(Homily for the Golden Jubilee Mass of Srs. Emma Garcia, r.c., Joyce Kemp, r.c., and Guia N. Jambalos, r.c., celebrated at Cenacle Retreat House, Nicanor Reyes St., Q.C., on March 3, 2013, 4pm. I had helped the Cenacle Sisters set up when they first came to the Philippines in 1968. At the present time, Sr. Guia Jambalos assists Ingenium School as Formation Resource person, conducting workshops and seminars for the parents and faculty of Ingenium.)
We come together this afternoon to celebrate the glory of God in His handiwork in the lives of our three friends: Sr. Emma Garcia, Sr. Joyce Kemp, and Sr.Guia Jambalos. To talk of the glory of God in this way may seem inappropriate, for the word “glory” evokes brilliant dazzling pageantry—which we do not have—and it recalls the famous words of St. Irenaeus, that “the glory of God is a man fully alive”. And certainly common wisdom looks upon the age of 70-plus years as past being “fully alive”.
But a Golden Jubilee affords a vantage point of a lifetime, as from a mountaintop, and from this mountaintop perspective of 50 years, perhaps one can see reality more clearly. We can join our jubilarian friends on this mountaintop and, as we talk about them, keep a sidelong glance at our own lives, to appreciate the significance of the lives they have lived.
What is the glory of God? Like God’s name, His glory is a mystery. But like all mysteries concerning God, it is not totally unknowable.(Vat. I)
From the mountain top of 50 years, the goals and ambitions of youth are but specks on the horizon—they are still visible and can still be remembered, but so much have come and gone since those early years when one first embarked on life’s pilgrimage. Similarly, the ups and downs, the twists and turns, the rough trails and the smooth, that were part of one’s journey are past and gone. And what remains/ as one stands on this mountaintop of 50 years?
There is just the pilgrim, one’s self.
What we have lived is always a part of us: to have enjoyed success and survived failures, to have relished applause and suffered ridicule, to have loved and be loved in return—all that will always be a part of us. But the perspective of 50 years reveals this unmistakable reality: everything that I have said and done, won and lost, suffered and enjoyed are just a part of me—they are not me. Who, then, am I? Just as God gave his name as He is who he is, so also I, and each one of us, in the uniqueness that is our individuality, can say: I am who I am. There is no substitute for who I am.
And if one were to probe deeper and ask, “What is it that makes me to be who I am?”, then reviewing the timeline of one’s life, one can arrive at this startling realization: I am what I have created myself to be. God, the Creator, created me to his own image. I, in turn, may have done a lot of things in my 50 years, but the only reality that I can truly claim to have created, for which I alone am responsible, and for which I alone can claim credit or blame is myself. For I have created myself piece by piece, facet by facet, through the whole interconnected and cumulative sequence of choices and decisions that is my life. Success and failures are not me, honor and dishonor are not me, but I was creating myself to be who I am through the choices and decisions I made in connection with those successes and failures, those moments of honor and dishonor. And while those events and circumstances are long gone, there still remains myself and what I have created myself to be through them. Who I am is the cumulative result of the choices and decisions of my life.
However, to decide and to choose—to will—may not be as simple as the advertisements of Nike shoes make it out to be: “Just do it”. Before one can will, there must be the prior willingness to will. How often one resolves to lose weight, and yet fail. Because unless there is the prior willingness to lose weight, there is plenty of wishing, but the decision—to will to lose weight –does not happen. Now in a life that seeks to pattern itself to the life of Jesus, the willing is not a matter of what clothes to wear or what jobs to take: the willing involves something as radical and sweeping as it is counter-intuitive: it is–not to live for one’s self, but to live for the neighbor. It is, as St. Paul says in the reading, “to be formed in the pattern of his death”: the self-sacrifiiciing love that transforms evil into good, the love that is patient and kind; the love that is not jealous, that does not put on airs, that is not snobbish; that is never rude; the love that is not self-seeking, that is not prone to anger, that does not brood over injuries; the love that does not rejoice in what is wrong, but rejoices with the truth.(1 Cor. 13:4-6). One knows the words, one gets the idea, but unless there is the prior willingness to do so, one does not do it.
Where does this prior willingness to choose and decide in the pattern of the cross come from? It comes, as St. Paul says, through faith in Christ. “It has its origin in God and is based on faith.” And when you think about it, it cannot be otherwise.
We often talk of God’s will: how “I am doing God’s will”–as though it is the most obvious thing to know God’s will who, just to remind ourselves, none of us have ever seen! For unfortunately, whatever we conceive as God’s will is always our version of God’s will. Worse than a color-blind patient who cannot faithfully perceive color, our version of His will is endemically prone to bias, to self-deception, to rationalizaiton; for, as St. Paul says, we have all sinned (Rom. 3:23). Just quickly recall how much evil has been foisted on the neighbor / all in the name of God’s will!
No, any capacity we may have to love the neighbor to the forgetfulness of self comes not from us or our cleverness, but from faith. Over the lifetime of a person seeking God, in differing times and circumstances, the words of St. Peter keep getting repeated: “We have labored all night and caught nothing. But at your word, I will lower the net.” In other words, “I don’t see the point, what you say does not make any sense, but because you say so, yes, I will do it.”
Now if we view this Jubilee Celebration in this context: that we are creators in the image of God, that our one true creation that endures is ourselves, that we create ourselves by our decisions and choices, and that the decision and choice to follow Christ in self-sacrificing love comes only from God, then we can begin to catch a glimpse of the glory of God in our jubilarians.
Looking back on the 50 years, one realizes how matter-of-factly God insinuates himself into our lives. Like Moses, we had that moment in our lives when some casual thing caught our attention that, in the end, led us to God: “What a remarkable sight: a burning bush that is not consumed!” For Sr. Joyce it was a retreat she was prodded into attending; for Sr. Emma it was through another retreat during her US sojourn for graduate studies in English; for Sr Guia, it was the fascination of a pharmacist being very useful to others through the preparation of medicines. Each one of them, in a most natural way, God lured to Himself. And if one looks back on those 50 years, one will be amazed at how humbly, how respectfully, God draws a person to Himself: He is so unobtrusive that, often, one does not even advert to His presence in one’s life! And how non-threateningly He makes one gradually aware of one’s blind spots and biases, one’s rationalizations and proclivities to selfishness. How lovingly He reveals a person to herself; how persistently He affirms how truly lovable we are because He always loves us. And in building up, by His love,, our sense of dignity and self-worth, our sense of being specially chosen and protected, He gives us the courage, the confidence and the generosity to be loving and forgiving of others in turn.
The fifty years we are celebrating are not fifty years of sheer endurance—although at times it may seem that way because to the end, it seems, there remains in us pockets of resistance to God’s will. But on the whole, they are fifty years of a basic willingness to put one’s self in the hands of God, to be gradually formed by Him to the image of his Son.
Now, after fifty years, what next? God’s handiwork still remains to be completed.
Common wisdom can sometimes be dead wrong. Not only does it look at a golden jubilarian as being past her prime; worse, it also assumes that all is downhill from hereon in: “Pack up your bags, find a niche in a retirement home, try to keep healthy, and wait for the end.” That may be true for a life that sees nothing farther than the grave, but it is the exact opposite of a life “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3).
For what 50 years can give that may not be given to a novice, is the realization with St. Paul: “Those things I used to consider gain I have now reappraised as loss in the light of Christ.” What 50 years can give is the stronger confidence in God’s love—I have done the worst that I can do, and still He loves me. What 50 years can give is a more profound sense of shame and repentance: “All these years God has loved me; is it not about time for me to love him in return? not because of fear or praise, or because of pressure to conform, but simply because He deserves to be loved in return?”
At this final stage, more clearly perhaps than in the past, love reveals itself as a decision—a matter of choice–my choice to love or not love.
And so, the twilight years of one’s life, I believe, can be a most privileged period in one’s relationship with God. For one thing, life is stripped to its bare essentials: the hustle and bustle, the lights and distractions, the noise and confusion of active life are all so wonderfully filtered out by age. With greater clarity, one can grasp the issue at stake: it is I and God, it is my will confronting His will. With the greater self-knowledge born of 50 years, one can uncover all those nooks and crannies in one’s personality where selfishness continues to lurk. With a keener sense of responsibility for others, and a deeper appreciation of one’s unique role in the evolution of the Church and creation, one can strive to make one’s waning life to be a living testimony to the joy and beauty of a life hidden with Christ in God—for peace and joy are the unmistakable signs of God’s presence. And finally, with greater trust born of the realization that everything, after all, is from God, one can accept with equanimity and peace the cellular senescence of the body organism as God’s creation moves forward, and the old gives way to the new.
And so, in the end, the mountain top of 50 years is but a way-station, a look-out, a rest stop. There still lies a road ahead, a goal that St. Paul says he is racing to reach. And the supreme consolation of this final challenge is that one cannot fail: because, as St. Paul says, “I have been grasped by Christ Jesus.” As one is emptied of one’s self, it is no longer I but Christ who lives in me (Gal. 2:20). And with Christ living in me, when the final end comes, death will seem a most natural passage from having fallen asleep to waking up to a life that one was already becoming familiar with. And, I believe, it will also be breathtaking surprise: not only will we no longer see God through a glass darkly, but instead see Him as He is; but also we will see ourselves as God sees us, with a vision no longer distorted by the myopia of sin, and we will rejoice to see how so truly lovable we are that he died for us even while we were yet sinners! And then, the glory of God, now seen through a glass darkly, merely glimpsed in the lives hidden with Christ in God, will burst into the full splendor of a life where “Christ is all in all” (Col 3:11).
Our sincerest congratulations to our Jubilarians!