(from the book: Where is the Child? by Fr. R. Marcos (Makati: St Pauls); 

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First Reading: Isaiah 56:1-3, 6-8

Thus says the Lord: Observe what is right, do what is just, for my salvation is about to come, my justice, about to be revealed. 

Hay is the one who does this, whoever holds fast to it: Keeping the sabbath without profaning it, keeping one’s hand from doing any evil. The foreigner joined to the Lord should not say, “The Lord will surely exclude me from his people”; Nor should the eunuch say, “See, I am a dry tree.” And foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, to become his servants—All who keep the sabbath without profaning it and hold fast to my covenant, them I will bring to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on my altar, for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

Oracle of the Lord God, who gathers the dispersed of Israel—Others will I gather to them besides those already gathered.


A.       Short Background on the First Reading


1. God addresses the people of Israel, giving them valuable counsels on how to live faithfully as his children. Every Jew who wants to adhere to God and proceed in this intimacy must live by these admonitions, keeping them always in his heart. In the reading, God also reminds the Jews that salvation is near and that they are already within the ambit of God’s redeeming action. The Jews are truly the Chosen People, dear to God by the special predilection of his heart. But though this is the case, notice that the latter part of the reading shows God’s openness to others beyond Israel.

Foreigners, too, are given the hope of finally entering into the communion of God’s chosen ones. Rather than being construed as a limited favored group, God’s people are an ever-expanding and gracious community welcoming others within its fold. God’s people are not to remain exclusive in their attitudes, but must remain open to the others whom God draws to an increasing and deepening relationship with him.


2. The reading, in its second part, focuses on the so-called “foreigners.” While they are not Jews by birth, they, too, can find a place for themselves within the temple. The real meaning of the call of Israel here becomes clear. Through Israel, the openness of God’s heart is to be felt by all nations. Israel was not chosen to merely revel in the accolade of being God’s special possession, to be merely the apple of God’s eyes. Israel has a mission to be an instrument of salvation for others.

The Chosen People were not selected to form an exclusive, off-limits group, but to spearhead the mission of provoking peoples from other nations to respond to God’s invitation. Salvation comes from the Jews but it is not for them alone. Salvation will come through the Jews in that it will overflow from them, flooding other nations. This message will have a resonance in the life and mission of Jesus who preached to Jews and Gentiles alike. This same dynamics will have an impact in the early Church’s understanding of its role, its mission, in the world.


A.       Reflections on the First Reading

Reflection 1: Salvation through the Church

Have you ever listened to the program Dating Daan (The Old Path), or to another, Tamang Daan(The Right Path)? These are opposing religious programs in the Philippines debating with each other which religious group is the authentic Christian community and thus, the only one that can claim salvation. Watching these programs does not help in illuminating people’s minds, since many who view them find themselves all the more confused, scandalized, and on the verge of losing faith.

At Advent and Christmas, we are impelled to focus on the concreteness of God’s offer of salvation. Christmas is the feast of our salvation. We behold God ratifying the desire of his heart for the deliverance of his people from the darkness of sin and death. Thus, he sends his Son to be the Savior of the world. The Jews proudly consider themselves the Chosen People, and yet, increasingly, they will discover that God, in choosing them above other nations, wants to use them as instruments in drawing others closer to his heart.

Today there are many spiritual dangers posed by groups that claim exclusive right to heaven. Catholics are bombarded with the religious media of sects and cults that promote a narrow vision of salvation. They claim that it is by membership in their groups alone, and by abandoning their former (Catholic) faith, that salvation will be achieved. Very often, this type of impassioned and powerful preaching is geared towards attracting gullible, unchurched Catholics and destroying any remaining trace of faith in the Church.

As Catholics, we do not subscribe to an exclusivist view of salvation. We do not teach that Catholics alone will be saved, or that all card-carrying Catholics are assured of heaven. Yes, we need to be reminded that we have been given “the fullness of the means of salvation” and it makes all the difference. But the means must be optimally utilized in order to fulfill God’s will and move closer to God’s saving design. The Spirit of God moves in mysterious ways to work out the plan of God for the good of all his people.

Simbang Gabi, preparing us to rejoice in the birth of the Savior of humanity, Jesus Christ the Lord, is a good opportunity to remind people of God’s saving plan for them, his offer of fuller and more meaningful life. It is also a good opportunity to warn people about the lures and traps of sects and cults that propagate an exclusivist and limited vision of salvation. Unlike these groups, the Catholic Church must be a warm, welcoming community that keeps its fidelity with God’s vision of salvation for all people, regardless of social, economic, gender, or racial labels. As one novelist said in describing the Catholic Church: “Look, here comes everybody!” May our Simbang Gabi be an experience of warmth, friendship, unity, and openness in the family of God.


Reflection 2: Jesus, the Only Savior

In pondering on the theme of salvation, a question naturally arises from our hearts: who has the power to save us? Many answers have been attempted. Each religion proposes a savior-figure who leads people to God and illuminates their path towards deliverance and eternal bliss. A current, compromised solution states that each group can have its own savior, and all these saviors are equal to one another in power and effect.

Is Jesus, then, at par with Buddha or with Mohammad? Is Jesus the Savior for Christians, Buddha for Buddhists, and Mohammad for Muslims? Is Jesus a mere human invested with divine power, a mere man adopted and energized by God? These thoughts dominate many contemporary literature, films, and artwork about Jesus. Needless to say, Catholics are confused about the real identity of their Lord and Master.

While we start Simbang Gabi, it is good to refresh our understanding about the identity of Jesus whose birth we are celebrating. Jesus is God’s salvation because he is no ordinary human being. Though a human being born of the Virgin Mary, Jesus is also truly God’s Son, the Second Person of the eternal Trinity—conceived and born in time through the power of the Holy Spirit.

In the New Testament, we can read the conviction of the Christian community that Jesus is the One Mediator between God and humanity. His name is the name above all other names. In him God is glorified and adored. He is God’s human face. Thus Christians continue to live by this statement of faith—Jesus alone is the Savior of the world; the only Redeemer of humanity. Salvation comes from him alone.

Let us pay attention to the parts of the Creed that describe what Scriptures, the early Christians, and today’s contemporary believers recognize Jesus to be.Let us not be tempted to reduce the stature of Jesus to that of his human nature only. He is both God and man. Let us not be led to believe that he is a mere equal of other historical and religious giants of history. Our faith affirms that Jesus is the Lord and center of all history, of all time. Through words and actions, may all Christians courageously proclaim their faith in Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary, true God and true man.

Reflection 3: Joy and Openness

Advent is a time of great promises and of great waiting. We read today of God’s amazing promise: “Them I will bring to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer”(Is 56:7). So God wants to fill us with joy. The tenderness and the generosity of God abounds. God only wants for us fullness of joy, a flood of gladness. To be convinced of this fact is to be filled with joy and light for the soul.

It is only in intimacy with God that this joy can be obtained. He alone has the fullness of love. To bring us to his holy mountain means that he offers us a place in his house, which is a house of prayer, a place of relationship with him. Unfortunately, oftentimes, our natural desires can be found in the opposite direction. We ignore the house of the Lord, his holy mountain.

In this reading, we also find another aspect of the promises of God—its universal openness. He calls the “foreigners” and strangers, too. The house he has built is intended to be a house of prayer “for all peoples.” Thus we are prevented from thinking of an egoistic intimacy with the Lord, seeking only personal consolation and indifferent to others around us. This is not authentic rapport with God, not an effective communion with him.

Advent must have a missionary spirit that makes us desire to share God with others. This season invites us to enlarge and stretch our hearts so that we will notice others, discover others, embrace others as we seek to embrace the One who is coming to bring us salvation.

How do we plan to make this Simbang Gabi experience a fruitful encounter with the Lord? How do we share with our family and friends, and with the poor and needy, the love burning in our hearts?

GOSPEL: Luke 7:24-30

 When the messengers of John the Baptist had left, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John.

“What did you go out to the desert to see—a reed swayed by the wind?  Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine garments? Those who dress luxuriously and live sumptuously are found in royal palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom scripture says: Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, he will prepare your way before you. I tell you, among those born of women, no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”

(All the people who listened, including the tax collectors, who were baptized with the baptism of John, acknowledged the righteousness of God; but the Pharisees and scholars of the law, who were not baptized by him, rejected the plan of God for themselves.)

A. Short Background on the Gospel

1. The broader context of the Gospel speaks of John the Baptist’s interest in the works and words of Jesus. People were hanging on to his words and seriously believing indications that he made about the Messiah. John wanted to be certain whether the Messiah had indeed come. So he sent emissaries to Jesus to ask him if he was the One they were expecting to come. People were sincere in their excitement for the Messiah’s coming. And John guided them rightly, not seeking to disappoint them. John heightened the people’s expectations of the Messiah. Instead of presenting himself, John revealed that there would be another who would come in their midst. Jesus, in receiving the Baptist’s messengers, told them to relay to John the marvels he had been doing in preaching, curing the sick, and performing many miracles. Then Jesus gave a glowing tribute to the unique role of John the Baptist.

2. John is different from Jesus. John was a great prophetic figure, a fact that Jesus recognized. John’s instrument was the word he preached. But his word must give way to the reality his very words point to. His was the prophecy but the fulfillment belonged to somebody else, somebody who would come with the power to bring God closer to his people.

Jesus was more than a prophet, truly higher than John. He did not only come to herald the coming of another, as John did. Jesus is the fulfillment of all the prophecies. In his words and works, Jesus made salvation a reality. True salvation is both word and power at the same time. As the Father acted in both word and action in the Old Testament, so, too, did Jesus manifest himself in the New Testament in word and works of power.

3. The inferior status of John is clear in that his own mission was a reference to Jesus, and not to himself. But Jesus’ ministry does not have a human reference. He was directly accountable only to God his Father. There is a strong awareness in Jesus that he was the Son sent by the Father and that he has received his mission from his Father. He is God’s true prophet and missionary because he is the Father’s only Son.

B.        Reflections on the Gospel

Reflection 1: Gazing on Jesus

Many of us, in attending Simbang Gabi, wish for something special to happen to our lives. Many people have something in their heart that they wish to bring to God during this festive novena. After all, for most Catholics, every novena has something to do with a request for God’s intervention in our daily concerns and problems.

Some will pray for healing of physical sickness and emotional wounds. Others among us will pray for help in finances or relationships, job opportunities, or restoration of relationships. Others, suffering the damage brought about by calamities or disasters, will pray for the recovery of what they have lost.

Whatever it is we are praying for, we know that God is here listening to us and taking us seriously by loving us so much as to give his Son to us as our Brother.

This Simbang gabi, we start the countdown to the birth of the Lord and we do this through the Eucharist that assures us that he is here with us whenever we gather and pray. The Jews could not control the yearning of their hearts and turned to John the Baptist to get a glimpse of where to find the Messiah.

Faithful to his mission, John prophesied that the Promised One would indeed coming after him. In Simbang Gabi, we do not merely cling to a John the Baptist, but we fix our eyes on Jesus himself, the Messiah whose coming brought God’s presence in our lives. Like that of the Jews, our hearts are beating fast for the many desires that need fulfillment, for the many requests that need answers.We know that in Jesus our intentions and prayers will have its ultimate response. He is God’s answer to the prayer of his people.

Let us pray that the Simbang Gabi we begin be truly an event of discovery of Jesus and not a mere inquiry about him.May it be truly fruitful and prayerful. May our heart’s desires merit the bountiful blessings that Christ’s coming effects in the lives of God’s people.

Reflection 2: The Prophetic Church

Prophets come and go in every age, and this is true also in our time. A particular preacher will draw crowds to his unique and powerful style of delivering biblical messages. Soon after, a different person takes center stage to claim that he possesses the message that all people need to hear. And people are willing to listen and follow this new and emerging figure. But as history reveals, no self-proclaimed prophet really lasts. After a period of heightened popularity, each one reaches the peak of success and spirals downward to oblivion.

This is the dilemma of today’s religious panorama. Because people are so hungry for assurances of God’s favor, they are always in search of men and women who will lead them to God. And because people are willing to lend credence to claimants of being God’s representatives, various preachers do not disappoint us in coming into the scene. There is no end to emerging popular figures who believethat they are God’s solution to the hunger, the thirst, and the confusion of so many.

The outcome is sad because it produces damaging results. People are led into sects and cults, and they give allegiance and obedience to leaders who become the center of their lives. People are also deceived since there are as many interpretations of God’s Word as there are people who pretend to be genuine spokespersons of God.

The Gospel shows us the picture of a true prophet exemplified by John the Baptist. He knows his place and he is satisfied although he is a mere herald, not the center of God’s plan. Because of this, John does not hesitate in directing people’s gaze to the Lamb of God whose coming will bring freedom from sin.

At the start of Simbang Gabi, it will be good to remind Catholics about the essential role of the Church in these times. The Church does not take the place of God and certainly does not point to herself as the source of salvation. The Church proclaims Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who in turn proclaims the Kingdom of God, which is the Father’s design for the good of all. The Church is like John the Baptist, wishing only that every Catholic would find the path to Christ and to the Kingdom of God.

In pointing to Christ, the Church has been misunderstood and misrepresented countless times. Fidelity to her mission, however, demands that she remain faithful in presenting Jesus Christ to all men and women. The Church cannot offer a watered-down or softened version of the gospel to humanity’s personal and social longings. The Church assumes the role of John the Baptist in being a prophetic voice in the world, a voice that proclaims only one goal—to prepare the road for Christ’s coming.