Monday, February 6, 2017

A guiding star for travellers

Homily for the Shrine of Our Lady of Antipolo
(Preached at the Shrine of Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage)

In his Retreat for Priest, one of the most notable Anglican converts to Catholicism, Monsignor Ronald Knox wrote, “Protestants sometimes laugh at us because we address ourselves now to our Lady of Perpetual Succour, now to our Lady of Good Counsel, now to our Lady of Lourdes, and so on, as if they were so many different people. But the case is much worse than that, if they only knew; every individual Catholic has a separate Our Lady to pray to, His Mother, the one who seems to care for Him individually, has won Him so many favours, has stood by Him in so many difficulties, as if she had no other thought or business in heaven but to watch over him.

Yesterday, we paid a visit to the Shrine of the Patron of Football. Today, we arrive at the shrine of Our Lady of the Filipinos, the Patron of those who detest equestrian sports – “antipolo.” Mother Mary, forgive me for my fleeting moment of irreverence. Our Lady of Antipolo may be a name which seems unfamiliar to many of us. You know of all the great shrines in Europe associated with our Lady and even some of the more famous ones in Asia, like Our Lady of Akita in Japan and Our Lady of Good Health, or Annai Vellangkanni, in India. But this is THE Marian shrine of the Philippines, Our Lady of Antipolo, or Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage.

It all starts with a statue. As the story goes, around 388 years ago, the Spanish galleon El Almirante landed in the Philippines from Mexico with precious cargo - a carved statue of the Virgin Mary -- a gift to the Filipino people by their Governor General. Legend says the trip from Mexico to the Philippines was fraught with great storms and a fire aboard the ship, but the ship landed safely -- with many contributing the successful journey to the presence of the holy cargo. She then became known as "Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage." According to tradition, the statue disappeared at least twice from the church, and each time was found in the branches of a tipulo (breadfruit) tree or as our locals would call it, the Sukun tree. So, you may add an additional name, Our Lady of the Sukun Tree.

Apologies for the short diversion, now back to our tale. Eventually, the statue found permanent residence in the small village of Antipolo, under the careful watch of Jesuit priests. That is why we have Fr Simon accompanying us on this pilgrimage to ensure that Our Lady doesn’t get lost again. The priests built a church near the tree, cut it down, and made it into a pedestal for the statue, where it remains to this very day.

As Patroness of Peace and Good Voyage, the Lady of Antipolo, reminds me of another ancient title accorded to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Star of the Sea, or Stella Maris. She has been called “Star of the Sea” since St. Jerome in the fifth century, though there was likely a transcription problem:  St. Jerome called her “stilla maris,” drop of the sea, but the change of an “i” to an “e” turned it into “stella maris,” star of the sea.  As a star, Mary guides us just as the star led the magi to the Christ Child.

To the sailors in ages past the stars meant survival.  Without the stars, before GPS and our technology, they wouldn’t know where they were going.  The stars represented, in a way, their salvation.  The stars pointed the way to safety.  It only took a good storm to spell disaster, because their navigation system was gone. Mary, as Star of the Sea, directs us to safety, to salvation, to life beyond just survival.  Her hands, with their scars and wrinkles, point to peace.  Her hands, with their memory of holding the Christ Child and then preparing for His burial, lead me home.  Her hands, like the stars for the sailors, guide me to the safe harbour of her Son.

It is interesting to note that a church building is intentionally built to resemble a ship. The section where the congregation sits is called the “nave” that comes from the Latin and Greek root which means “ship.” This was meant to portray the reality that the Church is a ship, protecting those inside it from the waves and buffets of the world. This also explains why in Churches dedicated to Our Lady, her statue occupies the audacious position of sitting high on the apsidal wall of the sanctuary, often even placed higher than the tabernacle where the Blessed Sacrament is reposed. But the arrangement is intentional and theologically sound. Mary acts as our guide to ensure that we have a peaceful and good voyage across the often turbulent ocean of life to safe harbour.  She points the way to Christ just as the Bethlehem Star hovered above, marking the place where the Magi could find the Holy Family and the Child.

Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage, Mary, Star of the Sea, is a promise that we’ll never be lost, that the storms of life will never spell disaster.  We can place ourselves in her hands — strong, worn, tender — and know that we are safe. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux captured this moment and how we ought to respond in supplication to Mary in his twelfth century treatise: “If the winds of temptation arise; If you are driven upon the rocks of tribulation look to the star, call on Mary; If you are tossed upon the waves of pride, of ambition, of envy, of rivalry, look to the star, call on Mary. Should anger, or avarice, or fleshly desire violently assail the frail vessel of your soul, look at the star, call upon Mary.”

O Holy Virgin of Antipolo, Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage, O Star of the Sea, pray for us and keep us safe on this adventure of faith!

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