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/

GOOD FRIDAY OF THE LORD’S PASSION: THE TRIUMPH OF 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 – THE LORD’S SUPPER: PARTICIPATION IN JESUS’ PASSOVER

painting nic esquivias last supper
Painting by Nic Esquivias

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.

 

 

WEDNESDAY OF HOLY WEEK: FROM HANDING OVER TO PASSING OVER

Photo by Kat Jayne from Pexels
Photo by Kat Jayne from Pexels

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.

 

TUESDAY OF HOLY WEEK: FACING OUR BETRAYALS AND DENIALS

Simon_ushakov_last_supper_1685
Simon Ushakov’s icon of the Mystical Supper

Today’s Gospel of the Tuesday of 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, 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.

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MONDAY OF HOLY WEEK: MARY’S BEAUTIFUL ACT FEW DAYS BEFORE JESUS DIED

Mary-anoints-Jesus

In the gospel (John 21: 1 – 11) of today’s Monday of the Holy Week, Jesus, after his grand arrival in Jerusalem, withdrew from the crowd and spent Sunday night quietly in the house of his friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus at Bethany, the village at the foot of Mount Olives. Jesus may have sensed his impending suffering and death and chose to spend the last moments of his life in companionship with his friends. Mary, Martha and Lazarus. The siblings gladly received Him in their house and offered Him and his disciples a special dinner. 

John 21: 2 says, “So they gave a dinner for him there.” We can interpret this as a celebration of the resurrection of Lazarus. Mary, Martha and Lazarus “gave” him this dinner. This is a thank you dinner to Jesus for raising Lazarus from the dead. This is not just an ordinary evening meal among friends. Its focus is on Jesus and his amazing power in raising Lazarus from the dead. And Lazarus is right there reclining at the table:  “Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table.”

Since this is a dinner to honor and thank Jesus for his gift of life, Mary will now make her presentation. Perhaps the whole family planned this moment. Perhaps they pooled their savings to buy this gift. Or perhaps it is a hugely valuable family heirloom that has been passed on for years, and now the time has come to pour it out.

Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil
made from genuine aromatic nard
and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair;
the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.

Martha’s role was to thank Jesus by seeing to the details of the dinner, and Mary’s role was to thank Jesus by pouring this expensive ointment out on Jesus. In both these ways they would express their wonder and joy and thanks for the greatness of Jesus and his grace and power to raise Lazarus from the dead.

But Judas speaks up with unbelievable disregard for what Mary has done. Verse 4:

Then Judas the Iscariot, one of his disciples,
and the one who would betray him, said,
“Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days’ wages
and given to the poor?”

If Judas wasn’t exaggerating, this eleven-ounce flask of nard was worth about $25,000 (three hundred twelve-hour days at minimum wage, a denarius was a simple, full day’s wage). Judas’s scheme of values was so deeply different from Mary and Martha and Lazarus’s that in a few days he would do the opposite of giving $25,000 for Jesus: he would sell him for a thousand dollars (thirty pieces of silver).

John tells us in verse 6 what is really in Judas’s heart:

He said this not because he cared about the poor
but because he was a thief and held the money bag
and used to steal the contributions.

Now Jesus responds to Judas to leave Mary alone.

“Leave her alone.
Let her keep this for the day of my burial.
You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Jesus appreciated the tremendous love behind Mary’s action and saw it as a symbolical anointing for his burial. Dying as a common criminal, Jesus would normally not have been anointed. (And, in fact, he was not anointed after his burial; when the women went to do the act on Sunday morning, Jesus was already risen.)

A few days later after this incident, Jesus will do the same loving service for his disciples, washing their feet before the last supper. Up to the very end of his life, Jesus, showed that we can find the greatest meaning of our lives through servanthood. The pinnacle of this servanthood is Jesus’ giving his own life on the cross.

What can we learn from this beautiful story as we enter Holy Week?

Holy week is the preparation for the resurrection of Jesus. The siblings Martha, Mary and Lazarus’ hearts were full of wonder, gratitude and joy for Jesus who raised Lazarus into new life. Their overflowing affection was demonstrated in their lavish offering of special dinner and Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet with a very expensive perfume. These days of Holy Week, indeed, is more of a celebration of the joy and wonder of Jesus’ resurrection inasmuch as it is a commeration of his passion and death.

But in order to fully participate in Jesus’ resurrection we need to pass through suffering and death with him. Jesus showed us what it means to suffer and die with him through a life of servanthood. He showed this not just on the cross but during the anointing and washing of disciples’ feet at the last supper. This was also demonstrated by Mary in today’s gospel when she anointed Jesus’ feet. Anointing has always been a symbol of being chosen and sent on a mission–a life of discipleship and service.

In commemoration of this beautiful experience in Jesus’ life, Catholic dioceses all over the world, gather together with all the priest and the bishop at a Mass called the Chrism Mass.  Obviously this cannot be done today in all the dioceses given the unfortunate circumstances of the lockdown.

During the Chrism Mass, the bishop consecrates the sacred oils to be used in the sacraments of Baptism, Anointing, and Holy Orders. Each parish receives its annual supply of these oils at the Chrism Mass, which in some dioceses is celebrated on the Monday of Holy Week. The chrism in these sacraments is a symbol of our participation in the paschal mystey of Jesus–his life, death and resurrection.

As we begin Holy Week, we are called to prepare and participate  in the passion, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus.  We are not here this week just to be mere spectators. We are to be part of the work, which the Paschal Mystery of Jesus inaugurated.  Like Mary, we can be part of Jesus’ passing over from death to new life by becoming God’s servant. We, too, are to be servants, ready, if necessary, to suffer as Jesus did for the sake of our brothers and sisters.

PALM SUNDAY OF THE LORD’S PASSION: WELCOMING JESUS, OUR KING, IN THE TIME OF PANDEMIC

palm-sunday

As the whole world continue to be gripped by the corona virus pandemic, we celebrate Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion. Palm Sunday  marks the beginning of the Holy Week–the holiest of all week which celebrates the paschal mystery of our Lord Jesus Christ–his passion, death and resurrection. Today is also called Passion Sunday. Passion is from the Latin word, passio, which means suffering.

The feast commemorates Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In the first gospel today, Jesus Christ rode on a donkey into Jerusalem, and the celebrating people there laid down their cloaks and small branches of trees in front of him. The crowds preceding him and those following kept crying out and saying:

“Hosanna to the Son of David;
blessed is the he who comes in the name of the Lord;
hosanna in the highest.”

In this time of pandemic, what does it mean to welcome Jesus as king? This holy week and next weeks will probably be the toughest in our fight against coronavirus and there will be a lot of death. What will the entry of Jesus as king in this pandemic mean?

In the second part of the liturgy, the upbeat mood of the crowd suddenly became violent and tragic. As we listen to the long reading of Jesus’ passion, we hear the glorious cry of “Hosanna” is turned to the cruel shouts of  “Crucify him!” Jesus is depicted 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 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.

What a king Jesus had turned out to be. Why would the King of Kings allow all this to happen?

Let us listen to the First Reading.

I have not rebelled,
have not turned back.
I gave my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who plucked my beard;
my face I did not shield
from buffets and spitting. (Is 50:5)

These words, actually written many centuries before Jesus, represent a passive surrender. Is it a kingly action, this passive surrender? You or I would have shouted, “my God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” The Responsorial Psalm says exactly these words, and Jesus too will say them from the cross.

Are they the words of a king?

The Second Reading answers this question with the famous passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Chapter 2, stating that Jesus did not regard being in the form of God as something to cling to

Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.

Isn’t this the complete opposite of kingliness as we think of it. Isn’t it a mockery of kingship?

Not at all. This is the true basis of being a king, a leader, which we do not see very often in today’s world. To be king is to serve the people, offer all of one’s gifts, time even life no matter what. This is the kind of kingly service that our frontliners in this time of pandemic has shown. The healthcare workers–Doctors, nurses, medical technologists, the police, retail workers  and other frontliners who directly work with COVID-positive patients–have given most of their time and efforts and have risked their lives so that these patients may heal and live. Countless doctors and nurses have already died as they served the thousands of patients.

In this time of pandemic and beyond the pandemic, welcoming Jesus as king means becoming king to others by serving others to the best of our talents, efforts and time. Making Jesus as king of our lives means generously giving our lives for others even to the extent of forgetting our own needs and sacrificing our lives. Welcoming Jesus our king is to continue to do good to others even at the expense of insult, persecution, humiliation and hatred from others.

Just as the experience of the crowd during the time of Jesus, welcoming Jesus in our lives will disturb and unmask the profound existential paradox and inner struggle within us. Welcoming Jesus as king is allowing Jesus to confront the temples of our lives–the sinful structures we have made of our lives. We become aware of our resistance to let go of the power, dominance and control that has hindered the gospel of Jesus to become the guide of our lives. Allowing Jesus to enter our lives is admitting our hypocrisies that while we worship  Jesus inside our churches, we participated in his crucifixion by our collusion with the prevalence of evil in our world today. We continue to mercilessly shout  “Crucify him!”  when we continue to become complacent and pathetic to the suffering of others especially the weak, poor and vulnerable.

During this holy week let us follow Jesus our king in his journey towards resurrection by making our lives as a sacrifice for others. In this time of pandemic and beyond the pandemic, we can follow Jesus our king by our humbe service and by helping others to make the most out of their lives. Proclaiming Jesus our king is making our own little way of building the kingdom of Jesus, living out the kingdom values of love, justice and peace, here and now.

Good Friday: Liberation is Accomplished

good-friday

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.

There are so many things about Good Friday, however, that we do not get. Indeed, 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.

But the contradiction is ours. The irony is on us.

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]

Every Good Friday, we listen to John’s passion account—the longest of all four gospels. Unlike in other gospels, 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 Wednesday: Handing over to Darkness

Photo by Kat Jayne from Pexels
Photo by Kat Jayne from Pexels

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” by 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.

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 through 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.  

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.

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. Darkness and guilt has so overwhelmed him that he was not able to come to the 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.