4th Simbang Gabi – December 19: The Annunciation of Samson and John the Baptist

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Welcome to the fourth Simbang Gabi, or as I have called it, Christmas academy. In this academy,  we are going back to the original Christmas story and discover the true meaning of Christmas. These nine days novena masses are also helping us deepen our understanding of the incarnation of Jesus, how God becoming flesh and dwelling among us can impact our lives.

The Christmas story is primarily the birth of our Lord God-became-human. The birth of Jesus is foreshadowed by many other birth stories. These birth stories depict the birth of a child, which in human condition, were impossible cases, but realized because of God’s grace and intervention. These birth stories are slowly building-up and anticipating the greatest birthday of all time: God-becoming-human.

The birth stories in today’s readings involve elderly women who had never borne a child, in short, barren or sterile. In a society where having children, especially boys, was a wife’s primary duty, to be unable to produce children was a terrible shame. It was the ultimate failure.

Through God’s grace, however, their barrenness were seen less as a curse than as a preparation for something special. What is special to these stories is that the child to be born will have a very special role bestowed upon them by God. It is like saying that God had played a role with the mother in the birth of this child. He was, in a way, God’s child.

Today we hear two annunciation birth stories–the birth story of Samson and John the Baptist. Both stories shows the mighty power and blessing of God which will become the source of strength for these two characters.

In the First Reading, we hear of the birth of Samson. Manoah his father came from Zorah, in the territory of Dan. (Dan was one of the twelve sons of Jacob.) The wife, whose name is not given, is sterile – the greatest curse a married woman could suffer in her society.

When the child is born, his mother names him Samson, a word which means ‘sun’ or ‘brightness’. This could be an expression of joy over the birth of an unexpected child or refer to a nearby town, Beth Shemesh, ‘house of the sun(-god)’.

Samson grew to become physically very strong but in other respects very weak, particularly where women were concerned. And it was a woman, the notorious Delilah, who would bring about his downfall.

Samson can be seen in a way as a symbol of his people. The misdeeds of the Israelites are often pictured by the prophets in the light of the foolish pursuit of foreign women, some of them of ill-repute, and falling victim to them. During the Judges’ period, the people constantly prostituted themselves in worshipping Canaanite gods.

The passage ends with the words: “The child grew and the Lord blessed him: and the Spirit of the Lord began to move him.” This final remark refers to his future feats of strength. Compare this with the words about Jesus after he had returned to Nazareth following his presentation in the Temple by Mary and Joseph: “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him” (Luke 2:52).

In the gospel, the angel Gabriel breaks the news to Zechariah about her wife bearing a child despite her barrenness and old age. Zechariah finds it unbelievable and he is afraid too, this may be because he doesn’t know how to break this news to his kinsfolk without being labeled as being out of his mind. But God spares Zechariah from this undue burden. He intervenes and does all the talking for him. Zechariah is rendered ‘speechless and unable to talk until the days these things take place,’ (v. 9).

In many ways, we can draw some parallels between our lives today and the lives of the mothers of Samson and John the Baptist. We experience a lot of barrenness on many levels in our lives. Many are considered as failures and cursed despite all their best efforts to make a living in society.  Many are losing faith and thinking that it is impossible to enjoy the prosperity that God has promised to all. Despite the progress our world has made there is a lot of fruitlessness and desolation in the lives of many of our people. Many who have worked hard have not reaped the true fruit of their labor.

We ask …

Why, despite all the hard and long work of ordinary labourers, they still do not have enough food to lay on the table, good education and health to provide to their children and  a bright future that they can leave to their children?

Why despite enormous wealth the world has produced, the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer? The global economy is growing but many people do not receive any benefit from it, worst, it has intensified their poverty.

Why despite all the efforts and advances in the past at empowering people, promoting democracy and tolerance, we allow authoritarian leaders to violate human rights and destroy life especially of the poor and vulnerable in society?

Why despite the advanced information technology which was originally envisioned to connect us, we have heightened divisiveness in society and narcissism among individuals?

Why despite the advancement in science and knowledge about nature, we are on the verge of catastrophic environmental destruction because of climate change?

We also ask the church: Why despite more than 500 years of Christianity in our country, the church has not become a credible witness and the faith has not become a great resource for social transformation as there is so much apathy and indifference of many Catholics to the many social ills in our country?

Why has it come to this? Perhaps, we have become proud and self-sufficient. We have become selfish and protective of our own kind. We have become individualist and more concerned about our own security and comforts. We have believed the lie that the powers-that-be has imposed upon us in order to maintain the status quo.

Ironically, yet auspiciously, it is in these desolate realities where God is sowing God’s seed and grace of God’s mission and dream for all of us. It is in these impossible cases that God is slowly birthing God’s people and kingdom just as God made possible the birth of Samson and John the Baptist despite their barren and sterile mothers. For God, our desolation and barrenness are less as a curse than as a preparation for something special.

But we gotta believe, trust and hope. We gotta have faith in seeing God working and walking with us in the barren areas of our lives. We need to go beyond and cease focusing on own enclosed security, comfort and agenda. We need to accept God’s invitation to transform us in God’s grace so we can be born again to become forerunners of Jesus.

Like Samson and John the Baptist, each of us has been called to be a forerunner of Jesus, to prepare the way for the growing and fulfillment of the mission of God’s kingdom that Jesus has inaugurated. We are forerunners of Jesus by the witness of our lives and courageous proclamation so that the gospel of Jesus can continue to transform other people’s lives, especially those who have not yet had the experience of knowing him.

The Christmas story continues … Abangan ang susunod na kabanata, bukas! (watch out for the next chapter tomorrow). The stage is set for the next, and most important annunciation, the annunciation of Mary.

We will hear about this tomorrow.

 

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.

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2ND SUNDAY OF ADVENT: JOHN THE BAPTIST, THE GRINCH AND SCROOGE

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Showing in theaters worldwide since last week is The Grinch. The Grinch, based on Dr. Seuss’ holiday classic tells the story of a cynical grump who goes on a mission to steal Christmas.  He especially hates the Christmas season, making particular note of how disturbing the various noises of Christmastime are to him, including the singing of Christmas carols.

Similar to the Grinch is another popular anti-Christmas figure named Scrooge from Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol. Scrooge is a cold-hearted miser who despises Christmas. Scrooge was also turned into a popular movie shown on Christmas several years ago. 

Ironically, despite their hatred of the season, Grinch and Scrooge give an important lesson for Christmas. The story of Grinch and Scrooge is about transformation. We love to see the spirit of Christmas bring out the best in people. One of the essential lessons of Christmas, indeed, is personal transformation.

The story of Grinch and Scrooge also try to show us a different side of Christmas beyond the predominantly commercial and materialistic celebration of the season. There is more to Christmas than all the gifts, material things, merry-making and shopping. Unfortunately, commercial and business establishment, have used these two characters by highlighting their grumpiness and greediness as the opposite of the spirit of the season which is supposedly generosity and gift-giving. Deriding the character of the Grinch and Scrooge, is indeed good for business, as it justifies the mad frenzy of shopping and accumulating material things in the guise of generosity and gift giving.

Interestingly, the Grinch and Scrooge, resemble some similarities to John the Baptist, the main character of the gospel in today’s second Sunday of Advent. Luke in the gospel today, presents John the Baptist as a kind of anti-establishment figure but showed the people the true way of preparing for the coming of the messiah. 

First, Luke, at the beginning of the gospel, gives a list of the powerful people in the world at that time:  

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, 
when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, 
and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee,
and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region
of Ituraea and Trachonitis, 
and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, 
during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, 
the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.

Luke’s enumeration of the famous figures during the time near the birth of Jesus was not just to serve a historical function but to employ sarcasm against these political figures. With so many powerful people around, we wonder why God chose John the Baptist, an eccentric and lowly person, to proclaim the coming of the Messiah. Indeed, God, as Mary proclaimed in the Magnificat, “has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the humble.”

Secondly,  Luke locates John’s preaching to the people, not in the center, that is, the temple in Jerusalem, but in the wilderness or the desert. Despite John proclaiming in the desert, which is an inconvenience to many people especially the rich and powerful, the people went into the desert. It was not John who went to Jerusalem, but it was the people who went to the desert to hear John. In the Bible, God leads people into the isolation and barrenness of the wilderness or desert in order to effect transformation.

Thirdly, John’s lifestyle represents a counter-symbol to his contemporaries. Jesus once said: “John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He has a demon” (Mt. 11:18). He was arrayed in a “camel’s hair” garment, secured by a leather belt, and his diet was locusts and wild honey (Mt. 3:4). His dietary fare was that generally consumed by the poorer elements of society. He stood in bold relief to the wealthy, indulgent Jews of his day. 

Finally, John the Baptist way in preparing the way for the coming of the Messiah is not through external force but internal transformation:

“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
Every valley shall be filled
and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The winding roads shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

He preached a “baptism of repentance,” a cleansing from the old ways of “greed and darkness” and a commitment to a new way of living. 

Following the cue of John the Baptist, the church has set aside Advent as a privileged moment of retreat, a kind of going into the desert, in preparation for Jesus birth.  Advent is a quiet time of joyful anticipation which stands in great contrast with our culture’s turbulent consumer-bonanza during Christmas season.

Advent as a time of joyful anticipation is reflected in the other readings today. The prophet Baruch, in the first reading, says, “take off your robe of mourning and misery,” for God is leading his people “with his mercy and justice for company.” God’s people “are wrapped in the cloak of justice from God,” and they “will be named by God forever the peace of justice.”

St. Paul, too, in the second reading, speaks of joyful anticipation, of waiting for “the day of Christ Jesus.” He encourages the Philippians to grow in “love, understanding, wealth of experience, clear conscience, and blameless conduct,” and he concludes with a wish: “that you may be found rich in the harvest of justice which Jesus Christ has ripened in you.”

Grinch and Scrooge like John the Baptist point to personal transformation as one of the essential challenges of the Christmas story. But Grinch and Scrooge missed out the elephant in the room while John the Baptist did not. Christmas is more than just sharing and giving of gifts to each other. Christmas is celebrating and receiving the greatest gift of all. John the Baptist showed us that Christmas, most important of all, is the joyful preparation and anticipation of the coming of Jesus in our lives which calls for all of us a baptism of repentance.