The hand of the Lord

The Lord Is My Chef Simbang Gabi Recipe-8 for the Soul
by Fr. Nicanor F. Lalog II
Wednesday, Advent Week IV, 23 December 2020
Malachi 3:1-4, 23-24     >><)))*>   +   <*(((><<     Luke 1:57-66
Photo by author of the entrance to the site believed to be where the Lord’s Precursor was born below the side altar of the Church of St. John the Baptist in Ein Karen, Israel (2019).

We are almost into the completion of our nine-day novena for Christmas as we heard today the story of the birth of the Lord’s Precursor, John the Baptist. It is a story narrated so simple by Luke but filled with beautiful meanings specially for us today in this time of the pandemic.

First thing we see is how Zechariah’s speech was restored upon declaring the name of his son is “John”:

He asked for a tablet and wrote, “John is his name,” and all were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God.

Luke 1:63-64

Luke did not tell us what kind of praise did Zechariah speak about God when his speech was restored but here we find that basic truth in our lives that for every blessing we receive from the Lord, right away – immediately! – we must praise and thank God first.

Moreover, this scene shows us the good effect of the “imposed quarantine” on Zechariah when he was made deaf and speechless after doubting God’s gift of a child to him and his wife Elizabeth during the annunciation by the angel while incensing the Holy of holies in Jerusalem.

God restored the power of Zechariah to speak again and greatly renewed him that this time, he had become obedient to the Father to his plan. In a sense, Zechariah was not merely freed to speak again but most of all, he was freed to believe and trust in God again!

As we have reflected last Saturday morning, Advent is quarantine. So many times in life, we have to step backwards, be silent to listen to God and just let Him do His work in us! Sometimes we think of so many things that are not really necessary and has nothing to do with God’s plans or work. With Zechariah able to speak now, he shows us that in the exercise of our powers we must first get in touch with God how to use His gifts to us.

This we shall see in our second point: allowing God to use us as His hand.

Photo by author, dome of the Church of St. John the Baptist at Ein-Karen, 2019.

Then fear came upon all their neighbors, and all these matters were discussed throughout the hill country of Judea. All who heard these things took them to heart, saying, “What, then, will this child be?” For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.

Luke 1:65-66

From rejoicing at the birth of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son, their neighbors now moved to being amazed when the child is named “John” that coincided with the restoration of his father’s ability to speak.

Luke tells us how it was such a big thing, maybe so “viral” and “trending” like today that everybody was discussing it. They must have felt God so near, almost there that Luke used an Old Testament expression, “For surely the hand of the Lord was with him”.

It is a beautiful expression indicating power too, just like the ability to speak.

Our hands are so powerful that we are able to move and do so many things because of these.

To say “the hand of the Lord was with him” is to portray the image of God’s immense power, His omnipotence, of being able to do whatever He deems needed to life on earth.

In the Old Testament when Elijah was being pursued by the soldiers of Queen Jezebel after he had shamed the priests of baal for failing to light a pile of firewood for worship, the prophet escaped by running beyond human ability considering his old age because “the hand of the Lord was on Elijah” (1 Kgs. 18:46).

Sometimes, the “hand of the Lord” can be scary as it means judgment or punishment from God like when King David disobeyed God when he ordered a census of Israel to find out how many men can fight in their wars, doubting the power of the Lord. David was given with three options for his punishment by the seer Gad: a natural disaster or a victory by his enemies, or a time of God’s judgment. David chose the third option, saying “I am i dire straits. But I prefer to fall into the hand of the Lord, whose mercy is very great, than into the hands of men” (1Chronicles 13:21).

Photo by author, Chapel of the Holy Family, Sacred Heart Spirituality Center in Novaliches, QC (2014).

The late Jaime Cardinal Sin of Manila used to tell of the story about the hand of God: he said sometimes, the hand of God would “spank” or hit us with pains and trials in life to discipline us and make us strong; sometimes, the same hand of God would caress and soothe our tired bodies or give us that proverbial pat on the shoulder to affirm us. But what is most important to remember according to Cardinal Sin is the fact that whether we are being disciplined or touched by the hand of God, it is always loving and merciful, most of all grace filled.

The recent news of that trigger happy cop who brutally shot and killed Sonia and her son Antonio in Tarlac recently is a reminder to us all most especially this Christmas in the time of pandemic, of the need for us to let the hand of God take control of our lives, guide us to life through more patience, love, kindness, and understanding.

It seems that so often, whenever we let our hands do everything, they always go out of control like our mouth and lips that lead us to more disasters and even deaths.

Beginning this Christmas, may the hand of God lead us back to Him and with each other.

Let us imitate the praying hands, of two hands touching each other but always creating a space between. That space is for Jesus born in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, asking us everyday to take Him into our hands to care for Him, to protect Him through one another.

Amen.

Photo by Emre Kuzu on Pexels.com

Loving “with a Father’s heart” like St. Joseph

The Lord Is My Chef Simbang Gabi Recipe-3 for the Soul
by Fr. Nicanor F. Lalog II 
Friday, Advent Week III, 18 December 2020
Genesis 49:2, 8-10     >><)))*> + >><)))*> + >><)))*>     Matthew 1:1-17
Photo from Vatican News, St. Joseph and the Child Jesus, 14 December 2020.

Today we continue the second part of Matthew’s genealogy that ended yesterday with a marked shift in its structure of begetting: “Eleazar became the father of Matthan, Matthan the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Of her was born Jesus who is called the Christ” (Mt.1:15-16).

Matthew now fortifies this fact and conviction that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the promise to the Patriarchs, the Son of God who became human like us. See his solemn pronouncement about the coming of Jesus Christ:

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ cam about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Jospeh, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.

Matthew 1:18-19

It is so timely that on this rare occasion when we reflect on Joseph’s role in the coming of Jesus Christ that Pope Francis recently declared December 8, 2020 to December 8, 2021 as the “Year of Saint Joseph” in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the declaration of the beloved saint as Patron of the Universal Church with his Apostolic Letter “Patris Corde” (With a Father’s Heart).

A known devotee of Saint Joseph who popularized in 2015 during his visit to the country the image of the “Sleeping Saint Joseph”, Pope Francis said in writing Patris Corde how the COVID-19 pandemic has helped us see more clearly the importance of “ordinary” people who, though far from the limelight, exercise patience and offer hope every day.

The Holy Father explained that the “ordinary” people like those who kept our lives going especially during the lockdowns resemble Saint Joseph, “the man who goes unnoticed, a daily, discreet and hidden presence,” who nonetheless played “an incomparable role in the history of salvation” (Vatican News, 12 December 2020).

Let us reflect on two beautiful traits of St. Joseph that made him love Jesus and Mary with a father’s heart according to Pope Francis: creatively courageous and being in the shadows.

Photo from Vatican News, 12 December 2020.

Saint Joseph as a creatively courageous father

In describing Joseph as a “creatively courageous father”, Pope Francis showed us his deep devotion to this great saint described by Matthew as a “righteous man” or holy man who obeys the Laws of God.

Having courage is more than being able to do death-defying acts that is more on physical strength; courage is a spiritual virtue, a spiritual strength when we do extraordinary things because of higher ideals and values like love and gaining eternal life in Jesus Christ.

According to Pope Francis, “creative courage emerges especially in the way we deal with difficulties. In the face of difficulty, we can either give up and walk away, or somehow engage with it. At times, difficulties bring out resources we did not even think we had” (Patris Corde, 5).

The word courage is from the Latin “cor” for heart which is the seat of our being. To have courage according to the late Fr. Henri Nouwen means “to speak from the heart, to listen to our heart, and to act from our heart” when we dare to lose ourselves because of love.

A creative person is always someone who is deeply in love with another person or with one’s craft, art, career or whatever passion. See how people so in love become so creative that they can write songs and poems, do wonderful works, and accomplish so many wonderful things.

A “creatively courageous” person like Saint Joseph is someone so deeply in love with Mary and with God: after learning the circumstances surrounding Mary’s pregnancy, Matthew tells us “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home” (Mt.1:24).

Photo by author, Gaudete Sunday 2020.

Matthew tells us how Saint Joseph from the very start has always been creatively courageous when he decided to quietly divorce Mary after learning of her pregnancy: here we find Saint Joseph not only very courageous to face the bitter truth about Mary having a baby not his but also very creative in the sense that because of his great love for her, he did not want her exposed to extreme shame and public humiliation in breaking the seal of their betrothal.

His love for Mary found ways to spare her all the pains and hurts that may result if found with a baby not his; but after learning the truth, the more we find him creatively courageous when Joseph found so many ways to save Mother and Child from all harm and even death.

See that when Joseph accepted Mary, Jesus came forth to us while at the same time, when Joseph accepted God through the angel as expression of his deep faith and love, he took Mary as wife.

And this is what Pope Francis further explains in Patris Corde that at the end of every account in which Saint Joseph plays a role, the Gospel tells us that he gets up and takes Jesus and Mary who are the most precious treasure of our faith.

Taking Jesus and Mary like Saint Joseph as creatively courageous calls us Christians to always love the Church and the sacraments and charity, and most of all in loving the Church, we also love the poor for whom Jesus came and Mary identified herself with in her Magnificat.

In this time of the pandemic, we are called to creatively courageous in finding Jesus among those people too familiar with us and those so different from us because too often, they are the people we always take for granted, those too close to us and the strangers.

Being creatively courageous in this time of the pandemic means also being more sensitive with others especially in our words and actions that many times lack any sympathy or empathy with those living at the margins like the poor and the sick, those living alone, and those forgotten by families and by society.

Saint Joseph, a father in the shadows

I love the way Pope Francis started his Apostolic Letter about Saint Joseph because it is something very much alike with Matthew’s unique style in beginning his gospel with the genealogy of Jesus: the Holy Father began by citing how Joseph loved Jesus according to the gospels “WITH A FATHER’S HEART” written in all caps!

Pope Francis must be stressing to us these days of the need to have a father’s heart which is also rarely heard because most often, the heart is more associated with the mother. But that is what the world precisely needs now, a father’s heart like that of God our Father.

In every exercise of our fatherhood, we should always keep in mind that it has nothing to do with possession, but is rather a “sign” pointing to a greater fatherhood. In a way, we are all like Joseph: a shadow of the heavenly Father, who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mt 5:45). And a shadow that follows his Son.

Pope Francis, Patris Corde, 7
Photo is painting on acrylic (48×96) by Bulakenyo artist Aris Bagtas called “Luklukan ng Karunungan” (Seat of Wisdom) displayed at the second floor of the Library of the Immaculate Conception Major Seminary at Guiguinto, Bulacan.  A lively and beautiful rendition by Aris of Mary teaching her Son Jesus Christ while at the background is Joseph looking at them.  Used with permission.

To be with a heart of the father like God’s is to be “most chaste” like Saint Joseph which the Holy Father said is more than a sign of affection but the summation of an attitude that is the opposite of possessiveness.

Chastity is freedom from possessiveness in every sphere of one’s life. Only when love is chaste, is it truly love. A possessive love ultimately becomes dangerous: it imprisons, constricts and makes for misery. God himself loved humanity with a chaste love; he left us free even to go astray and set ourselves against him. The logic of love is always the logic of freedom, and Joseph knew how to love with extraordinary freedom. He never made himself the centre of things. He did not think of himself, but focused instead on the lives of Mary and Jesus.

Pope Francis, Patris Corde

I am so glad that Pope Francis mentioned the need to be “most chaste” as opposite of possessiveness because there is an ongoing crisis in fatherhood among us these days. Not just to biological fathers but also to fathers in the other institutions especially the Church.

Are we not priests in deep trouble with chastity these days not only with the scourge of sexual scandals and misconduct this century but also in how we have been lording it over in our parishes that we have remained an institution seen more in terms of power and control that we have never evolved to Avery Dulles’ other models of the Church like a community of disciples?

Are we not also guilty in the Church like fathers in the family and other institutions who “possessed” those below them, totally forgetting it is the Lord’s vineyard, that we are His stewards tasked to lead our flock to growth and maturity when all we think of is our own prestige and popularity that Jesus Christ is forgotten and put to the sidelights because we feel so good, so great?

In this time of pandemic amid the many temptations of social media, we priests must pause before doing all those online projects to keep in mind that we are shadows of the fatherhood of God, that like Saint Joseph, it is best for us to work in silence and as much as possible be at the background because we remain the shadows of the Son.

Fatherhood in the real and Christian sense is being a shadow not only of God the Father but also of his Son, Jesus Christ. Like John the Baptist, fathers must learn to decrease so that Jesus may increase.

Photo by author of the Chapel of St. Joseph in Nazareth (2017); below is the ancient site of his carpentry shop where Jesus grew up as a child.

Lately I have been dreaming of my late father due to so many problems coming my way. When people ask me about my vocation story, asking how it all started, I have always considered it all began with my dad. He never asked me to become a priest nor even taught me how to pray but I grew up seeing him pray daily before our altar before leaving for work and upon coming home. How I love waking up to the scent burning candles wafting through our home as he always lit candles at the altar and our grotto outside. It was from him that I learned that lesson I taught my students to have a rosary in the pocket so we may pray anywhere, any time.

The only other thing my dad taught me by personally telling me was to study hard so that we could be of service to the people and never a burden to the society.

I think that is the best thing any father can do — to form their children into another shadow of the Lord, not necessarily be like them.

A blessed day specially to all Fathers and dads!

The problem with beginning

The Lord Is My Chef Simbang Gabi Recipe-2 for the Soul 
by Fr. Nicanor F. Lalog II
Thursday, Advent Week III, 17 December 2020
Genesis 49:2, 8-10     >><)))*> + >><)))*> + >><)))*>     Matthew 1:1-17
Photo by author of sun beginning to shine over the mountain ranges Sinai Desert in Egypt, May 2019.

Yesterday we started our reflection with an old Christmas song, Do You Hear What I Hear? by Bing Crosby; today, it is Andy Williams turn to serenade us with the opening lines to the theme of the 1970 film Love Story:

Where do I begin 
To tell the story of how great a love can be 
The sweet love story that is older than the sea 
The simple truth about the love she brings to me 
Where do I start

No. I did not see that movie now a classic but I was old enough to remember its theme that became popular even for some more years during the 70’s that made Andy Williams so well-known when we were in elementary school. His song came to my mind as I grappled – which usually happened – on how to begin this reflection.

Where do I begin or how shall I begin? is one of our most common question in almost anything we start doing or telling because beginning any undertaking is always difficult. Experts have tackled it like Stephen Covey telling us to “begin with the end in sight” while Simon Sinek insists we always “start with why”.

Every beginning – like a homily or a speech, a business venture, or even an exercise program – means so much as it gives us a gist of where it is leading to, of what is going to happen.

The evangelists also wrestled with the same issue and they all have their own style in starting their gospel account but nothing beats Matthew in his most unique manner by beginning with a series of names in the genealogy of Jesus Christ. According to the late American biblical scholar Fr. Raymond Brown, he was willing to bet that if anyone is asked to tell the story of Jesus to a non-believer, no one will ever imitate Matthew by starting with Abraham begetting Isaac, Isaac is the father of…

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham became the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers. Judah became the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar…

Matthew 1:1-3
Photo by author of an oasis in the Dead Sea region of Israel, May 2017.

God the Prime Mover, the Beginning of everything

Today we shift our focus in our Advent preparations to the first coming of Jesus Christ when he was born in Bethlehem more than 2000 years ago. Strictly speaking, the Church’s official countdown to Christmas begins only today when all our weekday readings from December 17-24 are focused on how the birth of Jesus happened.

And what a way to start this series with the gospel by Matthew that begins with “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham”! The Greek is more literal in stating it as “The book of the genesis of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”

That makes Matthew’s gospel so unique by starting it with names that all sound so weird to us today.
So, what’s with the names? Of course, a name is everything!

Companies and organizations pay huge amounts of money for their trademarks and logos like Coca-Cola, IBM, and Apple. Some corporate or product names have in fact entered our vocabulary like Xerox for copiers, Colgate for toothpaste and Frigidaire for refrigerators.

Every name carries a story, a meaning, a mission, even a destiny. How sad that we Filipinos rarely take this seriously especially in giving names to children that often becomes a joke or a disaster, or both. But to foreigners especially the Jewish people, a name is more than an identification but also one’s mission.

When we examine each name in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, we discover it is just like our own family trees with some men and women not really that exceptional, even a shame and an embarrassment to the family. Behind each name we have heard is an imperfect person -except for Joseph and Mary – with so many sins and mistakes.

And that is the good news of today: God does not call the qualified but qualifies His call.

Everything begins with God – our lives and coming into being. In all eternity, God perfectly knows everything that will happen to us and yet He chose to believe in us, despite our imperfections and being prone to sin that He sent us to this world with a mission to make His Son our Lord Jesus come into the world through us, just like his ancestors.

Photo by author, Mt. St. Paul Spirituality Center, La Trinidad, Benguet, January 2020.

From the imperfect “house of King David” to Jesus Christ’s eternal kingdom

Let us take the first name mentioned by Matthew in starting his gospel, David who makes this genealogy so interesting. In fact, it was on him the whole genealogy is structured by Matthew. And we all know how imperfect was David, of how he had sinned when he took Bathsheba the wife of army officer Uriah whom he ordered placed in a position that got him killed in a battle.

But that is how God works – so unlike us! God is a God of surprises who works so unpredictably unlike us humans. Imagine after all the sex scandals with Bathsheba, God still promised an eternal kingdom coming from the house of David, that of Jesus Christ: “Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me; your throne shall stand firm forever” (2 Sam.7:16, first reading on Sunday and morning of Thursday).

At the end of his genealogy of Jesus, Matthew added this interesting note:

Thus the total number of of generations from Abraham to David is fourteen generations; from David to the Babylonian exile, fourteen generations; from the Babylonian exile to the Christ, fourteen generations.

Matthew 1:17

Matthew is up to something here! Why build around the history of Israel and genealogy of Jesus Christ around a person who had gravely sinned against God and others?

Most likely. Remember how Matthew experienced God’s mercy and forgiveness when Jesus came to call him while at his tax collection booth and he immediately stood and left everything behind to follow the Lord. Matthew knew well that God is not like humans who box people and label them like things.

Caravaggio’s famous painting of the call of Matthew by Jesus from wikicommons.org.

In assembling to us three sets of fourteen generations that traced the coming of Jesus Christ from Abraham structured around David, Matthew shows us how God worked through this sinful man a series of new “beginnings” in life, both in grace and in sin. See the genealogy rising from Abraham to David, then its decline and descent from Solomon to the Babylonian Exile, and then rising again to the advent of Jesus.

Now try to imagine how great and loving is our God and Father who chose to believe in David, a person just like us with many imperfections and prone to sins! See His power and holiness in setting any sinful situation for new beginnings of grace and blessings.


Sometimes,
God uses our occasions of sins
as new beginnings 
of His grace and blessings.

One thing I have realized in life is that our most unforgettable moments happen either when we are nearest, or farthest away from God.

This is very amazing. Consider when are we closest to God? Most often that is when we were high and good, feeling blessed and loved, when healthy and successful that were ironically the times we rarely thought of God. We only remember those moments as our closest with God after being away in fact from Him!

And when are we farthest from God? Quickly we say when we were deep in sin, when lost, or when unloved and misunderstood.

Between these two moments, it is most often when we are farthest from God that is always most unforgettable, the ones we remember always, the ones that have left the deepest cut in us because those times in turn have become occasions for us to begin anew in God!

Like David. Or Matthew known before as Levi the tax collector.

Photo by author of the Lake of Galilee shortly after sunrise, May 2019.

That is how God sometimes would make it for us to begin anew in Him! See how at the first set of fourteen generations from Abraham to David, we find the whole history of Israel so close with God punctuated by Egypt and Exodus when their sins “turned” into their favor. In the second set of fourteen generations from Solomon to the Babylonian exile, the Israelites sank into their lowest point in history when led by their kings they turned away from God, worshipping idols. But, God did not abandon them as we see in the third set of fourteen generations when things got better as the Israelites returned to God and to their Promised Land reaching its high point in Jesus Christ’s birth.

God is the beginning of everything and even if we try to “end” with our many sins what He had began, He always finds ways to begin anew even when we are so far away from Him.

This is also the meaning of the Jacob’s choice for Judah over his other sons in being the tribe to continue his family line leading to the fulfillment of the Davidic lineage in Jesus Christ. It was from Judah came the name of their religion “Judaism” even if Judah was not the best and holiest of Jacob’s sons. Joseph the Dreamer must have been the wisest choice as more suitable to have been blessed by their father or by God himself but, that is not the way of God.

By starting his gospel with the line “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham”, Matthew shows us God’s total power and goodness as source and beginning of all good things who also has the last and final say in everything.

In the genealogy of Jesus, we are reminded that every day is a new beginning in God, right in our darkness and sin, in our sickness and pandemic. David like Judah may have sinned so great before God but His mercy and love proved greater than their sins that they were able to rise again to become better and holier in His grace.

That’s one great beginning we can start right here, right now in our Simbang Gabi! A blessed Thursday to you! Amen.

Photo by Marc Angelo Nicolas Carpio, our Parish at night, 29 November 2020.

Blessed be God forever!

The Lord Is My Chef Simbang Gabi Recipe, 24 December 2019

2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8-12, 14, 16 ><)))*> <*(((>< Luke 1:67-79

Marker on the Church where St. John the Baptist is believed to have been born in Ein Karem, Jerusalem. Photo by author, May 2019.

At last!

These are most likely the two words we must be saying today on this ninth day of our Simbang Gabi.

Finally, we have completed the nine day novena to the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ for tonight will be Christmas.

But, more than being the last day of our novena, today is also the beginning of better days ahead for us all starting with Christmas!

From this day on, let us imitate Zechariah in his new found faith, hope and love in God expressed in his song of praise and thanksgiving after recovering his sense of hearing and speaking after nine months of forced silence.

“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for he has come to his people and set them free. He has raised up for us a mighty Savior, born of the house of his servant David.”

Luke 1:68-69
Sunrise at the Lake of Galilee, the Holy Land. Photo by author, May 2019.

Three canticles of praise, three prayers of faith

Popularly known as the Benedictus from its Latin opening verse “Blessed be God”, this is the second of the three canticles St. Luke tells us Zechariah had sang after naming his son “John”.

The other two songs are the Magnificat by Mary during her Visitation of Elizabeth and the third is the Nunc Dimittis by Simeon upon seeing the child Jesus during his presentation at the Temple of Jerusalem.

These canticles or songs make up the beautiful Christmas story by St. Luke who put them onto the mouths of Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon to signify their being filled with the Holy Spirit in experiencing the coming of Jesus Christ: Mary sang “my soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord” during the Visitation in response to the praises by Elizabeth (Lk.1:46-55) while Simeon the prophet prayed to God to “let him go in peace” – to die – after seeing the coming of the Savior (Lk.2:29-32).

These eventually became part of the prayers of the Church (Liturgy of the Hours) we priests and religious are obliged to pray day in, day out:

  1. Benedictus in the morning to show how willing are we to face the new day by making our Savior Jesus Christ present in our lives like St. John the Baptizer, his precursor;
  2. Magnificat in the evening to praise and thank God in working his salvation in us through Jesus Christ;
  3. Nunc Dimittis at night before bedtime to signify our readiness to die and finally be one with God in Jesus Christ.

They are our “spiritual vitamins” that fill us with the Holy Spirit to strengthen and deepen our relationship with the Father in Jesus Christ which every Christian may pray too to experience and be one with God daily.

Pilgrims waiting outside the Church of St. John the Baptist in Ein Karem, Jerusalem. On the walls are the translation into different languages of the world, including Filipino, of Zechariah’s Benedictus. Photo by author, May 2019.

Why God is blessed according to Zechariah

The Benedictus signifies Zechariah’s coming to full circle after nine months of forced silence after doubting the angel’s message that he and Elizabeth would finally have a son.

Our sacristy, Advent 2019.

In singing the Benedictus, Zechariah did not only recover his power of speech but most of all showed the fruits of his nine months of silence and prayer preparing for the birth of his son John as well as, ultimately, for Christ’s coming (his song indicates it).

Finally, Zechariah has been healed of his pains and hurts that prevented him in experiencing God, in believing in his powers again, giving him more reasons to hope and be joyful.

This is the reason we also have the Advent Season when we try to dispose ourselves more to Christ’s coming to us not only at Christmas but everyday in our lives.

Zechariah mentions three powerful verbs why he praised God: for he has come to his people, set them free, and has raised up a mighty Savior.

God has come to us

Zechariah first experienced God coming to him when the angel announced to him John’s birth while incensing at the temple during the Day of Atonement. Unfortunately, he was “absent” at God’s “presence” that he questioned how Elizabeth would bear a child.

Everything now changes not only because he had seen his own son but he himself experienced God’s coming in his life.

Sometimes, our pains and hurts, frustrations and disappointments, defeats and failures blind us, numb us that we cannot see, we cannot experience God coming to us in every brand new day he gives us, through the people we meet with their smiles and greetings, with our family and friends who have have stayed with us in good times and bad.

Every morning we wake up to reminds us God has come to us. Rise and meet him in joy, entrust the new day to him, and ask for the grace to remain in him!

God has set us free

Every time God comes, there is always freedom – freedom from evil and sin, freedom from the past and all its pains and hurts, freedom from guilt feelings, freedom everything that prevents us from being truly free to be our own, good sel, to be free and faithful to love and forgive others too.

Carmelite Monastery, Guiguinto, Bulacan. Photo by author, November 2019.

Literally speaking, Zechariah felt free again to speak and express himself fully. But more than that is the experience to go and live fully in God.

We can never experience Christmas if we cannot assert this freedom Christ had won for us when he died on the Cross. Forget all those “hugot” lines and move forward with life.

The name of God is “I AM” because he is always in the PRESENT, never in the past nor in the future.

That is why each new day is a gift, a present from God who as set us free from yesterday’s mistakes and failures and sins.

Go and be free for God!

God has raised up for us a mighty Savior

Christmas is not a date but an event, a person we experience in Jesus Christ who is a dialogue himself according to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Jesus is always communing with us, inviting us to be one in him in his love.

In his Benedictus, Zechariah is also professing the saving work of God in Jesus Christ who became human like us in everything except sin. God is so blessed because of his great love for us, he chose to enter, or intervene into human history to bring us into eternal life by faith in Christ Jesus.

To raise up is a strong term also indicating the Paschal mystery Christ will go through, the ultimate communion of God into our own lowliness of suffering and death to bring us into the glorious victory of his resurrection.

Every morning, every day we are reminded by Zechariah of the words of the angel Gabriel to Mary regarding the birth of John: nothing is impossible with God.

And Zechariah had experienced this first hand when his barren and old wife Elizabeth conceived their child John.

May we have a renewed faith, hope and love in God at the closing of our Simbang Gabi this year. Like David in the first reading, rest be assured of God’s plan for each of us. Let us be patient to wait and prepare always for his coming like Zechariah even in his old age. Amen.

Birthplace of St. John the Baptist at Ein Karen, Jerusalem. Photo by author, May 2019.

God is gracious

The Lord Is My Chef Simbang Gabi Recipe, 23 December 2019

Malachi 3:1-4, 23-24 ><)))*> ><)))*> ><)))*> Luke 1:57-66

Facade of the Church of St. John the Baptist in Eim Karen where the precursor of the Lord was born. Not to be confused with Church of the Visitation at its other side in the same town. Photo by author, May 2019

Two days before Christmas, St. Luke brings us back to the continuation of his first story about Christmas: the birth of John the Baptizer.

When the time arrived for Elizabeth to have her child she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her, and they rejoiced with her. When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child, they were going to call him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said in reply, “No. He will be called John.” But they answered her, “There is no one among your relatives who has this name.” So they made signs, asking his father what he wished him to be called. He asked for a tablet and wrote, “John is his name,” and all were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God.

Luke 1:57-64
Site where St. John the Baptist is believed to have been born. Photo by author, May 2019.

Where is God leading me?

Christmas is almost here. And it is not yet too late in these last two days of Advent that we try some “last ditch efforts” to spiritually prepare ourselves for this joyous season by asking just one question following the story of John’s birth:

“Where is God leading me?”

See the artistry of St. Luke, at how he began his Christmas story with the annunciation of the birth of John to his father Zechariah while incensing the Holy of Holies of the Temple in Jerusalem.

He doubted the good news and he was silenced by the angel until John was born.

Today, after three days, or nine months to be exact, St. Luke brings him back into the scene set free from his punishment. Zechariah was able to speak again when he concurred with his wife’s desire to name their child John by writing it on a tablet.

The name John in Hebrew is Jehohan which means “God is gracious” or “graciousness of God”.

Advent and Christmas are a story of how each one of us is a John, a graciousness of God, of us people so blessed by God to fulfill his promise of salvation in Jesus Christ.

But do we realize the many blessings we have from God?

The other night I saw an interesting post on Facebook from one of my former students in high school. It was from a woman sharing her experience while waiting in line at an ATM that has now gone viral.

She claimed that at first, she felt so bad at what was taking three people so long at the ATM to withdraw their cash. But when she got nearer, she overheard their conversations.

It turned out the three were given a bonus of Php 2000.00 each by their boss.

And they were extremely happy, so thankful, telling each other how they would prepare spaghetti and fruit salad on Christmas eve!

And the woman who posted the photo realized how those simple folks were so thankful for Php 2000.00 bonus when she and others like her who get more than that amount still complain?!

Very nice reflection!

Advent gives us four weeks to remember God’s graciousness to us this past year. The bountiful blessings we have had which we take for granted. Worst, we even complain with!

Altar of the Church of St. John the Baptist, Israel. When we came there last May, it was being closed for major restorations expected to last for years.

Whenever we see and count our blessings, do we ever thank God and ask him too where he is leading us to?

Zechariah was already old, had a great chance of incensing the Holy of Holies at their most important feast, doubted God’s grace but eventually still received it after nine months of silence.

By his action, Zechariah had shown how he had grown in faith during those nine months of “forced silence”, of how he had start to believe again in God, hope again, and practically live life anew!

Tremendous graces in just nine months being silent. Imagine that.

And we can have more grace today until tomorrow being silent, reflecting, praying as we count one by one the many blessings we have received this year.

Call it ageing gracefully, a grace in itself wherein as we grow old, we continue to find direction in life, we continue to find God leading us to him, for a specific mission to fulfill.

Dome of the Church of St. John the Baptist in Israel. Photo by author, May 2019.

Yesterday we have reflected that we are like St. Joseph entrusted with a special mission from God. That God “needs” us to bring Jesus, to care and protect Jesus here in the world. Each of us has a special part or role to play in God’s Divine plan in Jesus Christ.

Never lose hope in life. No matter what is our situation in life, God continues to work in us, working for us, inviting us to work with him.

It is interesting to know that the name Zechariah means “God remembers” while Elizabeth means “God has promised or vowed”.

If their names are brought together, we can see the complete picture why St. Luke started his Christmas story with Zechariah, Elizabeth, and John and not with Jospeh or Mary right away: they all mean “God is gracious because he remembers his promise always”!

May we always trust God and ask him where he is leading each of us this Christmas no matter what is our status in life. Amen.

Holy presence in hiddenness

The Lord Is My Chef Simbang Gabi Recipe, 19 December 2019

Judges 13:2-7, 24-25 ><)))*> ><)))*> ><)))*> Luke 1:15-25

The Walls of Jerusalem, May 2019. Photo by the author.

From St. Matthew, we now move to the Christmas story by St. Luke that starts in the temple of Jerusalem. And surprisingly, not precisely with Jesus or his parents.

In the days of Herod, King of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah of the priestly division of Abijah; his wife was from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both were righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren and both were advanced in years. Once when he was serving as priest in his division’s turn before God, according to the practice of the priestly service, he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord to burn incense. Then, when the whole assembly of the people was praying outside at the hour of the incense offering, the angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right of the altar of incense.

Luke 1:5-11

We know what happened, of how Zechariah doubted the good news announced to him about the birth of his son John the Baptizer.

Many times in our lives, especially in this age of too much communications in the social media where everything is exposed, we hardly notice the best and nicest things in life happening in silence, mostly in hiddenness.

And the saddest part of this present reality is that it is God whom we miss in this “overexposures” we have in social media because he always comes to us hidden in the most ordinary and simple things in life.

Yesterday St. Joseph taught us the need to value silence and stillness in the Lord as an important lesson in facing life’s many adversarial situations.

Today we hear Zechariah forcibly silenced to experience the Lord’s power and grace, his very presence in fact.

An inside section of the remaining Walls of Jerusalem. Photo by author, May 2019.

God’s presence hidden in our time and space

Advent is the season that reminds us that God comes to us always hidden in our very time and space. Unless we know how to be silent and simple, we shall never experience the Divine presence that has covered the whole world ever since.

Of the four evangelists, St. Luke is the only one who claims to have “investigated everything accurately” about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ (Lk.1:3). That is why he has the most stories and details about Christmas.

For St. Luke, Christmas begins with the coming of St. John the Baptizer, Jesus Christ’s precursor. In a very unique manner, he tells us how God’s presence came through a husband and wife yearning so much to have a child of their own, Zechariah and Elizabeth, both belonging to the upper crust of the Jewish society having descended from the priestly families.

In fact, Zechariah was a priest who was so blessed that Day of Atonement known as the Yom Kippur of the Jews that happens around September 18-24. (That is how we come to celebrate Christmas on December 25: Elizabeth conceived John in September, giving birth to him in June 24; tomorrow, we shall hear in the Annunciation to Mary that Elizabeth was six months pregnant which falls on March 24. Simple math, we arrive at December 25 as Christ’s birthdate.)

Praying at the Wall, May 2019.

During the Yom Kippur, priests drew lots on who would incense the Holy of Holies where the “Ark of the Covenant” was kept containing the stone tablets of God’s commandments given to Moses. It was the closest thing they have as signs of God’s presence among them. Hence, until now they venerate and pray at the “wailing Wall” of Jerusalem because that is supposed to be the only remaining structure of their temple destroyed in 70 AD closest to that part of the Holy of Holies.

It was so rare at that time to be assigned to incense the Holy of Holies because there were so many priests drawing lots and only one would be chosen for the rite that happens about twice daily for the whole week. It was a tremendous blessing indeed to be chosen to incense the Holy of Holies.

Here we find St. Luke setting the stage of his Christmas story to remind us all that God comes right into our time and space, in our history, in our here and now.

See his descriptions:

  1. It happened in a specific time during during “the days of Herod, King of Judea”, when Zechariah was “chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord to burn incense” while people were outside praying and waiting.
  2. It happened in a specific place, the temple of Jerusalem.
  3. Most of all, it happened to real people, “Zechariah of the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was from the daughters of Aaron.”
A view from the Walls of Jerusalem of the Jewish section; dome is the Moslem section, Mount of Olives at the background. Photo by author, May 2017.

The Presence of God, the Absence of Man

When we are deeply hurt and disappointed, we are usually less rational. Worst, although we try to keep our faith alive, that is also when we doubt God, refusing to recognize his presence among us, and even right in us.

In this story of the annunciation of the birth of John the Baptizer, we find God giving Zechariah the tremendous grace to approach his Divine presence by having the rare opportunity to incense the Holy of Holies.

Most of all, at their most important feast when priests gather in the temple to pray for the people and for their personal intentions, God sent Zechariah the angel Gabriel to personally tell him his and Elizabeth’s prayers have been heard and granted!

But what happened? Zechariah doubted, even questioned God!

“How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”

Luke 1:18

That’s the problem with us: God is always present but we are always absent that we never meet him. And every time he comes to visit us, we are so busy with so many other things.

If we cannot see and experience God in the most ordinary things and events in our lives, nothing would be enough to convince us of his love and mercy, of his presence and power.

That is why Zechariah was silenced by the angel, who, by the way, is already the presence of God yet Zechariah doubted.

This remaining week before Christmas, let us try to have some silence, or better, let us create a space for silence and solitude to experience God’s loving presence among us, in us.

It is only in silence where we can truly learn how to trust and be intimate with God and with our loved ones because it is only in silence where we can dare to open our selves to God and to others.

Let “the spirit of the Lord stir” you like Samson in the first reading (Jgs.13:25) this Christmas by creating silent moments with Jesus. Amen.

Inclusive Christmas

The Lord Is My Chef Simbang Gabi Recipe, 16 December 2019

Isaiah 56:1-3. 6-8 ><)))*> ><)))*> ><)))*> John 5:33-36

Our Parish Altar, Simbang Gabi 2018. Photo by author.

When we were still seminarians, our spiritual director became a victim of “hold-up” while walking home from an evening mass nearby. He is now a Trappist monk at Guimaras, a very kind and gentle priest we fondly call “Fr. Esteng”.

According to Fr. Esteng, everything happened so fast. But, after taking all his money, the suspect demanded Fr. Esteng’s big bag too, his “mass kit”. This time, Fr. Esteng refused to give into the demand of the hold-up man, insisting there’s nothing of value inside because they are things for celebrating the Mass of which no one would really buy.

To convince the hold-up man, Fr. Esteng got the “brilliant idea” of inviting the suspect to come with him to the seminary to get some food so he would no longer need more money.

Good that the hold up man did not accept the “invitation” of our good priest who got some “scolding” the following morning from his brother priests the following day after learning his brilliant idea, telling him to never to invite thieves into the seminary again!

“For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the dispersed of Israel: Others will I gather to him besides those already gathered.”

Isaiah 56:7b-8

Inclusive God, exclusive people.

Praying at the Wall of Jerusalem Temple, 2017.

Welcome everyone!

It’s the start of our Simbang Gabi, our nine-day novena before the Lord’s birthday on Christmas.

God tells us in the first reading how he welcomes everyone into his house without any exceptions. That is how good and loving our God who is not contented in calling us all into his house but even sent us his only Son Jesus Christ to gather and lead us back to him.

Our God is very inclusive, always including everyone especially those rejected, those in the margins.

So unlike us people who are very exclusive and judgmental of others too.

We want everything exclusively ours. Just us. And when we meet strangers, those who do not look like us or do not speak and dress like us, we feel uncomfortable.

Worst is when we meet people of different faith and beliefs that we feel uneasy and even threatened simply because they are not like us!

It is good that for this final year before we celebrate our 500 years of Christianization, our bishops have dedicated 2020 to be the “Year of Ecumenism, Interreligious Dialogue, and Indigenous Peoples”.

This is to “celebrate human fraternity by promoting the culture of dialogue as a path of peace.” The Church wants to “work for unity and harmony while respecting diversity and to recognize peoples’ identities, spiritualities and ancestral domain.”

Logo for the Year of Ecumenism, Interreligious Dialogue, and Indigenous Peoples.

Jesus told the crowd, “But I have testimony greater than John’s. The works that the Father gave me to accomplish, these works that I perform testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me.”

John 5:36

See everyone and everything in Christ.

In our gospel today, Jesus was questioned by the Jews for healing a man sick for 38 years on a sabbath day at Bethesda.

Jesus was so different from them who have fallen into rituals and replaced God himself with their laws and traditions. They wanted Jesus stopped and even put to death simply because he did things so differently when, in fact, he was trying to bring back what was lost like the precedence of God and human life over laws and rituals.

Pope Francis reminds us that the Church exists to remind us that God loves and welcomes everyone. He is absolutely right that so often it happens right in our churches, in our celebrations we go on our own exclusivistic ways forgetting we are supposed to be a community.

On this first day of our Simbang Gabi, let us focus more on Jesus so we may find him among other people easily because when we are focused with our “work” and ministry, the more we see ourselves and forget Christ among the poor and marginalized.

Do we find Jesus when we serve and celebrate the liturgy or do we simply have ourselves?

Is it Jesus Christ whom we share with others in our dealings and service in the Church or our proud self?

Where is Jesus really in our lives today that we simply do things for the sake of doing it, because it is a tradition and not because of a personal conviction and relationship with him?

A blessed Monday to you!

Our sacristy, Advent 2018. Photo by author.

Advent is God Leading Us to New Directions in Life

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The Lord Is My Chef Simbang Gabi Recipe-9
24 December 2018
2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8-12, 14, 16///Luke 1:67-79

            Finally!  It is the word of the day.

            Finally we have completed the nine-day novena of Christmas but that is not the true joy of our annual Simbang Gabi tradition.  What is most essential is in these nine days of rising early for the novena, we have rediscovered Jesus Christ in ourselves and among others while at the same time recommitted ourselves to Him again as our only fulfillment in life.  I hope that in the past nine days we have rediscovered and even brought back somehow to our lives our sense of the sacred that is now fast fading out in our very consumerist society.  Through the many religious symbolisms found in our liturgies and readings these Advent season, it is hoped that we have rediscovered God – as well as our sense of the sacred – who is the most meaningful and essential in life.  

            Finally today also, we find the only male character in St. Luke’s story of the coming of Christmas regaining his stature after being on the distaff side, Zechariah.  After disbelieving the good news of (finally) having a son through the angel Gabriel’s annunciation at the Temple when he was forced into silence by becoming mute and deaf, Zechariah was finally able to speak again after declaring his son shall be named John.  And his very first words after being silent for nine months were praises to God the Almighty like Mary during the Visitation.  Called theBenedictus, Zechariah affirmed and confirmed in himself first the reality and truth of God being present in our lives amid the many twists and turns in life, narrating His reality and fidelity to His promises from the time of the Patriarchs and the Prophets of Israel down to the birth of John who would prepare the Christ.  In effect, Zechariah had finally come into a full circle in singing the Benedictus:  like his wife Elizabeth and son still in her womb John, St. Luke tells us how Zechariah was also filled with the Holy Spirit at that instance on the naming of John when he prophesied, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel” (Lk.1:68).

          Zechariah shows today the fruits of his “forced silence” that had deepened his priesthood that is very evident in the opening line of Benedictus, giving glory to God for His fidelity and mighty acts to save Israel.  It is very similar with some of the popular parts of the psalms that every Jew prays.  There are three important reasons that Zechariah tells us why God is blessed:  “for he has come to his people and set them free,  he has raised up for us a mighty Savior, born of the house of his servant David” (Lk.1:68-69).  What is amazing in the Benedictus is that the verbs are in the past tense, of the works of God being done in the past like visiting His people, setting them free or redeeming them by sending Jesus Christ.  Like the Magnificat, it is a looking back and a looking forward to more great things God has in store for us.  Zechariah is reminding how God has never stopped working wonders for us, speaking and acting through prophets so many years ago even before the coming of Christ who is the fulfillment of all His promises.

           We have mentioned how we priests and other religious and consecrated persons sing the Magnificat every evening; the Benedictus, on the other hand, is sung every morning prayers called lauds.  As we face a new day, like Zechariah at the birth of his son John, we look back and remember so that in the process we renew our faith and trust in God who never stops in working for our good.  We praise God and put our trust and confidence in Him for every new day, hoping He would continue to visit us, redeem us, and raise us up from the many challenges we are going to face. But most of all, we are reminded too by Zechariah at this time, on the eve of Christmas, to ponder in our hearts where the Lord is leading us to?  Zechariah had seen the hand of God in Israel’s history, in his own life, and could see it also present in the coming life of his son John.  It is very clear that God is our leader in life, the invisible hand who directs us.  When we come to think of it, Zechariah’s forced silence was a way for him to rediscover again his sense of God and his sense of the sacred.  So many times for us, including us priests that although we keep our prayers and devotions, they are devoid of God.  One of the things this generation is fast losing is that sense of the sacred when everything is not taken for granted and trivialized.  How I hate before the Metro Film Festival during Christmas when we as the only Christian nation in this part of the world celebrates the merriest and longest Christmas are feasting on movies about evil and horror movies.  At least these past few years, there have been marked improvements in our film industry with great movies coming out.  Last year I was able to see the adaptation of Nick Joaquin’s “Portrait of the Filipino as Artist” that was magnificent in its interpretation of the play.
 
          On these remaining hours of the day before Christmas, imitate Zechariah to get some silent moments with our self and with God to reflect on where is the Lord leading us to this Christmas?  What direction in life is He asking us to follow?  In the first reading we have heard God asking David to stop his plans of building a temple for Him.  There was nothing wrong with building a temple but it was not the plan of God for David but for his son Solomon.  The same thing with us:  no matter how good our plans are for God and for others, it is the direction God has for us?  We can never prepare the way of the Lord unless we first sub it to His plan and follow His directions.  A blessed Christmas to you! AMEN. Fr. Nicanor F. Lalog II, Parokya ng San Juan Apostol at Ebanghelista, Gov. F. Halili Ave., Bagbaguin, Sta. Maria, Bulacan.
*Photo by author, altar linen of our Parish Church.  May we follow God’s directions for our lives.

Advent is God’s Tenderness and Sweetness

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The Lord Is My Chef Simbang Gabi Recipe-8
Fourth Sunday of Advent, 23 December 2018
Micah 5:1-4///Hebrews 10:5-10///Luke 1:39-45

            Christmas is a story of love, about the meeting of lovers with God as the Great Lover who gave us His only Son because of His immense love for us.  Unfortunately, this love of Christmas is often presented in the cheesy songs as romantic love like in “Pasko na Sinta Ko”and “Last Christmas”.  The word “lovers” may be too serious as a term for us to relate this with today’s gospel the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth; but, the truth is, both women were so in love with God who clearly loved them so much with children in their womb bound to change the course of human history forever.  They in turn, were also filled with love for each other as expression of their love for God.  And when there is love, there is always tenderness and sweetness that all happen in the context of a visitation that we first try to reflect upon.

             Visit and visitation may seem to be one and the same in the sense that both have a common Latin root word, the verb to see, “vidi, videre” from which came the word video.  But, a visit is more casual and informal without intimacy because it is just “a passing by” or merely to see.  It is more concerned with the place or the location and site and not the person to be visited.   We say it clearly in Filipino as in “napadaan lang” when it just so happened you were passing by a place and even without any intentions, you tried seeing someone there.  On the other hand, visitation is more commonly used in church language like when a bishop or priests come to see the parishioners in remote places.  This is the reason a chapel is more known as a visita in our country because that is where priests visit and check on the well-being of people living in areas very far from the parish usually at the town proper.  Aside from being the venue for the celebration of Masses, the visita serves as classroom for catechism classes and other religious even social gatherings in a particular place.  Thus, visitation connotes a deeper sense in meaning because there is an expression care and concern among people, a kind of love shared by the visitator/visitor and the one visited like Mary and Elizabeth.  Visitation is more of entering into someone’s life or personhood as reported by St. Luke on Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth where Mary “entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth” (Lk.1:40),  implying communion or the sharing of a common experience.  In this case, the two women shared the great experience of being blessed with the presence of God in their wombs!

          Visitation, therefore, is a sharing or oneness in the joys and pains of those dear to us.  The word becomes more meaningful when we try to examine its Filipino equivalent which is “pagdalaw” from the root word “dala” that can be something you bring or a verb to bring.  When we come for a visitation, we dala or bring something like food or any gift.  But most of all we bring our very selves like a gift of presence wherein we share our total selves with our time and talents, joys and sadness, and everything to those being visited.  And that is what Mary did exactly in her visitation of Elizabeth where she brought with her the Lord Jesus Christ in her womb, becoming the first monstrance of the Lord as well as His first tabernacle.  We are invited to become like Mary in the visitation of others to bring Christmas and Jesus Himself to others by allowing our very body to be the “bringer” or “taga-dala” of Christ.  The Lord Himself is the highest good we can bring as pasalubong in ever visitation we make.  And if we can only be like Mary in our visitations and dealings with one another sharing Jesus Christ, then we also bring with us God’s tenderness and sweetness to others.  In a world that admires toughness and roughness, qualities like tenderness and sweetness are so rare to find these days.  How sad, even tragic is the viral video of bullying at the Junior High School of the Ateneo last week that has spawned other forms of bullying with everybody lynching on the bully, making all kinds of jokes out of the incident while forgetting the bigger bullies we have in the halls of power these days.  See that the two most popular presidents ever elected won the hearts of many voters because of their macho image of astig or sanggano, relishing their pugnacious character and behavior with matching cuss words and street talk, exactly the bullies we often condemn?!

             Back to our topic…tenderness and sweetness in Filipino are often translated in just one word which is “malambing” from “lambing” that has no direct English translation except that it connotes a loving affection; but, both terms are more than just affections but stirrings from the heart that move us into action.  Tenderness is very much like gentleness; the former is more focused while the latter is very general attitude.  Tenderness is more than being soft and gentle but an awareness of the other person’s weaknesses, needs and vulnerabilities.  A tender person is one who tries not to add more insult to one’s injuries or rub salt onto one’s wounds so to speak.  A tender person is one who tries to soothe and calm a hurting person, trying to heal his/her wounds like God often portrayed in many instances in the bible in lovingly dealing with sinners filled with mercy.  Like God, a person filled with tenderness is one who comes to comfort and heal the sick and those taking on a lot of beatings in life.  When Jesus Christ came, He also personified this tenderness of God like when He is moved with pity and compassion for the sick, the widows, the women and the children and the voiceless in the society.  Tenderness is coming to heal the wounds of those wounded and hurt, trying to “lullaby” the restless and sleepless.  Mary visited Elizabeth because she also knew the many wounds of her cousin who for a long time bore no child, living in “disgrace before others” as she had claimed (Lk.1:25).

            Sweetness always goes with tenderness.  It is the essence of God who is love.  Anyone who loves is always sweet that always comes naturally from within, bringing out good vibes.  It is never artificial like Splenda, always flowing freely and naturally that leaves a good taste and feeling to anyone.  In the Hail Holy Queen, Mary is portrayed as “O clement, O sweet Virgin Mary” to show her sweetness as a mother.  According to the late Fr. Henri Nouwen in his book “The Return of the Prodigal Son”, we are all invited to be like God in having both the qualities of a father and mother in Him.  Basing his reflections on the painting by Rembrandt of the said parable, God has a father’s hand that is supportive, empowering and encouraging and a mother’s hand that is consoling, caressing, and comforting.  There are no pretensions and pompousness in being sweet, never needs much effort to exert in showing it for it comes out naturally and instantly.

            Tenderness and sweetness are the most God-like qualities we all have but have buried deep into our innermost selves, refusing them to come out because of our refusal to love for fears of getting hurt and left behind or, even lost.  When Mary heard about Elizabeth’s condition, she simply followed her human and motherly instincts that are in fact so Godly – she went in haste to visit her.  Tenderness and sweetness are the twin gifts of Christmas to humanity when God almighty became little and vulnerable like us so we can be great and powerful like Him in being able to love.  Let me end this long reflection with a quotation from the classic novel “The Plague” by Albert Camus:  “A loveless world is a dead world, and always there comes an hour when one is weary of prisons, of one’s work, and of devotion to duty, and all one craves for is a loved face, the warmth and wonder of a loving heart.”  Let that love in you come out this Christmas and hereafter, simply be human like the child Jesus and be surprised at its tremendous power to change the world like God Almighty.  AMEN. Fr. Nicanor F. Lalog II, Parokya ng San Juan Apostol at Ebanghelista, Gov. F. Halili Ave., Bagbaguin, Sta. Maria, Bulacan.

*Photo by the author, our Nativity scene at the side of the church with the manger still empty.  Be the Child Jesus Christ, be tender and sweet to someone going through hard times in life, to someone suffering in silence.  Let them feel Christ, let them be touched by God with your concrete love of tenderness and sweetness.

Advent is Looking Back – and Forward – to God’s Goodness

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The Lord Is My Chef Simbang Gabi Recipe-7
22 December 2018
1Samuel 1:24-28///Luke 1:46-56

          Mary’s prominence lies not only in giving birth to Jesus Christ but more of her being His perfect disciple, the first Christian, the first receiver and doer of the Word who became flesh in her womb.  After sharing Christ with Elizabeth in the Visitation, Mary now sings the Magnificat like the song of Hannah in the first reading when she was gifted by God with the child Samuel despite her barrenness.  It is very amazing that the Blessed Virgin Mary is the only person who has appeared most – five times – as a cover of the TIME Magazine.  Likewise, her Magnificat is said to be the only poem that has been set to music more than any other in the whole history.  Almost every great musician has worked on Mary’s canticle like Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi and Rachmaninoff while for over a thousand years it had been sung or recited in the evening in monasteries around the world following St. Benedict’s rule in the sixth century. The Magnificat is a song of praise and thanksgiving to God, Mary’s own experience of God not only in her own life but also in her cousin Elizabeth who was barren and old yet conceived a child to become the Lord’s precursor, John the Baptizer.  At the Visitation, Elizabeth praised Mary but when it was Mary’s turn to speak, she praised God instead of Elizabeth contrary to common gesture of returning her favour because it was very clear with her that every gift is from God, and the greatest gift we can all have from God is His Son Jesus Christ whose birthday we celebrate on Tuesday.

            What is so remarkable with the Magnificat is its Advent flavor:  it is not only a praise and thanksgiving to God for all the wondrous things He had done to Mary and to us all but also a song of looking forward to more blessings to come from Him!  That is what Advent is all about, a looking back to the first Christmas and a joyful waiting for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ!  This is very evident in her opening lines, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior.  For he has looked upon his lowly servant.  From this day all generations will call me blessed:  the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name” (Lk.1:46-49).  It is definitely a fruit of her prayer or gestational silence we mentioned the other day like what Elizabeth did.  Mary took into her inmost being the message of the angel to rejoice as a highly favored one of God, acknowledging the work of grace in her despite her stature in life.  Again we find here some strong Jewish flavors of which Mary must be aware of like the expression “the Almighty has done great things for me” which has strong roots in the Old Testament experience of the Israelites and their prophets when God saved them from Egypt and so many trials.  Think of the great things God has done to you also and rejoice!  Look back to the past 12 months and here we are, still together although some badly beaten with some even bruised in life but like Mary and Elizabeth meeting together, there are so many reasons for us to celebrate and thank the Almighty for the great things He had done to us.  And the most wonderful blessing next to God is the gift of family and friends around us, like the two cousins, a beautiful imagery of two pregnant women rejoicing together, celebrating life as they looked back in their personal lives and in their nation’s history the many good things God had done to them since the time of Abraham.

           The Magnificat shows us too that most of the things Mary mentioned have not happened yet:  “He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation.  He has shown the strength of his arm, and has scattered the proud in their conceit.  He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly.  He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.  He has come to the help of servant Israel for he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever” (Lk.1:50-57).  These are a mixture of images from the Old Testament about the things God had done to Israel and to the two cousins but at the same time mention other things that would happen only upon the completion of Christ’s mission.  This is to show us that Mary’s Magnificat is also about the perfect presence of God in Jesus Christ in our lives who is the “same yesterday, today and forever” (Heb. 13:8).

             Last year I was privileged to join my former colleagues at GMA-7 News as their chaplain on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land – all for free with everything in first class!  On our flight back to Manila, we met some OFW’s and one of them was so ecstatic in meeting Ms. Jessica Soho, making a commotion like crazy at the Ben Gurion Airport which is noted for its strict security measures.  A female security officer caught our attention and held us for a while as she checked our papers and passports.  Making things worse, the crazy OFW kept telling the officer to let us go because Ms. Jessica is a celebrity in our country.  That got the Israeli’s blood boiled and turned her attention to me, the only man in our group, asking me to go with her to their office.  That was when the three women of GMA News stood for me – our SVP Ms. Marissa Flores, Ms. Jessica Soho, and newly retired VP Ms. Kelly Vergel de Dios – telling the airport official that I am their friend, a friend for over 30 years, explaining how I used to work with them until I resigned and became a priest.  I felt my world stopping momentarily like in a dream sequence:  everything happened so fast!  There was the possible delay and a lot of interviews but I also felt God’s strong arm holding me, also tenderly caressing me with His mercy when I heard the three veterans of news defending me.  It was the final blessing I got from God during that pilgrimage when the three women of GMA-7 News were like Mary and Elizabeth reminding me how God had worked in our lives all these years.  It was like a Magnificat moment for me that until now I can recall the sweet smile that incident had left me.  Try praying the Magnificatstarting tonight as you thank God for the many wondrous things He had done to you despite the many trials you have also gone.  Thank God for the faithful and wonderful friends who have visited you to see His plans for you and most of all, be open for more blessings to come from Him this Christmas.  Let us pray for the many great women who have changed our lives, the Marys and Elizabeths who visited us and brought us closer to Jesus Christ.  AMEN. Fr.NicanorF.LalogII,Parokya ng San Juan Apostol at Ebanghelista, Gov. F. Halili Ave., Bagbaguin, Sta. Maria, Bulacan

*Photos by the author:  above are the bronze statues of Mary and Elizabeth at the Church of the Visitation; below, our group photo during our Holy Land Pilgrimage last April 2017.

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