Tuesday, May 17, 2022

If you love Me, keep my word

Sixth Sunday of Easter Year C

I’m really tired of hearing people justify their disobedience to Church teachings and disciplines by saying that they are fundamentally being faithful and obedient to Christ and that they are listening to the Holy Spirit. It’s one thing to disobey and then take responsibility for your actions and decisions; it’s another thing to blame God for it. What they are suggesting is that, either the Church is not being faithful to Christ or obtuse to the promptings of the Spirit OR that Christ gives them an example of dissent and that the Spirit is leading them to “make a mess” of things? Both conclusions are not just faulty but ludicrous.

It’s easy today to justify and believe someone when he tells you that Jesus came to teach us that love is at the heart of our Christian Faith, whereas the Law isn’t. Put it another way, Jesus broke the Law for love. The conclusion is that people who insist on following Church laws are not very loving and in fact, going against the spirit of what our Lord taught. In fact, the Spirit is often cited as the basis of disobedience, that is, disobedience is justified if you are obedient to the Spirit. On the other hand, if you are not bound by those rigid laws meant for narrow-minded people, you are being as loving as Jesus. Sounds right? Well, here’s news for you. Today’s passage shows us how terribly wrong these propositions are.

Our Lord tells us, ‘If anyone loves me he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make our home with him. Those who do not love me do not keep my words.’ Hold on a minute. Did our Lord just say that those who keep the Law actually do love Him whereas those who break His law, in all honesty, don’t?

Yes, that’s what our Lord said exactly. This is because love and obedience go together. The disciple’s personal love for the Lord should lead him to obey His commandments. Love and obedience open the door for God to dwell in the disciple. Disobedience is not evidence of one’s superior love. On the contrary, disobedience is evidence of one’s lack of love for the Lord and proof that one only loves oneself more than anything else, including God. The root of disobedience is not love, it’s pride.

Love is tied to obedience because a discipleship’s relationship to Jesus mirrors Jesus’s own relationship with the Father. Just as the Son loves the Father and obeys His will, so too must the disciple love Jesus and obey His will, which is the same as the Father’s will. To claim otherwise would be a blatant lie.

So, the next time you hear someone say that Jesus came to show us an example of being loving, believe him. But if he were to say that Jesus is the model of disobedience, the exemplary model of someone who breaks the law, call him out as a liar. We are not here to rewrite the gospel so that it can become more palatable to the masses. Our Lord said many things, but that’s one thing He never said and will never say.

What about the Holy Spirit? Today, we are introduced to the Third Person of the Most Holy Trinity, the Advocate. We will be hearing more about Him in the coming weeks leading up to Pentecost. Most people often associate the Holy Spirit with unbridled freedom, “the Spirit blows where it wills.” It is no wonder, that the Spirit is often cited as the justification for disobedience, freedom from regimented structures and protocols and rigid rules. It must be clear that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Father and the Son. He is sent by the Father to teach us and remind us of what our Lord has taught. He is not a spirit of innovation, to constantly teach new things in contradiction with what the Lord has taught.

Secondly, He is the Spirit which bequeaths peace. He is not a spirit which causes confusion and conflict between the members of the Body of Christ. In fact, those who cause dissension within the Church work against the mission of the Spirit and are motivated by the spirit of the world and their own pride. So, don’t push the blame on the Spirit. The Spirit helps us to love the Lord by keeping His commandments, not by breaking them. The Spirit builds and strengthens the visible bonds of communion – of belief, of worship and submission to apostolic hierarchy – and not by causing division and schism within the Church.

The first reading gives us an example of a controversy arising in the early Church which was officially resolved in the council of Jerusalem by a consensus of the apostles and elders. St Luke, the author of Acts, specifically, writes that it is not just the decision of men, but “it has been decided by the Holy Spirit.” This story provides us with a model of community discernment and decision-making: in the awareness of the Spirit, the leaders heard the facts of the case, listened to the opinions on both sides of the question put forward by experienced leaders, and then made their decision in the Spirit. Both the human and the spiritual dimension were not neglected.

Today, we acknowledge that it is easy to walk away from a discussion and take matters into our own hands, when our opinions and ideas are not accepted. We may even justify our actions by calling it fidelity to Christ and the Spirit. But the truth is that, it is pride which often makes us take our own path, no matter how well-thought out we may imagine this path to be. At the end of the day, it is not about the agenda of the leadership or that of the larger community or ours. It is about the agenda of the Lord. Our Lord has made several promises to us. He is not a liar. He is not a propagandist, He does not have any political agenda to push. The only agenda He has is the salvation of souls, our souls. He is only concerned with the Truth and the Truth is that obedience, to the Father’s will and to His commandments, is the only sure path to salvation. The bottom line is this, if you profess to love the Lord, keep His commandments.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Love one another

Fifth Sunday of Easter Year C

The 4th-century Father of the Church who has left us with the Latin translation of the Bible and commentaries on almost every book in the Bible, St Jerome, tells a story about the Apostle and evangelist St John. Having been the only apostle to be spared martyrdom, St John lived to a ripe old age. According to St Jerome, John, when he was old and frail and unable to walk, had to be carried by his disciples into the Christian assembly on the Lord’s Day. Every week, when asked to impart his wisdom onto the community, these were the same words he repeated to his congregation: “Little children, love one another.”

This went on week after week, until at last, more than a little weary of these repeated words, his disciples asked him, “Master, why do you always say this?” “Because,” John replied, “it is the Lord’s command, and if this only is done, it is enough.”

To say that this commandment is “enough” or sufficient may seem strange. The new commandment to “love one another,” seems overly horizontal and humanly limited. Our Lord must have known of the great commandment, quoted in the Synoptic Gospels, which is to love God and to love neighbour, and you can’t have one without the other. In fact, the Lord says, this love of God and others sums up everything else God commands. All Scripture hangs like a seamless coat on this single hook: love God by loving others.

For this reason, many Christians would believe that the commandment to just “love one another” seems too naively pedestrian and insufficient. It places too much responsibility on our moral strength and we could easily fail and collapse under the weight of its demands. The reason for thinking like this is that, we often equate this love with something wishy-washy. Just loving one another is too simplistic, too impractical. The world is far too complicated for mere human love, especially once we get beyond the one-on-one relationships.

I think much of the problem is that we don’t really know the love that Jesus taught, the love that Jesus lived. Many imagine this love to be mere tolerance. They imagine “love one another” to mean “live and let live,” a sort of “Whatever rocks your boat, as long as you let me rock mine.” Tolerance has led to moral relativism and this has devolved into normalisation of immoral behaviour - sodomy, adultery, multiple sexual partners, incest and even paedophilia. The tragic irony is that the tagline “love wins”, has come to be used so frequently to justify these abnormal sexual aberrations; and those who uphold traditional monogamous marriages and chaste relationships are labelled bigoted and judgmental.

Others imagine this love to be a kind of affection, good feelings toward others. “Love one another,” then, means “Get rid of all that negativity—good vibes for everyone!” Still others imagine this love to be basic decency. “Be nice to each other, use your manners, be polite”—this is what “Love one another” means, or so people claim.

Now there’s nothing wrong with tolerance, or affection, or basic decency. In fact, these are the bare minimum for being human together. They’re bottom-line attitudes and behaviour for a functioning human society. But these, in themselves, are not the love that our Lord taught, the love He lived. His love transcends mere feelings of affection, and it’s exponentially harder than simple kindness or even basic tolerance. People don’t get crucified for being nice.

So, what is this love that the Lord says is the be-all and end-all of human living? This is a kind of love, in the words of Pope Benedict, is a love that “seeks the good of the beloved…ready, and even willing, for sacrifice.” Love is giving one’s very self freely to and for the other, even when it hurts the giver. This is the love the Lord taught. This is the love He lived, all the way to the cross. Make no mistake: there’s nothing wishy-washy or mushy about this love.

What the world calls love today, is a counterfeit of love. What passes as love today, is another euphemism for sin. But the truth is that sin has nothing to do with love. In fact, sin is the exact opposite of authentic love. True love is in no way soft on sin—but it can turn our “sin lists” upside down. In a world of authentic fraternal love, then, sin and evil still exist—if anything they are even sharper, more pungent. In a world of authentic fraternal love, sin and evil are things to be actively resisted, even if this means you getting cancelled. In a world of authentic fraternal love, your own personal sins are for you to repent of, others’ personal sins are for you to forgive, and the world’s public sins are for you to resist.

So, we must be like the missionaries St Paul and St Barnabas in the first reading – we must never tire of putting “fresh heart into the disciples, encouraging them to persevere in the faith.” Love compels us Christians to preach the Good News in and out of season, even when it is unpopular to do so. We do so by reminding each other of the words of our Lord's commands: "Love one another" as our Lord has loved us. Seems simple enough but you and I know how challenging it is to live out the demands of love, which call us to not only pay lip service but sacrifice for the one whom we profess to love. So, love one another as how the Lord has loved us, "because it is the Lord's command, and if this only is done, it is enough." 

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

The Shepherd who is a Lamb

Fourth Sunday of Easter Year C (Good Shepherd Sunday)

Frandishek Gasovnachek may not be a name which rings a bell for most people. He was one of the few lucky Jews who survived the infamous death camp of the Nazis in Auschwitz, Poland. The surviving inmates of those gruesome camps were finally liberated by the Allied forces in 1941. Every day Gasovnachek lived after 1941, he lived with the knowledge, "I live because someone died for me." Every year on August 14, he travelled to Auschwitz in memory of the man who took his place. We know that man as the Franciscan priest, St Maximilian Kolbe. This holy priest, a shepherd of souls, gave up his life to save Gasovnachek.

Similarly, this is what we must affirm every day of our lives: “I live because someone died for me.” It is Jesus the Good Shepherd who died for me. He is the Shepherd who sacrifices His life so that His sheep may live. Ordinarily, the shepherd’s calling was not to die for the sheep but to live for the sheep. In fact, when his own life was threatened, the shepherd may even be prepared to sacrifice one of his wards to escape the jaws of death. The life of the sheep was dispensable but not that of the shepherd. But our Lord Jesus’ charge was different and unique. He is the One who “lays down His life for the sheep” (John 10:11). His blood is spilt for the forgiveness of our sins. He sacrificed His own life so that His sheep may live.

The secret of this Shepherd’s willingness to die for His sheep is to be found in the second reading. The Book of the Apocalypse tells us that this Shepherd is also a lamb that has been sacrificed. We often fail to recognise the theological profundity of this switch. The Shepherd becomes one of the sheep whom He leads, the Creator chooses to become one of His creatures, God becomes man. And it is in this form which He chooses to save humanity.

And this is no ordinary lamb or cute cuddly pet which He becomes. This is a special type of lamb which is meant to be offered at the Temple as a sin offering. It is interesting that this discourse on the Good Shepherd takes place within the Temple where animal holocausts were offered to atone for the sins of the petitioners. The mystery of the atonement is that Jesus uses the sacrificial system to defeat the sacrificial system. He lets Himself be a victim but He goes willingly, thereby showing humanity that the sacrifice system is powerless. Thus, we are saved through the one sacrifice which alone can atone for our sins, the sacrifice of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world; the Lamb who is also a Shepherd.

This incredible transformation takes place on the cross. It would appear that on the cross, life is taken, victory is defeated, God is crucified. But our Lord did not stay on the cross. God died, but He rose again. The devil did not have the final say. Loss was thwarted. Victory reigned. The Lamb that was slain became the Shepherd again. The Book of the Apocalypse provides us with this amazing vision that the slain Lamb rules again, arrayed in glory and surrounded by His subjects who had also followed His path of sacrificing their lives, washing themselves in His blood, and now share in His glory. That's the message of Easter.

We also see how this beautiful title which we accord to Jesus has two sides to it. It does not only acknowledge with the Psalmist in Psalm 23 that “the Lord is my shepherd,” but also acknowledges as in today’s Psalm 99, that “we are His people, the sheep of His flock.” Notice the symbiotic relationship between the sheep and their shepherd. The shepherd lived and died for his sheep, likewise the sheep must do so for the shepherd. This relationship is marked by certain essential characteristics.

Our Lord makes it very clear that the first identifying mark of His sheep is that, they hear His voice. “Hearing” is not merely auditory perception in scriptures but a spiritual understanding that responds in faith. “The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life; they will never be lost and no one will ever steal them from me..” On the other hand, those who are not His sheep do not believe, they do not listen to His voice. One cannot claim to be a sheep that belongs to the Lord if one refuses to obey and submit to His authority.

But, it is not enough that the Lord’s sheep should “listen” to His voice. He also calls them to follow, wherever He lovingly leads them. The mark of true disciples is that they follow their shepherd. This theme is sounded in the call of the very first Apostles. He said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matt. 4:19). Our Lord also emphasised that “if anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Luke 9:23). We begin to see that the cross is not just something which the Good Shepherd embraced for the sake of His sheep but also something which the sheep must be willing to accept, if they truly wish to belong to Him. Where the Shepherd goes, the sheep must follow.

It is here that we come to realise that being a sheep of the Good Shepherd is no benign image exuding cuteness and cuddliness. Rather, it carries a highly subversive connotation which may end in rejection, alienation and persecution from those who oppose the Shepherd. Some have the privilege of being called to die, as testimony of their faith or love for others, as in the case of St Maximilian Kolbe, while others are called to take the unpopular path of swimming against the mainstream current which is anti-Christian. St John Vianney once said, “Do not try to please everybody. Try to please God, the angels, and the saints—they are your public.” And often when we choose to please God, we end up displeasing others. But Christians are not called to be popular. We are called to be faithful.

Easter is about life that died to live again. It's about victory succumbing to defeat, only to be victorious again. It's about a God who left heaven to live on earth, to return to heaven again. It's about the Shepherd, who became a Lamb who became a Shepherd again. So, this is what we celebrate today, not just a Shepherd who guides and cares for His sheep, or gazes softly at us as if we were little teddy bears and cuddly lambs, but the One who became the sacrificial Lamb that took away our sins by dying for us in our place. He becomes the victim for all of us. And if we profess to be His sheep, then we must listen only to His voice in the midst of the confusion caused by a cacophony of worldly voices, and follow Him alone who can give us Eternal Life.

“Eternal Shepherd, thou art wont
To cleanse Thy sheep within the font,
That mystic bath, that grave of sin,
Where ransomed souls new life begin.”
(5th century Hymn used at Vespers, Eastertide)

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Memory and Healing

Third Sunday of Easter Year C

It’s strange but also true, that the most painful memories are usually the ones that stick, no matter how much you try to forget them. It's so hard to forget pain, but it's even harder to remember sweetness. We have no scars to show for happiness.

In today’s Gospel passage, we see both the memory of St Peter and the memory of the reader being invoked. But it is not just mere sentimentality that is being stirred here. Such memory is needed to understand the progression in Peter’s spiritual journey. On the eve of his Master’s death, Peter descends a path that almost leads to his destruction, a cause of great shame and guilt, a memory that he would rather choose to forget. And yet, our Lord does not wish for him to forget. This is so because our Lord does not wish to give up on him. Through the use of memory, our Lord begins the slow process of rehabilitation and restoration.

Chapter twenty-one of the Fourth Gospel seems like a strange addendum since the evangelist appears to have signed off at the end of Chapter twenty. This chapter begins with Peter going out to fish with some of the other apostles. His motivation is uncertain. By going back to his pre-disciple profession and way of life, is he trying to erase the memory of the years he had followed the Lord? Whatever may be the reason for this decision, it ends in futility. They fish all night and catch nothing, and then our Lord appears in the early morning on the shore and tells them to cast the net on the other side, and they take in a miraculous catch. The entire scene could only be described as déjà vu, at least it should for Peter. The same scenario had happened before. All this hearkens back to Peter’s original call to follow Jesus in the Gospel of St Luke, when at first he had said “depart from me for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). But there is a difference on this second occasion. At the beginning of his vocation, Peter wanted to flee from the Lord out of fear, but now, he longs to be united with Christ out of love.

If the first part of the story is an invitation to recall his initial vocation, the second part of the story recalls and recapitulates Peter’s greatest failure and disillusionment. Right at the very centre of today’s lengthy gospel story is the poignant scene of Jesus sitting on the shore cooking and warming Himself beside a charcoal fire. Even if you are not a student of Biblical Greek, you may be interested to note that the word used for that charcoal fire, anthrakia, only appears here and in another place in John’s Gospel; John 18:18. This other scene takes place in the courtyard of the High Priest, precisely at the point where Peter denied Jesus.

The fire evokes once again the scene of denial, the scene where Peter once stood by the fire and said, “I am not his disciple.” The past comes rushing back. Perhaps we can even imagine hearing the cock crowing. On the one hand, we see a Peter who is courageous and bold - he wants to be near his Lord in His hour of need. But Peter is terrified, also. He is in danger and knows it. And as he sits near the fire, Peter's courage gives way to fear. Now, our Lord provides Peter with another opportunity. Three times Peter had denied Christ from fear near a charcoal fire; three times he must profess Him in love near a charcoal fire, and three times will our Lord confer a new pastoral ministry on Peter. All of this is untying the knots by which Peter had bound his own soul. Wounded memories are dug up in order to be healed.

So, this dramatic scene turns out to be a story of memory and restoration. Confronting the Risen Jesus is not easy, especially for those who have betrayed Him. Standing in the light of the charcoal fire, Peter must first remember his failure and then own it. For Peter to move forward, his past must be assimilated with the present, to prepare him for the future. Peter had to recall both life-defining joyful moments as well as painful ones of failure and defeat, to be reborn in the light and new fire of the resurrection faith. He had to recall, to be recalled for duty. There is no other way.

Our faith, our Sacramental celebrations, the call to holiness and perfection are built on the foundation of our ability to remember. That is why the greatest affront to our faith, is the assault on our ability to remember. Modernists, who only believe in the efficacy of modern ideas and innovation, will claim that our history and traditions are antiquated and that these need to be abandoned, if we are to make any progress. They wish to erase the past in order to rewrite the future. Today, the liturgy, the Church’s sacred doctrines and even Sacred Tradition itself, are under assault. If the Church and her members lose the ability to remember, we will lose sight of the fundamental essence of our faith and mission.

What many modern people fail to acknowledge is that our humanity is defined and enhanced by our capacity to form and then transmit personal memories. I've learned over the years that guilt is one of the hardest things to bear. That may be the reason why we deliberately choose to suppress memories. By forgetting, we attempt to banish the guilt that comes with that memory to the dark recesses of the mind. But guilt itself cannot help us conquer sin. Guilt is the burglar alarm of our conscience, and while it can ring incessantly, it cannot heal. We cannot be healed, if we are unable to remember. Notice, how mistakes are often repeated when we do not learn from our history. Only the love of Jesus for us and our love for Jesus, can heal us. And He can only heal us when we are prepared to remember. This is what St John meant when he said, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear …” (1 John 4:18)

And so, we are invited to gaze deeply into the flames – we see in the flames not only a reflexion of our worst failures but also, the future path of our redemption. Though tempted to look away, we must return our gaze to the fire that burns brightly before us. The fire may reveal the dross hidden in our hearts, but the fire also dispels the darkness of the night. In the burning flames of God’s love, we recognise both the wounds caused by our sinfulness, and the healing offered by Christ. As we look into the flames, we see our Lord looking back at us. In the flames, in the memories of our past faults and failures, we see Him forgiving our offenses, taking our penalty, healing our wounded souls, and restoring us to communion with God. In the flames, we will discover our healing, at the hands of Jesus.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Peace be with you

Second Sunday of Easter Year C (Divine Mercy Sunday)

Last week’s Gospel began with Mary Magdalene heading towards the tomb of Christ early in the morning on the first day of the week, “while it was still dark.” Nothing much has changed in a week. In fact, our Gospel for today seems to have been caught in a time loop. We are still on that “same day, the first day of the week.” Our liturgical perception of time during the season of Easter may have something to do with this. Eastertide may be made up of 50 days from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday, but we have traditionally called this whole season “the great Sunday" as if it was a single event and a single day.

But it is not just the day which counts. It is now evening and darkness has descended on the whole city of Jerusalem and its surroundings. The imagery of darkness serves as a theological inclusion and conclusion for the events on Easter Sunday. The day begins in darkness and ends in darkness. The Light of the World has emerged in an everlasting dawn, but the world remains clueless and in the dark. The darkness signifies the absence of Christ and their own hopelessness. Despite news of the empty tomb and rumours of possible sightings of the Risen Lord, the disciples remained terrified of the authorities and the mob, and made sure the doors were closed, locked and secured.

Our Lord had already assured His disciples of His return: “I will come back to you” (John 14:28) and “you will see me” (John 16:16). But His seemingly tragic death seems to have erase any memory of these promises. Our Lord now fulfils these promises as He “came and stood among them.” The locked doors didn’t stop Jesus. Nothing could. Not the gates of Hades, nor the stone which enclosed the tomb and certainly not the four walls and shuttered windows and doors of the upper room.

Our Lord came and stood with them. He greeted them with a peace that only He alone could give and then, He gave them their mission: “As the Father sent me,” He said to them, “so am I sending you.” What did that mean? Our Lord is drawing His disciples into His own mission. Our Lord has spoken of Himself as the envoy of the Father, who has been sent to reveal the mystery of the Father and accomplish His saving work. Now, our Lord draws them into the circle - the Church’s mission is an extension of the work of the Father and the Son in the world. It is a mission of expiation of sin and reconciliation. They are not to remain trapped in that room. This is what happens when the Lord breathes His Spirit upon them while saying: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” This is John’s presentation of the Pentecost. By incorporating the disciples into His own mission, our Lord also gives them the authority to take away people’s sins, just as He is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

But the story does not end there. There is a missing link - Thomas. The next week, the disciples were in the same room, locked-in once more. Thomas hadn’t been there the first time. He alone had the courage to step outside that room. But his sense of great loss had impacted his faith which remained trapped in self-doubt and confusion. He had spent the week telling the others he’d never believe it until the Lord showed up and proved it was really Him. And so, at the end of the week, our Lord came again, and invited Thomas to touch and see the wounds in His hands and His side: the scars which proved His identity, the wounds that revealed His love.

If this story seems to be exclusively about the Eleven till this point, there is no doubt that what the Lord says next, is meant for all of us: “Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.” This beatitude moves our attention to later generations of Christians, including us who are reading this story. We may not have encountered the Lord in the same way as the Eleven Apostles, we may not have seen Him first-hand but that does not make our faith in the Risen Lord any less genuine or valuable. Some come to believe in the Lord by seeing Him and by being able to touch Him. Others come to faith by listening to the Gospel. This is what St John intended as he wrote these closing words: “These are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing this you may have life through his name.”

Two thousand years have passed since that first Easter, but we are still united with the characters who were present at the tomb and in the upper room. This is because Easter is a promise and foretaste of eternity, of fullness of life that never ends. Ironically, we also seem to struggle with feelings of befuddlement and confusion, grappling with the experience of the seeming absence of God, especially during the long dark spiritual winter of this pandemic, just as the early Christians attempted to make sense of the empty tomb. Many of us are like the disciples in today’s Gospel, locked behind closed doors, initially because we were forced to do so by the authorities and their public health mandates but subsequently, it became a matter of personal choice, crippled by the fear of the dreaded enemy that could kill us or our loved ones. Although the lockdowns have now ended, many have continued to observe self-imposed quarantines.

During the height of this pandemic when our Churches were shuttered, Catholics could only hope to be sustained through spiritual communion and by tuning in on one among a vast array of online Masses. But virtual Mass is not an adequate substitute, given the incarnate nature of our faith: the real matter of the sacraments we receive, the sacramentality of our church buildings, and the faces of the people of God. We are an embodied people with an embodied faith, and God desires to feed us with the Eucharist, the physical Bread of Life. That reality can’t be replicated through a screen. Both Thomas and our Lord understood this and that explains the reason for Thomas’ demand to touch, and our Lord’s offer to be touched. For Thomas, seeing and touching the Lord in the flesh beats hearing about it virtually.

Today, our Lord declares once again to all: “Peace be with you.” With these words, our Lord is reminding us that there is no room for fear, distress, or self-pity for a community of believers in the Resurrection. Our Churches are reopened and our doors unlocked. It is now time for you to reopen the doors of your heart and believe once again, in the power of the Risen Lord. The dangers and risks of this virus has not magically disappeared, although with vaccinations and therapeutics, things have become more manageable. But again, life is fraught with dangers and risks. Faith is not throwing caution to the wind but helps us resist throwing in the towel to our fears. If you are willing to take this challenge, you would soon discover the wonders which the Resurrection can reveal to you. The Resurrection unmasks evil, heals broken hearts, vanquishes fear, and ignites a contagious hope that fills human hearts in the midst of adversities, sufferings, natural disasters, and pandemics. It bestows a strength that is far beyond the contingencies and consequences of any war, pestilence, tsunami, or any other natural or biological threat to the human family. Believe in His promise: “Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

Thursday, April 14, 2022

The Resurrection is no hoax

Easter Sunday 2022

One of the terms that has come back into vogue and has made its way into political vocabulary of late, is “gaslighting.” Gaslighting involves the perpetrator trying to convince the target (the one being gaslighted) that what he perceives is not actual reality. By convincing the target to doubt himself / herself, the gaslighter gains power through distortion, lies, and misinformation. Soon the target may come to depend on the gaslighter for “truth”, since the target no longer trusts his own senses, perceptions, or even basic reasoning ability. That’s basically the premise of the 40s movie “Gaslight” which gave rise to this term.

It may be argued by many, especially critics of Christianity, that the Church has been gaslighting her members and the world, with the story of the resurrection and the explanation behind the empty tomb. Since the empty tomb raises more questions than it can provide answers, these critics argue that the Church has jumped on this opportunity to manipulate the truth about Jesus Christ, in order to exert mind-control over her members and perpetuate the biggest gaslighting lie for centuries.

Yes, there was gaslighting involved surrounding the events that took place at Easter, but not in the way that the critics of Christianity would imagine. First, the enemies of Jesus who wanted to suppress the movement He had built during His lifetime, had decided to spread rumours and even concoct fake news that the body of Jesus had been stolen by His own disciples, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. Second, Mary Magdalene sought to gaslight, albeit unintentionally, the rest of the disciples by declaring: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb … and we don’t know where they have put him.” Thirdly, the followers of our Lord, including the women, had gaslit themselves into believing that our Lord was truly dead. Despite what He had told them, to prepare them for this moment, and despite them seeing the empty tomb and the burial clothes left behind (now why would the body snatchers take the body but leave behind the embalming clothes), their minds were firmly locked in this conclusion that the Lord had truly died and that His cause had come to a definite end.

And yet, the empty tomb and the discarded burial clothes stand as bulwarks against this myriad display of gaslighting, thus refusing to allow the truth of the resurrection to be buried. They demand an explanation. They cast doubts on the various theories and rumours surrounding this event. They cast doubts on the doubts of all, who were trying to grapple with the mystery of the empty tomb. What could have happened? What does this mean?

Though there was no breakthrough for Mary Magdala and Peter, at this stage at least, a chink can be seen in the doubting shield of the beloved disciple. He alone “saw and he believed.” What was the nature and level of this belief? We are not told. But perhaps we can speculate that he has begun to doubt his own doubts and preconceived notions. He alone began to see something within the darkness of the empty tomb. For others, the empty tomb was just a mystery to be solved or a cul de sac with no way through.

But in truth, the empty tomb had its own reality to reveal. For some, the empty tomb was a source of disappointment. But for us believing Christians, the empty tomb is the sign par excellence of our hope and the path to life. The empty tomb is the irrefutable proof of God’s victory over death and sin. Here is the irony: when He was present and alive, His own disciples did not grasp His true identity. But now, after His death and in His physical absence in the empty tomb, they finally begin to make sense of all His words and deeds.

So, when the Risen Lord finally appeared to them, it changed everything. That is: His rising blew it all up. The gaslighting was finally exposed for what it is - a lie. The Light got in and everything was exposed. There was no going back. There is no longer any need to keep speculating and asking, “What happened?” We only need to ask, “What now?” Everything they had experienced, seen, and learned in the years, months, weeks, days, and hours leading up to our Lord’s arrest, torture, trial, and crucifixion was thrown into stark relief once He appeared to them post-death, very much Alive. And this transformed them, utterly. Borrowing another expression from pop-culture, they were finally “red-pilled.”

The objections to the Resurrection are not based on the evidence, and in this sense, they are the real attempts at gaslighting. Remember that famous aphorism: “the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence”? Not being able to produce archaeological evidence of the corpse or remains of Christ is no proof that He did not exist, nor can it disprove that He rose from the dead. In fact, the absence of the corpse, may be one of the biggest proofs that our Lord did rise from the dead. To believe in the resurrected Christ is a very reasonable faith. To deny the Resurrection, one must either stick his head in the sand or take a blind leap into the dark. It’s like standing before a mob-wrecked burning building and exclaim: “mostly peaceful.”

In the days and weeks and years and centuries that followed, most of the Twelve apostles and thousands of Christians were martyred when the gaslighting by the State wasn’t enough to suppress this truth. They became victims of the same cowardly State that killed God, and they went to their deaths fearlessly preaching the Resurrection. Propagating this new faith, even in the most inoffensive and peaceful manner, garnered contempt, opposition and cruel deaths. Yet, this faith they zealously did propagate, and all these miseries they endured undismayed, nay rejoicing. As one after another was put to a miserable death, the survivors only continued their work with increased vigour and resolution proclaiming their Easter faith: Christ has Risen! He is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

So we must remember: our Lord’s Resurrection isn’t just an invitation to celebrate by throwing Easter parties for kids with Easter eggs. It is an invitation to uphold the dangerous and subversive truth of our faith against a legion of forces that wish to suppress that truth by gaslighting and by any other means. From the time of the Resurrection and even until now, the world is full of stories that cast doubts upon the power of God’s love. In a world that is sealed in tombs by false stories about Jesus and His love for us, we are sent to speak the truth that will set those around us free, so that they too can “follow the path to life” and rejoice in the fullness of joy, in the presence of Risen Love.

Our faith in the Resurrection may sometimes feel daunting and our testimony at times even be weak and terrifying. But it is, nevertheless, an electrifying call to rally against the powers of death which cannot beat God but will not ever stop trying. No matter what the world throws at us, no matter how much the world seeks to bury the truth and attempt to gaslight us and convince us that we are deluded, we will stand confidently and courageously with the Lord as we proclaim with Christians of past centuries: Christ has Risen! He is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

Firstborn of the New Creation

Easter Vigil in the Holy Night 2022

Today we conclude this shortest and yet most intense and sacred time in our Church’s liturgical calendar - the Paschal Triduum. And though it may seem to be an ending, it is actually a beginning of many things. This should not surprise us as we had affirmed at the start of tonight’s liturgy, that Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and end of all things. Beginnings and endings are not two realities but one in Christ. As T. S. Eliot poignantly writes: “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time” (The Four Quartets, “Little Gidding”).

Everything about this vigil’s liturgy, “the mother of all vigils,” speaks of beginnings and endings, which takes us on a journey from birth to rebirth, from creation to re-creation, from darkness to light, from death to life. From the blessing and procession of the Paschal candle, the singing of the Easter proclamation to our marathon set of readings, we are pulled into this journey of transformation, not as mere spectators but as participants. Our Gospel begins with these words: “on the first day of the week, at the first sign of dawn…” This is an extraordinary text – so subtle and sophisticated. But it begs the question: what does it mean? The answer is found at the beginning, in the first reading. We are, therefore, asked to contrast the first line of our Gospel passage with the first line of our first reading from Genesis, the very beginning of our story of salvation: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

The first day of the week mentioned in the Gospel, corresponds to the first day of creation in Genesis; and the rays of the dawning sun matches the first act of creation, where God created light out of darkness. Tonight’s liturgy, which began in darkness is also shattered by the light of the Paschal candle.

John’s recapitulation of the creation narrative goes on. In Genesis, God creates the first human being, the first man, but at Easter, our Lord Jesus emerges from the womb of the tomb to be the firstborn of the new creation.

God created all things, including man, and when He was finished, He looked at all He had made, and declared that it was “very good.” His original creation, however, was sullied and damaged. Once Adam chose to go against God’s Will, sin entered God’s created world, and sickness, decay, and death were introduced to humanity. God’s creation has suffered sin’s effects ever since.

Fast-forward to the time of Jesus’ life on earth. God the Son, the Word of God, entered humanity as a child born of Mary, without a human father. He was fully God and fully man. His mission was to defeat the sin and death which had entered humanity through Adam. This second Adam lived a sinless life, was condemned and executed as a criminal, and was buried in a tomb. Three days later, He rose from the dead! He was resurrected! His resurrection was the first phase of God’s new creation. God created a new kind of human existence—a human body which was raised from the dead and transformed by the power of God into a body that is no longer affected by death, decay, and corruption. Pope Emeritus Benedict described the resurrection of Christ as “something akin to a radical evolutionary leap, in which a new dimension of life emerges, a new dimension of human existence. Indeed, matter itself is remoulded into a new type of reality. The man Jesus, complete with His body, now belongs totally to the sphere of the divine and eternal.”

But then, there is the second phase in God’s plan of recreation. As Christians and as part of God’s new creation through our baptism, we can look forward to the time when, upon Christ’s return, He will raise our bodies from the dead! We will receive resurrected bodies like His. Our bodies will not have the weaknesses they have now but will have the full power the human body was meant to have. In these resurrected bodies, we will clearly see humanity as God intended it to be.

God’s new creation will not end with the resurrection of our bodies but goes beyond that. The third phase will involve all of creation being renewed as well. When Adam sinned, God cursed the ground. The world was no longer the sublime place God made it to be. Sin changed that. But because of Christ’s death and resurrection, His victory over sin and death, God will renew the entire world - He will remake it into “a new heaven and a new earth.”

The new creation which we speak of, is not just some static and unchanging reality. As part of the new creation, God’s Spirit is regularly renewing us, changing us, helping us to put on the mind of Christ. Dear Catechumens, today is not the end of your journey. It is not graduation day. It is an ending of a period of preparation, but this is only a beginning. As you allow the Holy Spirit to guide you, you will continually grow and mature in your spiritual lives in order that you may be renewed and become more Christlike.

Each year, we recapitulate this Easter story and each year it recreates us. It returns us to the ground of our being. We are asked to die to ourselves so that we may be reborn in Christ. And though we may sometimes feel as if we are caught up in a maelstrom with our world spinning out of control, remember this: the forces of chaos and death did not triumph over Jesus and His community. On the contrary, it is Christ who emerged the clear victor. And because of this, we are given the chance to start over. Every Easter, we are reminded that we can bring all that befalls us to be reintegrated, redeemed, and recreated as we bring it back to our living source: Christ yesterday and today, the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega; All time belongs to Him and all the ages, to Him be glory and power, through every age and for ever. Amen.