Off our Knees – Arnel Aquino, SJ

Mark 13:33-37, 1st Sunday of Advent

How would you like a parish priest like this: He spends most of his time on his knees, in front of the altar, praying by himself? He hears confessions for six hours every day. In his masses, he always ends up talking about sin, that we should avoid it, that it leads to hell, and because we “do not know the day nor the hour the Master of the house is coming back,” we should prepare for the end of the world. You don’t see him much with the poor or the sick, though. There’s very little activity in the parish in the form of outreach or relief efforts. In fact, parish ministry is focused, laser-like, on fighting sin and sinners. So, the church hums with lots of rosaries, novenas, processions, and even more confessions, and more homilies about sin, hell, the end of the world. How would you like a parish like that? It’s all hypothetical, don’t worry. But I hope you feel uncomfortable contemplating a pastor like that. Because I’m sure you know that shepherding a flock, if it’s going to be Christ-like, must be more than just personally penitential, mustn’t it?

My dear sisters and brothers, it’s the First Sunday of Advent again, can you believe it? Time to prepare for Christmas, or what I often think of as the Feast of the Incarnation. Isn’t that what Christmas is: a remembrance of that cold desert evening when, “for us and for our salvation, God came down from heaven and became man”? So to get right to the point, I ask, is the forgiveness of sin the one and only driving force behind God’s Incarnation? In “for us and for our salvation,” does salvation here refer to salvation from sin and only sin? Because that’s what many of us Catholics answer when we’re asked, “Why did God become man?” We say: “To save us from sin.” So, I ask again, did Jesus come to the world only to forgive sins, save people from sinning, and prepare us for the end of the world when, we presume, God will destroy all of creation because of our sins? If we feel uneasy about a pastor whose whole ministry is the confessional box and preparation for the end of the world, don’t you think we should also feel uneasy if the Incarnation were merely penitential?

Did you ever think we’d still be in a pandemic by Christmas? I tried to deny it last March, but I’m pretty much resigned to it now. But didn’t this virus flip us all upside down?  From the biggest global plans to the smallest birthday party, the pandemic flipped them all. But besides being a virus, Covid-19 was a clear, shiny mirror. “O ayan, mundo, tingnan niyo ang sarili ninyo,” it seemed to say. It exposed and reflected back to us all the accumulated hurts and pains of people the world over: like bad governments, inept leaders, social inequality, the ravage and rape of Mother Nature, politics that pandered to the poor in good times, then in bad, left them for dead. We don’t even have to go global to see how much brokenness there’s been. In our schools, for example, students being medicated for depression, or think of hurting themselves, and even try; we still find it unbelievable how the very young can be so emotionally and physiologically broken. Those of you who work in hospitals, it must also break your hearts to see just how wide that gap yawns between rich and poor, where a rich man in pain can have an MRI tomorrow, but a poor man, just a paracetamol. You know, sisters and brothers, I’ve always wanted to tell us, Catholics, that yes, there’s a lot of sin in the world today more than ever. But I dare say that so much of it is driven by incredible accumulated brokenness, unresolved traumas, and festering wounds that refuse to heal.

No wonder Jesus of Nazareth did not spend all his time on his knees, praying to God to forgive sinners and preparing for the end of the world. He did some of that, sure, but much more: he tore up the desert by walking, walking everywhere (3,125 miles, one research said)! He showed up where people needed him. More than talk about sins (which he didn’t do very much, by the way), he did more healing and comforting, more teaching and nourishing. He told more soothing stories about a Kingdom of a merciful King. He knew people were sick and tired of kingdoms run by doddering, foul-mouthed kings who had nothing to show for it. So, yes, Jesus addressed people’s sins. But he must’ve seen and realized all that time, that underneath human sinning smoldered wounds, hurts, pains needing to be healed. To save people from sinning, he had to do double, triple duty on saving them from brokenness. Salvation is not just all about sin. “Heal before you judge,” the Lord’s actions said. “Commiserate before you condemn. Mend, put back together, before you separate and segregate.”

Whenever Advent comes around, I get anxious when our readings sound like they’re about the “end of the world.” Many of us, Catholics, read them that way, anyway, like today’s Gospel—even if this Gospel is really a prediction of the destruction of the Temple, not of the world. And if ever the world ends, we wish the Messiah catches us before our altars, on our knees, praying our sins away. It doesn’t often occur to us that it would please the Messiah more, if on that day, he catches us in his favorite places with his favorite people: the broken of our world.

In the following weeks of our preparation for the Feast of the Incarnation, let’s keep remembering, sisters and brothers, that the Incarnation is not just all about the sinners that need saving. The Incarnation is really more about a loving God who keeps healing brokenness. Jesus was not just prayer warrior on his knees. He was ever on his feet, frontlining.

*image from the Internet

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