Monday, March 20, 2017

Personalities to ponder in Lent: Simon of Cyrene

There is something in our shared human experience that pushes us to leave some form of legacy.  We are often not satisfied with living unknown lives and in the shadows.  As much as we tell ourselves to stay ‘under the radar’ and that we should live somewhat anonymously because it is too crass to be loud and brassy, this desire comes out in various ways.  The very success of the social media bears testimony to the fact that so many of us want to be seen, yearn to be noticed, and strive for some kind of fame, even if it lasts for the proverbial 15 seconds. 

However, there is something to be said of those who have dedicated their lives to causes that by their very nature are unseen and unnoticed, and more importantly, something that they never chose by their own free will.  These are the events that we find ourselves brought to face and accept in our lives that we would not have done so if we were given a choice.  Examples of these abound.  Taking care of elderly and disabled family members, caring for bed-ridden and seriously ill spouses or being parents of children born with congenital conditions that require constant care and supervision, or being married to a spouse who isn’t committed and faithful.  We don’t choose these situations in life, but in a way, we are brought to them, drafted, enlisted into them and conscripted. 

When we face such challenges, one of the biblical figures that we can reflect upon and draw inspiration from is Simon, a person who was present at the journey that Jesus made en route to Golgotha.  Matthew, Mark and Luke mention him in their passion accounts of Jesus, they tell us where he is from – Cyrene.  This man gets special mention and his name gets recorded in the annals of history for one simple act – he helped Jesus to carry his cross.  Interestingly, that Jesus fell three times on the way to his place of crucifixion is not in the biblical accounts of the Passion.  It is only a feature in the Catholic devotion of the Stations of the Cross.  While it may not be biblical, it does not mean that there is no value in this tradition.  It is only in John’s account of the crucifixion that has Jesus carrying his own cross.  It is in the synoptic accounts that mention Simon being tasked to do the cross-carrying for Jesus.

For people who are carrying someone else’s burden in life, Simon is a model and exemplar.  He is, after all, an innocent bystander at the drama that was being unfolded right before his eyes.  The synoptic writers say he is from out of town, and we don’t know why he was there in Jerusalem at that time.  But out of nowhere, the soldiers singled him out and without as much as a ceremony conscripted him into doing something difficult and challenging, as well as something that would invite stares and uncalled for remarks and judgments – to carry the ignominious cross for someone destined for a shameful public execution. 

This, Simon did without protestation or debate.  Oftentimes, we find ourselves bitter and resentful that we have been drafted in life to be the cross-carriers of those whom we have to look after, care for and nurse, and because of this, we may even have become the target of unfair criticism and judgment by others.  What Simon did gained him a place in history.  While being someone like the caddy of Jordan Spieth or Tiger Woods (in his heyday) was somewhat glamorous, bringing them into the photographs of newspapers and magazines, they will never be remembered the way Simon was.  Simon had no choice, but he did it anyway, and look what it gave him.  What he received in being named in Scripture gave him the kind of timeless accolade that every politician, academician and writer would die for. 

While nothing else is known about Simon after the Crucifixion, contemplating on what he was made to do has great spiritual benefit for us.  We become the Simons for others behind whose faces hide the image of the beaten and scourged Christ.  Simon, we are told, walked quietly behind Jesus on the way to Calvary. 

God could well be asking you, dear reader, to imitate Simon and walk the same way.


Monday, March 13, 2017

Personalities to ponder in Lent: Veronica

There exists in the Catholic tradition many stories of heroism and piety that have stood the test of time.  To be sure, there are many of such traditions that have been dropped or deemed theologically problematic, but there are some of which though not supported in Scripture, have been preserved and handed on due principally to the spirit of what they represent.  One of these is the action of Veronica, one of the outstanding people that Jesus is said to have encountered on the Via Dolorosa, or the Way of Sorrows, the route which he took to reach Calvary, the place of his crucifixion.

Catholics always remember Veronica in the season of Lent, particularly when praying the devotion called the Stations of the Cross.  In almost every Catholic church or chapel, one will notice that along the walls, there are often images of Jesus’ walk from his sentence to his being laid in the tomb.  14 in total, these have been artistically interpreted and can be found in a multitude of mediums, from copper tooling and oil paintings to stained glass.  One of them, usually the 6th station is one that depicts an encounter of Jesus and a woman named Veronica, and she is seen wiping the face of Jesus.

Church tradition holds that Veronica was moved with pity when she saw Jesus carrying his cross to Calvary, resulting in her providing her veil to him just so that he could wipe the grime, blood and perspiration from his face.  Because this act of kindness was so genuine and unexpected, it was returned with a gift that was just as unexpected.  After having wiped his face, the veil was returned to Veronica, but with the image of the face of Jesus imprinted on it.  Apparently, the etymology of the name Veronica can be traced to this story, as it is made up of two Latin words - true image, where vero is true, and icon is image.

Whether or not this is the actual etymology of the name Veronica is up for debate, but what can be of great benefit to us is to give some serious thought about this act of kindness offered by this charitable woman. 

All disciples of Christ are called to be images of his.  Any call to action in and through our acts of love and kindness, generosity and charity are means through which our likeness to Christ becomes strong and real.  While these are things that we may implicitly be aware of, they are also a great challenge to practice, especially towards those who we find so hard to love without bias. 

And this is where we will benefit from realizing that it was difficult for Veronica to have done what she did.  She made the effort to step out of the crowd and to make a difference in Jesus’ life.

While it is always easy (considerably, at least) to serve and love those whom the masses of humanity approve and accept, it is always going to be difficult to love those who are not mainstream, marginalized or even sidelined.  It’s probably too crass to admit it, but we fear the stares of others when we love the downtrodden and social misfits.  We fear their stray comments that can be hurtful and even untrue.  When a woman like Veronica stepped out to meet Jesus on his way to his ignominious death, she would have put aside such toxic thoughts and paralyzing fears.  She had put the need of the other (Jesus) above those of her own, abandoning her need of being safe, accepted and anonymous.  We are at our Christian best whenever we too cast aside our own personal fears and needs and love others for their sake. 

Veronica received as a reward something so unexpected for a deed done with hardly any self-regard.  When we love with altruism and selflessness, we can be assured of obtaining something similar.  While we may not receive an image of Christ on a veil, we can be sure that we have given the image of Christ through our deeds.  Christ becomes incarnated in the ways beyond our imaginations.  Our lives become not just the veil but also the canvas on which God paints his love in ways beyond our ken. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Personalties to ponder in Lent: Pontius Pilate

I have decided to focus my blog entrees in Lent this year on various personalities that are featured in the passion of our Lord.  My personality of choice this week is Pontius Pilate.

History informs us that Pilate was a prefect of the Roman province of Judea during the time of Jesus’ trial that led to his crucifixion.  He is portrayed as a person who is indifferent to justice, and the evangelist Matthew takes pains to add a rather strange detail by noting that Pilate “took some water and washed his hands before the crowd” (Matt. 27:24).  In his capacity, he could have done something to prevent the death of Jesus, but he was swayed and influenced by quite a few factors, one of which was the crowd. 

Pilate, who stood in a position of power, was one who whose also wanted the approval of the crowd.  This made his freedom compromised, weak and limited.  It is always easy to put a price tag on a person’s loyalties when one is not truly free.

Reflecting on our weakness for popularity and approval is something that we don’t do enough for ourselves.  But I believe that we need to do this often, especially those of us who are in positions of authority.  Firstly, we need to begin by admitting that we all have a desire for approval, and that it often finds its genesis in the belief that our centre of confidence comes from outside of us.  The Christian, because of the dignity bestowed upon him at his baptism, stands heads and shoulders above others where confidence is concerned.  Because of the primacy of grace and the belief that the dignity of baptism is unmerited and a pure gift from God, a baptized person who is fully aware of this really should stand in no need of approval from any person, nor have the need to seek any other validation in life.  In his or her very being, the person is highly esteemed by God.  In this light, the baptized person has an unsurpassed inner confidence.

Anyone who is not clear about this and who only lives in occasional realization of this will be insecure in life.  That is where most of our problems begin.  The social media does nothing to aid in this realization either because it has created an almost universal self-defeating need to ensure that we obtain as many ‘likes’ as possible.  We have failed to appreciate that one “love” by God trumps any number ‘likes’ that the world can give. 

Another point of reflection is where ultimate power in life lies.  There is a classic face-off in John’s account of the Passion that takes place in the Praetorium, which was the Roman procurator’s judicial court.  Here, the two powers meet - one Divine, and one earthly.  One was bound and led, while the other was free, or so it seemed.  Their dialogue comes to a climax when the element of truth is addressed.  When Jesus makes a reference to truth, Pilate’s reaction is telling.  He asks “what is truth?” revealing that for all his authority and position that his status seems to give him, truth had still eluded him. 

If one doesn’t have God in one’s life, one can surround oneself with power and riches, but they will mean nothing if one is not living with truth and honesty.  Every Easter Sunday at Mass, we are invited to renew our baptismal promises, and we are asked by the celebrant “Do you renounce Satan and all his empty show?”  Indeed, the Father of Lies has a show going on, and it is empty.  He is called “the Deceiver” for the fact that his promises of what gives happiness, what delights and what thrills is only at the level of a fa├žade and their apparent beauty merely cosmetic.  Truth, however, will always be deep and abiding. 

We find ourselves in the position of Pilate frequently, especially when we know in our hearts that we could have stood taller for justice and when truth was easily bought for a price.  Understandably, standing for truth has its price, and sometimes it is paid in the form of being unpopular.  However, there is no price that can be put on a good night’s sleep that results from a conscience that is pure.  Blessed indeed are the pure in heart, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The season of Lent that we are in invites us to look deeply in our hearts and to purify our inner disposition as disciples of Christ.  Pilate was coldly indifferent in the face of injustice and cruelty.  We too may find it easy to be indifferent in the face of injustice that comes in different forms, and we too may be washing our hands with too much ease. Could we have shades of Pilate’s personality manifested in our lives that we may have been blinded to? 

Monday, February 27, 2017

When love is missing, even prayer will be seen as a chore.

Do you, dear reader, find praying something that is both challenging and tedious?  Does the very notion of praying give you a sense of dread, boredom and perhaps fill you with some degree of foreboding?  Your Christian upbringing and catechesis may have imparted the great need for prayer as part of our Christian heritage, but this may have only resulted in you knowing that prayer is something good for you without giving much insight as to either why it is good, or how to make this truly good. 

Right off the bat, we must understand that the heart and the root of prayer is love.  It is love at two levels – the love for God (coming from our hearts) and the love that we put into our efforts and endeavours to pray.  While they may appear to be similar, these two ‘loves’ are really quite different, and it will help us tremendously if we are cognizant of the differences between them.

If our prayer is accompanied with an awareness that what we are doing in prayer is loving God, it transforms and brings it many levels higher qualitatively than if it were just a mouthing of the words and phrases as mere prayers that are “said”.  In this way, the difference between “saying prayers” and “praying” is as wide as a chasm.  What differentiates the two is the element of love. 

 Why is love important?   Because it is God’s very nature.  Scripture is so clear that God is love – it is what He is, and anything that includes love and has love as its motive brings it to a level of godliness that it lacks when it is done merely on the level of rote or routine. 

How do we pray with love?  What makes any action a loving action?  Is it a feeling? 

Associating love with feelings is something that so many people have done, and continue to do so.  It is erroneous, but I believe that many people have to be taught why this is so.  After all, that is the way the world seems to have portrayed love.  The sentiments of the heart that emotes the warm and fuzzy feelings that puts the object of one’s desire in soft-focus, usually in the foreground with appropriate lighting made complete with the luscious chords of music in the background make it easy to feel loving and lovely.  It sends out the message that this is the feeling that has to be experienced if one is loving.  If this is the narrative that ‘works’ in the world through the movies and songs that we are so exposed to in life, we often end up bringing this into our spiritual lives.  We associate love with feelings.  This is where we begin to get it wrong.

As I have said so often in quite a few of my previous reflections, the theological definition of love has nothing (read ZERO) to do with either feelings or sentiments.  St Thomas Aquinas defines loves as “willing the good of the other as other”.  There is, as you can see, no mention of or reference to either feelings or sentiments.  Love, when it is pure and truly godly, is an act of the will.  The more it is a conscious act of the will, absent from feelings and an expectation of a return from the one receiving the love, the more it is truly godly.

Knowing this and reminding ourselves of this will serve us well when we struggle with prayer.  We are in truth really struggling with love and struggling to love.  If we only define love when it is easy to love, or when the sentiments are readily reciprocated, it will always be hard to love when the sentiments are missing. 

But if we now define love in the way that the astute St Thomas Aquinas has defined love, we are really free – we are no longer slaves to loving only under certain conditions.  When we love as an act of the will, we are no longer dependent on external influencing factors when we love.  We are also no longer loving only when we are loved back in return.  This makes it possible for us to love those who hate us (Jesus’ words, not mine), and to love those who do not return the love that we give.  In that sense, it makes our love heroic.  And if we understand this, we will also extend this to the forgiveness that we extend to those who hurt us.  Forgiveness without love is always going to be quid pro quo, where we will forgive only if certain conditions are met, and usually, we will insist that the other party either asks for forgiveness or shows remorse.  When our forgiveness, like love, is also a similar act of the will, it is aligned with love and it will be given unconditionally.

Composer and song writer Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote a song for his musical “Aspects of Love” called “Love changes everything”.  I believe that Climie Fisher also had a hit with a similar title.  There is a great truth in this statement.  Theologically, it is definitely true.  Love does change everything.  Anything done with love, especially when it is a deliberate act of the will, changes the way these things are done.  When love is missing, St John of the Cross teaches that we need to put in love, and there we will find the love that we couldn’t at first.

If we struggle with prayer, if we find prayer a chore and something laborious, it could well be indicative of something else that we are struggling with – we are also struggling to love.