ADVENT: A Spiritual Preparation
Advent means “coming”. Jesus has come in history 2000 years ago. He has come to each one of us at our baptism to make us adopted children of our heavenly Father. He comes to each one of us now when we receive him worthily in Holy Communion. He will come for each one of us at the hour of death as judge or savior. In the Liturgy, we celebrate as the people of God the history of our salvation and we begin the waiting for the historical coming of the Lord in the past, and his coming in glory in the future.
Let us begin by contemplating the situation of the world before the first coming of the Lord. After the sin in Paradise, sin worsened in the murder of Abel, and sin prevailed in the world to such appoint that God had to cleanse it through the Flood. Even after the Flood there was no end to sin, rather sin spread out as mankind was scattered to all parts of the world. God then started a contingency plan by calling Abraham to knowledge of God and his ways. But even among the Israelites there was not complete fidelity to the Lord and his covenant. Only a remnant remained faithful.
Sin reigned up to the time Jesus was born and even beyond. We know of Bacchanalian orgies in Greece and parts of the Roman Empire. Worship of idols and gods became occasions for orgies; gluttony as excessive eating and drinking was common, ending up in lust and sexual excesses. We know of how the Roman Empire was riddled with lust, cheating, betrayals and murders within the imperial families. Stealing and banditry existed in the countryside, and the abuse of women treating them as chattel, and the stealing of children to be sold into slavery were common. Marauders would invade peaceful villages to steal their hard earned harvest. In speech, slander and calumny was prevalent, so was betrayal of trust and secrets. False accusation was used to oust another from rank and position. Perjury was done for convenience. Outright blasphemy against God was common, so was cursing of fellowmen. Recall the movies “Alexander the Great”, “the Gladiator” and “Helen of Troy”, just to mention the more recent movies portraying pagan life. There was no knowledge of the God who gave the Ten Commandments to guide human conduct.
There were human efforts to present good human conduct especially in the form of Greek philosophies. The early Greeks taught that a good life was governed by four basic virtues: prudence, or right thinking on moral problems; temperance, or moderation of sense desires; fortitude, or firmness in facing dangers; and justice, or rightness in giving every person his due. The Stoics taught that the good man lives in accord with nature, tries to be reasonable in all things, and rigorously controls his feelings. The Epicureans also accepted reason and nature as guides for human conduct but emphasized intellectual satisfaction and pleasure as the purpose of a happy life. And yet these philosophies did not become a culture to influence popular behavior. Sinful practices and degrading human behavior governed the people. There was need for REDEMPTION. There was need for a SAVIOR.
WHAT OF OUR WORLD TODAY?
Money is the god of our time. Stealing is blatant in every corruption, and government cover-up takes deceit and perjury as normal behavior. Blackmail and even murder is resorted to just to save face. (Take the Chiong rape and murder case; Hultman murder; Vizconde massacre.) Government officials sell the country to foreign investors, to accumulate riches for themselves. It is a shame that government officials get hundreds of millions by corruption and immediately bring it out of the country to spend for personal enjoyment, while the OFWs, the working class, send in money to improve the lives of Filipinos. Lies in court and deceit in the media are common place. When money in excess is possessed, gluttony in exquisite dining and excessive drinking follow, and like the Bacchanalians, these end up in lust and sexual indulgence. Human trafficking of young women and even boys is practiced to satisfy the lustful. This in turn leads to violence and rape and even murder. Premarital sex as well as extramarital relations are now considered normal behavior even among so called Catholics. This is because of the influence of Hollywood movies and our own telenovelas. Scriptwriters have changed our views on love, marriage and family life. Unconsciously, the advertisements, the commercials influence our taste and choices. In the field of anger, hatred and unforgiveness, there is great abundance. I was greatly shocked when leadership of a prayer community was broken apart because of calumny and slander; in another case, the unforgiveness by one leader resulted in the division of the community into factions and finally the breaking up of the whole community, not just of the leadership. Yes, in our time we also need REDEMPTION, we also need the SAVIOR.
The world has its own way of preparing for the coming of the Lord at Christmas every year and we all follow the trend it sets. We put up decorations at home, in the streets, in the stores and malls. In former years, decorations in factories, business buildings and malls portrayed the Nativity scene or “Belen”, but in the recent past, the scenes were portraying characters from Hollywood movies including monsters. Christmas movies have centered on Sta. Claus and the Elves, not on Christ. Take for example “The Polar Express”; it was most entertaining even for adults, but completely void of Christ. The world wants to remove Christ from his own birthday, and it has become the trendsetter even for us Catholics. We simply absorb this mindset of the world; we put Christmas trees and decorations, and pile up gifts in our homes without the Nativity Scene.
The Christmas Carols no longer mention nor make any reference to Christ or his birth. Carol singing started as a way of expressing the Christmas story in song; and so the old classic and traditional carols were really telling the Christmas story. If we make effort to look for them and collect them, there are many Christmas carols that are fit for prayer and worship. Let us choose those that really tell the Christmas story in song and help us put Jesus at the center of his own birthday. Why make this effort? Because today Christmas carols have become love songs and sleigh ride songs. Just analyze the more popular ones: 1. Jingle Bells, 2. Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer, 3. Frosty the Snowman, 4. Silver Bells, 5. I’ll be Home for Christmas, 6. White Christmas, 7.Deck the Halls, 8.Winter Wonderland, 9. The Holly and the Ivy, 10. Sta. Klaus is coming to Town. Note well, these carols say nothing about Jesus, Bethlehem, Angels, Shepherds, Mary or Joseph.
Shall we remain in the level of worldly and sinful enjoyments or shall we give our YES to the SAVIOR who calls us this Advent season?
WHAT SHOULD WE DO?
The Liturgical year ends with the Solemnity of Christ the King. Mother Church reminds us of the Lord’s coming at the Last Judgment and the inevitability of giving an account of our earthly existence before him on that Day of the Lord. As we enter into Advent, we are presented with the Immaculate Conception as the ideal preparation for the coming of the Lord at Christmas. These are great reminders of how we are to move forward to meet Jesus at his first coming and at his final coming. We are to be clean, not by the best detergent, deodorant, or perfume, but by purification of soul, through repentance and a good confession.
Let us review the parable of the Prodigal Son in Lk 15: “v.15. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.’ 20. So he got up and went to his father.” Watch the elements of repentance:
1) conviction of sin: “I have sinned against heaven and against you.” This is the first requisite of repentance. There was a man who had relations with the house help while the wife was away in out-of-town assignment. The maid became proud of it, and in a quarrel with her landlady blurted out that the husband loves her more than the wife, because the wife cannot give him children. When the wife confronted the husband he denied it. The wife discovered other evidences but the husband kept denying it. Finally the wife discovered the diary of the maid and showed it to the husband. Only then did the husband say: “I’m sorry.” Is this repentance? NO! He said “I’m sorry” not because he offended God, but because he was caught. To repent means that I acknowledge that I have offended God, that I have sinned, not because I was caught. Jn 16:8 says, “When he (the Spirit of truth) comes, he will convict the world of sin.” When I do not have conviction of sin, then I do not have the Holy Spirit.
2) Repentance: “I no longer deserve to be called your son,” because I have offended, “treat me as you treat one of your hired workers,” that is repentance. I have sinned, therefore, I deserve punishment. I am not only saying “I’m sorry”; I am ready for what I deserve.
3) Conversion: “So he got up and went to his father.” Conversion means turning away from sin and turning towards God; leaving behind the situation of sin and taking steps to return home to the Father to live a new life.
Looking back to what caused his conviction of sin, it was hunger and feeling dirty among swine. God uses external discomfort and even physical pain to bring us to our senses. And looking at the attitude of the Father, we are convinced of the truth that: “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance” (Lk 15:7). And God restores him to his status as son: “Quickly, bring the finest robe (of grace) and put it on him; put a ring (seal) on his finger and sandals on his feet” (capacity to walk the stairway to heaven).
True repentance will lead us to confession. It cannot be denied that many still miss the true meaning of, and devotion to, confession. I heard some say, “I have not gone to confession for five years because I have no serious sin to confess.” Well, the fact that you have not confessed in one Lenten season, you already have a serious sin to confess. Confession should not remain an obligation; it should become a devotion. St. Teresa of Avila, during the last two years of her life, went to confession every day. The higher she climbed in holiness, the clearer was her consciousness of God’s holiness as against her lowliness as creature. I call it “a bath for the soul;” if I take a shower every day to keep my body clean, should my soul not have a regular shower? If I eat three times a day to keep healthy, should my soul not be nourished daily to remain healthy?
If I go to the tribunal and narrate all my crimes, what happens to me? I get indicted, convicted. The more crimes I tell, the greater my penalty. But if I go to confessional and narrate all my sins, I will be acquitted. Many of us hesitate to go to confession, maybe because we want to be indicted and convicted before Christ the King. Let us be reminded that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is only for this earthly existence; after this there is no chance for repentance. Therefore, let us be acquitted now while still in this earth, and be clean of any stain or weight of sin before we end this existence. “Seek the Lord that you may live” (Amos 5:6). “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call him while he is near. Let the scoundrel forsake his way, and the wicked man his thoughts; let him turn to the Lord for mercy; to our God who is generous in forgiving” (Is 55:6-7). “I have brushed away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like a mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you” (Is 44:22). “It is I who wipe away your offenses; your sins I remember no more” (Is 43:25). “I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from impurities, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts. I will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statutes, careful to observe my decrees” (Ez 36:25-27). “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine… For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your savior… Because you are precious in my eyes and glorious, and because I love you… Fear not for I am with you” (Is 43:1, 3-5).
GOD FOREGIVES ME, SHOULD I NOT FORGIVE?
Let us look deeper. At the tribunal, I get indictment and conviction. The human court throws me into prison and hold me in my past sins. It cuts me off from the future and the chance to improve the self to become a better person. Similarly, when I do not forgive my spouse and decide for a separation, I cut off the future of my family. I condemn all of us to be imprisoned in our past sins and we all suffer the consequences. A son of sixteen became addicted to drugs and stole the jewelries of his mother and sold them to pay for his drugs. The father in his anger banishes him: “Wala akong anak na magnanakaw!” What has the father done? He keeps his son in his past sins and cuts off his future. What will become of him since he has no experience in life?
Let us look at the confessional. I tell all my sins and I get acquitted. I come out relieved and strong, facing the future with hope. Why? Because I hear the Lord say, “Get up, try again, I will help you.” Isaiah is insistent on this: “Fear not, I am with you; be not dismayed; I am your God. I will strengthen you, and help you, and uphold you with my right hand of justice” (Is 41:10). “For I am the Lord your God, who grasp your right hand; it is I who say to you, “Fear not, I will help you’… I will help you, says the Lord; your redeemer is the Holy One of Israel” (Is 41:13-14). The sacramental grace of Confession empowers me to begin a better future. It does not condemn me to my past sins, but promises a bright future in the life of grace. I can move on and work it out to become a better and holier person. The Lord keeps his promises: “I will be with you,” and “I will help you.”
In the confessional we ask God for forgiveness and He readily grants us pardon and even gives the grace to grow in holiness. What if my enemy comes to me and asks forgiveness from me? The human being needs to be forgiven by God many times a day. Jesus readily granted forgiveness to Zachaeus, to the sinful woman, to the thief dying with him on the cross. Do I readily forgive those who have offended me? (I knew of a woman who had an only daughter –the eldest followed by three boys. One day the two had argumentation where the mother became so very angry and said: “Pag asawa mo hindi ka magkaka anak.” I officiated at the wedding of this young lady for she and her husband were members of the youth organization. Five years passed still they had no baby. I approached the mother and asked her to lift the curse. She blew her top at me and shouted: “Kinakampihan mo pa sila!” I felt sorry for her.) We pray many times, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Yet unforgiveness happens to be the most frequent case in our life. Christmas is the celebration of God’s love and forgiveness coming down to us. Now is the time to seek God’s forgiveness and to give out forgiveness to others. By continuously forgiving us, God gives us chances to grow in holiness. By forgiving others, we become more and more like our forgiving God.
SIMBANG GABI: THE FILIPINO ADVENT
The Universal Church already has a special liturgy for the days Dec 17-24, an octave of preparation for the Birth of the Lord. These are regular advent Masses throughout the Catholic World. The Spanish missionaries in the Philippines, upon observing the climate and the weather, saw a beautiful reason for making a whole novena, nine days, of dawn Masses in preparation for Christmas. It allows us to make the sacrifice of waking up early at dawn in a cool temperature to gather for Mass.
The Liturgy allows us to contemplate the different important personalities of the Old Testament, those immediately preceding the birth of Jesus, and those surrounding him at his birth. We begin with the dying Jacob prophesying about his son Judah, from whose tribe the Messiah was to be born, followed by the genealogy of Jesus where we trace his ancestors in our human nature. Then we hear Jeremiah prophesy that a Righteous Shoot of David shall come to save his people; he will he the Lord of Justice. We see its fulfillment when an angel appear to Joseph in a dream telling him: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name his Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:20). We also meet Samson born of barren parents who were advanced in age, just as we see John the Baptist born from the barren and elderly Elizabeth and Zechariah.
We hear Isaiah prophesy of a virgin birth for the Messiah called Immanu-el (God with us), and this was fulfilled when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she, without intervention of man but only by the power of the Holy Spirit, will conceive and bear a Son, who will be called Son of the Most High. The prophet Zephaniah confirms this by saying: “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty Savior” (Zeph 3:17). Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist, for her part, called Mary “blessed among women” for she is the “Mother of my Lord” (Lk 1:42-43). We then listen to Hannah, Samuel’s mother, singing her song of praise to Yahweh while Mary sings her Magnificat.
The prophet Malachi announced that the Lord would send a messenger to prepare the people for the coming of the Lord, which was fulfilled at the birth of John the Baptist. The prophet Nathan showed Yahweh alluding to a son of David when he said: “I will be a Father to him and he shall be a son to me” (2 Sam 7:14). At the Benedictus, Zechariah spoke of a “Mighty Savior born of the house of his servant David” (Lk 1:69). The midnight Mass narrates to us the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, and the angels announce it to the shepherds –and to us- saying: “Today in the city of David, a Savior has been born to you who is Christ the Lord” (Lk 2:11). The Liturgy allows us to contemplate how the Father prepared his people for the human birth of His Son, our savior born in the flesh, and invites us to rejoice when he finally comes as a baby in Bethlehem.
The Spanish missionaries, however, were deeply in love with Mary and Joseph, and so they gave a Marian and Family color to our Simbang Gabi. As we all see, the liturgical color at the Aguinaldo Masses is Marian white. Then in every Aguinaldo Mass we sing the “Gloria.” Why? Because we are being invited to enter the hearts of Mary and Joseph during the last nine days of Mary’s pregnancy. Let us contemplate Mary’s awe at the Baby in her womb, whom the angel called “Son of God”, and “Son of the Most High.” Feel Mary’s humility as she sings her Magnificat, attributing all greatness to God, and calling herself a handmaid –an atsay- of the Lord. Feel Mary’s love as a Mother for her Baby, loving Jesus with all her heart, with all her soul, and with all her strength. Feel her motherly joy when the Baby in her womb moves and kicks. Feel Mary’s anticipation to hold her Baby in her arms and cover him with hugs and kisses.
Let us enter into Joseph’s heart and feel his awe and humility of being chosen as the Guardian and Protector for such great treasures as Mary and Jesus. Also feel the joy of Joseph as he sees that now they would be a family, anticipating how he would be a father to Jesus. With Joseph see Mary as a partner in God’s plan to form a family with Jesus at its center, where children are to be raised as future citizens of heaven. See in the love of Joseph and Mary that ideal love between husband and wife which St. Paul calls the reflection of Christ’s love for his Church. See in the Holy Family that Community of Love, which the Church considers as the living image of the Blessed Trinity on earth where only love and concern for each other prevail, loving, sharing, forgiving: “nagmamahalan, nagbibigayan, nagsusunoran.”
Christmas is the time for family reunions because God becomes man and shows us how our family is to be united in love. During the nine days of Simbang Gabi, let us learn to appreciate the gift of family and begin to count our blessings. Let us put aside the defects of each member of the family and begin to count the good qualities of each one and maximize them. Let us ask ourselves: What good things will I miss if this or that member of the family were to die and no longer be around for Christmas? The Simbang Gabi is the time to cleanse our hearts of sin through a good confession so we can receive Jesus with a clean heart on Christmas day. And as we ask forgiveness from God, let us also forgive every member of the family and pour out our love for each one. Let us also extend this love to those around us, especially to those in need. As God shows us his love by giving us His Son, so let us also give our love for one another, beginning with our own family. Amen.