29 December 2007

Homily - Christmas 2006


Christmas is the time of year when the Church becomes a story-teller.
Like Lola Basyang. Or J.K. Rowling. Or Tolkien. Or C.S. Lewis.
Before we had doctrines and dogmas, pastoral letters and political interventions,
before all these – and at the very core of our faith – we have stories.

We hear the story of a father whose compassion and fidelity provided for and protected his family. Like many fathers that we know.

We hear the story of a young girl, of great strength and even greater faith, who became a mother and sacrificed so much for the sake of her Son. Like many girls and mothers that we know.

We hear the story of a baby, who people would say, had so much promise in him for the future. And we remember how we, too, in our youth, possessed so much promise for the future.
And some of us would ask what has happened to that promise.

Such is the Christmas story. And why has it remained ever so popular
even after so many centuries? Of the many reasons I would like to propose three:

First, because it recounts the story of our faith.

Second, because it is also the story of each one of us.
Joseph, Mary and Jesus went through trials and difficulties.
We, too are going through trials and difficulties.
And as they went trough their hardships with love and strength and promise,
we too are being reminded that by the grace of God we can overcome whatever hardship or suffering we may be facing right now.

Third, because Christmas brings us Joy and Hope.
Joy. Pope Benedict XVI recently said: “The true gift of Christmas is joy!”

Let me tell you a story of joy… In the darkest days of the First World War,
in the Western Front, the British and the French soldiers were entrenched on one side
and the Germans were on the other side. It was Christmas Eve and the weary soldiers thought they had enough of war and violence. They decided to hold a ceasefire.

The leaders of the French, British and German forces met in the center of the battlefield
– while around them the bodies of the dead lay lying under cover of snow –
and agreed upon their improvised rules for their improvised peace. Spontaneously,
the soldiers from different camps started chanting: “No more war! No more war!”.

It was Christmas, and after so many months of fighting, they felt a sudden rush of relief and joy!
They laid down their arms, sang Christmas carols, exchanged gifts, and played football.

This scene is turned into a film titled “Joyeux Noel”, because it was made in France.
It has been released here in the Philippines just recently with the title, “Merry Christmas”.
But they sanitized and romanticized the story in the film for reasons that are political and commercial. Anyway, the scattered acts of friendship went on for several months till Easter.
The superiors from the different sides didn’t like it. And the war still raged long after those incidents. But the memory of those brief breaks of joy was enough for the many survivors
who were there to overcome the horrors of war and made their healing faster.

Friends, Christmas is a natural magnet and time of joy. That is why, we reserve this time to enjoy family reunions, when friends and even former classmates gather together, for they are truly occasions of joy and celebration. But of course, we all know that.
What many of us seem to be forgetting though is how simple it is for joy to be acquired.
The Christmas bonus and the 13th month pay, and the preparations, are still important,
but the simple gifts and those small gatherings of family and friends
could bring as much if not more of this joy to us. Children know this naturally.

Though there is one creeping tradition though that I don’t like.
It is when people say “Ang Pasko ay para sa mga bata”. And they stop at that.
As if saying that would make us feel more adult, more responsible, more in control, more happy.
The joy of Christmas is for everybody, even and especially for parents and heads of household who have to make ends meet all year round and especially during Christmas.
After all, the Christmas carols would sing that Christmas is offered to kids from 1 to 92, Christmas is for children, young and old.

Hope. The other thing that Christmas brings is hope.

Another creeping tradition is when every time Christmas comes we would hear people say
that life is hard. While it is true, it gets highlighted greatly at Christmas. Dipisil an buhay.
The Apo Hiking Society would sing:

“Meron pa kayang caroling at noche buena
kung tayo naman ay kapos at wala nang pera,
baka sa gipit happy new year mapopostpone
at ang hamon ay mauuwi sa bagoong.”

Ano man ngaya kun bagoong, balaw?
Christmas should not make us cynical or despairing, it should bring us hope.

Let me tell you another story, this time a story of hope.
If we say that this year life is hard, last year it was even harder, especially for the 3 provinces that were ravaged by a disaster that was ostensibly ecological but mostly man-made in nature.
I’m speaking of the provinces of Quezon, Aurora and parts of Nueva Ecija.
They experienced a series of typhoons and heavy flooding last year.
It resulted to so much damage to property and so much loss of lives.

Immediately after the floods subside they took to the task of rebuilding and rehabilitation.
With shovels, pickaxe, saws and other tools they did as much as they could
to clear the mud and debris that covered their streets and lodged in their homes and buildings.
In many places the mud and debris were several meters deep.

Many people were saying: May saysay pa ba ang magdiwang ng Pasko sa gitna ng trahedya? May saysay pa ba ang magsaya at magdiwang kung naaalala pa rin palagi ang maraming mga namatay na kapamilya’t kaibigan? The bishop and the parish priest thought
they should push through with the celebrations, at least in the Church and in the liturgy.

And since Simbang Gabi then was fast approaching, the people decided to give priority
to clearing the Church. The church in our story is the Cathedral of Infanta.
While the volunteers were busy with their shovels and other tools, a group of young people decided to make a belen. It was like most traditional Filipino belen you would expect,
except for one difference. St. Joseph, instead of the staff he would usually be holding,
in their belen, he was holding a shovel, pala, the tool most used in their task of rebuilding.

And many people who came to Church for the Simbang Gabi and the Christmas Masses
could not help it but look into the direction of the belen and St. Joseph’s shovel,
and find in it their sign of hope.

What did they see? This is what they saw: Like us, the Holy Family lives in a makeshift home, not even their own. The baby Jesus was born in poverty and difficulty, like us.
And so they understood, in their hearts, they understood that that is what is meant by Emmanuel, “God with us”, God sharing not just our human condition
but the condition of those who are most poor and most helpless.
For many parishioners, that belen and St. Joseph’s shovel was their symbol of hope.
Their hope that was anchored in the God who does not promise to end all our sufferings
should we embrace him in faith, or to put an end to all the consequences of our sinful actions
or of the sinful actions of others. Rather their hope was in the God of Christmas,
the God who is with us and remains with us through it all.

Friends, as we go through our Christmas celebrations these days,
let us take to heart those simple, even corny, Christmas traditions and celebration in our family. For, when the time comes, and these will happen to all of us, eventually,
when we feel down and helpless, when we think that life is bitter
and the end to our troubles lies far away, the memories of those simple Christmas joys
will serve as very concrete sources of strength and hope.
Those memories will make us survive whatever troubles we have gotten ourselves into.
Those memories will make us go back to our family and to our God
and find once more our source of strength and consolation.

The gift of Christmas is the Word of the Father, our Savior Jesus Christ,
whose birth brings joy to the world and hope for his People.

Merry Christmas to all of you. And God bless us everyone!

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