EASTER SUNDAY: EASTER SURPRISE

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Painting by Nic Esquivias

On Easter morning, while the men were sleeping, the women went to the tomb very early in the morning and witnessed the first appearance of the risen Jesus. This is perhaps the first surprise of the resurrection of Jesus—the first witnesses of the resurrection were women.

Of course, the greatest surprise of Easter is Jesus’ triumph over death. By his resurrection he destroyed death. Death no longer have the final say. Jesus’ resurrection is the greatest reason of our faith. We will not celebrate Easter today, let alone would there be a church and Christian religion, if Jesus did not rise from the dead. Life and goodness will triumph despite all the suffering and misery we now experience. We will rise up with Jesus to new life in the midst of this pandemic.

All four gospels recount that women were the first witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus. Mark narrates that “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him” (Mark 16: 1). Matthew relates that “After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning; Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb” (Matthew 28: 1). Luke presents us with a number of women at the empty tomb: “The women were Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary the mother of James,” as well as the unnamed “others who accompanied them” (Luke 24:10). While John tells us that the risen Jesus appeared only to Mary of Magdala (John 20: 14 – 17). In all four gospels, the name Mary Magdalene was mentioned which gives credence to the belief that Mary Magdalene was one of the first persons to whom the risen Jesus appeared.

For centuries, Mary Magdalene was imputed with a bad reputation and sometimes called a demon-possessed whore. Not until the last century that the Church’s cease to identify her with the “sinful woman” who anoints Jesus’ feet in Scripture. The church later gave Mary Magdalene her due, calling her the Apostle of the Apostles because she was the first to witness the resurrected Jesus.

Why would Jesus first appear to women at a time when women were not considered credible witnesses? This difficulty may have confronted the early Church. For the apostles, at least, this was a problem as Luke writes, “Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (24: 10 – 11).

What does this overlooked detail about Jesus’ resurrection tells us about how to live the Easter spirit?

The first lesson of the resurrection of Jesus is that we are all called to witness the resurrection. This is what the women sought when they went to the tomb very early on that Easter morning. True, we have not seen with our eyes the resurrection of Jesus but as the risen Jesus told Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John: 20: 29). This is us–we are the blessed ones, we all have not seen and yet we believe!

But believing is not enough. We need to give witness and live out the resurrection. As St. Augustine proclaimed: We are an Easter people and alleluia is our song! We are the children of Easter morn. We need to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus with our feet. We need to walk the resurrection and resurrect the walk.

The second lesson concerns the fact that it was to women that Jesus first appeared after his resurrection. There must be a very good reason why God made his risen Son known first to women and only later to the Apostles. This challenges us to take a hard look once again at women’s place in the church. Even as Pope Francis asks us to develop a deeper theology of women, the Church still struggles today to give women their due voice as witnesses to our risen life in Christ.

The attitude of Mary of Magdala and the other women may teach us something about witnessing to the resurrection. The women witnesses had no status, power, and wealth. This may actually made them more open and receptive to the magnificent surprise of Jesus’ resurrection. After all it has been shown in God’s story of salvation that it is to the weak and humble, like Mary, the mother of Jesus, that God first reveals and acts out God’s mission. Witnessing to the resurrection does not involve status, power and wealth. It calls us to embrace the women witnesses’ disposition of humility and willingness to God’s intervention in our lives.

The third lesson has got to do with the difficulty that the women encountered in testifying to the risen Lord—they were met with scepticism and rejection even by the apostles themselves. The difficulties of the women in giving witness to Jesus resurrection are also experienced today by many Christians who are persecuted because of their faith. They are experienced by Christians who stand up for truth, justice and peace in the midst of complacency, violence, falsehood and injustice. They are also experienced by Christians who lead simple, selfless and authentic connections in the midst of the consumerist, selfie and shallow connections of digital culture. They are also experienced by Christians who demonstrate their Christian identities and values in the midst of the secularized and capitalist world. They are also experienced by Christians who sacrificed their lives for their loved ones, friends and even to strangers without receiving any reward in return.

Witnessing to the resurrection of Jesus will always be challenging. But like the women in the gospel today, we do not need power, position and status. We just need to be constantly open to God’s surprise every day of our lives.

Happy Easter!

St. Stephen, Protomartyr: Living the True Spirit of Christmas

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After all the merry-making, all the festivities, all the food and drinks, all the joyous gatherings we attended yesterday on Christmas day, we celebrate today the feast of St. Stephen, first martyr of the church. We hear in the liturgy today the bloody death of Stephen, and of Jesus’ warnings of persecution, death, and hatred for his name’s sake.

Is the liturgy playing kill joy during this Christmas season?

No, in fact, within 2 days, we will celebrate the feast of the Holy Innocents. The feast of the Holy Innocents commemorates the massacre of young children in Bethlehem by King Herod the Great in his attempt to kill the infant Jesus (Matthew 2:16–18).

On the contrary, the Church’s long tradition of celebrating the memorial of St. Stephen after Christmas does not serve to demote Christmas, but to continue it. The liturgy after Christmas wish to manifest more clearly that when Jesus comes to dwell in our hearts, his incarnation in our lives cannot remain without effect. Jesus was born into this world in order to teach us how to die to the values of the world and live in the values of God’s kingdom. St. Stephen’s faith-filled martyrdom focuses our attention on this truth.

I remember in 2015, around Christmas time, we displayed gruesome photos of the extra-judicial killing around the shrine. The killings were justificed by the government as a collateral result of its bloody war on drugs. Many of the devotees who went to the shrine were shocked when they saw the pictures although many also expressed support to the photo gallery. On social media,  we were called all sorts of names—bastard priests, demons from hell, members of the yellow cult, rapists and pedophiles, coddlers of drug lords, thieving hypocrites playing politics—many of them coming from the devotees. It is utterly distressing that in a Christian country like ours, the killings is tolerated, even supported by a majority of people who are mostly Catholic.

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St. Stephen’s is one the first deacons of the church. As a deacon he had a twofold task. He was assigned to the service of the tables, the “service of love” to the poor, so that the Apostles would have more time for preaching. But since he also the gift of preaching, he should also perform this ministry of truth. And Stephen, trusting in Jesus, devoted himself whole-heartedly to these tasks. He was stoned to death because his preaching of Jesus as the Son of God was considered blasphemy.

But St. Stephen make no compromises concerning the truth. He proclaims the Jesus who revealed himself and whom he had come to know. But he does not proclaim this truth by way of violence or hatred, but in love and in self-giving. Until the last moment he forgives the men who kill him. As Jesus prayed for those who killed him, so St. Stephen prayed, “Lord, do not count this sin against them!” And his witness, his death was fruitful for the Church. The remembrance of this witness, for example, probably helped Saul later to accept Christ’s message, and thereby to become the great Apostle Paul.

The example of St. Stephen shows us that the world needs the witness of the truth in love and in self-giving, despite the violence in the world today. This is an essential implication if we would take seriously the challenge of living out the true spirit of Christmas.