Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Of mission and being missionaries

Reflections for World Mission Sunday, October 17, 2010

LET me tell you about Ate Melanie (not her real name), a distant relative. You would think ‘distant’ is an apt word because she and her family live on the far side of my hometown. I remember watching her when her son Jojo was stricken with tetanus. I thought she was desperate when she asked me to give him the Anointing of the Sick. It struck me that her son’s every spasm of pain also registered on her face and body. She was always by his side, forgoing eating or sleeping except when she was half scolded by her older siblings to do so. From her I saw the power of a parent’s love. It is a power that enables one to share in a loved one’ pains. If Jojo was celebrating a happy moment, you would have seen his happiness on her face too. Also that power enables a person to endure, even cast aside, one’s own suffering or hardship to bring relief to a loved one. Consider this: Ate Melanie, sleepless and hungry, pestering her son’s doctor and nurses just so that her son may be saved from death.

Jojo eventually recovered. Only then did I see a smile on Ate Melanie’s face.
I often think of Ate Melanie when I think of mission. The love that impelled her to go through anything or, as they say, “do anything, come hell or high water”, is to me symbolic of God’s love that pushes us on to mission. This is how I picture our whole situation. God sees our terrible suffering when sin has separated us completely from him. His heart bleeds. In response he sends his only-begotten Son, his most precious jewel, enduring the immeasurable pain of losing him from heaven’s infinite security and glory. As though being exiled from heaven was not enough, the Son, the first Missionary, had to endure poverty, hard work, obscurity, later misunderstanding and, worse, rejection from the very people whose loving acceptance was a logical response because they were the first object of God’s love. It’s small wonder then that the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, stresses the power of this love in his Mission Sunday message this year. We who engage in mission need to ever savor and allow ourselves to be like a collective sponge and soak ourselves in God’s love. “Nemo dat quod no habet,” our Scholastic professors constantly told us in college seminary. “Nobody gives what he doesn’t have.” I believe we should ask ourselves constantly: If God’s Love is not in me, how can I even try to proclaim it? “It is only from this encounter with the Love of God that transforms our existence,” the Holy Father insists, “that we can live in communion with Him and among ourselves and offer our brethren a credible testimony, giving reason for our hope (cf. 1 Pet 3:15).”

The power of God’s love is at work in the way he answers the prayer of Moses being supported by Aaron and Hur in our first reading this Mission Sunday. In a real sense the love of Moses as well as of the men supporting him for their own people merely reflects the love of God for Israel, and for us. It is the all-powerful love of God that saves Israel from the forces of Amalek just as it is the all-powerful love of God that saves us from the forces of sin and death. It is this love that makes Israel a community anticipating that community of God’s Love we call the Church, a community approached by representatives of the human race with the request: “We wish to see Jesus (Jn 12:21)”. The power of God’s love is also at work in the widow of our gospel endlessly, relentlessly pestering an unjust judge for her just rights. We need to imitate her in relentlessly pestering our unjust world for justice to our poor, hungry and downtrodden. In fact, this power needs us, our bodies and spirits as disciples, as its instruments, as its servants.

Because our bodies breathe, we live. When our spirits breathe, what they do is pray. Prayer is our spirits breathing in God’s breath, God’s Ruah, the Spirit. And the Spirit? He is “God’s Love in Person” according to Pope John Paul II (Dominum et Vivificantem, n. 8). Because of this the Spirit is also the “principle of evangelization” (DeV 45). Prayer therefore is key to mission. It is our life-blood. When we don’t pray, like Moses’ hands falling down, we also fail in our missionary responsibilities. The Spirit does not enliven our efforts, we end up becoming the donkey pursuing people’s hosannas that truly belong to the One on our back.

True prayer teaches us humility. ‘Humus’, the root of humility, reminds us of the earth from which we came and with Abraham we exclaim, “I am bold indeed to speak like this to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes” (Gen 18:27). It teaches us that, contrary to our own feelings of self-sufficiency especially after experience, study and immersion in people’s lives have enabled us to forge strategies and approaches that confidently ensure success, everything still depends on God. It is his love that we must, in the words of the Holy Father, “make visible”, not the efficiency and glory of our talents and abilities.

As I write I must confess that I’m a bit struggling with fear. My responsibility as pastor calls me to go to a far and difficult barangay in my parish. Even now I can see in my mind’s eye the daunting mountain climb that greets every traveler to the village and slippery, rocky mountainous pathways I need to negotiate to reach it. I think of some of my companions who had slipped into near deaths. But now I also pause to pray for fresh courage. I remind myself: It’s God’s love that I bring and must make visible, not my fears and hesitations. So please help me, Lord. Then I think of Ate Melanie and the power of her love as a mother. Now, more than ever, I pray for the humility that will help me put myself in the palm of God our Father’s hands, the power of whose Love is visible on Cross of his Son Jesus Christ.

Together with Ate Melanie, I also think of my friend Mel. Forgive me for introducing him rather late. He is a shy painter who loves obscurity but paints such glowing colors of life as anyone can see in his paintings. I once requested him to restore the then time-worn and fading old Stations of the Cross portraits in my former parish church. The results speak for themselves: the mysteries of the sufferings and triumph of Jesus in living color. But it struck me one day how those bright living colors need the lowly canvas to be what it is in order for the artist’s ideas to be visible. That, I said to myself, is the same thing with every Christian and with every Christian missionary.

God is the painter. It is his Love that is beautifully made visible first by Jesus Christ. Our mission, so says Benedict XVI, is to continue making it VISIBLE in the world of our day and age. St. Ignatius of Loyola once encouraged his brothers with the words: “Make yourselves liked by all, become all things to all men in humility and love…” We best do it when we acknowledge the truth that we are the mere canvas, not the painter. We do so when, in faith, we put ourselves in God’s hands through prayer and then allow the power of his Love to propel our efforts to proclaim the Gospel. Our aim is to do all we can, in obedience to the Spirit, so that our fellow human beings may be able to say with St. Therese of Lisieux: “One glance at the holy Gospel, and the life of Jesus becomes a perfume that fills the air I breathe.”
That life has the power of Love written large in the Gospel, enabling anyone, especially the missionary, to climb the steepest mountains.

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