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.

FEAST OF SANTO NIÑO: SANTO NIÑO IN THE MIDST OF CALAMITIES AND SUFFERING

sto-nino

While the rest of the Catholic world celebrates the 2nd Sunday in ordinary time, the Philippines Catholic Church celebrates the feast of Santo Niño (Holy Child Jesus). Vatican granted the Philippines Church a special permission to celebrate the Feast of the Santo Niño every third Sunday of January because of the Filipinos’ exuberant devotion to Santo Niño.

The celebration of the feast of Santo Niño is a beautiful expression of the wedding between the Christian faith and the Filipino culture. Santo Niño symbolizes, on the one hand, the introduction of the Christian faith to the Filipino people.  On the other hand, Santo Niño symbolizes the celebration of the Filipino culture. The relic of Santo Niño is the first Christian image that set foot on Philippine soil, originally as a gift from explorer Ferdinand Magellan to Rajah Humabon and his chief consort on account of their baptism in 1521.

The native Filipinos welcome the relic of Santo Niño and the whole Christian faith, however, according to their cultural sensibilities. The cultural appropriation of Santo Niño is beautifully expressed in the dance called Sinulog. Before the Spanish conquistadores came, Sinulog was already danced by the natives in honor of their wooden idols and Anitos. The natives then adapted the Sinulog as a dance ritual in honor of the miraculous image of the Santo Niño. Thus, Sinulog became the link between the country’s indigenous past and its Christian present.

While devotees dance the sinulog, they chant “Pit Señor.” “Pit Señor” is the short form of “Sangpit sa Señor,” a phrase in Cebuano that means, “to call, ask, and plead to the king.”  Indeed, the image of Sto. Niño depicts an innocent boy Jesus with a smiling face yet dressed as a king. Dressed in the robes of a king, crowned and holding the sceptre, the globe and the cross, Sto. Niño reminds us of the link between God’s Kingdom and the mystery of spiritual childhood. These enigmatic contrasting elements provide us with one of the profound reasons to believe that Sto. Niño is our protector and has the power to grant and answer our prayers as many miracles have attested.

The readings of today’s feast invites us not just to venerate the relic of Santo Niño but more importantly to imitate the ways and values of Santo Niño.

In the first reading, Isaiah prophesied that “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” This light will be a child who will be born among them, “upon his shoulder dominion rests.” The description of the child sends a strong message to the oppressors of Israel. The child is not someone to be babied, not a weakling, but a strong leader.  The child will defeat machineries of oppression and rule over Israel with wisdom, peace, justice and good judgment.

In the gospel today, Jesus called a child and put the child among his disciples :

“Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

When Jesus used the symbol of the child it has nothing to do with romanticizing the child. Jesus brought out the symbol of the child in the context of the Kingdom of God when he asked:

“Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

Who is the child in Jesus’ society during his time whom he considered as the greatest in God’s kingdom? Who are the children that Jesus referred to? The image of child or children represents the poor, the anawim, the insignificant, powerless, the “little ones” in Jesus and the Biblical times. They have no status and position in society. Who are the children in God’s eyes today? They are the poor who continue to be poor despite the massive display of wealth by the few, they are the victims of calamities–natural and human made, they are the victims of violence and extra-judicial killings, they are the powerless who are manipulated by powerful politicians and misled by fake news and misinformation, they are the sick and the dying who have no one to care for them, they are amongst us who are desperate and have no one to turn to but fellow poor and God.

When Jesus said to turn and become like children does not mean to become a child but to become anawim, poor, to become like one who depend on no one else but God. They are the least, the humble, the hungry, the thirsty, the prisoners, and the sick. They are people who need other people, and they are people who need God’s protection. They long for God to reign in their lives.

In other words, to become like little children is to become poor. We can only enter the kingdom of God if we become poor. No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God—they cannot enter the Kingdom of God. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, are the greatest in the Kingdom of God.

The second point that Jesus wishes to impart to us in the gospel today is that by becoming children or poor we can take the side and advance the plight of our fellow poor people. Jesus said,

 “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me … Let no one despise these little ones, these children… Whoever despises one of these little ones who depend on God. … Beware! Their angels, their guardians, will see what you have done to them and will surely protect them. After all, they depend on God’s protection.”

He reminded his disciples that whatsoever they do to the poor, they did it to him. This is reiterated by Jesus at the end of time when he will return in glory to judge the world,

“Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

How do we become a child of the Kingdom of God today? We become a child of the Kingdom of God today, by upholding the aspirations of the poor, powerless, marginalized, victims of injustice, intolerance and inhumanity in our own communities, parishes and the wider society. In the midst of all the calamities and miseries we experience today, the image of Santo Niño is a powerful symbol of protest against the values and conditions that contradict the Kingdom of God—power, domination, wealth, violence, pride, injustice, exploitation, inequality and poverty.

The feast of Santo Niño is a beautiful festivity overflowing with profound spiritual meaning. It is nice to dance the Sinulog but let us make our celebration of the Santo Niño go beyond mere pageantry. May it truly transform us into children of the Kingdom of God. To become children of God is not to become childish in our faith.  To become children of God goes beyond having a zealous devotion to Santo Niño. To become children of God is to become poor and to cast our lot and struggle together with the poor, the least, the lowly and the most abandoned in our society today.

By doing so, we become the greatest in the Kingdom of God!

 

Poong Hesus Nazareno and the Devotees at the Shrine

black-nazarene

Today in Manila, all roads lead to Quiapo.

Every January 9, the Traslación of the Black Nazarene (commemorating the “solemn transfer” of the image’s copy from Quirino Grandstand to Quiapo) makes its way along the streets of Manila through a 6-kilometer-long procession. An estimated number of 3 million people are expected to participate and witness the event, which may last about 22 hours as in previous years. The traslación is undoubtedly the biggest one-day public display of popular religiosity in the Philippines, or perhaps, the whole world.

The Black Nazarene ( in Filipino: Poóng Itím na Nazareno, Hesus Nazareno) is a life-sized image of a dark-skinned, kneeling Jesus Christ carrying the Cross enshrined in the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo, Manila.

Thousands of devotees of the Black Nazarene, some wearing maroon shirts and carrying white towels, and barefooted have started the hours-long journey through the streets of Manila early morning today. The Black Nazarene will be accompanied by throngs of people with many trying to climb onto the carossa carrying the miraculous image. Devotees scramble to touch the statue as part of their prayer and expression of devotion.

nazareno-devotee-barefoot

Many devotees of Poong Hesus Nazareno, especially those coming from Parañaque, Las Piñas and Cavite area, pass by the shrine on the way to Quiapo. Many of them in barefoot wear maroon t-shirt with the image of Poong Hesus Nazareno, carry white towels and maroon handkerchief with the image of  Poong Hesus Nazareno and some carry the statue of Poong Hesus Nazareno. They say a little prayer in front of the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help inside the shrine and the shrine’s statue of crucified Christ at the entrance of the shrine, before they continue their journey to Quiapo.

nazareno-devotee

We don’t have a statue of Poong Hesus Nazareno in the shrine but we have the statue of the dark skinned Christ crucified on the cross at the entrance of the shrine. This statue is easily the most favorite statue in the shrine. Many devotees crowd the statue, touching, wiping and kissing it. Many can be seen crying in front of the statue. At least every six months, the shrine needs to repaint the statue because the paint has faded after all the wiping and kissing of the statue by the thousands of devotees.

For many devotees in the shrine, the statue is a tangible representation of our Lord Jesus whom they can touch and kiss. When they touch and kiss the statue they believe that they already touch Jesus. And because they have touched him, they were able to bring to him their petitions and pleas. Perhaps, another reason for its popularity is because the devotees can see their own sufferings in the sufferings of the crucified Christ. Because of this, they feel that Christ on the cross identifies with their own sufferings.

Watching the devotees wiping the statue of the crucified Christ with their handkerchief or bandanna then wiping it on themselves reminds me of the story of Veronica who met Jesus carrying the cross to Calvary. According to Church tradition, Veronica[1] was moved with pity when she saw Jesus carrying his cross to Golgotha and gave him her veil that he might wipe his forehead. Jesus accepted the offering, held it to his face, and then handed it back to her—the image of his face was miraculously impressed upon Veronica’s veil.

feet-nazareno

I believe that the experience of Veronica, encountering Jesus on his way to Calvary, is the same experience of the millions of devotees in the shrine and in Quiapo. When devotees wipe the statue of the crucified Christ in the shrine and Poong Hesus Nazareno in Quiapo, the crucified face of Christ becomes impressed upon their handkerchief or bandanna. Their handkerchief or bandanna bearing the crucified face of Christ becomes a great resource for them in their life-journey especially in their daily struggles and hardships. When devotees wiped their handkerchief or bandanna bearing the crucified face of Christ on their bodies, they experienced Jesus touching and embracing their tired and worn out bodies. They can sense Jesus’ solidarity and identification with their suffering and trials in life. This gives them the greatest hope to continue to face life’s difficulties and reach their aspirations because Christ has also experienced pain and suffering. Like Christ, they will also resurrect and emerge victorious amidst the seemingly insurmountable problems in life.

It is also important to remember that the celebration of the traslacion of Poong Hesus Nazareno still falls within the Christmas season. We are in the Wednesday after the Epiphany of Lord, which is part of the Christmas celebration. This means that the passion and suffering of Jesus cannot be separated from the incarnation of Christ–God becoming flesh and dwelling among us. When the Son of God became human, he was prepared to embrace our pain and suffering, including death. If we are to truly live the spirit of Christmas, therefore, we must also be prepared to identify with the mission of Jesus and follow Jesus’ words and deeds, which led to his suffering and death on the cross.

crowd-nazareno


[1]There is no reference to the story of St Veronica and her veil in the canonical Gospels. The closest thing in the gospel about Veronica is the miracle of the woman who was healed by touching the hem of Jesus’s garment (Luke 8:43–48)

Holy Week Ends in Resurrection, not in Crucifixion

at-the-foot-of-the-cross

In the National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help in Baclaran, Holy Week is the biggest week of the year. Throughout the Holy Week celebrations thousands of devotees will flock to the shrine every day of the Holy Week. Many devotees will attend the liturgical services of the Holy Week at the shrine. The lines at the confessional will be the longest in the whole year. Many will do the stations of the cross inside and outside of the church.

The highlight of the Holy Week activities is the Paschal Triduum: Holy Thursday – Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion and the Holy Saturday evening of Easter Vigil. Among these most important liturgies,  Good Friday is the most well-attended. The church is packed and crowds overflow to the outside of the church. But the same big crowd is nowhere to be found during the Easter Vigil. In my almost ten years at the shrine, Easter Vigil crowd could hardly fill the church.

This somehow reflects the Filipino’s penchant for identifying more with Christ’s suffering and pain.  Filipinos have suffered for so long time that the ordinary Filipino is called Juan de la Cruz (John of the cross). No wonder, two of the most popular icons of Christ amongst Filipinos are the Poong Jesus Nazareno and the Santo Entierro – both icons depict Christ’s suffering and death.

Fr. Ferdinand R. Santos once commented that the Philippine Holy Week is world-famous, not for its piety, but for its bloody flagellants and actual crucifixions that identify with pain in its most literal and physical extreme. Filipino religiosity can make suffering appear as an end in itself. This is a far cry from the liturgy of the triduum which conveys that the passion of Jesus doesn’t end in suffering but leads inexorably to the resurrection.

Santos warns us that detached from the resurrection, the suffering and death of Christ becomes a tragedy. Worse, it does tremendous violence to the innate human capacity to rise above defeat.

Jesus, indeed, experienced the most brutal physical pain and death any human being can ever endure. Jesus, in his own humanity, however, did not want to go through his suffering and death. In the end, Jesus willingly accepted suffering and death on the cross not because he took pleasure from pain or humiliation but to fulfill the Father’s will; “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).

Consequently, God does not want to inflict pain on us nor does God want us to suffer foolishly and die a senseless death. Injustice, poverty, war and hunger are social evils that are not acceptable to God, and never have been. This goes without saying that God does not want us to inflict pain on ourselves even if it is to commemorate God’s own suffering and death on Good Friday. God willingly suffered and died because it was God’s way of leading us to the true meaning of glory and new life. 

The divine perspective on suffering and death challenges our perspective of glory and victory.  Glory and triumph in human standards is to bask in fame, power, wealth, honor and influence. Seen through this standard, Jesus’ suffering and death was a massive failure. But God’s glory and victory is different from ours. God’s glory and victory is expressed in various times and places in the Gospel, like in the Beatitudes, in Jesus’ parables and Mary, representing the human response–Magnificat. In these proclamations, God’s glory and victory represents the reversal of fortune: In God’s Kingdom those who struggle in life now—those who are at the bottom or on the edges of human society—will suddenly find themselves at the top and in the center. On the other hand, those who now enjoy the greatest human security and social advantage will experience the opposite of their lives on earth.

Seen through God’s standard of glory and triumph, Jesus’ suffering and death, therefore, was a powerful protest against all forms of oppression and domination. Jesus’ resistance to the cruel and inhuman acts by his captors represents the strongest protest against evil and subjugation.    

Holy Week is not the time to try to replicate Jesus’ physical suffering. No human reenactment of Jesus crucifixion, though how brutal it can be, can ever repeat Jesus’ pain and suffering. Instead, Holy Week is the time for the deepest examination of our lives, our values, our attitudes vis-a-vis Jesus’ gospel values and standards. This Holy Week all of us will stand trial before Jesus. How did we continue to crucify Jesus in our world by our sinful embrace of the world’s standards and values? How did we continue to crucify Jesus in our world by the pursuit of our own glory? How did we continue to crucify Jesus in our world by inflicting humiliation, pain and suffering to others especially the weak?

Our responses to these self-examination represents the crosses that we shall carry to our own Calvary with Jesus. These are the crosses that we need to willfully be crucified to.  These are the crosses that we need to willingly die to. 

By dying to these crosses, we will allow the new life that we receive at our baptism to rise up again. At the end of Holy Week, the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection at the Easter Vigil of the Holy Night of Easter, we can truly renew our faith and proclaim our allegiance to God’s power of love and goodness and at the same time proclaim our fundamental opposition to evil. 

May you have a blessed Holy Week.