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!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

A Portrait of Contrast

Palm Sunday Year A

Life is full of contrasts.  If we recognise and appreciate this then we are truly ready for Palm Sunday. This is because today’s liturgy is full of bittersweet contrasts. Today is obviously a rare exception to the usual Sunday Mass routine, as we have heard from two Gospel passages. At the beginning of the mass, we had the exhilarating atmosphere of the procession, reminding us of the overwhelming reception of Jesus as he enters Jerusalem. But as the priest enters the sacred perimeter of the sanctuary, the mood turns somber, even morbidly dark. The mood swings to one of sorrow as we listen to how Jesus fulfils the Isaian prophecy of the Suffering Servant which culminates in the horrific description of His Passion. They are so different to each other, that one cannot but be struck by the contrast in it all. We have both the ‘Hosannas’ as well as the mocking, ‘Crucify Him!’ As the believers honour Him, the unbelievers seek more intensely to conspire against Him. The first gospel gives us a foretaste of Easter joy, whilst the Passion gospel reading provides us with the grim prospect of Good Friday. Between the two, we can see a great contrast between the Earthly honour which was given to Jesus as He processed into Jerusalem, and the Heavenly honour given by God when he hung on the Cross.

Let’s go back to the beginning. Our liturgy begins with a reenactment of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem where he is given a grand welcome. It’s sort of a "Victory March." People are waving palm leaves in the same way that children in modern times wave flags to welcome someone important. In a poor man’s parody of an honour parade, Jesus received the welcome of a triumphant and home-coming king. In ancient times, palms were considered a sign of victory. Yes, the branches of Palm Sunday symbolises a victory hoped for and a victory promised. But on that first Palm Sunday, it was a victory not yet won. To enter Jerusalem, Christ had to pass through the Garden of Gethsemane - the place where He would be betrayed and arrested - and cross the Kidron Valley, which is fittingly referred to as the "Valley of Death." This valley, located right outside the walls of the city, had long served as a burial ground for the Jews. Before His great triumph over death, Christ had to pass through His own "valley of death." He had to suffer and face humiliation and abandonment. Before He could be Conqueror of death, Christ had to die. One must pass through Good Friday to get to Easter.

The crowds shouted: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” They considered wealth, power and popularity as blessings from God. The people were expecting Jesus to lead them in a rebellion to overthrow the Roman colonial government. But his actions within the next few days would disappoint them. Instead of living up to the people’s expectation of a strong political or military leader, Jesus assumes the role of a humble servant. Jesus will show that to be truly blessed, one must be prepared to do the will of the Father. Instead of glory received from people, Jesus would suffer humiliation and rejection from them as the Suffering Servant in the first reading. Nevertheless, Jesus was indeed a king but his kingdom is totally at odds with any display of power in this world. Jesus will reveal his true power and authority from the totally powerlessness he experienced on the cross. He will be glorified by God on the cross. It’s hard to comprehend such a paradox unless you recognise that the values in Jesus’ kingdom is not naked power and domination but service and humility.

In the face of a violent end, Jesus maintains the calmness and the stature of a Prince of Peace. He enters into Jerusalem not riding a war horse, a steed raised and trained for battle, but instead chooses a beast of burden, a donkey, a symbol of peaceful times. If we continue our contrast of the first and the second gospel, we would recognise these parallels - On Palm Sunday he was carried on a donkey – on Good Friday he carried his cross. The donkey is an animal to carry burdens for people. Jesus was the person to carry the burden of all people. In the Passion Reading we hear of a tale of contrast and irony - Jesus is arrested in a violent way but reminds his disciples to reject all forms of violence. Jesus is accused of blasphemy but his critics are actually the ones guilty of blasphemy for having insulted Jesus, the Son of God. Jesus, the innocent one, is put to death while the murderer, Barrabbas is set free.

The story of the Palm Sunday is certainly one of contrasts and those contrasts help us to understand the path that needs to be taken by us believers. It is the story of the King who came as a lowly servant on a donkey, not a prancing steed, not in royal robes, but on the clothes of the poor and humble. Jesus Christ comes not to conquer by force as earthly kings, but by love, grace, mercy, and His own sacrifice for His people. His is not a kingdom of armies and splendor, but of lowliness and servanthood. He conquers not nations, but hearts and minds. His message is one of peace with God, a lasting peace, not just a temporal one. If Jesus has made a triumphal entry into our hearts, He reigns there in peace and love. As His followers, we too must exhibit those same qualities, in order that the world sees the true King living and reigning in triumph in us. As we follow the Lord, we, too, will face a certain amount of suffering, rejection, loneliness and yes, even our own death. Where the world values power, we must value humility. Where the world values strength and even physical force in order enforce an ideal, we must be peacemakers. Where the world values popularity, we must be prepared to receive criticism and insults from those who do not understand us. We must be living contradictions. Still, we must walk with Christ without fear and reservation, for He will lead us through the "valley of death" to everlasting life in the Kingdom of Heaven.

During this Mass, let us pray for the grace to walk steadily with Jesus. The cheers and jeers of people over the years may come and go, but I remain standing by the King who eternally stands by me and promises a reward to all those who are faithful to Him and His gospel. There will be times we will feel like giving up. There will be times we will feel like negotiating with God to ask him to take the cup of suffering from us. There will be times we will cry out in near despair: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” But then we remember once again the promise of Palm Sunday, look not for earthly honour from men which will not last but always set our hearts on the heavenly honour, the glory accorded only by God that will never wither. With that, let us accompany Jesus to the cross.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

God is not Dead!

Fifth Sunday of Lent Year A

Friedrich Nietzsche was the German philosopher who had the gall to declare the following: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him … Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” I guess many would share similar sentiments in face of unanswered prayers whilst wrestling with human misery. I think Nietzsche presciently understood that science would become heralded as the new religion, the new harbinger of hope, and that the death of God merely marks the beginning of the deification of Man. If God cannot provide the solution, then the solution must lie elsewhere. Technology, not another traditional deity, would become the natural place to look for a human Saviour.

The scientific quest for immortality is merely a continuation of man’s ancient and perennial search for immortality. From the pyramids and the mummification of the kings of Egypt, to the pursuit of the elixir of eternal life by Emperor Qin, Shi Huang Di; from the medieval alchemical research into the philosopher’s stone, adventurers’ search of the fountain of youth, to Hitler’s quest for ancient mythical artefacts of power, such as the Holy Grail, the quest for immortality has continued over the centuries. Today, the modern bizarre pursuit to cheat death has been fictionalised in science fiction genre. But not all is fiction. This could also be the ultimate conclusion of Darwin’s theory of evolution – through an inexplicable process of natural selection and with the assistance of medical science, man could ultimately evolve into a god like being, freed of his present limitations and frailties. But all this remains hypothetical. For some, it’s just pure fiction. We have yet to see living proof of the contentions made by myth, science fiction and lastly science. We have yet to see a real life immortal.

In fact, human attempts to deal with death in the long run are made utterly futile and pitiful by death’s inevitability. Only Christians are able to embrace death for the great power it holds. Only God can do something decisive about death. Thus our Lenten journey offers us today’s readings and reflections. One the eve of Holy Week, the liturgy invites us to consider a story which prepares us for the greatest story of immortality – it is the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. In the Fourth Gospel, this miracle is considered the last of the ‘signs’, each sign being a miracle of Jesus that provides a clue to his identity and mission. Some say that the resurrection established who Jesus was and what his presence meant. I think that’s backward. It is who Jesus was, “I am the Life and the Resurrection,” that establishes what his resurrection meant.This is an important passage to consider before we move into the climatic high point of our Lenten Journey, the Paschal Triduum. It is a reminder to all Christians that our story is not the stuff of fiction, or philosophical speculation, or scientific hypothesis. Yes, death is real, but the resurrection and eternal life is more real. Immortality is no fiction!

It should be noted that Lazarus’ victory over death was not final, been only a resuscitation of his body. He was not granted immortality of the body. Only through Christ, death was to be fully defeated. But what then is the significance of this story for the audience at that time as well as today? This miracle is performed by Christ as a reassurance to His disciples before the coming Passion: they are to understand that, though He suffers and dies, though he seem to succumb to the inevitable and unavoidable power of death, yet He is Lord and Victor over death. The resurrection of Lazarus is a prophecy in the form of an action. It foreshadows Christ’s own Resurrection, and at the same time it anticipates the resurrection of all the righteous on the Last Day: The Eastern liturgy echoes the truth which the Church teaches - Lazarus is “the saving first-fruits of the regeneration of the world.”

As the liturgical texts emphasise, the miracle at Bethany reveals the two natures of Christ the God-man. Christ weeps for Lazarus, and so He shows the fullness of His manhood, involving as it does genuine grief for a beloved friend. Then, disclosing the fullness of His divine power, Christ raises Lazarus from the dead, even though his corpse has already begun to decompose and stink. This double fullness of the Lord’s divinity and His humanity is to be kept in view throughout Holy Week, and above all on Good Friday. On the Cross we see a genuine human agony, both physical and mental, but we see more than this: we see not only a suffering man but a suffering God. As man, Christ dies, but as the immortal, undying Deity, Death holds no sway over Him. Death has been crushed. Death, and all its finality, has been trampled, vanquished by Christ who is all love, all mercy, omnipotent.

But there is more to the story of Lazarus than just that grand, life affirming finale announcing his true Divine identity. What I'm particularly drawn to currently is the events preceding Lazarus' resurrection. I am captivated by Jesus' own emotional reaction to the anguish of Mary and Martha, so convinced by that point all was lost - so heart wrenchingly unsalvageable. Jesus knew that in the end, life would reign, joy would outweigh the sorrow, and yet he grieved before performing that great miracle of miracles. He grieved for his beloved friend decaying in the tomb. And He grieved for us, I'd like to think, all of humanity who must endure great trials, loss, abuse, injustice, as a result of our free will and fallenness - for us who, while on this earth, must fight hard and ceaselessly to believe in what cannot be seen, in a divine compassion we cannot fathom. And he must certainly be grieving for victims of Flight MH370 and the family members who continue search for answers hidden behind the inexplicable mystery of the disappearance of that plane that carried their loved ones.

I guess it always so irresistibly easier to surrender to the power of despair, and thus be authors of our own spiritual and psychological death. When you're exhausted, from day after day battling doubts, struggling against the current, resisting the urge to lie down and allow the fear, resentment, selfishness, hatred to bury you alive, seizing rest, welcoming help, becomes critical. When our daily existence seems to be defined by the toils we experience, immortality can seem to be more of a curse than a blessing. But, the story of Lazarus raises our hope – a hope which does not lie in finding an answer to the mystery of our suffering, a hope that is not grounded in a final solution to life’s troubles, but a shining hope in the life of the resurrection – a rebirth – of how even the dead, the seemingly lost can be called forth, they can be liberated from the bindings of sin, desperation and grief, and be finally set free to live not just a dream, but the reality of immortality, never to suffer pain or death again.  

With the raising of Lazarus, we begin our final countdown to the Great Pasch. We human beings can handle many things that confront us in life, but on our own we will never be able to do much about death. We can accept death and resign ourselves to its inevitability, but we don’t have it in our power to overcome it. Cheating aging by a low-calorie diet, uploading one’s mind into a super-computer, migrating into outer space, longing for everlasting life, humans show that they remain the death-defined animal. Man deludes himself to think that he can find an answer in science. But the irony of scientific progress is that in solving human problems it creates problems that are not humanly solvable. Science has certainly given humans an ability to manipulate the natural world in a way that no other animal is capable of; however, it has not given us the power to redesign and tailor the laws of the universe according to our desires. Only God can overcome death, and this is what God has done at Easter. Immortality is no longer fiction. God has given it to us through Jesus Christ. He made the resurrection, God’s decisive action about death, a reality and not just a theory or an ideal.  Now if God is Dead, then we are really done for!