We have gathered in hundreds today to honor a simple Jewish woman whose birthday changed history. We have gathered to honor a woman who was praised by the Protestant Poet William Wordsworth : ‘ our tainted nature’s solitary boast’.
For the last nine days you have shown commendable faith through prayer and penance to reach this spiritual peak today. With Mary our mother you can exclaim with gratitude ” The Lord has done marvels for me”. May thousand blessings be on all of us.
This shrine is gaining praise more and more as a focal point of inter-religious meetings. The last nine days not only brought Christians of all races together but scores of non-Christians.
For the last nine days you soaked your body and soul in pious practices, novenas, offering and the poignant show of piety through walking on your knees for from the gate of the church to the altar. Your faith is admirable.
End of the novena, we are standing on a peak of spiritual experience. From this vintage point we need to reflect what this feast means to us in our daily life today in a fast changing country.
Every feast is a blessing – and a challenge. A challenge because feasts can turn into events when Christians can flaunt their wealth, re affirm the social fragmentations and leave the rich with the feeling of superiority and the poor much impoverished spiritually and emotionally.
Mary is our Guide in all this. She was a pilgrim in the mission of Jesus. Her magnificat was sung with such glorious dream of God’s plan in our life “He has demonstrated power with his arm; he has scattered those with Pride, he has brought down the mighty from their thrones And lifted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich away empty”. (Lk 1: 51-53)
Strong words from a woman. But Mary was not just a devotee of Jesus, but she was a disciple of her Son’s mission that would be elucidated later:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, he has sent me to proclaim the good news to the Poor
Liberty to Captives, sight to the blind and the let the oppressed go free( Luke 4: 16-19)
All feasts are occasions for all of us to return to the radicalism of the Bible. Every feast needs to provoke the Christians towards more brotherly action for whom life is not easy.
As I was preparing for the sermon, I came across a beautiful but a very fiery sermon by one of the early fathers of the Church – John Chrysostom – on the need to balance our feasts with concern for our brothers and sisters:
Do not adorn the church and ignore your afflicted brother Do you want to honour Christ’s body? Then do not scorn him in his nakedness, nor honour him here in the church with silken garments while neglecting him outside where he is cold and naked. For he who said: This is my body, and made it so by his words, also said: You saw me hungry and did not feed me, and inasmuch as you did not do it for one of these, the least of my brothers, you did not do it for me (Mathew 25:30-40).
Very frightening words, indeed. He castigates those who spent a lot on church devotions but forget the neighbor. In these feast you have brought many costly clothes to adorn our Mother’s statue. While we are happy about the honor, the spirit moves us to the fact in this country that 40 percent of the children do not pursue their higher education because they do not have enough even to have decent uniforms to schools. Are we honoring our Mother who wished to fill ‘the hungry with great gifts?” What will be her magnificat if she were to come to this country today? Who will be the hungry she will like all of us to fill with great gifts?
After five decades of darkness, new Myanmar is yet to fulfill its promises to poor. A neo-liberal economy opens the country to international loot. More people are poor in democracy. More people have lost their homes to real estate companies, more people are losing their land to the new land rights of 2012. We have war and displacement in Kachin areas. We have 2 million of our brothers and sisters still outside the country. The benefits of reforms are yet to reach the majority. A crony capitalism thrives. Religious disharmony has left this country wounded with mutual hatred in certain parts of the country. Our youth are sacrificed on the altar of drug and human trafficking. In border areas drug is wiping out the next generation. It is a war on youth.
Today we celebrate this feast as the Feast of Our Lady of Health. But in Myanmar our Lady looks like the mother of Sorrows. How many daggers pierce her heart in this country?
Those of us coming around the Table of God needs to remember that we break bread every day on an unjust world where more than 20000 children die of hunger and malnutrition everyday. Every mass is a challenge to our sensibilities. Let us listen to John Chrysostom again:
Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups, when he himself is dying of hunger? First, fill him when he is hungry; then use the means you have left to adorn his table. Will you have a golden cup made but not give a cup of water to your thirsty brother?
He echoes Mary’s magnificat. The hungry needs to be filled. How many thousands are hungry for food, for education, for shelter, for human dignity in this country? Do the cronies and their external cohorts think of millions who will be deprived of their basic rights by their aggressive business deals? Is this new nation thinks of empowering the women, the ethnic communities and the IDPs? The new temples of businesses : New hotels, new skyscrapers, new business are being built.
Where is the poor of Myanmar in all this? Will they fill the hungry, give a cup of water of dignity to our people who suffered through dark tunnels of dictatorship?
Is our Lady becoming another mother of Sorrows in this country?
Every feast, every gathering is a clarion call for change. That change starts with each one of us.
I was deeply moved by your piety of walking on the knees. Only a true devotee can endure the pain of walking on the knees from the gate to here. I have great admiration for each one of you. Your knees are bent, you are willing to do every penance.
But what is the use if the same knees refuse to bow to the enemy, refusing to heed to call of Jesus ” forgive seventy times seven(Lk 17:7). How many unresolved enmities even among blood brothers? How many families are broken because of our refusal to forgive? Can these feasts hide our deep wounds? Can the knees that go down every feast time for a long march towards the shrine, go down once in forgiveness to your wounded brothers and sisters? If yes, this feast has meaning.
This call for self purification during festivals is called for an equal awareness of Injustice and compassion to our less fortunate brothers. Mother Mary in Velanganni reached out to a handicapped milk vendor through her compassion. She saved those sailors caught in a storm to reach safe shores. Compassion is needed in every human heart. That is the primary call.
A new magnificat is needed for the Myanmar that is in a spiral of change. Our nation was a mother of Sorrows for the last five decades – with evil daggers of darkness piercing her compassionate heart. Is the new Myanmar ready with more daggers – of unrestricted access to the rich and powerful to the assets of the poor? Daggers of drug and human trafficking? Daggers of increased displacement? Daggers of war and negation of rights of the minorities?
That is the challenging thought today as we culminate this feast. It is said feasts are for devotees of Christ. Being a devotee is an easy task. Activating Christianity inside the Church during the festival season is an easy task. Mary’s call is to be a disciple. Discipleship moves us from the comfort of sacred places and ceremonies to the task of Christ’s mission in our lives. . Christianity never compromised with the radical demand of the Bible : Justice for the under dog and righteousness for all. Feasts are the grim reminder of that Christian duty. Let us listen to the Prophet Amos :
I absolutely despise your Feasts! I get no joy in your assemblies; Even if you offer me burnt and grain offering, I will not be satisfied; I will not look with favor on your peace offering of fattened calves. Justice must flow like a river, righteous actions like a stream that never dries up! (Amos 5: 21-25).
So that is the challenge today. As a church and as citizens of Myanmar we need to articulate a new Magnificat today. Christ continues to be crucified in our suffering brothers and sisters today. And at the foot of that cross today, stands our Mother, as a sorrowful mother with daggers spilling her precious blood from her heart. Will there be a magnificat or a mournful cry?
That needs our faith in action. ( James 2:14-17). Those of you who are rich be compassionate to the poor brothers and sisters in this parish and the town. Thousands need support for quality education, millions of our displaced people need to return, thousands of farmers need to be released from debt traps, thousands need to be liberated from drugs and human trafficking. This needs our intervention today and make our Mother a mother of Joy and health and prosperity to all of us so that we can sign with her :
The Lord has done marvels for Me – Spirit Rejoices in our God my Savior (Lk 1: 46)
This Sermon was preached on the occasion of the feast of Our Lady of Velanganni in St Anthony’s Church, Yangon – Myanmar on 8th September 2014 by Archbishop Charles Bo SDB. The feast with nine day Novena, draws huge crowds from all over Myanmar and from all religions.