5th Sunday of Easter (C)
May 6, 2007

Readings: Acts 14:21-27 / Rev 21:1-5a / Jn 13:31-33a, 34-35

(5th Sunday of Easter Year C)

[Paranaque City, Metro Manila, May 1, 2007]

Newness is the apt word that best describes what today’s liturgy, among other things, focuses on. The Entrance Antiphon gives the opening salvo: “Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous deeds” (Ps 98). The acclamation just before the Gospel brings us to the heart of what the Gospel reading itself zeroes in on: “I give you a NEW commandment; love one another, as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34).

Newness, or the active search for it, is what led Paul and Barnabas to blaze new trails for their work of evangelization. Discerning rightly that they were called to go beyond the limiting confines of the Judaic world at that time, they left the familiar sights and sounds of home, and went on a whirlwind “pilgrimage” of ministry to the areas associated with gentiles and non-Jewish cultures.

But it is especially the 2nd and 3rd readings that strike at the heart of this evangelical message of newness that we would do well to reflect on more deeply. Using what is known as “apocalyptic” style of writing, John reports a “vision” of “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev 21:1), thus effectively corroborating a prophecy made by Isaiah (65:17). Apocalyptic roughly means symbolic. If it is symbolic, a literal interpretation, obviously, is simply out of order. When the power of such symbolic language is pitted against the expanding bigger picture provided by the rest of Scripture, along with the tradition that accompanied such a “faith-context,” we also see an expanding understanding of this newness that comes from our Christian “faith-content.” This newness is not mere material, superficial, ephemeral, and shallow newness. It is newness in nature, and not mere newness in time. It is newness that seeps deep down, and not newness that loses its luster with the passage of chronological time. The Greek original pits a very important word that captures this total, out-and-out newness – kainos – as opposed to the highly time-bound, and ephemeral neos. The former is qualitative – and, therefore, deeper; the latter is merely quantitative – and, therefore – superficial.

This is the backdrop of what the Risen Lord now challenges us to – the call to radical newness that accrues from his “kainotic” (not neotic) message: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved, you should also love one another” (Gospel).

Part of my modest experience in leadership is my growing realization and conviction that “what you see is what you get.” Vision propels meaningful action. A recent acquaintance, a brilliant and capable businesswoman, over at dinner table, quoting her deceased father, puts it so nicely: “If you can’t see the invisible, you can’t do the impossible.” Without vision, not only people perish. The work perishes along with the demise of one’s capability to conjure up a world of possibilities, a world that could be different and better, a “new heaven and a new earth.” Back in the 70s, a car bumper sticker refers to the incongruous situation that occurs when a leader does not have a vision: “Don’t follow me. I’m lost.”

Henri Nouwen (who amongst my readers does not know him?) relates that famous story of a horse-rider who, one day, galloped into town, and when repeatedly asked the same question, “where are you going?” he would always have the same answer: “I don’t know. Ask my horse.” Nouwen wisely counsels his readers … “We must know where our horses are going.” We must have a vision, lest we perish.

I would like to think that today, 5th Sunday of Easter, the one who blazed startlingly new trails, by rising to new life, is also giving us a blueprint for a new heaven and a new earth.

He calls us to newness. He rouses us to freshness. In a world filled with the staleness of the ordinary and the mundane, the Risen Lord calls us to a life of extraordinariness. In a world that expects us to follow the well-beaten path of mediocrity and the so-called patterns of “normality,” Paul and Barnabas, John the evangelist, and no less than the Risen Lord Himself, tell us that there is a new world out there waiting to be born, a new reality out there waiting to be fashioned, a world best described by John (and Isaiah) as a world where “there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away” (2nd reading).

This new world whereof Isaiah and John speak, is, for the most part, invisible to our narrow, and progressively narrowing visions. Caught as we all are, by the rapid onslaught of globalization, along with its concomitant forces that produce an equally rapid and almost unstoppable process of dehumanization, most of us literally and figuratively raise our arms in exasperation and surrender. For a great many of us postmodern people, what we see, is, indeed, what we get … a culture of sin, a culture of corruption, a culture of individualism, etc. Pope John Paul II, of happy memory, has the best word to describe this process. He called a spade a spade. He called it a “culture of death” plain and simple.

Our contemporary experience is full of glaring examples of this process of co-optation that this culture of death subjects us all to. Trust and freedom are the very first items to be thrown out the window of convenience and commercialization. Two things stand out in our postmodern culture marked by insecurity and lack of trust: suspicion and irreverence. Unable to hold on to the molding and gelling power of commonly held beliefs (faith-content), lost in a tumultuous “sea” of insecurity and inability to be attracted by commonly held values (faith-context), we end up wallowing in a culture and “hermeneutics” of suspicion. We suspect everyone and everything. We don’t trust leaders. We don’t trust the system that breeds rapacious wolves who go around in sheep’s clothing. And those we don’t trust, we definitely condemn. We look at institutions with both damning suspicion and irreverence. We poke fun at leaders capable or not. Just look at our lackluster governments and administrations all over the world. Here in backwater Philippines, where I chose to remain – and stay – I salute whoever it was who first said that our problem in our society is as much about a “crisis of leaders” as about the “crisis of the led!” We are all in it together. We are a rudderless, vision-less, direction-less nation adrift in a sea engulfed by massive suspicion and irreverence. Did I mention that most of us Filipinos don’t even subscribe to the official pro-life teaching of Mother Church? Did I mention, too, that Honduras (with more than 95% of the 7 million population officially Catholic) and the Philippines have more than one thing in common … starting with the damning fact that both countries are patently Catholic and patently corrupt?

My heart bleeds for a country adrift in this chaotic sea of corruption and vision-less leadership (at least on the part of most politicians). It is never too late at this juncture to remind ourselves that John saw a vision that “the sea was no more.” The sea, for the Jews, was a symbol of everything chaotic, everything that is wrong with the world. John’s vision takes pain to remind us that “the sea was no more.” Who can beat this message and vision of utter newness?

Whilst my heart bleeds for my country and the world … whilst it also bleeds at the sight of a local church lost in a sea of squabbles and ministerial disunity … whilst it all the more bleeds for a congregation I belong to which (at least in the local scene) seems to be led by people who either can’t have a vision, or at least can’t articulate that vision if they had one, my readings of today’s liturgy is what propels me to share this overwhelming message of hope that comes from someone who is in charge, and who will ultimately prevail: “Behold, I make all things new.”

But in the meantime, as we all wait actively for what is “already” and what is “not yet,” there is the in-between-time of our pilgrimage stay in this world, where we are called to give a little help to Him whose vision is “that we might have life and have it in its fullness.” These are words that form part of a new song. I refer to the new song of Easter. “We are an Easter people, and Alluluia is our song,” Augustine reminds us. Why don’t we start by praying as we did at the beginning of this Mass?

Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, you have revealed to the nations your saving power and filled all ages with the words of a new song. Hear the echo of this hymn. Give us the voice to sing your praise throughout this season of joy. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen” (Alternative Opening Prayer).