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.

5TH SUNDAY OF LENT: ARISING FROM DEATH

death-covid19 Italy

We remain in lockdown for the past two weeks or so. Churches are closed but this does not prevent us to remain in communion and spread the Word of God especially every Sunday.

In the gospel of today’s 5th Sunday of Lent, Lazarus, brother of Martha and Mary, was very seriously ill. The siblings are one of Jesus’ closest friends and disciples. Martha knew that Jesus could heal sick people. So when her brother got sick and she knew that Jesus was nearby, she turned to him for help. Then she waited three desperate and increasingly miserable days. During those days Jesus didn’t come, and Lazarus died.

Perhaps Martha and Mary was asking: “You love us and you loved him; why did you not come and cure him while he was still alive?”

I think many of us is asking God the same question right now in the midst of this tragic pandemic. So many are ill and are dying everyday. Why would God not heal all those people who are ill because of covid-19? Why would God not stopped this virus so there would be no longer thousands of people dying?

We can extend this question to all kinds of illness and suffering in our world today. Why would God not do anything about those who are seriously ill with cancer, heart diseases and other major illness? Why are so many people suffering and dying and God seemed to not to care.  Remember, Jesus himself who is God, expressed the same cry, out of his humanity from the cross: “God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

But upon arriving at the cave where Lazarus was buried, Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him.” God loves us so much especially those who are ill and dying just as he loved Lazarus. Indeed, in the same way, God is crying right now at the tragic state of our world.

The death of Lazarus ultimately led Jesus to show God’s power and glory as he told Martha,

“Your brother will rise.”

“I am the resurrection and the life;
whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live,
and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

He raised Lazarus to new life. He freed Lazarus from death.

The dead man came out,
tied hand and foot with burial bands,
and his face was wrapped in a cloth.
So Jesus said to them,
“Untie him and let him go.”

The strongest message of the gospel story today is that life is more powerful than death. Through God’s power, we will passed over from death into new life. In the end God will ultimately raise us into life and destroy death so we can live eternally with God.

The passing over from death into new life is also articulated in our first reading today. In the book of the prophet Ezekiel, the Lord GOD says,

O my people, I will open your graves
and have you rise from them,
and bring you back to the land of Israel.
Then you shall know that I am the LORD,
when I open your graves and have you rise from them

We need to read the whole chapter (Ezekiel 37) to understand the passage entirely. Ezekiel is shown a valley full of bones and is commanded to prophesy to the bones:

“See! I will bring spirit into you, that you may come to life. I will put sinews upon you, make flesh grow over you, cover you with skin, and put spirit in you so that you may come to life and know that I am the Lord.”

The prophet does as he is told, and the bones are reconstructed into skeletons, enfleshed, and revived,

“they came alive and stood upright, a vast army. Then he said to me: Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They have been saying, ‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, and we are cut off.’”

It is at that point that today’s First Reading begins, with its promise to return the people to their homeland.

This pandemic has sort of put us into a tomb. Compelled into a lockdown and self quarantine, it was hard to stop our age old routines, lifestyles and habits. On the other hand, it has led us to take a hard look at our own lifestyles and attitudes as well as the dominant socio-economic system that sustained our lifestyles and attitudes. It is in this spirit of self-critique that Pope Francis expressed some of his thoughts in a special Urbi et Orbi blessing at the Vatican. Standing in a deserted St. Peter’s Square with a steady rain falling, Pope Francis spoke to the world through all the means of modern communication: Facebook, YouTube, TV, and radio,

“Greedy for profit, we let ourselves get caught up in things, and lured away by haste. We did not stop at your reproach to us, we were not shaken awake by wars or injustice across the world, nor did we listen to the cry of the poor or of our ailing planet. We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick.”

The biggest challenge of this pandemic is how to arise from death and come out of our tombs. After the pandemic, the world will never be the same again. After this pandemic, we cannot go back to the life we had before the pandemic. We cannot just pretend that nothing happened and go back to our previous routines, lifestyles and habits.  We will need new lifestyles, new ways and new attitudes to avoid another pandemic which is not improbable if we do not learn the lessons this pandemic has taught us. We will need a new socio-economic system that will nourish and sustain not just the health of human beings but of wildlife and mother nature.

If we return to the gospel of Jesus and live out its values, Jesus will lead us out of this pandemic into new life. It we allow the gospel of Jesus to transform us in this pandemic, we might be like bones now in the valley of death but God will breath new life upon us and put on a new flesh and blood into our bones.

Lord Jesus open up our graves. Breathe your Holy Spirit into our dry bones so that we can rise into new life.

 

4TH SUNDAY OF LENT: A NEW VISION

new-vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3RD SUNDAY OF LENT: RETURN TO THE WELL

Baclaran-covid

This week was a heart wrenching week as the Coronavirus pandemic spreads in almost every country around the globe.

The virus caused a radical discruption to the life of many people on the planet as people stock up on groceries, offices closed down, major sports and cultural events are cancelled and people are told to stay home rather than congregate and risk spreading the disease.

Despite the death, illness and other destructive impact of the virus, there might be some opportunities and important lessons that this pandemic might teach us. Dutch trends forecaster Li Edelkoort, for example, said that the virus might even be a grace for the world:

“The virus will slow down everything, We will see an arrest in the making of consumer goods. That is terrible and wonderful because we need to stop producing at such a pace. We need to change our behavior to save the environment. It’s almost as if the virus is an amazing grace for the planet.” [1]

Edelkoort believes we can emerge from the health crisis as more conscientious humans provided that we find new values—values of simple experience, of friendship. “It might just turn the world around for the better.”[2]

Indeed, this pandemic might be a test for us in which, depending upon our response, we can come out for better or for worst.

In the 1st reading of today’s 3rd Sunday of Lent, we hear of the Israelites quarreling with Moses about the lack of water, and Moses rebuking the Israelites for testing Yahweh.

The place was called Massah and Meribah,
because the Israelites quarreled there
and tested the LORD, saying,
“Is the LORD in our midst or not?”

Interestingly Massah, means testing, and Meribah, means quarreling.

In the gospel today we hear of the profoundly meaningful story of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. The story is a long conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman who came to the well at noon time.  The well became the venue for the Samaritan woman to discover Jesus. Jesus started with the basic human need of thirst leading up to his profound mission of satisfying deep human needs and desires.

“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again;
but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst;
the water I shall give will become in him
a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

It was in the well that the Samaritan woman came to true faith, that is, “coming and seeing” fulfilment of her human aspiration in Jesus. This led her to discover her true identity. She was no longer just a Samaritan or a woman but a follower of Jesus who left her old life in favour of a higher form of life in Jesus.

Lent is a journey of encountering Jesus. In the first Sunday of Lent, we encountered Jesus in the desert. In the second Sunday of Lent, we encountered Jesus on the mountain top. In today’s third Sunday of Lent, we encountered Jesus on the well. All these places became the locus where we discover ourselves and God

This pandemic, believe it or not, can be a place where we can encounter Jesus, however tragic it may be. The pandemic has forced us to slow down which providentially gave us an opportunity to take a stock of our lives as inviduals and as a global community. The pandemic helped us to return to the most essential values of our humanity–to live in harmony with nature, with fellow human beings and and the source of everything–God.

When we look at the well, what do we see? We see ourselves. If we look deeper into the reality of this pandemic, we can rediscover our true selves and Jesus in the midst of this tragedy. However, this will entail conversion and giving up of our old ways in order to rebuild and live our lives closer to one another, to nature and to God.

 

 

 

2ND SUNDAY OF LENT: A WHOLE NEW WORLD

On top of Sierra Mountain range, Gagayan, 2014

Every day we deal with a lot of stress, difficulties, anxieties and struggles. Because of the too much weight of the burdens in life, many times we become depressed and want to give up. During these down moments, what gives us hope? What gives us peace? What gives us strenght? Perhaps it is our dreams, aspirations, the vision that someday all these gloom will be overturned and a whole new world will dawn upon us. This glimpse of a new life and new world is what gives us strenght and hope to continue and not to give up.

An example of these inspiring moments is when we are on top of a mountain. I’ve always felt a certain spiritual even mystical aura when I am on top of a mountain. Suddenly, all my worries and fears disappear. It feels I’m so close to heaven and to God. I experience a reconnection and harmony with nature. The view from the top gives me a bird’s eye view of everything. The mountain gives me a new perspective. It refreshes me and inspire me to imagine a new world and new life. It gives peace and serenity to my mind and soul. It makes me new again.

This is the experience that Jesus led Peter James and John to in the gospel today. The gospel for today’s second Sunday of Lent (years A and B) always tells the story of the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain. In today’s gospel from Matthew, we read

Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother,
and led them up a high mountain by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them;
his face shone like the sun
and his clothes became white as light.
And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them,
conversing with him.

Transfiguration Icon

The Greek word used for transfiguration is metamorphoo—this is the root of the English word, metamorphosis. We use the word metamorphosis more popularly today for the transformation of caterpillar to butterfly, likewise in the transformation of a maggot into an adult fly and the changing of a tadpole into a frog. These are some of the amazing wonders of nature that we can ever witness in our entire lives. It’s almost like a change from one creature to a totally different creature. Who would have imagine that a beautiful butterfly would come out of an ugly caterpillar? Indeed, metamorphosis is a reminder and a symbol from nature that something good can come out even from the messiest and ugliest reality of our lives. Change, even radical change is possible as nature have shown us.

This gives us the greatest hope and joy in anticipation of the transformation that will become of us and of God’s creation in the fullness of time. Jesus’ transfiguration was a foretaste of the metamorphosis that is to become of us at the end of time. This also happens to us everyday. We often have glimpses of glory: in a remarkable sunset, in the shining face of a delighted child, in the radiant joy of new parents. Like the transfiguration, these glimpses of glory encourage and strengthen us to continue the journey of life toward eternal glory.

The divine metamorphosis that occurred to the three disciples on the mountain top during the Transfiguration of the Lord will also happen to us and we will become “God-viewers.” Like them and all the Saints of the ages, God’s light will metamorphose our whole body and soul. We will achieve what is called Theosis (Deification) and shine as luminaries radiating the light of the knowledge of God. We will become partakers of the Divine Grace and communicants of God.

This is also true for our world, Jesus’ resurrection is a symbol of hope for the change that will happen in the world from injustice into integrity, from hatred into kindness and from violence into peace. This gives the utmost hope especially to those who have long been suffering and desperate. But as Jesus showed us, the only way to transfiguration and transformation is through suffering and ultimately dying to ourselves.  Change can only happen at the cost of ourselves.

This new vision that God will fulfill for us is articulated in the first reading today. In the first reading, from the book of Genesis, God promised to Abraham that God will transform God’s chosen people–Israel. God will bestow an abundant posterity and land to Israel. God sealed his promise through a covenant which God established with Abraham:

“I will make of you a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
so that you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you
and curse those who curse you.
All the communities of the earth
shall find blessing in you.”

All these musings call for a reorientation of Lent. Australian Redemptorist Fr. Kevin O’Shea suggests that we take a reverse journey during Lent. We begin in the end—the resurrection:

Suppose we could … do Lent backwards. Suppose, instead of Ash Wednesday, we started with Easter Sunday. Suppose we then thought what we would have liked to have done to make ourselves ready for our share in Jesus’ resurrection. It would be like a reverse Easter vigil, not for one night, but for 40 nights. Backwards.[1]

Lent begins with the profound belief that we are a redeemed people through the resurrection. This victorious reality is what we received from our baptism. Baptism endows our profound identity as a redeemed people through the resurrection of Jesus. That is why from the earliest history of the church, the church has set aside the whole 40 days of Lent as the preparation and training period of candidates for baptism, called catechumens. The catechumens are solemnly baptized at the end of the Lenten season on Easter Vigil. This worthy practice was revived by the church in recent years through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) program. Thus, in Lent, we re-evaluate our lives in the light of our baptismal promises and identity. Lent is an academy where once again we relearn the meaning and implications and appreciate the wonder of baptism.

Whilst rituals, penitence, fasting, prayer and almsgiving are important, they are not the primary goal of Lent. As we go through Lent each year, oftentimes, our focus is on the external rituals and acts of penitence.  In so doing, Lent becomes about us—our efforts, discipline, sacrifices and goals no longer about the victory of Jesus. When this happen the whole Lenten discipline becomes superficial, merely obligations that we have to go through but does not bring forth true change. Thus, come Easter, after all the observances in Lent, we become what we call in Tagalog, BSDU: balik sa dating ugali (back to old ways).

By returning to our victorious baptismal identity, Lent becomes a time for examining our participation in the resurrection of Jesus. Lent is pondering what “rising from the dead” means. The resurrection of Jesus gives us hope, that despite all our frailties and failures, our wickedness and weaknesses, God’s grace will redeem us over and over again. There is no human being, however evil or sinful, that is beyond redemption by Jesus’ resurrection. As nature have shown us, change, even radical change, is possible. This too gives us hope in a transformed world, that in the midst of too much suffering in the world around us and the seeming prevalence of evil in our world, goodness will triumph, Jesus will triumph, and we will reach our fullness and life’s fullness in God’s grace.

 

 

 


 

[1] Kevin O’ Shea, “Ash Wednesday,” cssr.org. Accessed 22/02/2018 at https://www.cssr.org.au/writings/dsp-default.cfm?loadref=2765

1ST SUNDAY OF LENT: CONFRONTING THE ENEMY WITHIN

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When I was young. one of my most favorite song I played on the guitar was a song called “A Horse with no Name”. “A Horse With No Name” was first sung by the American band, America in 1972 and it was originally titled, “Desert Song.” According to the band the song was a metaphor for escaping the drudgery of everyday life in the city.

The desert, as we experience it today, is the place where, we are stripped of all that normally nourishes and supports us. We are exposed to chaos, raw fear, and demons of every kind. In the desert we are made vulnerable to be overwhelmed by chaos and temptations of every kind. Ironically,  because  we are so stripped of everything we normally rely on, it can also be a privileged moment for grace. Why? Because all the defense mechanisms, support systems, and distractions that we normally surround ourselves with may also work to keep much of God’s grace at bay.

Thus, deserts have played a prominent part in the spirituality of all religions. Our own scriptures tell us that, before they could enter into the promised land, the Israelites had to first wander in the desert for forty years – letting themselves be led by God, undergoing many trials, and swallowing much impatience. A long period of uprooting and frustration preceded the prosperity of the promised land.

This is also what we hear in the Gospel of today’s 1st Sunday of Lent.  The Holy Spirit led Jesus into the desert where he remained there for forty days. In the desert Jesus was confronted by the devil.

The devil tempted Jesus to showcase his power and magically ease himself out of suffering. The devil first tempted Jesus to make bread out of stones to appease his hunger after forty days in the desert. Then the devil tempted Jesus to  jump from a pinnacle and rely on angels to break his fall. Finally, the devil tempted Jesus to worship him and forget all about God’s mission in return for all the kingdoms of the world.

As we begin this Lenten season, Jesus invites us to enter the desert. The desert is no longer just a physical, geographical thing. It is that place in the soul where we feel most alone, insubstantial, frightened, and fragile. It is that place where we go to face our demons, feel our smallness and yet be in a special intimacy with God, and prepare ourselves for the promised land. The enemy is not just outside but more importantly inside. The enemy is within us. The biggest battle we wage in this world is the battle to confront the enemy within.

Lent, therefore, is not so much physical, external activities but an inner spiritual struggle where we encounter God. In the desert of our soul we groan for God’s redemption. In the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer “Lead us not into temptation” becomes very real for us as we confront the temptations we have give-in our whole lives. We come face-to-face with our weaknesses and temptations, the tool of the devil. We admit that we are weak and cannot defeat the devil by our own efforts alone but by humbly and trustingly rely on God’s grace.

In these 40 days of the Lenten desert, let us return to our true selves formed in God’s grace. Like St. Paul, we place our lives in God’s grace, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So at the end of Lent we can, in a new freedom, recognise the joyful abundance of Easter’s new life.

 

 

 

Ash Wednesday: Reconnecting with God and all of God’s Creation

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Ash Wednesday marks the start of the Lenten season which is a call to return to the heart. This implies that Lent most of all is a call to a transformation from the deepest core of our being.  Although in Lent we will be doing many sacrificial and penitential acts, all these will come to nothing if there is no genuine inner transformation.

At the heart of our faith is our connectedness with all life rooted in God’s love. We are a being-in-connection not in-isolation. In this context, sin is the condition where we become separated or isolated from God, from others and from ourselves. Thus, during this Lent we are called to reconcile and heal whatever brokenness that has become of our relationship with God, others and ourselves.

Today is called Ash Wednesday because of the ritual of the imposition of ashes on the head during the liturgy of the day. The celebrant says the words: “You are dust and to dust you shall return, (cf. Gen 3:19).” The newer form is Jesus’ exhortation: “Repent and believe the gospel (Mk 1:15).” I kind of prefer the old formula even if is a bit morbid as it reminds us of our death. For me, however, it captures more the penitential character of Lent and the call to return to our origin as well as our end, symbolized by the dust, soil or earth. The earth more profoundly symbolizes the interconnectedness of all life rooted in God’s love.

The readings today expresses these calls to return to the heart and to our connectedness with all life rooted in God’s love.

The first reading from the prophet Joel proclaims the call to a wholehearted return to God: “Return to me with all your heart” (2:12). To return to the Lord with all of our heart means an inner conversion that reaches the deepest place of our selves not merely superficial nor external one. As the prophet says, “Rend your hearts, not your garments.” The heart, as we all believe, is the symbol of love and also the core of our being where our decisions and our attitudes mature.

St. Paul in the second reading also repeats the call to return to God: “We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Cor 5:20)” St. Paul insists that we can return to God not through our own effort but primarily through the love of the Father for us who did not hesitate to sacrifice his only Son.

In the Gospel from Matthew, Jesus reinterprets the three works of mercy prescribed by the Mosaic law: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. Jesus warns the people that if these three pillars are not observed through the love and the mercy of God it will be hypocritical. This has been shown over time through the practices of false religious leaders by their insistence on external formalism and social reward. Jesus invites us to do these works without any ostentation and public accolade, but only the reward of the love of the Father “who sees in secret” (Mt 6,4.6.18).

On Ash Wednesday, we are called to return to where we came from. The dust or earth is where we originally came from. Remember the story of creation, God created Adam, the first human being from dust. But also the earth is where we shall all return when we die. I am reminded of a popular Tagalog song by the Philippine folk band Asin in the 80s:

Nagmula sa lupa, magbabalik na kusa,
(From earth we came, willingly we shall return)
Ang buhay mong sa lupa nagmula …
(your life from the earth came)

But not just human beings, all things shall fall and return to the earth. All will turn to dust when they die. Thus the earth symbolizes our oneness as created things. This implies further that all creation is connected with each other. We are all creatures in need of one another. No one can live alone and isolated from creation or worst can dominate over creation. The interconnection of all creation is not meant to serve human beings but on the contrary human being are meant to serve and maintain the harmony and interconnectedness of all creation.

 

All creation is interconnected because it comes from God. We believe in the one God, three persons. While three persons, God is one because of the interconnectedness of God as shown in God’s inner life and God’s mission to all creation. Hence, we are only interconnected because we participate in the interconnectedness of God.

St. Thomas Aquinas explains this profound belief in his notion of God as exitus-reditus of all creation. According to St. Thomas, all things come from God (exitus) and, in different ways, return to him (reditus). For us human beings, however, the coming forth and returning in a special way reflects the inner life of the Trinity. In fact, the coming forth of the Son from the Father and the coming forth of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son are the cause and exemplar of our coming forth and our returning to God as creatures.[1]

Lent is the season of assessing how we have isolated our lives and endangered the web of interconnectedness of life. Lent is the time to examine the patterns of our lives which severed our need for God and one another through our pride, domination, power, self-centeredness, apathy, insecurity, fear, lust, jealousy and other patterns and tendencies that may lead us to sin. Lent is the realization of the drudgery and wretchedness of a life of separation from the love of God, family, others and ultimately our true selves. The spiritual exercises that we are to observe in the Lenten season like prayer, fasting and almsgiving are not merely private nor external show but our internal journey of reconnecting with the love of God in others, in creation and in ourselves.

On this Ash Wednesday, let us once again begin the journey of returning to the heart and reconnecting with the web of the interconnectedness of life rooted in the love of God. Let us begin our preparation for the renewal of our baptismal participation in the resurrection of Jesus by our wholehearted desire to return to God’s love.

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[1] Why Thomism, Dominicana. Accessed 13/02/2018 at https://www.dominicanajournal.org/why-thomism/