope and a sign of God’s care for the oppressed and downtrodden throughout the world. Through Mary, most virgin and purest of all, stripped of all power, wealth, fame, prestige and position, the power of God was proclaimed in the magnificat.

Mary’s magnificat highlights the social repercussions of Christmas. Christmas cannot be separated from the situation that Mary and Joseph found themselves in at the time of Jesus’ birth. Today it cannot be separated from the real situation in our our own communities and the larger society especially of those who live on the margins. Christmas is not an escapist occasion that numbs us and just let us forget all about the pain and sorrow in this life. The joy of Christmas is not the fleeting joy that serves as an escape from the sad reality of our lives, which sadly has been the scourge for many of our people come every Christmas.

We cannot just ignore the underlying political and social implications of Christmas. The new king wasn’t born in a palace, his birth wasn’t hailed by heralds fanning out to every corner of the empire. Instead, his family were refugees: They couldn’t find room at the inn; Mary gave birth in a stable; and the child had to rest in a manger. The message of Christmas is, inescapably, a message about the poor, about the little ones, about those who are pushed to the margins of society. They are the ones God chooses, the ones He looks to first. It is no wonder that the first people to experience the coming of the savior were shepherds, those lowly, uneducated ones who lived among the animals

It’s been the convention of many Christians to turn Christmas into a safe holiday that asks little of us. But this ignores the prophetic, subversive life of Jesus. Jesus brought the margins to the center and welcomed outcasts to the table.

In a homily he gave on Christmas eve in 1978, the recently canonized saint, St. Oscar Romero, the martyr bishop who was murdered while celebrating mass due to his active defense and solidarity with the poor in El Salvador, proclaimed that we need to become poor in order that we can truly celebrate Christmas:

No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God—for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God. Emmanuel. God-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.

oscar-romero
St. Oscar Romero

In another homily St. Oscar Romero gave on December 3, 1978, he expounds on the social implications of advent, of the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ into our lives.

Advent should admonish us to discover
in each brother or sister that we greet,
in each friend whose hand we shake,
in each beggar who asks for bread,
in each worker who wants to use the right to join a union,
in each peasant who looks for work in the coffee groves,
the face of Christ.
Then it would not be possible to rob them,
to cheat them,
to deny them their rights.
They are Christ,
and whatever is done to them
Christ will take as done to himself.
This is what Advent is:
Christ living among us.

The celebration of Christmas is an invitation for us to sing, proclaim and live Mary’s magnificat.  We can truly sing and live the magnificat if like Mary we humble ourselves to the power of God, to allow God to be God. Like Mary we can proclaim the power of God by becoming poor in material and spirit, living in solidarity with the poor and marginalized and our active involvement and participation in the building of God’s new social order which Mary sang in the magnificat.

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

 

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

simbang-gabi-2018

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer as quoted in Elizabeth Johnson, “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary,” Catholic Magazine, December 2003 (Vol. 68, No. 12, pg. 12).

 

6th Simbang Gabi – December 21: Visitation – Mary as God-Bearer

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 meaning of the incarnation of Jesus–the original event of Christmas.

We continue the gospel reading from Luke, picking up from yesterday’s text. As soon as the Archangel departed from Nazareth, Mary made plans to leave. Although she was still a young teenage girl, she “went with haste” to take care of her elderly kinswoman, Elizabeth, who was pregnant for the first time.

Notice, however, that the Angel didn’t command Mary to go to help her. 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.

The journey that Mary took to reach Elizabeth was a long and arduous journey. 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. This covers a distance of between 128 and 160 kilometers. Luke does not mention whether Mary made any preparations for the trip or how she traveled. She 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.  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. If she accompanied a caravan, she would have arrived in about three days.

map-journey-visitation

Such a journey would have been dangerous, especially for a young girl alone. 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.

As soon as Mary arrived and Elizabeth heard the sound of Mary’s greeting, very likely “shalom,” three things happened: John the Baptist leaped in her womb, Elizabeth herself was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she 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. 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 and only at this time of the year. It has to 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.

The Christmas story continues … Abangan ang susunod na kabanata, bukas! (watch out for the next chapter tomorrow). Mary, filled with the Spirit, will soon 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.

 

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

simbang-gabi-2018


 

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

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

007-Annunciation-icon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary was especially troubled when the angel told her

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

simbang-gabi-2018

 


 

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

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

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

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

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