Breathe – Arnel Aquino, SJ

Luke 21:5-19a, 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

This past week was a tough riddle for many of us, Jesuits. The other night, some brothers and I got together. We all wondered: “Are we the ones missing something here? Have we been standing for the wrong principles all this time?” Because no sooner did the Supreme Court rule on a burial that left us reeling, than the United States proclaimed Trump president. Right in his victory speech, he said, “You’ll be so proud of your president, you’ll be so proud.” He couldn’t help it; not for a minute could the man help praising himself! Then my phone beeped; an email from my American friend: a link to a Time Magazine article entitled, “Philippine leader sends olive branch to US after the election.” Sub-title? “We both like to swear.” If the world had come to this, what were we missing?

My asthma attacks were horrible when I was younger. They were precipitated by my own disobedience. Sinabi nang h’wag magpapatuyo ng pawis, sinabi nang h’wag magpapagod sa laro, sinabi nang ‘wag maninigarilyo. I disobeyed. Kaya ayon, hika. I’d stay awake at night, finding it hard to breathe. But my dad would stay up, rubbing my chest and my back, which was my only comfort. Then, after a couple of days, my dad would ask, “Anak, nararamdaman mo bang gumagaling ka?” Then I’d realize, yes. I did feel better. “’Wag kang mag-alala, anak. If you feel better now, you’ll feel better tomorrow than you do today. Then you’ll feel better the day after that. May awa ang Diyos.”

Dad has no idea how these simple, old words have carried me through the deepest, darkest episodes in my life. Now that I’m 50, I do a lot of looking back. I can honestly tell you that my most difficult crises were my own doing. They were the fruit of my own impulsive and wrong choices. They were once blessings, yes, but they turned into poison because I either misused them or took them for granted. Sure, sometimes I felt that the consequences of my faults far outweighed my misdeeds. Still, I will say, I reaped what I sowed. And in my deepest despair & self-regret, a voice in my head would go: “’Wag kang mag-alala anak. You’ll start feeling better tomorrow, & the next day, & better each day after that. May awa ang Diyos.”

In the first part of today’s Gospel, Luke describes the destruction of Jerusalem through Jesus’ words. We’re not sure if Jesus actually predicted the destruction. But we can be sure that the words Luke put in the Lord’s mouth accurately describe that dreadful day, year 70AD—when the Romans plundered Jerusalem. Actually, the Jews erupted into many rebellions against Rome in years previous. But this time, Emperor Titus finally decided to teach Israel a lesson. Listen to a Jewish historian named Josephus who lived to see that day: “As soon as the army had no more people to slay or plunder, because there remained none to be objects of their fury, Titus gave orders to demolish the entire city and the Temple. Jerusalem was destroyed so completely that nothing was left to make anyone believe it was ever inhabited.” Then, Luke segues the Gospel by describing his present situation: the persecution of Christians. “They will seize you, imprison you, embarrass you before the powerful of the land.” It’s all very dark, this Gospel. But it ends with a reassurance: “But not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives.” Well, today, Israel is still alive and Christianity is still growing in number.

Someone texted me yesterday and asked: “Has the world gone mad for choosing and giving power to mad men?” Then again, we who think we’re the ones seeing straight, especially the clergy—could we be the ones so maddeningly blind? Who knows? But dear sisters and brothers, we have no satisfying explanation to the troubling things happening lately. No matter; while we’re looking for an answer, hatred is still on the rise, and arrogance, its fuel. Integrity in the supposedly “highest” places of respect has hit rock-bottom. But worst of all, please remember that people are being murdered. Whether it’s the innocent or the guilty who die, killed the way they are, it’s still murder, every day.

Asthma? Are we suffering from socio-political, spiritual, moral ‘asthma’? We’re not quite sure if all of this should make us heave a sigh of relief. But as a country, our breaths are shallow and labored, and that sigh of relief we desperately want to breathe, we don’t know if it’s safe to do so just yet.

But come to think of it, sisters and brothers, we Pinoys have been through the best and the worst, and many times over, haven’t we? Our dear country is none the worse for wear, but we’re still up & our faith is strong. So, we have enough proof that whatever happens, the good always eventually conquers the evil. God pulls through. We’ve seen that in our personal lives. We’ve seen that in our families. And we’ve seen that, more or less, in our country. Goodness may suffer at the beginning and fall sick, and mostly  of our doing, our wrong choices as a community. But coming back to dad’s simple words, it will feel better tomorrow, then the next day, and better each day, because “may awa ang Diyos.” The Lord comes to rule the earth with justice, our Psalm today says. So, we wait until goodness is up and running again because then, it will strike the evil and teach them a lesson. Call it grace, call it divine justice, or call it karma. But while we’re waiting for this, we have to do our part by staying up all night to nurse goodness back to health: in the face of murders, we do simple acts of kindness. In the face of corruption, we care more for the poor. In the face of the cursing and the swearing, we use words that encourage and build, rather than words that demean and destroy. To borrow Michelle Obama’s words, “when (evil) goes low, we go high.” And most of all, we pray…and pray hard… and pray together…until we can breath easily again. Amen.


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