EASTER SUNDAY: EASTER SURPRISE

easter2020
Painting by Nic Esquivias

On Easter morning, while the men were sleeping, the women went to the tomb very early in the morning and witnessed the first appearance of the risen Jesus. This is perhaps the first surprise of the resurrection of Jesus—the first witnesses of the resurrection were women.

Of course, the greatest surprise of Easter is Jesus’ triumph over death. By his resurrection he destroyed death. Death no longer have the final say. Jesus’ resurrection is the greatest reason of our faith. We will not celebrate Easter today, let alone would there be a church and Christian religion, if Jesus did not rise from the dead. Life and goodness will triumph despite all the suffering and misery we now experience. We will rise up with Jesus to new life in the midst of this pandemic.

All four gospels recount that women were the first witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus. Mark narrates that “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him” (Mark 16: 1). Matthew relates that “After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning; Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb” (Matthew 28: 1). Luke presents us with a number of women at the empty tomb: “The women were Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary the mother of James,” as well as the unnamed “others who accompanied them” (Luke 24:10). While John tells us that the risen Jesus appeared only to Mary of Magdala (John 20: 14 – 17). In all four gospels, the name Mary Magdalene was mentioned which gives credence to the belief that Mary Magdalene was one of the first persons to whom the risen Jesus appeared.

For centuries, Mary Magdalene was imputed with a bad reputation and sometimes called a demon-possessed whore. Not until the last century that the Church’s cease to identify her with the “sinful woman” who anoints Jesus’ feet in Scripture. The church later gave Mary Magdalene her due, calling her the Apostle of the Apostles because she was the first to witness the resurrected Jesus.

Why would Jesus first appear to women at a time when women were not considered credible witnesses? This difficulty may have confronted the early Church. For the apostles, at least, this was a problem as Luke writes, “Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (24: 10 – 11).

What does this overlooked detail about Jesus’ resurrection tells us about how to live the Easter spirit?

The first lesson of the resurrection of Jesus is that we are all called to witness the resurrection. This is what the women sought when they went to the tomb very early on that Easter morning. True, we have not seen with our eyes the resurrection of Jesus but as the risen Jesus told Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John: 20: 29). This is us–we are the blessed ones, we all have not seen and yet we believe!

But believing is not enough. We need to give witness and live out the resurrection. As St. Augustine proclaimed: We are an Easter people and alleluia is our song! We are the children of Easter morn. We need to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus with our feet. We need to walk the resurrection and resurrect the walk.

The second lesson concerns the fact that it was to women that Jesus first appeared after his resurrection. There must be a very good reason why God made his risen Son known first to women and only later to the Apostles. This challenges us to take a hard look once again at women’s place in the church. Even as Pope Francis asks us to develop a deeper theology of women, the Church still struggles today to give women their due voice as witnesses to our risen life in Christ.

The attitude of Mary of Magdala and the other women may teach us something about witnessing to the resurrection. The women witnesses had no status, power, and wealth. This may actually made them more open and receptive to the magnificent surprise of Jesus’ resurrection. After all it has been shown in God’s story of salvation that it is to the weak and humble, like Mary, the mother of Jesus, that God first reveals and acts out God’s mission. Witnessing to the resurrection does not involve status, power and wealth. It calls us to embrace the women witnesses’ disposition of humility and willingness to God’s intervention in our lives.

The third lesson has got to do with the difficulty that the women encountered in testifying to the risen Lord—they were met with scepticism and rejection even by the apostles themselves. The difficulties of the women in giving witness to Jesus resurrection are also experienced today by many Christians who are persecuted because of their faith. They are experienced by Christians who stand up for truth, justice and peace in the midst of complacency, violence, falsehood and injustice. They are also experienced by Christians who lead simple, selfless and authentic connections in the midst of the consumerist, selfie and shallow connections of digital culture. They are also experienced by Christians who demonstrate their Christian identities and values in the midst of the secularized and capitalist world. They are also experienced by Christians who sacrificed their lives for their loved ones, friends and even to strangers without receiving any reward in return.

Witnessing to the resurrection of Jesus will always be challenging. But like the women in the gospel today, we do not need power, position and status. We just need to be constantly open to God’s surprise every day of our lives.

Happy Easter!

4TH SUNDAY OF LENT: A NEW VISION

new-vision

This past week, the whole world experienced an unprecedented level of trial and tribulation similar to world war-like conditions.

The number of cases of coronavirus worldwide has surpassed 300,000. The total deaths globally is more than 13,000. And these are increasing by the day.

Almost all countries went into lockdown closing all schools, shops, offices, pubs, and churches due to the pandemic.  This has put to a sudden stop all our normal activities–work, leisure, socials even religious. Many suffered hunger and physical deprivations because no work meant no money to buy food and other essential things.

As we retreated from our daily activities, however, we had ample time to look back and take a stock into our lives as individuals and global community.

Indeed, the pandemic is a humbling experience for us. As tragic as it may seem, the pandemic may have led us to our own shortcoming and blindness. We realize how we have endangered the lives of our fellow human beings and mother nature by our wanton exploitation of nature and an unsustainable lifestyle.  One of the major calling out of this pandemic is healing–the healing of broken nature and lives as well as the healing of our own blindness.  

Our readings for today’s 4th Sunday of Lent talks about seeing which is not just physical seeing but more profoundly spiritual seeing.  In the same way, blindness is not just physical blindness but spiritual blindness. The seeing that our readings talk about is the seeing  given to us by God which gives us a new vision beyond our own blindness.

In the first reading from the book of Samuel, the prophet Samuel comes to Bethlehem, by the order of the Lord, to choose a new king from the family of Jesse. Samuel rejects Jesse’s oldest son, supposedly by tradition the one who is to be the king, Samue’s reason, God sees beyond the physical attributes of a person:

“Not as man sees does God see,
because man sees the appearance but the Lord looks into the heart.”

In the second reading, St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, calls all the baptized as children of light. When we were baptized God has given us a new way of seeing which led us to live from darkness into light:

Brothers and sisters:
You were once darkness,
but now you are light in the Lord.
Live as children of light,
for light produces every kind of goodness
and righteousness and truth.

In our Gospel, Jesus gave depth of sight to a man born blind. Jesus restored not just his physical eyesight; his heart had also been healed. The blind man came to belive in Jesus and became a disciple and messenger of Jesus.

Faith in Jesus gives us a new vision. The New Testament use sight as a symbol for Christian faith. Believing is the deepest kind of “seeing.” The early Church called baptism enlightenment. It is not incidental that the first word out of Jesus’ mouth in the Synoptic Gospels is “metanoia” which means a new way of thinking. Faith is believing which inaugurates a new way of seeing and thinking.

Like the blind man in the gospel, we are all blind. Although we are not blind physically, we have close our eyes to the suffering of our fellow human beings and of mother nature. We suffer from spiritual blindness because we do not go beyond our physical sight and our own needs and myophic viewpoint. Let us pray to Jesus then that he may have our eyes opened so we may learn to see the world as God sees it.

Like Lent, this pandemic will lead us to resurrection if we allow our faith in Jesus to help us see more clearly beyond our past mistakes and failures. We can rise up from this pandemic if we see Jesus at the center of this pandemic. We will emerge victorious from this pandemic if we encounter Jesus and experience his healing power out of our blindness. He will give us a new vision that will help us to live in greater harmony with nature and solidarity with our fellow human beings especially the poor and the downtrodden.   

THE FEAST OF THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD: LET THE WORK OF CHRISTMAS BEGIN

baptism 4

Today is the last day of the Church’s Christmas season. Jesus’ birth has now been celebrated. His public life comes next. His baptism begins it.

The end of Christmas is not just the putting down of all Christmas decorations–the Belen (Nativity Scene), Christmas tree, Christmas lights and others. The end of Christmas is not going back to our ordinary past lives as if there is no change in our lives. As we say in Filipino–balik sa dating ugali or BSDU (back to old ways).

The end of Christmas is also a beginning–the beginning of Jesus’ mission. This is what we celebrate today–the baptism of Jesus as the beginning of his mission.

As we commemorate the baptism of our Lord, we are also invited to return to our own baptism. The end of Christmas calls us to relive our baptismal identity in our daily ordinary lives. The end of Christmas is the beginning of the work of Christmas.

The readings for today’s Baptism of the Lord talks about the meaning of baptism and mission of Jesus. The first reading from the prophet Isaiah, talks about what kind of a servant Jesus will be.

Thus says the LORD:
Here is my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen one with whom I am pleased,
upon whom I have put my spirit;
he shall bring forth justice to the nations,
not crying out, not shouting,
not making his voice heard in the street.
a bruised reed he shall not break,
and a smoldering wick he shall not quench,
until he establishes justice on the earth;
the coastlands will wait for his teaching.

In the gospel, we saw how the Baptism of Our Lord was the united action of one God, three Persons. The Father called out from heaven, “This is my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” The Spirit descended on Jesus after he was baptized, “the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.”

In reliving our baptism in the context of today’s realities, it might also be helpful to look back at the history of the sacrament of baptism.  R. Alan Streett, Senior Research Professor of Biblical Theology at Criswell College, Dallas, Texas, in his book, Caesar and the Sacrament: Baptism, A Rite of Resistance, examined the origin of the sacrament of baptism within the context of the Roman Empire and its relationship to Roman power.

Streett claims that Christ-followers borrowed the term sacramentum and used it to express their loyalty to Christ and his kingdom. Tertullian (160 CE‒225 CE) identified baptism specifically as the Christian sacramentum and contrasted it to a Roman soldier’s pledge of loyalty to the Emperor and Empire (Tertullian, Bapt. 4.4–5; Idol. 19.2). Just as a soldier upon his oath of allegiance was inducted into Caesar’s army, so a believer was initiated by the sacrament of baptism into God’s kingdom. Each vowed faithful service to his god and kingdom.[1]

When Christ-followers submitted to baptism and pledged their allegiance to a kingdom other than Rome and a king other than Caesar, they participated in a politically subversive act. Through the sacramentum of baptism they joined a movement that rejected Rome’s public narrative, ideology, hierarchical social order, and Caesar’s claim to be Lord over all.  Baptism, thus, became a rite of resistance, a politically subversive act.[2]

As a sacramentum, baptism was, in Richard DeMaris’ term, a “boundary crossing ritual”. When crossed, it meant breaking formal ties with the past, declaring loyalty to another Lord, and accepting a new and alternative identity—that of a Christ-follower. Hence, baptism was a political act of subversion, a rite of resistance against the prevailing power structures that often led to persecution and even death.[3]

This historical context and lesson about the beginning of the sacrament of baptism challenges us to relive baptism today as a transformed public life that reflects Christ-likeness in the midst of a culture of violence and human oppression. The sacrament of baptism calls us to radically redefine our lives in accord with covenantal kingdom principles. This is not easy; to break with the predominant culture and follow Christ is often costly.

Hence, the Baptism of Our Lord is a reminder for us of the counter-cultural witness of our baptismal identity today. At the end of this Christmas season, we have been empowered by Christ, who became flesh and dwelt among us, to practise the true spirit of Christmas throughout the year.

I would like to end with a litany called “The Work of Christmas” composed by Howard Thurman, an African-American theologian, educator, and civil rights leader.

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

 


 

[1] R. Alan Streett, “Baptism as a Politically Subversive Act,” The Bible and Interpretation, December, 2018. Accessed at https://bibleinterp.arizona.edu/articles/baptism-politically-subversive-act#_ftn3.