February 5, 2023 – Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Click here for the readings (https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/020523.cfm)
I once encountered an old leper in Mandaue City when I was a first year Seminarian in the college. His name was Tatay Mike. He was abandoned by his own family in the leprosarium in the 60s when leprosy began to appear in his body during his 30s. He was a teacher yet, he was forced to leave his teaching profession and his home but was also abandoned by his family because of fear of contamination.
What is terrifying with leprosy are not just the wounds, but of not being able to feel the pain. Leprosy produces anesthetic-effect in the body. It actually damages the sensory nerves of the person, thus, the inability to feel pain.
Tatay Mike also began to question his own existence. He was filled with suffering both in his body and in his heart. He was wounded, physically, emotionally and spiritually. The abandonment from his family created unspeakable wound in his person. He was always angry at everything and everyone. He would blame God for making him suffer that much. In fact, he asked people to just kill him, to end his life. He too tried to kill himself. He committed suicide not just one, not twice, but many times.
That encounter with him led me and my co-seminarian to become a friend of Tatay Mike. We spent time with him even though he would curse us for being with him. We would visit him every afternoon on Saturday even when he seemed to be always angry at us. Yet, our constant visits to him, changed him slowly. He became more tolerant with us until such a time that he began to open up his story to us.
One Saturday afternoon Tatay Mike blurted out to us, “Gusto nako mamatay! Wala may naghigugma nako! Pait kaayo akong kinabuhi.” (I really want to die. No one has loved me. My life is bitter!) – Upon hearing this painful words of Tatay Mike, it was my co-seminarian who responded and gave hope to him. He said, “Tay, nia man mi nagahigugma nimu. Mao nang kanunay mi mobisita nimu!” (Tay, we are here loving you. That is the reason why we would visit you.)
Tatay Mike shed some tears at this. He told us that it was his very first time being told that he was loved. It was such an emotional encounter but that gave hope to Tatay Mike. And that simple encounter, changed Tatay Mike’s perspective in life. Sadly, Tatay Mike died the following year due to other complications. But at least he died knowing that he too was being loved.
This encounter with this old man seemed to be just an ordinary encounter for me at that time. We went to the leprosarium to visit the patients, not entirely by our own will and desire. As young Seminarians, we went there because we were told to and that was just a part of our seminary formation. If we were given a choice at that time, we would surely not go to the leprosarium to visit and talk to the lepers. We would rather go to an internet café and play computer games.
It was only later that I realized that the seemingly ordinary encounter with Tatay Mike created actually a slow but powerful impact on me as a Seminarian. Tatay Mike must have realized that our presence brought something new and some meaning into his life. Yet, Tatay Mike’s life and our Saturday visits have actually changed me a lot.
Tatay Mike and those Saturday visits taught me that despite the senseless suffering one will have, life is still wort living; that another person’s presence in our life is a testament of God’s faithfulness in us; that our expressions of care and concern could be the last life-line of people who have lost the desire to live.
This reminds me very much of what St. Paul told us in his first letter to the Corinthians that the message he brought to the people was through a “demonstration of Spirit and power.” What does he mean by this? Paul preached the person of Jesus not merely on persuasion and human words but through his very actions. The sincerity of his heart, his kindness and concern shown to the many people were reasons that the people recognized the person of Jesus in the life of Paul.
Similarly, Prophet Isaiah in the first reading reminds us how the Lord has called us into concrete actions of care and concern. The Lord declares, “Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own… remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech.”
When we have the courage, the intention and the desire to express these concrete actions of care and concern, we shall be a light and joy to those who find life dark and bitter. In effect, our commitment to defend the weak and the oppressed will be our source of confidence when we too are in the midst of trials and challenges.
Moreover, Jesus encapsulates what we both heard in the previous readings. Jesus tells us, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of world.” The salt because it gives flavor to our food and serves as preservative as well, has become a symbol of bringing joy to our community. The salt which was also a form of compensation to Roman Soldiers in ancient Rome, thus the word salary emerged, has also become a symbol of giving life to those whose lives were deprived of basic needs.
The light that Jesus told us is also not about claiming that we become the source of light. No! As we boldly express our faith in the Lord and of our commitment to defend, nurture and develop life, we will truly give light. How shall we be a light then? By being courageous enough to stand for what is right and just, by defending the weak, by showing our respect to people no matter who they are, by being honest and trustworthy in our work or business, by being committed in our relationships, by giving ourselves and gifts for the sake of others. In these concrete ways of showing care and concern, we will surely become a light for others who find life dark.
Yet, remember, we are neither the source of joy nor the light itself. We are reflections of joy and light. Hence, like St. Paul, we may become like him who brought others to the Lord, to the true source of life, joy and light. Kabay pa.