True Transfiguration – Ben Nebres, SJ

John 3:31-36, Thursday in the 2nd Week if Eastertide

These months the concern and attention of many of us have been on the coming national elections and the candidacy of Ferdinand Marcos, Jr brings back memories of the 14 years of martial law. I was deeply involved in the events of those years, as Dean of Ateneo College and Rector of Loyola House of Studies. I was Jesuit Provincial in the final years of martial law and the first years of democratic restoration 1983-1989.

Much of the discussion today about those times focus on the excesses, the corruption and plunder of the Marcos regime. These are real and true. But activism actually started because of the ostentatious display of a rich family, because our youth identified with the poor and were violently angry at the immense gap between rich and poor. Fr. Pacifico Ortiz, then President of the Ateneo de Manila, gave an impassioned speech at the 1972 Constitutional Convention warning us that the Philippines was sitting on a social volcano, the injustice of the immense gap between rich and poor. He called on us to respond to our God, who as we read in our responsorial psalm, hears the cry of the poor.

I would like to recall, that, for the Ateneo of the 1970s, our engagement with the national situation, including martial law, was actually shaped by our engagement with farmers in Central Luzon, in a student organization called Sarilikha. There were massive floods in Metro Manila and Central Luzon due to incessant rains through June and July 1972. Ateneo students mobilized for relief and then realized that relief was not enough – and they decided to move on to rehabilitation, going every weekend to the farms and doing what they could to help the farmers get back on their feet. Their witness was felt on campus, because they were visible in their adopted “uniform” of maong pants and white shirt and in their lifestyle deeply connected with the reality of the poor. They led in the creation of what we called a counterculture, their experience shaped our immersion programs, our Social Involvement Offices, the Office of Social Concern and Involvement and the Center for Community Services, and what we called the Socially Oriented Activities in Ateneo College.

Thus our engagement with martial law was primarily in the context of working for a better life for farmers, workers, fisherfolk and urban poor. We engaged martial law on behalf of the urban poor experiencing demolition, like in Rona’s Garden across Ateneo, on behalf of farmers arrested because of protests. Our engagement was always towards social reform on behalf of the poor. After the assassination of Ninoy Aquino in August 1986 more professionals and businessmen engaged martial law, but their focus was simply on the restoration of democratic freedoms. In talks I gave to them at that time I asked that once we are able to return to democratic freedoms, would they also work with us towards social reform – towards a better life for farmers, workers and the poor. 

In my homily as provincial very soon after EDSA 1 on the Feast of St. Ignatius on July 31, 1986, I said that in the period of our new freedom, we hoped to formulate our path as that of helping move our nation from the achievements in political reform, i.e., democratic institutions, freedom, to the great needs of social reform – equality, access to social services, education and health. The Social Development Complex in the Ateneo was an initiative to institutionalize this goal. 

Sadly we know that we failed. The Philippines remains one of the most unequal countries in the world and the dynamics of our economic policies will continue in that direction. Ciel Habito has pointed out that 76% of our GDP growth has been going to the 40 richest families and during the pandemic, when so many more were hungry, the wealth of the richest actually grew by 20%.

In February 1989 after attending an EDSA celebration I wrote a column entitled “Come Down from EDSA Heights”. I reflected on our EDSA experience as a Transfiguration experience. “We saw ourselves transfigured. We even gave up beer and the Manila Bulletin after Cory’s call on February 16. I remember the courage and euphoria in confronting the tanks on Ortigas . . .”But the Transfiguration story, of course, continues with the apostles going down from the mountain and confronting a deaf and mute boy and they are unable to cure him. When they ask Jesus “Why could we not cast out the demon”, Jesus replied: “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.”

So with us after the euphoric experience of EDSA. My article continued “As with the first Transfiguration experience when the apostles came down and were presented with an epileptic boy, we left EDSA and suddenly saw no longer our heroic figures but only our very ordinary selves. We saw the various epilepsies afflicting our nation, poverty and oppression, greed and selfishness and we found we could not exorcise them. . . I thought of this as I waited for the light to change at Ortigas and EDSA and bought a sampaguita from one of the little girls there. They should be at home or at school studying or playing. But the dumb and deaf spirits of poverty and oppression that continue to possess our country condemn them to sun and rain and the horrible fumes which we emit.” 

Looking back over 30 years I wonder if we really ever came “Down from the Hill” to see and be moved by the painful realities of our country – the little girls and boys selling sampaguita at intersections, the 30% (over 3 million) of our children 0-5 who are stunted, malnourished, families living under overpasses. 

Are our memories of EDSA frozen to the beautiful time of our Transfiguration?

But the real transfiguration of the apostles and disciples of Jesus came not from the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, but from their joining Jesus in His passion, death and resurrection. For us, the true transfiguration of our nation will only come if we descend from the heights and join our people in their passion and suffering towards the resurrection. 

As I listen to friends reaching out to drivers, to the poor in their neighborhoods, to salesgirls, to engage them for the forthcoming elections, I pray that we also enter into the lives of these brothers and sisters of ours. It will, of course, not be easy. Their world and their lives and the way they see our country are very different from ours. In fact, our worlds have grown more separate and different in the years after EDSA. But as we reach out to them towards our coming elections, we can take these first steps of entering into their lives, and pray that, in the grace and power of the Risen Lord, we may walk together with themtowards the true transformation of our nation.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Sally Abelarde says:

    That hit to the core!💗🕊
    Thank you Fr Ben Nebres! and We pray for our own Pentecost, one and all🙏🙌🕊


  2. Nesy C. Fernandez says:

    Hi! Thank you so much for regularly sending me the homilies. I forward/share them with friends via Messenger or Viber but i couldn’t find the link at the bottom. Very few of them open their emails, sadly. Please help….thanks!


  3. gloria luz Raymundo says:

    we left the Philippines in 1989 despite our participation in EDSA people power…we bid goodbye to our parish priest who was also in the revolution and he wondered why we decided not to stay. I have four children…we had a sense that the cronies of the dictator will wait for their time because the reality is the Pilipinos have short memories. and have forgiving spirits…poverty allowed them to sell their votes…we experienced that because when our compadre ran for Congressman the competitor was handing out envelopes with money on the night before the election…and of course we LOST. We could not risk the future of our children should there be no change in political environment and of course, most of the Pilipinos are no longer following the commandments of God…that for me is NON_NEGOTIABLE. and so we left…sad to say the Pilipinos are no longer worth dying for….


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s