[Homily: University Pre-Christmas Mass. Dec. 19, 2020. Live-streamed.]
We come together today with great joy. It is nice that at this time of the year – despite the pandemic – we can come together as a University. We come together with representations from the Graduate School, the Law School, Undergraduate Higher Ed, the Senior High School, the Junior High School and the Grade School. We come together with representations from administration, faculty, staff and students.
We come together as one community in Christmas joy, even though we are still in the season of Advent.
But, you know, Advent notwithstanding, in the Philippines the Christmas Season begins in September when Filipinos begin singing about Christmas in our hearts with Joe Mari Chan and “remembering the Child in the manger as he sleeps”.… Remembering that Christmas is not about the externalities of tinsel, flickering lights, and forced exchanges of gifts and cards, but something “truly in our hearts.” There, in our hearts, we recall “the love we have for Jesus’ praying that he will be the one to guide us as another new year starts.
September began the Christmas Season four months ago, but today, five days away from the celebration of Christmas, we are still in Advent, with the Church still telling us to wait…
The Birth of John the Baptist
Today, despite our excitement about Christmas, the Church asks us to wait, and prayerfully consider the story about how the birth of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, was announced. We heard this in our Gospel proclamation. Zachariah and Elisabeth were good people: they were” “righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.” But both of them were old. Sarah was childless, barren. That she could have no child was a social disgrace. This was a burden that Zachariah and Sara carried together throughout their lives into their old age.
At the time of our reading, the privilege fell by lot to Zachariah, a priest, to enter into the Holy of Holies of the Temple of Solomon in order to offer incense to the Lord. The Jews believed the Lord dwelt there in the ark of the covenant.
In the holiness of this inner sanctum of the Temple, the Archangel Gabriel, the messenger of the Lord, appears to Zachariah and says:
13 “Do not be afraid, Zachariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. 16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
For all of his righteousness before God, Zachariah must have heard the message of the Angel. It must have sounded good to him, since for many years he and his barren wife, Elisabeth, prayed for a child. But now that he and his wife were in his old age, the good news must have also sounded like a mean joke to him, mocking him and his wife in their life-long humiliation. His reason said the news could not be true; so easily, his incredulity turned into skepticism: what was said could not be true. That was the tone of his response to the angel when he asked, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
Hearing his lack of belief and his obstinate cynicism, the Archangel responds with a corrective intervention: 9 “’I am Gabriel.’ the archangel said to him, ‘I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20 And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.’”
We must remember Zachariah was a good person, righteous in the eyes of God who kept all the commandments of God blamelessly. But this was not just a matter of keeping religious rules and of pious practices. This had to do with responding to a very special disclosure from God which he had long awaited, but when it came with its life-changing power, it required openness, trust and faith. Here, Zachariah lapsed. He did not sin. He fell short.
What God is Disclosing to Me
Today in the light of Zachariah’s experience we may be being invited to reflect on what it is that we have long been waiting for God to disclose to us, even as in our lives he may actually already have been long disclosing it, but where, like Zachariah, we have been rejecting and blocking it in our cynism, in our knowledge of the world that we think surpasses God’s.
Like the Lord coming to us to say very personally, very intimately:
I have come to share with you my love.
I have come to court you.
I have come to make your soul my bride.
I have come to take away your loneliness.
I have come to take away your darkness.
To hold you in the warmth of my embrace.
I have come to mission you to do my work in the world I created.
Signs of His Love in My Life
When he does, when his truth knocks us off our high horses and removes the scales from our eyes, hopefully we would then be better positioned to recognize the signs of his personal love in our individual lives – like:
In the fraternity of our university community;
In the gift during this pandemic of privileged employment sustained by one another so that we can sustain ourselves and our loved ones in plenty of God caring for us;
In the shared mission of bringing truth to the minds and hearts of others;
In the personal and shared sacrifices freely made to keep the mission alive;
In the warmth of a family’s love in newfound bonding;
In the great manifestations of friendship through which we care for each other, no matter the cost;
In the dialogue that finds truth and ends in reconciliation;
In the privileged mission of learning and growth in social responsibility
Beg for Sacred Silence
If we don’t recognize them perhaps we might freely beg the Lord for the sacred silence that Gabriel imposed on Zachariah. This divine intervention was a grace in love in order to help him recognize and cherish the truth of God’s disclosure.
Perhaps this may be the sacred silence we need at Advent to prepare to accept and understand the meaning of Christmas in our hearts that Zachariah eventually proclaimed:
That he would free us from the hands of our enemies
Free to worship him without fear
holy and righteous in our sight
All the days of our lives.
Our enemies today: no longer the swords and chariots of the Canaanites, the Philistines, the Babylonians, the Assyrians. Our enemies today: perhaps, our chronic forgetfulness of God, our selfishness in making decisions, our insensitivity to the clear need of others, our religiosity that like the Levite and the Pharisee allows us to walk by a person in need. Our enemy today: our intransigent complacency in the darkness that envelops our lives.
But the good news of this day emerges from the sacred silence that brought Zachariah to truth:
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
May this sacred silence also be yours as you prepare for the coming of your Messiah.