“HOW DO WE SPEAK THE UNSPEAKABLE?” (Jn 1:1-18): 31 December 2007 (Monday)

“HOW DO WE SPEAK THE UNSPEAKABLE?” (Jn 1:1-18):  31 December 2007 (Monday)

Reading:  www.nccbuscc.org/nab/123107.shtml

When the philosopher Blaise Pascal died in 1662, a mysterious scrap of paper was found hidden in the lining of his coat.  It was a record of a deep religious experience that had happened to him eight years before.  Pascal wrote about that experience and since then kept that record close to his heart.   Here are Pascal’s words: Continue reading “HOW DO WE SPEAK THE UNSPEAKABLE?” (Jn 1:1-18): 31 December 2007 (Monday)

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“DID YOU HAVE A PERFECT FAMILY?” (Mt 2:13-15, 19-23): 30 December 2007 (Holy Family, Sunday)

“DID YOU HAVE A PERFECT FAMILY?”  (Mt 2:13-15, 19-23):  30 December 2007 (Holy Family, Sunday)

Reading:  www.nccbuscc.org/nab/123007.shtml

Family portraits are supposed to be picture perfect.  In every family portrait, the family should be complete, all the members present, positioned comfortably in their proper places.  Aside from wearing our Sunday best, we’re also expected to wear our best Close-Up smiles regardless of how we are feeling.

I remember such a scene in a movie I saw back in 1980 called “Ordinary People” directed by Robert Redford.  It won the Oscar Best Picture that year, among other awards.  It’s about a family that’s dealing with the accidental death of their eldest son, who happens to be the mother’s favorite son.  The mother, played by Mary Tyler Moore, blames the accident on the younger surviving teenage son, played by Timothy Hutton.  There’s a lot of pain and anger in the family, partly from the tragedy, but also, as is often the case in our families, mostly from one another.  In that one telling scene, the visiting grandfather convinces the father, mother, and son to pose for a family portrait:  They oblige him and stand close to one another, but their discomfort is so palpable that even you the audience actually feel restless and begin to fidget in your seat.  But all of a sudden, for one brief moment, all the discomfort miraculously disappears and they all flash their best smiles for the camera.  Even they, with all their hurts and rage inside them, can’t have anything less than a picture-perfect family portrait.

Today is the feast of the Holy Family, and my question to God is:  “Did you have a perfect family?”  That’s what we expect, but today’s Gospel reading doesn’t paint a picture-perfect family portrait.  The Holy Family is on the run.  An angel appears to Joseph again to break the bad news about Herod’s plan, and the entire family quickly takes a trip to the faraway and alien land of Egypt to flee from Herod’s wrath.  The family life that the Gospel gives us is far from perfect, portraying the Holy Family much like a refugee’s family, fleeing for their lives from certain danger to an uncertain future.

I think the Gospel wants to show us just how far God was willing to go so that He could become one of us.  When God became human, He didn’t just pick the picture-perfect parts, exempting Himself from everything else that’s not good and beautiful.  When God decided to become one of us, He wanted to really be one of us—as Scripture puts it, “like us in every way, except sin.”  And this meant embracing everything that goes with being human, the entire package, including the things that are not so beautiful and not so comfortable:  like being limited, like being weak, like getting scared for our lives and for our future, and not knowing what’s going to happen next.

Now, let’s take a look at God’s choice of a family.  It’s a rather strange choice.  Since this concerns the Son of God himself that we are talking about, God could have picked a perfect and model family.  But Jesus’ human family was not a perfect and model one—at least not from the human point of view.  As we know, Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father.  He was only his foster father.  To make things worse, the neighbors suspected as much—and continued to whisper about this long after Jesus grew up.  When Jesus returned to Nazareth to teach in the synagogue, the villagers whispered:  “Is this not Jesus, the son of Mary?”   According to Biblical scholars, for the Jews to label you as the son of your mother is to claim that you are not your father’s son.

So we can say that the family that God selected for his only Son was less than perfect, and his family life was also less than ideal.  Family counselors today would say that these are all the ingredients you need for a classic dysfunctional family.  Yet we are told that Jesus grew in wisdom and in grace.

Maybe God is asking us to think about our own families:  On the one hand, yes, the family is truly important and crucial because it shapes us more deeply and more definitively than we suspect.  But on the other hand, there is no such thing as a perfect family or a perfect family life, no such thing as a family without shadows or secrets, no such thing as a family without stain or pain.  What matters is not so much that our families are perfect—because again, this is simply quite impossible.  Rather, what really matters is that we accept our families—shadow, stain, and scars—and do our best to shape our families into families of love.  For just as our families can affect us, we too can affect our families.   Just as our families have the power to shape us, we too have the power to shape our families.

It’s not easy, of course.  Because of all the emotional history involved, sometimes all it takes is one word, one gesture, one event to trigger us and we react automatically and helplessly, all our emotional buttons pressed.  But we can try.  If we look at our Lord’s family–I guess it wasn’t perfect, but it was no less holy.  I guess this tells us that you don’t have to be perfect to be holy.

Something to think about.  Maybe there’s hope for our families.

(image:  www.answers.com)

“DID YOU SEE MY FUTURE TOO?” (Lk 2:22-35): 29 December 2007 (Saturday)

“DID YOU SEE MY FUTURE TOO?”  (Lk 2:22-35):  29 December 2007 (Saturday)

Reading:  www.nccbuscc.org/nab/122907.shtml

In the gospel story today, Mary and Joseph take the child Jesus to the temple in accordance with Jewish law and consecrate him to the Lord.  But there in the temple the old man Simeon, taking the baby Jesus into his arm, blesses the Lord, for he has long waited for this day.  He sees the baby’s future and speaks of how the child is “destined for the rise and fall of many in Israel.” Continue reading “DID YOU SEE MY FUTURE TOO?” (Lk 2:22-35): 29 December 2007 (Saturday)

“WHAT ARE WE DOING TO OUR CHILDREN?” (Mt 2:13-18): 28 December 2008 (Holy Innocents, Friday)

“WHAT ARE WE DOING TO OUR CHILDREN?”  (Mt 2:13-18):  28 December 2008 (Holy Innocents, Friday)

Reading:  www.nccbuscc.org/nab/122807.shtml

I don’t get to watch too much TV these days.  I usually just switch on CNN to catch the news while getting ready for the day.  But yesterday morning something playing on CNN made me stop what I was doing and I actually sat down to watch.  The program was “Rescuing Youssif”–a continuing update on a five-year old Iraqi boy who made headlines last January.   Continue reading “WHAT ARE WE DOING TO OUR CHILDREN?” (Mt 2:13-18): 28 December 2008 (Holy Innocents, Friday)

“WHAT ABOUT ME?” (Jn 20:1a and 2-8): 27 December 2007 (St. John the Evangelist, Thursday)

“WHAT ABOUT ME?”  (Jn 20:1a and 2-8):  27 December 2007 (St. John the Evangelist, Thursday)

Reading:  www.nccbuscc.org/nab/122707.shtml

Today we remember John the Evangelist, also known as the “Beloved Disciple.”Traditionally, the Church identifies him as one of the Twelve, one of the two sons of Zebedee, the brother of James.

In the recent Da Vinci Code controversy, he is the disciple who is bumped off from the Last Supper.  As we know, the Dan Brown novel has claimed that the unbearded, feminine-looking figure that Leonardo Da Vinci painted to the left of Jesus is not John the Evangelist, as usually held, but Mary Magdalene, who is not mentioned in the gospel account of the Last Supper.  As a result, John the beloved disciple loses his place at the table. I’ve often wondered how he feels about that. Continue reading “WHAT ABOUT ME?” (Jn 20:1a and 2-8): 27 December 2007 (St. John the Evangelist, Thursday)

‘WHAT’S NEXT?’ (Mt 10:17-22): 26 December 2007 (St. Stephen, Wednesday)

‘WHAT’S NEXT?’ (Mt 10:17-22):  26 December 2007 (St. Stephen, Wednesday)

Reading:  www.nccbuscc.org/nab/122607.shtml

It’s a cool, rainy morning the day after Christmas Day here in Manila.   And after all the Christmas shopping, Mass-going, and celebrating, the question that comes to mind today, of course, is:  “What’s next?”  The gospel reading isn’t exactly going to cheer you up.  Our Lord warns his disciples of persecutions and harassments although he assures us of the help of the Holy Spirit.   Continue reading ‘WHAT’S NEXT?’ (Mt 10:17-22): 26 December 2007 (St. Stephen, Wednesday)

“IS THAT YOUR HEART?” (Jn 1:1-5, 9-14): 25 December 2007 (Christmas Day, Tuesday)

“IS THAT YOUR HEART?” (Jn 1:1-5, 9-14):  25 December 2007 (Christmas Day, Tuesday)

Reading: www.nccbuscc.org/nab/122507d.shtml

Some years ago I chanced upon “Another Chance” on TV, a music video I never forgot.  Two reasons:  First, it used a vaguely familiar song whose title I couldn’t remember.  I later found out why.  The song was a remix based on the first verse of the 1982 Toto hit ballad “I Won’t Hold You Back.”  But thanks to the electronic and energized “make-over” done by well-known house DJ Roger Sanchez (also known as the S Man), except for the recurring verse, the song was now hardly recognizable. Continue reading “IS THAT YOUR HEART?” (Jn 1:1-5, 9-14): 25 December 2007 (Christmas Day, Tuesday)

‘WHAT’S YOUR HALLELUJAH?’ (Lk 1:67-79): 24 December 2007 (Monday)

‘WHAT’S YOUR HALLELUJAH?’ (Lk 1:67-79):  24 December 2007 (Monday)

Reading:  www.nccbuscc.org/nab/122407.shtml

Sometime ago, while watching Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing Season 3 finale, a song caught my attention.  It was Jeff Buckley’s cover of the Leonard Cohen’s song, “Hallelujah.”  Aside from providing perfect background music to the episode, the song was itself unforgettably intense.  I later got hold of a copy of the song and its lyrics.   Continue reading ‘WHAT’S YOUR HALLELUJAH?’ (Lk 1:67-79): 24 December 2007 (Monday)

“WHAT ARE WE AFRAID OF?” (Mt 1:18-24): 23 December 2007 (Fourth Sunday of Advent)

“WHAT ARE WE AFRAID OF?” (Mt 1:18-24):  23 December 2007 (Fourth Sunday of Advent)

Reading: www.nccbuscc.org/nab/122307.shtml

(Note: This was the homily delivered on the eve of 22 December 2007 at the Simbang Gabi of the Gesu Chapel, Ateneo de Manila University)

This morning I woke up with a question in mind, and the question was:  “When am I going to get the so-called Christmas spirit—you know, that feeling we usually get when it’s this time of  the year?”  I mean, it’s just two more days to go before Christmas, so how come I’m still not feeling it?  But then I began to wonder, “How should I feel anyway?   What’s the emotion of Christmas supposed to be anyway?”

So I decided to embark on a pseudo-scholarly enterprise for a change.  I decided to analyze the so-called “Infancy Narratives”—the portion in the gospels that tells the Christmas story.  As we know, the Infancy Narratives are found only in two gospels:  Matthew and Luke.  Thanks to the wonders of technology, I managed to do a word count to figure out which emotion is the most frequently mentioned in the Infancy Narratives.

According to American psychologist, Robert Plutchik, there are eight basic human emotions:  Joy or gladness, sadness, acceptance, disgust, fear, anger, anticipation, and finally, surprise or awe.  For the word count, obviously I put together synonyms for the different emotions.

Now, which of these eight basic emotions do you think is the one most frequently mentioned in the Infancy Narratives?

The three most frequently mentioned emotions in the Infancy Narratives are:  fear (no. 1), joy or gladness (no. 2), and surprise or awe (no. 3).

Most people would expect anything but fear to top the list.  The third placer, the emotion of surprise or awe—and related words like “wonder” and “marvel”—occurs five times:  Twice in relation to the birth of John the Baptist, twice in relation to the shepherds’ visit, and once during the Presentation.

The second placer, the emotion of joy or gladness—with related words like “rejoice” etc.—is mentioned ten times, but this is expected since Christmas is supposed to be the season of joy.

“Fear” and all related words are mentioned thirteen times.  Of course, the more sophisticated statisticians among us will be quick to point out that that doesn’t seem to be significantly higher than joy or gladness.  Granted.  But even to declare a tie between “fear” and “joy” is significant because we don’t usually associate fear with Christmas.

The point I’m making is that lest we forget, the first Christmas was an eventwrapped in fear.  Now that we think about it, of course it makes sense!  The first Christmas was understandably a most frightening event to the people most involved in it.

When the angel Gabriel broke the news to Mary that she was going to be with child, isn’t it just natural for Mary to be afraid of the prospect of losing Joseph?  When his dream asked him to take Mary as his wife despite the circumstances, Joseph must have worried about what people would whisper behind his back.  And don’t forget when they found themselves in Bethlehem, Joseph and a very pregnant Mary could not find a place to stay!   They must have been stressed, to say the least.  And then just when Mary finally thought they were going to enjoy some peace and quiet, strangers kept popping up in the stable—shepherds and astrologers from the East—offering strange gifts and stranger accounts of what had led them there.  And of course, there was the ever-looming danger of Herod’s rage—that jealous king, himself afraid of the threat posed by the newborn King of the Jews.

The touching, tranquil scene that we see in the belen is but one single moment, one brief interlude that by no means captures the entire mood of the Christmas story.  The serenity of that scene is soon abruptly interrupted by a stern warning to Joseph from an angel, and before they know it, Mary, Joseph, and their child are fleeing in the night to Egypt like fugitives and refugees.

What does all this tell us?  That the Christmas story unfolded in a way that was far from tranquil.  That it transpired in a world of uncertainty, rejection, homelessness, and violence.   Does it sound familiar?

It’s no wonder then that each time an angel appeared during the Infancy Narratives—whether to Zechariah, to Mary, to Joseph, or to the shepherds, the one line that the angel always uttered first was:  “Do not be afraid.”  Some people actually concluded that the biblical angels of God probably looked nowhere like the cute little Hallmark angels that decorate our homes and shopping malls.  After all, their visits always seemed to inspire fear.  But biblical scholars tell us that perhaps with the exception of the shepherds, where the very appearance of a host of angels was understandably frightening, the angels always said “Do not be afraid” not so much because they looked scary, but because the very message that they were about to relay could be frightening.  In the case of Zechariah, it was the disconcerting news that his long-barren wife, Elizabeth, would bear a son in her old age.  For Mary, it was the awesome mission she was being invited to undertake.  And for Joseph, it was all the consequences of taking Mary as his wife given the circumstances.

If the First Christmas unfolded in a milieu of uncertainty, danger, and fear, perhaps the most important Christmas message is precisely “Do not be afraid.”  And why should we not be afraid? Matthew provides a clue when he quotes the prophet Isaiah:  “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel—which means, God with us.”

In other words, although we live in this wounded and wounding world of ours, we need no longer live in fear because God has already given us the gift of his presence and his nearness in the person of his only Son.  And because he is God with us, he offers us yet another gift:  freedom from fear.  So Christmas is not about God taking away our fears.  It isn’t about God taking away the sources of our fears.  Rather, Christmas is about God joining us in this world and in our lives, in the very midst of our fears.  The invitation to each of us this Christmas is to stop living in fear and to learn to live with our fears.  There is an important difference between the two.

And Jesus offers precisely to free us from fear all throughout his life and ministry.  The words “Do not be afraid” are spoken at least five more times in the gospel of Matthew, and in four of those times, it is Jesus who speaks them.  He tells the disciples not to be afraid during a storm.  He speaks those same words to Peter, James, and John during the Transfiguration and later to the women fleeing his empty tomb.  To the disciples that he is sending out on mission, he says, “Have no fear” of dangers brought by this world.

So, when we think about it, maybe the heart of the Christmas message is not so much “peace and joy” because as we know in our hearts, peace sadly remains fragile in our world, and joy elusive.  This world of ours continues to be wracked with uncertainty, rejection, stress, homelessness, and violence—the very same things that struck fear in the hearts of the people of the first Christmas.

Maybe the heart of the Christmas message is truly “Do not be afraid.”  For our world remains sad and violent.  Our nights are far from silent and far from holy.  But it is to this sad and violent world that God himself has descended.  It is to our unquiet and unholy nights that he has been born for us.  Yes, God Himself!  The All-Transcendent One has gathered his infinite vastness to be near us and to be with us.  He has transcended even his own transcendence in order to become immanent and one of us.  And because God is with us, the angels are right:  We need no longer be afraid!

And so let’s ask ourselves:  “What am I most afraid of in my life?  What do I fear most in my life?”  Maybe this Christmas we can gather all our fears and pray that the Lord will grant us the grace this Christmas that we no longer live in fear, but that knowing He is with us, we may learn to live with our fears.

(image:  Rembrandt’s “Sacrifice of Isaac”)

“ARE YOU REALLY A SUCKER FOR UNDERDOGS?” (Lk 1:46-56): 22 December 2007 (Saturday)

“ARE YOU REALLY A SUCKER FOR UNDERDOGS?” (Lk 1:46-56):  22 December 2007 (Saturday)

Readings:  www.nccbuscc.org/nab/122207.shtml

Sometime ago I found this interesting and inspiring video on YouTube.  The video is from Simon Cowell’s newest star search competition in the UK called “Britain’s Got Talent.”  The clip shows the audition of a certain Paul Potts, a portly, ordinary-looking man in his late thirties, who makes a living selling cell phones.  Bullied by classmates all his life, Paul grew up insecure, with very little confidence in himself.  For years he dreamed of becoming a singer, but with little success, so when he heard of the new talent show, against his usual inclination, he picked up his little grain of faith in himself and joined the talent competition. Continue reading “ARE YOU REALLY A SUCKER FOR UNDERDOGS?” (Lk 1:46-56): 22 December 2007 (Saturday)