Welcome to the 1st Simbang Gabi, or as I have called these nine days novena masses leading to Christmas, a Christmas academy. In this academy, we shall go back to the original Christmas story and discover the true meaning of Christmas so as to prepare ourselves for the birth of Jesus into our lives and our world.
One of the greatest crises today is the crisis of authenticity. Today, we live with so many fakes from fake news, to fake products to fake food to fake people to fake religion. Sometimes, we don’t know who’s or what’s authentic anymore.
But why do fakes flourish? It is cheaper to buy fake products inasmuch as it is easier to live in the lie than in the truth. In many cases facing the truth requires a tremendous amount of courage for truth can be very harsh. Most of us have an intense desire to escape from our problems and to even construct a false reality just to avoid facing the truth.
This is also true of Christmas celebrations. Sometimes we don’t know what’s the real Christmas anymore. Every year we put out a massive effort for the Christmas festivities. Christmas has become a hectic season of Christmas parties, eating, drinking, exchange gifts, Christmas carols, family reunions, etc. More and more Christmas has become more materialistic and consumerist which offers a fleeting moment to escape and forget all the sorrows and pains of life. Behind our frenzied Christmas celebrations, however, there is an intense longing deep within us to truly experience the meaning of Christmas–the coming of the Son of God in our lives.
The stories in the liturgical readings of Simbang Gabi can help us recover and experience the original meaning of Christmas.
This is true of our readings today.
In the first reading today, Balaam, a foreign prophet was hired by Balak, king of Moab, to curse Israel. Yet the messengers of the king of Moab could not induce him to act against the Lord’s will. Balaam replied: “Even if Balak gave me his house full of silver and gold, I could not act contrary to the command of the Lord, my God. But wait until I learn what else the Lord may tell me (Num 22:18-19).
Balaam had hoped for guidance from the Lord that would be agreeable to the king. “Wait overnight,” he says, “and maybe tomorrow I will learn something else from the Lord!” The story now takes a turn of grim humor. Because Balaam deludes himself with the hope that the Lord might change the message to one more congenial to the king, the donkey on which he was riding went off the road and talked back to its master. When Balaam tries to beat the donkey into submission, the animal answers back: “Am I not your own beast, and have you not always ridden upon me until now?” The moral of the story is that we cannot forever dodge the truth, and bluff our way along. We must be honest with ourselves, with others and with God.
In the gospel today, the chief priests and the elders in Jesus’ day challenged Jesus’ authority to heal and to teach:
“By what authority are you doing these things?
And who gave you this authority?”
To this question, Jesus replied with another question
“I shall ask you one question, and if you answer it for me,
then I shall tell you by what authority I do these things.
Where was John’s baptism from?
Was it of heavenly or of human origin?”
The religious leaders feared the people’s wrath and would not dare to say that John the Baptist was a fake. Yet under no condition were they willing to agree that John who pointed to Jesus as the promised one could ever have spoken with divine authority. So their reply to Jesus was: We do not know. But if people from all ways of life persistently called John a prophet and remained loyal to him even when it was politically dangerous because of Herod the Tetrarch, then the odds are highly in favour of John that he was a genuine prophet and spoke with divine authority. The religious leaders remained passive or neutral and were even in denial that John speaks in the name of God despite the strong consensus among many good people.
As we begin this Simbang Gabi, the church invites us to be attentive to the truth about ourselves and our faith. Let us learn to accept the true realities especially the sinful conditions and messy situation we have made of our lives and the world. We cannot escape and forget the ugly realities of our lives even if we drown ourselves in celebration and partying. The Simbang Gabi is an opportunity for us to celebrate an authentic Christmas. Through the Simbang Gabi may we truly accept and experience God in the midst of the realities of our lives. Through the stories of the characters in the Simbang Gabi may we learn to discover our own story woven in the story of Jesus who became flesh and dwelt among us.