The shepherd who would not go
The gospel for the Midnight Mass at Christmas recounts the story of the birth of Christ, of shepherds keeping the night watch over their flocks and angels filling the sky with radiance (Luke 2:1-14).
After hearing the angel’s voice, the shepherds decided to go to Bethlehem. Amos did not want to go, in the story told by Heywood Brown. He clung tightly to his crook and said, “I have need of a whisper.” The other shepherds laughed and told him, “What would this voice say in your ear? Tell us, what says the God of Amos, little shepherd of a hundred sheep?”
The others departed and told Amos what he should do for the care of their flocks. When they came back in the morning, they told Amos of the baby in the manger and the wise men who brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then they asked, “And did you see wonders here in the fields with the sheep? Was there this great voice out of heaven?”
Amos shook his head and smiled, and there was upon his face that which seemed to the shepherds a wonder, even in a night of wonders. “To my heart,” Amos said, “there came a whisper!”
The idolatry of material things
We survived another Christmas season—the traffic gridlocks, the endless shopping and spending frenzy, the food and liquor flowing from our tables. We await the noise and the smoke of New Year’s eve as many will again waste their money on firecrackers. And we will watch with dismay again while hundreds, many of them children, line up in the emergency wards waiting for medical help for mangled fingers, scorched skin and blinded eyes.
Did we hear a whisper at all about what is the meaning of all this in the midst of shouted, blaring silence, as we are bludgeoned again and again by headlines of billions of pesos in payoffs in rice smuggling and the many venal sociopaths who got the most votes last elections robbing government coffers with impunity?
Pope Francis declared in a loud voice: “Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility.. the culture of prosperity deadens us.” This reminds us that we do not have to drink ourselves into a stupor and spend ourselves into debt for it to be a Merry Christmas.
In the midst of crass commercialization of Christmas, however, there were also a lot of schools and offices where parties were toned down to give the money to the victims of the supertyphoon. Many from the Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish where I am assigned donated their Christmas gifts to the children who were ravaged by Yolanda and lost their loved ones in the storm surge. I am going to Samar in January to bring these gifts of school bags and school supplies to more than a thousand children in three schools the Divine Word Missionaries have chosen to adopt in Basey, Samar. Even the children in Smokey Mountain donated toys and clothes sent to them from New York to give to the children in Samar.
Joy and defiance
From the Annunciation to the Presentation, it is striking how all of the principals in the Christmas story were confused, troubled and even gripped by fear. All of them. And from Heaven came the constant, soothing admonishment: “Do not be afraid.” People who survived the disaster in Leyte and Samar were not afraid to celebrate Christmas in their ruined communities, roasting lechon and sharing relief goods for Noche Buena. They trudged in the dark through the muddy streets to fill churches to overflowing. “Nothing can stop us from welcoming Christmas even though we have lost our home,” 63-year-old Ellen Miano said in Tacloban, which bore the brunt of the storm.
The people ravaged by the superstorm celebrated Christmas defiantly and joyfully as they cope with loss and guilt and the gratefulness of being alive while heavy rain pelted their temporary shelters. They whisper to us of what is truly important every day of the year – the freedom and salvation the Christ-Child has come to bring.
Cardinal Tagle’s Christmas Message cited one lady from Palo who gave him her answer to the question of how might the survivors of the superstorm celebrate, “With the ruins around us, this would probably be the first time I would understand and celebrate the true meaning of Christmas.” You accept the Christ-Child as Lord and Savior, then you have to care the whole year through for the things that Jesus cared about: The blind receiving sight. The lame beginning to walk. The deaf beginning to hear. The dead being raised to life. The poor having good news brought to them.
We have to again and again ask the fundamental questions and get down to basics, otherwise we will get lost in the complexity and superficiality of modern culture, or the pain and suffering of natural calamities and moral evil.
What do you hear as you listen to your heart? The deafening silence of an absurd and meaningless universe, or the hope that all our laughter will not die in sorrow because the Divine Word, the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and End of everything that is, was made flesh and dwelt among us (Jn. 1:14)?
As you await the New Year with mixed emotions of fear and confidence, to your heart may there come a whisper!