Tuesday, September 08, 2009

On the Birth of Mary, Birth of SVD, and Family Feast

Family Feast 1999 (Tagaytay City)

Today (9/8/2009) is of the birthday of Mary and the Birthday of the SVD (9/8/1875). At Divine Word Seminary, to celebrate this day, we usually hold a Family Feast – a sort of intramural games. We, including our employees, are divided into different “families” and compete in three levels: physical (sports), intellectual (quiz bees, essays, poetry); and cultural (drama, song composition). Everything ends in the beach—where the four families, with good food, become one family again.

Such tradition goes back to Arnold Janssen, the Founder.
This year, however, the Family Feast is cancelled—because we have a bigger family feast – the centennial of the Philippine SVD. Last month, the whole “family” went to Abra to join the celebration there.

In 2003, I was invited to preach at the mass in Christ the King Seminary on the occasion of their Family Feast. For those who might want to reflect with the SVD on this day, here’s an excerpt of that:

The Family Feast is an emblematic celebration of two humble birth-events: the birth of Mary and the birth of the SVD.

The birth of heroes and special persons are always surrounded by legends and miraculous stories. Remember the interesting birth narratives in the bible, that of Moses (Exod 2:1-10); Samuel (1 Sam 1:1-28); John the Baptist (Lk 1:5:25); and Jesus (Lk 1:26-38). When the legendary Ilocos hero Lam-ang was born, he could immediately talk and climb tree (was it a guava?); so with the Ilonggo epic hero, Labaw Donggon who was told to be already a mature person (datung tawu) when he was born (cf. E. Damiana, The Filipino Epics, 2001).

The birth of Mary is not found in the Bible but in apocryphal gospels, particularly in the Protoevangelium of James (Proto-Gospel of James), a pseudoepigraphical writing composed in the late second century A.D – more than 150 years after the death of Jesus.

As the story goes, Joachim and Anna, the parents of Mary, were getting old and could not bear a child. Anna was barren. In that culture, that situation is shameful. . But one day, an angel appeared to Anna in the garden at the same time as an angel also appeared to Joachim while pasturing the flock, announcing that Anna shall conceive a child. And so Mary was born and after six months Mary was said to be already walking on her feet. The story is inspired obviously by that of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18.

What is historical though is the fact that the birth of a baby girl is not worth rejoicing in a male-oriented culture, the condition where Mary was born. In the ancient Mediterranean culture, the birth of a son is announced loudly and joyfully by the father (in Hebrew): hinne ben nolad! (“Behold, a son is born!” cf. Rut 4:17; 1 Kgs 13:2; 1 Chron 22:9; Isa 9:5[6]; Jer 20:15; Job 3:3; John 16:21). The birth of a girl did not create such excitement.

In the Protoevangelium of James we have a different story. Anna, upon giving birth, asked her midwife: "What have I brought forth?" The woman said: "A girl." Anna then exclaimed: "My soul has been magnified this day" (similar words of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1).

In any case, this “humbled” birth of Mary could be reflected in her longest recorded words found in the Gospel of Luke, the Magnificat (1:46-56). In that song, she indirectly spoke of her situation “the humiliation of the maidservant” (cf. v. 48.52).

The birth of the SVD as well was set in a “humiliating” and hostile situation. Nineteenth Century Germany was anti-Catholic (cf. J. Alt, XIV). Thus, this first Catholic German missionary society had to begin outside Germany, in Holland (Steyl). The birth of the SVD in a foreign) was foreshadowing the unique international character of this Society.

It was an irony that when Nineteenth Century Germany was becoming ethnocentric in the movement that was called Kulturkampf, the spirit of the Founder was one of openness and generosity. While the German government was confiscating and secularizing Catholic churches’ properties and expelling foreigners (Alt, XIV), Arnold Janssen was envisioning to send German missionaries to foreign lands.

On the positive side, the Nineteenth Century Europe witnessed the progress of sciences. Arnold Janssen, before he commenced his theological studies, trained himself in philosophy, mathematics and natural sciences and taught them after ordination (e.g. physics, mineralogy, zoology and botany, cf. Alt, 16-20; 24-30). Later, he would send his men to study natural sciences, chemistry and geology. One of them went on to study linguistics and became an excellent ethnologist known all over the world for his novel studies on “primitive cultures”—Fr. Wilhelm Schmidt, SVD (1868-1954) the founder of Anthropos Institute and Anthropos, a seminal journal on Cultural Anthropology (cf. E. Brandewie, When Giants Walked the Earth: The Life and Times of Wilhelm Schmidt, SVD (Studia Instituti Anthropos 44; Fribourg, 1990).

Together with the advance of sciences was the flowering of biblical studies especially Protestant Germany in the Nineteenth Century. The works of Julius Wellhausen, Hermann Gunkel, the biblical scholars from the University of Tübingen revolutionized and influenced modern biblical scholarship up to the present time. The historical-critical study of the bible had drawn out both controversies and renewed interests in the Sacred Scripture. The bible as never before was now studied in an objective and scientific manner. Even Arnold Janssen, as attested in his academic records, had taken courses in Biblical Greek and Hebrew (cf. Alt, 14;21), two subjects which most seminarians avoid today. This humble but fervent quest for the explanation and understanding of the Sacred Text in the late Nineteenth Century would have been also a key factor for Arnold Janssen to name his newly born mission congregation, Societas Verbi Divini (“Society of the Divine Word”).

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