John and Maria – Arnel Aquino, SJ

Matthew 3:1-12; Second Sunday of Advent

The other night, I was astounded to see Maria Ressa appear on the Late Show with Stephen
Colbert. Then, yesterday morning, she appeared on NPR news with veteran journalist Judy
Woodruff. And last night, she was on MSNBC news! “How to Stand Up to a Dictator”, the book
she had written, was the topic of conversation in all three. You know, sisters and brothers, I was
transfixed by Maria Ressa just as Colbert and Woodruff were. Maria’s message was as simple,
true, and eloquent as it was scary: (a) dictators bully whistle-blowers, and (b) they do so with big help
from social media. “Free speech stifles free speech,” she said. That’s her shorthand for how
people have spewed lies all over Facebook so they can choke undesirable facts and dark history
behind bad leaders they support and love. Now Maria’s message to America: “If this happened to
us, it will also happen to you.” Her prophecy came true in 2021, when Trump supporters stormed
their Capitol on January 6.

If Zechariah lived long enough to see his son, his only son, his one beloved son, turn into
this camel-hair-wearing, locust-eating, desert-wandering preacher that he was, natuwa kaya si
Mang Kario, o nag-face-palm
? “This is my son!” Gano’n kaya? Or would it be more like, “This
is my son?!” Sisters and brothers, Zechariah was priest of the Temple, priest of the Temple! He
knew the Law by heart and lived accordingly: dignified, dutiful, pure. Lalo na siya. Kasi sa
matagal na panahon, wala siyang anak. Malamang may alingasngas ‘yon
. Priest of the Temple
but childless? Walang tagapagmana ng lahi ng tatay kasi baog ang asawa? Maybe that was why
it took very long before the draw-lots fell upon Zechariah for his turn in the Holy of Holies,
remember? “Kasi may sumpa ang Diyos. Walang anak,” bulong siguro ng mga paring Marites.
Well, now, he had John! Zechariah must have single-handedly taught him everything he knew
about the Law, by word and by witness. I bet he groomed his son to be Temple priest, too. Jewish
sons often inherited their fathers’ professions. Lalo na kung iisa lang anak mo. Lalo na kung pari
ka sa Templo…. Pero paglaki ni Juan
: he wore no priestly robes, ate nothing but honey and
locusts, was never recorded being anywhere near the Temple. Worst of all, he fulminated against
the hierarchs, mga kauri ng tatay niya!

A few weeks ago, I had a brief but very stirring conversation about John the Baptist with a
bishop I’ve admired the most these past few years. Since that conversation, I’ve been
contemplating John the Baptist more earnestly than I ever did before. I imagine John growing up
seeing the glories of Temple priesthood, as well as its dark underbelly. His dad must have taken
pains in shielding him from the latter, kasi baka ma-discourage nga sa pagiging pari. But John
was too astute not to see and question what hierarchs dissimulated: like their lavish lifestyle, or the
stealing of sacrificial animals, na imbis na sunugin nila sa Templo, inuuwi para ulamin ng
pamilya,
or their manipulating and equivocating theology to legitimize their thriving Temple
negosyo. And maybe, just maybe, I imagine, John must have seen how his father was marginalized
by his fellows, no matter how flatly his old man denied it.

No wonder John swore off Temple priesthood when he grew up. And he showed this by
what he did not wear, what he did not eat, and where he did not preach. Instead, he went around
baptizing people of their sins, making straight the Law that hierarchs bent out of shape. But he
was sure that what he was doing was only for starters. “Because Israel, beloved Israel,” you
could almost hear John say, “You won’t know what’ll hit you when the Lamb of God who takes
away the sins of the world finally comes to finish off what I’ve begun,” that is, decisive,
comprehensive, if painful reform of Israel, beginning w/ aiming his ax right at the root of Temple
hierarchy.

Paid FB trolls may call for unity from their Secretlab Titan gaming chairs worth
thousands of pesos. Politicians may fight for the poor… from the backseat of their Super
1 Grandias. Clerics and professors may compose their homilies and lessons on ministry and mission…
while sipping an espresso by a window overlooking a piazza. But John the Baptist then and Maria
Ressa today, and whistleblowers like them, they stand up to systematic bullies from the same
ground where the bullied like themselves have fallen. They have transparent but humble vision
instead of concealed but rapacious ambition. They testify and witness while they suffer, instead of
flatter and massage authority for promotion. While hierarchs have shiny tiles and soft carpets
underfoot, the Johns and the Marias have a dagger hanging over their heads. In other words, their
credibility & witness are particularly powerful because they do not preach from comfort. Rather,
they and people like them, they teach from lived and shared reality that is dangerous and painful.
Because of this, their modesty isn’t cultivated. Their slogans aren’t sappy. And their nationalism
and patriotism are not disingenuous.

As we read more about John the Baptist these coming days, dear sisters and brothers, we
remember that real heroes give their lives to something bigger than themselves. Pretend heroes,
on the other hand, sell themselves into being the biggest something in this life. Real heroes act.
Wannabes just pander. And as for you and me, dear sisters and brothers, may we never lose the
spirit of protest. May the Lamb of God who protests against the sins of the world and takes them
away, may He ever be our courage to stand up to systematic bullies.

*Image from the Internet

One Comment Add yours

  1. sally.abelarde@gmail.com says:

    Wow Fr Arnel, what can I say ? As usual you never hold any of those punches. Now I’ll study more of Juan Bautista. I wonder if he really grew up with his parents , or out there in the wilderness? Praying for you, please pray for me too. Thank you. Sally Abelarde

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Like

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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