31 December 2009

Mary and the New Year

Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God (C)

Readings: Nm 6:22-27; Ps 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8; Gal 4:4-7; Lk 2:16-21

Today we celebrate Mary as Mother of God.

This feast is already celebrated in Rome on January 1 even before the 7th century. However, for much of the Universal Church and for centuries, the date of this feast falls on October 11. January 1, the Octave (8th day) of Christmas, was the celebration of the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, since traditionally Jewish children are circumcised on the 8th day of their birth. The circumcision of Mary’s Child is also the occasion when He is formally given the name Jesus.

In 1974, following the reforms of Vatican II, Pope Paul VI replaced the Feast of the Circumcision with the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. The title Mother of God is the highest honor given to Mary. It is a rough translation of the Greek “Theotokos”, which literally means “God bearer”.

Theotokos is how the Council of Ephesus (431 AD) describes Mary, a logical conclusion to the doctrine of faith that Christ is fully human and fully divine. If Jesus Christ is God then Mary is the Mother of God.

There is also something to be said about celebrating Mary in her highest title at the start of the civil year.

1. Mary as Mother of God is spiritual Mother to us all.

In the novel “The Secret Life of Bees” by Sue Monk Kidd, one of the main characters, August Boatwright, narrates the story of Our Lady of Chains, and the extraordinary devotion to her among the slaves of South Carolina and their descendants:

"Back in the time of slaves, when the people were beaten down and kept like property, they prayed every day and every night for deliverance. On the islands near Charleston, they would go to the praise house and sing and pray, and every single time someone would ask the Lord to send them rescue. To send them consolation. To send them freedom.

One day, a slave named Obadiah was loading bricks onto a boat that would sail down the Aisley River, when he saw something washed up on the bank. Coming closer, he saw it was the wooden figure of a woman. Her body was growing out of a block of wood, a black woman with her arm lifted out and her fist balled up.

Obadiah pulled the figure out of the water, and struggled to set her upright. Then he remembered how they’d asked the Lord to send them rescue. To send them consolation. To send them freedom. Obadiah knew the Lord had sent this figure, but he didn’t knew who she was.

He knelt down in the marsh mud before her and heard her voice speak plain as day in her heart. She said, ‘It’s all right. I’m here. I’ll be taking care of you know.’

Obadiah tried to pick up the waterlogged woman who God sent to take care of them, but she was too heavy, so he went and got two more slaves, and between them they carried her to the praise house and set her on the hearth.

By the time the next Sunday came, everyone had heard about the statue washing up from the river, how it had spoken to Obadiah. The praise house was filled with people spilling out the door and sitting on the window ledges. Obadiah told them he knew the Lord God had sent her, but he didn’t know who she was."

The storytelling is punctuated with almost everybody in the room chanting over and over: "Not one of them knew".

"Now the oldest of the slaves was a woman named Pearl. She walked with a stick, and when she spoke, everyone listened. She got to her feet and said, ‘This here is the mother of Jesus’.

Everyone knew the mother of Jesus was named Mary, and that she’d seen suffering of every kind. That she was strong and constant and had a mother’s heart. And here she was, sent to them on the same waters that had brought them here in chains. It seemed to them she knew everything they suffered.

And so the people cried and danced and clapped their hands. They went one a time and their hands to her chest, wanting to grab on to the solace in her heart.

They did this every Sunday in the praise house, dancing and touching her chest, and eventually they painted a red heart on her breast so the people would have a heart to touch.

Our Lady filled their hearts with fearlessness and whispered to them plans of escape. The bold ones fled, finding their way north, and those who didn’t lived with a raised fist in their hearts. And if ever it grew weak, they would only have to touch her heart again.

She grew so powerful she became known even to the master. One day he hauled her off on a wagon and chained her in the carriage house. But then, without any human help, she escaped during the night and made her way back to the praise house. The master chained her in the barn fifty times, and fifty times she loosed the chains and went home. Finally he gave up and let her stay there.

The people called her Our Lady of Chains. They called her that not because she wore chains…"

The people in the room chanted: "Not because she wore chains..."

"They called her Our Lady of Chains because she broke them."

The image of Mary as mother evokes blissful feelings generated by memories of the goodness and generosity of mothers everywhere, multiplied a thousand times and more, for after all she is the Mother of God.

Because she is the Mother of God, she plays a part in our redemption. Because she is the Mother of God, she becomes a sacrament of grace. Because she is the Mother of God, she is mother to us all and companion in the way, especially in the darkest parts of the journey.

2. Mary reminds us that we too carry Christ in us.

Mary carried Jesus in her womb for nine months. She also kept in her heart all the things that were happening around her Son. She was Theotokos in so many senses of the word.

Her feast now reminds us that we too carry Christ in us. Gal 4,6 (in the Second reading) says: “As proof that you are children, God sent the spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!’”

The shepherds, the wise men and all who came to gaze upon the baby Jesus, left carrying with them not just a memory to keep but a good news and spirit to share. Christ’s spirit is in us, and like Mary, the shepherds and the wise men, we are tasked to share Him with others as well.

As we begin this new year, let us renew our commitment to grow closer to Jesus and share His presence and good news to others. May we be less cynical and more at peace, less angry and more forgiving, less self-absorbed and more passionate at helping others.

The popular Christmas carol goes: “Bagong taon ay magbagong buhay nang lumigaya ang ating bayan. Tayo’y magsikap upang makamtan natin ang kasaganahan!”

As we go about this task, our celebration of Mary as Mother of God on this very first day of the year, assures us of her maternal and constant protection and guide.

A blessed New Year to all!

27 December 2009

What makes a family holy?

Feast of the Holy Family (C) – 27 December 2009

Readings: 1Sm 1:20-22, 24-28; Ps 84:2-3, 5-6, 9-10; 1 Jn 3:1-2, 21-24; Lk 2:41-52

The Sunday right after Christmas Day is celebrated as Holy Family Sunday. Today we honor the family formed by the birth of Christ, the “earthly trinity”: the family of Joseph, Mary and Jesus.

Here's an aside: as a child I had mixed feelings about the Feast of the Holy Family. Because when we get home we are sure to get a second sermon from our father on why and how we should be better children.

Since today we also remember our own family, the question almost begs to be asked: “What makes a family holy?”

The Gospel today narrates the presentation of Jesus in the temple, and their losing him in the crowd, and eventually finding him (after three days!) in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers and conversing with them. This story, apart from prophesying Jesus’ future ministry, also has a message to tell both parents and children.

1. The parents of Jesus brought him to the temple.

As devout Jews, Joseph and Mary made annual visits to the temple at Jerusalem during Passover. On this annual pilgrimage, they usually brought along their son Jesus from the time they formally presented him to God. The presentation of a newborn son 40 days after his birth is a way of acknowledging that he is God’s gift to them. Conversely, every time the parents brought along their son to the temple -- the place considered by the Jews as the symbol of God’s presence in their midst -- God was also introduced to the child.

Aside from providing for the welfare of their children, it is the responsibility of Christian couples to introduce God to their children by having them baptized, bringing them along to the church, teaching them our prayers and traditions, and witnessing to them what it means to live as Christians, in words and, especially, in deeds.

2. Jesus went with his parents home to Nazareth, and was obedient to them.

Sir 3:3-5 says: “The LORD sets a father in honor over his children; a mother's authority he confirms over her sons. He who honors his father atones for sins; he stores up riches who reveres his mother.”

Children have an obligation to obey their parents, especially when they are young and much in need of guidance. This, of course, also means that parents have the primary duty to be selflessly loving and concerned about their children. Consequently, when the children get older, they will then have the obligation to take care of their parents, at the very least, out of gratitude for the many sacrifices done for their sake by their parents.

Sir 3:12-16 says: “My son, take care of your father when he is old; grieve him not as long as he lives. Even if his mind fail, be considerate with him; revile him not in the fullness of your strength. For kindness to a father will not be forgotten, it will serve as a sin offering – it will take lasting root. In time of tribulation it will be recalled to your advantage, like warmth upon frost it will melt away your sins. A blasphemer is he who despises his father; accursed of his Creator, he who angers his mother.”

3. A Christmas story…

There was an old widow who has three grown-up sons. All of them were successful in life and loved their mother very much. But their jobs, businesses and many other concerns keep them from being with her as much as they should.

Now Christmas was the time when they would really find ways to be with their mother for a family reunion, together with their wife and children. However, this Christmas they were so busy that not one of them could come home for Christmas. So each of them just decided to gift their mother as lavishly as he could.

The eldest son gave her a new house and lot; the middle son, an expensive new car; and the youngest, a beautiful talking bird to keep her entertained.

The mother was naturally disappointed by the turn of events but still graciously accepted their gifts. However, she has something to say about each of their gifts.

To the eldest she said: “My son, I am old and happy with our old house. Besides I know all our neighbors, and they check on me and occasionally keep me company. So thank you but I cannot simply leave our house and our neighbors.”

To the middle son she said: “My son, I am old and the only places I frequent these days are the church and my doctor's clinicl, which are just nearby. So thank you but I don’t have any need for a new car.”

To the youngest she said: “My son, of all the gifts I received this Christmas yours was the one I like best. The bird you gave me was wonderful… The maid cooked it for noche buena, and it was delicious.”

Brothers and sisters, what makes a family holy?

It is the realization that every family member is a gift from God. Thus, life within the family should be more about caring for each other and building-up each other, and less about getting what each one wants over the others.

To those who have difficult family members or who happen to have a dysfunctional family, remember: You may not be able to choose your family, but you can choose what kind of family member you want to become.

To those gifted with a close-knit loving family, thank God and love each other even more. And remember: Charity begins at home, it means it should not end there.

Even as we pray for own families, let us remember the many families affected by Mayon's eruption and are now huddled in cramped evacuation centers. Let us think of ways on how we can be of greater help to them. Those of us who can may even choose to adopt an evacuee family and welcome them into their homes.

During Christian funerals, when we gather to pray for a loved one who passed away. The liturgy asks us to pray for the deceased family member as our brother or sister, no matter how he or she was related to us. In a way this is to remind us that indeed we only have one Father in heaven and we are all his children.

1 Jn 3, the Second Reading, tells us: “Beloved we are God’s children now… We have confidence in God and receive from him whatever we ask, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And His commandment is this: we should believe in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another just as He commanded us.”

This is what makes families holy.

The Gift of Christmas

Christmas Day (C) – 25 December 2009

Readings: Is 52:7-10; Ps 98:1, 2-3, 3-4, 5-6; Heb 1:1-6; Jn 1:1-18 or 1:1-5, 9-14

After four weeks of advent, nine days of Misa de Aguinaldo, and last night’s noche Buena, Christmas is finally here, the most awaited time of the year.

The word Christmas originated as a compound meaning "Christ's Mass". It is derived from the Middle English Christemasse and Old English Cristes mæsse, a phrase first recorded in 1038. Its very etymology reveals the two most important elements of the celebration: “Christ” and attending “Mass”.

There are actually four sets of Masses for the Solemnity of the Lord’s Birth. The Vigil Mass & Midnight Mass on December 24, and the early Morning Mass and Mass during the Day on December 25. In the other three Masses, the Gospel passages are narratives centered on the birth of Jesus. However, for our Mass today, instead of a story, we get a theological assertion:

“In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God…” (Jn 1:1)

What is a word? A word is a jumble of meaningful letters, a symbolic representation of an idea. But this is no ordinary word we are talking about for it represents the very idea and essence of God. This Word creates, reveals, speaks through the prophets, becomes flesh, teaches, heals, forgives, calls to discipleship, sends to mission, suffers, dies and rises to new life.

Jesus as Word is the human symbol of the Father. The Preface for Christmas in the liturgy says:

“In Him we see our God made visible
and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see.”

It is no wonder then that our Christmas celebration abounds with symbols: the nativity scene, Christmas tree, Santa Claus, parol, Simbang Gabi, and many other traditions that vary from country to country. All of them, even the most mundane and materialistic, signify in varying degrees the presence of God in the world. For such is the power of the Christ: he can turn even our imperfect thoughts and impure motivations into vehicles of the Good News.

1. Christ’s presence brings joy.

A couple of nights ago, police officers in Santa caps came to the evacuation centers and entertained the people there with song and dance numbers. There were also those who went to these centers bearing gifts and cheer. The local governments also went out of their way to help the evacuees celebrate noche buena.

This is the joy of Christmas, not a joy founded on the absence of loneliness, poverty, or fear – but one that is given us by God precisely because there is loneliness, poverty and fear. Jn 1: 5 says Jesus is “the light (that) shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”.

Remember: the first Christmas was fraught with difficulties – Joseph and his pregnant wife were forced to go on a long journey, there was no room at the inn, they have to make do with a manger. But when Christ was born, an infectious joy spread in the heavens and on earth. Glad tidings were brought to the shepherds. The angels sang “Glory to God in the highest and peace to His people on earth!”

2. Christ’s presence brings transformation.

First a story… In 1914, during 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, a Christmas truce.

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, buried their fallen comrades, then sang Christmas carols, exchanged gifts, and played football.

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.

Christ’s presence this season transforms even the most jaded and bitter experience into a moment of triumph, a graced time to learn lessons in life.

The spiritual preparations of Advent and the Misas de Aguinaldo aim to transform us into a people ready and waiting for Christ’s coming. The call to repentance, the experience of light amidst darkness, the spirit of kindness and generosity all around – all of these seek to move us into becoming better Christians. The Tagalog carol says it for us: “…at magmula ngayon, kahit hindi Pasko ay magbigayan.”

3. A Christmas Prayer

To sum up our reflection, I would like to share this prayer written by Robert Louis Stevenson:

“Loving Father,
help us remember the birth of Jesus,
that we may share in the song of angels,
the gladness of the shepherds,
and the worship of the wise men.
Close the door of hate
and open the door of love all over the world.
Let kindness come with every gift
and good desires with every greeting.

Deliver us from evil
by the blessing which Christ brings,
and teach us to be merry with clean hearts.
May the Christmas morning
make us happy to be Thy children,
and the Christmas evening
bring us to our beds with grateful thoughts,
forgiving and forgiven, for Jesus' sake, Amen!"

23 December 2009

Advent and the Little Things

Fourth Sunday of Advent (C) – 20 December 2009

Readings: Mi 5:1-4a; Ps 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19; Heb 10:5-10; Lk 1:39-45

The Gospel passage this last Sunday of Advent is the familiar story of the Virgin Mary’s visitation of her cousin Elizabeth to help during the latter’s pregnancy. Elizabeth called Mary “blessed among women”. There is something more about these small acts of kindness and gestures of affection between these two little women.

Little and insignificant is also how Bethlehem of Ephrathah is described in the First Reading from the Book of Micah. Yet from this place, the awaited Savior will come.

In the Second Reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, the grand sacrifices and sin offerings of Israel were described as not much delightful to God as the singular obedience of Christ, the once-for-all offering that consecrates us.

The readings this Sunday present to us the God of small things, one who turns our smallish human efforts into things big and monumental. Let me tell you three stories:

1. Glenn and Baby

Last Friday, I was privileged to concelebrate in a wedding of two friends, Glenn and Baby Palma-Miranda. In my homily, I explained that fidelity in marriage is not so much measured by the length of years spent together, as it is defined by the everyday instances of kindness, the daily gestures of affection, and the small acts of self-sacrifice the couple does for each other and their children. When these happen, the days turn into weeks, the weeks to months, the months to years, and then they will realize they have been sharing a lifetime of fidelity.

Little did I know how much fidelity has figured in this couple’s relationship. As the bride thanked everyone during the reception, she mentioned that in their 10 years (12 if you include the period of courtship) of being in a relationship, they also had their ups and downs, but that there was never any doubt in her heart that her groom was faithful to her.

She added that he was the one who prepared practically everything in their wedding. Since she was new at her job and still adjusting, he told her he didn’t want her to be further stressed out and anxious about the wedding. So he did most of the preparation and coordination himself. As I was listening to their story, I knew they were off to a good start.

Love and fidelity in marriage are made out of the little things couples do for each other.

2. The Roseto Mystery

In his book “Outliers: The Story of Success”, Malcolm Gladwell introduced the concept of an “outlier”, i.e., something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body, by telling the story of the town of Roseto in Pennsylvania, USA.

Roseto is populated by Italian immigrants and their families, most of them came from the province of Foggia in Italy in a village called Roseto (they named the town after their village in the old world).

Here is what makes Roseto extraordinary. In 1961, a medical study was made on its residents. The results were astonishing. Virtually no one under 55 had died of a heart attack or showed any signs of heart disease. For men over 65, the death rate from heart disease was roughly half that of the US as a whole. The death rate from all causes, in fact, was 30-35% lower than expected. There was no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction, and very little crime. They didn’t have any case of peptic ulcers either. In short, people were extraordinarily healthy and dying practically of old age.

There were several hypotheses as to how these came about. Maybe it was their diet and exercise. Then the researchers found out they were eating high fat, high cholesterol food on a regular basis. This was also not a town where people wake up early to jog or do yoga. The Rosetans were heavy smokers and many were struggling with obesity.

Next, they considered genetics. So they tracked down relatives of the Rosetans who were living in other parts of the US to see if they shared the same remarkable good health as their relatives in Pennsylvania. They didn’t.

They also looked at the region were the town is situated. However, a study of the medical records of the two towns closest to Roseto, and with roughly the same size, produced this result: for men over 65, the death rates from heart disease were three times that of Roseto.

So, it was not the diet, or exercise, or genetics, or location. A closer look at the town made them understand the phenomenon.

The Rosetans are friendly and warm to each other – visiting one another, stopping to chat on the streets, inviting each other over backyard dinners. Many homes have three generations living under one roof. Meals were eaten together. Grandparents command respect. Extended family clans underlay the town’s social structure. The researchers also acknowledge the “unifying and calming effect” of their parish church. The Rosetans have created a powerful protective social structure based on traditional values they have carried over from their old country.

The little things they do that define the good relationships they have with each other make them live healthier and happier lives – and turned them into a medical phenomenon.

3. Mayon Volcano Eruption

As Mayon Volcano started showing signs of erupting, the provincial government responded with a big goal in mind: zero casualty and no-rescue scenario. The success of this goal depends largely on the many contributions of various groups: the timely response of the PNP and AFP personnel, the careful planning of the various disaster coordinating councils (PDCC, CDCC, MDCC, etc.), the cooperation of barangay officials and residents of affected communities, the readiness of the schools turned evacuation centers, the prompt and regular provision of the evacuees’ basic needs by social welfare personnel, even those who decide to spend their Christmas parties cheering up and giving gifts to the evacuees.

Our cooperation and the many small ways by which we support those affected by the current eruption will enable us once more not only to cope with this calamity but to triumph over it. Not because we are stronger than the volcano, but because we know that our concerted efforts, strengthened by God’s grace, will make us overcome any adversity and enable us to accomplish our goals.

Our God is the God of little things. Mary said yes to the Lord. Joseph overcame his prejudices to accept Mary and the child in her womb. Zechariah and Elizabeth trusted in God. John witnessed to the Messiah since he first leaped in his mother’s womb upon hearing Mary’s greeting.

Then as now, God have been involving men and women, and using our little contributions, in order to bring salvation to all.

How have you cooperated with God lately?

The Joy of Advent

Third Sunday of Advent (C) – 13 December 2009

Readings: Zep 3:14-18a; Is 12:2-3, 4, 5-6; Phil 4:4-7; Lk 3:10-18

The Third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete means “rejoice”. It comes from the Latin verb “gaudere”, “to rejoice”. Gaudete is in the imperative mood, which means that it is not a simple statement of fact but a command – rejoice!

In Phil 4:4 (in the Second Reading), St. Paul tells his audience: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!”

Now we ask: What if I have just lost my job or failed in my business, do I have reason to rejoice? What if I have lost a loved one, or my spouse left me, or my beloved rejected me, do I have cause for rejoicing? What if I were seriously ill or some misfortune fell on me, should I just grin and bear it?

St. Paul and our particular celebration this Sunday do not teach us to resort to denial or to a form of spiritual escapism. Rather, the readings this Sunday tell us that Christian joy is in the heart. And it is not incompatible with physical and emotional pain or difficult situations. The problem is when we have become so fixated with our troubles that we forget or fail to sense the general positivity of life. Or if we identify our happiness with people or things we don’t have and most likely can’t have.

Where then can we find true joy?

1. There is joy in right living, or living righteously.

(Ever notice how people tend to avoid using the word “righteously”? Maybe for fear of being judged to be self-righteous. There is a clear but often overlooked distinction, but that is for another day.)

In the Gospel passage, John was asked by three different sets of people (the crowd, the tax collectors, the soldiers), the same question: “What should we do?” While his general message was a call for radical change and repentance, his answers to the question were not so much extraordinary as sensible.

Share whatever extra you have to one who needs it most. Do not cheat and steal. Do not use power or violence to have your way.

The unsaid message is: do what is right and just in the eyes of God and you will have His peace. Remember Zacchaeus and how his repentance prompted Jesus to say: “"Today salvation has come to this house” (Lk 19:9).

Even worldly happiness is founded on doing the right things and being consistent with them. A local taipan once said in an interview: “He who does not have discipline, do not deserve to dream.”

2. There is joy in knowing the Lord.

Most, if not all, of us are familiar with these lines from a Christmas song:

Whenever I see girls and boys
selling lanterns on the street,
I remember the child
in the manger as he sleeps.
Wherever there are people
giving gifts, exchanging cards,
I believe that Christmas
is truly in their hearts.

Let's light our Christmas trees
for a bright tomorrow
where nations are at peace,
and all are one in God.

In these popular lines, Jose Mari Chan sings of how the many scenes of Filipino Christmas lead him to the presence of God – which is the point of celebrating Christmas. Christ is with us. He has made his presence known. And so we rejoice at this great and singular grace.

There is joy in knowing the Lord. And when we worship and adore God, we become like the God we worship and adore.

On a similar vein, this is also how we may describe our joy at the Installation a few days ago of our new Bishop of Legazpi, Most Rev. Joel Z. Baylon. It was not only an expression of how we feel at finally having a new bishop, it was also a reflection of our optimism and high hopes for the kind of Church we wish to become. We become the kind of Church we dream about and get involved with.

The more we get to know our God and get closer to Him, the more God configures us to Himself and makes our heart like His own. Thus even our following His ways becomes not a burden to follow, exacted by a God who demands, but a labor of love, a happy thing to do.

A blessed cycle emerges from this realization: We get to know God. We live righteously. We find joy in it. The cycle goes on and on.

In every prayer and every song
the community unites,
celebrating the birth
of our savior Jesus Christ.
Let love like that starlight
on that first Christmas morn
lead us back to the manger
where Christ the child was born

So come let us REJOICE…
come and sing a Christmas carol,
with one big joyful voice,
proclaim the name of the Lord!

06 December 2009

Advent and Repentance

Second Sunday of Advent (C) – 6 December 2009

Readings: Bar 5:1-9; Ps 126:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6; Phil 1:4-6, 8-11; Lk 3:1-6

In the Gospel this Sunday, Luke presents to us John and his message of preparing the way of the Lord. How do we prepare the way of the Lord? The Gospel says John preached a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk 3,3).

Repentance is the great call of Advent.

1. Repentance means coming home to the Father.

In the Old Testament, the concept of repentance is represented by two Hebrew verbs: shuv (to return) and nicham (to feel sorrow). In the New Testament, Jesus taught about repentance in the parable of the prodigal son. The highlight of the story is when the wayward son, felt sorrow for his sins, owned up to his mistakes, and returned home to his waiting father.

The logic of repentance and forgiveness is not “repent and be forgiven” but rather “you are forgiven, and therefore now free to repent”.*

So, if you’re looking for gifts to give this Christmas, why not decide first on the best gift for yourself this Advent: the Father’s gift of the sacrament of reconciliation. Come home this Christmas.

2. Repentance means leaving sin behind.

Prov 28,13 says: “He who conceals his sins prospers not, but he who confesses and forsakes them obtains mercy.” There is a rather earthy instruction on this text from the Talmud: “He that confesses his sin and still clings to it is likened to a man that holds in his hand a defiling object; though he bathes in all the waters of the world he is not cleansed; but the moment he casts the defiling object from him a single bath will cleanse him.”

During a recent debate of presidentiables on TV, a young man asked the candidates: “What vice or luxury could you not live without?” (or words to that effect). On a similar vein, let us ask ourselves: “Are there sins that I find difficult to leave behind?” Think about some sins which tend to be a regular fixture in your confessions, and reflect whether you are making enough effort to resist them.

In the story of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus told the woman: "Neither do I condemn you. Now go, and sin no more" (John 8,11). When we repent, we have to strive to leave behind our sins totally, so we can embrace grace fully.

3. Repentance means having a change of heart.

The translation of repentance in New Testament Greek is metanoia , i.e., an afterthought, a change of mind and heart. It means acquiring a new way of seeing, a new way of being.

At the start of the Gospel passage this Sunday, we are presented with a gallery of the most powerful men of the time: Tiberius Caesar and Pontius Pilate; the tetrarchs Herod, Philip and Lysanias; the high priests Annas & Caiaphas. Then Luke presents to us the prophet John, the “voice crying in the wilderness”, a rather unlikely figure of power.

Commentators say the contrast was intended as a lesson on the pettiness of what many of us regard as great and powerful, compared to the cosmic significance of John’s message of salvation. A change of perspective is required to fully understand the Good News.

Repentance leads us to appreciate the things that really matter, to recognize and set our true priorities, and to discover and take new and better paths in our journey through life.

4. A Prophet in our midst today

I would like to conclude this reflection by pointing out one modern-day John the Baptist. He may not be preaching directly a baptism of repentance, but he does preach about the good news of education for all and the greatness of the human spirit. I am referring to Efren G. Peñaflorida Jr., a 27 year-old teacher from Cavite, who was recently named "CNN Hero of the Year" in 2009 for his outstanding advocacy to educate Filipino out-of-school youth through "pushcart classes".

Efren grew up in an urban slum near an open dump site in Cavite City. As a child, he was shy and introverted, and would fall victim to bullying at school and in the neighborhood. As a young teen, he thought of joining a gang for protection, but eventually realized that was not the life for him. He founded the Dynamic Teen Company (DTC) at the age of 16, together with his high school classmates and friends. Their aim was to divert students’ attention away from street gangs, and towards community service and personal development. Among the brilliant ideas they came up with was the classroom-canteen-clinic-rolled-into-one kariton.

CNN's recognition came with a cash prize of $125,000. Efren gave 90% of it to the DTC, the 10% he donated to the church, leaving nothing for himself. With the media exposure, their good works are now inspiring people from all walks of life and all over the world to triumph over adversities, change for the better and make a difference to others, especially those in need.

When asked to comment about his recent success, he replied: “I just represent all the selfless and hardworking Filipinos”. Here is one who knows how to prepare the way of the Lord.

For Efren and the DTC, for the children they are helping, for those who support them, and for all of you who wish to celebrate a meaningful Advent, I would like to offer St. Paul's prayer in Phil 1,9-10 (in the Second Reading):

“May your love increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.”

*from http://faith-theology.blogspot.com/2006/06/ten-propositions-on-preaching.html

04 December 2009

Morning Benediction

Blessed be the Lord,
the God of mornings, sunlight
passing through curtains,
suffusing the room with the
glow of possibilities.

He gives me strength,
unmerited like the dawn,
makes hard work bear fruit.
I drink the cup of morning's
goodness, as I bless the Lord.

/October 2009, Banaw, Bacacay, Albay