“And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us …” – Jn 1:14
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” – Jn 3:16
This Christmas has been especially meaningful for me. A friend remarked that I am blessed to experience God’s first love. That is, to experience God in poverty, in God’s poor.
In November, I made the Spiritual Exercises, the 30-day Silent Retreat envisioned by Saint Ignatius. I was given a special gift: the desire to grow closer to Jesus poor and humble. Soon after, I left for two weeks of ministry in the remote mountain villages of Tanudan, a part Kalinga Province, located in Northern Philippines. There, unknown to me at the time, I opened this gift. Rather, it unfolded.
Life in Tanundan is very different from that in Manila and light years from living in California. Most people are poor rice farmers. Many grow coffee, vegetables and raise livestock, but mainly for consumption rather than livelihood. There are little modern amenities: no roads, no electricity, and no running water. Most houses where I stayed had no toilets; the river was our bathhouse, and a place for laundry and cleaning. Everyday my companions and I hiked strenuously for 2-3 hours through mountainous terrains with dangerous footing, especially when the path is turned into mudslides by rain. Even for an experienced backpacker like me, this life was physically very demanding. And since amoebas have “befriended me for life,” imbibing strange water and food were particularly stressful on my stomach. (I’ll spare you the embarrassing adventures I experienced with eating and going to the bathroom).
I was sent to celebrate Mass. I was the only priest within a radius of 30 miles. This area has been without a pastor for almost 3 years. Each morning, I celebrated Mass around 4 or 5 am at a different barrio (village) stretched along the Tanudan River. The Filipinos have a special Christmas tradition of nine “Simbang Gabi” or Dawn Masses from Dec 16 until Dec 24, culminating in the Midnight Mass to welcome the Nativity of Jesus. These celebrations are filled with church bells, much singing, and some eating after Mass, before farmers go to the rice fields. Much of it occurred in darkness, punctuated by candlelight.
Aside from the aforementioned physical challenges, I experienced my poverty – my limitations and inadequacies - through numerous ways. Often without clear amplification, my hoarse voice had to compete with chickens crowing and dogs barking during Mass. I spoke English and sometimes in a very broken Kalinga dialect. My young guides, Fe & Ablizer, along with some adults knew English. However, communication was not easy. Although I observed some interesting similarities the people shared with some ethnic Vietnamese, such as chewing beetle nut, I was in a mostly unfamiliar culture. In more ways than I can describe, I was stretched beyond my boundaries. I had to face my own poverty - my limitations and helplessness.
Yet through this encounter with poverty, I experienced God’s first love in a rare way. The people of Tanudan were unbelievably gracious and hospitable. They took such good care of me. They gave me their best: the best place to sleep, the best vegetables and fruits; they served the best chicken, pork, and eel – reserved only for the most honored guests. I was constantly invited to eat. Everywhere I went I was accompanied by good guides. I witnessed their simple yet strong faith, especially through the dedication of the catechists and lay leaders. In many sacramental ways, through Baptisms, Anointing of the Sick, First Communions, funerals, and various blessings, I sensed the nearness of God’s love. I felt how God favors those who are poor and humble. Many times at Mass, tears flowed from my eyes as Jesus became very real through the heartfelt singing of the people and through the awareness that the communion host I was holding is one and the same as the Body of Christ enfleshed in the people. Many times on the trails, my spirit was enlivened at the realization that my very tired feet and body is God’s way of visiting God’s people, including myself. I can only poorly describe this experience. This is the homily I shared during the Midnight Mass:
“Tonight we celebrate what is most important to our faith. No other religion believes that God, creator of heaven and earth became human like us. Jesus, Word of God, Who is God, became human – one of us. He built his house next to ours, lived among us, ate like us, suffered with us, for us, to save us. He came as a child, a poor child, born in a manger, poor and humble. To a poor family. To serve and give his life because he loved us. God is in love with us. Like people who love, God wants to be one with us whom He loves …
God in Jesus came to all. But only those who are poor in spirit - who are humble, peacemakers, merciful, open - will see him. And live in his radiant light. For others, it will be just another Christmas vacation. When we accept Jesus poor and humble, our lives will change … Our Catholic faith is most special: when we look at a person who is poor, who loves, who forgives, we see God. God who is poor, who loves, who forgives. God chooses to show God’s light most clearly through human beings, through you and me. Through us who are poor, weak, and sinful. This is the glory of God’s humility. The light of God’s love.”
Today is the twelfth day of Christmas. The homily takes even deeper hold of me. I am realizing the fuller meaning of the gift I have been given through the 30-day retreat and ministry in Tanudan: a deeper longing to be united with Jesus poor and humble.
My friend Tere is on to something when she writes: “I think your Tertianship is taking you back to where God is, to touch Him again in His first love ... the poor ... the lowly ... the pure people ... the remotest part of this world. You are very fortunate to experience God in poverty. There He is most of the time.”
If grace is God’s gift, given to draw us closer to God and other people, then I have been given a great gift this Christmas: sharing God’s first love. Yet, I believe I am among many, which may very well include you. Therefore, go: spend time to serve and visit God’s poor. Embrace your poverty. Open your own gift, however strangely shaped and wrapped. Let it unfold.