[Homily: Simbanggabi, 12.23.12]
It has really been a pleasure for me to be part of this community celebration of Simbang Gabi. There is no law which says we have to have Simbanggabi Masses. We are not a parish; we are a university. Most universities, even Catholic universities, don’t have this. We have it, ultimately because we want it. Possibly because, as Christmas approaches, the feel of Christmas is here – different from what you get in the malls, different from what you get in the TV stations. The feel of Christmas is in the cool morning air that precedes the rising of the sun; it is in the warmly lit chapel which stands out in the darkness, welcoming early morning worshippers from near and far. It is in the familiarity of people who come here, young and younger, old and older, all getting up out of bed for Simbanggabi together – to make it work, to make it beautiful, to make it memorable. And so, as Christmas comes in just two days, even without any hint of mistletoe or any reminder of Santa Claus, we have the feeling we are a bit more prepared to welcome our Messiah.
Perhaps this is so, because in attending this Simbanggabi, we have prepared for Christmas through the worship of the Church, the highest form of prayer. We have come, not just to attend an early Mass. We have come to worship. We do that all the time, yes. But at special times, like when we are preparing for the coming of the Messiah, we need Light to recall the darkness in which we live, the darkness that comes not just from a malfunction of a utility firm, but a darkness rooted in our finitude, our contingency, our ultimate insignificance, our unwarranted pride, our sinfulness, our dividedness within. At this Simbanggabi, we have come to worship, in acknowledgement of the truth that even in wanting to worship, even in wanting to bow down in self oblation before the God of creation, we cannot do this meaningfully on our own. Who are we to offer anything to the Lord of Creation? Even the sacrifice we offer to the God of compassion, is not of our own making. It is our sacrifice in the Sacrifice of the Messiah, whose coming we await. It is sacrifice made possible in the Sacrifice on the Cross, whose redemption we need. In our worship we know: Christmas is not just about the wood of the manger; it is about the wood of the Cross, which we as a worshipping community commemorate on the wood of the altar.
Before this altar, we have heard the beautiful narratives of the foundations of our Christian faith retold. Recall the readings of Simbanggabi. One was the story of the history of our Lord, his ancestry, his being part of a lineage of human flesh, of human accomplishment and of human sin, his being born into the House of David, from which the Messiah was expected. The others were stories of two women who, contrary to natural expectation, had two sons. The first woman was barren. She gave birth to John. The second woman was a virgin, She gave birth to Jesus.
The Archangel Gabriel had announced the extraordinary births. The archangel’s announcement underscored the importance of both events. God was intervening extraordinarily in history. His announcement commanded awe and obedience.
Mary’s response was immediate. She responded with belief. She had questions, but her questions were of clarification, faith seeking understanding. “How can this be,” she asked, “since I have no relationship with a man?” (Lk 1:34b) . Gabriel answered that it was through the Holy Spirit that she would conceive. So Mary responded with her famous fiat – “Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word” (Lk. 1:38 a)
Zechariah’s response was also immediate. But his was cynical. He had questions, but his questions were really manifestations of disbelief and cynicism, human understanding blocking faith, pride blocking truth. “How shall I know that,” he asked, “for I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.” (Lk 1:9). Because he impeded truth, his own reception of the truth, he was punished. This was not punishment for the sake of punishment, an imposition of divine vengeance for stupidity. It was rather punishment in function of conversion.
The Gospel today tells of Zechariah’s conversion. While he was still unable to speak, his child was born. That must have left him completely dumbfounded, not only because he already could not speak, but because he could not fathom improbability becoming possible, impossibility become real, the bad news of a lifetime suddenly becoming good. He was now a father; a child had been born to him, even though throughout his married life with Sarah, he had known her to be barren. All had known her to be barren. Throughout their married life, to the questions of friends, sometimes well meaning, at other times simply mean, how many times did she have to bow her head in shame? How many times did he have to shrug his shoulders in embarrassed resignation? Now, knowing Sarah’s age, he is awed. Her child was not conceived by the Holy Spirit, but conceived in their lovemaking in their advanced age. In dumbfounded silence, Zechariah had now come to believe that God intervenes in history in manners way beyond the limits of his puny understanding. He had come to the insight that truly nothing is impossible with God.
While the truth that Gabriel had announced to Mary was already unfolding through her fiat, the truth that Gabriel had announced to Zechariah had been blocked by his cynicism.
In the Gospel for today, it is clear, his cynicism had been broken. He does not just acknowledge that his wife had conceived in an extraordinarily natural manner, but he now believes and accepts that her conception is a function of a deep divine purpose to be accomplished in his son. When he asked for a tablet and wrote, “John is his name,” (Lk 1:63), it was in deference to the truth of the Archangel’s message, and in obedience to God’s will, of whom the Archangel was but a messenger. It was an alignment of his heart, mind and will with the Father’s heart, mind and will. In Zechariah’s humility and submission to the divine will, God’s will would be accomplished. As the Archangel had announced, Zechariah “will have joy and gladness [in John], and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. … He will turn the hearts of fathers towards children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare the way of the Lord” (Lk 1:17).
Clearly, throughout this Simbanggabi, we are more deeply convinced, God breaks through in human history. Mysteriously, he does not just force his way through, demanding external compliance. Interior acceptance is valuable to him. Free, informed consent of human beings created in his image is important to him. To the plans and projects of God, we can say yes. We can also say no. We can also be cynical. We can think that God can’t do what he says he’ll do. The good news for today is that he can. He is even stronger than our cynicism.
Our need in response is to fall down and worship.