Emmanuel and Jesus: A Simbang Gabi Homily
(Note: This homily was delivered by Fr. Johnny Go, SJ during the Simbang Gabi last Friday, 18th of December in the Sacred Heart Patio)

It’s not easy to dream about angels. It’s the last thing you want to have especially when you’re brokenhearted and feeling betrayed, and the only thing you want in the world is to be left alone—the way Joseph must have been feeling at the time he had his dream.

It has probably taken this heartbroken man a very long time before finally falling asleep. And only to be disturbed by—of all things—a dream about angels!

And who wants, after all, to hear the angel’s message in the dream at a time like this?

At a time when Joseph has decided precisely to walk away from it all, the angel tells him to stay.

At a time when he wants to stay away and hide from the world, the angel asks him to take back Mary.

The angel’s explanation isn’t exactly very clear either, not to mention confusing. I don’t know if you’ve noticed: First, the angel drops the hint that Joseph should name the child “Emmanuel” by quoting the prophet Isaiah about the virgin being with child. But Joseph and Mary end up naming the baby ‘Jesus’—which, if we recall, is what the same angel has instructed Mary to do. Remember the angel Gabriel’s words to Mary at the Annunciation? “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.”

We can almost imagine Joseph and Mary having a discussion about what to name the child. “But the angel suggested ‘Emmanuel’!” Joseph must have protested when Mary mentions “Jesus.” Not surprisingly, Joseph apparently decides to follow the name suggested to his wife.

But have you ever wondered why the angel gives Joseph a different name? Is the angel Gabriel just trying to sound scholarly by quoting Isaiah? Is he just trying to be poetic and profound because the name ‘Emmanuel’ means ‘God with us’?

I’ve never thought about that until one parent asked me that question during the Advent Recollection I gave a couple of weeks ago. I gave him the usual answer that time: That the name ‘Emmanuel’ captures the meaning of Christmas because Christmas is about God becoming one of us and one with us. But last night reading the Gospel for this morning’s simbang gabi, I think there’s another answer.

I think angels tell us what we most need to hear. At the time maybe Joseph needed to hear that Mary’s son, who was also to be his son, was precisely Emmanuel—a reassurance that God is with us.

Think about the succeeding events in the Gospel that mention and involve Joseph. Many of them were not easy experiences…

· That long arduous trip to Bethlehem for the census, traveling all those miles with a heavily pregnant wife.

· The desperate, urgent search for a place in the inn so that Mary can have a safe and private childbirth—a search that led to a cold unused stable (some scholars say cave).

· The even more desperate flight in the night after an even more disturbing dream, when an angel warned him of Herod, and yet another long arduous journey, this time to Egypt.

· Years later, losing the twelve-year old Jesus in the Jerusalem temple, and when they finally found him, only to be told by Jesus that he had to attend to His Father’s business—a reminder of the painful truth that Jesus was never his own son.

Going through all these experiences, Joseph must have thought about his first dream a lot, wondering if its message was really true and questioning himself if he was right in obeying that dream.

All these times he must have felt the temptation to walk away. But he stayed. And I’m sure if there was anything about the dream that helped him stay, it was the special, private name of Jesus that the angel gave him.


God is with us.

It was God’s special, private message to Joseph.


God is with you. God is with you, Joseph, through all these trials, events that are difficult, experiences that you may not understand. God is with you.

And Joseph responded in kind. He returned the favor. He decided to be with God. All his life, he decided to stick it out with the Lord through thick and thin.

I think this may well be a special message that we can bring home with us from our simbang gabi today. Christmas is the season of Emmanuel, of the mystery of God with us, through thick and thin. But Christmas is also an invitation for each one of us to be with God, through every thick and thin—as Joseph did all through his life.

So let’s think about that for a while: Have I been with God the way He has been with me? Have I stuck it out with Him the way He has stuck it out with me? In what way can I stick it out more with Him? How can I respond to this God/Emmanuel.

Here is a poem by John Shea that tells us why Jesus is also Emmanuel.

A Prayer to the God who fell from Heaven . . .


If you had stayed /

tightfisted in the sky /

and watched us trash with all the patience of a pipe smoker, /

I would pray /

like a golden bullet /
aimed at your heart.
But the story says /

you cried /

and so heavy was the tear /
you fell with it to earth /

where like a baritone in a bar /
it is never time to go home.
So you move among us /

twisting every straight line /

into Picasso,/
stealing kisses from pinched lips, /

holding our hand in the dark. /
So now when I pray /

I sit and turn my mind/

like a television knob/
till you are there /

with your large open hands/
spreading my life before me /

like a Sunday tablecloth /
and pulling up a chair yourself /

for by now /

the secret is out./
You are home.



Simbang Gabi Homily at the Gesu
23 December 2009

Just one more day to go before the day we celebrate the birth of our Lord!

But not so fast! The past couple of evenings, we have been invited first to think about another birth—the birth of our Lord’s cousin, John the Baptist. Amidst all the excitement and rejoicing in that household that day, one person was strangely silent: the father of the newborn baby, Zechariah. In the gospel story today, he more than makes up for it by breaking his silence and breaking into song, giving us one of the loveliest songs in the New Testament.

Lately I’ve been thinking about Zechariah. I have a suspicion that this silent character has something to say to us—a message that God wants us to hear loud and clear as we rush about in our last-minute preparations for Christmas.

Many of us already know his story. For many years Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth had prayed for a son—but to their growing dismay, their prayers were unanswered. In fact, when the angel Gabriel visited Mary at the Annunciation, he referred to Elizabeth as she “who is called barren,” hinting at the suffering that this old couple must have borne all those years. You see, for the Jews, being barren was a sure sign of God’s curse, and surely Zechariah and Elizabeth had to endure an endless series of embarrassing questions until people finally “got it” and stopped bringing it up in conversation.

Many of us know the feeling. We each have perhaps one area or aspect in our lives that doesn’t quite conform to people’s expectations—or our own: Maybe the pressure to perform or accomplish something in our studies, at work, or in sports; our own longing to belong; or our desire—or our parents’ desire or our spouse’s desire—for us to measure up in some way. Unfortunately, whatever it is, it’s nothappening; and we just keep falling short. At first, well-meaning people express their concern by asking about it, unaware of the discomfort or pain their questions may cause. Then they begin to tiptoe around the topic, while others who are less kind cup their hand over their mouths and murmur behind our backs. The interrogations may have stopped, but the judgment remains there in people’s eyes—not to mention the pity.

I think this is how we ought to imagine Zechariah when the angel Gabriel appeared to him in the temple to announce the good news about Elizabeth’s long-awaited pregnancy. “Do not be afraid, Zechariah,“ the angel began, “for your prayer has been heard, and your wife will bear you a son.”

How many years Zechariah had longed to hear these words! So can we blame him if after the angel finishes his speech, Zechariah asks, “How will I know this?” If we read between the lines, I guess what he was thinking was: “Yeah, right! Now, how can I be sure?”

Well, the angel Gabriel must have read his mind. It’s too bad, I think, that the angel decided to strike him mute. Maybe he was having a particularly bad hair day, having a long list of chores and errands he had to run in preparation for this first Christmas.

I don’t know about you, but don’t you think Zechariah had a perfectly valid question? I mean, can we honestly blame the old man for asking the angel for some kind of proof? After all, I think Zechariah exemplifies the classic case of someone who has experienced the hazards of prolonged waiting. I mean, the guy is practically a victimof Advent!

Think about it: All his life, he and his wife waited—and were kept waiting—for years!

Unfortunately, something happens to us when we wait too long. Our hopes can be dashed only so much. Our hearts can be broken only so often. Our breath can be held only for so long. After a while, we get blue in the face. Worst of all, our hearts too can turn blue: We grow weary with waiting. We tire of hoping. And we eventually give up on praying for that one thing we’ve so long longed for.

Again we know the feeling, don’t we? We know what it feels like to be let down by life too often. We can only take so much! After a while, after getting beaten down too much, after watching our dreams not take flight too often, we end up getting disillusioned. We grow skeptical. We become jaded. We give up, we stop believing, and we stop hoping. We lose the capacity to imagine that what’s impossible can actually happen. But isn’t that what Christmas is all about when we think about it? The impossible happening. The unexpected unfolding. The unimaginable exploding in the very manger of our jaded, dream-weary world.

What was it again that the angel said to Mary? “Nothing is impossible with God.” We have to be willing to believe in the impossible. We have to be capable of stretching our imagination. And we have to be willing to hold our breath for as long as we can in anticipation of the surprises God has in store for us.

We can’t blame him, but the problem with Zechariah was that after waiting too long and being let down too often, he simply stopped believing in the impossible. He got sick of trying to stretch his imagination and eventually just refused to be surprised. I think Zechariah was the original guy who stopped believing in Santa Claus—so that when Santa finally slipped down their old chimney in the guise of an angel, all Zechariah could manage was raise a question and an eyebrow.

Whoever said we shouldn’t replace Christ with Santa Claus is of course right in criticizing the commercialization of Christmas. Santa Claus should never take the place of our Lord at the center of Christmas. But tonight I’d like to propose that we still need to believe in Santa. I’d like to suggest that weird or scandalous as it may sound, this jolly character deserves a place right there in the belen along with the Holy Family and the angels, huddled with the shepherds and the wise men, and surrounded by the ox and donkey.

Over a hundred years ago, in 1897, an 8-year old girl named Virginia wrote the editor of the New York Sun a letter that led to an editorial that became the most reprinted editorial to run in any newspaper in the English language.

The letter said:

“Dear editor, I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in The Sun, it is so’. Please tell me the truth: Is there a Santa Claus?” Signed, Virginia O’Hanlon.

Here’s a portion of the editor’s response—as timely today as it was over a hundred years ago:

“Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except what they see.

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.”

And so, here’s what I think is God’s message to us through the story and character of Zechariah, addressed especially to the Zechariah’s in us: “Yes, there is a Santa Claus!” Not the literal old jolly bearded man in a red suit, of course, but all the good things that he stands for: Joy, generosity, goodness, even magic…

If we can’t bring ourselves to believe in what Santa stands for, how can we even begin to believe in this wonderful mystery of the Infinite God Himself climbing down our chimneys to become a baby in our manger, to be one of us and one like us?

For me, our old friend Zechariah is the unsung hero of Advent. He is the poster boy of waiting because in the end God made sure that despite all those years of disappointments, he could once again hold his breath for the impossible.

This evening, just a couple of nights away from Christmas day, the day we’ve all been waiting for, the Lord invites us to gather our faded dreams, to resuscitate our tired imagination, and hold all the hopes and dreams of this world in our jaded hearts—and retrieve our faith in miracles: Let us remember what it means to dream. Let us believe once again in the impossible. And let us wait and hold our breath for Him Who, after all those centuries, will no longer keep us waiting.

Tonight we tell ourselves as in a prayer: “Yes, Virginia, and yes, Zechariah: There is a Santa Claus!” If we can’t believe in Santa, how can we believe in that surprise of surprises and that miracle of miracles we call Christmas?

Lord, tonight we thank you for the gift of Christmas.

I am sorry I have to call you that, but I don’t know how else to get your attention.  I hate that word.  Do you know how hard some of us have worked to get rid of that word, to deny its instant connection to the Middle East? And now look.  Look what extra work we have.  Not only did your colleagues kill thousands of innocent, international people in those buildings and scar their families forever, they wounded a huge community of people in the Middle East, in the United States and all over the world.  If that’s what they wanted to do, please know the mission was a terrible success, and you can stop now.

Because I feel a little closer to you than many Americans could possibly feel, or ever want to feel,  I insist that you listen to me.  Sit down and listen.  I know what kinds of foods you like. I would feed them to you if you were right here, because it is very very important that you listen.  I am humble in my country’s pain and I am furious.

My Palestinian father became a refugee in 1948. He came to the United States as a college student. He is 74 years old now and still homesick. He has planted fig trees. He has invited all the Ethiopians in his neighborhood to fill their little paper sacks with his figs. He has written columns and stories saying the Arabs are not terrorists, he has worked all his life to defy that word. Arabs are businessmen and students and kind neighbors.  There is no one like him and there are thousands like him – gentle Arab daddies who make everyone laugh around the dinner table, who have a hard time with headlines, who stand outside in the evenings with their hands in their pockets staring toward the far horizon.

I am sorry if you did not have a father like that.  I wish everyone could have a father like that.

My hard-working American mother has spent 50 years trying to convince her fellow teachers and choir mates not to believe stereotypes about the Middle East. She always told them, there is a much larger story. If you knew the story, you would not jump to conclusions from what you see in the news. But now look at the news. What a mess has been made.  Sometimes I wish everyone could have parents from different countries or ethnic groups so they would be forced to cross boundaries, to believe in mixtures, every day of their lives.   Because this is what the world calls us to do. WAKE UP!

The Palestinian grocer in my Mexican-American neighborhood paints pictures of the Palestinian flag on his empty cartons.  He paints trees and rivers. He gives his paintings away. He says, “Don’t insult me” when I try to pay him for a lemonade. Arabs have always been famous for their generosity. Remember? My half-Arab brother with an Arabic name looks more like an Arab than many full-blooded Arabs do and he has to fly every week.

My Palestinian cousins in Texas have beautiful brown little boys. Many of them haven’t gone to school yet. And now they have this heavy word to carry in their backpacks along with the weight of their papers and books. I repeat, the mission was a terrible success. But it was also a complete, total tragedy and I want you to think about a few things.

1. Many people, thousands of people, perhaps even millions of people, in the United States are very aware of the long unfairness of our country’s policies regarding Israel and Palestine. We talk about this all the time. It exhausts us and we keep talking. We write letters to newspapers, to politicians, to each other.  We speak out in public even when it is uncomfortable to do so, because that is our responsibility. Many of these people aren’t even Arabs. Many happen to be Jews who are equally troubled by the inequity. I promise you this is true. Because I am Arab-American, people always express these views to me and I am amazed how many understand the intricate situation and have strong, caring feelings for Arabs and Palestinians even when they don’t have to. Think of them, please: All those people who have been standing up for Arabs when they didn’t have to. But as ordinary citizens we don’t run the government and don’t get to make all our government’s policies, which makes us sad sometimes.  We believe in the power of the word and we keep using it, even when it seems no one large enough is listening. That is one of the best things about this country: the free power of free words. Maybe we take it for granted too much. Many of the people killed in the World Trade Center probably believed in a free Palestine and were probably talking about it all the time.

But this tragedy could never help the Palestinians. Somehow, miraculously, if other people won’t help them more, they are going to have to help themselves.  And it will be peace, not  violence, that fixes things. You could ask any one of the kids in the Seeds of Peace organization and they would tell you that. Do you ever talk to kids? Please, please, talk to more kids.

2. Have you noticed how many roads there are? Sure you have. You must check out maps and highways and small alternate routes just like anyone else. There is no way everyone on earth could travel on the same road, or believe in exactly the same religion. It would be too crowded, it would be dumb. I don’t believe you want us all to be Muslims. My Palestinian grandmother lived to be 106 years old, and did not read or write, but even she was much smarter than that. The only place she ever went beyond Palestine and Jordan was to Mecca, by bus, and she was very proud to be called a Hajji and to wear white clothes afterwards. She worked very hard to get stains out of everyone’s dresses — scrubbing them with a stone.  I think she would consider the recent tragedies a terrible stain on her religion and her whole part of the world. She would weep. She was scared of airplanes anyway. She wanted people to worship God in whatever ways they felt comfortable. Just worship. Just remember God in every single day and doing. It didn’t matter what they called it.  When people asked her how she felt about the peace talks that were happening right before she died, she puffed up like a proud little bird and said, in Arabic, “I never lost my peace inside.” To her, Islam was a welcoming religion. After her home in Jerusalem was stolen from her, she lived in a small village that contained a Christian shrine. She felt very tender toward the people who would visit it.   A Jewish professor tracked me down a few years ago in Jerusalem to tell me she changed his life after he went to her village to do an oral history project on Arabs. “Don’t think she only mattered to you!” he said. “She gave me a whole different reality to imagine – yet it was amazing how close we became. Arabs could never be just a “project” after that.”

Did you have a grandmother or two?  Mine never wanted people to be pushed around. What did yours want?  Reading about Islam since my grandmother died, I note the “tolerance” that was “typical of Islam” even in the old days. The Muslim leader Khalid ibn al-Walid signed a Jerusalem treaty which declared, “in the name of God, you have complete security for your churches which shall not be occupied by the Muslims or destroyed.” It is the new millenium in which we should be even smarter than we used to be, right? But I think we have fallen behind.

3. Many Americans do not want to kill any more innocent people anywhere in the world. We are extremely worried about military actions killing innocent people. We didn’t like this in Iraq, we never liked it anywhere. We would like no more violence, from us as well as from you. HEAR US!  We would like to stop the terrifying wheel of violence, just stop it, right on the road, and find something more creative to do to fix these huge problems we have. Violence is not creative, it is stupid and scary and many of us hate all those terrible movies and TV shows made in our own country that try to pretend otherwise.  Don’t watch them. Everyone should stop watching them.  An appetite for explosive sounds and toppling buildings is not a healthy thing for anyone in any country. The USA should apologize to the whole world for sending this trash out into the air and for paying people to make it.

But here’s something good you may not know – one of the best-selling books of poetry in the United States in recent years is the Coleman Barks translation of Rumi, a mystical Sufi poet of the 13th century, and Sufism is Islam and doesn’t that make you glad?

Everyone is talking about the suffering that ethnic Americans are going through. Many will no doubt go through more of it, but I would like to thank everyone who has sent me a consolation card. Americans are usually very kind people. Didn’t your colleagues find that out during their time living here? It is hard to imagine they missed it. How could they do what they did, knowing that?

4. We will all die soon enough. Why not take the short time we have on this delicate planet and figure out some really interesting things we might do together?  I promise you, God would be happier. So many people are always trying to speak for God – I know it is a very dangerous thing to do. I tried my whole life not to do it. But this one time is an exception. Because there are so many people crying and scarred and confused and complicated and exhausted right now – it is as if we have all had a giant simultaneous break-down.  I beg you, as your distant Arab cousin, as your American neighbor, listen to me. Our hearts are broken, as yours may also feel broken in some ways we can’t understand, unless you tell us in words.  Killing people won’t tell us. We can’t read that message. Find another way to live.  Don’t expect others to be like you.  Read Rumi.  Read Arabic poetry. Poetry humanizes us in a way that news, or even religion, has a harder time doing. A great Arab scholar, Dr. Salma Jayyusi, said, “If we read one another, we won’t kill one another.”  Read American poetry.   Plant mint.  Find a friend who is so different from you, you can’t believe how much you have in common. Love them. Let them love you. Surprise people in gentle ways, as friends do. The rest of us will try harder too. Make our family proud.

naomi shihab nye

Of all the things that are not eternal
I deny the patience of water, the divinity of salt, and the
persistence of the spider

I would like to write a suicide note in three and a half languages
and travel south on a Thursday towards
some form of life outside of earth

And although people will think I’m no longer there
I will live in geodesic domes
and count only in numbers below zero

Sometimes when I walk past trees in the city I hear them denying me
Normally this doesn’t bother me but today
I’m not going to take any conspiracies

I deny bodies of water smaller than the Great Lakes
I deny any planet larger than America

I deny the fact that when I kill time, time is actually killing me
I am air, light, sound, all of which I deny
I deny the Buddha, I do not deny the Buddha

An exact copy of my life is being lived three million light years
If there’s a way to prove it
If mathematics were the only religion

We are passing an era of turbulence
make sure your seats are in the uptight position

“When we come close to another a certain light ignites”

Love like an arsonist
steals into my life and burns down all my tenements

(In a court of law, love will deny me
and I can’t prove a thing)

We can never know
He answered me like the stillness of a star
That silences us asking

We are and that is all our answer
We are and what we are can suffer
what suffers loves.

And love
Will live its suffering again,
Risk its own defeat again,
Endure the loss of everything again
And yet again and yet again
In doubt, in dread, in ignorance, unanswered,
Over and over, witht he dark before,
The dark behind it… and still live… still love

If I have loved, it is mostly
because that is what I have
called it.

The night I left, you pressed three
scars to the inside of my wrist and said
It will be different with you gone.

Later I marked time by their fading.

But it was lazy, making you beautiful
that way. I was reading words
backwards—lover, almost
revolve, almost

and I couldn’t believe in things.

The magnolia
makes me cringe: the perfect cup
of its opening. Its center
the deepest color. I love—
love it—

but the mind,
unhinged, and unhinged,
is substituting.

After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won’t
straighten themselves up, after all.

Someone has to push the rubble
to the sides of the road,
so the corpse-laden wagons
can pass.

Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
sofa springs,
splintered glass,
and bloody rags.

Someone must drag in a girder
to prop up a wall,
Someone must glaze a window,
rehang a door.

Photogenic it’s not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.

Again we’ll need bridges
and new railway stations.
Sleeves will go ragged
from rolling them up.

Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls how it was.
Someone listens
and nods with unsevered head.
Yet others milling about
already find it dull.

From behind the bush
sometimes someone still unearths
rust-eaten arguments
and carries them to the garbage pile.

Those who knew
what was going on here
must give way to
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.

In the grass which has overgrown
reasons and causes,
someone must be stretched out
blade of grass in his mouth
gazing at the clouds.