Monday, April 24, 2017

Jesus is still showing himself under different forms in our lives. We just need new eyes.

I recently came across a rather interesting social experiment that was recorded on video which was created by Unicef last year to bring help to children living in poverty to live a better life.  It showed how adults treated an apparently homeless girl differently, depending on how she was dressed. 

The first part of the experiment saw the 6-year-old girl neatly dressed but alone, looking somewhat lost.  Within minutes, passers approached her who enquired if they could help her. 

The next part of the experiment saw this same child dressed and made up to look like a homeless person, no longer in decent and clean clothing.  Looking scruffy and like a vagrant, she was now ignored by passers by, and when she entered a café, one customer even told the café employees to remove this child from its premises. 

Apparently, the child was very traumatized by the experiment and it had to be stopped midway as she was too shaken by what she went through. 

The post resurrection events that are depicted in the Gospels give us very sketchy details about how the resurrected Lord actually looked like.  His qualities are more telling than how he physically appeared.  In many of the appearances, we are told about what the resurrected Lord did.  In quite a few of them, we are told that he either ate something or prepared something for others to eat.  Though he was the same person, he was also not immediately recognized.

Scripture scholars have long since speculated on the nature of the resurrected Jesus.  Being able to walk through closed doors could allude to the possibility that the resurrected Lord has no physical body, but only pure spirit.  However, he is often depicted doing a very physically human thing as well – eating, as well as offering food to those he showed himself to.  Not only that, we are very clearly told that he still bears the scars and the wounds that had caused him his death. 

Mark’s gospel articulates that he showed himself “under another form”. 

Why this subterfuge?  Is Jesus trying to play a game with his disciples?  Is there a point to all this appearances in different forms?  If so, what could it be?

The Gospel is called the Good News for a whole host of reasons.  The primary one is that we are loved and saved not on our own merits and skill sets, but because our God is a god of love and mercy.  That he had desired to save us by taking on the sins of the world is something that is so beautiful and deep is also something that is a mystery in itself. 

But there are multifarious dimensions to the Gospel being good.  In relation to the post resurrection appearances of Jesus, there is a hidden goodness as well to the way Jesus seems to go about undetected as he stands among the crowds who had previously known about him.  He is not confined to any particular form but his essence is still the same.  To the many whom he allowed to recognize him, it became a continual opportunity for conversion, as we are told that the many who did see him were “added to the number”. 

The Christian life constantly keeps one on our toes and alert to the ways in which God is revealing himself to us as well.  In this way, the Christian life is dynamic.  Each encounter with another human being ought to be seen as an opportunity to see some dimension of Christ, and the way that St Theresa of Calcutta reached out to the sick and the most impoverished often had her saying that she saw Christ in them.  This becomes the daily challenge of the Christian life. 

If we are indeed Easter people, our eyes then have one shared requirement – to see beyond the physical.  Our prejudices and biased opinions and judgments of others are often the first and largest obstacles from being able to see that at the heart of each person is an essence and a dignity that is godly.  Appearances are often deceiving, and as the saying goes, even salt can look like sugar.

In most experiments, there should always be a “control”.  Controls ensure that the effects of variables are minimized other than the independent variable itself.  To do so increases the results to be seen as reliable.  It was a pity that the Unicef social experiment didn’t have such a control.  What would a control in such an experiment be like?  I would conjecture that it would be the same girl, dressed differently on both occasions, encountering a blind person.  If he or she had the same kind of concern, compassion and charity to the girl regardless of her appearance, it would reveal something remarkable and beautiful – that at the heart of our biasedness and prejudice, we have very faulty visions. 

Monday, April 17, 2017

The importance of celebrating Easter repeatedly.

There are celebrations in the course of our lives that we routinely celebrate and observe perennially.  Birthdays, anniversaries are good examples.  These somehow remind us that we are getting on in years, and that we have made it through another 365 days.  If we want to be technical about it, we could simply say that it was a marking of the earth’s coming back to the point in its orbital path around the sun to reach the place where it was exactly a year ago. 

Religious events that are celebrated and observed on an annual basis have a dimension that goes beyond just marking of an ‘aging’ of something.  If they are truly fundamental to our very being, celebrating them and observing them in a purposeful and meaningful way brings their importance to the fore of our consciousness.  More importantly, they remind us of why we believe what we believe, especially when the core of our belief is something that is strongly incongruent to the ways of contemporary thinking and philosophies.

Yesterday, the Christian world celebrated once again the bedrock of our faith and belief – that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead after his brutal and ignominious crucifixion three days before on Golgotha, on the outskirts of Jerusalem.  The celebration of Easter marks this momentous event, and we as Christians become terribly impoverished if we cannot say with great clarity that this is what gives Christianity its unique and outstanding position amongst all other faith beliefs. 

If our belief in Jesus Christ is that he was merely a good teacher of ethics, moral codes and a very holy person, and that is why we are Christians, I’m afraid we are basing our belief on shaky grounds.  It would then mean that Jesus was just a very good man.  And there have been so many good and morally upright men through the ages.  If this is the case, then the argument that “all religions are the same”, which is an argument that “spiritual but not religious” people spew cannot be seen as flawed.  There must be something about Christianity that empowers it to be so unique, so singularly exceptional that gives a Christian a confidence not just in life, but in death, which is the last bastion of anyone’s life.

The fact of the empty tomb of Christ has then to be the reason par excellence for our justification of calling Jesus not just a good man, not just a moral man, not just a holy man, but God.  No other person in the history of humankind has won the victory over death, and only God can defeat death.  That he calls us to follow him so that we too can have life eternal like he did is the promise that he gives to all Christians.  However, this is not a promise that comes without a price.  He paid for it dearly with his life, and the way to this promise of eternal life is to live as he lived and to love as he loved – right to the very end. 

Perhaps we don’t appreciate enough the enormity of the price Jesus paid for us to have this hope in our lives of eternal life.  His triumph was not just a singular one of life over death.  It was a culmination of all the other triumphs of Jesus as well – in triumphing over death, he also triumphed over doubt, fear and loneliness.  The empty tomb vindicated his belief that in life, it is always better to give yourself over to love than to hatred and bitterness, always better to be charitable than to be selfish, always better to live with forgiveness than to live for revenge, always better to live in honesty and truth than to resort to lying and deception. 

Simply basking in the fact that Jesus did all that isn’t enough for us Christians.  If Jesus says that he is the way, the truth and the life, then it has to mean that our lives have to mirror these triumphs as well if we are to emerge from the sealed tombs of our lives. 

This is germane and apposite for any life that is seriously Christian.  Otherwise our Christianity may only be one that is just nominal at best.  The price that Jesus paid had a great payoff – he walked out of the tomb and left sin and death in his wake.  Death was conquered.  If we want to follow him out of our tombs, we too need to triumph over the same challenges as Jesus, doing it with great love.

May you, my dear readers, have a blessed and holy Easter.  The Lord has risen!  Alleluia!

Monday, April 10, 2017

Personalities to ponder in Lent: Mary

It has always been a tradition long held by Catholic retreat masters that when leading retreats that last for a considerable length of time, the very last conference is always one that centres around the spirituality and person of Mary, our Blessed Mother.  The best is always reserved for the last, and this would be the spirit behind this tradition.

There must be a myriad of reasons why this is so.  She is considered the disciple par excellence of all the disciples of Jesus, and the one person whose heart and soul is open to God’s Spirit in the most docile and supple way.  Her sinlessness places her head and shoulders above all other human beings who have ever walked the face of this earth, and who ever will.  Even though scripture tells us that it was Mary Magdalene that the resurrected Lord appeared to first on Easter morning, it has been a long standing and honoured tradition of Catholic devotional belief that it was to his Blessed Mother that Jesus did first appear to.  It is interesting to note that this has been supported by quite a few personal and private revelations.  Though this tradition is not an article of faith per se, it is worth pondering over.  What lies at the heart of this kind of reflection, which is speculatively theological in nature, is really the reflection on the nature of the relationship between mother and son.  However, here is where it becomes truly special, requiring one to tread with extreme delicateness – it is a relationship of a very special mother and a very special son – that of a Mother who is a Virgin and a son who is Divine.  It is a relationship that is far from normal, to say the least.

But as we are still in Lent, and this is the last of the “Personalities to ponder in Lent” series, I would like to focus not so much on Mary as the one to whom the resurrected Lord may have first appeared to after he was raised from the dead, but what Mary’s disposition was at the life, passion and death of her son, and how reflecting on this really serves to aid us all in our spiritual journey of life.

It is only in John’s account of the Passion of Jesus that Mary is mentioned.  She isn’t mentioned in all the other three gospels.  John has her standing near the cross of Jesus, together with her sister and Mary of Magdala. 

John provides a theological purpose for her being there.  From the cross, Jesus casts his loving gaze on her and instructs his beloved disciple to behold his mother.  He entrusts his beloved mother to his beloved disciple, and in so doing, gives her over to his care, and also gives her over to the Church that is now under her maternal care.  It is a common explanation that Jesus never had any blood siblings, and that is why Jesus handed his mother over to his disciple to care for her from this point onward.

What was Mary doing at the foot of the Cross?  I truly believe that we stand to benefit and learn a lot from Mary if we spend some time pondering over this, and it is what Scripture doesn’t tell us that helps us.

Why I say this is because Scripture doesn’t tell us that she was filled with anger and bitterness for what was happening to her beloved son.  Any mother who witnesses the cruelty and inhumanity of a child will be somehow expected to demand for justice, with a face turned to the heavens and screaming for God to intervene and act.  After all, she was told at the Annunciation that her child will be holy and that he will be called Son of God.  The way things turned out for the Son of God certainly didn’t seem to auger well with how one would think an heir of God should be treated.  What she beheld as she stood beneath the cross was a bruised, beaten, abandoned and dying Jesus. 

But there is no denying that there is something about Mary that is to be admired and respected.  She had no demands even of God at that point.  She didn’t shake her fist at the heavens and scream out in detest of how cruel God could be.  But instead, she stayed at the foot of the cross. 

We hear of many young, and not so young people of our generation leaving the practice of the faith and many of them give the reason that they do not understand the faith.  This is compounded often when their lives undergo afflictions and see how so many in the world are suffering in different ways.  Many of them reason out that if God is all good and loving, that these and all other forms of suffering should not exist.  While there are a lot of ways we can theologically broach such sentiments, they often are reducible to two things – that God is not a divine control freak, and that there is great value in faith when things are bleak. 

If God is a divine control freak, our love for him would never be one that is returned in full freedom.  It will be contingent and predicated on the fact that we are not allowed to choose otherwise.  Love, as we know, cannot be controlled.  Controlled love is not love in the fullest sense of the word. 

Secondly, Mary’s attitude at the foot of the cross is one of humility and receptivity.  She did not demand for an understanding of the divine plan of God.  Instead of understanding, she stood under.  She stood under the pain, under the mystery, under the weight of the Passion, she stood under the love of God that somehow also included loving those who hated him. 

Mary’s attitude at the foot of the cross imitates so closely Jesus’ attitude while hanging on the cross.  In that way, mother and son were so closely united.  When we ponder this deeply, I am quite certain that it will change our hearts when we face injustices and afflictions that have no earthly answers, and like Mary, stay firm in our faith and not abandon the cross.

The serene and sorrowful countenance of Mary as she cradled the dead body of Jesus her son after it was taken down from the cross was captured so beautifully in Michelangelo’s Pieta and many say that his interpretation is unprecedented in Italian sculpture.  Despite the trauma she had gone through, her face doesn’t display any resentment or scorn. 

In her silence, Mary does teach us something as she stood there at the cross. 

Monday, April 3, 2017

Personalities to ponder in Lent: Judas Iscariot

“What?  Judas as a personality to ponder?”  This remark may well be running through your mind, dear reader, and I am not surprised.  On the surface, it would be akin to spend some serious time pondering over the personality of Hitler or Pol Pot.  Society has almost unanimously put a “persona-non-grata” label these people in history, and has in many ways condemned them.  Why should we then even consider that it would be a good thing to spend time pondering over Judas?  Didn’t he betray Jesus?  Wasn’t his betrayal the very thing that precipitated Jesus’ cruel and ignominious death on the Cross?  An innocent man, the likes of which was never seen in history before, went to his death because of Judas.  We have, even if we are not fully conscious of it, condemned him.  But has the Church?

Actually, the Church has never condemned him.  Neither has mother Church condemned Hitler nor anyone else, no matter how nefarious they may have been.  After all, condemning a person who is no longer alive means that they are damned for eternity in hell fire.  But the Church has officially proclaimed many deceased persons as enjoying the beatific vision of God in heaven through the Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints and named them Saints in heaven.  But no one has officially condemned anyone, not even Judas.

It is without doubt that what Judas did was most unfortunate and lamentable.  Handing over Jesus to the authorities that were just looking out for some reason to silence the Word is truly nothing exemplary or laudable.  But like many other bad examples that we have in life, if we are not reflective and giving thought to, mulling over and cogitating about such acts, we may end up doing exactly the same thing (or worse) ourselves.  In the same way that we can look to the paragons of righteous and holy living as the models of how we ought to live our lives, we too can sometimes look at the errors and transgressions of those whose lives had been negative examples too.  From them, we learn how not to make the same wrong turns in life.

While we do not know the interior life of Judas and what went on in his heart, we do know what he did.  From what he did, some conjecture can be made about what propelled him toward those actions. 

As much as the musical Jesus Christ Superstar was a supreme example of low Christology, its opening sequence, I believe, conveyed the motivations of Judas Iscariot.  The lyrics of the song “Heaven on their minds” reveal a desire for a revolution in terms of an overthrowing of the political powers of their time, and his lament was primarily in the fact that in his opinion, Jesus was simply not making the best use of the opportunities presented to him.  In short, he wanted Jesus to act according to a plan that fitted his agenda, and this led him to do what he did – hand Jesus to the authorities to make his dreams come true.

Each time we find ourselves at a place in our lives where our will and God’s will are at variance, where we are, as it were, locking horns with God, we may be in a similar situation in which Judas found himself.  When we face temptations, it is always a battlefront.  The forces in conflict are fundamentally God’s and ours.  While we want our way and things done in our time, it takes a docile heart and a tender spirit to yield and submit to plans and purposes that are not what makes us comfortable, contented and happy.  It is ultimately faith that makes us yield to a higher calling and a higher purpose than those of our own, and when we fall into sin, it’s always a display that we had made the wrong choice.

Selling his loyalty and friendship of Jesus for thirty silver dollars was Judas’ way of attaining his will.  But scripture does reveal that he saw the folly of his ways and that he admitted that he had sinned and that he had betrayed innocent blood.  He was also ‘filled with remorse’.

Perhaps this is a revelation that has been overlooked too often and too long.  It shows that Judas was contrite.  It takes a humble person to admit of things without embellishing them with justifications and excuses.  Each time a penitent steps into the confessional, this is what God sees – a humble sinner, and a contrite one, with a heart that is also similarly filled with remorse.  Doesn’t scripture also say that God looks at the heart while man looks at appearances? 

Yes, Scripture does say that Judas went and hanged himself.  He did show despair, and we often contrast the actions of Peter with his.  Peter, we say, did not despair but sought the forgiveness of Jesus, whilst Judas didn’t.  Who can say that if Judas had waited for the resurrection to happen that he would not, like Peter, be as effusive of his love for Jesus and leap off that boat to come before Jesus on the shore of Galilee to beg his forgiveness too?  All the disciples were literally “in the same boat”, weren’t they?

I am not making a case for Judas as much as I am really making a case for the mercy of God even for so-called hardened hearts and condemned souls.  Suicide, like love, has its reasons only the heart knows.  But unlike love, suicide is often a result of a darkness that one believes one is trapped in. 

We believe that Jesus went to the realm of the dead after his resurrection.  We need to read that deeply to see what this means.  Death for all of us is life’s final bastion, but is there a place that God’s mercy cannot reach and God’s love cannot touch?  What do you think he would have said to Judas when he saw him in the realm of the dead?