We are in the holy season of Advent, a time to prepare for the coming of the Messiah through prayer, penance and good works. A few days ago a friend told me that my coming into the Archdiocese of Manila as its 32nd Archbishop is truly Advent. “You are the one who is to come,” he declared. The remark made me laugh. It also made me think. Is this occasion really about me? I know many people are asking “who is this new archbishop of Manila? What is he like? What are his vision and plans?” But like John the Baptist I am inviting you to focus on the One mightier than all of us, Jesus Christ, the Risen One and the True Shepherd of the Church. My Episcopal motto says it plainly, “Dominus Est! It is the Lord!”
This exclamation is drawn from the Risen Christ’s appearance to some of his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias as recounted in John 21. In a retreat that I facilitated as a priest, this episode impressed me deeply. Although it tells of a Resurrection appearance, it is indeed an Advent experience. The Risen Lord comes to his disciples. He reveals who he truly is.
Seven disciples went out fishing. Five of them are named: Simon Peter the recognized head of the band of the Twelve who denied Jesus, Thomas who doubted the testimony of his companions about Jesus’ appearance to them, Nathanael who questioned if anything good could come from Nazareth, the sons of Zebedee known for their ambition to get the seats of honour in Jesus’ kingdom, and two who remain unnamed. Doubters and unknowns, they represent the Church at its infancy. Simon Peter planned to go out fishing and the rest joined him. Together they were the fragile Church embarking on its mission. Into the vast waters of mission they traveled together.
But that whole night they caught nothing. Tired and distraught they returned to shore. They probably did not notice the early morning light. It was still night for them. Standing on the shore was a man they did not know. He asked if they had caught anything to eat. That question could sound provocative to a group that had laboured all night without success. If I were one of the disciples, I would have retorted, “Hey don’t you see that our boats are empty? Don’t you see? Are you blind or are you insulting us?” But the disciples were probably too tired to argue with him.
Then the stranger issued a surprising command to cast the net over the right side of the boat. He also promised they would find something. They followed him and had a catch so bountiful they could not pull it in. This stranger was not blind after all. He saw where the fishes were. What the disciples of doubters and unknowns did not see, he saw clearly.
At this moment the disciple whom Jesus loved exclaimed, “It is the Lord.” The eyes of the beloved disciple were opened. His stare moved from the catch to the loving presence in their midst. This man is not a stranger. He is the loving Lord. The long dark night is over. Morning has come. It is the Lord!
This simple story teaches me valuable lessons about the mission of the Church and my ministry as a bishop. First of all, the mission of the Church should be wholly directed by the Lord who is always present as Shepherd and guide. Human efforts should continue but unless the Lord directs the catch, we labour in vain. We know that the Lord guards His Church. He keeps watch with us on those long nights of confusion and helplessness in mission. When in spite of our good intentions and efforts there are still multitude of hungry people we cannot feed, homeless people we cannot shelter, battered women and children we cannot protect, cases of corruption and injustice that we cannot remedy, the long night of the disciples in the middle of the sea continues in us. Then we grow in compassion towards our neighbors whose lives seem to be a never ending dark night. But in our weariness the Lord comes. Advent never ends.