Saturday, April 19, 2014

Death has been Defeated

Easter Sunday 2014

For many, Easter Sunday morning mass seems like a big liturgical let-down especially when compared to the elaborate richness of the vigil mass the night before. There is nothing of the dramatic juxtaposition of light and darkness, nor the marvelous series of readings chosen to give us a glimpse of the width and breadth of salvation history, nor the exhilarating experience of witnessing the entry of new members into the Church as they celebrant the Paschal sacraments of initiation. Easter Sunday morning mass, by comparison, seems to the average person like any other ordinary Sunday mass with just a few innovative twitches. Although, it cannot match the solemn grandeur of the vigil celebration, Easter Sunday still boasts of a liturgical gem which can only be found in the mass of the day – it is the Easter Sequence which you had just heard and sung before the Gospel Acclamation.

The second stanza of the hymn goes like this “Death with life contended; combat strangely ended! Life’s own Champion, slain, yet lives to reign.” What a terrific image! Most commonly if we speak about people defeating death, we mean that they came close to dying but did not, probably because they fought to stay alive. Christ, however, died. He really died! He did not feign death nor came to near-death encounter. He truly, really died! But in death, He defeated death in a more definitive way than by staying alive when his life was threatened. He defeated death by dying and coming back to life by his own power.

Jesus Christ travelled the roadways of cruelty, injustice, and agony, on his way to do battle on death’s own turf. By dying he gave death every possible advantage over him. His friends and followers on that day only knew that he was gone to the place of death. They did not understand that he was there to do battle. He had descended to the darkest of places so that he could shine his light into all its otherwise hopeless corners. The story of the resurrection is therefore the story of the outcome of the greatest battle ever fought. Jesus Christ, Life’s own Champion, won the battle that day, and on the first Easter he emerged as victor with great glory. He defeated death’s despair, and transformed death itself: no longer hopeless, it was now, for those who long to see God, the doorway into his unveiled presence and the full realisation of his life, love, and indescribable goodness. It was the greatest redemptive and restorative act of all history. According to St Melito of Sardis, Christ declares through his resurrection that he has “destroyed death, triumphed over the enemy, trampled hell underfoot, bound the strong one, and taken men up to the heights of heaven: I am the Christ.”

It is true that a large part of society does not fear death anymore, not because of their belief in the resurrection. On the contrary, society often lives as if death were inexistent and the resurrection useless. We toy with the idea of immortality brought about by technological advancement, just like in the recent movie ‘Transcendence.’ We have sanitised death and have made it the butt of jokes and the stuff of comedies. And yet there is nothing as daunting as the mystery of death as Church records and daily newspaper reports show. We live as if death were inexistent precisely because the fear of death remains pervasive, particularly for those who are ill or elderly, despite our efforts to defeat it with various methods; it consumes our peace and fills our souls with an unjustifiable anguish, constant uncertainty making it intolerable. To cope with ennui, that perennial feeling of listlessness, we live in denial of death. You remember the old expression that claims that the only things we can be sure of in life are ‘death, disappointment and taxes’. In fact, we can act to overcome our disappointments and cope with taxes – but death is the one thing we have no power over, despite recent advances in technology.

But our Lord’s resurrection puts an end to our uncertainties.  Death no longer cripples us.  It is no longer the inevitable end of our existence.  The tomb stone no longer covers our existence in an eternal silent.  The massive rock that covered the entrance to Our Lord’s tomb has been removed and Christ has emerged triumphant, victorious over death.  For those who followed in his footsteps, the fear of death disappeared to be replaced with the infilling of joy and hope.

So what does Jesus’ resurrection mean for us today?  Jesus’ resurrection proves that once and for all death has been defeated.  Whilst we know one day we will die, we know also that there is life beyond death.  Because of Jesus’ resurrection there is the promise of sins forgiven. On the cross Jesus paid in full the penalty of our sin. Through his death and resurrection Jesus has dealt with the sins that mar our relationship with God and with one another.  Because of Jesus’ resurrection we can have the promise of forgiveness, and fresh start with God.  Jesus offers all those who come to him new life, life as only God can give – life with meaning and purpose, because Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life.” 

We live in the span of history between God’s convincing defeat of the powers of death, and their full and final destruction. The resurrection offers compelling proof that the powers of death are no match for God’s authority. Their weakness has been exposed, their ultimate threat disarmed. While the powers of death have been defeated they have not yet been destroyed. For a time they retain residual power and influence in this world. Indeed, many still cling to greed, domination, force and the threat of death as the best tools for protecting self interests. But its power has been diminished by the memory of its indisputable defeat at Easter. Its invincibility has been exposed.

Today, in the face of war, famine, dispossession, occupation, injustice and all that feels unfair, we cry out to God to act quickly and decisively to destroy what remains of death’s powers. But God waits patiently, offering every opportunity for the enemies of the to come to their senses and embrace the ways of God’s kingdom.

And we must wait too; but not passively. By our words and actions we boldly announce God’s Easter victory over death – light has triumphed over darkness, truth over falsehood, love over hate, nonviolence over violence and the way of service over the way of domination. In God’s new order, distress, sickness, death, displacement, domination and violence will no longer hold sway. They will be replaced by joy, good health, long life, secure dwellings and right relationships. Like Moses, we may not live to see God’s promise fulfilled in our life time. But Easter gives us a bird’s eye view of the new heaven and earth that God is creating.
Death has been defeated! Death will be destroyed! Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!

Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!

Easter Vigil 2014

You probably do not recognise the name Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin nor should you. But many of you may have had read or heard a version of this story in one of its incarnations. Nikolai Bukharin rose in the ranks of the Russian Communist Party and became one of the most powerful man as there was on earth. He personally took part in the Bolshevik Revolution 1917 that overthrew the Tsarist government which made him a legend of sorts. He was a prolific writer and apologist of communist propaganda, thus earning him the office of editor of the Soviet newspaper Pravda (which by the way means ‘Truth’ – that’s irony!), and was a full member of the Politburo.

According to urban legend, the following story took place during a journey he took to Kiev in 1930 to address a huge assembly on the subject of atheism. Addressing the crowd he aimed his heavy artillery at Christianity hurling insults, argument, and proof against it. An hour later he was finished. He looked out at what seemed to be the smoldering ashes of men's faith. "Are there any questions?" Bukharin demanded, thinking it to be merely rhetorical and not expecting any answer from the uneducated working class peasants gathered there. Deafening silence filled the auditorium but then one man approached the platform and mounted the lectern standing near the communist leader. He surveyed the crowd first to the left then to the right. Finally he shouted the greeting that had been ingrained in the hearts and minds of Russian Christians for centuries: "CHRIST IS RISEN!" En masse the crowd arose as one man and the response came crashing like the sound of thunder: "HE IS RISEN INDEED!"

Christ is Risen! Just three words in a split second awakening the love and hearts of hundreds, capable of dusting off the soot of decades of iconoclastic and anti-religious cultural indoctrination, and it still happens today. The faith of the supposed Christian simpleton as he faced the formidable attacks of one of most articulate among the Communist intelligentsia was not just the thoughtless act of bravery nor was it a stubbornly silly display of superstitious belief. It was simply an act of faith in the Easter mystery we celebrate tonight. History would vindicate the actions of the daring Christian David and prove his opponent, the unbelieving Goliath, wrong. Today, communism, as a failed ideology and system, is in tatters. Christianity, on the other hand, once persecuted to the point of extinction, now flourishes in Russia and many parts of the former Communist bloc. Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!

But this simple declaration doesn’t mean our troubles are over. As Pope Francis recently reminded us, “proclaiming the gospel comes with persecution.” Like a dying hydra, the enemies of our faith continue to emerge and multiply in various forms. One doesn’t have to follow the daily news for long to realise that Christianity is coming under attack like never before. In fact, every day, mainstream media, box office movies and quality television shows display total ignorance about the first 1,500 years of Western civilisation and Christianity gets blamed for the ignorance of the Dark Ages, and thus every act of racism, genocide, or war is pinned on the Church. We encounter ridicule whenever we choose to go against the current of the world as we firmly hold onto the values of the gospel. Christians continue to face the darkness of violence and persecution in many parts of the world – their rights and freedom to practice their faith not only severely curtailed but lives are being lost in the killing fields watered by martyrs’ blood. The looming darkness constantly threatens to extinguish the light of faith.

Like every year for the last two millenia, Christians gather once more in Churches to celebrate the Mother of all Christian Festivals – it is as if we are sending a message to the world that we are not about to give up a fight or our light. In fact, our message is not one of a defeated people who are desperately preparing to make a last suicidal stand in the face of the overwhelming odds. On the contrary, the message that we wish to convey is that of victory – it always has been of victory – not of any individual Christian or the whole lot of us, but that of the one who won the victory for us – Christ who is Risen. The Christian story does not end with Good Friday. On Easter Day we celebrate the coming of the light – a light which the powers of darkness, apparently victorious on Good Friday, cannot, and will not, extinguish.

Yes, the Easter Vigil always begins with darkness but does not remain so for long. The darkness represents so much of our lives and so much of what’s happening in the world. It is the seeming absence of God. It is a symbol of the forces that have grown so antagonistic to our faith, the darkness of suspicion, hatred, disbelief, prejudice, and anger heaped against what we stand for. The experience of sitting in the darkness is uncomfortable and confusing, humbling and nervous, and we fidget and impatiently wait for something to happen. Then a light is struck. It breaks into the darkness like nothing else can. Then priest utters these words of power over the flames of new born fire – “Sanctify this new fire, we pray, and grant that, by these paschal celebrations, we may be so inflamed with heavenly desires.” Then the candle is lit from the new Pascal fire with these soaring words, “May the light of Christ rising in glory dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds.” That same candle is then brought into the community in procession, and we receive its light, and the power of that light grows – the Church is ablaze. Our hearts thrilled as we stood with lighted candles, attentive to the words of the Easter Proclamation and marvelling at the sublime poetry; words that defiantly throw a fresh challenge that penetrates the shield of blackness that fills the night.  

In a way, our liturgy seems to imitate life. The looming darkness which enshrouds this night always threatens to overwhelm the dimming light emanating from our candles but with the first notes of the magnificent Easter Proclamation being sung, the darkness is dramatically dispelled by the lights which are turned on in the Church. The forces of chaos that threatens to destroy our universe are subdued by the power and authority of God, and subverted into becoming the very raw material of both the old creation as well as the new one. God re-creates and redeems all life from dead, dry and destroyed bones. We are released from the bonds of self-obsession, addiction and whatever would steal away the radical freedom God has given us. From the waters of destruction, emerges new life. Death itself is trampled upon this night. Throughout our human history, death threatens to rob us of victory, but at the end of tonight’s marathon of readings, we discover that death is defeated by life itself. 

Our celebration is no anachronistic ritual that merely recall the past – rather it speaks to us of a present reality. Christ rose in glory on Easter Day, but today his light continues to rise to scatter all our darkness. Despite many appearances to the contrary, this bright flame of love continues to shine in the darkness. We know only too well those situations where darkness covers our lives. Our present struggles and the weight of world events, all obscure our hope. But the hope of the risen Christ can transform our darkness to light. Christ is the lens through which the whole world becomes brighter and sharper, more richly-coloured and more detailed.

The wonder of the resurrection is upon us once more. Soon this night, in the baptismal liturgy, we will witness the birth of new members and we too will renew our own baptismal entry into the mystery of the dying and rising of Jesus, emphatically rejecting sin and proclaiming our faith in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And finally tonight, in the liturgy of the Eucharist, filled with immense gratitude we will go to meet the Lord in his Body and his Blood, the angelic bread that sustains us on our present journey.

May we embrace God's ever-new life with every cell of our being, every yearning of our soul, and every muscle of our will. Christ is risen, death is vanquished, humanity is restored to rightful place with God. Praise God who brings light out of darkness, life out of death, and newness out of the stale and moribund. And no matter what the world throws at us, we know in our hearts that Good News that Christ is Risen! With love and joy, I greet and invite you to enter our massive chorus as we shout to a world darkened by its refusal to love and to believe, “CHRIST IS RISEN!” “HE IS RISEN. ALLELUIA!”

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Consummatum Est

Good Friday 2014

“It is finished,” a woman declares to her friends when speaking of her decision to exit from her marriage. After years of abuse, unending quarrels, and infidelity, she announces that she had had enough. These words pretty much sums up her feeling of resignation, “It is finished.” But the pronouncement isn’t always bleak. At the end of a hard day’s work or the completion of a project, the words could also have a triumphant ring to it – “It is finished.” “It is completed.” “It’s perfect.” As a much awaited confirmation that the conflict is over, it carries with it a string of hopeful promises, dreams once thought unattainable but now definitively realised with the cessation of war- “It is finished” – no more killing, no more casualties, no more destruction, only peace from now on. When slaves first got wind of the Declaration of Emancipation, it must have conjured images of the end of centuries of oppression. It is finished! Free at last! Free at last! Thank God I’m free at last!

Consummatum est!” “It is finished.”  These are the words uttered by Jesus in his last breath on the cross.  At the time, the moment was filled with too much emotion for those words to sink in and to ponder what they meant. But later as the early Christians read John’s Gospel and heard again those words, it dawned on them just how powerful these dying words of Jesus were. “It is finished.” What is it?  And how is it finished?

The phrase is actually one word in Greek – tetelestai. The term literally means “the goal has been reached!” In sports, it would have been used to describe finishing the race as the winner; upon crossing the finishing line, the crowds would have shouted, tetelestai. It was a term used in agriculture, to describe, for example when there was born into his herd an animal so shapely that it seemed destitute of defects, the farmer, gazing on the creature with delighted eyes exclaimed tetelestai. It was a term familiar to artists too. When the painter had put the finishing touches to the vivid landscape, he would stand back and admire his masterpiece. Seeing that nothing called for correction or improvement he would murmur, tetelestai. But it was also a term that would have been familiar in religious circles. When some devout worshipper overflowing with gratitude for mercies received brought to the temple a lamb without blemish, the pride of the flock, the priest, more accustomed to seeing blind and defective animals led to the altar, would look admiringly at the pretty creature and say tetelestai.

When, in the fullness of time Christ ran and finished the race, completed and perfected the task the Father had given to him, in his hour of glory, the Lamb of God offered himself on the altar of the cross, a perfect, flawless sacrifice, he cried with a loud voice, tetelestai. It is finished, it is completed, it is done, it is perfected. And this is what he finished - He finished the great act of salvation in which we have been saved from God’s wrath, he paid the ransom price to free us, he took upon himself the punishment and pain of separation that was due to us, he disarmed the powers and authorities that were ranged against us and in that one act of humiliation and sacrifice he glorified himself.

The work that Jesus had come to do was at two levels. At the first level, his work involved coming in the flesh, taking human form and then living among us preaching, teaching, healing, performing miracles. Here was an in-breaking of God in human form and bringing something of the kingdom of heaven down to earth. God in the flesh before our eyes. And so at the moment of his Son’s baptism, when he saw his Beloved Son emerged from the waters of the Jordan, we could just imagine God the Father exclaiming, tetelestai! But there was yet a second level of the work of the Son, that was to be a sacrifice, not just to be a priest but to be the actual sacrifice for sin.  This level of work was one that only Jesus could do for he was the God-man, he was the only sinless human being, he was the only unblemished and perfect holocaust, he was the only one who could perfectly make a sacrifice to atone for man’s sins. He was the only one who could perfectly honour the Father by perfectly doing His will. So when scripture  of Jesus coming to complete the work he was sent to do it was more than being a carpenter, it was more even than being a preacher, more than being a healer, it was supremely to be a sacrifice and only he could do this work, no-one else. It was therefore necessary that he finished the task. And so having completed his most magnificent work on the cross, the Son of God openly declared, “It is finished!” “Tetelestai!”

There is much truth to the oft repeated cliché that ‘it is not how you start but how you finish that is important.’ But having affirmed that, we also humbly acknowledge that most of us will be unable to see the end of the projects we’ve begun in this lifetime. It’s just like what the prayer which has been attributed to the modern day martyr of justice, the late Archbishop Oscar Romero, says,
“Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.”

That is why Good Friday means so much to us. Though, most of us will never be able to complete the work of the Kingdom, we should not despair. This is because Jesus Christ had come to finish the job and to complete the work that we always seem to be unfinished. Jesus would not be satisfied with just starting the work. It is crucial that he completed it. If he had stopped short at being a carpenter, being a preacher, being a healer and miracle worker, but did not carry through with his plan to march up Calvary, his work would have been incomplete. Salvation would not have been secured, the promise of eternal life would still be uncertain, the power of the devil would be undiminished and death still an undefeated last enemy. But he finished the work, he completed the task, he did what he came to do. Humans are born to live, but Jesus was born to die and he finished the task assigned to him. But our Christian story does not end on this heroic but morbid note. The story of how Jesus completes the work entrusted to Him has another ending, and it is found beyond the cross, beyond the tomb. But that would be the tale of the resurrection; a story to be told another day!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Getting our Feet Wet

Holy Thursday 2014

There is an English Idiom which is not very common in these parts, ‘get our feet wet,’ which refers to a first time experience, especially one that involves taking a risk. I came to realise how Westerners seem to have this aversion to wet floors when I noticed the sprawling carpets in their toilets and bathrooms – something unimaginable in the East (we “love” our floors wet!) This may explain why we don’t often hear this expression. Nevertheless, a ‘truism’ conveyed by this expression finds universal resonance - it suggests that you have to experience something to truly know what it is like (except when it comes to vice!). It’s an invitation to ‘just jump in and do it’ – to get involved rather than to just stand at a distance like a disinterested and uninvolved observer. The trick is to jump into the pool if you really want to know how the water feels. A mere description would never suffice.

Jesus’ scandalous and troubling action in washing the feet of his disciples did precisely this – it was an invitation to get their feet wet. He wish to impart a new standard of love – one that was not based on an individual’s capacity but rather Jesus’ love would now be the new benchmark for loving. No oral teaching or description would suffice to convey the point which Jesus wanted to make – he had to show it, he had to make himself an example for them. The cross would be his blackboard.

Jesus’ initiative was also a stark reminder that there is no room for observers in His camp and anyone who wishes to follow Him must be prepared for a hands-on experience; they must be ready to get their hands dirty, their feet wet, and even take up not just the towel and the basin, but the cross in imitation of Jesus himself. And that is certainly what’s so worrying. It would be so much easier and safer to stand at a distance to observe, to analyse and to give feedback and suggestions. Everyone’s a natural critic. While hundreds sacrifice sleep and vacation and even risk their lives in the Search and Rescue Operations revolving around the missing flight MH 370, thousands of online analysts were making their own assessments and speculations from the anonymous safety of their armchairs in front of a television or a computer screen.

But then comes the Paschal event, which our Triduum re-enacts each year, Jesus leads his disciples from the comfortable and safe environment of the Cenacle where the Last Supper was celebrated into the darkness of Gethsemane to experience that excruciating vigil in preparation for the events that would follow; Jesus takes them from a mere theological exposition of what the ritual of the Eucharistic meal and the feet washing signify to the horrifying reality of His own Passion and Death. He beckons not only his disciples but all of us who now commemorate this event to follow him as he makes his way through the valley of death into Jerusalem, into the stronghold of his enemies and accusers where he will be falsely accused, unjustly sentenced and horribly executed as the unblemished and innocent Lamb led to slaughter. One can choose to remain indifferent and distant as an observer at best, or one can choose the path of a true disciple who gets into the action, risk having our feet get wet and tread that path less travelled.    

I don’t know about you but I don’t like getting my feet wet. It’s nothing to do with the Western obsession of dry floors but rather phobic concern of leaving dirty footprints on the floor in the aftermath of my passage. It’s the safety of anonymity. But in the idiomatic sense of the expression, it’s about my fear of taking risks. It’s about my lack of courage. It’s about the trepidation of plummeting into a maelstrom of trouble that comes with the job description of a Christian. I’d much rather play it safe, be a crowd pleaser, confined myself to the sanitised celebration of the Eucharist with all the smells and bells than to go down on my knees and get my hands dirty with washing someone else’s feet. I don’t think you would also like the prospect of receiving communion from my hands thereafter. Doesn’t seem sanitary! I would rather have others take the first step or perhaps, let Jesus take the first step, since he’s the one that suggests that we should get our feet wet, right? But this is it! Jesus has taken the first step and he has set a blazing trail for us to follow. Jesus did not only tell us to ‘jump first!’ He took the first plunge. He divested himself of his divine splendour and glory and kneels down before us, he washes and dries our soiled feet, in order to make us fit to sit at table for God’s Wedding Feast.

He could have easily said "Wash one another's feet" but he didn't. He did it. Isn't that really the message behind the entire Gospel? Jesus doesn't just say to do something, he does it, then says "Follow me". Jesus doesn't just say "No greater love is there than this, to lay down one's life for a friend" - He dies for us. He doesn't just say "Give the crowds something to eat", he blesses bread, multiplies them and feeds the crowds himself. Every word comes with an action. Every prayer, a ritual. To those who say the Catholic church shouldn't focus on the ritual so much as the words, I challenge you to find where Jesus did not back up his words with actions. Christianity is a lived reality, not just a sanitised hypothesis.

The beginning of the gospel tells us that Jesus’ ‘hour’ had come. It is the hour of his departing and it is also the hour of the love that reaches to the end. It is the time to step out of the sidelines and to step across the safety of the police line. Jesus reveals to us what it really means to get our feet wet – it means loving to the end – stepping outside the limits of one’s closed individuality – breaking through into the divine. Pope Benedict, in the third book of his trilogy on Jesus of Nazareth, tells us that the ‘hour’ of Jesus is the hour of the great stepping beyond, the hour of transformation, and the hour of a metamorphosis that can only be undertaken by agape – love that reaches to the end.  And so each disciple must choose and decide to embrace his ‘hour’ too, the hour that calls for the totality of self-giving, of remoulding of being, of loving till the end, even if that end means unto death.

All this ultimately reminds me of that frequently mocked practice of Pope Benedict, which is actually an ancient papal tradition, of wearing red shoes or red slippers? Why does the Pope wear red shoes and what has that to do with our present celebration? First, it is not a fashion statement. Second, it is not Prada as some uncharitable critics would claim. Throughout Church history, the colour red has been deliberately chosen to represent the blood of Catholic martyrs spilt through the centuries following in the footsteps of Christ. The red papal shoes are also linked to Christ’s own bloodied feet as he was prodded, whipped, and pushed along the Via Dolorosa on his way to his crucifixion, culminating in the piercing of his hands and feet on the cross. The red shoes also symbolises the submission of the Pope to the ultimate authority of Jesus Christ. Beyond this, it is said the red papal shoes also signify God’s burning love for humanity. Finally, when the Pope bows his head in prayer to the Almighty and looks down upon the redness of his shoes, he is reminded of his duty as a pastor, a shepherd, to lay down his own life for his sheep. Therefore, the challenge isn’t just getting our feet wet – it’s getting it covered in red. Today, we remain in the safe and sanitised haven of the Upper Room. Tomorrow, we step into the bloody execution ground of Calvary. Let’s plunge in and get our feet wet!