By Angelo Canta
This holiday season, my home was full. Close family from the Philippines and Canada spent Christmastide at our house in New Jersey. We had to take two cars to go to the malls or for day trips into the city. Our dining table functioned as the buffet with people sitting or standing wherever they could to eat. And, to my mother’s delight, we would all show up to Mass early because we’d have to take up a full pew.
Of course, this time spent with one another brought us so much laughter and joy. A mix of Filipino and English songs, stories, and jokes filled the normally quiet house in the middle of a normally quiet suburb. Yet, as with many in both the Philippines and the United States, there was also an increased sense of anticipation and anxiety for the future. It was an election year in both countries. The new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has infamously vowed to upend longstanding ties with the United States. What will this mean for expat Filipinos, like my family, in the United States? Moreover, Duterte’s war on drugs, has gruesomely taken the lives of many people innocent men, women, and children through explicit support of vigilante killings. Stateside, Donald Trump’s unprecedented election through fear-based politics has stoked sentiments of xenophobia and nativism throughout the country. The present situation is grim and the future remains far from bright.
I have held all these things in my heart while enjoying family time. These fears and anxieties come to mind especially in prayer. When I led grace over Christmas and New Year’s dinner, it was hard to express gratitude for family and hope for 2017 when people are still grieving the deaths of family members on the streets of Manila, or are unsure about their freedoms in Trump’s America. At Mass, it was incredibly difficult to sing,”Rejoice!” when I felt so defeated by the world. How can you celebrate anything at all in a world so dire? This past Sunday, the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, I found some answers.
The readings are familiar. Matthew tells us that Mary and Joseph were lying in the manger outside Bethlehem with the baby Jesus. Then, magi from the East bearing gold, frankincense, and myrrh were led by the Star to prostrate themselves before Christ and do him homage. Yet, the strangers do not return the same way home because an angel warns them of Herod’s plan to kill the child. It’s this last part that resonates with our world today. We know that later, Mary and Joseph fled with the Christ child as refugees to Egypt while Herod ordered the mass slaughter of the Holy Innocents. Refugees? Slaughter of Innocents? Political leaders who claim to be religious but actively work against the Reign of God? This story could be the story of the past six months in the US and the Philippines.
Am I saying that Duterte and Trump are completely analogous to King Herod? No. But, they all represent this incredible human tendency to scapegoat. The late French historian, literary critic, and sometime theologian René Girard wrote that human beings are intrinsically disposed to cycles of violence which seem to be quelled by the sacrifice of an individual (scapegoat) only to bring about more violence. For Herod, killing all the innocent children to get to Jesus was justified in order to eliminate a threat to his order and power. For Duterte, the drug users and dealers are the one obstacle standing in the way of finally lifting the country out of poverty and corruption. For Trump, any number of groups, but especially immigrants, refugees, and Muslims should be ostracized in order to make America great again. Each of them falls into the mechanism of scapegoating and the masses cheer them on. Jesus Christ proves that this mechanism is a lie. He is the scapegoat whom the Roman and Jewish authorities call guilty and put to death. Yet, through the Resurrection, Christians know the truth of his innocence and thereby should know the innocence of all victims of scapegoating. At least, that’s the theory. Two millennia of genocides, war, and slavery seem to say that the Church, as Christ’s body, still has work to do.
This realization helped me come to terms with Duterte and Trump. They are not following the truth of the Gospel nor are open to the liberating message of the paschal mystery. Cool, but how do you celebrate? I’m angry with the three wise men for not somehow being transformed at Bethlehem to go back to Herod and foil his plans. Shouldn’t they have fought back to save all those innocent lives? Maybe I’m being over zealous, but perhaps St. Peter who struck that man’s ear off would prove that at least I’m in good company.
What grounds me now, with no surprise, is Mary. I imagine her, afraid in an unknown city, aware of the gravity of what the angel announced to her nine months before. How, she may have thought, could these magi be worshipping at her son’s feet, when Jesus’ destiny to save humankind still lay before him? How could she go on to celebrate with her Son and his eventual disciples knowing his death would be on the horizon? Ever the example of holiness, Mary should teach us that one must celebrate not despite hardship but through it. How does the Church move through the liturgical year if not with celebrations of some of the most confounding and difficult moments of Jesus’ life? It is this witness of joy and hope in the midst of seemingly unending violence and despair that characterizes the Church’s mission. Cardinal Luis Tagle, the Manila Archbishop who is rarely seen without his signature smile, celebrated Epiphany Mass with rehabilitated drug dependents last Sunday. His message, echoed in the t-shirts of many Massgoers, was that “every life has hope.” He celebrates and upholds those whom Duterte would have killed. It is this altogether radical adherence to hope that fuels the fight against scapegoating and human violence.
As the Christmas season comes to an official close and as my house slowly returns to its normal occupancy, I am grateful for both the times of joy and the times of anxiety. None of us know what will happen in this next year, but I feel confident in fighting for human dignity sustained by a celebration of love that lasts. I pray that the Church round the world will do the same.