Monday, April 27, 2020

The way the Hebrew people were taught to look at the bronze serpent in the desert can teach us that something good can come out from the enforced restrictions that many of us are in right now.

When the Israelites were wandering in the dessert en route to the Promised Land, there was an incident recorded in the Hebrew scriptures (Numbers 21) where the people were bitten by poisonous snakes, and as a result, many of them died.  The response from the people is worth noting – they said “we have sinned in complaining against the Lord and you (Moses)”, and they asked Moses to pray on their behalf for an end to this affliction that they were plagued by.  

Moses did as was requested, and was given instructions by the Lord to make a serpent of bronze and to mount it on a standard, and those who had been bitten by the serpent would recover. There is no mention of anyone who had died by the encounter with the serpents would come back to life, so it is reasonable to assume that it was only a cure or panacea for those who hadn’t died, but were still in danger of death.  

This episode only takes up about 5 verses in the Old Testament, but it gets a reprise of sorts in the New Testament by Jesus in John 3:14, where he brings this image back, and refers to himself now as the new serpent that will be mounted on the standard of the Cross, and how those who had been in danger of death would be given the gift of eternal life by believing in him.

The message of truth beneath all this symbolism is in itself worth a day of recollection, as it is rich in so many ways.  The passage from the book of Numbers tell us that it was the peoples’ inability to be patient with God that led them to be afflicted with this divine punishment. They had complained about their having to be in the desert, and were most discontented with all that God had given to them to bring them to where they were.  They had forgotten how they had been slaves in Egypt and how God had enfranchised them.  They had also showed ingratitude for God’s providing them with sustenance in their desert sojourn thus far.  Discontented, they began to lament and complain of their lot.  We aren’t that much different from them, for so much of humankind have it in our system to not be grateful for what we have, to forget about how blessed we are, until maybe these things are curtailed or taken away from us. 

To wake these ungrateful Hebrew people, we are told that they were afflicted by “seraph serpents” or in some translations, “fiery serpents”.  In their encounter with this deadly invasion, they realized that they had sinned and asked Moses to intercede for them so that the Lord would take the serpents from amongst them.  

It was roughly 1500 years later that Jesus quoted this very passage in his encounter with Nicodemus in John’s gospel and by way of reference, Jesus showed how he is the fulfillment of what that bronze serpent was a symbol of to the Hebrew people.  On the wood of the cross, the new standard of healing and salvation, would be mounted Jesus himself.

Let us never forget that the serpent in Eden had caused the fall of our first parents, and henceforth, sin had a residual effect for all their subsequent children.  Sin comes in so many forms, two of which are ingratitude and resentment, which the wandering Hebrew people on the way to the Promised Land put on grand display.  In referring to this part of the Hebrew peoples’ history, Jesus is saying that he is the new ‘serpent’ but a salvific one who will undo what the first serpent did. The first serpent caused the fall of the primordially graced humans who were created in a state of grace, and subsequently fell from it.  The second serpent is one who will give fallen man and woman the one way that grace can be attained once more.  Only thing is that this second serpent will not be a serpent, but a sacrificial lamb of God.  

In his dialogue with Nicodemus, Jesus reveals that salvation will come to those who believe in him

The core of our salvation as Christians lies in the clear and irrefutable belief that Jesus is God, and that in Jesus, God has definitively entered into our sin-filled world to pave the way back to God through grace.  But what does the phrase “believe in him” entail?  Is it just something that happens in the subconscious and cognitive part of us, in some passive way?  Or does it entail something more demonstrative and outwardly manifested? In essence, it is both.

If we are to believe in Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, it has to be manifested loudly and boldly in our external actions.  This is why the second commandment follows the first.  Loving God is, for the most part, something that is unseen (maybe except for our showing up for communal worship in liturgy, which even then could be very weak in terms of response and participation).  But in no uncertain terms is the second part, which is a corollary of the first, which is loving our neighbour.

Many people have asked if this coronavirus pandemic is in some way a ‘serpent’ that God has sent to the human race to teach it something.  Theologians worth their degree will most likely not give a facile answer by way of a direct ‘yes’.  But we also must not be too quick to rule out that the presence of such a worldwide affliction is very good reason for us to look squarely at how we have lived our lives, how we had made ourselves the centre of the universe, how we have taken so much for granted and in so doing, forgotten to really be grateful to God for all that we have.  

If we cannot physically reach out to others at this time, let us not think that we cannot do anything.  We are given this time of silence from the outside world to appreciate the community of our families (at least those of us who find ourselves spending this time of isolation with our families).  Living in such close quarters for 24 hours a day with one another can magnify the little quirks and idiosyncrasies that irritate or annoy us.  It’s easy to point fingers and say that the other person needs to change, but it takes humility to say that we have very little love in our hearts to accommodate these differences in the habits and ways of the other person.  And when we realise how little love we have, we ask for mercy from God, in the same way that the Hebrew people had asked for mercy from God because they saw how they had sinned against him.

This is one of the concrete ways that we show that we ‘believe in Jesus’.  It’s far more than something that just happens in the mind.  Belief in God has to be incarnated in a way that is real and livable, even in the tight quarters that we may find ourselves in right now.  

And when the lockdown or constraints of movements are lifted, the challenge will be for us to bring this awareness to the greater community which we will be able mingle and encounter with.

Monday, April 20, 2020

We will see the wounds of Jesus for eternity, and that is a good thing.

In the resurrections accounts of Jesus where he appears to his disciples as they are hiding from the authorities, John’s account of this event has him giving us a certain detail about Jesus which does not appear in any of the other three synoptic gospel texts. It is only here that we see the wounds of Jesus being mentioned, and it is significant.

Most of us are familiar with the context of why Jesus makes a specific reference to his wounds in that account.  It was to directly address Thomas’ very specific articulated need for him in order to fully believe in the resurrection.  Jesus appears a week later to the same group, this time with Thomas present, and makes it a point to meet Thomas’ conditions which he set for Jesus, after which he falls on his knees and openly declares Jesus “my Lord and my God”. 

Many things have been said about this.  About faith, one can conclude that there is really no need for proof if one really has faith, and that if proof is given, faith becomes redundant.  If one thinks about it with some depth, Thomas’ declaration made after his conditions were met doesn’t really make Thomas’ faith in Jesus remarkable at all.  Yet, haven’t we personally either met unbelieving people or even baptized people who in their lives have asked for some proof from God in order that their faith be strengthened? My response to them is often that the value of their faith is of far more merit having not seen any proof than if they do get the proof that they are asking for.  Jesus’ response to Thomas makes this very same point when he says to Thomas “blessed are those who do not see and yet believe”.

Thomas was clear about what would make Jesus the “real deal” when he appeared to him – it is all about the wounds. And I would give him some credit for it. After all, he could have just said – “let me see Jesus”, or “let me hear him speak”, or “let me see him work one of his awesome miracles”.  But he didn’t.  For Thomas, it was his wounds that would show for a fact that it truly was Jesus who had risen from the dead.  Why the wounds?

I think we need to get under the skin of not Thomas, but John, who wrote the gospel.  John is called the apostle Jesus loved, and so he was.  John had such an intimate relationship with Jesus his master and Lord (recall that it was John who laid his head on Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper) and in this resurrection account, he wanted to convey that what really demonstrated that Jesus is every person’s ultimate lover and savior, is that he died for us.  His wounds are his visible demonstration of his tremendous love for us.  The wounds of Jesus are for John, Jesus’ badge of honour - they are a statement of the extent that he went to show us he meant business when he said that God loves us with no conditions and no limit.  He had Thomas sum this up in his wanting to see the holes that the nails had made, and his being able to put his hand into Jesus’ wounded side.  Those wounds are not just the visible proof that it was truly Jesus.  Those wounds are a visible proof of his love, and of God’s love for us.

As well, those wounds are a demonstration of God’s divine mercy writ large, simply because Jesus doesn’t use them to inflict guilt but to elicit love.  Those of us who have all sorts of wounds because of love that is unrequited and unreturned, or love that had been spurned and betrayed often hold these wounds with so much vengeance and want some form of revenge from those who had inflicted them on us.  If we are honest, these wounds that we bear in our hearts aren’t often handled well, and as such, we can end up using them as weapons that inflict a similar or worse pain on others.  

But in this gospel text, John wants to show that the wounds of betrayal, unrequited and unreturned love and ingratitude need not be used in any negative way.  In Jesus, God has a better way.  

Jesus would have been fully justified if he appeared and threw a hissy-fit in front of his disciples who left him to die in such an inglorious way on Good Friday.  Jesus would have been justified if he kept score of who had hurt him most.  But instead, he did just the opposite – he greeted them with peace, and gave them the power to forgive, just as he had forgiven them for their inability to love when it was most needed.  This is love demonstrated at a divinely high level, and Jesus doesn’t only want it to be received by his disciples alone – he wants every person to receive it and to understand its immense power, and more importantly, to give this same kind of unconditional and non-vengeful love towards their enemies and persecutors.  

There is a wealth of writings by saints as well as meditations on the wounds of Christ.  They reveal so many things about the nature of God and the redemptive power of humble suffering.  I’m afraid that we don’t open these treasures enough to reap their benefit in terms of power to forgive and that there are tremendous positive outcomes for people when they see that suffering is a vocation that can help to redeem souls.  

If there is one striking difference between Catholic spiritual sentiments and that of our separated brethren, it is that on our Crosses, the scourged, bruised and nailed body of the dying Jesus is always on it.  This corpus is always missing from a Protestant cross.  Their reason for the missing corpus is that the resurrection has happened and the empty cross stands as a testimony of God’s power over death.  

While that is true, it is also true that it is the agonizing passion that Jesus went through that resulted in the death and the subsequent resurrection to take place.  A frequent reflection and appreciation of the wounds of Jesus serve to remind us to never take God’s love for granted, and serve as a strong deterrent to not want to give in to sin and give reasons for those wounds to have been lovingly endured by Jesus.  

When it is our time to see Jesus at the end of our earthly journeys, we will fully appreciate that it is the wounds of Jesus that paved the way for us to experience heaven’s embrace.  Because Jesus will always have those wounds on him, we will also always be reminded of the price that he paid for us to attain heaven’s reward.  

Heaven is indeed made possible through those holes in Jesus’ hands, feet and side.  

Monday, April 13, 2020

Easter is what gives us our strongest foundation that we need in life.

We don’t often give much thought or pay much attention to how important foundations are in life.  But the truth is that in everything that we hold as true and important, if their foundations or what they are built on is unstable or shaky, they literally have nothing much to stand on.  

Science, which so much of what this world holds as the holy grail of reality, is founded on data and empirical evidence.  And this is part of the reason why when any leader of a country verbalizes a hope that is non data-based or reason-based, but just because “it’s a good idea”, these statements become incredulous and make the audience have to control the proverbial eye-roll.  It can cause the emergence of a strong sense of disbelief or skepticism.  Those words of hope are, by and large, lacking in foundation, and are therefore baseless.

In his ministry, Jesus made it clear that it is the wise that build on rock and not on sand.  Apart from this being true and applicable to the things that matter and make sense in this world and in this life, it is just as, if not even more applicable to the things that matter in the life that lasts after this one is over.  It is imperative that our ‘rock solid’ foundation be strong, impervious and unshakeable such that it holds true and gives stability for the life eternal as well.

Of course, I am referring to the metaphysical life, which is the life that exists and hold true beyond (meta) what is tangible, empirical and indeed, physical (thus the term metaphysics).

When our eyes are cast predominantly on that truth, and our foundation for that is of prime focus most of the time as we live this life that we have now, it is what gives us the greatest stability and peace, especially when we see just how feeble and precarious the things of this world can be.  Case in point – the painful truth of what the coronavirus pandemic that has afflicted so many right now is teaching us and revealing to us about our values and ourselves.

It is at times like these that our eyes begin to truly see (or seek) what is most important, and if what we have so far been living for and found meaning in have any vestige of the infinite about them.  And if they do not, then we need to make that necessary paradigm shift to base our lives on what lasts beyond this life.

No, I haven’t gone all philosophical or abstract in this blog, though it may seem as if I am reflecting on sand more than on rock.  I am in fact laying down the premise of the heart of this Easter blog, which is that Easter and its truth is at the very foundation and core of the Christian’s belief, existence and reason of life, or raison d’etre.

It is precisely because our religion has such an extraordinary promise that leaves all other earthly joys as it were, wanting, that we who are baptized in Christ have such tremendous abilities to go through whatever life can throw at us, be it in the form of failures, rejection, betrayals, being wrongly judged, illnesses that threaten our very lives, including the present coronavirus plague and all that comes with it, and yes, even the last bastion for all human beings, death itself.  

But it is when we don’t spend much of our conscious moments appreciating how tremendous this power is, and that it also conveys to us just how loved we are by God, that we easily become despondent, dismayed and perhaps even possibly giving in to despair when things aren’t all that rosy for us.

This period of being shunted in our homes for a prolonged length of time can be challenging for many, but it will be largely wasted on us if we don’t take this opportunity to wake us up to the fact that perhaps all that we have put so much effort and time and resources in are really only truly good for this life only, and good for little else in the next.  

But this time of distancing from others can be used wisely and it can teach us valuable lessons, only if we allow it to.  Let us learn from the examples of those who had benefitted greatly from their time of being distanced in life, either by afflictions or by external factors beyond their control.  Think of how the world has benefitted so much from Beethoven’s musical genius if not for his having experienced a progressive loss of hearing.  John of the Cross wrote his most poignant and fine poetry when he was wrongly incarcerated for nine long months.  He wasn’t alone but was very much in touch with the Holy Spirit.  

Easter’s joy and Easter’s great hope is foundational for us only if we give it the space to bloom and flower in our hearts.  But it will only be a passing event or a mere good thought if we don’t let the significance of the empty tomb truly fill our aching and empty hearts.  I’m afraid that this may be all Easter is for most Catholics – a passing event, or just a mere good thought.

Passing events do not sustain us when the chips are down in life.  Mere good thoughts aren’t even a weak panacea when we are in some sort of pain. We actually weaken the immense power that Easter’s joy and promise has for us if we only view them as a historical event that was good only for that third day after Good Friday when the tomb was found empty, or only see it as a nice good thought to tide us through from Easter Sunday and live Easter Monday onwards in a ho-hum way.

At this time of being forcibly told to keep away from our friends and for some, even our family members, and to only go out for things that are truly essential, we need to reclaim the great power of Easter to see that nothing is over till it is truly over.  But even then, when this life is truly over, the Christian’s life isn’t.  It is just beginning anew.  

In the gospel texts where Jesus appears to his disciples, one message is a constant – go and meet again in Galilee.  That’s where everything began.  That’s where Jesus started his mission, and brought hope to the hopeless and life to the lifeless, and love to the unloved.  That's when enchantment began.  Let God enchant us anew, and let the weeks that follow Easter Sunday find us living lives of great hope and promise as we claim the true power of our faith in the resurrection that await all of us, and in our prayer time, with much effort, activate our desire to go back to our Galilee moments and meet Jesus there once again.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Holy Week invites us to bring to God what Jesus brought to Calvary

Holy Week has always been a very special time of grace for Catholics the world over.  As the celebration of Holy Thursday’s Mass begins, the season of Lent officially ends.  Together as Church, we enter into the very heart of what has given us the means of salvation and redemption, and with Jesus we walk with him the Via Dolorosa to mount Calvary or Golgotha on Palm Sunday, where with everything he can summon from the depths of his being, he submits to the Father the greatest love of all.

This year’s Holy Week is graced in a unique way. If before you found yourself somewhat ambivalent about the gravitas that gives Holy Week its somber character or tenor, the coronavirus situation that is permeating the entire world right now is plenty of reason for you to face it with much more intent and purpose.  Every day the numbers that show how many people in the world are succumbing to the pathogen are rising, and even more grim are the number of deaths.  I was particularly affected when I saw footage of how in Ecuador, that there are hundreds of dead bodies left out in the streets, covered by just a sheet or some tarp, simply because the morgues in the city were already full and the families of the deceased could not bear the stench of rotting bodies in their living rooms.  

There are many Catholics who have lamented about the suspension of the celebration of Sacraments during this time due to the pandemic on a worldwide scale.  And because the celebration of the Sacraments are suspended, there is an erroneous belief that God’s grace is also being suspended.  While it may be true that one cannot receive Sacramental Grace when the sacraments are not celebrated, it isn’t true that one doesn’t receive God’s grace at all.  When we make spiritual communion, or when we make a sincere act of contrition, detesting our sins, detesting that we had willingly given in to them, and telling God that we will, with his grace, not sin again, there grace is given.  And when the time of suspension is lifted, and the celebration of Sacraments is resumed, we make that act complete by going for confession with a priest.  We also believe that when an unbaptized person is in the danger of death, and makes a sincere desire for baptism but dies before he can be sacramentally baptized, that he receives the fruits of baptism at the moment of death. 

I would imagine that there would be some of you who are reading this reflection and wonder how in the world I could call this a time of grace when there are so many in the world who are suffering and even dying.  I can quite easily assume that for most Christians, the term ‘grace’ is only applied to and used for events and situations in life that are obviously positive and where the experience leaves on with a palpable sense of joy and happiness. While that is not altogether wrong, it is also a very narrow and perhaps even problematic when one understands grace in this way.

We need to understand that nothing in the world can happen without God’s allowing it to, and we understand this, we then can effectively believe that everything is grace, even for things and events that have an undisputable covering of darkness all over it, like this coronavirus pandemic plaguing the world.  

And it is certainly not that God has purposefully created the virus either.  A healthy theodicy needs to have us see that in his wisdom and love, God is permitting this to happen, but for an ultimate good that most (if not all) of us right now cannot see the good end being attained.  The problem with sinful humankind is that we have an inherent need to see a problem’s good outcome for that painful situation to sit well with us. We want to know the end before we accept the process.  If we peel away the layers of that last sentence, what would be exposed is Adam and Eve’s first sin – to want to know everything by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

A very useful line from Sacred Scripture that is very apt to hold on to at uncertain and even tumultuous times like these comes from Romans 8:28.  There, we read how Paul with great faith says that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purposes”.  

In order to fully comprehend what Paul is saying, we need to emphasize to whomall things work together for good.  It is for those who love God.  This essentially means that if we have little or no love for God and his will in our lives, it will be almost impossible to see that an ultimate good can come from an evil or bad situation.  

Don’t we pray, each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, that the Father’s will be done?  I think we need to seriously ask ourselves – when is God’s will being done? Is God’s will only being done when good things happen in an obvious way?  Could God’s will be done despite there being some form of pain, suffering or evil in the world?  Certainly, we should never even think that God wills direct evil on anything or anyone, simply because that is incompatible with who God is in his very being. But we also need to believe that God does allow evil to happen (which is very different from God makingevil happen), and through this permission, have a good outcome in the end. The grappling with this seeming conundrum is what is called theodicy.

There have been countless bad situations in history that have had a good outcome in someone or for some people, oftentimes many years or decades or even centuries after the bad situation was over.  As Bishop Robert Barron says, without negating the utter horror of the Nazi regime’s reign in Europe, if we look at things from our perspective of time on our end, there would be no St Maximilian Kolbe, and no St Edith Stein, if there was not holocaust.  No one in the midst of the suffering and pain of the holocaust would have thought that anything good could have come out of it.  Yet, we know that in hindsight, there is some good.  In fact, the total good of it is still to be seen, and it will only be revealed to us, God permitting, when this world as we know it, ends is course.  

We are, doubtless, in a bad situation right now, but what we mustn’t do is to add to the evil that we are caught in.  And many of us can, even unthinkingly, add to so much of the negative energy that is coursing through the world.  The circulation of fake news, the quick criticism and finger-pointing to authorities and leaders who are the decision makers, the spirit of ingratitude that sees us being cynical when things like ERP rates being removed or lowered (I’m afraid only Singaporeans will understand that reference), and the hoarding and stockpiling of groceries and basic necessities when we go on our grocery runs.  

And as millions the world over are finding themselves staying at home and working from home, they are also experiencing the reality of being in a confined space with their family members on a 24/7 basis. This is bound to cause anxieties, friction, irritation, the passing of judgments and the revelation of how short tempered we can be, amongst other things.  

What does all this have to do as we enter into Holy Week?  Quite a lot, actually.  In every action that we find ourselves in while we are in our various lockdown or stay-at-home notices, ask yourself this question – what is the most virtuous way that I can (name the situation) during this time of staying at home?

This is because there are so many ways one can face this time of isolation or staying home.  One can be full of resentment and rancor, anger, bitterness, and selfishness and one could even be the bane of the family, where one’s bad mood brings no joy to the home.  But that’s not dealing with the circumstance with any semblance of virtue or grace. To do that, we need to pause and think – how would I handle this (be it talking with my sibling, or communicating with my parents, or dealing with my office colleagues through conference calls via the internet, etc) in the way that would give glory to God, and that would make for a peaceful and convivial atmosphere?  Even in such seemingly simple things, we can make that choice to do perhaps the harder thing, and in so doing, practice the call to holiness at the same time.

Jesus brought with him right up to Calvary every effort to live out his teachings of charity, forgiveness, patience, longsuffering, meekness, and faith.  Every one of us, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in this week and in the period of staying indoors, are also called to live these out in our own ways. Make these your sacrifices that you can offer up to the Lord, for the salvation of souls, and as a purification of your love for God and for your fellowman.