Monday, April 25, 2011

Holding on to the resurrection events

In all the major accounts of the resurrection of Jesus in the gospels, we are not told that he stayed with the witnesses for any prolonged period of time. In fact, in some of them, we are told that he disappeared at the breaking of the bread. This makes it extremely hard for us to pinpoint what it is that defines the resurrection of Jesus. And if it is hard for us to wrap our minds around it, it would be just as difficult for us to make it clear for ourselves what the resurrection would be. After all, we seem to have very little to hold on to, causing our detractors (read atheists) to say that our belief in the resurrection of Jesus is some sort of “pie-in-the-sky”.

Perhaps this is the problem as well as the solution, if “solution” is the correct word to use. Jesus did tell Mary of Magdala in the resurrection account in John’s gospel not to hold on to him. There’s something that doesn’t allow for his witnesses to hold on to him. The human tendency for us is to hold on to as much as we can because we cannot deal with change and transience well. We only need look at the Transfiguration event to see that we all have that human tendency to want to build tents on the mountain top and not ruin a good thing. We resist any call for change and fluidity, but God does not. Yes, we do know that God is immutable, but he is also called the unmoved mover as well.

But we only need to look at life and see that permanence of any sort does not really exist. Our lives are not permanent, our addresses are not permanent, and neither are our jobs and our health. What we need to do is to learn how to cope with change well, and unfortunately, in my experiences with folk who have changes thrust into their lives in unceremonious fashion, change is not only difficult, but extremely frightening as well.

I suspect the reason why the resurrection accounts in the bible are so fluid and fleeting is because our own experiences of resurrections in life have the same character. We are not joyful all the time, neither are we elated, ebullient and exuberant. But having said that, neither are the antitheses of these – our sadness, our mourning, our pains and sorrows are also not permanent. The resurrection joy and energy that Jesus wants to give us is to allow us to be aware of these resurrection moments when they happen in our lives, and to see that these are glimpses of something that have a permanence not in this life, but the next. And what gives us hope always is the chance of a new start.

This is why Jesus always mentions to the disciples – go to Galilee. Why Galilee? It’s not so much a physical place, but a time when it all began; a place where the disciples were first called, a time when fish were caught aplenty and when boats were left on the shore. Jesus wants them to recall and to start over again. That is what reconciliation and forgiveness is about.

We all have our Galilee moments. When friendships falter, when dreams fade and when romance seems to be just a figment of our imagination, we need to go back to Galilee too. It is there that we will see the Lord calling us again – calling us to love in ever expansive ways.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Why Good Friday is so good

The past week saw us priests in many parts of the island, and I am sure other parts of the world as well, hearing confession after confession in penitential services in parishes and other similar settings. This wonderful opportunity offers, en masse, the healing touch of God’s salve of forgiveness and mercy to the wounded souls and hearts of the faithful.

What I noticed in so many confessions is a certain problem that seems to plague very many penitents, and I must admit that even I have succumbed to it on more than a few occasions. It is anger that I am talking about.

So many people have come to confession, admitting that they have allowed anger to take over them; almost swallowing them up on numerous occasions, and sometimes, this had led to their abusing (perhaps not physically) others. I always try to stress to these folk that the feeling of anger is not a sin, as it is just that – a feeling. Feelings have no morality attached to them. It’s when feelings give in to and lead us into dark violence that sin takes over us like the way a dark cloud breaks into pelting rain over the landscape called life. Where can we find an alternative to this violence that seems to consume so many of us? What is the way out? Is there one?

The mystery that is Good Friday is, as one spiritual writer put it so graphically, akin to a carefully cut diamond. The brilliance that each facet reveals depends on the angle of light that bounces off each of its multifarious surfaces. But what really gives the Cross the brilliance that no beautiful earthly gem can reveal is the resplendence of God’s non-violence. The cross of Calvary upon which hung the Saviour of the World radiates non-violence precisely because it had absorbed all the violence of the world in Christ’s dramatic decision to love. Why does every scene of the Calvary moment, every image of the crucifix, every depiction of the suffering bruised, bleeding, beaten and agonizing God-man seem to steal our breath away? Because what is beyond words, what is beyond a cheap title or explanation is the immense depth of the non-violent nature of God and the non-violent nature of divine love.

When we don’t ponder enough at what is being revealed at Christ’s crucifixion, we will probably end up repeating what caused him to end up there on the first Good Friday. Each one of our displays of anger that have caused a hurt or a wound in our fellow man becomes in a similar way, the very reason Christ was nailed to the Cross. The Goodness that Good Friday reveals is that despite the injustice, despite the unfairness, despite the false accusations and jealousies, God did not and will not retaliate with violence. It was a conscious choice not to do so. And unless we appreciate this over and over again, we will do just the opposite of what Jesus chose not to do that Friday two thousand years ago.

Of course, it is of no credit to us Christians that we missed this point by more than a mile when we look back at the nefarious and egregious acts of violence that have dotted our own history, where ‘holy wars’ have been waged, using shamelessly, God’s name. It raises the question whether there really are such things as ‘just’ wars. Hopefully, the more we learn about our dark past, the more we will realize that history must not repeat itself.

That is why we need to constantly do as a community what the Good Friday liturgy invites us to do. To behold the wood of the Cross, and to see its revelation by the celebrant part by part by part, till it is fully exposed for us to worship and adore. To kneel before the Cross and to allow its deafening silence of non-violence to whisper its message and power into our closed ears and hearts.

The more anger we harbour in ourselves, the more we need to worship before the Cross of Christ.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Our greatest gift is given away, not taken from us.

Why did Jesus sweat blood in the garden of Gethsamane? This is a strange phenomenon which is featured only in Luke’s telling of the passion of the Christ. Apparently, there is a medical term for this, and it is called hematohidrosis. It’s extremely rare, and this happens because the anxiety one experiences swell or dilate the blood vessels so much that those around the sweat glands rupture, causing the blood to mix with the sweat, pushing the blood to the surface, and out onto the skin. One could suppose that it was because Luke was the only doctor among the four evangelists that he mentioned this detail. It is not featured in Mark, Matthew or John’s account.

Some would argue that the word ‘hosei’ in the Greek renders as “like” blood, meaning that it was not blood, but something like, or akin to. Whether or not blood was used as a metaphor or whether it was literal, we need to see what significance sweating blood had for Luke’s readers and for all of us.

The most precious and meaningful things that anyone can have from us are the things that we give away freely. It could be our time, our attention, our material possessions or our money. But we resent it when it is taken from us without our wanting to part with it. The more precious things are to us, the more significant it will be when the recipient realizes that there was an effort in our parting with it.

This insight came to me as I was preparing for a talk last week on Jesus’ Agony in the Garden. We all know that in the process of the scourging and beatings, ending with his crucifixion, Jesus had blood taken from him. Mel Gibson’s controversial movie “The Passion of the Christ” brings all the gore and pain out in clear and vivid detail. Jesus had so much taken from him, and it ended with his death. The fact that the soldier pierced Jesus’ side with the lance after he had died, issuing out blood and water, reminds us that these life-giving and life-sustaining elements were extracted from him.

Jesus knew that his giving of his life was going to save the world and to give it life. But before it was going to be taken from him, before the life-giving elements were going to be robbed from him, he had to give it away freely. Could the evangelist Luke be saying that his body’s giving up of the blood by sweating it voluntarily before he was going to be made to do through the scourging is what saves the world.

Looking at it from this angle, it reminds us all that our free will is one of the most valuable things that we have as human beings. The Church has always taught that God wants us to exercise our free will because it is in freedom that when love and life are given, the values are highest. God doesn’t make us do anything, simply because anyone made to love doesn’t really love.

We only need to forward our reading of Luke’s rendering of the passion of Christ a chapter away and see this revealed in the last uttered phrase of Jesus on the Cross to see this once more. He says to the Father “into your hands, I commit my spirit”. The spirit of Jesus is never taken from him. He hands it over to the Father in love, and that is what saves the world.

In many of our struggles to love, we fight this ‘handing over’ so much. Its violence tears us apart on so many levels. It is what disintegrates us.

But when we hand over our wills freely in love, not because of a duty, not because one has no choice, we imitate Christ and do our part in ‘saving’ the world.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The urge to fall asleep in the Garden of Gethsamane

As we approach the heaviness of Holy Week, we will begin the great mother of all liturgies of the Holy Triduum by participating in the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday night. In all churches throughout the world, this Mass will precede the placing of the Blessed Sacrament at the Altar of Repose, where the faithful are invited to spend time with the Lord, like the way Jesus himself invited his nearest and dearest disciples to stay awake with him in the Garden of Gethsamane. There seems to be some traditions extant in some cultures to get busy with church visitations, hopping from one church to another, but this has never been the intention of leaving the church open till midnight on this day. It is primarily to allow us to really spend (at least) a solid hour in prayer before the Lord, staying with him in his agony.

But as the disciples failed and fell asleep, so too do we in life. In Luke’s gospel text, we are told that the reason they fell asleep was ‘due to sheer grief’. We’d probably understand it better, and perhaps even relate to their sleeping better, if we were told that they slept due to fatigue, or due to extreme tiredness. After all, when we are tired, that is what our bodies tell us to do – sleep. But to sleep for sheer grief? What gives?

This may be seen as a metaphor for our collective unwillingness to really face what needs to be faced in life. What did the disciples experience prior to this Gethsamane outing? They were at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, where he gave them his body and his blood – where he literally gave them himself. It was not just the Passover that they celebrated. It was something truly groundbreaking. Their beloved master Jesus just gave them himself, and not just that, he gave them a great order that they too, must give themselves and break of themselves in a similar fashion. They probably knew that the coveted Jer 31:31 verse that all Jews were waiting for to happen was unfolding right before their very eyes, but they little did they know that this new covenant was going to be something they themselves were to perform and live out. This realization could well be the source of their ‘grief’. This was, and is, going to be hard.

When baptism is only seen as something that is received by a convert to the faith, it is rather easy to accept. Baptism then becomes something that is done ‘to me’, where all I have to do is to bend my head over some water font, and let the water trickle over my head. Nothing grief-rending there. And yes, it can be something that is rather ‘feel good’.

But it is when the converted disciple comes to the realization that this is now something that requires a constant response of a dying to the self; of choosing the more difficult task; of a call to greater generosity; of a need to be more selfless; of the demand to give more than one receives in life, one will sooner or later, feel the grief of the real Christian challenge.

We don’t often come to that realization in our everyday living. Most of us are far too busy with our lives and families. Sometimes, when the Church recommends pathways to spiritual greatness that may require of us to put aside some of our plans and ideas, it is, understandably, very easy to not want to respond positively, and think that the Church, or even God, is simply idealistic. I believe this kind of realization comes when one is faced with the weightier matters of life, and knows that real love has a price to pay.

Examples of this are when one is faced with the reality of accepting a special-needs child to the family, or having a suddenly handicapped or bed-ridden family member to look after; or when one is faced with a tragic failure in life. The grief of needing to respond to this with the attitude of being Eucharist can be mind numbing and one can escape through wanting to sleep. Of course, it is far more than just the physical act of going to sleep. The ‘sleep’ can be seen in refusing to talk about the matter; finding ways to escape the challenge to love at hand; to just do the bare minimal or just brushing off any possibility of going deep.

I believe that we must want to choose to spend that hour with the Lord in the Garden of Gethsamane on Holy Thursday night. And we do not do this alone. In fact, when we do that, we stay there consciously with the broken world, which in millions of ways has chosen to sleep rather than stay awake. On this night, it is not the prayers that we can mouth that are important. Rather, it is the choice, out of love, to just stay there with the Lord and with one another that can transform and strengthen.

The confidence to do this must come from the fact that like that night at the first Holy Thursday, the Lord is just a stone’s throw away from us, kneeling down and praying.