Three-Day Journey from Guts, Grits, to Glory: Easter Triduum

Mass of the Lord’s Supper
Holy Thursday
April 5, 2007

Readings: Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14 / 1 Cor 11:23-26 / Jn 13:1-15

SIGN, SERVICE, SACRAMENT, SILENCE

The Mass of the Lord’s Supper opens the Easter Triduum. Too bad, most people (at least in tropical Philippines) by this time will have gone to the beaches where there is a lot of sun, sand, sea, and surf. Those who stay, or have nowhere else to go would probably be taking advantage of the non-working holiday treat (at least in predominantly Christian countries) to catch up on their laundry, do their grocery shopping, or finally see the many daytime and reality TV shows to their hearts’ content, untrammeled and unhampered by work or other responsibilities.

In exchange for tropical sun, sand, sea, and surf, I would like to propose that today, the Church would rather have us think of sign, service, sacrament, and silence.

Sign. Everything we do in Church today (and in all liturgical celebrations) has to do with the world of signs. First and foremost, although this liturgy is a memorial re-actualization (and not a historical reconstruction), we celebrate Mass after sundown. This harks back to the Israelites of old who, in memory of their Passover event, would also celebrate their Passover meal at a similar time with similar circumstances. Secondly, for us Christians, this same sign harks back to the Passover meal celebrated by the Lord with his disciples as he braced himself and prepared for the great act of self-oblation that would start taking place that very night, and onto the rest of that day before the Sabbath. This Mass of the Lord’s Supper is deeply steeped in sign that spans the course of the Old and the New Testaments.

Service. But there is more to the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper than just a looking back to events past. The Gospel today shows the Lord Jesus Christ in an act of humble service. He sheds his outer garment. He sheds his divinity and stature and “took on the nature of a slave.” He pours water, and washes his disciples’ feet. Later that same day, his service would take on extreme proportions. He sheds not just clothes, and pours not just water. He sheds his life. He pours his blood for all those he called “friends” – for “no greater love exists, than for a man to give his life for his friends.” He does a priestly role of service, offering himself in toto to his disciples on the altar of fraternal service, in anticipation of his total self-giving on the altar of Calvary. By showing an example and by doing as he talked, he instituted the ministerial priesthood, the priesthood of service that he himself was prime and ultimate example of. For he was, simply put, the offerer of sacrifice. He, too, was the victim offered. His death was the final stamp that certified his victimhood on account of, and on behalf of, all sinful women and men. No less than extreme measures on his part led to extreme makeovers on sinful humanity’s part. We were justified. We were redeemed. His “service” brought us salvation.

Sacrament. But total service merits not just remembrance, but the proverbial memorial of biblical proportions. Re-actualization demands a capacity to make present, make actual, and make alive those same saving signs and acts of service. Jesus, the High Priest, goes further. He institutes the priesthood for service. But that priesthood is intricately connected with this capacity for meaning-making, this capacity for re-actualizing and making real of what Jesus Himself does that night. In customary Passover fashion, he takes both bread and cup, offers thanks, and does something more than what is customary. He tells his disciples: “Do this in memory of me … for this is my body … this is my blood.” He links priesthood of service with sacrament. The love that led Him to selfless service is the same love that He offers in actuality and sign – what scholastic theologians used to refer to as “res et sacramentum.” He offers his body and blood as saving sacraments under the species of bread and wine. He confects bread and wine and turns them into the august sacrament of the Eucharist. While retaining their external forms, bread and wine are transubstantiated into Christ’s Body and Blood. The Eucharist now is our perpetual sign, not only of Christ’s self-oblative love, but a palpable sign par excellence of our salvation. “He who eats my bread and drinks this cup will have life everlasting.”

Silence. After the Mass celebrated in utmost joy and solemnity, proper of the thanksgiving that Eucharist essentially stands for … after being reminded in sign, symbol, and song of the generous gifts of priesthood and Eucharist, an air of silentium magnum – awed silence – captures the hearts of all who take part. Make no mistake about it. This ought not to be confused with the silence of grief that often is mistakenly connected with the death of the Lord. No … this is the silence of awe and great thanksgiving at the equally great and magnanimous gift of God’s eternal palpable and visible presence in and through the Eucharist. Focus will be on the sacrament, not celebration, for the riotous, glorious, and ebullient Eucharistic celebration takes a back seat to give way, first and foremost to adoration of the sacrament, and second, to an air of awed reverence and deference to the great act of the Lord’s self-oblation in his passion and death on the cross. For this one time in the whole liturgical year, the sacramental reality is put on “reposition” to allow us to put more attention, later in the day (Good Friday) on the cross that is the symbol par excellence of the saving act of Jesus our Savior.

Sign, service, sacrament, and silence are our Church’s way of introducing us to the holiest three days of our liturgical calendar. The liturgy for all three days is so rich it cannot be reduced to history. Liturgy is never, and ought never to be seen as an Obberammergau living tableau, or a “Cenaculo-type” (local Philippines Passion Play) re-enactment of the Passion of the Christ. Neither can it be lumped as pure and simple memory, understood as shallow remembrance, distant from us, not just in time, but also in terms of a lack of emotional bonding and attachment. But neither is it to be reduced to an attempt at approximating the pain and the pathos suffered by the world’s most tremendous lover – Jesus Christ. Historical reconstruction simply satisfies our curiosity. Shallow memory just leads us to a detached rehashing of events past. Even brilliant unbelievers could pull that off easily by a rapid rattling of events following a definite historical timeline. Emotional reliving, in its turn, merely satisfies our need for a catharsis, a shallow identification with a victim who suffers all sorts of ignominies, in order for us to get shallow and short-lived consolations.

Sun, sand, sea, and surf lead many of us to exactly this short-lived excitement. For a great many of us, all we can do to capture its happy moments is to etch them in digital bytes of media moments or MPEG files for posterity. But photographs, no matter how glossy, no matter how glitzy, can never capture the event for eternity. Soon, the most memorable events by the sea, are washed away like shifting sand, ravaged by the surf that comes and goes, and all human memories are washed away into a sea of ephemeral and time-bound concerns characteristic of all human endeavors. Memories fade. Hard disks that store such memories may crash and burn. Once great men extolled by fame or fortune are talked about no longer, for out of sight is out of mind. And, in the end, even what we once thought or believed to have been our greatest acts of heroism and selflessness, will soon suffer the same ravages of time and space. They will be gone forever ... like everything material ... like everything human ... like everything we hold onto and find hard to let go of.

To hold onto them is like trying to hold onto a fistful of sand. It goes away from your grasp one tiny grain at a time. It is blown away by the wind of forgetfulness. It is taken away by the innate human desire to go, get, and grab something more, something better, something richer. And before you know it, that fistful of sand is no more than a fading memory that comes and goes exactly like the surf, now lost in a sun-bathed sea of human dreams and delusions. And all that is left is tiny grits that irritate and cause nothing else but tears in your eyes.

I prefer to dwell on sign, service, sacrament, and silence. For more than two thousand years, great men whose names we cannot even remember now, have tried to destroy and banish that man’s memory and influence from the face of the earth. Rulers and despots have connived, conspired, and contrived all sorts of means to destroy the great sacrament of His saving presence, the Church. But the whole world this night will sit silent and still before that great sign and sacrament of this Man-God who served His all, gave His all, and loved us all to the full. Let all mortal flesh keep silence … TANTUM ERGO SACRAMENTUM, VENEREMUR CERNUI! Humble now and silent, let us bown down in adoration before this great sacrament. What our senses cannot fathom, Christian faith now lends us and offers us. Praised and blessed every moment, be the most holy and divine sacrament!

St. Benedict Menni Formation Center
Pasig City, April 2, 2007
2:00 PM

Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion
April 6, 2007

Readings: Is 52:13 – 53:12 / Heb 4:14-16; 5:7-9 / Jn 18:1 – 19:42

THE CONUNDRUM OF THE CROSS

The serene and joyful silence that ended our celebration last night after the Lord’s Supper extends to today, broken only by the sedate and simple recitation of the Morning Prayers. Our afternoon liturgy timed more or less on the hour of the passion and death of the Lord on the cross begins with utter silence with the celebrant prostrating before the bare altar, stripped of all the usual paraphernalia attached to it. The bells are silent. The majestic music of the liturgy gives way to unaccompanied somber songs that smack of simple joy, and silent rejoicing.

Silent joy and rejoicing on Good Friday? Are we in our right frames of mind? Do we get the readings right? If Good Friday liturgy were a passion or a morality play (called a Cenaculo in Philippine popular culture of yore), wherein the focus is on historical reconstruction, then joy and rejoicing have no place in the liturgy of this afternoon. But as I have made clear in yesterday’s reflection, our task in the Catholic liturgy is not to stage a shallow historical reconstruction. Our task is to re-actualize, to make present, make active, and make alive once more an event that transcends our common past, present, and future in God. Liturgy is a celebration of faith as a people, not a gathering around a historical monument that is, for all intents and purposes, dead.

This afternoon, we gather around the cross. The central focus of our celebration, not a gathering in grief, but a grateful convocation of believers, is none other than the cross. But this cross around which our celebration revolves is not one to be likened unto the monument built in honor of our national hero. Nor is this cross to be reduced to an artifact of history that merits a symposium of sorts to keep the same alive in people’s memories.

Quiet glory, not glaring grief, is what gathers us together in this celebration. We have not come here to attend a funeral wake of the Lord. Our focus in not on the corpse of the Lord, but on the cross of the Lord … Yes … the cross with all its contradictions … the cross with all its initial confusion … the cross with all its questions and conundrums.

If there is anything in our human history and faith history that disturbs and confuses, I must say it is the idea of the cross that looms large in the tapestry of our faith. Our biological and natural selves are automatically programmed against pain and suffering. We cringe and twinge when the slightest sign of pain attacks us. We naturally run away from people and things that make us miserable. We simply do not want to suffer. The Cross is not, was never, and will never be associated with anything pleasant. In fact, it was associated with one of the world’s most cruel and most painful mode of capital punishment ever invented by sinful man.

The cross is a conundrum. But it is so and will remain so, if and only if, this liturgy were just a shallow historical reconstruction … if this were an Obberammergau play, or a “Cenaculo” passion play of Philippine folk culture of yore.

But we people of faith, we people of the memorial, are a people with a story. We have a big narrative – in fact, a meta-narrative – that looms large in our story that is linked right from the start with God’s own story. His story has become our own history. And this history is what we now re-actualize, re-live, and make present and alive in our official act of recounting of that same story in liturgical celebration.

Allow me to recount to you the story that unfolds for us from the readings. First, Isaiah recounts to us the afflictions of a just and righteous man (Is 53:1-11b). This account flies in the face of the commonly held belief then that suffering is brought about by one’s personal sin. Isaiah takes pains to tell us that from this just man’s humiliation arose his own exaltation, and that it was precisely in his humiliation that he is exalted.

The Letter writer to the Hebrews develops the idea of Jesus as High Priest who intercedes for us. But such a lofty and noble state was reached only because Jesus took on human flesh and so took on our human limitations and weaknesses as well (Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9).

The Passion narrative of St. John tells us three things: first, Jesus’ arrest; second, the examination made by the high priest; and third, his trial before Pilate. But what surfaces in the account is that throughout the ordeal, Jesus is shown to be in total control of the events that eventually culminate in his death. His sovereignty triumphed even in the heights of adversity. The lower they went in bringing a good man down, the higher Jesus rose in the estimation and glory of God and man.

The cross with all its initial confusions and questionings, strikes me very personally at this time of my life. Pain, particularly the inflicted and undeserved kind, makes one come face-to-face with one’s own understanding and appropriation of the Cross of the Lord. Good Friday is more than just a story for me this year. It is real … as real as the prayer of the Lord in Gethsemani who begged his Father: “If possible take this cup away from me … but not my will but yours be done.”

I am blessed by the good Lord to be preaching a retreat at this time of year to a sisters’ congregation (Hospitaller Sisters of the Sacred Heart) co-founded by a very human saint, human in his pain, human in the undeserved pain inflicted by others who ought to have been the last persons to be causing him such untold suffering in life – St. Benedict Menni, who died in 1914 and canonized only in 1999. His story, like the very story of Christ Himself, speaks to me in a very special way. As his Italian biographer nicely puts it, he was “K.O in terra; O.K in cielo” (Knocked out while on earth, but OK in heaven). Like the suffering servant in Isaiah, he went through so much suffering, most of it undeserved.

But I am forgetting the real focus of our story today – the Cross – with all its conundrum and contradictions. Yes … this is the only time in the whole liturgical year when we venerate the cross. And why not? For it has become not a sign of death, but of good news – of life, of hope, and the guarantee of eternal life. This is the reason why the veneration of the cross is the summit of today’s liturgy. It expresses the Church’s faith in Christ who, by embracing it, turned what once was a symbol of and tool for a torturous and shameful death into an instrument that wrought redemption and stood for God’s boundless love. Indeed, as we acclaim today, “in the cross is salvation; in the cross is hope; in the cross is victory.”

St. Benedict Menni Formation Center
Pasig City, April 2, 2007
7:00 PM

Easter Sunday (C)
April 8, 2007

QUI DONC EST DIEU POUR NOUS AIMER AINSI?

As I reflect on this holiest of days, I cannot but sing repeatedly the first line of a beautiful French liturgical hymn for vespers: Qui donc est Dieu pour nous aimer ainsi? Who is this God who loves us so?

Well, last night’s (vigil), and today’s readings enumerate for us the characteristics, the deeds, and the marvels of this God of overflowing love. He is Creator (Gn 1), whose goodness is seen in all of creation. He is a God of promises and fulfillment, who called Abram and made good what he promised (Gn 22:1-18). He is a God of deliverance (Ex 15) who leads His people towards freedom. He is a God of tenderness and compassion (Is 54). He is Wisdom that “has appeared on earth and moved among men” (Baruch 3:9-15). He is so solicitous as to gather his scattered people (Ezekiel 36:16-28).

He is a God of deeds and marvelous works. Last but not least of these magnalia Dei is what He does for us today in Jesus Christ His Son. He raises him from the dead. Thus, the reason for the Church’s exultant acclamation: “This is the day the Lord has made, let us be glad and rejoice in it” (Ps 118).

On Easter day, we hear courageous people like Paul, who makes a simple and strong affirmation: “If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Col 3:1-4). We hear a courageous woman like Mary Magdalene, who hurried right away to tell Peter about the empty tomb (Jn 20:1-9).

A common thread runs through the readings of Easter from the Vigil Mass, to the day Mass. They all tell a story. They all recount unfolding events. Together with the Jews of old and the early Christians, we believers are a people with a story. That story has consistently pushed us toward new horizons, new lands, new opportunities, and new boundaries. It has galvanized us into becoming a people and a Church with a compelling message – a message that is based on the singular event of Christ Risen from the dead.

That story has molded us. That story has made us jell. It has formed us into an evangelizing and liberating Church with the message about the greatest love story ever told.

But whilst it is true that we Christians are a people with a story, it is also true that we become the stories we tell. We are what we recount to ourselves and to others. In this postmodern world of social constructionism, the stories we tell become us. The stories we recount ultimately mold us, and reality is what we all make it to be.

Our postmodern world is full of love stories. There is so much talk of love, but so little love in practice. Our world is saturated with the language of love, assuredly. Every soap opera, (teleserye in the Philippines), every song written in our times, every film is a paean to romantic love. But despite all this, it has not changed the world for the better. Millions have probably taken the “It’s a Small World” ride experience in Disneyland since it began in Anaheim, California and then brought elsewhere around the globe. Millions have sung lustily about the need to be one, to become one, united, small, big, world of brothers and sisters who live in love, peace, and harmony.

But the world continues to tremble in fear at the alarum bells of war, terrorism, criminality, murder, genocide, and the killing of innocent human lives. If we are the stories we tell, then we are, indeed, in trouble. For the story we tell ourselves repeatedly revolves around hatred, revenge, all forms of injustice and inequality, unforgiveness, anger, envy, and jealousy.

The stories we recount in all our dailies, in our newscasts and web sites all over the world become us. We are what we tell. We are what we hear, recount, and retell one another.

We all need to go back to what the Church used to do, and still does, so well – the art of telling a mega story of salvation. The Easter Vigil, the day masses with all their rich readings all remind us of this meta-narrative about a God who so loves us, who is so concerned about us, who is so solicitous of our welfare (Read: salvation). The high point of this meta-narrative is what we proclaim from the housetops today: “The Lord is risen!”

But for this story to take hold of us, we need to hear less and listen more. We need to hear less the inane stories that hog our noise-filled, media-saturated world. We need to hear less the stories of hopelessness we tell and retell one another. We need to listen more to the likes of Mary Magdalene, Peter, Paul, and the two once-despondent disciples on their way to Emmaus, who themselves saw … and believed after they listened to the story of the very one who has risen from the dead.

Story tellers abound in our days and times. But there are story tellers and there are great, dedicated, and committed tellers of the story. The former simply love to weave accounts. But the latter, more than weave accounts, give an accounting of their faith, their hope, and their love. People who are themselves in love, they give an account of how the world’s tremendous lover has made them rise to the splendor of newness, new hope, new life, and new beginnings. Mary Magdalene, who was loved more than she ever expected, was not one to sulk at home, crying her heart out because the tomb was empty. Precisely because the tomb was empty, and her heart was full of love from him who vacated the tomb, she ran, hurried, and raced to make known, not so much a fact, as a compelling message: “We have seen the Lord!”

I am a poor story teller. I can’t even tell with a straight face how much I suffered this recent past. I can’t even tell with sufficient confidence how much I have experienced a sort of resurrection these past few days after I had to read the interesting life of St. Benedict Menni and his tale of suffering – and eventual exultation, all because I had to give a retreat to members of the congregation he founded. But I am glad to tell you that there are, in our midst, others who are great tellers of the story that matters most in their lives. They talk endlessly of new hope, new life, and new beginnings on account of their faith in the Risen Lord. I don’t need to canonize them while alive. But you hear them every day. You hear them speak glowingly of Filipinos who would rather light a little candle than curse the darkness. You hear their stories of lives being improved, and healthy self-esteem being raised because people decided to help one another build homes for the poorest of the poor, not so much with mortar and cement, but with a lot of faith, hope, and love. You see them stand for the weak. You see them tell the greatest love story ever told through every medium they are capable of: paintings, poems, books, and personal presence even to insignificant farmers fighting the most significant battle in their whole lives that would affect the lives of thousands of others.

They are not simple story tellers. No … they are tellers of the story. Without them realizing it, they answer the big question we started out with in this reflection. Qui donc est Dieu pour nous aimer ainsi? Who, then, is this God who loves us so much? He is everything that makes it worth our while to listen to this rambling story of mine.

O Rex tremendae majestatis! Pater totae dilectionis!
For with Jesus I died, with Jesus I rose
With Jesus I hope for heaven’s repose!

Fr. Vitaliano Chito Dimaranan, SDB
St. Benedict Menni Formation Center
Pasig City
April 2, 2007 10:00 PM

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