Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Quo vadis?

Third Sunday of Easter Year C

The Fourth Gospel ends with the appearance of the Lord at the Sea of Tiberias where St Peter  is installed by the Lord in his pastoral office. The rest of St Peter’s story, as far as scripture is concerned, is told in the Acts of the Apostles. But even there, St Peter seems to disappear from the pages of recorded history after the ascendance of St Paul who takes the mission of Christ to the Gentiles. What happened to St Peter after this? Many can only speculate. We have a clue in today’s gospel where the Lord predicts Peter’s own ending. Well, where scripture is silent, tradition fills in the blank spaces. According to the apocryphal Acts of Peter, and just like how he abandoned Christ after His arrest, Peter flees from persecution in Rome as he abandons his flock, and along the road outside the city, he meets the risen Lord. In the Latin translation, Peter, shocked to see Jesus in the flesh, asks Him, “Domine, Quo vadis?”(“Lord, where are you going?”) and the Lord replies, “Romam eo iterum crucifigi” (“I am going to Rome to be crucified again.”). Peter, shamed by His master’s answer, then gains the courage to continue his ministry and returns to the city, where he is martyred by being crucified upside-down.

A beautiful and poignant ending to the tale of the Prince of the Apostles and our first pope, but let’s return to our story in today’s gospel. A lot of things seem to be happening before our Lord entrusts this crucial pastoral ministry to St Peter. Everything that precedes this preparatory: failed fishing venture, then the outstanding miraculous catch which would not be possible without the Lord’s intervention, after which Peter swims to the shore to meet the Lord and stands beside Him on the bedrock of eternity, then the simple breakfast that prefigures the Eucharist; prepares us for the final scene where the Lord interrogates Peter and Peter gives his answer. The crucial question, asked not just once but three times. If we cast our minds back, we will remember that we watched Peter deny Christ three times. Here, he makes three professions of love, three confirmations of his faith.

Three times our Lord will pose this question to Peter, “Do you love me?” Although they read the same in English, they are actually different in the original Greek. While the English language has only one word for “love,” there are quite a few in Greek. In this very passage, the Lord uses the verb form of agape in the first two of His three questions and the verb form of philos in the third, while Peter responds with the verb form of philos in all his three replies. What’s happening is this. The Lord firstly asks Peter if he loves Him self-sacrificially “more than these others do.” To paraphrase this, “do you love me more than the Beloved Disciple who stood under the cross there or these other apostles over there, who gave everything to follow me?” Instead of addressing the comparison, Peter answers by claiming his love for Jesus as a friend. After having betrayed Jesus, there was no way that he could claim anything more than that. Jesus then drops the comparison and asks Peter if he simply loves Him self-sacrificially. Peter sticks to his claim of friendly love. With His third question, Jesus drops the level of love down to Peter’s, and there’s a match. Jesus will start working on us with whatever level of love we have for Him, because at the end of the day, as St John so rightly puts it, “Love consists in this: it is not we who loved God, but God loved us and sent His Son to expiate our sins.” (1 John 4:10)

Without this confession of greater love, the Good Shepherd, who gives His life for His sheep, could not entrust His flock to Peter’s pasturing. For the office our Lord has received from the Father is identical with His own loving sacrifice of His life for His sheep. Ever since our Lord bestowed this office on St Peter, this unity of love and office has been unconditionally required. This unity is then sealed by the prediction of Peter’s own passion, his crucifixion, the gift of completed discipleship. Just like the Master, the servant too must lay down his life for his sheep. The cross will be bound up with the papacy from this point onward, even when it is given to unworthy popes. That is the reason why Popes have traditionally worn red shoes. It is hardly a fashion statement as many would sarcastically comment (especially when Pope Benedict restored the tradition). But those red shoes are a reminder that this is the vocation of the one who sits on the Chair of St Peter. He must be willing to give his life-blood for his mission and his sheep, and that blood runs red till it covers even his shoes and the toes of his feet.

It won’t be easy for St Peter to accept this proposal. Let’s be honest, it won’t be easy for anyone of us. We want the frills without paying the cost. We want the prestige and power that comes with the position, but not the responsibilities. We want glory without the cross. Peter will still for a long time stick to his convictions, hopes and dreams of glory. Only after years will he be converted completely and if the tradition regarding his last encounter with the Risen Lord and his death are true, he would finally concede to be taken where he would rather not go.

Leadership has often oscillated between the temptation to accede to popular demands or face the painful prospect of rejection. Anyone can be a leader. Anyone can be equipped with leadership skills and learn the basics of management, communication, conflict resolution, planning and decision making. But the Christian leader is challenged to go further. He must, like St Peter in the First Reading, be ready “to suffer mistreatment for Jesus’ name.” We see a very different Peter in this scene before the Sanhedrin, the High Council of the Jews. He is no longer the cowardly and timid Peter who flees from the scene of the charcoal fire when threatened with discovery. Here he does not run but instead gives one of his most inspiring speeches, “Better for us to obey God than men!” Peter and his brothers refuse to be cowed into silence. Instead “they rejoiced that they had been judged worthy to suffer mistreatment for Jesus’ name.”

Peter and his brothers stand with so many others in the history of the Church. The Church on earth has always known various tribulations, in the likeness of her Lord. She experiences betrayal, calumny, torture and finally martyrdom. Are we shocked and horrified by the hundreds that were killed, maimed and injured in Sri Lanka last Easter? We should be rightly so but let us not forget that the Church takes the same path as her Lord. For her too, it is necessary that she suffer these things, and so enter into her glory. This is the brilliant vision painted in the second reading. As the Church had suffered the fate, mission, and mistreatment of her Master on earth, now she will share in the glory of the Master who reigns supreme in heaven. This is because the Cross can never be separated from the Resurrection.

St Peter will carry the mission entrusted to him by the Lord to Rome eventually. As an old man, he will be girded by the soldiers of Nero, and made to climb. He will be crucified with his feet upward - his own request, being so unlike his Master! His face will be low to the ground: the dust of men! In his heart ... the shore of Galilee, the voice of Christ speaking to him, yesterday, today, and forever. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” And with his dying breath, Peter finally answers, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you. I have fed your sheep.”

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Healing the Wounds through Forgiveness

Second Sunday of Easter Year C

I dislike wearing short khakis. To be honest, I find it embarrassing, not because I’m prudish but because I have ugly scars from a previous motorcycle accident stretching the entire length of the shin on both legs. I guess we all have scars, from the unstitched nicks of childhood to crooked or misshapen noses, to long gouges left on our chests from bypass surgery. Then there are the countless inner wounds; the grief that never quite heals, wrongs done to us or by us that can never be righted, memories that cannot be erased, hurtful words or betrayals that seem to have a direct line to our tear ducts or the recurrent knot in our stomach. Some scars are readily visible; others remain hidden, whether from embarrassment or reticence. A friend once told me that his “tears roll on the inside.” You can’t get through life without scars, inside or outside.

But where do our deepest hurts come from. The popular spiritual author, Henri Nouwen speaks of them emanating from our primary relationships, those persons we love most and who love us most; they too are the ones who hurt us most. Nouwen writes, “that is where we are most loved and most wounded… where our greatest joy and our greatest pain touch each other.” Yes, those who are closest to us are also those who cause us the deepest pain. It is our father, our mother, our brother, our sister, our spouse, our closest friend, our co-worker, our neighbour, a member of our community, our priest, who can hurt us most and be most hurt by us. Christians are not exempted from such hurting. In fact, truth be told, Christians offend and hurt each other with frightening regularity. And we know - far too many Catholics have had painful experiences in the Church, and many have simply opted to walk away.

No wonder, the first few words of the Risen Lord as He appeared to His disciples behind closed doors in the Upper Room, spoke not of freedom from trouble or conflict but rather of forgiveness. Our Lord begins a greeting of peace then quickly commissions His disciples to be messengers of God’s merciful love and forgiveness, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit. For those who sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those who sins you retain, they are retained.”

The gift of the Holy Spirit and the mandate and power to forgive cannot be understood apart from the wounds which our Lord exhibited on His Body. It’s fascinating, then, that when the fourth evangelist tells the story of the Lord’s appearance to His disciples after the resurrection, he tells how our Lord showed them His scars, His wounds. Not once, but twice. The wounds of Christ point us to our personal wounds, to the wounds of our communities, and to a wounded Church in need of peace, forgiveness and reconciliation. Particularly, Christ’s wounds remind us of the unhealed wounds that often weigh heavily on our hearts.

But it is not just individuals who suffer wounds. Because the Church is mystically “Christ’s Body,” how much greater are sins that injure the Church? Since its foundation, Mother Church, the Body of Christ, has been rocked, wounded, and splintered by the sins of its members – heresy, apostasy and schism. But today, toxic behaviour among members of the Body of Christ continue to cause further harm. Such behaviour do not merely injure the reputation or hurt the feelings of another, but often wounds the Church deeply and in fact hinders her from carrying out her mission as a sacrament of salvation to the world. Envy, gossip, back-biting, betrayal, division, factionalism, just to name a few. Instead of attracting others to the Lord, these forms of toxic behaviour are often off-putting as they drive off both potential enquirers, and as well as members of the community who are scandalised by the lack of charity.

Let’s return to the story of our gospel. Most of us have heard a homily about Thomas’ unbelief, and that our faith should not be merely confined to what is visible, “Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Yes, it is about faith. But today I would like to look at this scene a little differently. I want to suggest to you that this story is not just about the faith of Thomas but about the Body of Christ, the Church. You see, many Catholics have no issue with their faith in the Risen Christ, it is their experience with the Church that often shakes their belief and calls into question what they fundamentally hold as true. Let’s face it, most people leave the Church, not because they found her teachings to be false or deficient, but because they had experienced some hurt, pain, or injury at the hand of another within the Body of Christ.

This is true for Thomas. When his brothers told him that they had seen the Risen Lord, his incredulity may have been directed at them. “Can I ever believe the testimony of these cowards, betrayers and deniers?”  He may be thinking that this was some sick April Fools’ Day joke being played on him. If Thomas had doubted, he may have doubted the words of his brothers rather than that of the Lord’s. Hear-say testimony was insufficient to convince him. He needed hard evidence, “Unless I see the holes that the nails made in his hands and can put my finger into the holes they made, and unless I can put my hand into his side, I refuse to believe. 

But, our Lord showed Thomas and the other disciples a different kind of proof – proof of the power of forgiveness. He was that living proof. Here was a man who was not only wounded physically, but most grievously in His heart by the betrayal and denial of those who were dearest and closest to Him, but He forgave them, nevertheless. And this is what He wants of us. He knows how much we’re hurting. He knows and shares our woundedness. To do that, He presents Himself not as an unscathed physician, untouched by the wounds of His patients. But rather, shows Himself to be the wounded healer who heals all wounds and scars through His own wounds. This too must be our ministry and our mission: to forgive those who have hurt us.

Though many of us would wish for a perfectly pristine Church made up of perfect saccharine sweet members who do not hurt each other, this is mere wishful thinking, at least in the here and now. The fact that the Lord still bears His wounds after the Resurrection is a tremendous beacon of hope for the rest of us.  On the face of it, woundedness is not something that inspires hope.  We live in a culture that exalts perfectly shaped bodies and perfectly integrated personalities, and part of me wishes that someday I could get beyond my inner and outer wounds. But this appearance of our Lord to Thomas and the other apostles suggests to me that I’ll always carry my brokenness, or at least the signs of my brokenness, with me, during this life.  More importantly, though our Lord did not promise to give us a Church with perfect members, He offered us something better – the gift of the Holy Spirit and the power and mission to forgive each other’s sins.  There will be no need for forgiveness, if we never hurt or get hurt.

What our Lord asks is not easy. Sometimes we want to forgive, but we cannot seem to let go of our hurt. It can be easier to forgive the sin of a stranger or a non-Christian than a close friend, a relative, or a fellow Christian or your priest, for that matter. That’s because we can expect mistreatment from some strangers and foes. But we expect more from our brothers and sisters in Christ. In the Church, we expect to find honesty, love, and compassion. But instead, we do hurt one another repetitively—more than we like to admit.  We speak carelessly, we forget promises, we fail to offer help in their hour of need, and more. But we must learn to forgive. We need to forgive. We ought to forgive—for our own benefit, for the benefit of our brothers and sisters, and above all because we love and honour Jesus, who first forgave us and gave us this mission, mandate and commandment to forgive. And the Holy Spirit makes all this possible.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Tell us, Mary: say what thou didst see upon the way?

Easter Sunday

If you have been faithfully following and attending the masses of the Easter Triduum, you would realise that a liturgical hymn or two is weaved into each day’s liturgy, complementing the readings with beautiful lyrical poetry expounding profound theology. There is the Thomistic Eucharistic Hymn of Pange Lingua and the beautiful medieval Ubi Caritas on Maundy Thursday, the Stabat Mater for the Stations of the Cross and the Reproaches for the  Good Friday liturgy, and finally the extraordinary chant of the mother of all vigils, the Exultet, which you would have heard last night if you attended the Easter Vigil mass in the Holy Night.

But this morning’s liturgy would not be an anti-climax, in fact the hymn that we’ve just been treated to is to be sung during masses throughout the Octave of Easter, the next eight days of the week till next Sunday. Its Latin name is “Victimae paschali laudes”, which is the incipit (opening words) of the traditional Easter sequence, “Christians, to the Paschal victim”. This plainsong chant hymn provides a dramatic celebration of Christ's victory over death in the context of a dialogue between Mary Magdalene and a narrator.

The hymn or sequence is divided into two parts, the first part speaks of the invisible realities which only faith can perceive. But the second part is hinged on the personal eye-witness testimony of Mary Magdalene. The narrator would asked Mary this question, “Tell us, Mary: say what thou didst see upon the way?” The reason why this question is posed to Mary Magdalene was because she was the first witness of the resurrection. In fact, each of the gospels has Mary Magdalene as the very first to whom the risen Jesus appears, although each describes the circumstances quite differently. Here in the Gospel of St John, both St Peter and the Beloved Disciple having heard the initial report from Mary that the stone which blocked the entrance of the tomb had been rolled away, rushes over only to see an empty tomb, whereas Mary alone stayed around long enough to see the Risen Christ, the account of which is not included in today’s gospel reading but follows hereafter. Her testimony, like the testimonies of so many who saw our Risen Lord in the flesh, and the others confirm the central Christian truth that the resurrection was not a hoax, nor was it a purely spiritual reality. Our Lord did indeed physically rise from the dead – not just a resuscitation from a close encounter with death or feigned death.

But what is the true significance of our Lord’s resurrection? To answer this, we need to go to the first part of the Sequence. 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 a near-death encounter. He truly, really died! But in death, He defeated death by dying and coming back to life by His own power.

So what does the resurrection mean for us today? The Lord’s resurrection proves that once and for all death has been defeated. 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 love and immense goodness. It was the greatest redemptive and restorative act of all history. According to St Melito of Sardis, Christ through His resurrection has “destroyed death, triumphed over the enemy, trampled hell underfoot, bound the strong one, and taken men up to the heights of heaven.”

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 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. 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 that perennial feeling of listlessness, we live in denial of death. When reality does set in, often too late, we come to realise that 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 silence.  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. Whilst we know that one day we will die, we also know that there is life beyond death.  Because of our Lord’s resurrection we can have the promise of forgiveness, and a fresh start with God. 

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, death still stalks all of us and we will have to come to its doors one day. But our situation is no longer hopeless, because we know that death’s power has been diminished by its indisputable defeat at Easter.

Today, in the face of war, famine, dispossession, injustice, the darkness of sin, the loss and death of our loved ones, 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 Christ 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, grace over sin. In God’s new order, distress, sickness, death, displacement, sin and violence will no longer hold sway. They will be replaced by joy, peace, hope, truth and love.

And so we ask Mary Magdalane once again, “Tell us, Mary: say what thou didst see upon the way. And she answers:
“The tomb the Living did enclose;
I saw Christ's glory as He rose!
The angels there attesting;
shroud with grave-clothes resting.
Christ, my hope, has risen:
He goes before you into Galilee.
That Christ is truly risen
from the dead we know.
Victorious King, Thy mercy show! Amen. Alleluia.”