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Three Contemplations on the “Belen”
(Homily for Christmas Evening Mass – Dec 24, 2020)

Every evening on the 24th of December, we gather together just like now to celebrate the Holy Mass to commemorate a very important event for us Christians and Catholics, the birth of our savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. The Gospel you just heard is familiar to many of us; it is an account of the birth of the Lord in a manger with Mary and Joseph at his side while shepherds and their farm animals curiously watched them at bay.  This Gospel account of the Lord’s nativity has been popularized in a Christmas “Belen”, like the one you see now, over there. The “Belen” is a beautiful and meaningful representation of the first Christmas.  Aside from the “parol” or Christmas lantern and the Christmas tree, the Belen is another popular Christmas symbol or décor we place atop a table or platform inside our homes, offices, hotels, malls, and churches. I am sure many of us, adults, would reminisce our past Christmases with the Belen as part of it.  I think it would be similar to the younger ones although they have become more exposed to different kinds of Belen, in terms of sizes, designs, materials, and costs. But basically, the “Belen” are all the same: depicting the same reality, suggesting the same message, and evoking the same emotions.

Pope Benedict encouraged every family to have a Belen at home and invited family members to contemplate on the nativity scene during Christmas. According to the Pope Emeritus, the Belen is a powerful reminder to us of what the first Christmas was and what it's key messages to us now.

During this time of the pandemic, I see the importance to focus our attention on the Nativity scene as proclaimed to us by the Gospel tonight. Allow me to share with you three key essential images in the scene for our contemplation:

  1. The shepherds and their animals - In Christ’s day, shepherds stood on the bottom level of the Palestinian social ladder. They shared the same low undesirable status as tax collectors and dung sweepers.  But why were they the first to hear the good news of the birth of the king of kings? Why not to kings and priests? Why did God handpick lowly, unpretentious shepherds to first hear the joyous news? The answer is because the Messiah was also a lowly and humble servant who came not to be served but to serve and to save the lost, the least, and the last in the society.  Even when he became an adult, Christ moved among the lowly and sinners. It was the sinners, not the self-righteous, He came to save (Mark 2:17). The figure of the shepherd is immortalized by the Lord Jesus when He said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). For us, the image of the shepherd reminds us that Christmas is first and foremost for the poor and humble. The poor meaning those materially poor and spiritually poor. The materially poor has only God as their savior because they have very little to depend on for their living and survival. The spiritually poor may have adequate material resources to live on but God, for them, is He who matters most.  During this time of the pandemic, we are reminded of our own poverty, our vulnerability, and mortality – that in the end, our power, fame, and fortune won’t be able to save us once the deadly virus has infected us. The frightening reality of death from the virus has made all of us become dependent on the mercy of God, the Almighty. My suggestion, this Christmas, kindly spend time to focus on the shepherds in the Belen and feel more deeply about our being poor before God. To accept the newborn king, one has to be poor and humble; the Lord cannot reign in the heart of the proud and mighty as there is no more space there left for Him.
  2. The second image is the Holy Family, Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus. The Holy Family is a common image that we like to place at the altar of our homes and offices.  Christmas is about the family, the peace and joy that should be within it and in each family member. During Christmas, we always long to go home and be with our loved ones. Sadly, many of our brothers and sisters during this time of the pandemic are not able to go home or are separated from their families.  Moreover, due to the past successive typhoons that hit our country, thousands of Filipino families remain homeless as they celebrate Christmas this year.  Here at XU, the employees contributed from their salaries to share some amount for Christmas to those staff on furlough. I did not expect the total collected amount to reach almost two hundred thousand pesos because everyone was affected by the Covid crisis. The university also conducted a fund drive within and outside XU for the typhoon victims in Luzon which amounted to almost half a million pesos, which I also did not expect considering the crisis. But people are truly generous despite their own needs and difficulties. The XU community is a giving and caring community even as we struggle also with our finances.  What struck me was what one employee told me that when he gave his share he thought not just of the furloughed employee but of his family, the children most especially. In our hearts, we want every family is one and happy during Christmas. I suggest that we focus and contemplate on the Holy Family (St Joseph, Mary, and Jesus) in the Belen, and thank the Lord for the gift of our own family and realize more deeply its value to us and that we commit ourselves to protect and keep every family one and happy always.
  3. The third image is the baby Jesus. The very reason why we have Christmas; supposedly the very center of Christmas celebration, and without Him, our Christmas would have lost its meaning and value.  What can we imagine a Christmas without Jesus? Is it possible? Yes, it is and in fact, it’s already happening and perhaps we too have become active participants in a Christmas without Christ. How do we know if our Christmas is empty of Christ? Three danger signs: it’s only about material gifts, it’s just about the self, and it’s about the fleeting happiness now.  However, Christmas with Christ at its center is about people instead of material gifts alone; it’s about sharing with others instead of thinking too much of what I will receive from others, and it makes us experience a deep sense of joy and satisfaction and not merely fun and laughter. Kindly examine your past Christmases and pose one or two of these questions to yourself; did you see persons beyond gifts? did you deeply desire to share your resources with others? Was prayer an essential part of your Christmas celebration? According to one Jesuit priest, after all the celebrations, Christmas without Christ makes one exhausted and empty; while Christmas with Christ as its center, is always invigorating and refreshing.

So, again, at home tonight and in the coming days, please spend time to look at the Belen and contemplate on the ff:

  1. The poor and lowly shepherds
  2. The Holy Family
  3. The Baby Jesus

A happy and blessed Christmas to all!