Homily of Fr. Arnel Aquino, SJ for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception 2011

Faces

by Fr. Arnel Aquino, SJ
Feast of Immaculate Conception 2011
Church of the Gesu

I’ve thought about this for quite some time and with some difficulty. I figured, Mary being conceived without original sin, and remaining free of sin throughout her life—all this would be just too conceptual for me unless I tried to make sense of it from ordinary human experience. If I wish to continue firmly holding in faith this dogma of the Church and giving it my unflinching assent, I figured I had better get busy. I’d better get busy trying to make sense of Mary’s extraordinary estate from what I can ordinarily grasp in this day and age, where you and I are right now, and with a sinner’s eyes like mine. I mean, just what kind of conscience could I suppose Mary to have had, so that she freely chose to not sin all of her life? What kind of consciousness, what moral landscape, what spirituality could I suppose Mary to have had, so that her sinlessness in conception and through life would, (a) continue to make sense to me and my faith, and (b) teach me to live as a good person here and now?

My brother Jesuits and the Cenacle sisters and I are good friends with this married couple. Itago na lamang natin sila sa pangalang Gorio at Betchay, a wonderful married couple, highly successful, sweet kids, a beautiful home. They do say that they’ve had their moments, and we believe them. They’re very sincere couple, and they’re able to laugh at themselves and their own foibles even with us around. And Gorio has this funny way of toasting Betchay, sort of giving her a tribute in front of us. He would raise his glass and say, “For my wife—she is a saint to be married to a man like me.” But see, Gorio is a good man, a dutiful and faithful husband and father despite the many temptations in his line of work. I asked him one time, “So, Gorio, how do you keep from falling?” And with great candor and naturalness, he said very quietly, “Alam mo, Arnel, kapag dumarating ‘yang mga sandaling ‘yan, iniisip ang asawa ko. She immediately comes to mind. I think of her face, the face of a woman who’s been very patient with me, who’s done a fantastic job with our kids, who continues to hope in me, in us as a married couple and as a family. Si Betchay, Father, nasa isip ko parati.”

I have another old friend in Cebu, his name’s Roy. I’m very close to him and his wife, Joy. They’ve been married 23 years. They have eight kids—all still in school. Manoy Roy used to run an upscale talyer. It was doing very well for some years. It put all of his kids through school, funded travels with his wife, awarded them a very comfortable life. Until he and his Joy joined the Alay sa Dios community at the Jesuit parish in Cebu. Their business went downhill from there. Why? Because Manoy Roy finally decided to be honest in business. “Gikapoy na ko’s panikas, Father. I just got sick and tired of these under-the-table deals that garages habitually make with insurance companies, at the expense of customers.” Since then, Manoy Roy and Joy have depended a lot on scholarships and grants to put their children through school. Gone are the niceties they used to enjoy. But, you know what, it is amazing how deep their joy is—their commitment to the parish is steadfast, their resilience puts me to shame, and their cheerfulness just bowls me over. I asked Manoy Roy one time if he was ever tempted to go back. “Natental ko, Padre oy; I’ve been tempted a lot, Father” he says. “If I really wanted to, dali ra kayo; it would be so easy. But I always think of my family, my sick mom, and my community, Father. And I realize, nah, it’s not really worth it.”

Something closer to home now; my mom and dad always had a difficult marriage when I was younger. In fact, in all my high school years in the Ateneo de Davao, I often played the role of reconciler at home. But I did it for selfish reasons. I was always afraid my parents would split up and I’d be known in school as someone from a broken family. Back in those days, that was a stigma. So I took it upon myself to always end wars between them. I’d talk to them separately, and then together, and try to knock sense into them. When I talked to my dad during those times, he would always say: “Alam mo, anak, kung hindi dahil sa inyo ng Kuya mo at ni Jonathan (my younger brother), matagal na kaming hiwalay ng mommy mo.” My dad, all these years, mightily fought the temptation of abandoning us, because our faces were always before him.

Now maybe, just maybe, one thing that kept Mary freely choosing the good was always seeing faces of real people whom she really loved especially through difficult times. Maybe, her being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit was something that happened all her life long, not just during the annunciation. Maybe she was always overshadowed by these faces her beloved, most of all, the face of her son. This must have been the kind of conscience that Immaculate Mary had, the kind that has kept Gorio faithful to Betchay, the kind that has strengthened Manoy Roy’s resolve to keep being honest, the kind that’s kept dad and mom together for 47 years—that appearance, that arrival of faces of the beloved in her consciousness. Mary, of course, might have been privileged to have loved so much more deeply than we ever can, so that her beloved’s faces lasted her through her own deaths and resurrections. By this kind of love might her days have been ruled. Right now, I could not think of any other reason how one could remain ever so sinless, unless she actually loved at every single moment of life, seeing the faces of her beloved—faces more than ideals; faces, more than regulations; faces, more than paradigms; faces of real people she really loved.

Could it be that what somehow divides us as a people, as a Church, as a community is caused by the blurring from our consciousness of faces of real people we love? Do we seem to see abstracted ideals, norms, paradigms much more vividly than we can actually tie faces to them, faces of real people we profess we love? Or could it be that when we are at each other’s throats, we’ve long begun fighting for some thing rather than some one? Could it be that one of the most profound reasons why we hit an impasse is that we no longer have faces before us in our passionate desire to fight for our ideals? Would it be safe to say that while Mary lived each day from ideal to ideal, from norm to norm, from fight to fight–to all of these were nevertheless fastened the faces of her beloved—so that whatever she chose to obey, to do, or to fight against, she did out of real love for people whose faces were always before her?

As a Church, we need to take stock not only of what we love but also and more so whom we love. When we say we love God, that love must have faces automatically if not desperately attached to it, and not just some free-floating ideal of what loving God is, or what a Church is, or what a family is, or what Jesuit education is, or some kingdom of God, some rarified realm, glorious and triumphant—but faceless.

I don’t think “immaculate” means “rid of what is totally human in order to engage the totally divine.” Rather, I think immaculate means being overshadowed by the Spirit of great love for real people, through whose faces God emerges and disturbs and calls. When we, your pastors, desire to keep the Church “immaculate”, pray for us so that faces of real people light the way towards our ideals, instead of our ideals blinding us from the faces of people we’re supposed to love and serve. And we pray for you, too, that people you love may continue to be the deepest reason to choose wisely, to obey, to do, and perchance, to fight.

And so we pray for Mary’s help: “Turn then, o most gracious advocate, your eyes of mercy towards us, and after this, show unto us the fruit of your womb, Jesus.” Show us his face that we may desire sin less because we love more.

Ad majorem + Dei gloriam!

About Quirino M. Sugon Jr
Theoretical Physicist in Manila Observatory

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