Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Sunday, January 25, 2015



(Message of The Rev. Dr. Winfred B. Vergara at St. James Episcopal Church, Elmhurst, New York on the occasion of the Fiesta Celebration of the Holy Child. 1/25/2015)

Whenever a new Filipino immigrant comes to the United States or to other countries, there are often three items included in his luggage: the photo album of his family, the phone numbers of his friends and the image of Santo Nino.  

It goes without saying that there are three important values in Filipino culture, and they are: family, community and faith. Some call it "the five F's": Faith, Family, Friends, Food and Festival.

Family is the basic unit of society and if you watch Philippine TV and cinema, most of the plots revolve around family. Community is the extension of this family. Every Filipino has around 100 family and friends. A Philippine senator once said that it is very difficult for the Philippines judiciary to have a jury system like the United States, because it will be difficult to find a member of the jury who is not related to the accused or the prosecution.

But we are here today not to praise or criticize Filipino cultural values but to celebrate the Feast of the Santo Nino. What is the Santo Nino? Where did the devotion originate? How did this devotion come to be embraced by the Filipinos? And what is the significance of the Santo Nino? 
Partly because there was no camera during the time of Jesus, our picture of Jesus is an artist rendition, gleaned from the words that He said and the inspiration that the artist gets from biblical accounts. There is a very popular picture of Jesus from the European point of view: a blond, blue-eyed Jesus with hair flowing down as He had just been from a beauty salon. There is a picture of Jesus from an African point of view: a black, curly haired Jesus. There is a picture of Jesus from a Latino point of view and many Asian points of view. The closest picture is probably the one from a Jewish or Palestinian point of view. 

The truth of the matter is that we do not really have an accurate photograph of the historical Jesus. What we have is a close approximation of the Jesus of faith. This close approximation is called an icon. An icon is defined as a “window to the divine.” 

Unlike Islam which is iconoclastic, Christianity is an iconic religion. In Islam, you are not supposed to have a drawing or statue of God Allah or the prophet Mohammad. Christianity on the other hand, emphasizes Jesus is the “icon of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). By looking at the icon of Jesus, our hearts and minds are lifted up in religious fervor and inspiration.

The making of icons varies in its authority. The Orthodox Church is said to commission their iconographers and they set the guidelines for iconography. That is why their Orthodox (Greek, Russian, Coptic) icons have a distinctively peculiar pattern.  

 The Roman Catholic Church tends to leave the iconographers the freedom to make the icons and thereby have more variety in their presentations. Just look at the painting and sculptures of Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo and you will find a rich variety.

But mark this very carefully. Other religious denominations such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Iglesia Ni Cristo and many fundamentalist, evangelical and Pentecostal churches warn the Orthodox, Catholics, Anglican, Episcopalians and Lutheran Churches about the use of icons. Some even accuse us of idolatry, quoting the words from the Ten Commandments, “You shall not make for yourself any idol, you shall not worship any graven image” (Exodus 20:4).

Of course we do not and should not worship the icons or any graven image. Just like a photograph of your loved, an icon represents a visual significance. We tend to live with meanings and oftentimes “a picture paints a thousand words.” When I look at the icon of Jesus, the four gospels are encapsulated in it. I worship not the icon of Jesus, but Who is behind it, the Jesus of faith.

The original Santo Nino is the icon of the “Holy Infant of Prague.” The icon was brought by a missionary who was part of the Spanish expeditions to the Philippine Islands. When they landed in Cebu City, he gave the icon to the queen of Cebu as a gift. Filipinos are innately religious and the beauty of the Christ Child was so compelling. So the King, Rajah Humabon was converted and the whole island, from the king and queen to the last slave, were baptized. And that was the beginning of Christianity in Asia. The Santo Nino became the contact point to break open the heart of the indigenous peoples to Christ.

 When my wife Angie and I visited the Czech Republic in 2012, we had the privilege of visiting this church where the Santo Nino originated. We viewed so many collections of this icon from various countries. Apparently, just like the icon of the Virgin Mary, so many countries where Catholicism has spread have their own versions of the Santo Nino icon.

Any devotion has its own histories, myths and legends. This is one version. The story goes that after Magellan left Cebu in 1521 and sailed over to the island of Mactan, the people led by Lapulapu resisted the Spaniards. In the ensuing battle, Magellan was killed. Subsequent expeditions returned to the area and tried to avenge the death of Magellan. They bombarded the islands but instead of hitting the yet-to-be Christianized Mactan, they wrongly hit the Christianized Cebu. From the ruins of the fire that ravaged Cebu, the icon of the Holy Infant of Prague was found unscathed but the color turned from European-white into Filipino brown. 

Someone said that “history is part fact and part fiction, but mostly interpretation.” So leaving the ambiguity of history, how do we interpret the meaning of Santo Nino into our lives? I offer three points:

1.     The Santo Nino honors the mystery of Christ’s incarnation, particularly His childhood. The Bible is relatively silent with regards to the childhood of Jesus. What was Jesus like as a child? We only know that Jesus was born in the stable in Bethlehem, that there were shepherds and angels, that there were wise men from the East who came to visit. Tradition named the three kings to be Melchor, Gaspar and Balthazar. They offered gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then the holy family (Joseph, Mary and Jesus), fearing the threat from King Herod on the Child’s life, escaped to Egypt. When Herod died, they returned to Nazareth, where Joseph earned his living as a carpenter, being distinguished as an expert maker of yokes for the oxen. 

As a carpenter’s Child, Jesus was speaking from experience when He calls, “Come unto me, you who are weary and heavy-laden; for my yoke is easy and my burden light.” (Matthew 11:30) As a peace-Child, Jesus became the offering to break down the walls of hostility between God and man, between man and man, and between man and himself. The Cross of Jesus became the ultimate symbol of peace and reconciliation.

2.     The Santo Nino is a symbol for a child-like faith.  In Mark 10:15, Jesus said: "Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all." And in Matthew 19:14 Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." 

Faith is simple, faith is like a child. Like love, faith “believes all things and hopes all things” (1 Corinthians 13). When I was a child, I often found answers to some basic questions through the Santo Nino. We lived in the coastal village in the Philippines and my devout grandmother believed that we were spared from the attacks of the Limahong pirates because of the Santo Nino. When there was drought, the people would process the Santo Nino and miraculously there will be rain. When there was a cholera outbreak in our province, so many of us received miracle healing through the Santo Nino. 

So when I stowed away from home and went to Manila, it was no coincidence that the church that sheltered me as a fearful and homeless kid was none other than the Santo Nino Church. Later in life, my wife and I married at the Cathedral of the Holy Child, the Santo Nino.

3.     The Santo Nino is the contact point for miracles.  Miracles break open the heart of the people to God. Like in the fallowed ground, a miracle of rain softens the soil for the planting of the seeds.  In the gospel stories, Jesus used many contact point for miracles. Jesus turned water into wine and saved the day at a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee. In John 9:6 and Mark 8:23 how did Jesus heal the blind man? He spat on the ground, made some mud with the saliva and patched it on the man’s eyes. When the man washed his eyes, he had a perfect eye sight!

As a contact point for miracles, the Child Jesus wears a crown and holds a scepter for He is “King of kings and Lord of lords” from the beginning of time. He also holds an orb for the healing of the nations or a globe for He “holds the world in His hands.”

So it was not the sword of Magellan and the might of the Spanish conquistadores that converted the natives of the then “unchurched” Philippines. It was the grace of the Santo Nino, the Child Jesus, who as the “Peace Child” offers the Cross of salvation. It was the grace of the Santo Nino, who as a “Miracle Child” offers healing and reconciliation for the world He has made. It was the grace of the Santo Nino, who as the “King Child” offers abundant life in this world and in the world to come, life everlasting.

As we celebrate the Feast of the Santo Nino, may we be given the childlike faith to believe in God and the power of Christ’s resurrection. May we be given the grace to become messengers of Christ's love and the promise of eternal salvation. Amen.

Sunday, January 18, 2015



(Sermon by The Rev. Dr. Winfred Fred Vergara. St. James Episcopal Church, Elmhurst, New York, 1/18/2015)

The Bible is like a love letter of God that never fades. That is the reason why no matter how many times we read it, how many times we teach it, and how many times we preach it, it always has a new and fresh message for us. 

II Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” Isaiah 40: 8 says, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of God will stand forever.”

I have in my hands a bible and a newspaper: The newspaper will become stale tomorrow but the Bible will remain fresh. If we must keep up with the daily news, we read the newspaper or watch TV. But if we must go through life, we must read the Bible. Joshua 1:8 says, “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, you shall meditate on it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. Then you will make your way prosperous, and you will have good success. “

Reading from Scriptures, there are some immutable or unchanging laws that govern success. If your goal is to be happy, if your goal is to serve humanity, if your goal is for abundant life, you may like to pay attention to some of these laws.

The first law of success is the law of vocation. It means that God has a calling for each one of us. It is this calling or vocation that will make life worth living.  It is this vocation that will give us joy unspeakable. It is this vocation that will give us a sense of fulfillment.

Theologian Frederick Buechner defines vocation as the stage of your life “where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.” It is where your greatest passion in life, your fondest dream in life, your greatest imagination in life has met the greatest need of the world. What is your greatest passion? What is your greatest dream or imagination? Does the world need it?

Martin Luther King, Jr., whose legacy we celebrate today, must have truly fulfilled his vocation. As a preacher and leader of the Civil Rights Movement, King’s dream of equality, social justice and racial reconciliation has fired the imagination of the American people. Even if it is true that racism still exists; it is equally true that we are so much better than we were before. And for so long as we hold on the legacy of that MLK’s dream, there is hope that new prophets will rise up to the occasion.

Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church must have already found his true vocation. As a leader of 1.5 billion Catholics in the world, his recent visit to the Philippines inspired a large portion of his constituency. He has demonstrated an extraordinary compassion for the poor and the marginalized, a non-judgmental approach to gays and lesbians, an advocacy for women’s empowerment and an authentic openness to change---more than his predecessors. Surely, he is rising to the occasion and the charisma of his vocation. 

How do we receive or attain vocation? Sometimes we may seek it ourselves. Steve Jobs, who found his vocation as co-founder of Apple and inventor of the iPhone once said that we must continue to search and search for it “and never settle until we find it.”

Sometimes, we receive our vocation as a direct whisper from God. The boy acolyte  heard the voice of God calling him “Samuel, Samuel” in the middle of the night (1  Samuel 3:1-10). The young Nathaniel received his vocation when Jesus saw him under the tree (John 1:43-51). As a prophet, Samuel would thereafter be hearing greater words .  As an apostle, Nathaniel (or Bartholomew) would thereafter be seeing greater things.

So vocation can be received by hearing or by seeing. All we need to do is to be sensitive to the way in which God is speaking to us through the Spirit. And sometimes we need mentors. Samuel’s mentor was Eli and Nathaniel’s mentor was Philip.

The second law of success is the law of attraction.  This is another way of saying that we attract success by the way we conduct our lives. Some call this “success image.” If our minds think positive thoughts, our mouths speak positive words, and if our actions are geared towards the positive, then the outcome will also be positive.  Conversely, if our minds think negative thoughts, our mouths speak negative words and our actions are geared towards the negative, then the outcome will also be negative.

There is a Chinese saying which says, “If you can’t smile, then don’t keep shop.” If you are applying for a job as sales person, what is the first qualification? “A pleasing personality.” Why? Because nobody will buy your product if you’re grouchy and negative.

One of the things I learned in dealing with cancer is having a positive outlook even in suffering. The sportscaster Stuart Scott said, “You beat cancer by how you live, why you live and in the manner in which you live.” One of my doctors also said, “I could almost predict which of my patients will get well easily; it’s by the way they handle their sickness.”

And so when I was diagnosed with cancer, I did not sulk into the corner and asked why O why? Neither did I get angry with God nor blamed myself. Rather, I went into praying and reading God’s Word. And when you read God’s Word, when you listen to godly counsel, when you sing praises to God, you will get the right answer. And I did received this assurance through Psalm 117:18, “I shall not die but live to proclaim the deeds of the Lord.” 

I learned that “adversity in life is only an obstacle if you fail to see opportunity.” So instead of being bitter about having to go through radiation for 45 days (and the side- effects that I endure), I am using these days to speak about my experience and how I can inspire others.

Life is about making choices. In a world in which we live, we cannot really control what happens to us but we can control how we react to what happens to us. You are driving safely in the highway but someone, a drunk driver or a reckless driver suddenly comes. You cannot control what this driver would do but you can control how you react when he cuts you off.  You can choose to get mad, or you can choose to keep cool, be patient and even pray for that person. And more appropriately avoid and call the police to help save him and others.

So if you want success in life, attract success by your outlook in life. Think positive, speak positive and act positive.

The third law of success is the law of “give and take.” This is another way of saying that “If you want to have friends, be friendly; if you want to be accepted, accept others; if you want to be loved, be loving; and if you want to receive, give.”

Nature operates on the law of giving and receiving. Water in the river must continue to flow in order to be clean. If it does not flow, it will become stagnant. Blood in the body must continue to circulate in order to give life. If it does not circulate, it will coagulate and the body dies. The difference between the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee illustrates this point. The Dead Sea only receives water but does not give out water; the Sea of Galilee receives water and gives out water. The Dead Sea is dead but the Sea of Galilee is alive. Are you a Dead Sea or a Sea of Galilee?
Have you ever wondered why the other word for money is “currency?” It is probably because money is designed to circulate. If you keep money only for yourself, then it would be of no use. Like stagnant water, it will not flow, and it won’t flow back to you. That is the reason why Jesus says, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).  “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you give will be measure you get back" (Luke 6:38).

Do you remember the parable of the rich fool? (Luke 12:15-21) His farm yielded so much grain but instead of sharing his fortune to his neighbors, he built many barns to keep them all for himself.  He thought that once he had so much in store, he would then sit back and relax, eat, drink, be merry and enjoy his life. But that very night, when he thought that it was time to splurge, God came to take his life. He was not able to enjoy his fortune because he was thinking only of himself.

Recently an experiment was done in which a hundred people were given a hundred dollars each. They were made to choose whether to spend the money only for themselves or to share it with others. It turned out that those who shared it with others were so much happier than those who spent the money only for themselves.

So finally, how do you see your ultimate purpose in life?

The Dalai Lama says the ultimate purpose in life is to be happy---and he defined happiness as “being compassionate.” Not material things, though needed, that gives you ultimate happiness. Not achievement, though noble, that gives you ultimate happiness. What gives you ultimate happiness, the Dalai Lama said, is compassionate service to others. If you make a random act of kindness every day, you accumulate flowers of joy in your being.

One person defined JOY as Jesus first, Others next and You last. Maybe there’s a rhyme and reason for that, because no one is an island. Our success, our happiness, our joy are ultimately tied to the happiness of others. This makes me think about heaven. If I alone would go to heaven, minus my friends and family, would I really be happy in heaven? Think about that. That is the reason why Jesus commanded us to share the Gospel so that all will be saved and come to the knowledge of the Truth.

Yes, our ultimate happiness is found in our compassionate service to others in the name of Jesus who came, not to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.

Today, I pray that God will call us anew and help us to release ourselves into the fullness of joy in service. Let us seek our true vocation; let us invite the positive and release the law of giving and receiving into our lives. Amen.

Monday, January 5, 2015


 (Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Fred Vergara. St. James Episcopal Church 1/4/2015)

At the outset, let me greet each one of you a very happy, prosperous and blessed New Year. There are three things, some nuggets of wisdom that I will share with you today. I hope you will remember to practice them in the months ahead.

The first saying is this: “Do not dwell in the past; the old has passed away; behold the new has come. Let go of the past and move on with the future“

In Scriptures, there are at least three popular places where this advice is found.
In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah comforted the guilt-ridden Israel by telling them of the future. Because of Israel’s sins and unfaithfulness, misfortune has fallen on them. Their divided kingdoms (Israel and Judah) were overrun by the Assyrians and many of their leaders were exiled in Babylon. Their captors even taunted them to sing their songs to Yahweh by the rivers of Babylon but they cried, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange and foreign land?” But now, in moving to the future, God spoke, “Forget the former things, do not dwell on the past. See I am doing a new thing, now it springs up, do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert, and streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:18-19).

In the New Testament, St. Paul was admonishing the Christians in Corinth about the challenge of the ministry of reconciliation. Division from within and persecution from without are hampering the spread of the gospel. Paul reminded them that despite their trials, there is “a treasure in the earthen vessels” that will make them endure suffering. As gold is refined by fire, so is their faith sharpened by pain. They are not to conform to the values of this world but be transformed in the renewal of their minds. When one becomes a Christian, he puts on Christ. His values are no longer like that of the world. So St. Paul said, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, the old has passed away, the new has come “(II Corinthians 5:17)

In the Book of Revelation, chapter 21, the apostle John saw a vision of a new heaven and a new earth and the voice of the One who sit upon the throne said, “I am making everything new.”

 This Christmas I posted on my Facebook the video- story of a nurse named Wanda, who was called to comfort a new patient in their hospital in the Brooklyn and was surprised to discover that he is her long-lost father. She was five years old when her father left them. For many years, he was good as dead for Wanda, her mother and her siblings. Then for some strange serendipity, a dying man was brought to their hospital and of all the nurses there, it was she who was assigned to take care of him. 

As their eyes met, both had the feeling that they were related. Then she asked for his name and it confirmed her suspicion that he was her father. Father and daughter had a happy reunion: she brought her children and introduced them to their grandpa. At the television interview, Wanda said that she has forgiven the past and don’t even want to know why he left them. All she wanted to do is to shower him with her love and that would be the memory that she will cherish. This is the joy, of forgetting the past and moving on to the future.

So if there is a new message that you must hear on this first Sunday of 2015, let it be this: forget the past, forgive and move on. There is a clean slate of a new year ahead.

 The second saying is this: “If you lost money, you lost nothing; if you lost health, you lost something; if you lost hope, you lost everything.”

This was the advice of John Wesley, the Anglican priest who founded the Methodist Church. Wesley was concerned about the growing materialism in England in his time and then loss of hope from many who could not keep up with the cost of living.

Wesley himself was not poor. As a matter of fact, he had a few estates. But he was preaching about the priority of godly values over material riches. It is said that when people are obsessed with wealth, they forget God who gives the blessings. They focus more on the gifts and forget the Giver. So Wesley has a cavalier attitude with regards to money. A story is told that when he lost one of his houses from fire, instead of being upset, Wesley said, “Thank God; one less stress from my mind.”

Wesley believed that God gives us money and makes us wealthy, so that we can help the others, especially the poor.  So he said, “Earn as much money as you can; save as much money as you can; and give us much money as you can.”

Recent research discovered that the happiest people on earth are those in Denmark. A CNN reporter went over there to investigate. And he interviewed many families about why they are the happiest. One family said that they all have the basic necessities in life and they are contented. In Denmark, there are practically no poor people, but there are also no super rich people. 

In our American society, there are so many who are poor but there are also several people who are super rich. Multi billionaires---and yet many rich people are not happy. And in so many countries, there are so many people who are very, very poor, and a few people who are filthy, filthy rich.  The very, very poor are of course, unhappy because they are deprived. But the very, very rich are also unhappy because they are insecure. So there is a correlation between wealth, contentment and happiness: enough wealth plus contentment equals happiness. 

Third and finally, this is my wish and prayer for all of you: “I wish above all else that you may prosper and be of good health, even as your soul prospers” (III John 2). 

This was the greeting of St. John to his friend, Gaius.  John saw the wholeness of the human being as spirit, soul and body. True happiness is holistic. Some people may be physically healthy but if their minds are stressed, very soon the body will give way. Some people maybe intelligent and have all the capabilities, but if their spirit is not attuned to God, very soon, their lives will fall apart. 

So the prosperity that St. John is talking about is godly prosperity, prosperity that is rooted and grounded in love and compassion. If the world is the Lord’s and everything in it, then we must know what God intends for our health and wealth. We must know that everything has a purpose under heaven. If God so blesses us with material wealth, we must learn to share it; if God blesses us with good health, let us not forget God of our time and talent; and if God blesses us with good minds, then we must also use it for the glory of God.

So there you are my friends:
1.     Forget the past and welcome the new.
2.     Do not lose hope.
3.     I wish above all else that you may prosper in mind, body and spirit. 

And remember: 
"Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever" (Hebrews 13:8). If he saved you in the past, he will save you now and in the future. His mercy never changes, his faithfulness never changes. Amen.