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?

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