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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

HEARING, FOLLOWING & NEVER PERISHING (4th Sunday of Easter Year C)

4th Sunday of Easter (C)
April 29, 2007

Readings: Acts 13:14, 43-52 / Rev 7:9, 14b-17 / Jn 10:27-30

HEARING, FOLLOWING, AND NEVER PERISHING!

At one of my Masses during the recent Christmas Novena, a group of musicians were accompanying the choir hastily formed for the occasion. The choir sang well. The conductor did her role with both passion and panache. Somehow though, there was just something that sounded wrong to my mediocre musician’s ears. I could not exactly put a handle on the whole thing, until the Mass ended, and a former student of mine, whose musical talents are far superior to anybody else I knew both as a student and as an educator, came up and told me what was wrong. The man playing the bass guitar simply did not have it. He was way out of key. He was not attuned. And he was not following the rest of the ensemble, much less the conductor who, in retrospect, looked like she was distraught.

There is something about lack of attunement that is connected to lack of ability to hear. That bass guitarist was playing alright. But he was not attuned. He heard, but heard not rightly. And because he did not hear rightly, he could not follow. His playing, owing to the lack of attunement, made him an odd ball standing out in an ensemble that, otherwise, could have made lovely liturgical music together.

One member’s inability to hear (be attuned to the conductor), and his consequent inability to follow the flow of the liturgical singing, was behind the ruin of the well-meaning group’s best efforts.

Hearing, following, and never perishing … All this obviously works as far as liturgical music is concerned. But today, our liturgy goes beyond the need for musical attunement. Let us take a quick look at the three readings …

In the first reading (Acts 13:14, 43-52), we are presented with two different groups of people. One group was made up of “converts to Judaism [who] followed Paul and Barnabas.” On the other side of the fence were those who “were filled with jealousy and with violent abuse contradicted what Paul said.” Their rejection showed them to be “unworthy of eternal life.”

In the second reading (Rv 7:9,14b-17), we are presented with a highly symbolic vision of perfect attunement between “the great multitude” “from every nation, race, people, and tongue,” and the “lamb” seated on the “throne.” Diversity and difference posed no obstacle to their “day and night” worshipping of God’s throne. One in worship is what has become of them. Diversity in all other aspects characterized them. Unity in diversity is possible if there is attunement, if there is obedience to, and worship of Him who now unites “the great multitude.”

In the Gospel (Jn 10:27-30), somewhat one-sidedly understood by tradition as pointing only to the Good Shepherd, we are really confronted, as much with a solicitous image of the shepherd, as a powerful icon of an attuned flock who knows how to hear the shepherd’s voice, and which, consequently also knows how to follow. “My sheep hear my voice; I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.”

Hearing and following are intricately connected with a promise from no less than the one who claims to be a Good Shepherd: “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.”

Anyone who has led a bunch of rambunctious young people at summer or boot camp knows what grief a lack of attunement or inability to listen to instructions can lead to. Anyone who has joined a band and played a musical instrument minus that ability for keen attunement to others’ playing, knows only too well that conductors would consider such a one a pain to handle. Anyone who has joined a long trek or climb up a mountain knows how even a moment’s inattention or lack of attunement to the pacing of the group can lead to problems big and small, not only for the expedition leader, but also for the whole group.

Attunement is absolutely necessary for at-one-ment. Unity in diversity can only be reached if both leader and members have one and the other. For one who has led so many group expeditions up local Philippine mountains since 1987, I know whereof I speak. Lack of attunement leads to a more serious lack of at-one-ment. Disobedience to agreed upon rules of the climb and on the trail, even on the part of only one can jeopardize the whole trip and cancel out all potential enjoyment and any sense of healthy achievement – or worse – endanger the lives of everyone.

I remember turning livid when, as an expedition leader, I would find out deep into the trek, and at an advanced stage in the trail, that somebody has cut corners, disregarded all or some of the rules, or threw all caution to the winds, and showed utter lack of attunement to what sometimes we refer to as our own version of “rules of engagement.” For many young people, whose enthusiasm is almost always greater than their prudence, hearing (or listening to) the rules, and the ability to follow instructions are usually never a priority.

It is precisely this inattention to hearing, and the consequent inability to following, that may all too easily lead to perdition.

We live in a world filled with all sorts of noises, both from within and from without. The so-called “media moment” provides a disproportionate amount of noises that clutter our daily lives. The media defines our values. The media imposes what is good, what is best, and what is most convenient for everyone. The media makes choices for the masses, especially the young ones. Our values are mostly media-mediated. And given the massive noises of commercialism, individualism, violence, and consumerism that the media doles out day in and day out, people are left with no choice but to skip hearing altogether, and, instead of following, are simply co-opted by the clear choices of the media.

Today is traditionally called “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The readings, especially the Gospel, do talk to us how caring and solicitous God is for our individual and communal welfare. But good shepherding will not be of much use if there are no people who are ready to hear, and willing to follow. As members of the Lord’s flock, we are confronted with the need to make our choice clear. Our response after the first reading clinches it for us: “We are his people, the sheep of his flock” (Responsorial Psalm). It is therefore, not so much “Good Shepherd Sunday” as the Sunday dedicated to the “Lord’s Flock.” The Shepherd’s invitation is clear. We are asked to hear and follow. We are meant to remain attuned to God and His will. But his promise and reward is no less clear: “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.”

“Father, attune our minds to the sound of Christ’s voice, lead our steps in the path he has shown, that we may know the strength of his outstretched arm and enjoy the light of your presence for ever. We ask you this through Christ our Lord. Amen.” (Alternative Opening Prayer).

Paranaque City, Feast of St. Benedict Menni
April 24, 2007

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

SEEING FULLY, LOVING TRULY, SERVING WHOLLY (3rd Sunday of Easter Year C)

3rd Sunday of Easter (C)
April 22, 2007

Readings: Acts 5:27-32, 40b-41 / Rv 5:11-14 / Jn 21:1-19

SEEING FULLY; LOVING TRULY; SERVING WHOLLY:
THE POWER OF LOVE SHOWN IN BUNDLES OF THREES

We smell and feel a sense of power in the readings of today. Peter, who, only days before appeared to be a weakling who could not even stand for the truth about his association with the condemned Jesus, is portrayed as someone who just had what we now call an “extreme makeover.” Expressly forbidden by the Sanhedrin to teach in Jesus’ name, Peter bellowed courageously: “We must obey God rather than men” (1st Reading).

Power also unmistakably shines out in John’s vision of the victorious Lamb “seated” on his throne. Countless angels surround the Lamb to give witness to, and proclaim the reality of his power: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing” (2nd Reading).

Quiet strength and discrete power characterize the Risen Lord who invited himself and the weary fishermen-disciples to an early morning beach-side repast. He issues a series of commands to the sleepless and tired disciples whom he endearingly refers to as “children:” “Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something” (Gospel). The unexpected morning repast turned out to be – you guessed it right – a “power breakfast” as management gurus would call their version of an early morning “business meeting.”

Quiet and sedate power from the Risen Lord takes the better of the disciples’ extreme weariness and apparent powerlessness. That simple command, which was as dignified as it was quietly compelling, turned out, indeed, to be a power catch. We are told that Peter and company had to muster all the strength they could put together, in order to haul a startling catch of 153 large fishes! Even the net rose to the occasion and showed corresponding strength and power: “Even though there were so many, the net was not torn.”

But two other quiet commands came by way of an invitation to a “power breakfast:” “Bring some of the fish you just caught … Come, have breakfast.”

Like when he was face-to-face with Pilate and the Jews all throughout his trial, all the way to his crucifixion and death, the Lord shows himself fully in control. He shows quiet power and inner strength. His was a compelling presence that led the probably tired, sleepy, and discouraged disciples, to do even the unthinkable – to lower their nets once again for the nth time, when common sense and common practice told them to fold up their wares and come back for a more propitious night of fishing.

Three quiet commands showed the power that emanated from the Risen Christ. One cannot help but see a reverse parallelism of these three commands to the three denials of a power-stripped Peter who chickened out at the last minute and denied his Master and Lord before powerless but nosey women at the courtyard.

I would like to go straight to the point today. The resurrection of the Lord is all about who really has the power. The resurrection is all about Him, who, in the words of Perry Como of old, is one who “can turn the tides and calm the angry sea.” The resurrection of the Lord is all about who really is in control, who can reverse even seemingly hopeless and irreversible situations.

Today, we are witnesses and, hopefully, proclaimers of this glaring truth. Christ is risen. And with the Risen Christ rises, too, our lost faith in ourselves, our jaded hopes, and battered lives, whose fabric may have been torn and tattered by so many challenges and so much self-inflicted problems and pains.

I would like my readers (and hearers) to know that I have done a Peter more than just a few times in my life. I, too, have denied the Lord repeatedly. My faith in those occasions was more like the dying embers of a once-blazing fire that warmed my own heart – and that of others. That fire was once the source of power from within. It led me to courageous creativity in my younger, more productive years. It led me to blaze trails and to spend sleepless nights trying to figure out how to increase the figurative catch in the dark of night. Who among us who are members of the baby-boomer generation in middlescence cannot boast of their own “been there; done that” syndrome?

But alas! The fire that warmed my hands was the same fire that burnt my fingers. I felt rejection. I saw disapproval and heard disparaging remarks, mixed with a slew of envy and jealousy, along with a certain inner drivenness and ambition, and growing anger filling my heart.

Power was slowly wearing me down. Power became my very tripping stone. And power was the very cause of my own undoing. Like Peter, who came near the fire, he warmed his hands, and burnt his fingers. Nay more, it ironically cooled down his attachment and devotion to the Lord. Worse off than Peter, I, too, have denied the Lord more than just three times.

Today is resurrection day. Every Sunday is meant to be that. But it could only be resurrection for you and me, only if we all see truly ourselves for whe we are, and things for what they really are. That was what Peter experienced. The power of the resurrection made him see himself truly – naked and unworthy – in such a way that he felt it proper to put on some clothes to face the Risen Lord. His three denials merited undoing … in grief, in conversion, in fully loving. The embers that undid him the first time around amidst those nosey women, are now the burning coals that made him rise to the occasion and warm up to the Lord in the fullness of love: “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” The threefold denial became threefold witness and proclamation. That “power breakfast” by the beach became the benchmark to his total and humble service to the Risen Lord and his mystical body – the Church.

I pray that this “power breakfast” with the Lord – this Eucharist – will translate for you as it did for Paul, a real “extreme makeover” in your life. With Paul and Peter, I proclaim: “All I want is to know Christ, and to experience the power of his resurrection” (Phil 3:10).

Paranaque City, April 17, 2007
11:30 AM

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Wonders, Word, Witness & Worship (2nd Sunday of Easter - Year C)

2nd Sunday of Easter (C)
April 15, 2007

Readings: Acts 5:12-16 / Rev 1:9-11a, 12-13, 17-19 / Jn 20:19-31

WONDERS, WORD, WITNESS & WORSHIP

Two good, old, reliable methods of heightening truths are the use of comparison or contrasts, whether natural or contrived. Comparison capitalizes on similarities; contrast on dissimilarities. Both aim at clarifying and highlighting an important truth that otherwise may not be so obvious at first blush.

I would like to think that today, the octave of Easter, contrast, not comparison, characterizes our rich Scriptural readings. The first contrasting image I discern is that of crowds – “a large number of people” (1st Reading) versus the image of a solitary John exiled in Patmos (2nd Reading). This is connected with a second contrasting picture – the presence of the disciples in the room where they were gathered “for fear of the Jews,” versus the conspicuous absence of “Thomas, called Didymus, one of the twelve [who] was not with them when Jesus came” (Gospel). The third, and, for me the most intriguing and most important, is the fact that whereas, the Acts of the Apostles reports “yet more than ever, believers in the Lord, great numbers of men and women, were added to them,” we are confronted with an anemic – if, non-committal – response from Thomas to the excited and enthusiastic disciples who told him about their visions of the Risen Lord: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hands into his side, I will not believe.”

Luke, in the books of “Acts,” makes much of wonders wrought by God after Jesus rose from the dead. “Signs and wonders” brought them to faith. The “magnalia Dei” that we spoke of in the Easter Triduum led them to believe. The greatest of those signs – the resurrection of the Lord – is still fresh in their minds. A direct experience of what St. Peter calls “the power of the resurrection” led many of them to “know Christ” for who he was – one with the Godhead, risen and alive forever more.

We, too, share in the gifts attached to this power of the Risen Lord, for we, too, are witnesses to these same wonders wrought by God. It is for this that we respond with joy: “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his love is everlasting” (Responsorial Psalm).

But here, our discussion on contrasts ends. Here begins an equally important word on comparison. Yes, with the “great numbers of men and women” in Luke’s Acts, we, too, are witnesses to the “many signs and wonders” of the Lord. And no … we are not exactly like the witnesses that they all were. They were primary witnesses, who were immersed in the very vitality of the first generation of believers who “saw and believed.”

Here, I would like to suggest, we find common cause with the much maligned and denigrated Thomas. History and tradition have both been a little too unkind to him, giving him that unsavory epithet the “doubting Thomas.” I would like to believe that Thomas was not so much a “doubter” as he was not a politician. He was honest in his feelings. He was truthful in his thoughts. And he thought aloud … “Unless I see the mark of the nails …” Unlike most politicians, he did not feel the need to lie through his teeth. He did not feel the need to say what others probably wanted to hear from him. He was honest in his doubt, but he, too, was honest in his search for the truth. Absent for some reason the first time, he was present “a week later.” People deeply steeped in despair and disbelief simply do not turn back. They simply don’t come back – like Judas – who went out into the night and was lost forever. But people honest in their doubt and honest in their search keep on coming back .., to the fold, to the community of believers, to the bearers of the good news that God is alive and well. Peter, who denied the Lord three times, got back to the fold. Philip, who once badgered the Lord with a request as impertinent as “show us the Father,” turned back. They all “saw and believed.”

I love Thomas. I thank God for the gift of his “bad example.” For I, too, am more than just a doubter. But whilst Thomas was honest in his doubts, I am not too sure the same adjective fits me to a T. I cannot even lay claim to being honest in my search for Him. I am a doubting Thomas thrice over.

Wonders and signs brought many to the fold of the Risen Lord. First generation believers were immersed deeply in this world of wonders that God has wrought on them and on the incipient Church. But the power of wonders gave way to the greater wonder of the power of Word. Courageous disciples like Peter and the rest of the original company of Jesus, plus one – the one “born out of normal course,” Paul – all took to proclaiming the Word. Not only that, they went into the solid business of giving witness to the power of the Risen Christ in their lives. Wonders, word, and witness … all three brought people to the threshold of faith and life with God.

Thomas missed the wonder of the first appearance of the Risen Lord. But he kept loyal and honest in his unfinished search. He came back to the room. He joined the rest of the disciples gathered there. And what he missed was made up for by word and witness. He heard. He believed. “Faith comes from hearing” (Romans 10:14). Faith comes from hearing, not from touching. Word and Witness sufficed for a man honest in his search. He did not feel the need to touch the wounds. For having heard and seen the faith of his fellow believers, he has already felt himself touched by a God of mercy and compassion, who saw behind his doubt, and who saw the crystalline faith of someone whose honest search for God was greater than his need for earthly and superficial proofs.

Dianne Bergant (2000) says that Thomas represents “the second generation of Christians who are called to believe on the basis of the testimony of others.” He represents you and me. Comparison seems to be the best method up until this point.

But comparison can only go so far. Contrasts cannot fail to turn up as we reflect further and deeper. For I am worse off than doubting Thomas was. His doubt was honest. His doubt was at the service of the ultimate truth. It remained open to the truth. My doubt is resistant. Worse yet, my doubt is rejecting. I am one among a great many postmodern women and men who find common cause at making the words of St. John come true: “He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him” (Jn 1:14).

Judas went out into the night. But we take resort to so many equivalent nights in this world so deeply mired in the culture of death. We resist and rebel at God in so many and varied ways. Cameron (2000) enumerates six. Darkness is one of them. We prefer to keep our thoughts about right or wrong to ourselves “so as not to offend others.” Hiding is another. We hide our true beliefs for fear of being rejected and unwanted by the “enlightened world.” Locked doors is yet another. We lock the doors of our hearts to people who have offended us, who have done “injustice” to us. Fear also takes the better of us. We refuse to do the good we know we should do, for fear of being labeled or talked about. Skepticism robs us of all enthusiasm to do the right thing. “What good will it do? Nobody cares anyway!” And obstinacy fossilizes us in our hard-line stance of “I will not believe!”

Thomas and us constitute a study in comparison and contrasts. We are so like him. We are so unlike him. One thing certain is, we are all called to believe in the Risen Lord … wonders or no wonders. We are gifted with the same possibilities he was gifted with: word and witness. He responded with honesty and unswerving fidelity to the truth that stood out before him. Word and Witness gave way to Worship: “My Lord and my God!”

St. Thomas, help us in our unbelief!

[Paranaque City, April 10, 2007]

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

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