Monday, April 21, 2014

The road to Emmaus - our common Easter experience

It is not a generalization to say that most of us, even those of us who are not Christians, know what Easter is all about.  Jesus Christ, who was crucified on Good Friday, rose from the dead three days later.  But this epic event in history did not only impact him, but all of humanity in ways that are beyond our ken.  That this man was God meant that his resurrection has far reaching implications on each of our own deaths because that last bastion for each one of us has been overcome.  Because of this, we all have hope beyond hope for living the resurrected life.

One of the great implications and meanings of this event that is somewhat easy to overlook is the great message and promise that forgiveness has for all of us.  God’s forgiveness is the hidden energy that lies behind the resurrection event, and this is something that could have never happened if not for the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  That Jesus Christ forgave his executioners in the most grace-filled and compassionate way lead to his being raised from the dead.  That forgiveness is something that is so life-giving is proved, seen and even vindicated by the act of his being raised from the dead.  All the previous temple practices that implored or sought God’s forgiveness for transgressions depended on the acts of human beings, and there was no indication that they were effective.  Now, in Jesus, it is God himself who carries out the act of sacrifice and the resurrection gives clear indication that the sacrifice is indeed effective.

It is so hard, and perhaps even somewhat dangerous to put the resurrection in a nutshell, because sociologically and theologically, it has such a broad impact.  But what we do know from personal experiences is that we do experience bits and moments of resurrection in our daily lives, where our little deaths to the self lead to encounters with the Risen Lord in ways that we do not expect.  Oftentimes, these happen when we follow our conscience in doing the right, though more difficult thing in life, and our conscious choice leads us to a certain suffering or hardship which can be challenging to handle.  But the result of this is something that gives much hope and life not only to us, but to those whose lives we touch.

This reality of life is beautifully and graphically presented in the 24th chapter of Luke’s gospel, verses 13-35, an episode often called the walk or journey to Emmaus.  That journey taken by Cleopas and another disciple is also our own faith journey.  Just as there were moments in that journey where they could not see Jesus making this journey with them, so too are we blinded due to our being too immersed with our own heavy hearts.  We are told that they had their faces downcast. 

Isn’t that most of us, most of the time?  Though we know that the resurrection is something that gives us much hope in our sea of seeming hopelessness, the fact that we have our faces downcast most of the time prevents us from seeing the great hope that lies in front of us.  This is the great challenge of the good news of Easter. 

Why do folk who turn up for Easter Sunday’s Eucharist leave unimpacted in their lives?  Perhaps it is because they have yet to look up – really look up to the promise of the Risen Lord.  The broken bread that we all share from the Altar of the Lord has not yet broken through hearts and minds that are perhaps too focused on the self.  But to be sure, there are those who are moved, and touched, and emerge from the darkness because their faith has enabled them to see the Paschal candle’s flickering glow despite the darkness that may surround their lives.  The truth is, we are all like those two disciples on that journey to Emmaus – sometimes we do get it, and sometimes, we simply do not.  But if we are constant in the celebration and ardent participation in the breaking of the bread, our eyes will be open to God’s great promise of life that goes beyond our human vision.

It is when we are so enlivened by this great promise that we will do the unthinkable – we will go back to our challenges, our sufferings and our persecutions with new ardour and energy.  That is what Cleopas and his friend did.  We are told that they went back to Jerusalem; to the place of the Cross; to the place of the persecution, where great troubles awaited the disciples of Jesus. 

While it is a nice thought to hold that Easter means no more worries, no more sufferings, and no more troubles in life, I’m afraid that this would be also called ‘wishful thinking’.  Easter doesn’t mean a life that is free of challenges.  Rather, Easter’s new life given out of sheer grace of God is what enables us to face the various challenges of life anew, because we are now led by a new light – the light of Christ.

Blessed Easter to all.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Leaning on the breast of Jesus when the days seem darker

In the account of the last supper in John’s gospel, we have a scene which unfolds before us that includes a tiny, intimate but important detail.  It is found in 13:23 where we are told that the beloved disciple was reclining next to him.  In some versions of the bible, this detail is given a more graphic description where we see the beloved disciple leaning on the breast of Jesus.  Apparently, the way the Jewish people ate the Passover was not quite as Leonardo Da Vinci had pictured it in his Renaissance interpretation of the scene, as it is most likely that they dined on couches low to the ground, enabling one to lean on another.  It was thus indeed possible that the beloved disciple, who dined next to Jesus his master and Lord, physically leaned on Jesus’ breast in a loving way.  But why would this strange detail be included here?  Perhaps this reflection will give us some indication and hope for ourselves when dark times seem to be getting darker in our lives.

Experiencing or undergoing challenging and tough times is something that everyone without exception goes through in life.  But sometimes, these dark times can suddenly take an even darker hue and life can present itself to be a tougher challenge that it already is.  That turn of the corner, where things get better is not in sight, and the light that one hopes for to break upon the seemingly incessant darkness just does not seem to come.  Instead, things present themselves to make it become even darker and life to be even more of an already hard challenge.  Perhaps when one is already out of money and struggling to make ends meet, and a huge unexpected bill comes in the mail.  Or perhaps hot on the heels of the experience of a failed venture comes news of a betrayal from a trusted friend.  Or when the doctors deliver the news that one’s prolonged illness has now developed another complication that needs additional medical attention with yet more (and often expensive) drugs, painful procedures and treatments.  These are times when things undoubtedly get from shades of grey to sheets of black.  How does one still maintain faith in a loving God who sustains us at every level of our being? 

It would be extremely useful and comforting to go to that scene in John’s gospel where we see the beloved disciple leaning on the breast of Jesus and spend time just dwelling on that image.  Ignatian meditation teaches us the practice of fantasy prayer, where one paints a mental picture of the gospel scene in vivid imaginative detail.  This can help one greatly here.  We put ourselves in the position of the beloved disciple and see ourselves leaning on the breast of Jesus at that intimate Passover meal. 

Several things happen when we do this.  Firstly, coming into contact with the breast of Christ, our ears will be able to listen to the heartbeat of Our Lord.  Remember – this was a time for the Lord which was getting darker and darker and he knew of his foreboding suffering which was going to happen as the hours unfolded.  Yet, we do not see signs of tension or anxiety in Jesus.  His heartbeat remains calm and regular.  We need to let that calm and regular beating of the Sacred Heart resonate in our own anxiety-laden hearts when we think that things are getting so bad in life.  We need to lean in even further into the breast of Jesus to allow that Sacred Heart beat to beat in tandem with our racing and fearful hearts. 

With an ear to the breast of Jesus, one cannot but have one’s eyes looking not at Jesus, but out – out to the surrounding space, out into the world and out to the problems that loom on our darkened horizons.  For the one undergoing that deeper suffering and anxiety, one’s eyes often cannot but see without much clarity or joy.  But hearing the heartbeat of Christ at the same time is what enables one to look at the impending darkness now with a new hope and strength that comes from within, simply because it is now pulsating with not just one’s own strength, but calmed and supported by the heartbeat of the Sacred Heart. 

In a time when hope seems to be waning, and life appears to take on darker and darker shades of grey, one can pick up the Scriptures to revive one’s hope in many places gleaned from the Holy Word.  But what if words alone are not enough?  What can one do if the words of the Psalmist seem empty and devoid of a sense of comfort that they used to provide in the past?  This is what we can and must do – lean further into the breast of Jesus and like that beloved disciple, allow the heart beat of Jesus to become the strengthener of our ailing hearts and weakened hope. 

Nineteenth century American writer and poet Emily Dickinson, known for her poems dealing with death and mortality, is noted with this saying about hope – Hope, she says, is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all.

Imaged as a songbird that enlivens a jaded or despondent soul,  Dickinson’s hope seems to be also static in that it doesn’t help the soul to move.  Real Christian hope not only gives the soul something to passively listen to, but more importantly, engenders the soul move – soaring to greater heights and deeper and more courageous acts of love despite the darkness that surrounds it.

In the darkening moments of life, leaning in closely to the breast of Jesus, and at the same time looking out at life can provide for this to happen. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Strength in weakness; wholeness in brokenness and power in powerlessness

In May 2012, Fr Ron Rolheiser wrote a column entitled The Power of Powerlessness.  Last week, another spiritual writer, Franciscan Richard Rohr, also wrote about power in powerlessness.   I wonder if their spiritual musings had anything to do with their own downward spiritual journeys, causing them to ponder on the irony of how Christianity turns the world’s definition of power and strength upside-down.  Whatever the reasons, I am most grateful  to have read their works as this had been a most physically draining and painful week for me, and I had found myself weakened more than ever as I had to be admitted into the hospital for a biopsy and a throat CT scan.

Both writers had very different approaches in their reflections.  Richard Rohr was very scriptural and used Paul as a vivid example of how he had to learn the hard way that the way of Christ was not one of being on top and leading by way of the world’s expectation of a military leader to oust the Romans who were occupying the land at that time.  He says that Paul encounters instead a “crucified loser”, and this turns Paul’s world and all he stood for upside-down.  From the moment of his encounter with Jesus on that road to Damascus, Paul begins to idealise powerlessness, and in his letters, we are given plenty of his personal examples of how he embraced suffering, persecution and trials for the sake of his Lord.  Furthermore, Paul is so convinced that he is to live as Christ lived, and as a disciple (some may argue that he was not an apostle in the technical sense of the word) he needed to imitate Christ in all ways possible (Phil. 1:19-21). 

Ever the erudite speaker and wordsmith that he is, Fr Rolheiser took an existential approach that even non-Christians could readily relate to.  Comparing four different people in a room – a powerful dictator, a gifted and muscular athlete, a rock-star and a tiny infant – he showed the reality that it was in fact the tiny and helpless baby who yielded the most power and influence of all four.  In its ironically powerless and weak way, this infant touches hearts and can transform a room in ways that the other three would have much trouble with.  He touches a moral core deep within each one of us.  He goes to the extent to say that the baby has the power of exorcism in him, capable of driving out the demons of self-absorption and selfishness in us, which is what Jesus does.

As expected, he then links this to how the incarnation does this to show God’s unfathomable plan of salvation and redemption. 

When we find ourselves in positions of vulnerability and perhaps even physical powerlessness, reflecting on this Christian reality gives one who is in a state of suffering much hope, strength and even a sense of purpose.  Much as we do not like it when we are weak and ill, and think that we can do much more things and live life if we have more energy and are more mentally alert, it is our suffering and weakness taken in the most positive way that becomes our link with God. 

But we fight this with all our might most of the time, don’t we?  That’s the constant struggle of every single person who is serious about being the disciple of Christ.  It’s not much of a problem with those who have not yet known Christ because being on top and yielding power with brute strength has always been the way of the world.  But for the serious disciple of Christ, the constant challenge will always be to find ways to live in ways that counter the call of the ego and the need to be superior and powerful. 

Those of us who have been afflicted with a physical weakness or some medical condition fight a different battle.  Our weapon for battling evil and the false self is given to us in the form of our sufferings and pains.  We can do two things with them – we can either be bitter and hold God (and just about everyone else) responsible for our state of afflictions, or we can surrender them to God in love and faith, and ask that he use our mellowed hearts for the transformation of the world and the salvation of souls.  It’s the ability to hand over our suffering in humility and self-surrender that reveals how much we are willing to be imitators of Christ.  

Only then can we say like St Paul, that it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us.

Monday, March 31, 2014

What do we do with God's unconditional love

Whenever we think of God’s love or speak about it, a common word that we would use is ‘unconditional’ to describe just how immensely different it is from our understanding of love as we know it.  While it is certainly not wrong, and unconditionally bears a certain divine specialness to it, we are often left with a holy ‘hot potato’ in our hands.  What do we do about it?  What is this supposed to do to me in the way that I live my life?  That God loves us unconditionally is certainly something wonderful to know, but little has been said or written about what I should do about it.  I am certain that if we realise what God wants us to do with this precious and unfathomable gift, we will live our lives differently.

Love given has to be returned.  Not as a command, not as a law, but as a response in love whose imperative originates from the depth of our very being.  Scripture puts it in the way of a command – that we love the Lord our God with all our hearts, our minds and our strength.  But this ‘command’ is often misunderstood, as if to say that God is an insecure being who is so desperate and needy for a return of love.  It is a command simply because it is something that we know we have to do, failing which we know that we have been untrue to ourselves.  It's in our DNA to love - after all, we are made in God's image.

If love is only received and is not given lovingly back to the giver, one becomes a storer, a hoarder, or a self-indulgent person.  We only need to look at the way the three persons of the Holy Trinity love one another.  Keeping nothing to himself, each person upon having received the total and complete love from the other totally depletes and exhausts that love in returning it in love to the giver, and that exchange continues endlessly through time, giving existence to all that there is.  This is something that we need to try to imitate as much as possible in the generous way that we extend love to one another.

But knowing this still hasn’t taught me what to do with my being loved unconditionally by God until I have some understanding of how I am to love my God unconditionally too.  Until we begin to love God as unconditionally as we can, we will be merely taking God’s love for granted and live out lives largely unchanged and untransformed.

Our unconditional love of God has a lot to do with the way we worship him.  When we only choose to worship him in good times and to thank him when things go our way, our worship has a certain conditionality attached to it.  Some of us may be afflicted with what I would call the ‘feelings dis-ease’ when we pray, which causes our personal prayer life to depend on how we feel.  But if we really come to think about it, isn’t real love something that cannot be simply based on feelings?  If married couples only depend on their loving feelings to be loving, they wouldn’t be loving for very long.  Real and lasting love is a decision, which stands the tests of good times and bad, sickness and health.  It has to be something that stands apart from our feelings.  If we only worship God and pray when we ‘feel’ like it, we may be worshipping our feelings without realizing it.  But when love is a decision, our love becomes purified and we move ourselves and our egos out of the central point of focus and begin to put God where he should be.

One concrete way of loving God unconditionally is when we stay steadfast to loving God despite the trials and hardships that come our way in life.  If our faith only tells us to love God when life is smooth and all problems are settled, our love for God can easily be conditional without our realizing it.  But faith becomes active when despite our dark horizons and hardships in life, where we are faced with challenges of various kinds, we do not waver in our worship and praise of God. 

I am certain that we will worship better as a community if there are more people who are joyful witnesses of unconditional love, both of God and of one’s fellowman and woman.  To the extent that we can love another human being unconditionally is the extent that we become holy, as God is holy.  One problem is that we think these examples of holy loving come only from the lives of the saints, which the Church has canonized.  But if we think about it, there are a lot of real people, people who we may know and live with, who despite great challenges in life, continue to love God and not be bitter and angry with him.  When these people dare to lift their broken and lives in humble worship, aren’t they trying to return their love to God in an unconditional way too? 

If I am only going to love God and truly worship him when I have no more illness and when my life as a priest is as normal as it was before I was ill, my love for God would be conditional.  And my life would not be a testimony of love.  Yes, a total recovery may be a sign of God’s marvelous work in my life, but perhaps not as strong a sign as the ability for a person carrying a cross or two to continue to love God and be of good cheer.  Some people have asked me how I can remain so positive despite my physical sufferings.  Herein lies some insight to my answer.

When we look at the various crosses that we have in life this way, we can begin to really thank God for them, because these may be the very things that will help us to purify our love for God and to love him back unconditionally. 

What are the crosses that God has blessed you with?