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,
shine your light on us all.
May your star chase away our darkness
and fill us with your radiant love.
Make us your epiphanies
 Anne Osdieck, Praying Towards Sunday, The Sunday Website at Saint Louis University. Accessed 07/01/2018 at http://liturgy.slu.edu/EpiphanyB010718/prayerpathmain.html
“And when the angels said, ‘O Mary!
Indeed God has chosen you, and purified you,
and has chosen you above all other women of the worlds.
O Mary! Be devoutly obedient to your Lord
and prostrate and bow with those bow.’”
– Qur’an 3:42-43
The biggest and most tragic news last week was the carnage of Muslims in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand last March 15, 2019. An Australian gunman with white supremacist background went on a rampage in two mosques, the biggest massacre in New Zealand’s modern history. According to police, 50 people were killed and 50 injured. The victims were targeted as they gathered at the mosques for Friday prayers.
This tragic incident show that Islamophobia is on the rise and has been for some time. British political commentator, Ayesha Hazarika claims that Muslims have been demonized, dehumanized and scapegoated on an industrial scale by society since 9/11.
In the light of this event, this short essay explores some relevant points about Mary and our devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help and its relationship with the Muslim community and the Islam faith. Through this, the essay hopes to inspire some concrete actions towards dialogue between Catholics and Muslims. Indeed, Mary is key to ecumenism not just with Islam but with other faiths.
Arrival of Muslims at Baclaran
Outside the shrine, there are many Muslim vendors selling all sorts of wares—clothes, electronics, housewares, even Catholic religious articles like rosaries, statutes, novena booklets and other religious materials. Most of these Muslim traders came from the provinces in Mindanao, the island in the south of the Philippines that has the largest Muslim population in the country. The Muslim traders began to arrive in the 1990s. In due course, some Muslim settlers invested in established stalls (puwesto) and matched medium-and-large-scale business enterprises owned by other merchants in the area. A considerable number, however, remained as street vendors due to lack of sufficient capital.
After the trade came the mosques. Four mosques were constructed within 500 meters from the shrine. The earliest mosque is the Masjid Abdullah, built in 1978; the next to be built is Masjid Rajah Sulayman in 1995. Masjid Al-Nur in Brgy. 79 of Pasay City came next in 1998, while Masjid Al-Wasat, located a few meters away from Baclaran Barangay Hall at the shrine’s northern part, was completed in 2009. At present, only three mosques exist. The Masjid Rajah Sulayman which sat on a reclaimed land on Roxas Boulevard just south of Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, overlooking Manila Bay was demolished by the government in 2013. The government’s reason for the demolition was the tenants’ lack of legal ownership of the site and an ordinance to widen city streets and prevent pickpocketing and violence in the area.
The shrine has maintained a relationship of peaceful co-existence with the Muslim community in Baclaran in the past. Besides small attempts at reaching out, there was no substantial effort towards dialogue between the shrine and the Muslim community. I do not know why no substantial dialogue between the Baclaran shrine community and Muslim community occurred. The best reason I can offer is that both sides did not know where and how to begin.
Nevertheless, this is a big challenge for both parties now and in the future. Because of the large number of Muslim community, the Baclaran shrine has the potential to become a center for Christian-Muslim dialogue in the country. In this endeavor, Our Mother of Perpetual Help (OMPH) can play a vital part in the dialogue with the Muslims. OMPH can be a vital part because Mary is also greatly revered by the Muslims.
Marian Shrines of Ecumenism
An interesting phenomenon in some countries particularly in Asia where there are shrine for OMPH is non-Christians praying before the Icon of OMPH. This is true in Singapore, India (Bombay), and the Philippines. In the Novena church in Singapore, for example, Singaporean Redemptorist Fr. Gerard Louis reports that 20 to 25% of those who attend the Novena are non-Catholics, people of other faiths—Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims. Among all Catholic churches in Singapore, they only go to the Novena church. They only go for the novena not for the mass and other church sacraments and services. Some new Catholics, however, have come to faith and Baptism through the Novena Devotions.
Another Marian shrine in Asia is the Shrine of Our Lady of Vailankanni. It is one of the most frequented religious sites in India, where Hindus, Muslims and Christian from all over India congregate in large numbers and worship in harmony. Hundreds of miraculous cures are reported every year. Centuries of devotion to Mother Mary both by Hindus and Christians have evolved an amalgamation of practices borrowing elements from both religions.
Here in Baclaran, there is no exact figure or percentage of how many non-Catholics pray the novena. From time to time, though, the phenomenon has received some admiration from other Christian denomination. For example, Jullian Robin Sibi said that Baclaran is one of those spots where you have to go to even though you are not Catholic. Andy Dierickx, who identifies himself as a Protestant Christian, sincerely admires the devotees’ dedication despite the fact that he does not approve of every practice they do:
Let me preface my comment by saying as a ‘protestant Christian’ (for want of a better label) there are many things I don’t understand about the Roman Catholic Church. Novenas, rosaries, praying to statuary and knee-walking are just some of the things I don’t comprehend. Lately I have been a bit outspoken on the subject and have offended loved ones in the process. On reflection I pray and ask forgiveness for that. I may never understand the rituals and practices, but I cannot question the devotion of the devotees of the OMPH Church. They sit and sweat and kneel and sweat when they could be in SM or home in front of the aircon! If some of my fellow Christians could have half of that fervor it would be amazing. While I could never subscribe to the Catholic precepts and ideology I pay respect to the beautiful folk who gather at Baclaran each Wednesday. Next time I am in town I might just drop in and sweat with you.
Ben Hernandez, a non-Christian, left a comment on the Baclaran FB page in July 2, 2017: “I am not a Christian but, as l have said in my wall post, Baclaran Church truly reflects our Filipino culture, values and heritage.”
Conflict in the Time of Ecumenism
We live at a time where there is a growing movement of dialogue among religions and faiths. The increasing calls and efforts for interreligious dialogue continue to break down walls of prejudice and intolerance. Fiore describes today’s global world as a world where one in seven people lives outside his/her place of origin; a world where cultures meet, spiritualities compete, and we are left wondering what to do with the faith we have received as an inheritance. The world is heading towards greater openness beyond the religion we have grown into. There is no turning back, as David Tracy contended, “[T]here can be no return to a pre-ecumenical, pre-pluralistic, ahistorical theology.”
The interreligious milieu poses several challenges to the living of one’s religion. First, each one is challenged to have a clearer understanding and deeper living of one’s religion. As people are exposed to other religions they learn to see more the distinctiveness of their own religion and this help to clarify their religious identity. Alternatively, each one is challenged to learn from the other. Everyone is challenged to have a wider and deeper understanding of God that goes beyond one’s own religion. Finally, it provides an opportunity for mutual enrichment about God as each religion reveals a special facet of the truth about God. In this interreligious milieu, dialogue becomes a necessary attitude, a way of life. It challenges each one to learn the art of listening despite actual differences.
These developments affirm the church’s conviction in recent years towards continuous interreligious dialogue. Many church documents, especially after Vatican II, have affirmed that the seeds of the Gospel go beyond the Catholic Church. For example, LG says that salvation is possible for all people of goodwill whether they have explicit faith in God or not.Nostra Aetate declares that other than Christianity, there is a ray of truth that enlightens all men and women. And Gaudium et Spes affirms that the Holy Spirit in a way known only to God offers every person the possibility of being associated with the paschal mystery.
Despite the climate of pluralism, multiculturalism, and ecumenism there is continuous religious conflicts and the rise of religious intolerance and fundamentalism in the world today. There are those who advocate for a return to exclusion, religious discrimination, religious fundamentalism and, religious extremism. In the Philippines, there is still a perceived mutual prejudice between Muslims, Lumads, and Christians. Many suffer from the continuous war between Muslims and Christians in the south.
Mary in Islam
Vatican II ushered a new attitude towards Islam: “Upon the Muslims, too, the Church looks with esteem.”Nostra Aetate listed several reasons why the Church should respect Islam; it shows parallels between Islamic belief and Christian faith. Among these many common elements, Mary is clearly mentioned: “They also honor Mary, His [Jesus’] virgin mother; at times they call on her, too, with devotion.”
Love for the Virgin Mary runs deep in Islam. In the Qur’an, Mary’s name (Maryam) appears explicitly thirty-four times; in twenty-four of these references, she is identified as the mother of Jesus (Isa). Mary is mentioned more often by name in the Muslim scripture than in the Christian New Testament. One chapter of the Qur’an (Sura 19) is in fact entitled “Mary” and it narrates the events of the annunciation of Jesus’ birth: Mary is chosen by God and given divine favors; she is immaculately consecrated to God from her mother’s womb; an angel appears to her and announces the miraculous virgin birth of a child; Mary accepts, conceives Isa and gives birth to him. The very story of the birth of Mary, which the feast day commemorates, is found in the Quran 3:35-36.
In the international pilgrimage shrine of Our Lady of Fátima, one aspect that often goes unnoticed is the subtle connection with Islam. The Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to the three shepherd children near the city of Fátima, Portugal, a place named after both a Muslim princess and the daughter of Mohammed. As Venerable Fulton Sheen said, “I believe that the Blessed Virgin chose to be known as “Our Lady of Fátima” as a pledge and a sign of hope to the Moslem people, and as an assurance that they, who show her so much respect, will one day accept her Divine Son, too.” Thus, not surprisingly, the shrine at Fátima, Portugal, has also attracted Muslims in great numbers. They go to see the place where the Virgin Mary appeared in a city named after one of their most highly revered women.
Thus, Mary can serve as a bridge between Islam and Christianity: It is certainly true that in her very person there is a meeting point, or at least a stepping stone, between Christianity and Islam. Indeed, as the Qur’an itself says: “To those who believe, God has set an example (“mathalan”) … in Mary, who preserved her chastity …, who put her trust in the words of her Lord and his scriptures and was one of the truly devout” (“Prohibition” LXVI:12).
OMPH can be a bridge between communities. Marian devotion can be an avenue for inter-faith dialogue with peoples of other faith traditions. Devotion to OMPH does not harbor biases against people of other faiths or people with different political convictions. The devotion can be an instrument of peace, mutual cooperation among peoples of different faiths towards common fight against poverty and violence.
One of the fruits of a healthy and productive devotion to OMPH is the openness to forge a relationship and dialogue with other faiths and Christian denomination through Mary and the icon. The icon and Mary can help to reinvigorate our devotion through dialogue with other religions.
In the light of this, Mary and the Icon can be the starting of a dialogue between the Muslim community and the shrine in Baclaran in the future.
Not all who pray and venerate Our Mother of Perpetual Help are Catholics. In the Novena church in Singapore, for example, Singaporean Redemptorist Fr. Gerard Louis reports that 20 to 25% of those who attend the Novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help are non-Catholics, people of other faiths—Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims.
Here in Baclaran, we have no exact figure or percentage of how many non-Catholics pray the novena. From time to time, though, we received some admiration from other Christian denomination. For example, Jullian Robin Sibi said that Baclaran is one of those spots where you have to go to even though you are not Catholic. Andy Dierickx, who identifies himself as a Protestant Christian, expressed admiration for the devotees’ dedication despite that he does not approve of every practice they do:
Let me preface my comment by saying as a ‘protestant Christian’ (for want of a better label) there are many things I don’t understand about the Roman Catholic church. Novenas, rosaries, praying to statuary and knee-walking are just some of the things I don’t comprehend. Lately I have been a bit outspoken on the subject and have offended loved ones in the process. On reflection I pray and ask forgiveness for that. I may never understand the rituals and practices, but I cannot question the devotion of the devotees of the Our Mother of Perpetual Help Church. They sit and sweat and kneel and sweat when they could be in SM or home in front of the aircon! If some of my fellow Christians could have half of that fervor it would be amazing. While I could never subscribe to the Catholic precepts and ideology I pay respect to the beautiful folk who gather at Baclaran each Wednesday. Next time I am in town I might just drop in and sweat with you
This shows that Mary Our Mother of Perpetual Help and God’s love appeal not only to Catholics but also to non-Catholics, even to atheists and those without religion.
The boundless nature of God’s love and the redemptive activity of God that goes even beyond the Catholic Church is reflected in today’s readings of the 26th Sunday in ordinary time.
In the first reading from the book of Numbers Joshua wanted Moses to stop Eldad and Medad from prophesying because they didn’t follow the rules. Moses makes it clear that prophecy, the carrying of God’s message to the world, is not the special task of only a few people:
Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets!
Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!”
Moses’ was also quick to point to Joshua’s attitude: “Are you jealous for my sake?”
In the gospel of Mark, John, one of the three in the inner circle of Jesus expressed dismay when they discover someone driving out demons in Jesus’ name even though they were not disciples of Jesus.
“Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name,
and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.”
Jesus responds with an inclusive impulse,
“Do not prevent him.
There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name
who can at the same time speak ill of me.”
Jesus defends the outsider and rebukes the tribalism of his apostles.
“Whoever is not against us is for us,”
In effect, Jesus’ response was throwing back the question to the disciples: Who doesn’t count as one of his own? Who actually is against Christ?
Jesus declares that those against him are those who draw children away from the Lord or who make the vulnerable and helpless worse than they otherwise would be. They would be better off being dropped into the sea.
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,
it would be better for him if a great millstone
were put around his neck
and he were thrown into the sea.
Thus, instead of cutting people out of God’s love, Jesus points out that the disciples themselves may need some personal cutting to attend to. Jesus re-echoes this in his farewell address to his disciples: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower … Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit” [John 15:1].
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.
It is better for you to enter into life maimed
than with two hands to go into Gehenna,
into the unquenchable fire.
And if your foot causes you to sin, cut if off.
It is better for you to enter into life crippled
than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna.
And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.
Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye
than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna,
Jesus challenges us to “cut. . . off” from any manner of living, attitudes or behaviors that prevents us from recognizing God’s presence and work in the broadest classes of people especially the most excluded and oppressed in society. James, in the second reading, declares that we need to cut ourselves off from impeding God’s presence and love amongst the poor. James reserved his strongest rebuke to the rich who amassed great wealth at the expense of the poor.
Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers
who harvested your fields are crying aloud;
and the cries of the harvesters
have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.
You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure;
you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.
You have condemned;
you have murdered the righteous one;
This Sunday’s readings become highly relevant in the context of continuous religious conflicts and the rise of religious intolerance and fundamentalism in the world today. Despite the climate of pluralism, multiculturalism, and ecumenism, there are many who advocate for a return to exclusion, religious discrimination, religious fundamentalism and, religious extremism.
We will not stop proclaiming Jesus as savior of all humanity. As St. Paul said, “Woe to me, if I don’t proclaim the gospel” (I Cor 9: 16). Our readings for today, however, reminds us about the boundless nature of God’s love. The seeds of the Gospel go beyond even the Catholic Church. While Jesus invites us to follow him, he also invites us to embrace and participate in his love for the little ones and the lost sheep. We need to discover God’s presence and action in the other–those who are different from us, the outsider, even our enemies. Jesus summons us today to welcome the refugees, shelter the homeless, care for the earth, feed the hungry, teach the ignorant, stand for justice, clothe the naked, in his name.