Maybe because I am the brother of a priest, I am often invited to speak at seminaries and Catholic schools, as well as before religious congregations. This is quite ironic because in our family I count myself as the least religious, if church attendance is the measure.
My education has been entirely secular, my philosophical orientation more shaped by Nietzsche, Christianity’s most scornful critic, than by Kant who traces reason to God. My favorite writers are agnostics like Richard Rorty and Umberto Eco who reserve no special place for the divine. And my preference has been for religion to withdraw from the public square so that faith may become a wholly private pursuit.
But what a month it has been. As if to teach me a subtle lesson in humility, Lent harnessed me to a series of events that seem incompatible with my secular outlook. At the start of the month, I was a guest at the blessing of the new Amanu studio, the principal vehicle of the Archdiocese of San Fernando’s media ministry. The occasion began with a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Paciano Aniceto, who profusely thanked me for coming all the way from Manila on a motorcycle.
Two weeks later, on the invitation of Fr. Joel E. Tabora, S.J., I flew to Naga City with my wife Karina and granddaughter Julia to accept the honorary degree of Doctor of Humanities from the venerable Jesuitrun Ateneo de Naga University. There I stood on graduation day, at the center of the school’s four pillars, while the citation was read: “In recognition of this ‘other-centered’ man who has valiantly fought for the truth without compromise or fear…” I thought I was being cast in an Ignatian role I could never hope to fulfill; I said in my response that all I wanted was a chance to call myself an Atenean.
But last week, I believe I finally exceeded my religious quota. On Saturday, I spoke at the commencement exercises of the Lyceum of Aparri. My host, Fr. Joel Reyes, the school’s executive vice president, gave me the guest room of their major seminary. I had the rare privilege of having dinner and breakfast with Tuguegarao Archbishop Diosdado Talamayan.
On the way back to Tuguegarao, my friend Prof. Edru Abraham, a dyed-in-the-wool Ibanag, showed me the old churches along the Cagayan River. It was Palm Sunday, and the faithful were gathered in church courtyards waving coconut fronds. We made four church stops altogether, not counting the visit to Our Lady of Piat cathedral the day after.
The Abrahams are close family friends of the archbishop, but they also happen to be devout members of the United Methodist Church. And so on Palm Sunday, I found myself not only attending a Protestant church service with the Abraham brothers and sisters, but also delivering the homily for the day.
Of the countless stories in the Bible, that of Jesus entering Jerusalem for the Jewish celebration of Passover and ending up crucified on the cross a few days later must rank as one of the most defining moments of Christianity. I started my talk with the symbolism of the palm, a piece of hermeneutics I picked up from my brother. The ancient Hebrews used the palm to shield themselves from the sun as they crossed the desert in their flight from Egyptian slavery. And so among the Jews, shackled by the Romans, the palm became a metaphor for emancipation.
On the road to Jerusalem, we encounter a son of God calling himself a son of man, who has gained a reputation as a preacher and healer. The crowds hail him as a savior but later they denounce him when he does not take up the political role into which they cast him. He takes up his cross, dies, but rises from the dead. To what purpose? Belief says it is to wipe out man’s sin and thus restore justice in the world. The focus is on the deed. Another view revolves around the theme of God becoming man. The focus is on Jesus, the exemplary man.
I said that I was partial to the second view: that God sent Jesus to become man not so much to redeem us, but, by his example, to teach us how to live like human beings. There was silence. I think I lost my listeners at that point. I wasn’t sure if what I said was not a blasphemy. And so, the first thing I did on reaching home was to turn to the book of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), “Introduction to Christianity.”
I felt thoroughly relieved when I read Cardinal Ratzinger’s fascinating discussion of Christology (theology of Incarnation) and Soteriology (theology of the Cross). Without my knowing it, I had approached my subject from Christology, “which acknowledges being itself as act and says, ‘Jesus is his work.’…His being is pure actualitas of ‘from’ and ‘for’….It coincides with God and is at the same time the exemplary man, the man of the future, through whom it becomes evident how very much man is still the coming creature, a being, so to speak, still waiting to be realized.”
Beyond belief is narrative — the stories we tell of ourselves and our relationship to other human beings and to the world. I look at religion thus — as a story that tries to make sense of being, and shows the path to becoming “fully human.” I have seen with my own eyes how the example of Jesus is being actualized by simple folk in their everyday generosity and unconditional love for others, and in their struggle to live with dignity and courage amid so much poverty. That, to me, is what faith is about.
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