Monday, February 2, 2015

How Christ's entering into darkness gives us light

As a blood cancer patient who has been in slow recovery, I have been recruited by the Bone Marrow Donor Programme here in Singapore as a frequent spokesperson to speak about the pressing need for more people to sign up and be on the list of potential bone marrow or stem cell donors so that a life can be saved – a life which is being threatened by a blood disease somewhere in the world.  In this effort, I have also been interviewed quite a few times by various organizations and asked about my own experience of this whole process of getting ill, being told of the grim prognosis, going through the chemotherapies, and finally being told of the impossibly good news that a perfectly matching donor had been found, albeit from half a world away. 

These interviews often also ask me about how I felt about being told that I was standing at death’s door and I always marvel (even now) at just how calm and almost placid I was when I was told that I had a life-threatening illness.  After all, I have ministered to so many cancer patients who had no intentions of displaying signs of disbelief, anger, shock and denial, which makes my own quick and calm acceptance nothing short of a great grace.  Being a Christian doesn’t automatically give one the inner strength needed to stop from being afraid and anxious.  But perhaps being a person who has very often meditated on the agony of Jesus in the garden of Gethsamane gave me a precious insight into how I was saved by Jesus’ willingness to go through a suffering so innocently for my sake and the sake of the world was what brought me a light that was so needed in that time of sudden darkness.

I often ask myself how it was that Jesus, when he entered into that emptiness of the garden before his brutal execution, experienced and handled that foreboding terror before him.  We are told in the gospels that he agonised in that garden.  This God-man Jesus, who was so often deep in prayer and communicated with his Father, the master of creation and almighty, was actually in some sort of agony over what lay in front of him.  We read in some translations that he was ‘deeply distressed’ but if one were to go to the original Greek text, one would see the world ekthambeisthai, which more accurately translates into something that causes one to be in an intense and emotional state resulting from a great surprise or perplexity.  The question remains – how could this man who was in such a deep and real relationship with his father, the Lord of all, be reduced to a becoming a fearful and surprised person?  But isn’t it also true then – that if this relationship that was so real that it was holding him up and gave him all that he needed and existed for in life, then it was the entering into a state which was devoid of this that was going to be hellish and truly agonizing. 

This must be what hell is – that there is no semblance at all of godliness, and goodness and no divine presence at all.  Jesus was entering into godlessness, and it was beyond staggering.  We say it all the time in church language – that Jesus took on the ‘sin of the world’ on himself, but we hardly spend much time expanding on what it truly means.  Doing this cannot be just the work of reflective theologians trying to gain some impressive scores in the academic world writing theses to attain their degrees.  Doing this is something that all of us who are the disciples of the Lord need to do and do it often.  One very good and meaningful day to do this is before the Altar of Repose in the evening of Holy Thursday.  Coming to some deeper understanding of what it means to ‘take the sin of the world’ on oneself gives one the ability to encounter the smaller deaths that we do each day in our own encounters with people in situations that cause us to enter into the little hells that we often go through. 

What is godlessness like?  It must be something akin to not knowing God.  Imagine having a very good friend, a loving spouse or someone who knows and relates with you on a very deep level.  Imagine then waking up one morning and suddenly have that person no longer in your life to talk with, to share with, and to be in the presence of.  A void, much more than just a lacuna in life, will be experienced.  This will undoubtedly cause much pain.  Jesus was in a great relationship with his father – Our Father.  It sustained him, it empowered him, and it defined his very being.  Having that deep bond taken away on the very next day had to be a pain that goes way beyond what a spouse would feel if the other was taken away, or a friend leaving one’s life for whatever reason.  That pain of separation or disappointment that we would feel would pale in comparison to what Jesus was about to go through.  Our human emptiness is only a drop in the ocean of agony compared to a divine emptiness that Jesus must have seen coming.  In that garden on that night before Good Friday, he saw how he was about to be in a state of godlessness, which for us, should be the ultimate horror, since our lives (body and soul) are made for his love and presence. 

Yet, the antithesis of this is what atheists seem to be wanting to declare - that there is no God, and that this life is something that had happened by ‘chance’, and that the god that we worship is a fabrication and doesn’t sustain us at all.  No, they believe that we are our own existence and that at the end of life, it all turns black (actually, black is something and not nothing, but that would be a matter of another discussion).

The hell that awaits true atheists has to be the fulfillment of their deepest desire – that they will enter at the end of their earthly lives, an eternity of being so distanced, so disconnected and so empty of the one who sustains everything.  Jesus was about to enter into that state, and it more than surprised and ‘deeply distressed’ him.  Yet, he chose to do this albeit much difficulty so that when we now enter into our own pains and struggles where we think we are devoid of God’s presence and power, we are able to do it with a confidence that can only be provided when we know that Jesus came out the other end with more than flying colours. 

I perhaps can say now in hindsight that this must have been going in my mind when the doctor told me that I was facing an impending death with the leukaemia diagnosis.  How could I say to myself ‘it’s ok, it’s only cancer’?  It came from the strength of someone who had entered into Gethsamane, and took on hell not just for me, but for the whole creation.  What is one person’s impending death and suffering (mine) when someone took on the world’s?  My being a little selfless at that time was nothing if not for Jesus’ suffering for the world.

I could never put these thoughts in a prĂ©cis form for my interlocutors at interviews about my illness and recovery.  I can only give glimpses or snippets of this which gave me that strength when the doctor gave me the news of a cancer.  It never is a full revelation and perhaps can never be, because it is like trying to give someone an experience of something only by using words and phrases.  Words can only convey that much, no matter how great a wordsmith one is.  Words never convey or provide a full picture.  At best, it can help to provide a screenshot. 

Perhaps it is because of this that now I don’t sweat ‘the small stuff’ easily.  It still surprises me how I find it easier to forgive people who may be prejudiced against me for whatever reasons.  And when I face disappointments, when I am maligned in my character, when I am wrongly accused, when I am thought of much less than I know myself to be, or when others think that they need to make me small so that they feel great.  These are never easy things to do, but these darknesses in life are made light (pun definitely intended) because Jesus chose to enter into a much darker and emptier state for us all to bring us a new and everlasting light.

Someone remarked recently that my reflections have taken on a somewhat more somber tone after my illness and recovery, and that I don’t write about lighter and happier matters.  I guess this is a natural result of having had this near-death experience, and also of encountering the incredible benevolence of my stem cell donor (that’s you, Peter Mui).  Happy stuff can find them in abundance in the social media.  They are not hard to find.  But I do have the need to give others who have a great difficulty in finding hope and strength in their own Gethsamane moments.  It could be someone who has just been told that they are seriously ill, or who has tremendous difficulty with the knowledge that their marriage is on the rocks, or when one’s secure world of possessions and riches has been suddenly and greatly reduced.  I believe this reflection serves to help them see some light in the dark tunnel that they find themselves facing in life. 

It’s not that I have become stoic and lost my sense of humour.  In fact, it is because I don’t ‘sweat the small stuff’ that I can genuinely smile at so many other things in life. 


  1. Lost your sense of humour? Hahaha.. No way,Fr. Luke. I beg to differ.

    I think (assume, more likely) that having once stood at death’s door, you now have an even greater sense of humour! Because you can now truly see ‘the small stuff’ for what it is.

    I guess that is what a life-changing experience does to us. One sees the bigger picture. But at the same time one is exposed to the gravity of ‘godlessness’ and the need to “sweat the big stuff” as it were.

    And that is precisely why you've been writing more about 'the big stuff' rather than engage in 'happy talk' as we (moderns) are wont to do.

    Thank you and God bless!

  2. “..........Christ's entering into darkness gives us light.”

    Chatting with a childhood friend this morning, I was dismayed that she believed that all sufferings are evil and that nothing good can come from suffering. She even insinuated that – one of the reasons for her family’s devotional prayers and piety is to make sure God shelters them from all suffering and times of gloom.(and she being a cradle Catholic too!) Whilst I would not argue over the efficacy of prayer, I do believe that many good-intentioned Catholics are misled to gloss over the Cross of Christ and only emphasize on the joy of the Resurrected Lord. I will always remember ( way back in my early days as a newly-minted Catholic) that Christian pastor who when sharing his life’s ministry, said that - there will be no Easter without Good Friday. In fact, a priest later said that there is no Christianity without the Cross – which also makes sense!

    And all these – made me reflect on the interesting line in your post “..........Christ's entering into darkness gives us light.” It is because Christ entered and is still entering into (our ) darkness that we are able to see - for as the true Light of the World – he illuminates, dispels the darkness – both our own and the world’s- and so darkness and the shadows cannot engulf us. I feel that what we need to address is our attitude towards suffering - how can we bring meaning into suffering and not how we can escape from suffering for this is a human condition. Thus, I reflected that I would have made some real progress if only I could turn (my) suffering into “a source of salvation for mankind....” – for then, I shall truly be “putting on the mind of Christ.”

    I find the following quote very comforting, “Jesus has not come to take away suffering. He has come to fill it with his presence.” – (can’t recall author) - What re-assurance indeed!

    God bless you, Fr.