Simbang Gabi Homilies: Day 5 with Fr. Raymund-Benedict Hizon, SJ

Posted on December 20, 2011


It is not easy to preach today. Not with news of people missing and dying and bodies decaying. Not with a shortage of food and water — not in Africa or some other faraway place that is simply out of our reach or out of our league. This time, and so close to Christmas, suffering is not too far away from home. It is close by and there are people we know, perhaps even a classmate for whom any help from us may come a little too late.

And while there may be that temptation to be polite and simply talk about the silence of Zechariah or that scriptural admonition to be careful about taking in too much wine or strong drink — which we hear in both readings — in fact, this is the usual theme against holiday excess — the reality of suffering stares us straight in the face and we are bound by conscience and by God’s word to squirm in our seats and face the reality of it all. What does my faith say to me now and what must I do as Christmas draws near even as I have yet to buy gifts, plan for a few more parties, and celebrate the holidays, as I have to with my family and friends?

I invite you now to simply reflect on what it means to celebrate Advent… not yet Christmas while it is only a few days away. We are still in Advent and at the heart of Advent is the uncomfortable experience of waiting.

Only recently, I had to go abroad for a conference. Accustomed to the long queues and the waitings that accompany traveling economy — as you would expect Jesuits to! — I was pleasantly surprised that my tickets were all upgraded and so I hardly experienced any inconvenience. Everything was better — food, seats, silver, china — and everything went faster. Even immigration documents were fast tracked. And any waiting, if at all, was made very comfortable that I hardly felt I was waiting for anything since all my needs were taken care of. Everyone was gracious and polite and generous. And it was free — if they only knew! I’m not complaining of course. I am much grateful for the courtesy and the privilege but then I realized, quite starkly and after a very long time, that one of the differences between the rich and the poor is that the rich are, as far as possible, freed from waiting… waiting for their desires to be satisfied. As one author put it, the rich have taken “the waiting out of wanting.” Think about it.

But the poor — the poor must wait. In agricultural communities, they must wait for the land to yield its fruit. They must wait in queues to buy what is available, and if there are shortages, then they must wait in vain. They wait for jobs and openings. People have to wait for trains, for jeeps and tricycles, for sales and for seats. Those who suffer have to wait for food and water and help. Most wait for justice.

Advent is a time when we are invited to learn how to wait for the Lord who comes. The temptation is to eliminate Advent and move swiftly and directly to Christmas. The moment Christmas draws near, it is time to begin partying and feasting. Christmas lights are strung and turned on, carols play over and over, and people greet each other “Merry Christmas” long before the Lord is born.

We cannot wait. We want to be rich. We want to feel rich. Or sometimes we simply tire of waiting. In today’s Gospel, it may be said that Zechariah grew too tired of waiting that even as the angel told him not to be afraid, that his prayers had finally been heard, and that he was to have a son and with him, joy and gladness, he became hopeless and hapless “How shall I know this,” he says with some exasperation, “for I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years!” He could no longer wait, and for that he was struck dumb.

What can Advent teach us about waiting? First of all, we who have been spared of the recent calamity, we who live in relative comfort, some of us who are rich, must open our eyes to those who have no option but to wait. We must somehow get out of ourselves, and our places of privilege and our pretensions to entitlement — both real or imagined, hard-earned or undeserved — hold our heads and noses lower, and learn to wait. We must share the patient vigil of those who wait as they wait for those things that would normally come easy to us. We must share their patient vigil for a more just world and their struggle to bring it about. We must try to liberate ourselves from the imperious desires of the rich, who sacrifice everyone for the instant satisfaction of their desires and wants and wishes. In Psalm 70 and today’s psalm that follows it, the poor cry out: “But I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God. Be my rock of refuge, a stronghold for my safety. You are my rock, O God, and my fortress. Rescue me, O Lord. Do not delay.” We must struggle and help to diminish the length of their waiting.

Why does the Lord delay? Why do the poor still have to go on crying for rice and water and housing and justice 2,000 years plus, plus since the coming of Christ? Why does not God bring about a world in which all humanity may flourish and not suffer now? Why does the Lord tarry still?

We do not know the answer to that, but at the very least, we must live with the urgency of the question. Any answer that looks like an explanation of vast and unparalleled suffering is likely to appear horrible, even blasphemous, as if so much human misery could be part of some monstrous divine plan. All that we can do in Advent is share in that waiting and clamoring of the poor for a better world, and do all that we can to hasten its coming.  We wait, and as we wait, we work

But perhaps one tiny element of a response is in deepening our understanding of how God comes — even as we wait and work. One reason perhaps why our God takes time and makes us wait is because while He made us in His image we may not make Him in our own. Our God refuses to come as a rich and celestial superpower who might come from the outside, from the heavens. The coming of God is not like the super marine or ranger coming to our rescue. God comes from within, in our deepest interiority. He is, as St. Augustine said, closer to us than we are to ourselves.

This Advent, we are invited to practice patience as we wait and watch for the coming of the Lord. And we must teach each other and our children how it is to be patient and not proud — how it is to wait with those who are used to waiting and work that they may not wait too long and so share and perhaps give up the many privileges and pretensions we keep up and cling to. Like Zechariah and Elizabeth, we keep silent. We await the birth not only of John but of He who is our hope. So that when the day finally comes we may, with greater hope and greater joy, say and greet each other: “Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas!”

(Fr. Raymund-Benedict Hizon, SJ, principal of the Ateneo de Manila High School, delivered this homily during the Ateneo’s fifth Simbang Gabi at the Church of the Gesu this year. The text of this homily comes from his Facebook page.)