Shrewd as serpents, simple as doves

Homily by Fr. Nicanor F. Lalog II, Baccalaureate Mass of Senior High School,
Our Lady of Fatima University, Valenzuela City, 08 July 2022
Photo by author at Mt. Nebo, Jordan overlooking the Holy Land, May 2019. Modern sculpture of the bronze serpent God told Moses to erect in the desert so that those bitten by snakes would be healed when they looked up to it, a prefiguration of Christ himself.

Congratulations, our dear graduates of Senior High School. You are so blessed today because our gospel is like a valedictory address given to you by no less than our Lord Jesus Christ whose message is so simple, yet so rich and so timely during this COVID-19 pandemic.

Jesus said to his Apostles: “Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves.”

Matthew 10:16

You are the modern apostles of Jesus Christ.

You are so special, Senior High Batch 2022. The past two years are the most difficult in modern history, and probably doubly difficult for young people like you who were supposed to be outside learning and discovering more about life beyond the classrooms but COVID-19 kept you grounded.

But, here you are! Nakatapos din! – despite the poor internet services, the boring online classes, and limited personal interaction with others, you are graduating, soon fulfilling your dreams to become doctors, engineers, nurses, teachers.

Truly as Jesus Christ had said in the gospel today, you are being sent like sheep among wolves, a very wild world indeed where evil and darkness seem to prevail especially when you listen to all the news of missing ladies or even adults.

Photo by author, view of the desert to the Holy Land as seen from Jordan, May 2019.

I refuse to use that expression when somebody graduates, “welcome to the real world”. Was there any moment in your lives that was not real like, kunwa-kunwarian lang? What you went through in senior high was real, what you have experienced were all true. Lahat ay totohanang buhay especially those two years of isolation and lockdowns which may continue for the next three or five years according to experts.

Life will be more difficult in college but most challenging for growth and maturity.

Yes, there are so many dangers from within and from the outside but trust in God for in him alone can we find life and fulfillment as the prophet Hosea reminds us in the first reading today.

Thus says the Lord: “Let him who is wise understand these things, let him who is prudent know them. Straight are the paths of the Lord, in them the just walk, but sinners stumble.”

Hosea 14:10

What Hosea is telling us is to be wise, to be filled with wisdom which begins in having that holy fear of the Lord. Handle life with prayer. As I would always tell you, “study hard, work harder, pray hardest”. In God alone can we find meaning and fulfillment in life.

Photo by author, St. Catherine’s Monastery near Mt. Sinai, Egypt, May 2019.

Maybe you are wondering why Jesus is asking us to be shrewd like the serpents. As you must have learned in world literature and world history, the ancient peoples like the Egyptians have always considered snakes as symbols of wisdom. But what I wish to focus more is the revision of the older translation of this passage from “be wise as the serpents” to “be shrewd as the serpents”.

Being shrewd is often mistaken into a negative trait because it suggests a practical wisdom that does not necessarily look deeply into things at all but wily and conscious of its personal interests.

That’s according to the late Dr. S. I. Hayakawa of the the veritable Reader’s Digest guide to synonyms, “Use the Right Word”. However, Dr. Hayakawa explained that the word “shrewd” is often used to indicate an unusual mental agility or perceptiveness of taking advantage of hidden opportunities. It speaks of a more penetrating kind of wisdom that is why the new versions of bible of “be shrewd as the serpents” is more precise and exact.

In that sense, too, you are all shrewd as the serpents during your senior high school because you were able to perceive hidden opportunities during the pandemic that you strived in your studies. Believe me, you are well-equipped for life because of the online classes during the pandemic, teaching you, showing you so many opportunities our generation had never seen.

Here is the more interesting part of being shrewd like the serpents….

From reddit.com.

The snake is the only one in the animal kingdom that regularly sheds off its skin, a sign of renewal. In Filipino, we call that “paghuhunos ng balat”. During Lent, we hear the elders telling us “maghunos dili” – literally to shed some of one’s self or pride and ego. In short, be converted.

The snake is shrewd because it sheds its skin so often, renewing itself, adjusting and adapting to new situations.

And that is true wisdom – adjusting and adapting to new situations. Most of all, spiritually speaking, it is a daily conversion in God.

Conversion is not changing our personality, like a very courageous person becoming timid or a talkative person becoming silent. Conversion means having new directions in our selves. Perfect example is St. Paul who used to persecute Christians but upon conversion, became the missionary of the gospel of Christ. He was practically the same person still – zealous and full of enthusiasm but no longer in persecuting Christians but promoting Christ.

Conversion is being like the snake in shedding its skin, letting go of the old ways and self to be renewed – still a snake but a better snake after each shedding of skin. That’s being shrewd like the serpents: of the many lessons taught to us by this COVID-19 pandemic, one of the leading lessons is the need for us to adapt and adjust when things are not going good.

And you are the experts in this because during those two years of online classes – for better and for worst – you must have perfected the art of adjustments, of adaptation. Nobody ever expected or even predicted the things that happened in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic is so unique, even surreal. We were so used to our comfort zones, so used to what has always been long before but COVID forced us to abandon that frame of mind and be like serpents, to adjust to situations by shedding off our skins, our pride to be more attuned with the environment to eventually emerge victorious. And we are all better now, especially you who are graduating soon!

Of course, you do not have to adjust and adapt to everything. You have to weigh things carefully. That is why Jesus balanced his instruction to be shrewd as the serpents with being simple as doves. We do not change and renew ourselves for the sake of adapting to new situations; we renew and adapt to become better persons, to become holier.

Remember, you are like the sheep – symbol of humility and holiness – being sent among wolves.

Be shrewd as the serpents and simple as doves. God bless you more in your college studies, Batch 2022!

COVID-19, our transfiguration

Quiet Storm by Fr. Nicanor F. Lalog II, 06 August 2021
Homily for Baccalaureate Mass, Our Lady of Fatima University
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14  ><}}}'>  2 Peter 1:16-19  ><}}}'>  Mark 9:2-10

I know. Just like everybody, I have that surreal feeling this could not be happening again: another lockdown with a strong probability of being extended that will definitely cement our position as world record holder in having the most and longest lockdown in this pandemic.

And of all the dates for the start of this new lockdown, it begins right on this day of our Baccalaureate Mass, right on this week of our Graduation rites, and still, so close to our school opening!

Talaga naman… talagang-talaga!

But, don’t be sad.

If we examine the situation leading to the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ on Mount Tabor witnessed by his selected apostles Peter, James and John, you will discover that the Lord is also leading us to another transfiguration.

This pandemic is definitely not from God. Nothing bad can come from God. And whenever something bad happens to us, especially for those who strive to become good people, God would always ensure that any dismal situation would turn out to work in our favor like your graduating this year.

Prelude to the Transfiguration

See, my dear graduates, the apostles were feeling very sad too before Jesus was transfigured. They have just made a U-turn at the pagan city of Caesarea Philippi to head south to Jerusalem after Jesus asked them what do the people say about him, his identity. Their answers were varied and the people clearly did not know who Jesus really is.

Then, Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter said to him in reply, “You are the Messiah.” Then he warned them not to tell anyone about him” (Mk.8:28-30).

Immediately after admitting to them that indeed he is the Messiah or Christ that means the Anointed One of God, Jesus told them for the first time about his coming Passion, Death and Resurrection. That is in fact the reason they were going to Jerusalem – in order for him to suffer and die and rise again on the third day.

The apostles were disturbed. They could not understand how could Jesus Christ, the Son of God, would be rejected by their leaders and would suffer greatly and be killed but rise again on the third day. It was too much for them.

Like this pandemic.

How could this be happening to us if God is love, if God is merciful? Why all these pains and sufferings?

Where is Jesus Christ now that we need him most?

A 1311 painting of the Transfiguration by Italian artist Duccio di Buoninsegna from commons.wikimedia.org.

Our transfiguration in time of pandemic

Congratulations, dear graduates! You hold that great distinction of graduating in time of the pandemic. Do not be ashamed nor listen to what others are saying about your going through online classes, of not having much exposures like on-hand training.

On the contrary, be proud because you are so blessed and privileged by the Lord to go through all these difficulties and still finish your courses. You are like the three apostles – Peter, James, and John – Jesus had selected to join him up a very high mountain to witness his transfiguration and be transfigured themselves too in the process.

That is your main distinction, graduates of 2021: you are privileged. Many years from now you will realize that and be thankful to God, to your parents, to your professors, and even to COVID-19 pandemic in letting you go through this process of transformation and transfiguration.

You were privileged to experience and witness so many unique and new opportunities in learning and in life in general that were never known before. You were in fact shown like the apostles with Jesus on that mountain with a glimpse of the future glory to come.

Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them. Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus.

Mark 9:2-4

In the most concrete way, Jesus tells you today in the same manner he had shown the three apostles that the surest way to any glory is is the path of the Cross, of being one with Jesus Christ in life and in prayers. That is the beautiful imagery of going up a high mountain. In the bible, the mountain is the presence of God; ascending a mountain is being one with God in prayer.

Study hard, work harder, pray hardest, my dear graduates and students of Our Lady of Fatima University.

Transfiguration in Christ means learning the importance of what is basic and necessary, of not basic and unnecessary.


In this one and a half years of the pandemic, 
we have all learned the most essential in life 
are not our gadgets nor grudges 
but our family and friends, God and life itself.

In this one and a half years of the pandemic, we have all learned the most essential in life are not our gadgets nor grudges but our family and friends, God and life itself.

The pandemic is a transfiguration moment most especially to you graduates and students because now more than ever, we learn the essence of education, of educare from the Latin “e ducere” that literally means to lead out of darkness and ignorance which is as we say in Our Lady of Fatima University, “to rise to the top” by “improving man as man”.

That is “pagpapakatao”. It is in our being human and humane we become true to our ideals of Veritas et Misericordia, Truth and Mercy.

Therefore, fall in love, stay in love with humanity, dear graduates and students.

Of what use are our degrees, our years of studies if we do not serve and care for every person, if in the process of our profession we kill people, destroy lives instead of inspiring them, transforming them and the society?

What matters most in life is not what we have achieved nor done but what have we become.

Have we become better persons?

See the clothes of Jesus dazzling white, an expression of his very person that is pure and clean. In Matthew and Luke, they both mentioned the face of Jesus shining to indicate his holiness.

To love God is to love humanity.

And that can only be through listening.

Then a cloud came, casting aa shadow over them; then from the cloud came a voice, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them.

Mark 9:7-8

After admitting to his apostles that he is indeed the Christ at Caesarea Philippi, God the Father now himself affirmed on Mount Tabor before Peter, James and John that Jesus is his beloved Son to settle once and for all the question of his identity.

The only question remaining is what kind of a Messiah is Jesus?

At his Transfiguration, the answer was laid before us: Jesus is the suffering Messiah of God, the one who had come not to remove but be one with us in our pains and sufferings to be one with him in his Resurrection.

After this event, everything that Jesus would be teaching is all about being good, of being loving by forgetting one’s self, carrying one’s cross and following him every day.

Doing our share in the vaccination program with our volunteers. Photo from FB/OLFU.

We have learned in this pandemic that life is a daily dying to one’s self, of forgetting our selves, letting go of our self-centeredness and selfishness to allow the Holy Spirit to work in us and through us.

We cannot know everything, we cannot do everything.

But Jesus knows everything and he needs us to cooperate with him in order to effect the changes and transformations in us and in the world.

That is why we have to listen to him always. In school and at home, you must have been so tired of listening but as you go into the world to practice your profession, you will be doing a lot of listening to be successful.

Listening is not just hearing but acting on what you have listened to.

It is in listening we are transfigured like Peter, James, and John who after the event continued to ask among themselves, wondering what was “rising from the dead” meant. It would only be after Easter and the Pentecost when everything would be clearer to them.

That is the beauty of this story of the transfiguration of the Lord: the three apostles were also transfigured in a process after that as they went down the high mountain, discussing the experience and eventually living it out for the rest of their lives.

Peter as the leader of the Twelve would treasure this experience so much and most likely must have learned a lot from it too that he keeps on telling the story to everyone until his martyrdom.

Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

2 Peter 1:19

Treasure this trying time of the pandemic, my dear graduates of 2021 of the Our Lady of Fatima University.

Remember and be attentive to the voices of God and of one another not only in this time of COVID-19 but throughout your career so that someday, a new day dawns and the morning star of love and joy rises in your hearts. Amen.