28 January 2013

The Power of the Word of God

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) – 27 January 2013

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 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 Israel’s period of rebuilding after Cyrus the Great defeated the Babylonians and permitted the exiles to return to their homeland. Among the first things the people did was to gather and listen to the Scriptures, especially to passages from some rediscovered books thought previously to have been lost. The account said that 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. The people 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. Yet here the parallel ends for the succeeding verses narrates how the one piece of news that was awaited and hungered for by generations of Jews was received not with acceptance or gratefulness but with disbelief and agitation, until finally His town mates 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.

If the people in Jesus' town and time didn't believe Him, could we confidently say, that unlike them, we believe in Jesus? 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? Or more importantly,  do you believe in Jesus? 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?

If the Word of God is powerful and since Jesus Himself has proclaimed the Scripture passage to have been already fulfilled, why is it that there still seems so much that needs 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 also those overcome with self-pity and despair.

How are we to understand this seeming contradiction between the words of Jesus and the not so perfect reality before us?

1. Christ’s Mission Statement

Some commentators say that by taking Isaiah’s prophecy as words spoken about Himself, Jesus was presenting to the world His manifesto, His vision-mission statement as the Messiah. Here we are introduced for the first time to the core of His message: the urgency and necessity of the Kingdom of God.

2. Christ’s Mission is meant to be shared

The mission of building God’s Kingdom is brought by Jesus and fulfilled in Jesus, but He also intended to share it to the rest of the world. For the building of God’s Kingdom requires our full assent and cooperation. This is what it means when we say: Christ brings salvation to all.

The Gospel this Sunday is actually divided into two parts: the bulk of the message is taken from Luke chapter 4; however the introduction is taken from the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel. Here the Gospel writer explains the purpose of his writing this “accurate narration” of Jesus’ story: so that one Theophilos “may realize the certainty of the teachings (he has) received”. At the time of the writing of this Gospel the story of Jesus, His life and mission, has been handed over from one Christian community to another – no doubt inspiring more and more people to follow the way of Christ.

And yet there's more: the name Theophilos means "he who loves God", thus Luke may be referring to a particular man who goes by the name, or he may be alluding to everyone, that is to everyone who profess to love God.

3. God’s Kingdom must first begin in the heart

This brings us back to explaining Jesus’ manifesto vis-à-vis the real world. Before we can talk about reforming social structures or changing social attitudes, we have to assume that all these longed-for changes begin somewhere basic, somewhere foundational: in the human heart.

An old adage puts it this way: “I acquired courage and sought to change the world. And then I acquired wisdom and thus sought first to change myself.”

That is why Jesus came as a person and revealed that God has loved us first and unconditionally, so that we too may love Him and have a relationship with Him. Loving relationships begin in the heart. And so before we seek to change the world, we ask what does my beloved wants? What is God’s plan for me, for others? Or better yet, how may I respond to God’s unconditional love?

The theme of salvation that is at once personal and social, local and global, has been explored by a famous novel by Victor Hugo – turned into an even more famous musical – and recently into a movie: Les Miserables.

The story is set in France ten years after the French Revolution – a movement that began with many good intentions but ended up with more violence and poverty than before. Ten years after deposing their king and executing the royal family, the French has another king in his place, and dissatisfaction is once again stirring. In this bleak era of broken dreams and failed expectations, along comes Jean Valjean, an ex-convict who jumped his parole and took on another identity.

He was a prisoner, tortured and broken, for 19 years – five years for stealing a loaf of bread, the rest for attempting to escape. Yet throughout most of the story, he was a model of mercy and charity. He became a wealthy entrepreneur and mayor of a town, and has shown great concern to the plight of the downtrodden. He protected a sick prostitute and brought her to the hospital. And when she died, he made good on his promise to take care of her daughter whom he adopted as his own. Even when faced with the opportunity to kill his relentless pursuer, the Chief Constable Javert, he instead chose to save him from the revolutionaries.

What prompted this man who has suffered so much injustice and cruelty from his fellowmen to become instead a light in the darkness for the many people whose lives he touched? The answer lies at the beginning of the story, when the newly-paroled Jean Valjean was welcomed and fed by a kindly bishop. Still cynical and opportunistic, he tried to steal a few silver pieces from his gracious host, but was once again caught by the police and brought back to the bishop. What the bishop did and said changed his life forever. To his surprise, the good bishop confirmed Jean Valjean’s alibi that the stolen silver were in fact his gifts to him, and that in Jean Valjean’s haste he forgot to take the better pieces. When the police officers left, the bishop told him:

“And remember this, my brother,
See in this some high plan.
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man.
By the witness of the martyrs,
By the passion and the blood,
God has raised you out of darkness:
I have bought your soul for God.”

That one significant experience of pure and unconditional love was the turning point in Jean Valjean’s life.

Back to the question: “Do you believe in Jesus?” If we say “Yes, we do believe in Jesus”, it means we love Him who has first loved us wholly and unconditionally. To believe in Jesus means to take to heart His words and live by them, for His words are truth. To believe in Jesus is to let the power of God's words work in us through our sharing in Christ's mission to build God’s Kingdom – where the poor are blessed, the prisoners are freed, the blind see, and everywhere the goodness of the Lord is manifest.

The last lines of Jean Valjean in the musical is worth remembering:

“And remember
The truth that once was spoken
To love another person
Is to see the face of God.”

20 January 2013

And a Little Child shall Guide Them

Solemnity of the Santo Niño (C) – 20 January 2013

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 the rest of the Universal Church. Today the Philippine Church celebrates the Solemnity of Señor Santo Niño. Pit Señor!

The prophet Isaiah prophesies in Is 11,6: "and a little child shall guide them." 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.

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 Sto. 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 unhealthy 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 should we say in our case, turo-turo) Catholicism. There are also many who prefer to choose which doctrine or moral teaching to believe and live by, which bible quote suit their mood for the day. 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, in my opinion, is the biggest obstacle to our maturing in faith.

As a child naturally grows to maturity, so God too 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.”