Gazing at the Poor King
Archbishop Socrates B. Villegas, President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) just issued a pastoral message that opens 2015 as the Year of the Poor on the First Sunday of Advent. As the Year of the Laity ends, the Philippine Church moves on with its 9-year plan towards 2021 in preparing the faithful for the 500 years commemoration of the Christianization of our country.
The message is accompanied by an insightful logo: two disciples gazing at the crucified Jesus; theirs is a loving look. The message is a disturbing evaluation of the scandalous situation of our land and challenges our people, both the powerful and the powerless; the pastors and the faithful, to a profound self-examination. What touched me in this letter is the realization that the poorest of the poor is Jesus Christ himself! “Jesus hangs from his Cross stripped of his clothes, his dignity, his possession, his power, his strength.” The greatest pain he felt was the thought that even God, His Father, had abandoned him at the lowest point of his life: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:45). No one can be much poorer.
At the opening of the Year of the Poor, our catholic leaders would like us to reflect on poverty in the context of our faith in Jesus. Moreover we are to see Jesus in the poor and work towards becoming a poor Church for the poor. Pope Francis affirms that this is “how God works.” He does not reveal himself cloaked in worldly power and wealth but rather in weakness and poverty. Jesus did not seek poverty for its own sake but, as St. Paul says “that by his poverty you might become rich.”
We see poverty in the face every day. A child begs. Homeless people sleep in street corners. Old women sell candles to earn few centavos. Entire families live in shanties beside creeks and in the slums. The sight is common. We think it is normal that it does not unsettle us anymore. We no longer cry at the news when a child is sick and dies for lack of medicine. We are no longer saddened when a person has nothing to eat. Government statistics tells us that out of 100 million Filipinos, 29 million live below the poverty line. Yet we don’t find this alarming. Is it an indication that we are becoming heart-less? Have we become desensitized and “manhid” to the cries and pains of poor? Or we simply shrug the thought and say: “we’re not responsible for them anyway.”
Again Pope Francis reflects: “So what is this poverty by which Christ frees us and enriches us? It is his way of loving us, his way of being our neighbor, just as the Good Samaritan was neighbor to the man left half dead by the side of the road (cf. Lk 10:25ff ). What gives us true freedom, true salvation and true happiness is the compassion, tenderness and solidarity of his love.”
In this Year of the Poor we are challenged by Jesus to imitate his love by becoming neighbors to one another. It is a love that teaches us to be sensitive towards the poor and experience conversion in the way we see them. We are not simply to become “good Samaritans” to so many helpless individuals in society. More than just statistics, we should see them as our brothers and sisters, our “kapamilya” in Jesus. The poor are not just people to whom we can give something. They are disguises of Jesus for whom we can share God’s love concretely.
In Calvary the disfigured face of Jesus veiled his real identity. The spectators were gazing at the sight of a poor and powerless King. His resurrection revealed the splendor of his glory. But the dramatic “last judgment” of Mt 25:31-46 will finally show His full majesty when He will separate the goats and the sheep on the criterion of love. In the end, we will be judge by the measure of our love.
I know two sisters who are identical twins. Both are very much the same in looks and in ways. What distinguishes them is their health. One had a kidney malfunction several years ago. Instead of having dialysis, the healthier sister donated one of her kidneys to her twin. Today both continue to live their normal lives. Each realizes they need to care for each other. Each realizes they need to share both blessings and sufferings. Both realize they are responsible for each other.
Unless we realize we are all brothers and sisters, we will never create human solidarity. It is only by love that we can swim against a throwaway culture and become true neighbors for each other. We need to look at Jesus!