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Homily for Wednesday of the 4th Week of Lent, 22 March 2023, Jn 5:17-30

Today’s first reading is a good answer to people who feel that they have been forsaken by God. It ends with that particular line from Isaiah Chapter 49 that inspired the composition of the famous Tagalog liturgical song, “HINDI KITA MALILIMUTAN” (I will never forget you).

V. 15 of today’s reading is the prophet’s answer to the people’s lament about the tragic things that they had been through—the fact that their country had been conquered and destroyed by the Babylonian empire and their people had been exiled as slaves in Babylon and in other foreign lands.

I know that the common Tagalog translation for LAMENT is PANAGHOY. But I prefer to translate it as HIMUTOK or better yet, as TAMPO. In his oracle, the prophet begins by vebalizing his people’s reproach (TAMPO or HIMUTOK): “Nakalimutan na ako ng Diyos; pinabayaan na niya ako.” (The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.) And then in chapter 49 he speaks on behalf of God, in reply to Israel’s reproach (himutok).

It is one of the few passages in the Bible where God is described as a woman, and a mother at that. “Malilimutan ba ng ina ang anak na galing sa kanya, sanggol sa kanyang sinapupunan? (Can a mother forget her infant and be without tenderness for the child of her womb?) Then he answers his own question by saying “Ngunit kahit na malimutan ng ina ang anak na galing sa kanya, hindi kita malilimutan kailanma’y di pababayaan.” (However unusual it might be for a mother forget her child, I will never forget you.)

We have become so used to referring to God as Father, we often forget that we are using the language metaphorically. It does not mean that God is a literal father exactly like our earthly fathers, or that God is a male or belonging to the masculine gender. Fortunately for us, Filipinos, our pronouns are gender-free—neither masculine not feminine. Unlike in English whose third person pronoun for God is always masculine (HE), in Tagalog we don’t have that problem when we refer to God as SIYA.

We also tend to forget the rich variety of metaphors for God in the Bible, where God is sometimes called “a rock”, “a fortress”, “a warrior”, “a shepherd”, “a potter”, “a lion”, etc. Jeremiah once even called God a “treacherous brook”. In Hosea, the description of God as a mother is presupposed in that line in Hosea 11, 3-4 that says,

“Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,

who took them in my arms;

but they did not know that I cared for them.

I drew them with human cords,

with bands of love;

I fostered them like those

who raise an infant to their cheeks;

I bent down to feed them.”
This is another tender description of God like a mother breastfeeding her child. People often forget that Jesus also used the female imagery for God in the oracle of judgment that he pronounces over Jerusalem, predicting the inevitable destruction of the Holy City. In Luke 13:34 he says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how many times I yearned to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were unwilling!”

Most of you are probably familiar with the lament in Psalm 137 that refers to the same tragic situation described in our first reading “By the streams of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” The Psalmist says they could not even get themselves to sing one of the songs of Zion when their captors asked them to play them some music. Instead of singing, he says, they hung up their harps on the trees growing in Babylon.

The Psalm has a second part which, in the light of our first reading today, can be read differently. Try reading it as a reply from God to his people, from the mother to her child, who thinks he has been forgotten. “If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand wither.” I know it does not sound proper putting it in the mouth of God because the it makes God sound so human, like he’s swearing “Mamatay man ako.” But that precisely makes it sound more tender and intimate, can you imagine God saying to his people, “May my tongue stick to my palate if I remember you not, if I place you not ahead of my joy.”?

Today’s Gospel has a good news for people who are going through tough times in their lives. Jesus message of hope is, “…whoever hears my word and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life and will not come to condemnation, but will pass from death to life.”

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