We all know, in principle, what the first commandment says, that there is only one God, and all our praise, worship and adoration should belong only to this God and no other.
And yet, let’s admit it, there are people we honor, venerate, or put on pedestals for one reason or another, such as our saints and martyrs, our heroes and role models, the people we have so much respect and love for, such as our mothers.
There are people we “idolize,” albeit in the metaphorical sense of the world. And take note of the words that people sometimes use to express their love, like the French people who love to exaggerate their emotions in expressions like, “Je t’adore (I adore you).”
The last time I opened a Jubilee Door and found myself kneeling before an image of Saint Joseph, I thought to myself how some of my friends from the evangelical Churches would react. Are we really by nature, incurably idolatrous? Is it really next to impossible to ask human beings to worship only God and no other?
In our first reading today, Cornelius kneels before Paul and Paul says to him, “Get up. I myself am also a human being.” The same thing happened during their missionary journey in the city of Lystra. After they healed a crippled man, the people declared them to be their gods Hermes and Zeus, and started offering them sacrifices. Paul reacted the same way and said in Acts 14:15 “Why are you doing this? We are of the same nature as you, human beings.”
I imagine what it must have been like when the early Christians started worshipping Jesus of Nazareth as God. Everything about it was blasphemous for the Jewish faith; it offended their religious sensibilities. How can you worship God in a mere human being? They probably said with indignation. If he is human, he cannot be God!
Remember the Song of Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar?
“I don’t know how to love him,
what to do, how to move him.
He’s a man. He’s JUST A MAN.”
The song is verbalizing the dilemma in the worshipper about seeing God in a human being. She draws back and, as it were says, “Why am I doing this? He’s only a human being like me.”
Where is this sense of duality coming from? How come we are so naturally drawn to put fellow human beings on a pedestal and at the same time doubt about the correctness of it all? Where is this coming from?
I think it is coming from our collective low self-esteem about our humanity. We tend to associate our humanity with sinfulness, weakness, being flawed, being fallen. And it’s true that every now and then, when some of the people we adore or idolize make mistakes and cause scandals and fall from grace, our faith in humanity is crushed.
We tend to feel so disappointed, we’re tempted to swing to the opposite extreme of behaving like iconoclasts or idol-bashers. We go berserk and almost make it our mission to topple down every human image, every icon put on a pedestal. You want to crush them and denounce every act of goodness as nothing but a show of hypocrisy.
The feeling of betrayal can be so traumatic it can lead to depression. It can cause a loss of faith; it can color your perception about human goodness as a mere camouflage for wickedness. You don’t even realize that you’ve flipped out and end up making it your career to demystify any form of sanctity or heroism, to call every person who is being admired or extolled, as a fraud or a hypocrite. You want to topple them down and prove that they have feet of clay.
Today we celebrate Mothers’ Day. If there are people whom we tend to idolize and put on pedestals, especially after they have passed on, it is our mothers. We treasure our memories of these women who nurtured us, who raised us into the persons that we are now, the women who have given it all, who found their joy in giving joy to the people they love and waited for no return, who lived in total self-forgetfulness.
But they have feet of clay too, don’t they? Surely we’ve never doubted that they are just as human as anyone of us is. Some of them are failures too. Some of them have fallen, have abandoned their children or have not lived up to the roles expected of them.
And yet, none of these flaws can keep us from extolling them, adoring them, lighting a candle or offering flowers at their graves, like we do for idols.
It was Jesus who restored our faith in humanity, which we had tended to treat with contempt or equate with the sinfulness of Adam and Eve.
Before Jesus we had already tended to wallow in our collective low self-esteem. That is why we have expressions like “Kami’y tao lamang.” (We’re JUST human.) As if it were so bad to be human. We say TO ERR IS HUMAN, TO FORGIVE IS DIVINE. And so when Jesus went around forgiving sins and taught his disciples to forgive, people took offense at him and said, “Only God can forgive sins.”
Here lies the radicality of the Christian message. Jesus not only took very seriously our being image and likeness of God. He proclaimed that our vocation is to be sons and daughters of God, to be divine, to be members of God’s family. For him, it is not true that only God can forgive. He dares to insist that we are created in the likeness of our forgiving God, our God who loves us unconditionally. And people who strive to love unconditionally learn to forgive. Yes, TO ERR IS HUMAN. But in Jesus we can now say TO FORGIVE IS ALSO HUMAN.
We are most human, not when we do stupid things. We are most human when we learn to love. When we discover that we too are capable of the greater love Jesus is talking about in the Gospel: the readiness to lay down one’s life for the beloved. For Jesus, it is then that we fulfill our true humanity; it is then that we are able to express the nobility of our humanity.
Only people who have been loved and learn to love can grow into persons who are authentically human. When in the midst of cruelty, selfishness, and arrogance, we choose to be kind, to be generous and caring, to be compassionate, it is then that we reflect what is most godly, what is most noble, what is most true, good, and beautiful about us.
And so you see, through Jesus we can heal our collective low self-esteem as human beings. It is not so bad to be human, after all. The man on the cross has become our new prototype of genuine humanity, the man we confess as the Christ, the Son of God.
On Mother’s Day, let us consciously commit the positive form of idolatry. Let us express our worship, praise and adoration on what most mothers represent—love, self-forgetting love, unconditional love, which is what God is all about.
Homily of Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 9, 2021, Jn 15:9-17