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.

 

2ND SUNDAY OF LENT: TOWARDS RESURRECTION

transfiguration
Photo from the top of Mt. Manalmon

Last Sunday, the first Sunday of Lent, we reflected on the desert as a primary symbol of the Lenten discipline. This second Sunday of Lent, we will reflect on the mountain top as the primary symbol of the goal of Lent. Today’s 2nd Sunday of Lent suggests that the end of Lent is not the suffering and death but the resurrection of Jesus. Lent is the disciplining of our mortal and sinful body and soul in order to partake of the resurrected and transfigured body and soul of Jesus.

If desert was a testing ground, mountains are sacred grounds where God often reveals himself to people, called theophanies in theological terms. In the Bible, the mountains top symbolize the presence of God, since on top of the mountain, people are “closer to God” who dwells in the heavens (as in the sky). Thus, mountains and hills represent a higher level of spiritual consciousness or awareness. Mountain symbolize the transformation that will happen to us at the end of time, a transformation that will happen when we enter into the mode of existence of the resurrected Christ.

The second Sunday of Lent clarifies for us that resurrection is the main goal of Lent. Resurrection is our ultimate way of life not passion and death.   As St. Augustine proclaimed: We are an Easter people! We are children of Easter morn. We are a redeemed people, redeemed by Christ from death and sin. This is our deepest and truest identity as a people.

Many liturgists refer to Lent/Eastertide as “The Great 90 Days,” in Tagalog, pagsisiyamnapo.  Lent is 40 days which is the preparation. Easter is 50 days which is the celebration of resurrection. Easter is longer than Lent because it is the celebration of the resurrection while Lent is shorter because it is just the preparation.

We cannot separate Lent from Easter, in the same way that we cannot separate Easter from Lent.  Together, they compose the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ–Jesus’ Life, Death and Resurrection. The word ‘Paschal’ comes from an ancient Aramaic word, pasha (Hebrew, pesah) meaning ‘Passover’.  Passover is the central event in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). It is the story of of Israel’s liberation by God from slavery in Egypt. On the night of the passover, the Israelites were instructed by God to mark the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a slaughtered spring lamb so that when the spirit of the Lord see this, the spirit will pass over the first-born in these homes, and thus, sparing them from death. As Christians we believe that Jesus has become the true sacrificial Passover “Lamb of God” (John 1:29).  This was fulfilled through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. We celebrate the promise of sharing in the paschal mystery of Christ at our Baptism.

The readings today speak about the radical transformation which God will fulfill for us.

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:

“To your descendants I give this land,
from the Wadi of Egypt to the Great River, the Euphrates.”

In the Second Reading, St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians, speaks of the change of our earthly existence in the final consummation.

Our citizenship is in heaven,
and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
He will change our lowly body
to conform with his glorified body
by the power that enables him also
to bring all things into subjection to himself.

The term “glorious body,” reflects an apocalyptic hope, that is, the life we hope to achieve at the end of time. According to this hope, the life of the age to come will not be merely a prolongation of this present life but an entirely new, transformed mode of existence. It will be a mode of existence that Christ entered at his resurrection.

Today’s gospel tells the story of the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain. In today’s gospel from Luke, we read

Jesus took Peter, John, and James
and went up the mountain to pray.
While he was praying his face changed in appearance
and his clothing became dazzling white.
And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah,
who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus
that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.
Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep,
but becoming fully awake,
they saw his glory and the two men standing 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.

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