Luke 1:57-66, 80, Solemnity of the Nativity of St John the Baptist
Sina Fr Zacarias Agatep at Fr Roberto Salac ng mga diosesano, sina Fr Nilo Valerio ng mga SVD, Fr Tulio Favali ng mga PIME, Fr Rosaleo Romano ng mga Redemptorist, at Fr Godofredo Alingal ng mga Heswita, sila noong nakaraang regimen ng Martial Law…tapos, nitong nakaraang anim na buwan, sina Fr Mark Ventura naman, Fr Marcelito Paez, at Fr Richmond Nilo. What did all these priests have in common? Well, two things. Love and hate. First, love; all of them loved the poor, especially farmers and displaced Filipinos. And the poor loved them back very dearly, by the way. The second thing they have in common? Hate. The rich landowners hated them because they organized the farmers in their parishes to clamor for their fair share. The mining entrepreneurs hated them for teaching the people to guard their claim over their land. And worst, the politicians cashing in millions, they hated these priests too, for being a threat to their cashflows. And I guess there’s a third thing that these fathers have in common. They were all killed, from Fr Agatep to Fr Nilo. Pero mula po noong Martial Law magpasahanggang-ngayon, wala pa pong nasasakdal na mastermind. Puro scapegoat po ang pinoposasan, para may masabing may nahuli na. But back then as now, no landowner, miner, nor politician has ever had to answer for the priestly murders, even when the whole world knows that the real killers are not only those who actually pulled the trigger, but also those who pay them and make them commit the crimes. Pero ‘ika nga ni Ginoong Tito Sotto tungkol sa tatlong paring namatay sa loob ng anim lamang na buwan, “It’s just a coincidence.”
Our man for the day is the Lord’s first cousin, John the Baptist. We all know from the Bible and from religion class that John would grow up to be the herald of the Messiah. He “prepared the way of the Lord.” See, for many centuries, the Israelites were waiting for the Messiah to come. When John the Baptist grew up, he got busy getting the people ready for that coming. How? By telling them to turn away from sin, to repent from their sinful ways and be baptized in the River Jordan. Wala siyang pinalampas. Wala siyang sinanto. Ang mali ay mali. Ang kaslanan ay kasalanan. This is why he called out even the king himself, Herod, and brazenly told him, “Mahal na hari, mali po ‘yang ginagawa ninyong inasawa ninyo sarili niyong hipag.” So, because truth hurt, Herod’s wife/sister-in-law plotted John’s execution—via her dancing daughter, Salome, and took advantage of his husband’s drunken arrogance. Who would have known that “preparing the way of Lord” would also turn out to being killed by governance, the very same way by which Jesus would be killed—by governance?
These past weeks, I’ve been looking at pictures of the murdered three priests. I actually feel hatred for our governance. I feel enraged at law enforcement officials who cave in to governance that commissions the murders. But that’s not half of what I feel about myself. I see the faces of these three murdered priests whom I consider my brothers and I feel embarrassment about myself, more than hatred for governance, more than anger at law enforcement. Because a voice in my head says, “Sige nga, habang nagkakamatayan ang mga kapatid mong pari dahil ipinaglaban nila ang mga dukha, eh, ikaw, Arnel, anong ipinaglalaban mo bilang alagad ng Diyos? O hanggang feelings-feelings ka lang?”
Maybe this homily would have been more appropriate on August 29, the commemoration of the beheading of John the Baptist, rather than today, his birthday. But I was thinking, the power of John’s birth lay in how he lived out his mission in life. And the power of his mission in life lay in his courage to die for his cause. So yes, we celebrate John’s birth today—but that birth was the birth of a martyr; a martyr who went and lived in the margins. This brought him to the edge; the edge of Herodias’ patience and finally, the edge of a sword.
But, do you notice, dear sisters and brothers, even if governance tries to hide the truth by killing the truth-tellers, the victims’ deaths render the lie only the more glaring. I don’t think John the Baptist or any of the priests wanted to be killed. Who in his right mind would deliberately put himself in harm’s way and be no good to the people he’s fighting for if he’s dead? Suicide never helps the cause. But see, that’s the difference between dying for the truth and killing for a lie. When you die for the truth, the world raises you as a hero. When you kill for a lie, that’s because you can’t stand the truth. So, this means you’re just one more coward who just happens to have a lot of power. But that’s all you are.
Yung dalawang magpinsan, si Juan Bautista at si Hesus—pareho ang kinahinatnan. Pinagpapatay dahil nagsabi ng, at nabuhay sa, katotohanan. Maybe that’s an answer to my embarrassing self-question. Maybe that’s the lesson I must keep learning as a priest. That even if I don’t have the makings of a prophet, even less a martyr like my brother-priests who died for the truth, that I should at least keep telling the truth and keep living in the truth…even if it doesn’t kill me…even if it only hurts.
Matanong ko nga kayong mga magulang dito. I know that you’re all raising your children to always tell the truth and always be on the side of the truth. Now what if one day, your child asks you: “Dad, mom, how far do you want me to tell the truth? How far must I take the side of the truth?” What would you say? How far? Because how far we allow ourselves to tell the truth and be on truth’s side might later spell the difference between being someone who will die for the truth or kill for a lie. St. John the Baptist, pray for us.
*image from Catholic News Agency