Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Even the poor deserve to see Heaven

Homily on Santo Nino

To say that Filipinos have an exceptionally strong devotion to the Santo Niño is certainly an understatement. You can see his image everywhere, family altars, little shrines set up in mall stores, every nook and cranny. The Filipino devotion to the Santo Niño is as old as the history of the colonisation and Christianisation of these islands and is inextricably linked with the history of the people of this country. What you see here is only a replica. The original statue is found in the epicentre of this devotion in this country, Cebu, where the revered centuries-old image of the Child Jesus still stands, wearing the regalia fit for a king – a crown, an orb and a sceptre and enthroned not only on the High Altar of the Minor Basilica which is named after him, but more evidently, in the hearts of the faithful who congregate around Him day in and day out.

In 1521 shortly after Magellan and the Spanish arrived in Cebu the statue of the Infant Jesus was given to the Queen of Cebu when she converted to Catholicism. Soon afterwards the Spanish were expelled from the island of Cebu when their leader was killed in battle. Forty four years later the Spanish returned and one of the Spanish sailors found the statue, hidden in in a wooden box, perfectly preserved. The discovery of the statue caused a sensation. The Spanish saw it as a sign of the openness of the Filipino people to the Gospel and as a call to renew their efforts to evangelise the country. In short, this devotion is particularly dear to the Filipinos because this is the first religious image that set foot on Philippine soil. It is the concrete historical icon that marked the beginning of Christianity in these islands.

But more importantly, the Santo Nino is important to the people of the Philippines, precisely because he is a reminder that God is not aloof, remains hidden behind the lofty clouds of a heaven reserved for the Westerners and the Gentry. It is reminder that underlying this devotion and any other devotion there is a profound theological basis that goes to the very heart of our faith. This graphic testimony is reminder that our faith is not built upon concepts and ideas. Jesus was no imaginary hero, a mythical figure, a product of a lie that gave rise to false hope. While our culture is very open to the likes of Superman, Thor, Spider-man and other “super-beings” who are fictional, it is ironic that man regards the Incarnation, the fact of an Omnipotent God choosing to become mortal, a strange and unbelievable idea. Our hope is placed on a firm foundation that the Incarnation really did take place. Our God is a God with a face, and His face is Jesus.  And because He was incarnate, He did truly die and His physical body and human soul did rise from the dead.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “belief in the true Incarnation of the Son of God is the distinctive sign of the Christian faith” (CCC 463). Nowhere is it more beautifully and succinctly articulated than here:
1.      The Word became flesh for us in order to save us (CCC 457). According to the Nicene Creed, we all profess that “For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit, he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”
2.      The Word became flesh so that thus we might know God’s love (CCC 458) – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16)
3.      The Word became flesh to be our model of holiness (CCC 459)
4.      Finally, the Word became flesh to make us ‘partakers of the divine nature.’ (2 Peter 1:4)

But the most graphic representation of the Incarnation can be seen here in the shrine of the Holy Child located in this district of Tondo. As you can see, the district of Tondo is one of the poorest in Manila, it is the largest of slums. The notorious Smoky Mountain, where people live and make a living from the city’s largest garbage dump is located here. Choosing to erect a shrine to the Holy Child, a temple which honours the Incarnation, underscores the significance of Christmas. The Son of man has come to seek and to save that which is lost. He began this mission by situating himself at the very centre of the history of those who were lost and who required redemption. He chose to be born among the poorest of the poor. He weaved his own history into the history of sinners, the disenfranchised, the poor, the weak and vulnerable, in order that he may redeem that history and chart a course for a glorious future. And so the image of the Santo Nino arrayed in the most splendorous robes of a king is a fitting icon for the poor.

Why should I say that? We all know that the poor need food and clothing, decent education and good jobs. But what about their spiritual and cultural needs? Can a church building serve the poor spiritually through the material? Many, including priests and bishops would give a definite “no” as an answer. The ostentation that you see displayed in shrines like this does often appear scandalous especially when juxtaposed with the material lack of the poor. Yesterday, Fr Simon spoke of the old Judas argument, “the money could be better used for the poor.” But the power of the Incarnation demands that we answer with a “yes” instead of “no.” Such churches indeed are necessary for the spiritual well-being of the poor.

First, the church for the poor should offer a respite from the ugly world of the poor whilst offering a glimpse of the heavenly Jerusalem to those living in Nineveh. A church for the poor does not have paintings of abstract or ugly figures but is full of beautiful images of holy men and women who overcame their sinfulness to draw close to God. Even more important, a church for the poor shows the poor their mother who comforts and their God who forgives. A church for the poor is full of signs, symbols, and sacraments: outward signs of inward grace. It cannot be a place where the sacrament of salvation is hidden away.

A church for the poor is not hidden away in the suburbs or on a highway where it may never be seen and is difficult to get to. It should be placed where the poor are—near the poor villages or the destitute city neighborhoods and in prominent places like downtowns or city parks where the poor sometimes travel.

A church for the poor should not look impoverished. Having a Spartan simple looking church is not solidarity with the poor. Rather it is reinforcing the point that the poor are undeserving of beauty and grandeur. It is one of the few public buildings that those without status or money are always welcome to enter. The poor may not often visit the art museum, the symphony hall, the stately hotel and certainly never the palace of a king. However, here in this Church, the Temple erected in honour of God, the King of Kings, a sacramental representation of the Heavenly Courts, the poor may enter and find a place. A worthy church can give the poor the experience of art, fine music, and nobility that the rich and middle class are happy to pay for.

When the poor see beauty they see God. Why? Because “beauty” is God’s middle name. What building can better point the poor towards Christ than a church: a house of God that welcomes them, embraces them, and lifts them up. It is here, in this Church dedicated to the Santo Nino, that the poor are reminded of their true dignity, they are rich in the sight of God.

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