Homeward – Jett Villarin, SJ

Luke 1:67-69, 9th day of Misa de Gallo (24th December 2020)

We saw the “Christmas star” three nights ago. This sighting was not easy. The “star”, the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter, was quite elusive for most of the time we were there at the rooftop of the Jesuit Residence. The sky was overcast. And the “star” appeared only for a moment, when the dark clouds broke and made an opening in the twilight.

But the moment was enough for us. We were like kids shouting and jumping for joy. It was as if the star had pitched its light to us and we hit a homerun. Imagine the sight: Jesuit old fogeys, old hearts racing on a rooftop, in the darkest and longest night of the year, waiting through eight innings of clouds, cheering the homerun starlight in the ninth, and making for home.

Home. Home is what we shout when we make it back in a game of patintero. In our language, home is more than just “bahay”. It is “tahanan”, a place to stop the rain from falling, to let the eyes rest from tears. Home is what we long for when we leave or when we lose our way.

This December, it will not only be overseas Filipinos who will ache for home.

All of us (abroad or not) will make an effort to celebrate Christmas in this time of pandemic. There will be carols to sing, gifts to give one another. We will still light up our houses. It will be the same and yet not the same really. There will be fewer faces around the table. The coming together of the bigger family will have to wait. Churches, if open at all, will not be full. The carols will be joyful, if more solemn, and in the space between stanzas, there will be more longing than usual.

Strange. We have been homebound all these months and yet this December, we will ache for home.

The reason for this endemic heartache is to be found in who we are. Once upon a time, we used to live in Paradise. There we knew how precious we were to God who fashioned us out of the earth. We had the power to give words to many things, but for loneliness or hunger or homelessness we had no name. We worked the fields of Eden, and ate of our harvest, and God walked the afternoons with us until the stars came out at night.

One day, a talking snake came to tell us about freedom and power. We know already how things went after that. To this day, the words of the snake continue to bewitch the best of us. When we proceed to shoot a helpless mother and son in cold blood, crying disrespect when we cannot even respect the dignity of women or the poor or those who are not like us, the snake continues to enthrall us. When we can justify the blood in our hands out of a deluded sense of righteousness or a politics of fear and hopelessness; when we cannot even protect our people during storms; when we allow our children to starve while we spend so much on frivolities and on perpetuating ourselves in power; when we let rancor, retribution, hate, regret, when we let these rule our memory, when we let all these into our home far longer than they should, we give the snake free rein to speak falsehood to our freedom and power.

And so you can say that the reason for this longing at Christmastide is because of who we once were and how lost and how far we are from Paradise. This homelessness, this restive aching for a home we can no longer name, is a consequence of our dislocation from Paradise.

Once, in a tricycle in faraway Palanan (Isabela), after blessing a farmer’s house, I found myself gazing at the great night sky scattered with stars. At that time, electricity was rationed at night and so the darkness was wide and deep. While we moved through the rice fields, the drone of the two-stroke engine alone breaking the silence, I would look up intermittently to find my bearings from the constellations. It was then that I wondered, for all the travels I have made in my life, how far I was from home.

When King David saw the contrast between his own living quarters (“a house of cedar”) and where the ark of God was housed (“a tent”), he started to dream of building a more permanent home for the ark of God.

To this grand plan of a temple, God replied, so you think you can build me and put me in a house? It is I who will build you one, and this house will not be a building but a line of descendants (“sprung from your loins”), culminating in an heir who “shall be a son to me” and whose kingdom will have no end.

And so it is that Zechariah unmuted can proclaim in his Benedictus that God has brought up for us a mighty Savior, born of the house of David,

born to us, born from this long line of connections from God to Abraham to David to Jesus and to us.

Strange. In the Incarnation, it is not a house or a place for himself that God seeks. It is connection, a living line of relationships which God desires and offers and makes possible. It is Paradise again that God longs for.

Moreso now than ever, in this time of pandemic disconnection, it is Paradise once more that we long for.

To set us on our way home, God comes to us as one like us, born in a place of conflict, to a people who have been walking in darkness for ages, where no compass or constellation has ever been able to give them back their bearings. God takes on our journey to lead us Edenward and bring us home.

The poet G K Chesterton sought home in the manger and saw through the strangeness of the place where our homeward return begins:

To an open house in the evening Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden And a taller town than Rome.

To the end of the way of the wandering star, To the things that cannot be and that are, To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

This Christmas then, take heart: if you should find yourselves aching once more inside, even after all the gifts and merriment, and you realize how far you are from home, let the longing (yours and God’s) grow on you.

It is the longing, not the stars, that will give you back your bearings and bring you home.

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