Monday, August 1, 2016

When we have lived out our Christian calling, our deaths ought to be celebrated more than mourned.

Over the week, the tragic and gruesome killing of an 84-year-old Catholic Priest made the news.  Fr Jacques Hamel was midway through celebrating the Eucharist in town of St. Etienne-du-Rouvray situated Northeast of Paris, France, when two men with knives entered the church and slit his throat in front of the parishioners who were present at the Mass.  The two assailants were members of ISIS who claimed responsibility for the attack, leaving much of the world and the church reeling.  Some reports say that he was beheaded in the sanctuary.

Many people, especially angry atheists, often attribute violence to religion.  History appears to have shown the veracity in this accusation, as can be seen from the many wars that have been fought up and down the centuries with religion as their raison d’etre, with the crusades often cited as a prime example.  I use the phrase ‘appears to have shown’ because I strongly believe that it is not religion or God per se, but man’s interpretation or ignorance of both true religion and God. 

 Many of the bible accounts of God appearing to be violent with intent to cause harm to humanity are anthropomorphisms.  Bible writers, using lore and story, are telling of the consequences of our actions (or inactions in some instances) resulting in suffering and loss.  In our primitive or ancient existence and early understanding of nature, these could only be attributable to the Divine, partly because we had an innate visceral awareness that our world was not only made up of what was visual and empirical, but there was more to our existence than meets the eye.  We allowed God to speak to us outside of our known and heuristic world. 

As humankind developed and as the mind took on sophistication, we somehow lost the ability to wonder at.  We only wonder why.  And because of this, we have also sadly stunted our growth.  We only know how to grow outwards, but have lost the need to maintain a growing inwards.  This is the contemplative in every one of us that has atrophied significantly, and we are lesser beings because of it. 

If we had nurtured the contemplative dimension of our being, we would have been able to see that in the progression of the Bible itself, there actually has been a revelation of a less and less violent God in the unfolding of Salvation History. 

I came across an insightful reflection from a spiritual writer and author on the gospel passage in John 8.  This is the passage where the scribes and Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman caught in adultery.  They bring not just her, but the law of Moses as well to Jesus, justifying a stoning of a human being.  Needless to say, this was a very violent action, and according to the law of Moses, it appeared to be lawful.  Jesus, the non-violent one, seemed to be caught in a quandary.

What Jesus does then is so cryptic that it almost defies explanation and immediate understanding.  He bends down and writes on the ground.  They persist in their questioning and after asking them a probing question himself, he again bends down and writes on the ground again.  Why does Jesus write twice on the ground?

In all my years of hearing homilies and studying scripture, teachers, professors and homilists had always seem to dwell on what it could have been that Jesus scribbled on the ground that day, causing the people, one by one, to walk away, leaving the woman alone with Jesus.  Some have speculated that he wrote out their sins, leaving them embarrassed, causing them to flee the place.  This doesn’t auger well with the heart of Jesus, as listing the sins of others is hardly a charitable action.

Then I came across a breakthrough.  It was not so much what Jesus wrote, but that he wrote, and that he wrote twice.  Who in the history of the Bible had ever written twice, using his finger?  It was God himself when he gave Moses (and us) the Ten Commandments.  The first time the tablets were given to Moses, he broke them when he came down from the mountain, livid to find Aaron and the people worshipping the golden calf.  The second time was when Moses went back up to the mountain and after being with God, a second set of tablets was inscribed, again by God’s finger.  Pardon and mercy, not violence, was what brought about the second chance by God.  Could Jesus’ action that day in writing twice on the ground be something that was suddenly dawned on the scribes and Pharisees?  Could it be the revelation of the great mercy of God himself?

If so, then the scribes and the Pharisees got it.  At least at for that moment.  Strangely, Moses didn’t seem to.  The adulteress that day experienced this in spades.  Our God is not violent, and Jesus came to show this by his very life.  The heinous crucifixion on Calvary was God’s testimony of how serious he was about not being a violent God because he took the world’s violence on himself. 

I’m afraid that religious devotees have missed this point by a mile and have instead projected onto God their own shadows and undefined hostility and self-hate, and this is evidenced when the violence they commit has a religious agenda.

If there was a clear victor in the bloody and gruesome incident at St Etienne-du-Rouvray last week, it was God and Fr Jacques Hamel.  I met a layperson a few days ago who shared with me her sentiments about the entire incident.  She lamented aloud that it was such a waste that a man like Fr Hamel who studied all his life and gave his life for God would die such a horrible and grisly death.  Her sentiments are, to be sure, not just hers alone.  Many have expressed similar expressions of his life being ‘wasted’ by barbarians.

I tend to have a different view though.  It’s not that I am unfeeling and numbed by the escalating violence that fills the pages of our news each day.  I asked myself what are we priests for?  If not to be another Christ, then we have missed the point of our vocation and our calling.  Professionals who study for their degrees in their fields go out to the world to apply their knowledge in the fields where they had gained some level of mastery.  Engineers become engineers and they build bridges and construct complexes.  Doctors practice medicine, endeavoring to save and improve lives.  Accountants use their knowledge of finance and economic entities to bring order through systems and methods and processes.  When they apply these to the best of their abilities, their education becomes ‘worth the while’. 

What about priests?  Our vocation to be priests and the training to reach the priesthood is rather arduous.  Apart from the constant need to study, far more important is the transformation of the person who is called.  He is called to become another Christ in a very true way, and there is no truer way than to imitate the Master in both life and in death.  At every Altar during the celebration of the Eucharist, the passion and death of Christ is realized in a non-bloody way.  The celebrant is “Alter Christus” or another Christ.  To physically die at the Altar during Mass – must be the closest any priest could ever be in imitating the Lord Jesus. 

The Cross of Calvary was God’s answer to mankind’s sin and proclivity to violence.  I don’t think his death is ‘wasted’.  If so, then Christ’s death on Calvary is also a waste.  We know it wasn’t.  We stand as beneficiaries of a supreme act of sacrifice and God’s mercy.  As a body of Christ and as Church, we cannot use Fr Hamel’s death as a reason to react violently.  If we do, we would have missed the point of Calvary.

I believe Fr Hamel’s death is not ‘wasted’ as such.  Such a sacrifice needs to be celebrated with great honour because Fr Hamel truly became another Christ in death. 


  1. Thank you, Fr Luke. It is wonderful to read your blog today and then to recall today's 1st reading to be from Jeremiah 28 "...Listen carefully, however, to this word that I am now going to say for you and all the people to hear: From remote times, the prophets who preceded you and me prophesied war, famine and plague for many countries and for great kingdoms; but the prophet who prophesies peace can only be recognised as one truly sent by the Lord when his word comes true."

    Fr Hamel's death when seen in the light of a sacrifice likened to Christ, who is Peace, would lead this darkened world toward love and hope rather than anger and despair.

  2. Like the lay person you mentioned, I too was very touched by a deep sadness and grief, a sense of loss at the horrendous death of Fr Hamel – more so when I saw photos of this kindly looking, frail and elderly priest, whose only ‘fault’ is that he was a priest. I found it difficult to reconcile myself to accept that God had anything to do with this..........thinking about the time and endeavours of the Catholic community ...... praying for and nurturing priestly vocations.

    Left to my own soliloquy, the verse that haunted me was Psalm 116:15 - “.....Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his saints.....” If the death of one of his saints is precious to him, it must have been that he has carefully and deliberately chosen him to bear an important message to us or to the world.....(I thought) It has therefore to be something that only this person could be instrumental to bring about .........perhaps a greater good? Or something that would bring God glory or further the work of redemption of man.

    So I was musing along these lines of thought when this morning’s first reading entertained us with the interesting exchange between Jeremiah and the false prophet Hananiah. What Jeremiah said, - “ but the prophet who prophesies peace can only be recognised as one truly sent by the Lord .....," caught my eye.

    Fr Hamel was the face of peace. They had to obliterate this face, the face of Peace, the face of God............. for it is living proof, a direct proof of the reality of the Prince of Peace who came that the world could have hope and was killed so that we may have fullness of life. In the footsteps of his Master, Fr Hamel’s death, then was to show the world (us) - an alternative way –a way of hope and peace-that could lead us out of this spiralling of violence and fearful mistrust that seems to have engulfed the world.

    God bless you, Fr


  3. Thank you, Fr., for this explanation. As a lay person, my first response was outrage & anger towards these terrorists. After reading your blog, I realised how shallow I have been. I pray & hope to be taught by you through your blog. God bless you, Fr.