Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Christmas spirit

IN spite of varying times and climes, favorable or unfavorable, the Christmas spirit thrives not only in the hearts of children and the simple, but also in those of mature men and women, wearied, hardened and even jaded by ugly worldly affairs.

It’s a spirit of joy, bred by faith, which cannot be simply kept inside. It has to show itself externally, generating a beautiful gust of popular piety that boosts the faith, whether sagging or vibrant, of people both young and old.

“A child is born for us, a son given to us; dominion is laid on his shoulder, and he shall be called Wonderful-Counsellor.” (Isaiah 9,6)

Though repeated countless times through the ages, every time they are spoken, in faith, on Christmas Day, these words of Scripture leave an electrifying effect, mysteriously evoking an undeniable truth and an unspeakable joy that only our heart, made by God and for God, can relish.

Whatever they say, there is in man an inherent goodness that readily recognizes the spirit of Christmas. It’s a goodness that frolics with the good news of Christ’s birth, it sings and dances no matter what adverse circumstances there may be.

Of course, our theology deepens this truth of faith by telling us that with Christ’s birth, God becomes man to save us, and eternity re-acquires our errant time and world and sets them in their proper course. A very beautiful truth we are celebrating in Christmas!

This irreducible and inalienable goodness in us simply shows that in spite of our weaknesses and failures, in spite of some weakening of faith or whatever, we somehow understand we are meant for the eternal, for the infinite.

We are not simply earth-bound or time-bound. Our true dignity seeks a much higher level of existence. We may not be very aware of this, but we actually
yearn for this goal.

Our natural goodness makes us discern where our true home is and what our true happiness really is. It makes us realize that we are meant to live on beyond this life and time, and beyond this world.

This innate goodness, I like to think, is the original language that unites us with our Creator, before other layers of languages come between God and us. If taken good care of, it’s a language that can lead us to loftier realities about ourselves.

We are not mere creatures who try our best to make the most of what we have in this world. We are something much more, a lot more. We are God’s children, meant to participate in his very own supernatural life.

Christmas brings this phenomenon about. There is something in it, regardless of the contamination of commercialism, paganism, etc., that causes this sublime realization to surface.

Yet, despite this mysterious law, it is incumbent on us to exert all we can to purify the way we celebrate Christmas. In this duty, we cannot be passive.

There can be many things to take care of, but I’d like to reiterate what a Church document wants us to pay special attention to during Christmas. This is to keep the celebration from falling into becoming too emotional and shallow. These points can be:

- all manifestations of popular piety should be linked and harmonized with the liturgy, which is the official prayer of the Church, the prayer of Christ himself with all of us. Popular piety should climax in the liturgy;
- the “spirituality of gift,” proper of Christmas, should be highlighted, based on the truth that “a child is born for us, a son is given to us” (Is 9,5), and God “so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3,16);
- to convey the message of solidarity, also proper of Christ, since with Christ’s birth God lives solidarity with sinful man and the poor;
- Christ’s birth should also stress the sacredness of human life, now threatened gravely in many places;
- also to emphasize the spirit of simplicity and poverty, humility and trust in God so conspicuous in Christ’s birth and so direly needed by us today.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Living the Bible

THE Bible should always by our side. If we still think we are Christian believers and really know what the Bible is, then we should realize it’s something indispensable in our life.

It should not be considered just like any book. It’s not merely some religious literature, or a scholar’s material, or an object of social curiosity, etc. No, no, the Bible is much more than these. Its relevance has not expired.

For Christian believers, it is “the” book. It is where one meets Christ, the living Christ, no less. It is not only a human document. In spite of its human limitations, it is foremost a divine document, needing a living faith for its use.

Sad to say, to many Catholics today, the Bible suffers a painfully reduced status. That it’s an inspired book, written in some mysteriously harmonious way by God and man, and thus, in some way, a living book, is lost in the minds of people.

In fact, the very concept of inspiration today is painfully devalued. Its original religious meaning is now replaced by poor, cheap if glittering imitations, geared more to petty romances and other expressions of mundane creativity.

Modern man’s concept of inspiration is actually an empty shell, a gravy without the meat, stuck with the accidentals but missing the substance. It has become a soulless creature, emasculated and castrated, a victim of the prevailing crisis in religion.

Forgotten is the fact that being an inspired book, it contains God’s self-revelation to us, made full in Christ. With faith, the divine self-revelation takes the leap from written word to living word.

Reading it, again with the proper dispositions, is entering into a vital dialogue with God, bringing us to a deeper level of reality. That’s when what is described in the Letter to the Hebrews becomes a beautiful event:

“For the word of God is living and effectual, and more piercing than any
two-edged sword, and reaching unto the division of the soul and the spirit, of the joints also and the marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intent of the heart.

“Neither is there any creature invisible in his sight but all things are naked and open to his eyes, to whom our speech is.” (4,12-13)

I know there are some people who get upset when talks like this are made. They say that faith and religion are at best purely private, personal affairs that have no place in public, because these can’t be “scientifically” accounted for and verified.

The idea of God revealing himself to us in a dynamic way can taste like poison to them. They consider it a gratuitous and extravagant claim, completely baseless and bereft of any convincing reasons.

That’s the problem we have. The deepest yearning we have in our hearts is made to stay down deep there, not allowed to show itself externally. There are people who get an indigestion when any talk of God is made.

But in spite of the supernatural character of the Christian faith, we have more than enough reasons to justify why the faith can and even should be a public affair.

In the case of the Bible, there are strong reasons to discuss its validity and relevance not only in our personal lives, but also in our social life. In fact, it always has something to say in every aspect of our life.

The need, for example, of how to read and interpret it demands that it be discussed in public. These points just cannot be left to purely personal and individualistic interpretations. There are principles, derived from faith, that need to be followed.

Being both a human and divine document, it requires also both human and supernatural means to savor its juice, so to speak, and to make it alive.

To know the precise literal meaning of its text, to discern its spiritual sense, to learn how to relate it to our present circumstances, etc.,

Monday, December 11, 2006

The sense of the spiritual

THAT may sound like a contradiction in terms, “sense” being something associated with the body, as in the sense of sight, with the eye as its proper organ, and “spiritual” being precisely what is contrary to anything material.

But if we still believe that man is composed of body and soul, something material and something spiritual, then there must be some sense in talking about developing “the sense of the spiritual.”

That’s just how it is. We have to contend with the peculiarities of our human condition that make us neither purely material nor purely spiritual, but material and spiritual all the same time.

This sense of the spiritual, in my view, is what is most needed these days. We seem to be so dominated by the material, the external, the bodily and sensual, that even our spiritual faculties—our thinking, our willing—appear unduly compromised.

The horror expressed by St. Paul when he wrote about the differences between the carnal man and the spiritual man is taking place right before our eyes. We are having more of the carnal than the spiritual.

I would even say that if there is any reference to something spiritual, most likely it is made to highlight and enhance a purely material and earthly value. To exaggerate a little, it’s like our thinking and willing are made only to heighten our feeling. They are not made to tackle their proper object who is ultimately God.

Looking around, we just see and hear in billboards, newspapers, radios, TV,
Internet, etc., images and sounds that convey, often in a subliminal but effective way, almost exclusively material, external, temporal and earthly values.

We are cajoled to look good, to feel good, to be rich, to be successful, to have a champion body, to be powerful, popular, etc. We are made to envy those who have won the genetic lottery, because they are physically beautiful and well-endowed.

To be rich and famous now means to “have arrived.” If you are neither of
these, then, sweetie, you still have a long way to go in this life. It’s a diabolical frame of mind that, I’m afraid, is threatening to become a generalized culture.
There’s hardly any mention about the need to be humble and simple, to be prayerful, to do sacrifices, etc. There’s no mention about virtues, like prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice. Nothing about ascetical struggle. Definitely, no mention of God. Shucks!

This is truly weird, since if for those who still believe in God, God is known to be our Creator, our Father, and all that, why is it that many find it hard to relate themselves and their affairs to God?

This is the problem. While the material and earthly values are legitimate, it seems they are pursued without proper reference to the spiritual and supernatural that should serve as their goal.

Thus, we also yield what we sow. Precisely because the spiritual values are
neglected or are not given proper attention, people who still believe in God find it harder to resist temptations and to handle their weaknesses.

How can it be otherwise when once stuck with the material, they simply become ruled by things like moods, temper, tastes, hormones, instincts, emotions, passions, fads and fashions.

These things, as we know, are always shifting or cover only a partial aspect of our life. They are not meant to be a constant element, guiding us to unchanging truths and what is truly good for us.

They give us a certain good, but they are notoriously shortsighted and narrow-minded. Worse, they spawn other evils like envy, greed, avarice, lust. They are like kids, charming but certainly needing direction and discipline.

Without the spiritual values, there’s no way one can resist the lures of the devil and the sting of the flesh. One can have an appearance of goodness, but inside it’s a different story altogether.

We have to develop a sense of the spiritual, one that puts God always in our mind and heart, in our feelings, our affairs, etc. We need grace for this, but we also are equipped for this lifestyle.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Christian social sense

We are told that this year is the Year of Social Concerns. Our Bishops declared this, I suppose, in a bid to help all believers to develop a genuine and effective social sense, infused with Christian faith and charity.

In this life, a Christian faithful is not only a member of the Church. He is also a citizen of a country. He is not only an individual person, he is also a social being.

Thus, Pope Benedict recently said that the Christian identity is not only an “I” but a “we”, since it does not consist simply with our individual identities, but also with our permanent awareness that we are children of God and that we are all brothers and sisters.

God and others necessarily enter into one’s Christian identity. We need to link our individual identity with this requirement. And a Christian social sensibility is one way of doing this. That’s the challenge we have now.

This is a lofty and noble goal that should not be trivialized, treating it as a mere social event in the Church. The challenges that it can tackle are many, complicated, daunting.

In this regard, two aberrations need to be corrected: the drift to what is called as secularism, on the one hand, and the tendency to clericalism, on the other. Both are irregularities regarding God’s role in society.

Secularism is marked at least by indifference to God. God is seen to have no role to play in our social life. Our earthly affairs, especially those with social dimensions, like our business and politics, are purely ours.

In this frame of mind, we need not bother about moral considerations that have God and his commandments as basis. Everything depends on us. We make our own rules.

Since this is highly subjective, it will favor the strong, the rich, the clever, and disparages the weak, the poor and those who are naturally lowly endowed. This can be very discriminating and can lead to scandalous cases of injustice and inequality. We don’t have to look far to find proofs of this.

This anomaly can have many causes: atheism, agnosticism, skepticism, to mention a few. But even underlying these aberrant systems are the usual culprits: pride, greed, vanity, ignorance, confusion, etc. These are the ones that should be tackled directly.

Clericalism, on the other hand, is when faith in God is turned into a social or political ideology. There is an illegitimate marriage between religion and politics, a poisonous mix between our spiritual and social dimensions.

In this attitude, God is often portrayed as partisan in issues that are open to many, even conflicting but reasonable and moral opinions. The duty to put God in our business and politics is wrongly understood and applied.

We would be quick to call God to our side in matters that are just for us to agree on. To exaggerate a little, it’s like asking God to side with us in a boxing match, or in a debate about what color of uniform should be used by students.

In reality, the problem of clericalism is quite common and hard to cure. It’s deeply ingrained through the centuries of misunderstanding the role of God in our business and politics. It can afflict all of us, both clergy and laity.

In my view, clarifying the social dimension of our life should be the underlying goal to pursue in the celebration of the Year of Social Concerns. All pertinent programs and projects should spin around this purpose.

I imagine that a lot of catechesis, especially on the social doctrine of the Church, should be made. There’s a crying need to have this doctrine assimilated properly by our leaders—bishops and priests, politicians, teachers, parents, etc.

Given the strong cultural and historical conditionings of our social life, it would be good if we can undertake an ongoing, deep and systematic effort of clarifying social issues under the light of the social doctrine of the Church.

We should be brave enough to point out the good and bad traits of our culture insofar as these impact on our social life, the right and wrong turns we made in the past. Etc., etc.