Many summers ago, when my son Noah was just 5 years old, we went swimming in Batangas. The beach resort had a net to define the safe area and keep inside not very experienced swimmers and children. Because I wanted to emphasize the point in following rules and staying safe, I asked Noah, “Why are children not allowed outside the rope? Why is there a cordon that separates us from the other side?” His answer totally surprised me. He said with certainty, “Kasi Ma, masyado nang maalat ang tubig sa kabila.” (The water is too salty on the other side) Now, of course he knows that is not true. We may create divisions and borders through floating buoys but the water is just as salty on the other side. Similarly, we may create fences, walls and barriers; governments may create physical barriers to keep out refugees from Syria or to keep out the Palestinians from Israeli occupied territories, but we inevitably share vulnerability and, yes, our humanity.
The National Council of Church in the Philippines, this year, has for its theme, “Launching Out Into the Deep for Justice and Peace.” It is an invitation for our communities and congregations to leave our comfort zones, our churches and sanctuaries, to go where only a those who have faith have the courage to go. The NCCP of which we are all a part of, invites us to create caring and compassionate communities for people living with HIV-AIDs; to march for climate justice and advocate against large-scale mining, dams and mono-crop plantations; to stand with laborers, farmers and fisherfolk whose livelihood and rights are denied them by those who place profit over people; to help communities devastated by Yolanda and Lando to rebuild their homes, and to stand with the Lumads of Mindanao who are being driven away from their ancestral land because the government favors the transnational mining companies. To engage these life threatening issues as churches is to launch into the deep towards justice and peace.
Most of us like our safe spaces, our comfort zones. We have worked so hard to be in these places. To be on the shallow water is to feel the sand, even if it is unsteady; to be just a few steps away from dry land; to be certain that the waters will not drown us. The shallow waters are safe and comforting. To launch into the deep, requires us to overcome our fears, to use all our senses, to go where we have no control, to swim where we can drown. But launching into the deep has always been a central discourse in our Christian faith. When the Hebrews, in the Book of Exodus, escaped from Egypt, they had to cross the Red Sea. The text, of course, describes that the people who were escaping slavery in Egypt walked on dry land, but this does not diminish the courage, commitment and faith they had to leave their homes, even if they were slaves, to go where God called them to go, to launch into the deep. Even in movie and cartoon depictions, the Israelites had to walk into the sea with the water at their side, threatening to submerge and drown them. It was a journey full of uncertainty and fear. In Matthew 14, we find a similar narrative where Jesus invites Peter to leave the boat and walk on water. We often read the text and emphasize the divinity of Christ who alone walked on water and calmed the storm. But I want to point to how Peter, of all the disciples, dared to leave the boat. The others did not. Launching into the deep is never easy but the bravest and the most faithful dare to leave their comfort zones.
In human and divine history, we as people of faith must recognize the greatest act of courage, the greatest act of launching into the deep towards justice and peace, as the one taken by no less than Jesus himself. Jesus had nothing to gain for himself when he came into the world. Jesus, though he was divine, became fully human to lead the way towards justice and peace. On this first Sunday of Advent, let us remember what it meant to await the coming of a savior.
Most of us grew up with Christmas celebrations filled with abundance and merriment: glittering Christmas decor; feasting and reunions on the eve and on Christmas day; lavish gifts which may even surpass our wish-lists; a liturgical mass made more touching and joyful by children dressed as Mary and Joseph, shepherds and wise men, and even as sheep or whatever animal they imagine would visit Jesus. And at the center of it all, a peaceful Baby Jesus who embodied hope. These celebrations are a direct inversion of the Christmas story we find in Matthew and Luke: a manger for animals covered with hay for a newborn child; visits from angels, shepherds and wise men who were not family but were all strangers; gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh which are unfit for children; and the survival of one child and the massacre children two years old and below, in and around Bethlehem, because King Herod felt that he was tricked by the wise men. Jesus was born at a time and place in desperate need of justice and peace.
In the “Song of Mary” read to us and today, Mary makes a powerful declaration. If those words were uttered in the Philippines today, in the presence of those who have power, this would cause disturbance and may be perceived as a threat. It could also be interpreted as rebellion and one may be marked as an “enemy of the state.” We must remember that Mary and her people were under the Roman Empire and the people experienced hunger and human rights violations on a daily basis. In the text, she proclaims what God intends for her people. She says, “he (God) has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He (God) has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he (God) has filled the hungry with good things,and sent the rich away empty.” Mary was not just meek and humble, as we would often depict her in movies and children’s stories. Mary was a woman of courage who wanted to change the unjust realities evident around her. She must have seen the brokenness of the lowly and the dehumanization of the hungry. She must have lived a life that was committed to help and defend the poor and oppressed. She must have been raised to defend those who need God the most.
This is the Mary that would have raised a savior. A messiah. Jesus did not live a sheltered life like some of our children but was more like the children we see on the streets who are streetsmart. Mary taught Jesus about the realities he had to live with every day under the power of the Roman Empire. She probably told him everyday to take the side of the lowly and the hungry. She must have taught Jesus not to revere and allow himself to be used by those who have power and authority but to fear and serve only God. To submit only to God.
Today, in the midst of the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe, the escalating violence by the Israeli State against the Palestinian People, the evacuation of over 40,000 Lumads from their communities in Mindanao because of the terror and killings perpetrated by the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the paramilitary groups, we are confronted with the sad and painful reality that many children continue to be born and raised in vulnerable situations like Jesus. Today, like Mary, women and mothers bear the burden of conceiving, birthing and raising children in communities where the powerful must be brought down from their thrones to be able to fill the hungry with good things. Today, like Joseph, men and fathers cannot ensure the life and dignity of their children because the empire demands their sacrifice in the name of power and greed. Then and now, Christmas was not about divinity. It was about humanity. Jesus’ humanity. Our humanity. Until we fully understand that Jesus was a refugee, poor, marginalized, oppressed and vulnerable, as many of our Filipino sisters and brothers, and many children in the world are, we cannot truly embrace the hope that Jesus brings. Jesus did not come to be a prince or a king, he was born poor and powerless. Jesus’ birth did not usher in peace, but like in any child’s birth, we are made to seek the peace we all want for all our children. Jesus’ birth does not even strengthen our faith in God because I would like to believe that Jesus’ birth, life and struggles until his death should strengthen our faith in the human spirit. Jesus did not come as God, Jesus came down at Christmas to be like one of us – a vulnerable human being. And Jesus, in his humanity, launched out into the deep towards justice and peace.
Finally, let me end by sharing a little bit about the movie by Martin Scorsese, “The Last Temptation of Christ.” The movie is not based on any of the gospels but is a reflection of the writer’s own struggle as a human being. In the movie, which was banned during the 1970s by the Marcos regime, my favorite scene is towards the end where Jesus is nailed to the cross, tortured, humiliated and suffering. An angelic looking girl at the foot of the cross speaks to Jesus and says something like, “Poor Jesus, you have suffered enough. If you wish it, you can come down from the cross. God does not want you to suffer any more. All you have to do is to wish it and this will all be over.” Well, Jesus, in the movie comes down from the cross and walks away from Calvary. He goes on to marry Mary Magdalene, has a child by her but both mother and child die. Then he proceeds to have other children by Mary or Martha, or both, and one scene even depicts Jesus drunk under a palm tree. Jesus had no cares and seemed content. But the story does not end there. The last scene shows an older Jesus at his death bed, while Jerusalem was burning. The disciples come in and they lovingly tell Jesus, “We missed you, Master,” “We have all been looking for you.” The last one to arrive was Judas and he angrily said to Jesus, “Traitor! You deserted us when we needed you in the struggle! Who gave you the right to live as if there was nothing wrong in the world? Now, you will die and your death will be meaningless!” Jesus replied to Judas, “But the angel said, God does not want me to suffer.” “What angel?” Judas said. “That is the devil.” And true enough, when Jesus looked at the angel who watched him all those years after he came down from the cross, it was the devil. The final scene shows Jesus crawling on Calvary, calling out to God, saying, “God, forgive me! Let me be your son again. Let me return to the cross.” And Jesus was back on the cross, suffering. The last temptation of Christ was living a life separated from the struggles and suffering of his people. We have the same temptation as churches and individuals. I hope, like Christ in the movie, we will all choose to return to God and serve and struggle with and for those who need God the most. Amen.
Art by Tamara Adams