THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD: I WILL BE WITH YOU ALWAYS, UNTIL THE END OF TIMES

looking at the sky

 

During these times of unprecedented suffering and death due to the covid-19 pandemic, there is not a single moment that we looked up to the heavens asking for divine help and intervention.

We celebrate tody the ascension of the Lord Sunday. This marks the human Jesus’ last day on earth. Luke describes the moment of the Lord’s ascension in today’s 1st reading from the Acts of the Apostles where Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.”

The ascension is one of the most misinterpreted events in Jesus life and belief of our faith. The ascension has often been portrayed in a somewhat mythological way as a gravity-defying form of levitation or the retreat of Jesus from this world to a place up, up and away.

It is significant that Jesus rested in the cloud in the Ascension. In the bible a cloud often depicts the abiding presence of God amongst the people. In the Old Testament, the pillar of cloud was the glory-cloud which indicated God’s presence leading the ransomed people of Israel out of Egypt through the wilderness (Exodus 13:22; 33:9, 10). This pillar preceded the people as they marched, resting on the ark (Exodus 13:21; 40:36). By night it became a pillar of fire (Numbers 9:17-23). In other words, the Ascension signifies not Jesus’ departure but his constant accompaniment of his disciples and the community gathered in his name—the church—as they face the challenges and troubles of this world.

While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going,
suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them.
They said, “Men of Galilee,
why are you standing there looking at the sky?
This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven
will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”

The two angels were trying to say to the apostles that they were not supposed to spend their time staring nostalgically at the heavens as Jesus did not abandon them but is always with them “until the end of the age” (Matthew 28: 20). There was work to do.  There was a world waiting for the good news to be announced. Faith and hope have now to be busy about other matters, even as Christians, then and now, await his return at the end of time and the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1: 5, 11). The apostles left the mountain, went into the city, and launched the greatest missionary undertaking in human history.

“All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father,
and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

The Ascension is not a call of fuga mundi (escape from the world) but at the same time a calling to journey towards a much larger world where heaven and earth meet. The great commission of the Ascension today is how to announce the good news and build God’s kingdom and heaven of liberation and peace in a world enveloped with terror, division, violence and suffering. Let not our hearts be troubled, for Jesus accompanies and protects us “until the end of the age.”

6TH SUNDAY OF EASTER: THE ABIDING PRESENCE OF CHRIST

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I will not leave you orphans

In today’s pandemic, one of the most ab/used word is social distancing. While “social distancing” is essential to help avoid getting sick and “flatten the curve” in the spread of COVID-19, it may be sending the wrong message and contributing to social isolation. What the pandemic has actually done is not separation and isolation but has heightened the need for support and connection with one another. For example, we siblings, 6 of us, have not physically reunited for a long time, but thanks to the pandemic, we had a long and spirited conversation via zoom just recently. We do not actually want to distance from one another but to build solidarity in this time of unprecendented suffering. Thus, the conversation is shifting from “social distancing” towards “physical distancing.”

One of the best song that expresses this irony is Joey Ayala’s “Walang Hanggang Paalam” (Never Ending Farewell). The haunting and melancholic melody truly expresses the pain and sadness of separation while at the same declares the undying unity between lovers. The lyrics are so beautiful that you would think it was a poem before it was a song. The chorus expresses the intense tension between physical separation and unbreakable emotional and spiritual bond:

Ang pag-ibig natin ay (Our love)
Walang hanggang paalam (is an everlasting farewell)
At habang magkalayo (And while we are far)
Papalapit pa rin ang puso (Our hearts draws near)
Kahit na magkahiwalay (We may be apart)
Tayo ay magkasama (Yet we are together)
Sa magkabilang dulo ng mundo (On the opposite ends of the world)

This song may also remind us of a sad experience about someone whom we truly love has to say goodbye to us. We really want to spend our lives with her/him but it just couldn’t  be. So we try our best to become the best persons that we are, thinking that that person we love is not gone and is not separated from us but always with us. His/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 may be “physically distant” but he is not “socially distant” from us. 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. And we should, therefore, not be distant from one another. We are all united in solidarity in the abiding presence of Christ amongst us.

5TH SUNDAY OF EASTER: THE CHURCH OF “THE WAY”

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This Sunday is fifth 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 15 years ago. I regret that I was not always there during her last days here on earth. But I believe and hope that she is now in one of the many dwelling places of the Father’s house that Jesus promised in the gospel today. 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 is happening to us because of her illness.

In today’s gospel Jesus felt so much the fear and anxiety of his disciples before his imminent departure. So Jesus begins by telling his disciples “not to be troubled”. On the night before his agonizing death, Jesus was less concerned about what will happen to him and more with what will happen to his disciples during his suffering and after his death.

The gospel today is part of the long after dinner discourse of Jesus (chapters 14 – 17 of John) when Jesus had his last supper and the foot washing with the disciples. The eminent American Biblical scholar Raymond Brown says that this discourse is comparable to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, or Luke’s collection of Jesus’ words as he traveled from Galilee to Jerusalem.

Sensing their confusion and anxiety Jesus promised his abiding presence to the disciples. “I will come back again and take you to myself, so the where I am you also may be.” The Greek word “dwelling place” (14:2) is the noun of John’s verb “abide.” Jesus’ departure will not cut off the ties between him and his disciples; even as he prepares a “dwelling place” for them, he will “abide” with them.

But the disciples are confused. It is as if Jesus and disciples were speaking in two different worlds. Thomas asked: “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus’ response is one of the most beautiful quotes about Him: “I AM the Way. I AM Truth and I AM Life.” Jesus does not only tell us where to go. He is himself the Way. If Jesus abides with us and we abide in Jesus, we will know the way.

Interestingly, one of the first names people call the early church is “The Way”. In fact, this is the name which was widely used for the early church. They were known more widely as “the Way”, than as “Christians”, especially as Paul introduces himself as a follower of “the Way” to the Governor, and not as a “Christian”(Acts 24:14), even though they were known as “Christians” in Acts 11:26. This name probably originated from today’s gospel where Christ called Himself “The Way”(Joh 14:6).

Like the disciples, we are many times confused. We have lots of doubts, uncertainties and questions in life especially now during this pandemic. Jesus said to his disciples and is saying to us now that a life dedicated to following him is a life of abiding in him who is the way. In the times of the early church, believers were referred to as “followers of the way.” Following Jesus as way implies tension. In the long after dinner discourse, Jesus speaks of himself as one between two worlds: he is here with his disciples and yet no longer a part of this world (16:5; 17:11). As followers of Jesus we experience the tensive character of our existence in this world; we are in this world but we are not of this world.

Our life here on earth is always on the way as this is not our final destination. We are not at ease on earth as our final destination is the dwelling place in the Father’s house that Jesus has prepared for us. We are viatores or pilgrims towards becoming beatorum—one with God at the end of times. As the medical doctor Robert Herrmann explains in his book, Expanding Humanity’s Vision of God,

Between the resurrection and the final “kingdom of God” the church is not ecclesia triumphans but ecclesia viatorum. As ecclesia viatorum the church has not yet reached its fulfillment, but it is already on its way. In a similar vein, since the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the whole creation (heaven and earth as well as nature and culture) has become a creatio viatorum on its way to the final completion and transformation. As a creatio viatorum creation is characterized by a temporary simultaneity of the old and the new.

While we are on the way here on earth we are called to become “living stones” as Peter proclaims in the second reading. We the disciples form the stones that make up the visible presence of the invisible God. And as Jesus said in the gospel, to continue his presence in the world we will “do the works I do.” Jesus even said that the believing community will have power to do “even greater works than these.” This is not about worldly power, but the divine power who will do greater things in the followers of Jesus so they may become signs of God’s kingdom “already here but not yet.”

The Eucharist is the celebration of this tension as well as the sacrament that gives food and drink in this tension-filled journey. The Eucharist is making present the memory of Jesus as well as the glory of his return in the end; it is a memorial of the past as well as a rehearsal of the future.

4TH SUNDAY OF EASTER: JESUS, OUR GATE TO FULLNESS OF LIFE

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woman praying outside the gate of Baclaran church, photo courtesy of Rappler

On my first year in Australia during my study leave in 2008, I adventurously drove alone from Melbourne to my cousin’s place in Ipswich, QLD, a distance of about 1,628 km. I drove it for three days taking stops, of course, at Redemptorist houses in Galong, NSW and Newcastle, NSW for a rest and sleep for the night. I was quite confident that I won’t get lost equipped with a GPS on my car. On my way to Galong, however, the GPS directed me to dirt roads passing through many ranches and farms. I have to get on and off the car in order to open the gates of the many farms I passed through. Someone in Galong told me that I could get shot opening those gates for trespassing.

In the gospel of today’s 4th Sunday of Easter, Jesus talks about gates,

“I am the gate.
Whoever enters through me will be saved,
and will come in and go out and find pasture.
A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy;
I came so that they might have life
and have it more abundantly.””

When I think of gate, the first thing that comes to my mind is that of exclusion. Talk of exclusive subdivision in Makati or gated mansions in Ayala-Alabang or high walls in New Manila. Gates are meant to prevent outsiders and those who don’t belong from coming inside the house or building or a village. Anyone who doesn’t pass through the gate can be suspected of robbers, outlaws or persons with evil intention. But gate can also be an image of captivity and repression so that those inside cannot get out and can easily be controlled by those who have power. Think about the gates of prisons, refugee detention centers and rehabilitation centers.

Do these images apply to Jesus when he said, “I am the gate”?

First of all, the context of in which Jesus spoke those words is in the context of sheep and shepherding.  The image of sheep and shepherd is not an image we are familiar in the Philippines. But in Israel where Jesus lived and grew, sheep is an important part of life, providing the people with wool, milk, and meat. In the Bible, the main symbol of God’s relationship with the people of Israel is compared to a shepherd and his sheep.

When Jesus spoke about himself as Gate, he was referring to the Gate of the sheepfold, meaning—a sheep pen, while the shepherds who come in and out are pastors who are faithful to Jesus.  Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate, is “a thief and a brigand” who comes to steal and do harm to the sheep.

Of all domesticated animals, sheep are the most vulnerable. Sheep will spend their entire day grazing, wandering from place to place, and never looking up. As a result, they often become lost. Unfortunately, sheep have no “homing instinct” as other animals do. They are totally incapable of finding their way to their sheepfold even when it is in plain sight. By nature, sheep are followers. If the lead sheep steps off a cliff, the others will follow. Sheep are also utterly dependent upon their shepherd to lead them to pastures, provide them with water, and protect them from danger.

Jesus as gate of the sheepfold, therefore, is where those who are vulnerable, weak, and helpless can get in. Jesus as gate is not about exclusion but welcoming all especially the least and the lost, the poor, deprived and oppressed. Jesus as gate is to give protection and comfort to the sheep who wish to belong and follow him.

Jesus as gate is not a gate for control and enslavement. We need not fear entering into this gate; we won’t get shot. Jesus is the gate where the sheep—we, the church—come in and go out and find pasture. The gospel passage ends with one of Jesus’ most beautiful statements: “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.”  Entering into the gate of Jesus is to live life to the full.

In order to enter into the gate who is Jesus, we need to embrace a relationship and bond where we are all sheep and Jesus is our shepherd. We need to live out this relationship as one of the hallmarks of our being an Easter people.

As a sheep, we are weak, helpless, and vulnerable and dependent on God and one another. Many times we wander off and get lost. Like sheep, we get easily frightened and become easily confused and we plunge blindly off a cliff following one after another. Like sheep, we, too, need a shepherd, we need someone to follow who will guide us to the true path towards fullness of life not someone who will lead us astray. Jesus is the true shepherd who has come that we may have life and have it to the full. He is the good shepherd who lay down His life for His sheep.

Being in the sheepfold of Jesus, however, does not mean that we become a passive sheep. It also calls us to participate in the ‘shepherdness’ 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.

Pope Francis, in Evangelii Gaudium, calls out 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’.

Come, let us enter into the gate to fullness of life!

2ND SUNDAY OF EASTER: LIVING AS A RESURRECTED COMMUNITY

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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 SUNDAY: EASTER SURPRISE

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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!

EASTER VIGIL: WE ARE AN EASTER PEOPLE

ressurection

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!

 

BLACK SATURDAY: CHRIST’S WORK CONTINUES

harrowing of hell

We usually associate Black Saturday as the day when God did nothing because God is dead. And so in the church, there is no Eucharist. Today is mostly a day of silence, sitting, and waiting. That’s how it is the morning after the burial.

But far from doing nothing, God is doing a very important mission.

Holy Saturday is when Christ descended into hell. In hell, Jesus was busy rescuing people from death and sharing with them the victory of his resurrection. We always recite in the creed every Sunday mass that after Jesus died on the cross “he descended into hell”. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this:

By the expression “He descended into hell”, the Apostles’ Creed confesses that Jesus did really die and through his death for us conquered death and the devil “who has the power of death” (Heb 2:14) [#636]. In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead. He opened heaven’s gates for the just who had gone before him [#637].

Even in death, Jesus was at work. Death did not stop the mission of Jesus’ redemption. On the contrary, death unleash the final act of Jesus’ redemption–Jesus destroying death not just for himself but for all humanity.

Jesus’ mission in hell is wonderfully depicted in an icon more popular in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. This is the icon of Harrowing of Hell.[1] Although this icon is not popular in the Western tradition today, the message of this icon was commonly proclaimed in the ancient and medieval period of Western Christianity by many church fathers like Tertullian, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and many others. Harrowing is an old English word which means harvesting. Thus, we can also call this icon as the harvesting of souls in hell.

In the icon, we see Jesus standing on the broken gate of hell. Hell is the dark pit at the bottom of the icon. In some icons, we can even see angels binding Satan in hell. Then we see Jesus pulling two figures up out of hell. This is Adam and Eve, imprisoned in hell since their deaths; imprisoned, along with all humanity, due to sin. Eve is generally depicted in a red robe. On both sides of the icon are figures from the Old Testament like Abel, King David, Moses, prophets and many others waiting for Jesus to rescue them from hell. We can also see broken locks and keys used by Jesus to unlock the tombs of those souls living in hell.

The message of the icon is also beautifully expressed in an ancient homily, of unknown authorship, usually entitled The Lord’s Descent into the Underworld that is the second reading at Office of Readings on Holy Saturday .

I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.

As we prepare for the great commemoration of the Lord’s resurrection at Easter Vigil tonight, let us continue to prepare ourselves to rise up with Jesus in victory.

Here’s a video explanation of the Icon of Christ’s Resurrection


 

[1]Joel J. Miller, “The harrowing of hell and the victory of Christ,” Patheos, March 30, 2013. Accessed 25/03.2018 at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/joeljmiller/2013/03/the-victory-of-christ-and-the-harrowing-of-hell/

ASCENSION SUNDAY: THE LIMITLESS HORIZON OF CHRISTIAN LIFE

looking at the sky

We celebrate today the Ascension of the Lord Sunday. Luke describes the moment of the Lord’s ascension in today’s 1st reading from the Acts of the Apostles where Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.”

The ascension is one of the most misinterpreted and underrated events in Jesus life and belief of our faith. The ascension has often been portrayed in a somewhat mythological way as a gravity-defying form of levitation or the retreat of Jesus from this world to a place up, up and away.

It is significant that Jesus rested in the cloud in the Ascension. In the bible a cloud often depicts the abiding presence of God amongst the people. In the Old Testament, the pillar of cloud was the glory-cloud which indicated God’s presence leading the ransomed people of Israel out of Egypt through the wilderness (Exodus 13:22; 33:9, 10). This pillar preceded the people as they marched, resting on the ark (Exodus 13:21; 40:36). By night it became a pillar of fire (Numbers 9:17-23). By resting on the cloud as Jesus ascended, signifies not Jesus’ departure but his constant accompaniment of his disciples and the community gathered in his name—the church—as they face the challenges and troubles of this world. As Australian Redemptorist Fr. Anthony Kelly, CSsR states,

The ascended Jesus has not disappeared or been dissolved in a celestial ether, but is ever present to the faith of the church in the here-and-now of the community’s life. The ending of his particular kind of terrestrial presence has yielded to a new kind of universal presence, reaching to all places, times, and peoples. (1)

Belief in Christ’s ascension opens for us the experience of faith and the life of the Church as limitless. Kelly adds that the ascension reminds us that the mission of evangelization is unconfined, always moving beyond, upward, outward, in the vitality of the risen Christ who already occupies every dimension of time and space. Properly understood, the ascension is a fundamental aspect of the catholicity of faith and enables us to breathe more deeply in the experience of “the boundless riches of Christ.” As Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr said, we are already in the presence of God, what is absent is awareness.

Jesus’ ascension is not a departure from his disciples and for all the disciples which forms the church in every generation. Jesus’ ascension was an expression of a new relationship with him, the risen One, that transcends physical barriers. Now, instead of accompanying us here on earth in his ministry, we are “clothed with power from on high” to be his presence and continue his mission.  Jesus empowered us to be “witnesses of these things,” the wonderful things that Jesus did and said about the boundless blessings of God’s kingdom.

 


 

(1) Anthony Kelly, Upward: Faith, Church, and the Ascension of Christ (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014), 2.

6TH SUNDAY OF EASTER: THE HOLY SPIRIT, GIFT OF THE RISEN CHRIST

jon-tyson-589839-unsplash
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

One of the hardest yet rewarding experiences in our lives is having to say goodbye to somebody we love or bidding farewell to a beautiful experience we have become used to. We experience this in the departure of somebody we deeply love whether he/she is going away for a long time or for good. We experience this on our first day at school when we need to say goodbye to the experience of merely playing and staying at home with our folks. We experience this after graduation in High School, when we have to separate ways with our classmates. We experience this when somebody very close to our heart is dying and trying to console and letting him/her go.

Painful as they may be, yet these experiences has helped us to grow and become stronger. Much as we wanted to spend longer time with our loved ones, it just couldn’t be. So we try our best to become the best persons that we are, thinking that they whom we love are not gone and are not separated from us but always with us. Their abiding presence has become an inspiration, advocate, comfort, consolation and help.

In today’s gospel of the 6th Sunday of Easter, Jesus was bidding goodbye to his disciples. Imagine the emotional turmoil inside the disciples; in a short while they will no longer see the face of their master. Perhaps the disciples were asking: What are we going to do without Jesus? Who’s gonna guide us now? Can we continue the mission of Jesus all alone by ourselves?

In this state of emotional distress, Jesus assured them that they are not alone; he will not abandon them and that he will always be with them. How can this be? He and his Father will send them the Holy Spirit.

We remember that in John’s Gospel, the risen Christ conveys the gift of the Spirit to his disciples on Easter Sunday evening. The Spirit is, as in Paul’s letters, the gift of the risen Christ. In the gift of the Spirit, the risen Christ and the Father come and make their home with the disciples. The Spirit will be the continued presence of Jesus on earth after Jesus’ departure to heaven (Jn 14:12, 16). Jesus said,

The Advocate, the Holy Spirit,
whom the Father will send in my name,
will teach you everything
and remind you of all that I told you.

When the disciples receive and allow the Holy Spirit to make home into their lives, the Spirit will not convey new revelations, but will unfold in ever new understanding, interpretation, and application the once-for-all revelation of Jesus Christ. The Spirit’s work will more than reminisce the exact words of Jesus; it will be a living representation of all that Jesus had spoken to his disciples, a creative remembrance of the gospel.

This ongoing work of the Spirit will give the disciples peace and takes away their fear, because the Spirit is always there as their helper who stands by them especially during the challenging times of persecution and martyrdom.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
Not as the world gives do I give it to you.
Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.

The First Reading shows us an example of the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise of the presence of the Holy Spirit as an Advocate who will teach and remind the community after his departure. This passage is sometimes called the “Council of Jerusalem,” the first council of the church which dealt with the first major crisis of the early Church. In this passage we see how the early church was led by the Holy Spirit in decision-making.

Luke reports that some Judean people came to the Christians at Antioch to tell them that the gentile converts could not be saved unless they were circumcised. The Judaeans were worried that the traditional practices were being altered by the church at Antioch, and they were exercising themselves in behalf of the tradition.

The elders of the church acknowledge that they face a problem for which no extant policy offers a clear solution; so they decided to deal with this as a community by calling a meeting of the leadership (“apostles and presbyters”). They carefully looked back into their experience. Peter rehearses his experience of being drawn into the Gentile mission through the remarkable conversion of Cornelius and his household. Then Paul and Barnabas describe “the signs and wonders God had worked among the Gentiles through them” (Acts 15:12).

The assembly then interprets their experience of God working through them by looking to the longer experience of the community embodied in its Scriptures. This is exemplified by James’ citing a passage from the prophet Amos (Amos 9:11-12; the Greek version), which implies two stages in God’s plan for Israel: (1) the restoration of the people of Israel (“rebuild the fallen hut of David”) and (2) the ingathering of the Gentiles (“so that the rest of humanity may seek out the Lord, even all the Gentiles”).

The conclusion that the Jerusalem council reached was that the mission to the Gentiles is the will of God, and that they ought to do all in their power to cooperate with this divine initiative. The apostles rebuke the Judaeans by telling them what the decision of the Holy Spirit is: circumcision is not required for salvation. The decision about what is required for salvation is the Lord’s.  Thus, the Judaeans were actually opposed to the mind of the Lord. Likewise, they decided on a policy that both honors the tradition and adjusts to changing circumstances; they asked of Gentile converts only that they keep the minimal “rules for resident aliens” indicated in Leviticus (regarding marriages to relatives, food associated with idolatry, and improper slaughtering).

Finally, they boldly spoke of this very human process (reflection on experience and interpretation in the light of tradition) as “the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us.”

Through this experience, we saw how the Spirit of God was at work through the very human processes of decision-making in our Church. This experience taught the church  to take seriously both our present experience and tradition. Our hierarchies, traditions, teachings, and laws all help us remember. The traditions and structures of the church, however, should not lead us to close our eyes to the working of the Spirit in the world and the situation especially of the poor and the needy today. We need to continue to be obedient to the Holy Spirit by not remaining close-in within ourselves. As Pope Francis told catechists gathered in Rome in 2013,

What I want to say now, I have already said many times before, but it comes from my heart … When we Christians are closed in our group, in our movement, in our parish, in our own environment, we remain closed and what happens to us is what happens to whatever remains closed: when a room is closed the odor of humidity gathers. … A Christian … remains closed and becomes ill.

Pope Francis, International Congress on Catechesis, Vatican City, September 28, 2013

Jesus calls us today, to say yes to the Spirit, to go wherever the Spirit blows. By this, we will know that Jesus is with us, just as a sheep know the voice of their shepherd. In knowing Jesus, we will know the presence of the Father.

The risen Christ has not abandoned us, his disciples, the church at all times. The Holy Spirit, the bond of the love of the Father and the Son, continues to lead and guide all peoples and the church towards the final fulfillment of God’s kingdom.