Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Habeas Corpus: You Have the Body?

Third Sunday of Easter Year B

Down through the centuries Christians have always confessed with the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe…in the resurrection of the body” or in some other translations, “the resurrection of the flesh.” This affirmation of faith in the resurrection is grounded in faith in Christ’s resurrection. A major purpose of the latter resurrection was to make possible the former; thus they are both of the same nature. The two doctrines are therefore interdependent. Our belief in the resurrection in the body would collapse if it was not tied to our fundamental belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ.

Yet the notion of the bodily resurrection of Christ has been the subject of controversies right from the very beginning. The problem in the resurrection isn't so much in agreeing that Jesus rose but in how He rose. It is very commonly accepted that the life of the human person continues in a spiritual fashion after death. But how can we believe that this body, so clearly mortal, could rise to everlasting life?  Sounds macabre! In spite of the historic church’s unwavering belief in the resurrection of the flesh, there are those then as there are those today who refuse to accept the bodily resurrection of Christ. The Romans discredited it, the Jews denied it and the Gnostics couldn’t stomach it.  For more than two millennium the Church has been fighting off the throngs of heretics who deny much or all of the Symbol of Faith, but there are few truths that exasperate the world more than the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Chief among the deniers and disbelievers was a sect generally known as Gnostics, who had a dualistic view of the universe. 

Gnosticism and Greek philosophy in general commonly distinguished between two worlds, the world of the spirit, of thought and ideas, and the world of matter, the universe around us including our physical bodies with all their senses and passions. According to this Greek view, the world of the spirit is the higher and more perfect world, the material world being inferior, less perfect, or even positively evil. Man’s present problem, according to this view, is not that he is a sinner, separated from God by his sin and rebellion, but that his spirit is at present trapped within the prison house of the body. Redemption, according to this view, consists not in the forgiveness of sins and union with God in Christ but in the release of the human spirit from its imprisonment within the physical body. It is no wonder that those holding such views therefore looked forward to death and embraced it readily (even to the extent of taking their own lives) believing that in death the spirit would be freed from all imperfections. For such, the doctrine of the resurrection of the body is a patent absurdity.

This heretical thinking is not just a thing of the past. It has been passed to our modern world with the recent interest in such writings as the so-called gospels of Judas and Thomas, both Gnostic writings.  More specifically, Gnostic thinking has filtered into the conscious and sub-conscious of our society through the host of New Age spiritualities and materialist philosophies that sprouted in Europe in the post-enlightenment period.  These theories, most notably in Marxism and its various off-shoots, promote the idea that the only truth that exists is that which is empirically verifiable, or, that that which can be observed.  Therefore, any revelation, especially such dogmas of faith as the Incarnation and Resurrection, are not believable because there is no scientific evidence of them.

One may be tempted to think that this is making a mountain out of a molehill. So what if we deny the bodily resurrection of Christ, what difference would it make? What many fail to see is that the denial of the bodily resurrection of Christ does more than just deny the resurrection, it strikes at the very core of our Christian faith. The resurrection of Jesus is a fundamental and essential doctrine of Christianity.  The resurrection of Jesus is so important that without it Christianity is false.  St Paul said in 1 Cor. 15:14, “and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain… and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.”  To deny the resurrection of Jesus is to deny the heart of Christianity itself.

That is why today’s gospel text makes this important point, in recording Jesus’ invitation to his disciples to “touch” and “see” for themselves, so that they will be certain that he is not a ghostly apparition because “a ghost has no flesh and bones.” The body that emerged from the tomb on Easter morning was seen (Matt. 28:17), heard (John 20:15-16), and even touched (Matt. 28:9) on many occasions after the Resurrection. To stress the point further, he asked for something to eat. In fact, Jesus ate food at least four times after the Resurrection (Luke 24:30; 24:42-43; John 21:12-13; Acts 1:4). The Christian church, therefore, has from the beginning confessed that the same physical body of flesh that was laid in Jesus’ tomb was raised immortal.

Following the apostolic testimony, the church down through the centuries has confessed its belief in “the resurrection of the flesh” — both that of Jesus in particular and of humanity in general. St Justin Martyr (A.D. 100-165) said plainly: “The resurrection is a resurrection of the flesh which dies.” As for those who “maintain that even Jesus Himself appeared only as spiritual, and not in flesh, but presented merely the appearance of flesh: these persons seek to rob the flesh of the promise.” Tertullian (c. A.D. 160-230) declared the resurrection of the flesh to be the church’s “rule of faith,” saying it “was taught by Christ” and only denied by heretics.

But the point of the resurrection is the final defeat of sin, death, and the grave.  And, to do that, you must have a body that crosses over the threshold of death, but then returns victorious. In other words, for God to prove that He has defeated death, He has to have a body to show for it. Literally, a divine writ of habeas corpus – “do you have the body?” That’s why we celebrate the resurrection of Christ.  That’s why the resurrection of the body is so important.  That’s why Jesus had to rise again. That’s why we believe in the resurrection because we know that we live now, we live beyond the door of death, we live in eternity, we will return with Christ, we will live in the presence of God on the new earth, in the new Jerusalem, beside the River of Life, shaded by the Tree of Life, where there will be no more tears, and Death will be finally and forever defeated. We believe in the resurrection of the body because we believe in the God who gives life.  So, those who have died before us will rise.  Those whose physical bodies have decayed and been corrupted will rise.
Modern man is not much different than the ancient one.  Today, we live in a world that doubts everything about religion and tradition, especially the Resurrection.  But because of the Resurrection we know for sure what the Church Fathers  knew: that man is the image of God and that we will be destined to become “gods” one day, to share in the eternal beatitude of the Trinity. But this is only possible in and through the Resurrection. We will appear before our Judge and Maker, not as disembodied spirits, but in new glorified bodies, taking after the fashion of the first fruit of the resurrection, Christ Himself. As C. S. Lewis writes, “we will all have faces and the God who called us by name here on this earth, will call us by name again.”

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Blessedness in Believing without Seeing

Second Sunday of Easter Year B

Mystical events that seem to defy the laws of science have fascinated people in various places and times. Miracle healings, spiritual visitations, apparitions, icons and statues that weep, hands and feet that seem to bear the wounds of Christ, images of Christ or Our Lady appearing on various objects, oil and other substance oozing out of objects, are not only the grist for tabloid press but have also won a place in mainline belief.  Any word of weeping statues, leaking paintings, miraculous appearances of images is bound to attract a whole spectrum of visitors, from believers, paranormal investigators, sceptics, to the tabloid media.

Why this frenzied interest? It would seem that the need for images, or the need for “seeing” is fundamental. It is living proof that our faith is often not just an abstraction but rather a conclusion drawn from what is perceptible. Perhaps, more than anything else in these troubled times, sight of such phenomena reawakens faith and hope above all else. Each of us, deep down inside, wants to be thrilled by what Robert Fran├žois calls “a theophany, a manifestation of God, a certain proof, before (we) believe in His existence.” At times we are more demanding than St. Thomas the Apostle himself, and we want to be continually touching the miraculous action of God in order to believe in it.

But the difficulty lies in authenticating such phenomena. It is objectively real or just the figment of our imagination, the delusions of mental derangement or the product of a hoax? It’s very difficult to separate miracles from wishful thinking, reality from hallucinations, authentic mystical experiences from hoaxes. To the sceptical mind, such occurrences are part of the spectrum of religious fantasies that includes such idiocies as the US$28,000 sale on ebay of a 10-year-old grilled cheese sandwich with an “image” of Mary. The woman who sold the sandwich claimed that the image helped her to win $70,000 at the casino.

As much as most people would give greater value to something which is perceptible, something which they can see, something tangible, the spiritual value and the quality of faith ascends by another ladder. Thus, such paranormal phenomena, though receiving great attention on a popular scale, literally has a very humble place in the Church. This is what Jesus promises today, “Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.” In an interview at Fatima, Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) spoke about visions and apparitions: “To all curious people, I would say I am certain that the Virgin does not engage in sensationalism; she does not act in order to instigate fear. She does not present apocalyptic visions, but guides people to her Son. And this is what is essential … to call the world back to simplicity, that is, to the essentials: conversion, prayer, and the sacraments.” According to Pope Benedict in Verbum Domini, apparitions or “private” revelation is “judged by its orientation to Christ himself. If it leads us away from Him, then it certainly does not come from the Holy Spirit, Who guides us more deeply into the Gospel and not away from it.”

Today’s gospel speaks of the value in seeing in order to believe but makes a far more important case for believing without having to see.  The story is comprised of two resurrection appearances – one on Easter evening, the second a week later. Thomas was absent in the first, and was present in the second. Being absent during the first appearance, St Thomas did not see the resurrected Lord, nor did he behold the Saviour’s wounded hands and side. And so it was that when Thomas was told that Jesus had appeared to them, he refused to believe. Eight days passed. The disciples were all together once again, including Thomas. Jesus appears in their midst though the doors are locked. Immediately, Jesus turns His attention to Thomas. He summons Thomas to come and to put his finger where the nails had pierced His hands, and to feel His side where the spear had pierced it. But now after seeing Jesus alive he no longer required this proof. It may have taken this sight to convince Thomas, but once convinced, Thomas shed his unbelief and exchanged it with belief, not only of the truth of the resurrection, but that this Jesus was His Lord and God. But there is something far greater in store for those who were not present at both these appearances but had to rely on eyewitness reports alone, namely us. Jesus announces this in the form of a Beatitude, “Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

An important thesis has been advanced by St John in his gospel as he makes the case for seeing – Seeing is believing. In last week’s Sunday gospel reading, the Beloved Disciple “saw and believed.” Yet, seeing can never encompass the whole gamut and spectrum of faith. Scriptures affirm the truth that “believing is also seeing.” In Bethany, Our Lord himself assures Martha that if she believed she would see. St Paul would also attest to this truth by affirming “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

There is no doubt that there is blessedness in seeing; and there is blessedness in believing; and there is blessedness in believing after seeing; but that of which the Lord here speaks is a blessedness different from these, and truer than all of them—the blessedness of believing without seeing. Thomas and the other apostles had the privilege of seeing and believing, and many would envy their advantage as firsthand witnesses; yet the Lord assures the rest of us who have “not seen” him in the flesh, that there is great blessedness in believing even when we are denied to opportunity to see. This blessedness flows from simple faith, in the absence of all visible or sensible helps; simple faith, that counts God's testimony sufficient, makes no demands of signs from him, though, in doing this, it is unassisted by eye, or ear, or hand.

Just like St Thomas was called, we too are invited to move beyond the sensational aspects of the resurrection to a more mature faith in Jesus as ever present to his followers. We who live beyond the age of the first eyewitnesses of the wonder of the resurrection, and who have to contend with second hand accounts of this event, would find consolation in this story of St Thomas. As one who hesitated, questioned, and then moved from scepticism to a firmer, more committed faith, Thomas is a source of encouragement for all of us, who often struggle with issues of faith especially in the face of an apparently invisible and intangible God.

This is the Church’s day of faith, not of sight; for during her Lord's absence, she lives by believing, not seeing. Others have seen for her; and she believes what they saw. She hears the report concerning the dead, buried, risen Saviour; and, believing it, she rejoices with joy unspeakable and full of glory. So, today we ask for a greater faith to believe even without seeing. We need not ask for a sign; there shall no sign given but the sign of Jonah; the sign of the Son of Man being raised up, the sign of the Empty Tomb, and the sign of his everlasting presence in the breaking of bread. This is her blessedness and honour. Let our faith rest simply there, in the absence of sense, or sight, or feeling, or sign, external or internal. Remember how it is written, “If you shall believe, you shall see.” The vision will come in its due time, and it will be infinitely glorious; meanwhile, walk by faith, until the day breaks and the shadows flee away. Till then, “happy (and blessed) are those who have not seen and yet believe.”  

Saturday, April 4, 2015

In the Empty Tomb, we "See"

Easter Sunday 2015

On the first day of the week, the first day that recalls the story of Creation, three figures come to the tomb. All three were equally united by their love for Christ. Though all three saw a similar thing, each, however, had a different experience, a different level of perception. Because the entire narrative is designed to explain just how and when and to what degree faith in the resurrection of Jesus was achieved, the details of the eyewitness are deemed important. What was it that they saw? What conclusions did they draw from what they saw?

The story begins with Mary Magdalene’s visit to the tomb. She would have been driven by her love for the Lord and also by a feminine impulse to attend to the necessary burial arrangements to be performed on the body that had been hurriedly entombed on Good Friday to avoid the Sabbath ban on work. She arrives early whilst it was still dark. The mention of darkness is not just a story-teller’s contextual footnote. The darkness here is not mere physical darkness, it is also the symbol of the spiritual darkness in which Mary moves, the darkness of humanity without faith in the risen Jesus. It is dark, because Mary cannot “see” that the Light of the World has burst forth from the darkness of the tomb. Although Mary’s visit to the tomb at the first possible opportunity shows her commitment and especially her love for Jesus, she is still in the dark with regard to his true identity and significance.

Mary Magdalene saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. The text does not tell us whether she looked inside, but gives the impression she did not. Her seeing was superficial. In seeing so little, she saw more. Perhaps, the observation of Tertullian was correct, “People who cannot see what really is are the very ones who see what is not.” Without investigating further, she draws a conclusion from her observation. The robbing of graves was a crime sufficiently common. So it is not surprising that the sight of the removed stone prompted Mary Magdalene to draw the conclusion she did, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb!” In distress and in darkness, a setting of unfaith, she ran to report her news to two of the most prominent of Jesus’ disciples, to St Peter and the beloved disciple. Later, when Mary returns to the tomb, she sees Jesus but fails to recognise him. Only after a personal prompt from Jesus who had called by name, did she come to see.

Things go no more smoothly for St Peter. Alerted by Mary, he and the Beloved Disciple run to the tomb. Though the Beloved Disciple is the first to reach the tomb, in deference to St Peter, his elder, he does not go in. Nevertheless, Peter enters the tomb first, where he sees Jesus' burial garments. As far as we know, Peter does not yet believe. He may, however, have ruled out Mary’s conclusion that this was a case of grave robbery – robbers would certainly not practice the etiquette of folding up linen in the wake of their crimes.

In the second half of John's Gospel the Beloved Disciple provides the model of faith. He outruns Peter to the tomb but he allows Peter to enter the tomb ahead of him. But when the Beloved Disciple enters the tomb, we are told, “He saw and believed” (20:8). Seeing and believing provides on of the most powerful models of faith in John's Gospel. The Beloved Disciple sees and believes. Mary sees yet needs help believing. Peter sees, but he does not yet believe. Peter will come to faith in time. All three come to faith eventually. Seeing and believing takes its own shape in each instance.

Some scholars have argued that there is an intensification of “seeing” that leads to deeper comprehension. In English, we can only make a conjecture. But the matter is much clearer when we return to the original Greek words used in the text, all of which had been inadequately translated as “saw.” When the Beloved Disciple was the first to arrive at the tomb, he “saw the linen cloths lying on the ground.” The Greek word translated “saw” in this verse is “blepei,” which means “to observe.” This was a mere superficial viewing of the facts from the outside the tomb without, apparently any significant realisation of what had taken place other than the fact that what Mary reported was true. The second word “saw” which is attributed to St Peter is “theorei,” which means, “to behold.” Peter’s seeing was certainly deeper because he went into the tomb and clearly saw additional details to the “crime scene”: the linen cloths and the cloth that had been over the head of the corpse, rolled up neatly. But yet, his seeing did not lead to a full comprehension nor did it lead to faith.

Finally, the Beloved Disciple now enters and “saw and believed.” The Greek word here is “eiden.” It means “to perceive.” His seeing led to understanding. He saw more than the factual scene of a possible crime. He perceived and understood this to be a sign– that Jesus, as he had promised has been resurrected from the dead.  The lesson is this. It is not just enough to “see” (observe) some of the facts about Jesus, as a disinterested party. It is not enough to “see” (behold) the details about Jesus, as a scientist would. We must “see” Jesus in the sense of perceiving or understanding the truth through the lenses of faith and love. Such perception can only come about with authentic love. It is love that reveals to us the implications of what we see. Anne Hildegard, wrote that “Authentic love alone makes us "see." It is not based on wishful thinking or on the unhealthy projection of imaginary virtues onto another person. It is not triggered by hysteria, overheated feelings, or a craving for excitement to shake one out of a state of exhausting boredom. It is an ardent yet calm perception, granted by God, of the beauty he has put into each of us, and it fills us with awe and gratitude.”

One baffling question in human life is why some people claim to see what others cannot see. Just like modern day supernatural phenomena which are inexplicable, there are those who claim its validity and the doubters who view it as a product of a deranged mind. There are those who make seeing a prerequisite of believing – that they would only believe if they can see. And yet after “seeing”, many remain incredulous and unbelieving. It is obvious that one cannot force someone to see what he does not want to see. Here lies the painful truth – most intellectual mistakes are not caused by lack of intelligence; they are the fruits of stubbornness and a rebellious will. But the one who loves, will see!

In times of great loss we often need to see something. When the Malaysia Airlines flight 370 disappeared, now over a year ago, grieving family members continue to demand to see more evidence. The authorities’ decision to unilaterally declare that the entire flight had been lost together with all its crew and passengers did not bring the necessary closure. Somehow seeing the debris promises closure for many people, closure to the cycle of confusion and loss.

Today, we see the empty tomb. We find in it the necessary closure to the cycle of confusion and loss that comes with the darkness of faith, in the face of death and loss. The empty tomb is a statement that the resurrected life is not simply a new beginning. All that Jesus was is caught up in the transforming mystery of grace. The episode of find the tomb empty depicts for us not the ignoble lie that the body of Jesus was stolen by grave robbers or desecrated by his enemies, but the wonderful truth that death is robbed of its prey, that the whole of our human person will be transformed and that the final victory is not with darkness but with light. On the cross Jesus radiantly reveals the beauty of God as a God of unconditional love. The empty tomb is a sign, for those with faith to see, that Jesus’ trust in His Father was not misplaced, that our trust in Him is not misplaced, that God’s love is stronger than death.

Behold, I make all things New

Easter Vigil 2015

Ever since its restoration, you would notice that the baptismal font has become a permanent fixture in the sanctuary. The baptismal font doesn’t merely sit here for the purposes of functional convenience nor is it meant to just “look pretty.” More than anything else, the baptismal font is an abiding reminder of what we once were, what we now are, and what we shall one day yet be. It would also be the focus of our celebrations this evening. If you ever get the chance to come close and have a look at our baptismal font from the top, you would realised that it takes the shape of an octagon. I think that many Malaysians would easily associate the octagonal shape to the Chinese custom of hanging an octagonal shaped mirror above their door post – it serves the dual purpose of warding off evil entities as well as channelling and welcoming good health and fortune. Well, the shape of our baptismal font doesn’t serve the same function. Thank God!

For Jews the number eight symbolised salvation, rebirth and regeneration: eight members of Noah's family were saved in the time of the Great Flood and it was on the eighth day of his life that a male child was circumcised, signifying his entrance into the covenant family of Israel, the chosen people of God.  But for early Christians eighth came to be associated with the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the formation of the New Covenant.  Jesus was raised on the day after the seventh day, which was the Sabbath, making Jesus’ Resurrection on the eighth day. Therefore, Sunday, the first day of the week, is also the day of the New Creation just as the old Creation also began on what is the first day of the week.  St Augustine called Sunday, “the Day of the Lord,” as “an everlasting eighth day.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms the significance of the number 8 for Christians in article # 349: “The eighth day.  But for us a new day has dawned: the day of Christ's Resurrection.  The seventh day completes the first creation.  The eight day begins the new creation.  Thus, the work of creation culminates in the greater work of redemption.  The first creation finds its meaning and its summit in the new creation in Christ, the splendour of which surpasses that of the first creation.”

Indeed for us, a new day has dawned – the day of Christ’s Resurrection. Therefore, everything about this Vigil points to the fact that Easter is the feast of the new creation. The resurrection is the sign, among many other things, that God’s new creation has begun, that the future has come bursting into the present. Jesus is risen and dies no more. He has opened the door to a new life, one that no longer knows illness and death. He has taken mankind up into God himself. A new dimension has opened up for mankind. Creation has become greater and broader. Easter Day ushers in a new creation, but that is precisely why the Church starts the liturgy on this day in darkness, and beginning with the lighting of the new Paschal Candle, all of us in the Church are soon swimming in a sea of lights. It is as if we hear the word God, spoken once again on the first day of creation, “Let there be Light! And there was Light!”

After the darkness of Good Friday, we now witness the light of this new creation. At Easter, on the morning of the first day of the week, God said once again: “Let there be light”. The night on the Mount of Olives, the solar eclipse of Jesus’ passion and death, the night of the grave had all passed. Now it is the first day once again — creation is beginning anew. “Let there be light”, says God, “and there was light”: Jesus rises from the grave. Life is stronger than death. Good is stronger than evil. Love is stronger than hate. Truth is stronger than lies. The darkness of the previous days is driven away the moment Jesus rises from the grave and himself becomes God’s pure light. With the resurrection of Jesus, light itself is created anew. He draws all of us after him into the new light of the resurrection and he conquers all darkness. He is God’s new day for all of us.

But the resurrection of Christ has not only brought about a new day with its new light. We too have become a new creation. How did this come about? Through the sacrament of baptism and the profession of faith, the Lord has built a bridge across to us, through which the new day reaches us. The Lord says to the newly-baptised: Fiat lux — let there be light. God’s new day — the day of indestructible life, comes also to us. Christ takes you by the hand. From now on you are held by him and walk with him into the light, into real life.

Baptism is something quite different from an act of ecclesial socialisation, from a slightly old-fashioned and complicated rite for receiving people into the Church. It is more than becoming part of a community. Baptism is also more than a simple washing, more than a kind of purification and beautification of the soul. It is a new birth. A new beginning in life. It is a new creation! It is truly death and resurrection, rebirth, transformation to a new life. Therefore, in baptism we experience what St Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me!” St Paul can say this with so much conviction because in Baptism we give ourselves over to Christ — he takes us unto himself, so that we no longer live for ourselves, but through him, with him and in him; so that we live with him and thus for others.

Baptism, then, makes us new creatures, it bestows on us the blessings promised to Abraham, it releases us from the slavery of sin and brings us into new life, it brings us into the new wedding covenant between God and his people redeemed in Christ, it quenches our spiritual thirst for God, it gives the wisdom that enlightens our path to God, it purifies us and gives us a new heart and a new spirit, it crucifies our old self and our sinful body and raises us up from the dead, and, finally, it is our share in Christ’s death, in his victory over death and in his resurrection.

This is the joy of the Easter Vigil: we are reminded that in baptism, we have become a new creation, freed from all the deficiencies and limitations that have marred the old creation. In the Resurrection of Jesus, we witness the triumph of the new over the old. We witness how love has been shown to be stronger than death, stronger than evil. Love made Christ descend, and love is also the power by which he ascends; the power by which he brings us with him.

On this night, let us give thanks to God for His Creation, for His Faithfulness, for His Mercy and His Love.  It is a time to rejoice in the Good News of Jesus’ Resurrection to New Life, and that somehow, through Baptism, we share in that amazing New Life.  It is a time for some of us to be baptised, and for the rest of us to “renew our Baptismal Promises.” But for all us, let today be a reminder of what we once were – trapped in sin and darkness, what we now are – new creatures and adopted sons and daughters of God, and what we shall one day yet be – co-sharers in eternal glory of the saints in heaven. Today, is a day of new beginnings, not just for those who will be baptised, but for all of us, who will get an opportunity to renew our baptismal promises. That which is “new” will always remain “new” until the very end. As St John Capistrano, whose feast we celebrated a week ago, said with utmost conviction, “The Lord who made the beginning, will take care of the finish”.   Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) Lord, give us eyes to see this!