Experiencing God’s Presence

Liturgical Liberation Theology in Manila

A note on the workshop of Re-imaging worship as acts of defiance and alternatives in the context of empire in Manila (Aug 2 to 8, 2018)

by Ji Jingyi

On an early morning dim and misty all about me, a voice came to me, “Go to Manila”.

I was very surprised and could not find where the voice came from, and who said this, and why was it me chosen? When I hesitated, a clear message was revealed before me, “Go there to learn liturgical liberation theology,” “And go there to experience how the local Christians do their praxis.” “Oh, then I have to go”, I mumbled.

I began to prepare everything that I need— A visa, articles and documents about the Philippine culture. If God let me go, he must open the door, I thought. I also realized that an opened door is an invitation, but once I walk through it my theological practice can change forever. I was filled with complicated feelings. I could only say, Oh, “God, I want your will be done.”

Inaugural worship completely changed my understanding on liturgy. It may not be great liturgy but it certainly had me riveted! Along with prayer and songs in tagalog, I hum, I am amen! With a beautiful dance and a melodious folks music, a young girl and a professor interpreted the passage in OT and NT. Amazing, liturgy can present a wonderful performance! It may be a local and universal, painful and joyful, beautiful and spiritual.

What does it mean – “liturgical liberation theology”?  I could only understand it in this way. Liberation theologians try to create a new form of Christian theology, from the ground, from the local people. It emphasizes diversity and seeks a space in-between worship of the local people and worship of the church, in order to create a new one.

The focus is placed on liberating the spirit of transforming this world, the hypothesis of doing theology is that theologians discern that they live in the world that can be seen as the context of an empire. Thus the mission in the context of the empire is their theological statement. Worship as a subversive activity contests the sinful order of injustice and inequality at first place.
Liberation theology has been labeled as a sociological event.

Just like liberation theology from below, liturgy starts where it hurts. Meet and live with local people in a specific community.I chose to go the indigenous people – Dumagat.On the way, I was joyful. After a journey of eight hours, the driver got lost at midnight, tired, hungry and vacant. At a Catholic convent, I fell asleep on the floor.

Early the next morning, a beautiful island landscape came into view. The colorful little fishing boat lay still on the blue sea. An annual festival was being held here. People from different regions celebrated the festival together. The children were playing in the water. People were sitting under coconut palms, talking. The deafening pop of the music rang through the beach.

I asked myself, “Is this the aboriginal fishing village we’re visiting?” Before I got to know it, I had been invited onto a small fishing boat. Excitement, adventure, I did not yet realize any danger when I landed. A Catholic priest briefly introduced the religious life of the local people, and said: “There is only a cave as Catholic chapel for the Christians here.” The cave had been a secrete place for the local people’s spiritual life. It is a testament to religious integration.

I saw some people waiting there. But I did not know what they wanted to do.
Tourists, I thought. In front of the cave, I was astounded. The height of the cave was beyond my imagination. The entrance was only one foot high. We had to dig the sand before each one crawled in.

I was held with fear. I did not know how I could crawl into the narrow entrance! When I hesitated, a voice came to me: “What is your purpose in coming here?” Oh, I suddenly had an Epiphany. Go there to meet my Lord, Go there to pray for the Dumagat people. The Lord is my light and my salvation—what shall I fear?

After we shared the spiritual food, we were hungry. Someone brought breakfast for us, a smaller bag of rice. We did not know how to eat it without a spoon or a pair of chopsticks. Thank God, he prepared an Indian pastor in our group, so that we learned how to use our hands to eat. Fortunately, nobody took a photo for our eating: hands, face, the ground full of rice grains.

As the sun rose higher and higher, we were dressed lying on the beach. We did not know the next plan nor where to go, and so we were just waiting. What a pity it was that we were just looking at the beautiful sea, I could only swim in the ocean of knowledge. In order to use this waiting time, I began to think. Which is the relationship between mind and matter? What is life’s true meaning?

As the smoke rose, we entered the village. I saw a pretty sight, a poetic garden: Fresh air, green grass, coconut trees, brooks and water buffaloes. Following our hospitable host, taking food and drinking water, wading across the stream, we arrived at his house. No drinking water not even electricity. Here I understood a Chinese idiom“Jiatusibi”,which means empty.

In a moment, it seemed to me that I were in an unreal fairytale world: The trees were covered with obscure tropical fruit, walking along the paths, smelling the flowers, by the spring, under the moonlight taking a shower,
under the starry sky, listening to the stories, listening to the crickets I fell asleep on the ground. A childhood’s dream was achieved here!

Around 3 o’clock in the dark morning, we left “the poetic garden”. No complaints, no nostalgia, long to return home. Get on the Jeepney and speed off. The sudden braking woke us up. A voice came to us: “get off”.
Bicycle race had closed the road. Hopelessness and helplessness filled our heart.

Two hours later, good news came, One possible way was across the Pacific Ocean back, by boat, by tricycle and by bus. We made a decision without any thought to leave by boat. On the shore, we realized what a dangerous decision we had made, small and simple boats without life vests. One thing we could do was to pray hand in hand for this adventure.

How can I use this unique experience to create a liturgy? I did not know.
Through the workshop, I learned more. I saw there were models and different presentations. The wonderful and inspired performances made a deep impression on me. Still I could not write it prettily. I felt the poverty of my knowledge!

I was nervous and asked myself and the other: “Why I have no passion like the others? Why I could not write a beautiful prayer?” Someone criticized, “You do not know the liturgy”. Yes, I agreed with that. I had never learned it intensively. But what is the liturgy? What is the difference between worship and liturgy?

What does it really mean that the mission is in the context of empire? I could not clearly understand. Yes, Jesus lived and worked in a context of empire. However, Jesus Christ we believe in is the one, “Though he was humiliated and subjected to powers controlling this age, his resurrection meant his victory over them as Lord.”[1] In fact, we live in a position “already but not yet”.

We have no chance to hear the voice of the Dumagat people, that how they understand the tension between daily-life and eternal life. What does faith mean when they live in a poor condition? What does faith mean if they live in injustice and inequality? What does it mean – the fullness of life for them?
Do they realize that they live in a context of empire? How can they change their daily-life by their faith?

Should I compose or write a liturgy in a set form? If liberation theologians want to create a new liturgy, which is different from the traditional one, such as the Common Prayer, what is its function? Just for the poor? Can I write a liturgy only depending on a specific community for all? If traditional liturgy is helpless for the poor, so what? How can I, an outsider, write a liturgy for Dumagat people?

I benefited from the scholars and new friends in the workshop. Lectures, presentations, local people have made an impression on me. Although I have not yet completely captured whole ideas,  this unique and rich experience is very useful and helpful. It opens a new door for me in the field of theology. And I know how important it is for a theologian to do a new form of Christian theology, which is rooted in his/her own culture.

Great God, you have granted me the desire of my heart. I do not yet see the glory you have planned for all humankind, but in faith I do see Jesus Christ and his redemption. Although I am not able to pray in poetic words for a liturgy, I want to speak my heart out for all humankind, for the poor and oppressed people. Worship is much more than words.

With a cross-cultural and religious experience,
I pray in different religious places:
I pray for world peace,
I pray that there will be no war, no famine, and no plague.
I pray that all humanity shall be equal and dignified,
I pray that all children have the opportunity to receive education,
I pray for the fullness of human life.

Ji Jingyi
Yanjing Theological Seminary
29 September 2018
Beijing, China

[1]Fitzmyer, Joseph A., “PAULINE THEOLOGY” in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Edited by Raymond E.Brown, S.S., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm., New Jersey, 1990 (Reprinted 1995, 1996, 2000 ), 1395.