Saturday, March 31, 2018

Not Fools for Believing

Easter Sunday

Ever since it became public knowledge that Easter Sunday this year would coincide with April Fool’s Day, memes have been circulating over social media drawing parallels between the Christian belief in the resurrection of a dead man with what could possibly have been an April Fool’s Day prank. Few people are aware that the first of April is also Atheist Day. What turned out to be a hoax was eventually accepted as fact. Atheists have claimed the day for their own as well. Perhaps this year, they will take greater delight in pointing out to their Christian friends that the whole Easter story was actually a hoax, an April Fool’s Day prank.

So, is Easter a hoax and are we Christians “fools” for believing? Well, atheists would claim this to be so. They would assert that the bible is irrefutable proof that no one saw the corpse of Jesus reanimate. What the disciples actually saw was an empty tomb and an empty tomb, they argue, is not sufficient to prove that the resurrection happened. There are countless empty tombs in the world today, but none of them prove a resurrection had happened. Likewise, subsequent ‘appearances’ of Jesus could be explained away as either mass hallucinations of His followers who desperately wanted to see Him or perhaps stories generated by the followers to further their cause.  Thus, for a certified atheists, a Christian’s belief in the resurrection is simply ludicrous and blind.

But is their charge tenable? Certainly not if we were to consider the story of Easter once again. Faith, despite what the atheists claim, is not blind. On the contrary, unbelief is blind. Faith sees a reality beyond what eyes can see, a reality that God reveals to us which is more important more real, than what we can see with our physical eyes. In fact, eyesight was never a guarantee that people really “saw” Jesus. Judas was the greatest example to this tragic truth. On the other hand, the beloved disciple saw an empty tomb but did not see the body, and came to belief.

For Christians, the resurrection was more than just talking about life after death in general, the immortality of the soul or claiming that Jesus’ soul went to heaven. They’re saying something radically happened to Jesus. More fundamentally, the resurrected life is life in God, life with God, life in God after death.  It is this “in God” and this “with God” which characterises the risen life far more than the ‘after death’ aspect.” That's the essential story of the Resurrection.

The empty tomb is a necessary condition for the Resurrection, but atheists are right in stating that it's not sufficient. The Apostles needed to see in the flesh that the Lord was alive again in His body, but in a transformed and glorified state. And this they did, and so did many others who witnessed the resurrected Lord in the flesh, not just in their dreams or imagination. According to St Paul, Christ's resurrection is attested by more than 500 eyewitnesses whose experience, simplicity, and uprightness of life rendered them incapable of inventing such a fable. They had nothing in this life to gain, but everything to lose by their testimony, exhibited in their apostolic life and martyrdom. Even as Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, the Resurrection was one of the stumbling blocks. Christians were mocked for their belief. It's impossible; even ancient people knew that dead people stayed dead. And yet, we witness the rise of the Church in spite of all these unfavourable odds.

St. Thomas Aquinas notes that while there is nothing strange that a man should die, but that God should die is incomprehensible. This thought led Tertullian to exclaim, “It must be true, because it is impossible!” Similarly, that a man should rise from the dead is problematic -- did not the Athenians laugh Paul to scorn, when he proposed this idea to them? -- and can only be resolved by a divine intervention of the highest order. This is why the Resurrection is the proof for the Divinity of Christ, for only God could so corroborate His divine claim.

Popular culture now holds up many Christ figures. If you watch the superhero movies, they make liberal use of Christian themes, death and resurrection, but they also seem interchangeable with Greek, Roman and Nordic mythology, as if all have equal cultural value. A lot of people actually treat the story of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ as just one more myth. But the real difference about Jesus and superheroes is that the resurrection of Christ is not something that happened on top of Mount Olympus before time, but God broke into time. All the episodes with the risen Lord confirm that the post-resurrection experiences with Christ were real, visible, and accessible through the bodily senses. This makes the resurrection a firm reality, established on verifiable data, on plenty of eyewitnesses and therefore not a myth.

The atheist’s denial flies in the face of much evidence to the contrary. Both the rejection of God and that of the resurrection is anything but scientific, though they might quote from science to bolster their position. The real reason is moral. When man chooses to live a life autonomous of any higher order, he ultimately must rid himself of the source of that order – God must die for man to be set free. This is what the psalmist means when he says, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” (Psalm 14:1 and Psalm 53:1). He is not saying that unintelligent people do not believe in God. Rather, the text is saying that sinful people do not wish to believe in God. Therefore the rejection of God is due to a desire to live free of the moral constraints God requires and to escape the guilt that accompanies the violation of those constraints. When that person begins to embrace a man-made cause, and in the process, do what is right in his own eyes, he begins to justify abominable and evil things. As St Paul so rightly puts it, “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie” (Romans 1:18–25).

The resurrection of Christ is and must always be the foundation of our Christian faith. The resurrection gives credence, authenticity and reality to our faith. It is the cause of our salvation. It proves salvation is real for millions and millions of believers down the age from all over the world and also millions who have gone to be with the Lord hoping to be resurrected someday. “The Resurrection above all constitutes the confirmation of all Christ’s works and teachings.  All truths, even those most inaccessible to human reason, find their justification if Christ by His Resurrection has given proof of His divine authority, which he had promised” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 651). Many have gone to their deaths knowing that their faith has not been in vain, as St Paul reminds us, “if there is no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen. And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain” (1 Cor. 15: 14-15).

So Easter falling on April Fool’s day this year may not be an incongruity after all. Christians are called to be “fools for Christ,” which does not in any way imply that we are stupid and lack common sense and judgment. But rather, that we will share the lot of the One who died for us and rose again on the third day. It is those who reject the idea of the resurrection, who reject the idea of a Saviour, who reject the idea of a God who loves us so much that He would sacrifice His only Begotten Son so that we may have life, who are the real fools. For indeed, it is only the fool who is capable of saying in his heart, ‘there is no God’. To such a fool, there is no hope beyond this transient impermanent material world, there is no consolation from having to endure suffering in this life, death would truly be the end of the road, a dead end. This is the significance of the resurrection. For without it, there is no salvation, no victory over sin and no eternal life.

Friday, March 30, 2018

It's a Brand New Day

Easter Vigil

It’s no secret that eight is a lucky number for the Chinese and many other Malaysians too. Non-Cantonese dialect speakers would however protest and point out the fact that this only applies to the numeral when spoken in Cantonese – the number 8 or "Fatt", sounds like another Cantonese word for prosperity. The Hokkiens have made a big come back in recent years by insisting on using “Huat Huat Huat,” their word for prosperity, which sounds nothing like the number 8 in their dialect.

But you may be interested to know that the number eight is also a big thing for us Christians too. Immediately, most people would associate the number eight with the Beatitudes, eight beatitudes if you follow the order from the Gospel of St Matthew. But there is another important association with the number eight. The Eight Day refers to Sunday, and more importantly, it refers to the first Sunday of Easter. Tomorrow, we Christians celebrate our eighth day.

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 the eighth day  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 349 teaches: “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. God’s new creation has begun. Jesus is risen and dies no more. He has opened the door to a new life, one that no longer experiences illness and death. He has taken mankind up into communion with God himself. And 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 of 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 in the Garden of Gethsemane, 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. Now Jesus draws all of us after Him into the new light of the resurrection and He conquers all darkness.

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 more than becoming part of a community. Baptism is also more than a simple washing. 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, as we enter into the Eight Day, the Day of the New Creation, the Day of the Resurrection, it is time to rejoice once again over Christ’s victory over death and sin and our sharing in the graces of the resurrection.  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 of 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 yet one day 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. That which is “new” will always remain “new” until the very end. Alleluia.