Luke 10:1-9, 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Towards the end of World War II, my grandparents had to flee from Silay, their hometown on the island of Negros in the Philippines. During the first years of the occupation, Lolo Cardo (my grandfather) was among the few whom the Japanese trusted enough to allow him to keep his car so he could continue to oversee operations in the farm and the sugar mill. Little did the Japanese officers know that he was, in fact, helping the Filipino guerilla fighters, bringing them food and medicines with this vehicle. And so when the situation got too dangerous and when the Japanese officers in their paranoia began to execute more and more Filipinos, Lolo decided to round up the family and flee, onwards to Manila, and eventually to Baguio where they thought it would be safer. (They were, of course, wrong on both counts, for both cities would eventually sustain the heaviest bombings. But that is another story for another time.)
I myself am too young to have experienced war, but the stories of my parents and grandparents always fascinate me, fill me with fear and awe, as I imagine the uncertainties and difficulties that they endured. I imagine my grandfather, with the money belt they say he had to conceal underneath his coat when they made their journey. He must have been anxious, to say the least, of how he could continue to protect and provide for his wife and 6 children under such precarious circumstances. I imagine the sirens – at the sound of which everyone was made to run to the bomb shelters. How frightening it must have been for my Mom then about 9 years old, playing out on the street with friends one moment, and in the next to be cowering in fear in a bunker, waiting for the sound of passing warplanes and nearby explosions to end. And Lola Ela, my grandmother, with a child barely a year old, and 5 others ages 5-12, all in tow. If you have toddlers, try to remember the last time you went on a road trip with them, and then multiply the difficulty level, maybe by ten. Negros to Manila was 485 kilometers and several days of sea travel away for them on a big, old, wooden boat. And Manila to Baguio, another 206 kilometers – first by vehicle, and then up the mountains on foot, with children and a baby in tow.
We don’t really have to look too far for more of such stories here in Cambodia. The children of the war and of the camps are literally all around us. Here and in many of the parishes in this Prefecture for example, most of our staff and volunteers were born in the refugee camps, are children of the war. Many are children who Jesuits and Religious Sisters first met or baptized in the camps, or whose parents they had helped in the time of war.
I began this reflection with such stories because this is how we who live in these ties can connect to Israel’s wanderings in the desert. Our ancestors in the faith, after all, were refugees. And it is as refugees that we, at least vicariously, will most be able to encounter or imagine this fearsome, uncertain, harsh world, ready to devour us and our children as wolves would do sheep. (Just think of those boats carrying men, women and so many children from Syria for example, who are preyed upon by human traffickers and left afloat amidst that vast, treacherous sea.)
We began with these images because it is from such a fearsome context that two hauntingly striking images of God’s abiding love are given us today. First, to an Israel who has wandered far and wide, through desert places and desert Gods: a promise. Jerusalem. Where she will find comfort, prosperity and flourishing – and where God shall be mother to her. “As nurslings, you shall be carried in her arms. As a mother comforts a child, so shall I comfort you. In Jerusalem you shall find your comfort.”
And the second image is that of lambs being sent out among wolves, but coming back unscathed. Coming back not only unscathed, but with such joy from the work of the missions. “The seventy-two returned, rejoicing!”
The point for today is not to get paralyzed by the fears and uncertainties of our own lives, but to remember how God’s goodness sees us through and overpowers this uncertainty. We survive. And not only do we survive, but we flourish, by God’s hand. That’s why it is a joy for me to think of how many of the Cambodian children of the war, the youth whom we have accompanied, are now at an age of establishing their own careers, many with NGOs or with the Church, and even starting young families of their own. And the children of my own grandparents, those 6 who survived the war and two others that were born after – have had many (many) children as well. I am one among thirty-three first cousins, many of whom today have their own children (and some, grandchildren even!). Our lives have flourished and born fruit because of the sacrifices and perseverance of our parents and grandparents, all by God’s grace.
This weekend, friends, think and pray about your own life’s desert journeys, the different kinds of wars and wanderings that your peoples and your families may have had to endure. Think also about your own personal mission that the Lord has given you amidst this dark, uncertain, wolf-filled world. Think about these things, and then allow yourself to marvel. Marvel at the indomitable love of God that has already seen your family and your people through so much, and who promises more.
In today’s mass pray for faith – a deepening of your faith and trust in this God who promises to always see us through the harshness of our lives and to spare us from the wolves that await us. And believe – that through all these we as a people shall always emerge, not only to survive, but to prosper and flourish as the Lord so desires. It doesn’t mean the journey will be easy. (The Lord never promises easy.) But what he does promise is that life will flow forth, and that there will be joy and prosperity, and flourishing and fruitfulness in the end.
And pray as well to guard against our short-sightedness – the kind that sometimes has us focusing only on present problems, making us ungrateful for so many of the marvels the Lord has already actually rendered us and so many generations of us. Pray that we do not fall into the forgetfulness of fear and pray to learn to trust God completely, and absolutely.