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Easter and the phoenix

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I was wondering what to write about in this Easter Sunday column when a package arrived from my friend from high school, Marissa Ampil. I remember she had told me she would send over a copy of the book “Sharper than the Sword,” a compilation of Sunday homilies by Fr. James McTavish of the Verbum Dei Missionaries. Thank you, Marissa, for the timely gift and for saving my hide!

The Verbum Dei Missionaries was founded in 1963 by Fr. Jaime Bonet in Spain and was granted pontifical approval in 2000. Now present in over 30 countries around the world, the community is also present in Manila, Quezon City, Tagaytay and Cebu, with a lay community in Cagayan de Oro. The order’s charism is centered on evangelization and formation of lay people.

One of them was Father McTavish, who hails from Scotland (though we haven’t met, I can just imagine his accent), and who was a practicing pediatric plastic surgeon (he is a graduate of Cambridge University) until he heard his “call.”

Describing this call, Father McTavish says: “I realized that the Word of God is so sharp, sharper than any sword or scalpel. I just wanted to announce it and set the world on fire with love for Jesus. As a plastic surgeon I had enjoyed my career so much, trying to reconstruct various wounds, but Jesus, the ‘Good Doctor’, asked me to reconstruct his people.”

Below are excerpts from Father McTavish’s homily for Easter Sunday. For the full text and for the rest of his homilies for the year, you may buy your own copies of “Sharper than the Sword” at the Verbum Dei House in Varsity Hills Subdivision, Loyola Heights in Quezon City.

* * *

When I first met the Verbum Dei community in Sydney, Australia, after a few months I got the chance to go to the Philippines to spend time with the Verbum Dei community there. While I was away I lent the Sisters my little car, it was a Daihatsu Charade. A severe hailstorm struck Sydney and damaged property and cars. When I returned to Sydney after the enjoyable Philippines trip I phoned up the Sisters to inquire about my beloved little car. I was worried about it and asked them if the front windscreen had been smashed. I was relieved upon hearing that it was not. As I walked to their house to pick up my car I was thanking God that my car had been saved. That was until I saw my car. True enough the front windscreen was intact but the rest of the car was smashed to smithereens! The other windows were broken and it had hundreds of deep dents where the large hailstones had struck it. I started to complain to God. Then I discovered that all cars affected by the storm would get a full insurance rebate so I thanked God once again! One way we can live a risen life is by being more generous, especially with what we have.

* * *

The Lord is also risen in our relationships, in that relationship that maybe we have taken for granted, in the relationship that maybe is strained or dead. Here the Lord has resurrected! It reminds me of the Christian art in catacombs. Sometimes the Lord’s resurrection is symbolized by the phoenix. This mythical bird after its death in fire would rise up again from the ashes. St. Clement (the fourth Pope) in his first epistle to the Corinthians cites the phoenix as an emblem of the resurrection. “Let us consider that wonderful sign (of the resurrection) which takes place in Eastern lands, that is, in Arabia and the countries round about. There is a certain bird which is called a phoenix. This is the only one of its kind, and lives five hundred years. And when the time of its dissolution draws near that it must die, it builds itself a nest of frankincense, and myrrh, and other spices, into which when the time is fulfilled, it enters and dies. But as the flesh decays a certain kind of worm is produced, which, being nourished by the juices of the dead bird, brings forth feathers. Then, when it has acquired strength, it takes up that nest in which are the bones of its parent, and bearing these it passes from the land of Arabia into Egypt, to the city called Heliopolis. And, in open day, flying in the sight of all men, it places them on the altar of the sun, and having done this, hastens back to its former abode. The priests then inspect the registers of the dates, and find that it has returned exactly as the five hundredth year was completed.”

* * *

Of course the description of St. Clement is rather colorful—well, he is writing in the second century AD and if he had Google, one quick search would have confirmed that the phoenix is actually a mythical creature. Still, it is beautiful to cite from early Christian writing and see that the analogy of faith still holds true today. St. Clement then asks: “Do we then deem it any great and wonderful thing for the Maker of all things to rise up again those who have piously served Him in the assurance of a good faith, when even by a bird He shows us the mightiness of His power to fulfill His promise?”

* * *

Christ is risen, like the phoenix and death no longer has power over him. We are all called to be witnesses of his resurrection. How can we be witnesses?

…Well, we can eat and drink with Jesus in the Eucharist, the sacrament of his body and blood, a privileged place to open our eyes of faith, to see his risen presence there… We need to pray, folks! We need to contemplate the Easter mystery and in our prayer to experience the risen Christ. In this way we can truly become witnesses of the resurrection!


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