6TH SUNDAY OF EASTER: JESUS’ ABIDING PRESENCE

This Sunday is sixth Sunday of Easter which coincides with the special celebration of Mother’s Day.

Since its Mother’s day, let me begin by talking about my mother. My mother died 16 years ago. I regret that I was not always there during her last days here on earth. But I remember during the days before she died how she was so concerned about us taking care of her, even worrying that she is taking too much of our time and spending so much money because of her sickness. She was less concerned about what will happen to her and more about what will happen to us because of her illness.

Painful as the death of my mother may be, yet her death has helped me to grow and become stronger. Much as I wanted to spend longer time with her, it just couldn’t be. So I tried my best to become the best person I can be, believing that she is not gone and not separated from me but always with me. Her abiding presence has become an inspiration, advocate, comfort, consolation and help.

In the gospel today, Jesus tells his disciple on the night of his departure,

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always.”  

The Risen Lord continues to be present and remains alive manifesting the Father’s love and kindness in the world through us His disciples and friends. He has given us His Spirit to enlighten, empower and encourage us that we may be able to love one another as He has loved us.

The word “Advocate” comes from the Latin “advocatus” which translates the original Greek word “paraklētos”; both words literally mean “one who is called alongside” somebody. An Advocate/Paraclete can mean a spokesman, a mediator, an intercessor, a comforter, a consoler or a helper.  Jesus said the Holy Spirit is “another” Advocate because he is the first Advocate (see 1 Jn 2:1b). The Holy Spirit, as the “second” Advocate, will continue Jesus’ presence among the disciples and His saving action for the of the disciples, e.g., guiding them and nourishing them with His word and defending them against those who will persecute them (see Jn 15:18-27).

Jesus assures us, “I will not leave you orphans.” In Jesus’ time, the orphans were the weakest members of the society. Having lost their parents, particularly their fathers, orphans or the comfortless ones had no means of protection and provision and so were easy targets for exploitation and harm. One of our most basic needs as human beings is the need for comfort, empathy, and presence of our loved ones. This is also what we ask most of God. More than material things, God’s advocacy, consolation and presence, is one of the most frequent petition that we ask of the Lord especially in the lowest moments of our lives. Jesus gives us assurance that God never leaves us orphans. This gives us the greatest hope—the never ending presence, protection and support of God. We are confident even in today’s hostile world because it is the Spirit who gives us the grace and strength to believe. This is the same confidence that St. Peter proclaimed in the second reading:

“Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope” (I Peter 3: 15).

Jesus is so far yet so near, absent yet present, because the Holy Spirit is sent for us. God never left us. God remains with us, forever.

5TH SUNDAY OF EASTER: WE ARE ALL INTERCONNECTED IN JESUS

In this time of pandemic, one of the buzz words we often hear is social distancing. Social distancing is keeping at least 6 feet (about 2 arm lengths) from other people who are not from one’s household in both indoor and outdoor spaces. Many, however, suggests using the phrase “physical distancing” in place of “social distancing”. More than ever before in our history, we have to remain social and forge strong connection, while maintaining physical distance in this time of pandemic. We need to reach out especially to the marginalized and isolated, poor and hungry, undocumented immigrants, homeless persons, those with mental illness and those most vulnerable in this time of pandemic.

Thanks to technology we remained social and connected to each other in this time of pandemic. Despite the lockdown many people kept their sanity through conmunicating and interacting with friends and loved ones through social media, zoom meetings, emails and live streaming. Many continued with their job responsibilities by working from home.

Today’s gospel also talks about interconnection, albeit not from a technological but from agricultural, or more exactly, from viticulture–the science, practice and study of vineyard production. A vineyard is a plantation of grape-bearing vines. This is not a familiar image to us in the Philippines. But for the Jews, the vine and vineyard is one of the most common sight in Israel. Thus, several Old Testament passages saw Israel both as God’s vine (cf. Psalm 80:9-17), the object of his loving care, and as the vineyard of God (cf. Isaiah 5:1-7). By identifying himself as the true vine, Jesus proclaims that the true Israel is in him and only those united with him can form a part of it.

Jesus used terms in today’s gospel from the vineyard–vine and branches, growing, cleaning, pruning, and bearing fruit–to illustrate the intimate union between the Lord and his disciples.

“I am the vine, you are the branches
Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit.” (John 15:5)

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.
He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit,
and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit.” (John 15: 1 – 2)

These words beautifully encapsulate Jesus’ intimate oneness and personal relationship with his disciples and vice versa. Jesus is the vine and we, all his disciples, are branches. The only way to be a disciple is to be connected to Jesus. Apart from Jesus, we can do nothing (John 15:5). Our connection to Jesus is also the basis of our connection with other disciples.

If we are to be true disciple of Jesus we need to have a deep and intimate relationship with Jesus. This intimacy with Jesus needs to come from the deepest core of our being– just as he has with the Father.

Abiding in Jesus also means that we abide in community–being with fellow disciples in a Christian community. It is not just about me and Jesus but also about me and the community of disciples of Jesus.

Only by abiding in Jesus and his community of disciples can we be fruitful. But this also means allowing God the Father who is the vine grower to prune us – even if it’s painful – of attitudes, dispositions, actions and replaced with new ones that enable us to bear much fruit.

Today’s first reading illustrates what it means to “remain in the vine” and to be “fruitful branches of the vine.” Paul, the mystic and apostle to the Gentiles who suffered terrible trials and persecutions on account of his faith, is a powerful example of a disciple who remains deeply united to Jesus Christ, the living vine, and who bears abundant fruit.

Our readings today can give us a lot of lessons espescially for today’s interconnected world.

First, our readings particularly the gospel, underscores for us a profound truth of human existence. Human beings are born to connect. There is a deep seated longing for genuine connection in everyone’s heart. Human beings can only become fully alive and fully human if she/he is connected to God, others and God’s creation. Isolated from God, others and God’s creation, he/she will be unhappy and unfulfilled. As the saying goes, “No man is an island!”

Second, connection entails taking risks. It is giving up control and power in oneself and entrusting one’s life in God and others. It entails allowing God and others to enter into our lives and transform our lives. This is what Jesus spoke in the gospel about being pruned in order to bear fruit. Abiding in Christ and in the community of disciples involves pruning.

Jesus’ kind of connection runs counter to how many in our world today use the internet for self-serving purposes. Yes, many use the internet to connect but in order to advance themselves–their agenda, interest and power. Thus, instead of developing their ability to give of themselves to others in connection, the internet has reinforced a selfie culture and diminished the capability of being present to the other.

The connection that Jesus taught us is the connection that he first lived in his relationship with the Father and demonstrated by his humble service to the people. It is the most sublime connection that entailed giving of his life on the cross for all.

As Easter people, may we learn to live this kind of connection that Jesus imparted to us.

4TH SUNDAY OF EASTER: LAYING DOWN ONE’S LIFE FOR THE OTHER

National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, Baclaran, community pantry

The biggest good news in the Philippines today is the mushrooming of thousands of community pantries all over the country. The community pantries at best portrays the people’s bayanihan spirit–the spirit of helping each other especially in times of need. Many poor and hungry people benefitted from the free food offered by community pantries. The community pantries, however, also provided the opportunity for the poor people to offer whatever they have. Indeed, the community pantries highlights the value of sacrifice–it is a showcase of how people sacrifice their own goods on the one hand and how people benefits from the sacrifice of fellow poor people, on the other.

Today in Australia and New Zealand is Anzac Day. Anzac Day is a national day of remembrance which commemorates all Australians and New Zealanders “who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations” and “the contribution and suffering of all those who have served”.

Today’s fourth Sunday of Easter is called Good Shepherd Sunday. The gospel for this Sunday is always taken from the 10th chapter of John where Jesus speaks of himself as the “good shepherd” who lays down his life for the sheep.

Today is also called Vocation Sunday. On this day we are especially asked to pray that God may bestow the Church with servant leaders needed to do its work of spreading the Gospel.

Good shepherd is an Easter image. Why? As a good shepherd, Jesus did more for His sheep than any other shepherds—He  died for them. Jesus as good shepherd sought the last, least and the lost even to the extent of leaving behind the 99 (Matthew 18:12–14). The two images of Jesus as the good shepherd, and Jesus as the crucified, proclaim essentially the same thing: he gave up His life for us. He died so that we his flock may have life, life to the full. Thus, Jesus as good shepherd is an image of the risen Christ.

I am the good shepherd,
and I know mine and mine know me,
just as the Father knows me and I know the Father;
and I will lay down my life for the sheep (John 10: 14 – 15).

Another reason why good shepherd is an Easter image is because it reflects the victory of Easter–Jesus conquering of death and evil. Despite the prevalence in our world today of the hunger for power, wealth and position, Jesus promise that his vision of service and inclusiveness especially for the least in society will prevail in the end. At the end of time, all will be one under Jesus as good shepherd.

Jesus’ servant and inclusive mission is continued by the church so as those who do not yet belong to the fold may be included in Jesus’ flock. But the only way for the church to follow the example of Jesus as good shepherd is through service, even to the extent of, following their master, laying down of one’s life for fellow sheep.

To be in the sheepfold of Jesus is to participate in the ‘shepherdness’ of Jesus. As followers of Jesus, we are called to shepherd one another, to search for the lost and the lonely, to care for the most abandoned, to protect the vulnerable and to defend the poor and the oppressed.

Through the Holy Spirit’s power bestowed upon the church in continuing the mission of Jesus the good shepherd, the door of salvation is opened wide to welcome everyone. Salvation is for all who hear and faithfully follow the voice of the Good Shepherd. Jesus promises in return to care for and protect His flock.

I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.
These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice,
and there will be one flock, one shepherd (John 10: 16).

Jesus’ servant leadership as good shepherd runs in sharp contrast to many of the values, standards and manners of our leaders in the world today. Many of our leaders political, civic and yes in the church sadly is akin to the “hired hand (John 10:12)” that Jesus vehemently criticized.

A hired man, who is not a shepherd
and whose sheep are not his own,
sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away,
and the wolf catches and scatters them.
This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep (John 10: 12 – 13).

The image of the good shepherd is a call for us to proclaim Jesus’ values and attitudes of service and inclusiveness amidst the world’s vying for power, domination and position. As Easter people we are called to exercise our prophetic stance in the political arena by proclaiming Jesus, the good shepherd, in word and in deed. As Easter people we are called to be the “light of the world” and “salt of the earth” by transforming the world in the light of the gospel.

We also celebrate today Vocation Sunday, a day to reflect, discover and recognize God’s calling in each one of us. Pope Francis, in Evangelii Gaudium, calls out especially the religious and clergy  to go out of the comforts of their convents and stay close to the marginalized and become “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.” The call to be a shepherd, however, is not just a call for the ordained and religious. It is a call for all the flock—we, the church, lay and ordained—are called to shepherd one another and have the smell of each other’s ‘sheepness’.

Let me end with a prayer to Jesus our good shepherd,

O Jesus, our good shepherd,
we long to hear your voice
Let us know your will
Hold us in your arms
Help us to lay our lives
down for each other
So that someday
we may become one flock
with you as our shepherd.

3RD SUNDAY OF EASTER: ARE WE THE BODY OR THE GHOST OF THE RISEN LORD?

Jesus is risen in the world today! Where? His risen body can be seen in the church today. Or is it?

The church is the risen body of Christ so that the world may come to believe in the risen Christ. But when the world see the church today do they see a risen body or only a ghost of Christ?

In today’s Gospel, the risen Jesus once again, without warning, stood in the midst of the disciples.

But they were startled and terrified
and thought that they were seeing a ghost.

For a while the disciples believed that the resurrected Jesus was only a spirit not a body. This is the reason why the first thought that came upon the disciples upon seeing Jesus was he was a ghost. Thus, it was important for Jesus that the disciples see and understand that he has risen not just in spirit but more so in body. The risen Jesus is not just a spirit but flesh, bones and blood. So Jesus invites them to touch and feel his resurrected body.

Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself.
Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones
as you can see I have.”

And to further make the disciples believe that he has risen as a body, Jesus ate in front of them.

While they were still incredulous for joy and were amazed,
he asked them, “Have you anything here to eat?”
They gave him a piece of baked fish;
he took it and ate it in front of them.

By seeing and touching the body of Jesus, the disciples became the body of Jesus who continued his mission and the proclamation of the good news to all up to the ends of the earth. Through his disciples and in the following generations, the church, Jesus would continue to maintain his physical presence and connection with the world.

But to be the visible body of Christ, the church must embody the values of Jesus. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the church must continue to live the beautitudes, proclaim the gospel and live the cross and the resurrection of Christ. As in the first letter of John in the Second Reading today says, to be the risen body of Christ is to keep God’s commandments :

The way we may be sure that we know him
is to keep his commandments.
Those who say, “I know him,” but do not keep his commandments
are liars, and the truth is not in them.

Reflecting on the life of Catholics and Christians today in the context of the signs of the times, I find many things acceptable to being Catholic or Christian today actually drift far apart from what Jesus originally taught and stood for.

Take the case, for example, of Catholics in our country today who find no problem and even support the killings of thousands mostly poor, under Duterte’s brutal war on drugs. Take the case of some clergy who are more concerned with rubrics, canon law, moral laws and internal structures of the church but knows nothing of the daily struggles of the ordinary faithful. Or take the case in America of Evangelicals, particularly white evangelicals, who anoints Trump as the Christian candidate despite his cruel policies of expulsion of migrants and refugees, discrimination of blacks and gays, withdrawing support for the poor, let alone his adulteries, lying and cheating.

These cases goes against many of the things that Jesus taught and stood for. In these examples, I do not see the body of Christ or even the ghost of Christ. They profess the name of Christ but in body and blood becomes a faint or worst an illusory reflection of the values of Jesus. They have banished the risen Jesus. Jesus has become a ghost. Jesus kept risIng up but they keep burying him alive.

On the other hand, there are deeds of Catholics and Christians today, though unwelcome and supressed especially by powers-that-be, that continue to provide flesh and blood to the risen Lord today.

Take the case, for example, of anonymous people who tirelessly sacrifice their time, talents even lives for the struggle for truth, justice, peace and dignity especially of the most marginalized and poor in society despite great persecution. Take the case of simple ordinary people who continue to cheerfully serve others whether family, friends or stranger without any reward in return. They are the risen body of Christ today. They are living witnesses that the world may come to believe in the risen Lord.

Are you the body or the ghost of the Risen Lord today?

2ND SUNDAY OF EASTER: HOW TO LIVE AS AN EASTER COMMUNITY

Perpetual Help Kitchen to feed the hungry during the pandemic.

Eight days have passed since Easter. But the conditions we are living today seem like we are still in the Lenten season. With the quarantine and lockdown, we are relegated to stay home and distanced ourselves physically from each other. The poor suffer the most as they experienced hunger from the loss of day-to-day income.

Nevertheless, we have 40 more days to go to celebrate and ponder on the meaning of Jesus’ and our resurrection. How are we living the spirit of Easter during these difficult times? The question is not just on a personal level but more so on a communal level. How are we living as a community of the resurrection?

The readings for today’s second Sunday of Easter reflect on the qualities of a living community of the resurrection. The times after Jesus’ resurrection are no different from the times we live now. The early Christians lived in constant fear because of persecution from both the Jewish and Roman authorities. The Christians were also one of the most oppressed and poorest sectors in those times.

Despite the many miseries and difficulties, the early Christians lived out the spirit of resurrection. Our readings today gives us some clues on how the early Christians lived as a community of the resurrection.

First clue: The Community as Signs and Wonders of God

In the first reading we hear about how the early Christian communities witnessed the resurrection. Let’s hear it directly from Luke in his book the Acts of the Apostles

Many signs and wonders were done among the people
at the hands of the apostles.
They were all together in Solomon’s portico.
None of the others dared to join them, but the people esteemed them.
Yet more than ever, believers in the Lord,
great numbers of men and women, were added to them.

The early church after the resurrection of Jesus performed many signs and wonders through the leadership of the apostles. The apostles continued the divinely empowered ministry of Jesus (soon to be illustrated by the healing of the lame man through Peter and John [Acts 3ff]).

Because of this, new converts were “added.” It was God who added them; it was not the Church that added new members. The new converts did not become members on their own, but God brought them into the redeemed community.

Second Clue: Living the Resurrection not as Individuals but as a Community 

It is always heartwarming to hear that Jesus died and resurrected for me. But Jesus died and resurrected not for you and me alone. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection we are redeemed not as private individuals but as individuals interconnected with one another, in other words, Jesus died and resurrected for us as a community.

The apostles after the resurrection, despite their fear and misery, did not go on their own but gathered and lived together as a community. After the resurrection, they were able to regain their strength because they came out of isolation and regroup. Although each of them had their own mission territory to go to, they never saw their mission as individual mission but the mission of the whole body of Christ.

The word used in Greek to describe the life of the early Christian church is koinonia. It is a derivative of koinos, the Greek word for common. The word has such a multitude of meanings that no single English word is adequate to express its depth and richness. It can mean either one or all of the following: fellowship, partnership, sharing, friendship, relationship, solidarity, and communion.

The early Church lived in koinonia of the word, prayer, eucharist and material goods.

All who believed were together and had all things in common;
they would sell their property and possessions
and divide them among all according to each one’s need.
Every day they devoted themselves
to meeting together in the temple area
and to breaking bread in their homes.

The early Church lived in koinonia of the word: The early Church regularly listened to the proclamation of the Word by the apostles. They constantly reflected on the word of God in the light of their situation.

The early Church lived in koinonia of prayer: The early Church regularly prayed together both in good times and bad times. They regularly prayed for each other.

The early Church lived in koinonia of the eucharist: The early Church always gathered in the temple area and in their homes for the “breaking of the bread”–the earlist term they used for the eucharist. They faithfully fulfilled Jesus’ words: Do this in remembrance of me.

The early Church lived in koinonia of material goods: The early Church had all things in common. They sold their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need.

Even if one has a deep personal relationship with God, to live the resurrection, therefore, is not to live alone, but to live in communion with fellow believers in prayer, sharing of goods, proclaiming the Word of God and celebrating the Eucharist.

Third Clue: A community forgiven and redeemed by Jesus also forgives and redeem others in Jesus’ name.

After the resurrection of Jesus, the disciples were still living in fear and despair. In the evening of Easter, the disciples were huddled in the cenacle afraid to go out because they are terrified of the Jews (John 20:19). The disciples were perhaps thinking that, if they had done this to our beloved master, how much more to us, his ordinary disciples.

“On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews…

Then suddenly,

Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them,
‘Peace be with you’ ” (Jn 20:19).

The first words of the risen Jesus was “Shalom”–peace! The disciples betrayed, abandoned, and denied Jesus during the time that he needed them most—in his hour of passion, suffering and death.  Despite their cowardice and disloyalty, Jesus unconditionally forgave them. He does not complain or demand an apology. He simply offers peace, no vengeance and holding of grudges. What an act of unconditional forgiveness and unwavering friendship!

The risen Jesus passed through the walls and doors of the locked cenacle. This shows that Jesus’ love and forgiveness will traverse any walls of apathy, betrayal and fear. The resurrection will triumph over any hatred and animosity.

This is the reason why St. John Paul II declared this Sunday, Divine Mercy Sunday.  God’s mercy is infinitely rich and no amount of human transgressions and obstinacy can stop it from being given to all humanity and God’s creation. The responsorial psalm of today’s liturgy proclaims this theme of mercy. In Psalm 118 we sing, “His mercy endures forever.”

As Jesus has forgiven the disciples, he empowered his disciples to pass on the gift of peace to others. The community of resurrection must be a community of healing and forgiveness. He said to them,

Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,
and whose sins you retain are retained.”

Fourth Clue: Faith amidst Doubt

This Sunday is unfortunately remembered as the the story of doubting Thomas. This is in reference to the Apostle Thomas, who refused to believe that the resurrected Jesus had appeared to the ten other apostles, until he could see and feel the wounds received by Jesus on the cross.

While Thomas expressed doubt, when confronted with the resurrected Jesus, he was one of the apostles who proclaimed the strongest expression of faith with his statement “My Lord and my God” (John 20: 28). He was also one of the apostles who travelled the most in proclaiming the gospel. Tradition maintains that he founded churches in Mesopotamia, Ethiopia and even in India. Tradition also maintained that he died a martyred death there. Perhaps, the doubt of Thomas has made him a stronger and more passionate apostle.

Jesus’ response to Thomas’ declaration of faith was a recognition of the faith of the thousands of generation after the apostles who have come to believe despite not seeing Jesus.

Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.’ (Jn 20:29)

We have not seen with our eyes the resurrection of Jesus but we are blessed because we all have believe!  Walking by faith and not by sight is an important mark of the community of the Risen One. This does not mean, however, that we have not experienced doubt in our faith. It rather means that despite our doubts and lack of faith, we continue to follow the Risen Lord and live the new life that he has bestowed upon us.

The heightening of doubt pretty much reflects today’s ethos. There is proliferation of fake news which make us skeptical about the truth across all topics – culture, politics, science and religion. We live in a time of skepticism and doubt that like the apostles of the the early church, believing entails sacrifice of time, talent and even of our very life.  The community of the Risen Lord continue to uphold God’s love, life and goodness despite all the doubt and despair in the world today.

Fifth Clue: A Community Transformed and Sent

The risen Lord having forgiven his disciples, empowered them to spread God’s mercy to others and immediately sent them.

As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

The resurrection of Jesus transformed the disciples from a bunch of cowards to a band of brave men who preached the Gospel all over the Mediterranean and confidently faced death, some by crucifixion also. Peter, Paul and most of the Apostles suffered the same fate as Jesus. They were persecuted and martyred because they were continuing what Jesus had started – going against a heartless culture and caring for those in need.

As we continue our journey in Easter, let us continue to receive strength from the Risen Lord so that we may continue to be an Easter people.

Let me end with the opening prayer in the mass today:

God of everlasting mercy, who in the very recurrence of the paschal feast kindle the faith of the people you have made your own, increase, we pray, the grace you have bestowed, that all may grasp and rightly understand in what font they have been washed, by whose Spirit they have been reborn, by whose Blood they have been redeemed. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Amen. Alleluiah, Alleluiah, Alleluiah.

EASTER VIGIL: WE ARE CHILDREN OF EASTERN MORN

Tonight is the final day of our triduum which we celebrate through the liturgy of Easter Vigil. The Easter Vigil, the mother of all liturgies, is the most beautiful and the longest liturgy in the Roman Catholic Church.

This is the most blessed and most joyful night of the year as we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. This is the night when Jesus redeemed us from the slavery of sin and all the destructive elements of our life to a life of freedom. This is the night when the light of God encompasses over the darkness of sin. As proclaimed in the Exultet or Easter Proclamation sung just after we took our places following processing in from the Easter fire.

This is the night when the pillar of fire destroyed the darkness of sin!
This is the night when Christians everywhere,
washed clean of sin and freed from all defilement,
are restored to grace and grow together in holiness.

This is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death
and rose triumphant from the grave.
Night truly blessed, when heaven is wedded to earth,
and we are reconciled to you!

At Easter vigil, we do not just look up to Jesus and proclaim, He is risen! On Easter vigil, we will also proclaim to ourselves: I am resurrection, you are resurrection, and we are resurrection. As St. Augustine proclaimed: We are an Easter people and alleluia is our song! We are the children of Easter morn. We are redeemed by Christ from death and sin. This is our deepest and truest identity as a people. We celebrate and proclaim this most solemn truth in the Easter Vigil through the renewal of our baptism.

Indeed, Jesus wants to raise all of us into new life but sometimes we don’t want to be raised up. We stay imprisoned within ourselves, and entombed in our old ways which gives us false security. Or perhaps, we have allowed people to continue to pull us down to the pit of hell with them. We have created many tombs in our lives. We have allowed many things in our lives which kills our spirit, hardens our hearts and freezes our will so we remain dead. We have chosen this part—to remain in hell and remain dead. The saddest thing is when we have become comfortable in hell. And we don’t want to get out of hell anymore.

Thus, even though Jesus has risen, sometimes the world does not want so much to believe as many of us do not live as victorious and resurrected people. The German atheist philosopher, Frederich Nietszhe, once said, “I might have been able to believe in the message of Christ if Christians looked resurrected.”

Ours is an Easter religion. We do not deny our own frailties and failures. We do not deny the evils that surround us: the wars that have killed some 100 million people in our (last) century; the poverty that grips more than half of the human race; the hunger that kills millions every year and ruins the lives of millions more; the discrimination that divides the human family into contending parties; the pandemic that has killed thousands and brought misery to millions of people all over the world.

We do not deny these miseries, but we refuse to surrender to their power because of our faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Sinfulness will be transformed; suffering will be vindicated; death will be overcome; a new life will arise: that is the Easter message of the paschal mystery.

Tonight, the most important of all nights for our faith, we call upon Jesus to open and break the gates of hell in our lives. Let us ask Jesus to “harvest” our spirits deadened by  the shackles of hell we have made for ourselves. Let us call Jesus who has risen to arouse us out of the tomb of our selfishness, apathy, pride, insecurity, fear, anxiety, and many other death-giving and pathetic mindsets. Like Jesus may we rise up to start anew and recreate our lives and our world under the blessings of God’s abundant grace.

“Let us feast with joy in the Lord.” Just as Christ passed through death to resurrection, so too will we and the whole world pass through its suffering to the glory of a new life.

So now, let us rise up with Jesus, and live out our risen life!

Happy Easter!

GOOD FRIDAY: THE GOODNESS OF GOD DYING ON THE CROSS

good-friday-2020

We are on our second day of the triduum. Today’s liturgy is called Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion. We don’t have a mass today. Instead, we have a liturgy which is made up of three parts: the Liturgy of the Word at which the Passion of Christ according to St. John is proclaimed and which ends with the Solemn Intercessions, the Adoration of the Holy Cross and Holy Communion.

Yes, this is the only day throughout the year where the church does not celebrate the Eucharist. There is also no wedding, baptism, confirmation and certainly no ordination. In fact, there are only two sacraments that are offered on this day: Reconciliation and the Anointing of the Sick. These sacraments truly underscore the meaning of this day and point to the reason why we call this Friday good: We call this Good Friday because it is a day of renewal, forgiveness and reconciliation.

Good Friday is a day of paradoxes. All four gospels openly tell of the passion of Jesus as a story of contradictions. It depicts Jesus proclaimed as king with a crown of thorns, a staff and clothed in a purple cloak. The soldiers spat on him and struck him on the head with the staff repeatedly. The people who shouted hosanna to our king when Jesus entered Jerusalem just a few days ago are the same people who shouted “Crucify him!” and elected Barabas to be released on the day of Passover. The greatest of these ironies is the cross. Jesus on the cross with the sign “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews,” died of a slow, painful, excruciating, gruesome, and humiliating death.

Franciscan Fr. Ron Rolheiser says that we tend to misunderstand “the passion of Jesus”. Spontaneously we think of it as the pain of the physical sufferings he endured on the road to his death. We are not helped by gruesome cultural depiction of Jesus’ passion like Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ.” This is also reinforced by our own Good Friday observances like the carrying of wooden crosses, crawling on rough pavement, self-flagellation and the re-enactment of actual crucifixion like the one in San Pedro Cutud, San Fernando, Pampanga.

This is not to downplay the brutality of Jesus’ pain but Rollheiser explains that what the evangelists focus on is not the scourging, the whips, the ropes, the nails, and the physical pain. They emphasize rather that, in all of this, Jesus is alone, misunderstood, lonely, isolated, without support, unanimity-minus-one. What’s emphasized is his suffering as a lover; the agony of a heart that’s ultra-sensitive, gentle, loving, understanding, warm, inviting, and hungry to embrace everyone but which instead finds itself misunderstood, alone, isolated, hated, brutalized, facing murder..[1] Think of the experience of dying covid-19 patients. Most of them die in isolation at the intensive care unit. Their families couldn’t go in and touch him or hold their hands. After they die, they are immediately cremated. It must have been so tragically sad.

Despite the brutality of the suffering and death of Jesus, however, the gospel of John portrays Jesus as victorious and in control of the whole situation. Franciscan Fr. John Boyd-Boland explains that John’s Jesus longs for the cup of suffering; he is determined to drink the “cup” of his death because this act is the ultimate in love, and reveals God’s love for us all. Then in his confrontation with Pilate, Jesus stands totally in command of the situation and Annas is left bewildered and confused. Having been struck on the face by the Temple police, Jesus is left totally composed after the incident. He replies that his teaching has always been open and explicit, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Here the prisoner interrogates his interrogator! Finally, upon the Calvary cross, Jesus dies with majestic assurance.

In openly depicting Jesus’ passion, suffering and death, are not the evangelists actually proclaiming that in a world of hatred, violence, and falsehood, truth, love, and goodness reigns? By showing Jesus’ resoluteness and benevolence up to the end, are not the evangelists decrying the travesty of worldly powers and pretentious kings instead? Could we have missed the greatest irony which the evangelists have employed?

We live in a world today not much different from the world when Jesus lived—a world full of contradictions and sufferings: Innocent and good people continue to suffer, the gap between the rich and the poor continue to widen, there is plenty of innocent killings, gender and racial discrimination continues, poverty and violence reigns. In the midst of the contradictions and suffering, the temptation is to go low and become like the worldly powers that supports and preserves these contradictions—violent, tyrannical, prejudiced, vindictive, manipulative and deceitful.

Following Jesus example, we need to embrace these paradoxes while standing true to ourselves. Sometimes we need to accept opposition to choose community; sometimes we need to accept bitter pain to choose health; sometimes we need to accept a fearful free-fall to choose safety; and sometimes we need to accept death in order to choose life. If we let fear stop us from doing these, our lives will never be whole again.

This is what Jesus has accomplished when he proclaimed in his last words in the gospel: “It is finished.” Jesus leads us to love, forgiveness, compassion and reconciliation despite the violence and brutality around him. God’s way is integration, reconciliation and communion. By his dying, Jesus reconciled once again heaven and earth.

As St. Paul proclaims,

“God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise;
God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;
God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not,
to reduce to nothing things that are” (I Cor 1: 27 – 28).

Yes, ironically but perfectly, liberation is accomplished through God’s death. Liberation is accomplished through Jesus’ death on the cross.


[1]Ron Rolheiser, OMI, The Agony in the Garden – The Special Place of Loneliness, February 22, 2004. Accessed 16/03/18 at http://ronrolheiser.com/the-agony-in-the-garden-the-special-place-of-loneliness/#.WqsieUxuI2w

HOLY THURSDAY: A NEW COMMANDMENT

Tonight we begin the paschal triduum. Paschal Triduum also called Easter Triduum, Holy Triduum, or The Three Days. They are the most important three days in the liturgy of the Catholic Church.

First of this triduum is the evening mass of the Lord ’s Supper this Holy Thursday. In this mass we commemorate the Lord’s celebration of the Passover with his disciples. Being a Jew, Jesus and his disciples knew fully well the special meaning of the Passover. The Passover is the most important feast for the Jews.

The Jews celebrate Passover through a family meal. Traditionally the youngest child ask the question at the beginning of the meal: “Why is this night so special?  Why is this night so different from other nights?” There other questions that the child asks but clearly the questions are designed to relive and remember the Passover event—the story of the night of deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery.

Perhaps, during the Eucharist tonight we may ask why this night is so different from other nights. Why is this mass so different from other masses? Perhaps the most obvious reason what makes this mass special from other masses is the washing by the presider of the feet of 12 members of the community who represents the 12 disciples of Jesus.  All of the four gospels records the last supper. However, only John’s gospel mentions the washing of the feet. And this is a radical addendum to the last supper narrative.

We can only understand the radicality of John’s washing of the feet nuance to the last supper account if we understand the meaning of foot washing. In Biblical times, the dusty and dirty conditions of the region and the wearing of sandals necessitated foot-washing. Foot-washing, however, was reserved for the lowliest of menial servants. Jesus, therefore, by washing the feet of his disciples has willingly done the work of the slaves.

When I was a seminarian, part of our apostolate was to visit the Tahanan in Tayuman, Tondo which is run by the Missionaries of Charity of Mother Theresa. Tahanan is home to the elderly sick and dying collected by the sisters mostly from the streets. The first time I came there I was shocked at what I saw: The sisters bathing the sick, washing their clothes which were often soaked in shit, feeding them and nursing their wounds. I just silently mumbled, “My God, this is the work of slaves.” Indeed, the sisters are truly living out the mandatum of Jesus in tonight’s gospel.

Jesus was no slave but did what slaves usually do–wash the feet of their masters.  In the process, he freed his disciples out of slavery.  Jesus was no victim but immersed himself into the life of the victims.  In the process he liberated them so they may be victims no more.

Ironically, in our world today, we have masters but in reality they are slaves because they could not liberate others.  They can only attract followers who are fellow captives. Their captivation with power, wealth, and control prevents them to experience genuine freedom and to inculcate true liberation to others.

This is the reason why Holy Thursday is called Maundy Thursday. The name is taken from the first few Latin words sung at the ceremony of the washing of the feet,

“Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos”

(“I give you a new commandment, That ye love one another as I have loved you” [John 13:34]).

Jesus reinterpreted the meaning of Passover by becoming the example of a servant to his disciples. True freedom and liberation begins by taking the form of a slave and serving others. At the beginning of the triduum, Jesus calls us to join him in his passing over from slavery to freedom. “I no longer call you slaves but friends.”

perpetual-help kitchen
Baclaran Church’s Perpetual Help Kitchen for Covid-19 frontliners and street families

In this time of pandemic, we pray to Jesus to give us the strenght and the courage that we may passover this terrible malady that has fallen into our world.  In this time of pandemic, the call to participate in Jesus’ passover becomes a greater calling as many people are dying, hungry and sick because of the virus. We can become true embodiment of the eucharist by our sharing of food and resources and reaching out to the most vulnerable in our society. We can truly follow Jesus’ mandatum of washing each other’s feet by our generous giving of ourselves even our lives, just as the frontliners have done, for the good of many.

HOLY WEDNESDAY: THE TRAGEDY OF JUDAS

On this last day of Lent, Holy Wednesday of the Passion Week, we hear in the gospel how Judas cut a backroom deal with Ananias and his corrupt family, to hand over Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. One of the Twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said,


“What are you willing to give me
if I hand him over to you?”
They paid him thirty pieces of silver,
and from that time on he looked for an opportunity to hand him over.


This action by Judas earned him the title of “spy” from medieval Christians, in accord with the traditional definition of the English word, “one who keeps secret watch on a person or thing to obtain information.” Thus, this day has often been called Spy Wednesday.

In the same vein various cultures reflected the somber mood of this day by calling it “Black Wednesday” or “Wednesday of Shadows.” Many parishes and religious communities celebrate a special service of evening prayer known as Tenebrae (from the Latin for growing darkness) on this night, during which Scripture passages on the Passion are read and a candle extinguished after each reading, until the church or chapel is in darkness.

It is also called “Silent Wednesday,” as the Gospels do not record any activities in the life of Jesus. The only event is the secret meeting of Judas with the chief priests.

Handing over was the term used in the gospel for Judas’ action. The term occurs three times in today’s passage. In Greek the term handing over is used for betrayal.  This term ‘handing over’ is like a refrain all throughout the Gospel and reaches a climax here. John the Baptist was handed over. Now we see Jesus being handed over. The followers of Jesus will also be handed over into the hands of those who want to put an end to their mission. Today, Jesus and his disciples are handed over to darkness.  

During the meal, Jesus drops the bombshell: “One of you is about to betray me.” It is revealing that none of them points a finger at someone else. “Is it I, Lord?” Each one realises that he is a potential betrayer of Jesus. And, in fact, in the midst of the crisis they will all abandon him.

How easily do we blame Judas for Jesus’ death and how fast we are to judge him? I am not removing any culpability from Judas but most of the disciples also betrayed Jesus. We, in one way or another, have also betrayed Jesus. The fatal mistake of Judas, perhaps, is that compared to most of the disciples, he never came back to Jesus. He was too consumed by his handing over Jesus to darkness that he was not able to pass over from darkness to light. We can, like Judas, either abandon Jesus in despair or, like Peter and the other disciples, come back to him in genuine repentance.

This Holy Wednesday, before the Triduum happens, Jesus invites us not to remain and be overwhelmed by darkness and evil, but progress to the path of light and life with him. Jesus calls us from handing over to passing over from darkness to light. This is the meaning of passover which Jesus will now invite us to join him in the paschal triduum.

 

HOLY TUESDAY: BETRAYALS AND DENIALS

Today’s Gospel of the Tuesday of Holy/Passion Week focuses on Jesus’ prophecies about Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial. Judas betrays him, Peter will deny him, and then the remaining ten will scatter. Indeed, this is the saddest moment in the life of Jesus.

From the beginning of his public ministry, the disciples have been at his side. They have learned from him, traveled with him, ministered with him, been his earthly companions, and comforted him as he walked this otherwise lonely road to Jerusalem.

But now, as Jesus’s hour comes, this burden he must bear alone. The definitive work will be no team effort. The Anointed must go forward unaccompanied, as even his friends betray him, deny him, and disperse. As Donald Macleod observes, “Had the redemption of the world depended on the diligence of the disciples (or even their staying awake) it would never have been accomplished” [1]

He knows of Judas’ plan to turn him over to the religious authorities. Jesus also knows of Peter’s weakness and how, after the arrest in the garden, that weakness will lead to his denial of even knowing Jesus. Jesus knows that most of his disciples will abandon him.

Like the disciples, God knows that many times, we will betray and deny him. And still Jesus allows the betrayal and the denial to unfold without exposure or confrontation. Why? More remarkable than the depth of our betrayal is the height of love that God has shown. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends, even when they have forsaken him.

Indeed, betrayal is the most tragic thing we can do to the people whom we love the most. Betrayal is the worst thing we can do to the things we cherished. We don’t talk of betrayal of one’s enemies. It is not one of his many enemies who will hand Jesus over. It is one of the Twelve, it is someone who has dipped his hand into the same dish with Jesus, a sign of friendship and solidarity.

Thus, when we talk about betrayal, we talk of betrayal of a husband to his wife, a wife to her husband, a parent to their children, a child to his/her parents, a lover to his/her beloved and a friend to his/her friend. We talk of betrayal of one’s own family, race, country and religion. We can also talk of betrayal within ourselves–betrayal of our own profound dignity and identity as created by God in God’s own image. We do this when we go against our own conscience–the inner voice of God within. As St. Paul says,

“For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want (Romans 7: 19). 

We can also talk of betrayal of God’s creation when we continue to exploit and destroy God’s creation for our own benefit. We have betrayed God’s very purpose;  God has placed us in this world to be stewards not destroyers of creation. All of these finally lead to betrayal of the love of God, his gospel and Spirit.

Today, Holy Tuesday, three days before we commemorate the passion and death of Jesus, is a most opportune time to reflect and examine our betrayals. How often have we betrayed Jesus and those around us, especially the people we love the most? How many times have we  gone to the other side–our enemies, the forces of evil, Satan’s seductions? How many times have we turned against our family, spouse, parent, children, friend?  How many times have we turned against our own race, our own people, our own country?  How many times have we turned against our truest identity. How many times have we turned against God who love us the most? 

As we approach the paschal event of Jesus passing over from death to resurrection, Jesus invites us to return to his Father, return to the people we truly love, return to the things we truly cherish, return to God’s creation, return to our truest identity as a child of God, a disciple of Jesus. Let us ask God’s mercy and pardon for our betrayals and denials. As we journey with Jesus in his passover, let us allow God’s grace to enter into the weakness of our betrayals and renew us once again. Let us surrender to God all our betrayals and once again renew our fidelity to God, to our loved ones, our friends and our true selves.


[1] Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ: Contours of Christian Theology (InterVarsity Press, 1998), 173.