Saturday, January 7, 2012

Hope and redemption (Reflections on the Feast of the Epiphany, Matt. 2:1-12)

2012! A New Year has just unfolded before us, filled with new hopes, new dreams, new expectations, new visions, new plans and resolutions, a whole lot of new things!

Two thousand and twelve years ago, something new supposedly came into this world, someone supposedly came into this world to save it, to renew humanity. Jesus came, sent by his Father, to forever change the face of the earth, to save and redeem humanity. Henceforth, humanity will learn to love, learn to forgive, learn to share, learn to live in harmony and peace.

On the night he was born, the angels were supposed to have shown themselves in their vast multitude singing: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth—to men and women of goodwill”.

And yet two thousand and twelve years later, despite our hopes and dreams and visions and expectations, each one of us, every so often, experiences that nagging sense - when we look at the world in which we live - that somehow, the promise given is yet to be fulfilled completely.

2011 ended, and with it's ending came many dreams and visions for the New Year 2012. Where will they be New Year’s 2013? What will this year be like? Will there be peace? Will there be prosperity? Will there be goodwill?

People in this country are said to be full-blooded optimists, but not because they know things are going to go well, but probably because—as a friend of mine put it—"when you got very little, or nothing else to pin your hopes on, you have to be optimistic". Hope is often the only thing that seems to keep many of us going on these shores.

Where indeed do we find salvation in this piece of earth God gave us? Peace? Goodwill? Kindness? Prosperity? Generosity? Two thousand years and we’re still waiting. How many Christmases and New Year’s days have you celebrated? Sometimes I come home and feel bad—not because of the poverty and misery I see around, but because I know in my heart of hearts that it can in fact be different; that we have all the necessary resources to change the plight of everyone in this nation.

Why hasn’t it happened? Sometimes, the mere thought of it as I drive through the poorer areas of Manila is enough to make my heart sink. A Christian nation? The only Catholic nation in the far east? A nation that loves celebrating Christmas? Your heart is crushed. Where is Christ in all this?

A couple of years ago, on Christmas day, my siblings and I were going around the city to distribute bags of food and toys that we packed days ago, looking for street children to give them to. It was as much for them as it was for my siblings—it probably made them feel less guilty about the advantages they’ve had in life.

At one point, along Shaw boulevard, as the kids began milling around the van, I heard my kid brother yelling. When I asked what it was all about, he told me he was getting really annoyed, the children were shoving and pushing each other to get ahead, some coming back four or five times to get as many bags as they could.

“What do you expect?” I thought, "Poverty doesn’t only destroy one’s stomach, it sometimes ruins one’s consciousness and sense of right and wrong as well". (Which reminds me; the real tragedy of poverty isn’t that people are poor, it’s that poverty sometimes demolishes character, values, and principles as well. Poverty's real tragedy is that it often robs one of one's very humanity.)

Poverty certainly isn’t—and should never be—an excuse for acting wrongly; but it sure is an explanation. Everyone on these shores is poor! We all are! And there are no exceptions. The materially poor because they go hungry; the wealthy, because they often can’t see anything or anyone beyond their own selves, their family, their friends, and anything that’s connected to them.

A shrunken and shriveled circle of care and concern is itself a sign, not just of an impoverished consciousness, but of a mind, heart, and soul that can see nothing beyond the walls and boundaries of the self.

I felt so bad after that morning’s experience that I figured I’d just give the remaining bags to a church and have them distribute them. “What a morning!” I thought. “You try and do something nice and you end up feeling awful afterwards instead. If I didn’t go out with those guys this morning, I wouldn’t have seen such ugly behavior in those we were trying to cheer on Christmas Day”. I went back home and tried to simply forget about the whole thing.

That afternoon, however, I figured I’d do another run, thinking to myself, “What’s there to lose? Maybe something else will come up”. It was just myself and the driver this time; my siblings had already gone home. As we made our way to another part of the city, the usual sight of street children standing around street corners greeted us. Ben, the driver, stopped the van, I opened the door, picked up a bag of food and went out. As soon as one kid spotted me, a whole bunch of them came running. “Here we go again”.

They milled around, pushed, shoved, some said ‘thanks’, many didn’t. At some point, I knew I was going to run out of bags to give away, and pretty soon in fact I did. That’s when two kids came up, brothers it seemed, ages eight and five, I guessed. I handed the bag to the older kid. “I’m sorry, it’s the last one”, I said. He opened the bag right away and pulled out the sandwich inside.

“It’s the last one”, he said to his younger sibling who by then was looking at me, expecting perhaps that I’d be giving him something still. I had nothing more to give, and I didn’t want my heart crushed again, so I said “Merry Christmas”, turned around, and began loading back into the van the now-empty boxes where the bags had been stored earlier.

The two began walking away, and Ben started the car. Then from the corner of my eye, I caught sight of something that turned my Christmas day around, restored some of my confidence in the goodness of human nature, and filled me with hope, even for these children whose life on the street almost guarantees that they will not get an education, will hardly learn values, and will most likely not even live past a certain age.

The older brother holding the sandwich, cut it in half, and handed part of it to the younger one who proceeded to eat it with much gusto as they walked back to the street corner on which they hung around. It was a moment of pure grace, at work in the dirt and shabbiness of these young brothers I found on the street. And it was redemptive - for me. I went back to my parents’ place, still with a heavy heart, but one that had, on that Christmas evening, encountered hope made flesh.

Do not expect to find God in big, grandiose, glamorous, and showy things. Find him in the common, the ordinary, the plain, the simple. Find him in the weak, the sinful, the sorrowing, the outcasts, the difficult. It is there that you will encounter, not only hope, but often, redemption.

A New Year has begun. The key to finding God, to finding life, to finding fulfillment, joy, and true happiness is to seek him in those persons, events, circumstances, and things he likes to veil and hide himself.

Learn from the three wise men who followed a sign so ephemeral as the light of a star leading them, not to the palace of a mighty and powerful king, but to the home of a poor family whose sole and greatest treasure was a small and helpless infant, born in a manger, for there was no room for him in the inn.

"And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them,
until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.
They were overjoyed at seeing the star,
and on entering the house
they saw the child with Mary his mother".

Find him in your loved ones, find him in your children, find him in your husband and wife, your fathers and mothers, your friends, your co-workers, your neighbors, find him in the people you encounter on the street, the motorist you yield to and let pass, the person for whom you hold a door and who holds it for you, find him in every small act of kindness and generosity you do and that is done to you. But most of all, find him in those who, like the poor, helpless child in today’s Gospel, cannot repay the good you have done. Then you shall find true and lasting wealth.

And finally, find the God who has chosen to incarnate himself in each one of us; find him within your very own selves. Saint Augustine used to counsel his flock “Do not go out of yourselves; go within; truth dwells in the inner man”.

Do not seek God in externals, in things that show, in things that glitter but eventually fade, in wealth that "moths eat, rust corrodes, and thieves can steal". Do not seek him in external beauty, popularity, and fame which are there today but gone tomorrow.

Rather seek God in what lasts—in virtue, character, in values and principles that define who and what one truly is, and which nothing and no one can ever take away from you.

The wise men knew where to find God. They didn’t look for him in Herod’s palace, they looked for him in a stable; they sought him not in a powerful earthly ruler, but in a powerless child.

God is there, you just have to open your eyes, open your hearts, and be willing to recognize Him when he reveals himself, and you will find redemption, you will find hope.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)