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/

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.

 

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.

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/

Easter Vigil: Living out our Liberation

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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.

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 liberation!

Happy Easter to you all!