Monday, March 27, 2017

Personalities to ponder in Lent: Simon Peter

We are given in all four of the gospel accounts of the Passion of Jesus a rather detailed description of Peter’s denial of Jesus after he had been taken into the courtyard to face the Sanhedrin.  The details vary somewhat, but all are very clear that Peter denied Jesus three times in succession, after which the cock crowed, bringing Peter to realise what he had done.

What makes it even more poignant is the fact that among all the other apostles, Peter was not only singled out by Jesus that he was to be the rock that founded the Church, but in various other occasions was shown to be the one apostle who was gung-ho about being faithful to Jesus, come what may.  It was Peter who had boldly insisted that Jesus was not to undergo the upcoming Passion, and it was Peter who was brazen enough to ask Jesus to tell him to walk out of the storm-tossed boat on the Sea of Galilee toward Jesus in the midst of the squall.  If there were a personality that had thought highly of himself in the Gospels, Peter would win hands down.

One would think, logically at least, that denying Jesus would automatically disqualify Peter, making him a persona-non-grata as far as discipleship post resurrection is concerned.  Moreover, a fledgling church that was just beginning to get off the ground would also find it in its best interests to hide such a shameful incident from record.  Instead, it is there for all to see, writ large, as it were, a failure of loyalty and dedication, by the very one who was to be the first Pope.  This must then have a meaning and purpose that goes beyond what meets the eye.  What is it?

At the heart of the gospel is the revelation that God is love, and Jesus’ role in the plan of salvation is to be a testimony of how this is true. Mercy is only god-like when it is associated with the love of God.  When mercy is administered without it being linked with the love that is God’s very essence, it will inevitably have limitations and as well as certain conditions attached to it.  After all, Jesus himself gave the numeric symbol of infinitum by telling Peter that we must forgive not seven (a number that signifies completeness and perfection in the Hebrew tradition) but seventy-seven times (the perfection of perfection). 

It is in John’s post resurrection account that we see Jesus having that very tender and intimate moment and asking him not once, not twice, but three times to feed his sheep.  Biblical commentaries agree somewhat that this is an offer made to Peter to reverse the triple denial that he was guilty of.  Of course, the Greek rendering of the text has another very legitimate rationale for the three responses given by Peter to the three times Jesus asks if he loves him.  In the Greek, there are different gradations of love and in two of Jesus’ questions to Peter if he loves him, he asks Peter if he loves him with the love that is unconditional (agape) to which Peter responded that he could love him with that of a brother (phileo).  On the third time, Jesus himself uses the word phileo, showing that he saw that at that time, Peter was simply incapable of the kind of love that a leader and shepherd of the flock needs to embrace.  Out of mercy and compassion, Jesus still accepted him at that level, but he had always tried to stretch Peter’s heart to move from loving at the phileo level to that of agape. 

That Peter was made the first Shepherd of the Church despite his having denied Jesus is strong testimony that mercy is at the heart of the Church and the crux of the Gospel message.  That we see this fact of his denial not hidden shamefully, not blurred or blotted out, but boldly presented in its guilt and shame-sodden detail clearly shows that there is nothing that humility and true repentance and remorse cannot overcome.  God’s grace and mercy wants to invite our hearts to be stretched to love in ways that we never thought we could.

I believe Jesus wants that kind of love to be coming from each of our hearts as well.  Like Peter, we too are often finding ourselves at loving with very small hearts, with much condition and are way too focused on feelings and sentiments.  But Jesus wants to stretch our hearts, to move us from loving in small and limited ways, to display the kind of love that is unconditional and limitless, which is the agape love that Jesus loved the sinful world with from the Cross of Calvary.

Each time we deny Jesus and give in to the false ways of sin and temptation (they are ALWAYS false), we are like Peter outside the courtyard.  But each time we step into the confessional and strip ourselves of our pride and humble our egos, we find Jesus asking us “do you love me?”  How confident we are to respond that it is an agape love that we return to God will show just how stretched our hearts have been. 


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?