Year in, year out, Christians celebrates the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ who was sent by the Father to redeem us from the slavery of sin and free humanity from insecurity and death. During my 30 day Ignatian retreat in 2015, one of my most powerful experiences was the contemplation on the incarnation where Saint Ignatius asked retreatants to imagine listening to the conversation among the Trinity – God the Father, His son Jesus, and the Holy Spirit – about what they could do for humanity, scarred by sin. In that meditation, one cannot help but be filled with the immense love of God for humanity, a love that persuaded the Trinity, against rationality, to decide to send the Son and intervene in human history for the salvation of souls.
During that retreat, I was able to put myself right into the center of that discussion between the Father, Son, and Spirit and it was not a debate so much of whether to do it but a discussion of means. And that is what makes it even more amazing was the decision not to send more prophets or to hurl lightning and other destructive things to the world, but for one of the three to become like us. I could not help but be awed by this realization.
I recall Pope Benedict’s point in Jesus of Nazareth when he explained what it meant for Jesus to ascend – why He had to ascend to continue to be present while also needing to return. Pope Benedict used the example of Jesus praying in the mountain and then seeing his apostles caught in the storm and so He decides to intervene and walks in the water to join them. In a way, this is what we celebrate in Christmas – the continuing Incarnation of Jesus. God continues to intervene with us. The Spirit is certainly guiding us and yes Jesus is present amid us; the Word becoming Man, the all-powerful Word (using beautiful language from Isaiah) leaps from the heavens, like a pitiless warrior, to the heart of a land doomed by destruction.
Yet the reasons for the Incarnation persists.
Last week, Typhoon Urduja barrelled through Tacloban and other parts of Leyte and Samar wreaking havoc in its wake. As if mother nature was not satisfied, another devastating typhoon Vinta visited Mindanao a few days ago causing severe and extensive damage, including hundreds of casualties in the affected areas. My beloved hometown Cagayan de Oro was not excluded.
These are acts of nature but humans are also responsible in allowing climate change to run amok and in making ourselves more vulnerable through unsustainable development. What were 100 year floods, as what we thought Yolanda and Sendong were, have become 5-10 year floods because of human stupidity and greed. Even in disaster risk reduction, we have back-slided from what I thought we have already agreed on as a society: there must zero casualty from these events.
There are also the thousands of families affected by the Marawi siege and the scourge of extrajudicial killings that continue unabated. And just this weekend, we saw the terrible news from Davao of dozens of workers killed in the NCCC mall fire.
One may ask – is there reason for the displaced and/or mourning families and all the suffering to celebrate Christmas?
And then there are our fears, which takes on many forms. Some are apprehensive of the state of our social and political life; for instance, whether martial law will be declared all throughout the country, or whether a revolutionary government will be installed in the immediate future. Some are scared of our children being harmed, as we have seen in how the country responded to the disappearance of Ica Policarpio.
In his traditional Christmas message, Pope Francis explains to us that fear is not exclusive to our days. He points out that the Gospels are replete with stories of fear, even among those who knew Jesus best. The disciples shrink in fear when Jesus stills a storm: “They were terrified and asked each other, ‘Who is this, then, who can command the wind and waves?’”. When they spy him walking on water, they feel the same: “‘It is a ghost!’ they said, and cried out in fear”.
Jesus comes to proclaim an end to fear. He not only expressed this with his words but in his very life itself; where his miracles remove the need for fear both in healings, where years of fear vanish, and in the nature miracles, where the storms that threatened to swamp rickety boats evaporate.
Jesus also proclaims the end to fear in his Incarnation and birth.
The Trinity decided that the Son be born in a lowly manger. In that powerlessness and poverty, Jesus became the mightiest of all kings. and showed the world the abundance of wealth that matters: Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and the Lord will give you everything you need.
In the words of Pope Francis, “the powerless one dependent on a poor young woman for sustenance will become the all-powerful one who bring riches to all who believe. The one who feeds will become our food. It is no accident that he sleeps in a manger, a word meaning ‘to eat.’”
Jesus was both human and divine. His human nature understands fear. Yet as the Holy Father tells us, Jesus keeps on consoling us by assuring us that hope is stronger than despair, love is stronger than hate, and life is stronger than death. Nothing—not poverty, not injustice, not cruel rulers like Herod—can thwart God’s desires in the world. But we must participate in those desires because God acts through us. And nothing is impossible with God.
At dawn, last Saturday, preparing for Christmas Eve, I prayed for only two things this Christmas: First, that Ica, whose parents Penny and Joan I know in multiple ways through connections in Ateneo de Manila, the Ateneo Catechetical Instruction League, UP College of Law, and through other relatives that are my friends, would find her way home; Second, that there would be survivors from the NCCC mall fire.
Shortly after, news about Ica being found was posted. Regardless of the circumstances of her disappearance, I am happy for the Policarpios and urge everyone to respect their privacy.
Alas, it does not look like there might be other survivors from the NCCC fire and there will be a lot of mourning in Davao. It would be the height of insensitivity to make political comments about the causes of and the Dutertes’ response to the fire.
Clearly, the Incarnation is not a fix-all. It’s not a guarantee that will be no more disasters, tragedies, injustice, sadness, evil, and sin.
Christmas is an assurance that God is with us, that The Lord will accompany us, our families and communities, in sorrow and joy, inviting us to be co-creators in saving the world. As my friend Men Sta Ana reposted in Facebook, a message in a Church summarizes this season well, “Even in sadness, our faith holds out to us the possibility of joy.” Indeed.
Titay, my wife of 32 years, never tires of reminding me, “There is nothing so bad that God cannot take out good.” That’s why, as Pope Francis said (and our friend Fr. Danny Huang SJ quotes this in his Christmas card to us), “To Christians, the future does have a name, and its name is hope.”
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