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.

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