25 January 2010

Do you believe in Jesus?

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) – 24 January 2010

Readings: Neh 8:2-4a, 5-6, 8-10; Ps 19:8, 9, 10, 15; 1 Cor 12:12-30 or 12:12-14, 27; Lk 1:1-4; 4:14-21

This Sunday is also National Bible Awareness Sunday. The readings are most appropriate to the celebration. Both the First and Gospel readings show the profound impact of the Scriptures on their listeners.

The First Reading from the Book of Nehemiah contains a heartwarming historical scene during the period of rebuilding after the return of the exiles. Among the first things the people did was to gather and listen to the Scriptures. The reading started at daybreak and extended till noon! All this time, the people listened attentively as Ezra read and interpreted the book of the law. They were also weeping as they hear the words of the law, prompting Nehemiah to exhort them not to weep for “Today is holy to the LORD your God.”

This Old Testament story has parallels with the Gospel passage this Sunday. The people were gathered at Sabbath in the Nazareth synagogue. Jesus read from the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah. All eyes were upon him. The people could feel something special about this man Jesus whom many of them knew. And then He said: “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus has just identified Himself to his hometown as a prophet and more: He is the fulfillment of their prophecies about the Messiah who is to come.

Did they believe him? The succeeding verses recount the mixed reaction Jesus got: from acceptance and amazement to disbelief and agitation, until finally they attempted to kill him by trying to drive him over a cliff. But His death at their hands was not meant to be. At least not yet.

More importantly, the question to ask is: “Do we believe Him now?” Before we make a quick and easy response towards the affirmative, let us examine carefully first Is 61,1-2, the short verse that Jesus read:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”

Do you believe that this passage is already fulfilled? Maybe the part about Jesus being anointed by the Spirit. But what about the blessings promised to the poor, the prisoners, the blind and the oppressed?

Since the time Jesus proclaimed the Scripture passage to have been already fulfilled, there is still so much to be done. People are still poor, and not just materially. There are those who are lonely and rejected; those burdened with a mentality that keeps them poor and perpetually dependent upon some master or patron; those afflicted with an unquenchable desire to acquire, else they will always feel inadequate.

People are still captives, and not just those in jail for crimes. There are those imprisoned by guilt, by hatred, by their unmet needs for redemption, forgiveness and reconciliation.

People are still blind, and not just physically. There are those blinded by prejudice, ignorance, envy, pride and fear; those who have been so hurt and jaded they could no longer see the goodness of humanity or hope in themselves.

People are still being oppressed. Even oppressors themselves have their own far stronger oppressors to deal with. There are those overcome with self-pity and despair.

It is rather funny but my reflection on Is 61,1-2 has led me to associate it with the current slew of election campaign ads. Practically every candidate vows to help the poor in some way. Some are even in a mad scramble as to who could be identified the most with the poor.

Though many of these campaign ads may appear cheap and shallow, there is a striking similarity between them and Jesus’ declaration. For them to find fulfillment, one thing is required in both cases: we have to believe in them. The candidates and their PR team wish that we could believe enough to vote for them, and hopefully campaign for them among our circle of friends.

In a way, the same is true with Jesus and his Good News of salvation. Because we have free will no one could be saved who doesn’t choose to be saved or thinks he doesn't need any saving.

1. We need to believe in Jesus.

And belief is not only profession of faith, but living one’s faith. This is especially true during times when our friendship with Jesus entails that we turn our back on family and loved ones, or that we forsake some forms of income or livelihood.

For those in situations like these, St. Paul in Rom 8,28 has words of reassurance: “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

2. We need to believe in the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ.

We are not saved as individuals. God intends to save us as a community of believers, as the body of Christ. St. Paul in 1 Cor 12,12 (in the Second Reading) says: “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ.”

Being a member of Christ’s body entails more than just being baptized. It means opening the Scriptures and letting God speak through its inspired words. It means participating and promoting the Church’s Sacred Traditions, the other font of spiritual knowledge and grace. It means finding nourishment and support in the community of believers.


When we believe in Jesus and participate in His community this way, we bring about a transformation first from within us. As our will gradually becomes more united with God’s will we find that we are more and more enriched, freed, enlightened and empowered by His grace.

Then we will see the same transformation happening in the community. When that time comes, it will indeed be a year of favor from the Lord.

One last story…

A young man, his mind filled with ideals and good intentions, has been getting increasingly disappointed at the many wrongs he saw in society. There is poverty and crime, hunger and war, corruption begetting more corruption, etc.

One night he had a dream about God. Finally, he could ask the question he longed to ask Him. He said: “Lord, if you are all powerful, then why are there so many who suffer? Why are evil men allowed to hold on to power? Why are there so many wrongs in society? Why have you not done enough to take them all away?

God replied: “My child, but I have already done enough. I have sent my Son to save you and my Spirit to guide you. And then, of course – I made you.”

19 January 2010

One of Us

Solemnity of the Santo Niño

Readings: Is 9:1-6; Ps 97: 1, 2-3, 3-4, 5-6; Eph 1:3-6, 15-18; Lk 2:41-52

On the third Sunday of January we get to have a set of readings and prayers different from most of the Universal Church. Today the Philippine Church celebrates the Solemnity of Señor Santo Niño.

The feast is symbolic of the founding of the faith in our country. The image being venerated is originally the gift of Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan (sailing under Spain) to Hara Amihan, wife of Rajah Humabon of Cebu, in 1521 on the occasion of the couples' baptism as Christians. Many of their constituents were baptized with them.

After Magellan was killed in Mactan, the Spanish presence was not felt until 1565 when Miguel Lopez de Legazpi came and defeated Rajah Tupas, ruler of Cebu and nephew of Rajah Humabon. When the battle was over, the image of the Santo Niño was found by a Spanish soldier, relatively unscathed in a burnt-out hut.

Today, the center of this national fiesta is still Cebu, though there are major cities and local churches who celebrate this feast around the same time as well. In our diocese, it is the fiesta of the PNP Chaplaincy at Camp Gen. Simeon Ola.

What is the significance of celebrating the feast of the Infant Jesus?

1. It is a celebration of the God who is with us and became one of us.

The mood is fittingly expressed in how the Santo Niño is garbed in many different ways: in traditional robes, contemporary toddler clothes, police uniform, soldier’s uniform, basketball jersey (Barangay Ginebra!), etc. The costumes may be too much for some, but they do deliver the message: Jesus is one of us.

This is the mystery of the incarnation expressed in popular imagination. Jesus went through childhood like the rest of us. And surely suffered fools gladly like not many of us.

There is though an insidious tendency in the devotion that runs counter to the very idea of celebrating Christ’s incarnation. There are those who put the image of the Santo Niño in stores and homes mainly for the purpose of bringing in luck. When devotion turns into this, we degrade Christ and turn him into an idol, a lucky charm. We rank Him alongside the “laughing Buddha”, the jade frog with the coin in its mouth, and the golden cat with its perpetually waving right arm. This is not true devotion, this is idolatry and sacrilege.

As an aside, the image of the Santo Niño was recovered in a burnt hut, along with other wooden idols. The image was quickly put in a proper place of honor. Later a church was built on the site where it was found. Since then festivals around the country honoring the Santo Niño were celebrated to commemorate the rediscovery of the image and the reestablishment of the true faith.

2. It is a celebration of the God who invites us to grow with Him and in Him.

Lk 2,52 (in the Gospel this Sunday) says: “And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.” Of course, the child Jesus grew into adulthood. Last Sunday, we celebrated the Solemnity of His Baptism. He was baptized when he was around 30 years old.

We too are called to mature in faith. The image of the Christ Child, given as a gift to the newly baptized Hara Amihan, renamed Juana, is symbolic as well of the infant faith of our people. How have we grown as a Christian people since then?

Let us take time to identify certain cultural traits that stunt our growth in the faith:

a. Nominal Catholicism. A great number of our people are Catholics in name only. However, not much attention is given to formation in the faith after baptism.

b. Folk Catholicism. Even now, non-Christian beliefs on the supernatural get mixed with the true faith. However, a contemporary – and more insidious – updating of this tendency is the corrupting influence of New Age beliefs and practices.

c. Cafeteria (or in our case should we say, Turo-turo) Catholicism. There are also many who prefer to choose which doctrine or moral teaching to believe and live by. Those that they find difficult or do not conform to their way of life are discarded in favor of more “convenient ways” of being Catholic, or so they think.

d. Split-level Christianity. The tendency to compartmentalize worship and practice, devotion and morals, pagsa-Dios asin paghanapbuhay, in my opinion, is the biggest obstacle to our maturing in faith.

God constantly invites us to grow from our simple faith as a child to a faith that seeks favors to get by the realities of life, then to a faith that puts complete trust in His love, and finally to a faith that is ready to offer oneself and everything one owns in doing God’s will, in imitation of Christ who is one with the Father.

3. It is a celebration of the God who identifies with the little ones.

I remember a story told by a parish priest during Christmas in 2006, right after typhoon Reming devastated Albay. He said he was walking along his parish patio when two brothers, both of grade school age, approached him. He could see they were arguing in hushed tones as to who should talk with him. He thought they would be inquiring whether there are still any relief goods left. The older one finally came up to him and said they would like to make a donation. Then he promptly produced a small plastic bag filled with coins. It was their savings the whole year. He said their parents told them to save so they could buy gifts for Christmas. Lately their parents also told them about the many people who were affected by the typhoon. So they decided to help in their own way.

The Santo Niño embodies the best traits of children: their goodness, trust and humility, their capacity and thirst for learning, their potential for greatness. The Christ Child leads us to rediscover our childlike trust in God, our faith in the goodness of humanity and in our capacity to change for the better.

The Santo Niño also reminds us to be kind to the little ones, and to come to their defense when needed. The little ones are not only the children. They are the last, the least and the lost. Mt 25,40 says: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

10 January 2010

The Theophany of Jesus

The Baptism of the Lord (C) – 10 January 2010

Readings: Is 42:1-4, 6-7 or Is 40:1-5, 9-11; Ps 29:1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10; Acts 10:34-38 or Ti 2:11-14; 3:4-7; Lk 3:15-16, 21-22

This Sunday we officially end the Christmas season with the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus Christ.

Our liturgy, reflecting the Bible, chronologically bypasses most of Jesus’ childhood and adolescent years, and sets the stage for the start of His public ministry. The readings tell of an adult Jesus, mature in grace and wisdom, ready to take on the mission reserved for Him from all eternity.

In Eastern Rite Churches, the Feast of the Epiphany is a commemoration not of the visit of the wise men but of the baptism of the Lord. They call it the Feast of the Theophany, “the appearance of God”.

The Christmas season is actually marked by three feasts celebrating the appearance of God: Christmas, Epiphany and Baptism of the Lord.

There is another "theophany" in next Sunday’s Gospel: Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana. But we here in the Philippines do not get to read this passage next Sunday. Instead we return to the incident of the child Jesus in the Temple, which is the text for the Feast of the Santo Niño.

1. The Baptism of the Lord reveals (sufficiently though never fully) the mystery of God.

a. The narrative offers a glimpse into the mystery of the Trinity. A fuller reading reveals the Persons of the Trinity, not fully defined but narrated as working in harmony with each other.

b. The story demonstrates the nature of the Incarnation. Christ need not undergo John’s baptism of repentance for He is in all things human except in sin. Yet he insisted to be baptized as well, thus choosing to be in solidarity with humanity’s sinful condition and yearning for redemption. John’s protestations (in the other Gospel versions) serve all the more to highlight the message.

Jesus need not become man, but He chooses to be one of us. Jesus need not suffer and be killed, but He chooses to die for us. This is how God chooses to reveal Himself to us and share His life with us.

c. The account defines the character of Christ’s mission. Isaiah 42,1 says: “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, Upon whom I have put my spirit…” Notice how Luke uses the same words to describe Christ’s baptism event.The evangelist points to Jesus as the very servant referred to in the prophecy of Isaiah.

Christ’s mission is thus revealed as Trinitarian. He is God with us. He is also the Father’s obedient Son. And His power comes from the Spirit. He will bring about justice with gentleness, and bring out those in darkness into His light.

2. The Baptism of the Lord reminds us of our own baptism.

Like John’s, ours is a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. But because of Jesus, ours is no less than a birth into new life in Christ. What might this entail?

First, a “sexist” story… One day, three men were hiking and unexpectedly came upon a large raging, violent river. They needed to get to the other side, but had no idea how to do so. The first man prayed to God, saying, "Please God, give me the strength to cross this river."

Poof! God gave him big arms and strong legs, and he was able to swim across the river in about two hours, after almost drowning a couple of times.

Seeing this, the second man prayed to God, saying, "Please God, give me the strength …and the tools to cross this river."

Poof! God gave him a rowboat and he was able to row across the river in about an hour, after almost capsizing the boat a couple of times.

The third man had seen how this worked out for the other two, so he also prayed to God saying, "Please God, give me the strength and the tools ...and the intelligence to cross this river."

And poof! God turned him into a woman. She looked at the map, hiked upstream a couple of hundred yards, then walked across the bridge to the other side.

Through baptism, God equips us with the strength of sanctifying grace, the support of the community of faith, and access into the wisdom and guidance of Scriptures and Tradition.

But baptism is not a self-sufficient, stand-alone sacrament that assures us of membership in the Church and forgiveness of sins. It is rather the beginning of our new life in the community of the Trinity and the Church.

By baptism, God expects us to grow, learn, love, serve, and flourish within this community of faith in order to enjoy fullness of life.

As we celebrate this great theophany of Jesus at His baptism, I would like to leave these questions for reflection:

a. How committed am I to live up to my baptismal promises which I renew yearly at Easter Sunday?

b. Have I devoted myself enough to growing in faith by reading the Bible, learning about the teachings of the Church, and discerning God’s will for me?

c. How much of my time, effort and resources have I given so that the Church, the community of faith I was baptized into, could continue to nurture me and others?

d. Have I reached out enough to my many "nominal Catholic" friends and family members, and journey with them back to the Lord?

03 January 2010

The End of Christmas

The Epiphany of the Lord

Readings: Is 60:1-6; Ps 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13; Eph 3:2-3a, 5-6; Mt 2:1-12

After the media noche and noche buena, the family gatherings and class reunions, the Misas de Aguinaldo, the Christmas parties and outreach activities, the gift-giving and decorating, we now come to the last week of the Christmas season.

May I draw your attention to the belen, the nativity set of our church. There is the Holy Family, the three wise men with their gifts, the shepherds, the manger, the star. Now days after the great childbirth, one would expect better lodgings for Mary and the newborn Jesus. And the shepherds should have left long before the magi arrived. But the belen is more about symbols than historical accuracy. Nevertheless, our Gospel today practically describes the traditional belen you are looking at right now. Finally, the story of the nativity, as told in the liturgy, is complete.

Epiphany comes from the Greek “epiphaneia” which means appearance or manifestation. In the Gospel this Sunday, Jesus manifested himself to the Gentiles (the non-Jewish world) represented by the “magoi” (wise men) from the East, who came looking for the newborn “king of the Jews” upon the appearance of a certain star, as foretold in their writings .

Jesus indeed is the fullness of revelation. His epiphany reveals to us what salvation is about.

1. Salvation is offered to all.

The history of salvation begins at creation with the couple Adam and Eve. During the great flood God saved the family of Noah. When the time came, He called Abraham to found His Chosen People. With the epiphany of Christ, no longer is salvation known to be offered only to a chosen couple, family or nation. The ultimate object of salvation is finally revealed: everyone.

Eph 3,5-6 (in the Second Reading) says: “It was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

Though Isaiah (in the First reading) prophesied it centuries earlier, still this was a revolutionary idea at that time. Even now, we are prompted by these words to read the Old Testament, indeed the entire Bible, in its "sensus plenior", in its fuller sense, according to the revelation of Christ. We are the Gentiles. The wise men from the east represent us in the nativity story. The Good News is to be proclaimed to all peoples. We are undeniably included in God’s plan of salvation.

2. Salvation comes in the form of man.

The coming of Jesus as man and His subsequent revelation as Son of Man, Son of God, the Word made flesh, overturned the old concepts of God. The all-powerful yet distant God is no more. He choose to reveal Himself to us in the form of man, subject to the conditions of the flesh, except sin. He is a God who choose to pitch his tent among us.

In Jesus Christ, we are saved. John 1,12 says: “to those who did accept Him He gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in His name.”

This is one of the great distinctions of Christianity with the other world religions. They do not worship as God their human founders. We do. We worship Him as God and relate to Him as brother and friend. By this we are saved.

Pope Benedict XVI, speaking about the conversion of St. Paul, explained that “Christianity is not a new philosophy or a new form of morality, but an encounter with the person of Christ, an event that ignites a personal relationship with Him.”

3. Salvation is presented as a gift.

The gifts that the wise men brought are highlighted for their symbolic value: gold because Jesus is king; frankincense because He is God’s high priest; and myrrh, used in the preparation of the dead, because He is the greatest of the prophets, in reference to the common fate of prophets in Israel: they are killed because of their mission.

But the greatest gift at Christmas and Epiphany is salvation in Christ Himself.

Now gifts are either accepted or turned down, put to good use or not. The same is also true with salvation. What do we do with the gifts we receive at Christmas? We may use them, simply keep them, share them with others or give them away to somebody else.

Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the wise men, all received the gift of Christ with gladness in their hearts. King Herod chose not to, preferring instead to narrow his view of Him as a threat to his power.

Our great and happy tradition of gift-giving at Christmas is but a reflection of the great self-giving of Christ. For one fleeting but memorable season we experience the warmth of family, the generosity of friends, the kindness of strangers, the joy of our community of faith. What do we do with the gift of Christ at Christmas?

For our reflection, I would like to share this well-loved poem by Dr. Howard Thurman, a theologian and civil rights leader, from his book “The Mood of Christmas”.

The Work of Christmas

“When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.”

May Christ and Christmas remain and grow in our hearts the whole year round.