Tuesday, March 31, 2015

He Loved Them to the End

Maundy Thursday 2015

The English have an expression, “love you to bits!” It’s a hyperbole that expresses the extremes of one’s love. There’s no general agreement on its etymology. Some would say that it literally refers to the person experiencing the fullness of the emotion to the point of exploding into small pieces. Interesting though dramatic! On a more positive note, there would be others who would suggest that loving someone to bits means that you love them so much that loving them in their entirety is not enough, you need more to love and therefore start breaking them down into many bits and pieces so you can devote your love to each piece individually thus increasing the focus and passion. I guess that both explanations may be inadequate to express fully the profound depth of such kind of love. But then again in any language love makes little sense to any of us.

I guess that more often than not the emphasis is not placed on loving the other to bits but the provisional “but” that sits at the end of the statement.  
“I love him to bits BUT I’m not sure if I’m ready to get married.”
“I love my sister to bits BUT at the moment she’s being a complete nightmare!”
“I loved Christ to bits… BUT the cross is just too much to bear.”
But if you love someone, shouldn’t it be unconditional? No questions, no buts. When we say “I love you”, it should just mean that. Saying that you love someone to bits but then add a “but” at the end is like saying that you love them BUT …

Today Jesus confesses and displays to his disciples and by extension to all of us, a profound love, an unconditional love, a love without BUT’s! The story of the washing of feet at the Last Supper in today’s gospel is prefaced by St John’s poignant note regarding Jesus’ love, “He had always loved those who were his in the world, but now he showed how perfect his love was,” or in some translations, “he loved them to the end.” In the case of Jesus’ love of his disciples and all of us, it was not just loving them to bits (and pieces) but loving them to the end!

He showed how perfect his love was. He loved them to the end. This simple statement is loaded with significance. “To love to the end” is to love freely, without reserve or limit, and without flaw or failure. This is love in its essence, love in its consummate blossom and fruit, love in its ultimate and final perfection. It is love to the uttermost, to the fullest extent, to the extent of enduring the suffering and death on the Cross.

Loving to the end reveals the depth of Christ’s love for us. We know the depth of someone’s love for us by what it costs him. In the case of Christ, it will cost him His life. Though the disciples gave upon on Him, He never gave up on them. Though they stopped thinking about Him, and were only thinking of themselves, He never stopped thinking of them. That is the first thing about this love. It is not offended by our failures. He does not withdraw His love because we make mistakes. We may often disappoint Him, we may often fail Him, we may often grieve His heart, but He goes on loving us. He loves us unto the uttermost, right to the very end.

But to love someone “to the end” doesn’t only mean to the end of one’s life. In the case of Jesus it points to a love that will never end. Jesus will never stop loving His own. It isn’t a love that comes and goes, that is here today and gone tomorrow. “To the end” means a love that reaches to the fullest extent, that goes beyond any human norm of sacrifice or standard of giving. Loving “to the end” would mean the Jesus was prepared to pour out the cup of his life as a libation for the atonement of our sins. Loving us to the end would mean that not even death would be able to rob us of this great gift. On Easter, we will see love’s victory over death and sin.

This, then, is the theme of John's portrayal of the last supper. It is a love (agape) feast in which Jesus exemplifies the sacrificial love he expects from his disciples in his washing of their feet. He sets for them a pattern of service, of humility, of bearing the burdens of another. At the cross he will institute a new Christian family by commanding two persons not related by blood (his mother and the beloved disciple) to care for each and relate as family because of their bond through him. On this night, he commands that those who would be his followers to serve each other for his sake.

And that is why on the night when he was betrayed, on the night before he was led to Calvary, Christ reveals to us the furthest extent of his love for us. Tomorrow, he does this by ascending the throne of the cross, but today he gives us an example and a new commandment to do likewise. “I give you a new commandment: love one another just as I have loved you.” The commandment isn’t new; but the extent of love, the standard of love is new. Jesus did not replace or change the commandment, “Love your neighbour, as you love yourself.” Rather, he filled it out and gave it the best illustration ever – not just by washing the feet of his disciples, but more importantly by “loving them to the end”, even to dying on the cross. The model of true love is Jesus Christ. More specifically, the model of true love is Jesus Christ crucified.

“I give you a new commandment: love one another just as I have loved you.” This is the standard set by Jesus who not just merely loved, but showed how perfect his love was, who was prepared to love them to the end. This commandment is at the heart of our celebrations this evening. This commandment undergirds both the celebration of the Eucharist as well as the ritual of washing of feet. Every Mass is a celebration of this special love of Jesus giving himself for us on the cross. This commandment is the reason why we call this day, Maundy Thursday. “Maundy” comes from the Latin word for “mandate”, which simply means an order or command.

Everything else hinges on this. Jesus loves those who are his. The reason he came to this earth was love. The reason he gathered his disciples to him was love. The reason he endured the agony of the coming day was love. The reason he died the vilest death was love. And finally it was love that broke the chains of Hades and defeated our great enemies, death, sin and the Devil, in one single swoop. Today, Jesus shows us how love looks like. It’s not worn as a badge or as a slogan emblazoned on our t-shirt. It’s not sweet platitudes or found in boxes of chocolates or large bouquets of roses. There is nothing warm or fuzzy, nice or sentimental about it. So, what does love look like? It looks like service. It means getting our hands dirty, humbling ourselves before the other, stooping to the lowest position, and finally embracing the cross. It looks like the cross. To love means to follow Christ, and this is what he did: “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:8) That’s how love should look like.

You know, it is so easy to talk about love, to pretend to love, to use the language of love, to sing hymns about love, and it can all be sentimental. Yes, Jesus did not come and love us to bits. He did more, he loved us with a perfect love, he loved us to the end. He loved us and laid down his life for us. The Love of Christ is never sentimental, it is sacrificial. And this is the love with which He loved us to the end.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Throw Open Your Gates, Your King Comes

Palm Sunday 2015

One of the most commanding and breathtaking views of the old walled city of Jerusalem is from the Mount of Olives. As one looks across the Kidron Valley, the Valley of the Dead (a huge ancient cemetery littered with stone tombstones), one can take in the whole breath of this panoramic view, with the cupolas and domes of the major religious shrines rising above the whole Eastern wall of the City. There is one large gate that stands out on the Eastern wall. It was formerly known as the Golden Gate because it was covered in golden coloured bronze. The gold and the bronze had long disappeared. But what remains remarkable about this Gate is not only its formidable size but the fact that it is sealed up. Obviously, the reason is not to keep the inhabitants in the City locked up within its walls – there are other gates that provide easy entry and exit. A little thought on the matter will suggest that it may have been walled up to keep someone out. But who?

Let’s return to the story of the first Palm Sunday. No one can be positive about which gate Jesus came through, although it is likely it was the Golden Gate.  Jewish tradition had long declared that when the Messiah came, he would enter the Holy City from the East, the direction of the Mount of Olives, through the Golden Gate.   But many years later during the reign of the Ottomans, Suleyman the Magnificent made it impossible for anyone to go through the Golden Gate any longer.  He ordered that the two huge doorways be sealed, and piled rocks and dirt over the roadway up to the gate.  And to be certain the coming Messiah would not enter through that prophesied gate, they built a cemetery right in front.  Surely, the Messiah would not walk through a cemetery of graves and risk defiling himself. Thus they supposed they were thwarting two rival religions: Judaism, because their Messiah couldn’t enter Jerusalem by the traditional gateway whenever he might come, and Christianity, because their Christian Messiah in his Second Coming could not return to Jerusalem if the Golden Gate was sealed shut. Little did Suleyman realise that the Messiah had already entered through that gate on Palm Sunday, and certainly no human barrier is going to prevent him from entering when He comes again in glory.

But returning to that eventful day of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, no gates nor walls, no followers or detractors, no individual or crowd could keep him out. The disciples tried to prevent him from entering Jerusalem to avoid fulfilling his own self-predicted death. The Elders and the High Priests, who were visibly threatened by his ministry and believed that he was here to usurp their sacred authority over the people, were plotting his arrest and assassination. The Romans were nervous that his return to the City would be the spark to trigger off rioting mobs and perhaps a larger full-scale rebellion. He was certainly unwelcomed by these last two groups and they had closed the doors of their hearts to this Pretender to the Throne of David. I believe that if they had a chance, they would have walled up the Gate long before the Muslims thought of it centuries later.

But then there were the peoples who lined the streets to welcome him - they were ecstatic.  They were hoping to see their liberator and the political messiah who will rally the Jewish forces behind him to overthrow the shackles of their Roman oppressors, restore the throne of David and establish God’s sovereign kingdom on earth. But when Jesus turned out to be a major disappointment, when he chose to reject the path of violence and political change, when the kingdom he came to announce was not of this world, the crowds too closed their hearts to him. What is more daunting than a sealed Gate, is the closed doors of the hearts of these various individuals and groups.  They thought they could keep him out.

But no door can keep the Lord out. Not even a big rock blocking the entrance of a cave tomb could pose an obstacle, what more a sealed Gate. Doors can be closed on Jesus unwittingly, unthinkingly, as the disciples and the crowds did. Doors could also be deliberately closed due to fear and insecurity like the Elders, the High Priests, the Romans and the Ottomans after them. The enemies of Jesus tried everything to discredit him, insult him, cast all kinds of false accusations and calumnies against him, hoping to shut him out for good. Yet, none could shut out Christ for good – He came back! The door may be shut to Jesus from our side, but Jesus can still get through. The Ottomans were sorely mistaken. No gate can keep him out. No barrier can obstruct his coming. They should have learnt that important lesson from the Romans and the High Priests and Elders, who had also tried to keep Jesus from returning to his city.

And so as we accompany Jesus into Jerusalem, as we follow Him to Golgotha and beyond, we are invited to throw open the doors of our hearts, because till now, the door of many hearts remain locked and barred, and bolted from the inside. We hear the refrain of that beautiful processional psalm of praise and jubilation that speaks of the entrance of the Ark of the Covenant into the Temple of Jerusalem, Psalm 23 (24). God, the King of Glory will be led to His Temple. On reaching the Temple, the bearers of the ark, the priests and other worshippers would literally summon the gates of the Temple to “lift up (their) heads,” and beckon these “ancient doors” to “grow higher” to admit the King of Glory to his throne.

And so as we begin our Holy Week, we begin this liturgical climax of our Christian faith, we rejoice at the return of our King, our great and beloved prince, who would risk everything including sacrificing his own life in order to save his people. Shouldn’t this fill us with joyful ecstasy? Shouldn’t we be ready to throw the doors off the hinges of our hearts and remove every single barrier that will prevent our King from entering? Let’s not hold anything back, but open ourselves totally to accept the Lord as He comes. No sealed gate will stop Him.  No closed heart will keep Him away. Not even a sealed Golden Gate can keep Him from entering. We already see today the King of kings, the one who at the end of this week after having by death abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light; after spoiling the powers of darkness, and ruining all their schemes; see him return in triumph! He has already paved the way. He has begun his redemptive plan for all creation. He has carried us on that donkey’s colt but more importantly, the burden of our sins to the cross. And at our life journey’s end, he will carry us out of the tomb.

And so if someone were to ask us, “Who is this?” “Who is He the King of Glory?” And we join the multitudes in shouting the answer – “He the Lord of Hosts, He is the King of Glory. It is Jesus, the Son of David, the Son of God. Blessed is He that Comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the Highest.”

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Volumus Iesus Videre

Fifth Sunday of Lent Year B

Today is the last Sunday in Lent before we enter Holy Week. It is not surprising, therefore, that our gospel story brings us to the very threshold of the events which would culminate in the Great Paschal Mystery of our faith. It is the eve of Palm Sunday. It is a perfect prelude to our celebrations and provides us with the necessary lenses to understand what is going to take place next week. Our guides are a group of Greeks who approach the apostle Philip and put this question to him, “Volumus Iesus videre.” “Sir, we should like to see Jesus.” The Greeks point us in the right direction.  

Who were these men and what were they looking for? The gospel tells us that they had come to the festival for worship. They may have heard many reports about Jesus, including the recent news that he had raised Lazarus of Bethany from the dead. Or they may have been brought to Jerusalem by their natural thirst for God. On this occasion, however, this natural thirst was transformed into a burning desire for a personal encounter. Their search would provide the setting for Jesus’ to set the stage for Holy Week. For Jesus “the hour has come,” the hour of his glorification, the hour where he must pass through the crucible of his passion and death, in order that His mission may bear fruit in a rich harvest.  And you can almost hear the hour tolling in the background.

Why were these Greeks looking for Jesus? We know that, in the gospels, people looked for Him for many different reasons. The Scribes and the Pharisees looked for Him in order to trap him in their theological quarrels. The Elders and the Chief Priests were always looking for Him to kill Him. Herod the Tetrarch longed to see Him, perhaps out of curiosity. Zacchaeus wanted to see Him because he was looking for one who might understand him. The crowds looked for Him because they wanted some bread and more miracles. The sick looked for Him in search of healing and consolation. Mary Magdalene looked for Him in search of forgiveness and out of love. Are you also looking for Him?

The words of these Greek Gentiles mirror the desire to find some sort of “God” that is found in most if not all cultures throughout human history. There is in the heart of every human being a natural thirst for God, which nothing, except an encounter with Him, can ever totally extinguish. This thirst for God is felt by everybody, including those who claim not to believe in Him or those who have no name for Him. Notice how this thirst becomes more pronounced whenever we are in dire straits. In times of doubt, when we experience the darkness of prayer and the dimness of faith, we pray, “O God, I would like to see Jesus.” In times of bodily or mental pain, we pray, “O God, I would like to see Jesus.” In times of loss, when our grieving is unbearable, we pray, “O God, I would like to see Jesus.” It is clear that many of us want to see Jesus only because we want Him to solve our problems and, possibly, make our lives easier or even free from suffering.

Very often we fail to encounter Christ either because we do not seek Him or because we seek Him in the wrong places or for wrong reasons. If we are looking for Jesus for the wrong reasons, chances are that we will be gravely disappointed, because we may not find Him. It’s not as if Jesus has chosen to hide from us. On the contrary, God has indeed made it possible for us to find Him. Our inability to encounter him is due to our own limited vision - He simply does not fit into our expectations of him. The Jesus whom we are searching for is indeed the very image of the Compassionate and Loving God, but he is also the Law Giver of the New Covenant which raises the benchmark for discipleship, the Teacher who shows us the Way that is narrow, the Saviour who beckons us to follow him on the same path of renunciation to Calvary, the Judge who passes sentence on both the living and the dead. Thus, in order to encounter Christ, we must do so on his terms and not on ours.  And so there are, therefore, many reasons for which we may want to see Jesus. But let the main reason be because we realise that He is the way to the Father: "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (Jn 14:6). And there is no other way of seeing him unless we are prepared to follow Him and become “like the wheat of grain which falls on the ground and dies,” and then we will “yield a rich harvest.”

When the Greeks wanted to see Jesus, it was more than just his face, it was the man inside. It is what any of us wants of another, to reveal something of the true self, the inner being for which the face is only the exterior. But the desire to see the face of Jesus points to a far greater aspiration – being able to see God face to face. Of course, the Old Testament has the declared the impossibility of such an encounter. In the book of Exodus (33:20), God himself declares that “No man can see Me and live!” St Paul in his first letter to Timothy (6:16) further declares that God “alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see.” As long as we are tainted by sin, we cannot see God. Only in heaven, since we will be free from sin, will we be able to see God's glory unveiled in its fullness. God is therefore inaccessible to mortal man on a face-to-face basis. This is what made Christ's incarnation so wonderful: although no man has ever seen God at any time, to see the Son would now be to see the Father. God makes it possible for man to find Him and See Him in the person of Jesus Christ. What a breathtaking reality!

If you would like to see God today, where can you find Him? There is no limit to the places and occasions where one may find Him. But the primary place for encountering God is in Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate, the Primordial Sacrament of the Father, He who is the ultimate and perfect revelation of God. Today we continue to encounter the Word Made Flesh in scriptures and in the Apostolic Tradition. If you want to see Jesus, then read the Scriptures frequently and devoutly, for as St Jerome tells us, “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” If you want to see Jesus, then celebrate the sacraments, especially that of the Eucharist and Penance, reverently and frequently, for as Pope Benedict wrote, “the liturgy is the privileged setting in which God speaks to us in the midst of our lives; he speaks today to his people, who hear and respond.”

Our desire to see Jesus is heightened today by the veiling of the crosses and statues; our senses undergo a fasting. However, this desire may be felt in different degrees. In some, it is so ardent that it becomes a conscious daily longing. In others, it is so faint that it is hardly noticeable, because it has been suffocated by other worldly substitutes. The consoling thing is that Jesus also wants to see us too. That is why He came into the world. As we seek to encounter Him, He also seeks to encounter us. And so, we pray, we plead, we beg the Lord for this one request, “we would like to see Jesus.” And so we will. If not with our eyes, at least with our hearts. Indeed we will come to see Him in the following week. We will follow Jesus into the city, to shout “Hosanna!” with those who welcomed him, to sit with him at table and hear that one of us will betray him, to follow him to the garden that night and then to the trial and on to the cross, and at last to the tomb, where he rise again and appear to us again, not as a stranger, but as a friend who breaks bread and offers himself to us at every meal and re-enactment of that great sacrifice of salvation. Yes, if you want to see Jesus, come to the table of the Word and the Eucharist, and you will find him there.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Unspeakable Love

Fourth Sunday of Lent Year B

Love is a big word. But do we use the word “love” lightly and casually in our daily lives? Perhaps we bandy it around so carelessly that its meaning has become diluted? Truth be told, the idea of “love” has become very common in today’s modern vernacular. We might hear someone say, “I loved that movie” or “I loved that restaurant” or “I love my dog.” In many ways, our everyday use of the word “love” has trivialised its meaning. The culture of triviality downsizes everything. Nothing really matters anymore. Until now you have probably only experienced conditional love. We grow up thinking and believing that love needs to be earned. Such conditional love is based upon what you do. Perform well on the job, on the team, or in the relationship, and you are “loved.”

Today’s readings remind us how big, how weighty, how profound, is true love, especially the love which the Father expresses for us. “Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life.” That’s super mega BIG love. This is the greatest expression of God’s love! And this is the ultimate benchmark of all kinds of love. Who can fathom the depth and breadth of this love?

No words can describe it. There is no word in our human language that could ever convey to the human intelligence the immensity of it. We may try to encompass that gift with words, and call it great, ineffable, wonderful, incomparable, boundless, perfect, but none will do. Overwhelmed by the character of this love, St John tells us in one brief sentence that it defies definition, baffles all description, that it is inexpressible, unspeakable. “God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son.” The gift of His Son would have to be the proof and measure of God's love. We may consider it, but never comprehend it; we may know it, but it surpasses all knowledge; we may speak of it, but it is unspeakable; we may search the breadth, length, depth and height of it, but all dimensions and magnitudes fail to supply plummet or compass by which we may tell the extent of it. His gift is unspeakable.

This is God’s love. Not some warm fuzzy kind of emotion or sentiment. It is profoundly deep and complex. The Incarnation and the Cross; the suffering the Son had to endure; His sorrows, the suffering and shame of Gethsemane and Golgotha, the darkness, the woe, His death and shedding of his blood taken together is the answer to the question of the extent of God’s love. We see in these events, in the life, the passion, the death and resurrection of Jesus himself the voice of God to all men, speaking with growing intensity; it was God's utterance of an unutterable love; His love declared by His unspeakable gift.

I’m reminded of a Jewish midrash. According to this Jewish legend, at the creation of mankind, God consulted the heavenly hosts, the angels. The Midrash states, “When the Holy One… came to create Adam, the ministering angels formed themselves into groups and parties, some them saying, ‘Let him be created,’ while others urged, ‘Let him not be created.’ The Angel of Truth argued, “Do not create man for he will be full of falsehood and deceitfulness.” The Angel of Righteousness added, “Do not create mankind he will be impure in heart and dishonour the name of God.” Which direction do you think God went? At the end of the deliberation, given what we know about God and the fact that we are here, I can just imagine him saying, “Let us create man in our image and when he sins and turns from the path of true righteousness, from truth and a hunger for holiness, I will gather him from out of the world and tenderly through love bring him back unto Myself.”

The gospel of today thus affirms the joyous and splendid good news of God’s immense love for us. It also provides us an opportunity to revise our understanding of the Justice of God. God’s love is in no sense in conflict with His holiness, His righteousness, or His justice. We see in the gospel that the decisive point is that whoever scorns God’s love condemns himself. God is not at all eager to condemn men. He is nothing but Love, Love that goes as far as the Father sacrificing his Son out of love for the world. There is nothing more for him to give us. The whole question now is whether we accept God’s unconditional love so that it can prove efficacious and fruitful in our lives, or whether we choose to continue to cower in our darkness in order to evade the illuminating love of his grace. If we choose the latter, then the description in the gospel fits us – we are those who “hate the light,” we hate true love, and we affirm our egoism in any form whatsoever, often mistaking such egoism for love. When that happens, as Jesus reminds us, we are “condemned already,” but by ourselves, not by God.

St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians describes the extent of God’s love in reference to our unworthiness. It is unconditional. It is unmerited. It is undeserved. “God love us with so much love that he was generous with his mercy: when we were dead through our sins, he brought us to life with Christ – it is through grace that you have been saved.” Thus our salvation is not something that we have achieved or could ever achieve by ourselves. St Paul emphasises that “it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith; not by anything that you have done, so that nobody can claim the credit.

An unspeakable gift must produce unspeakable joy. Every earthly pleasure is speakable because it is temporary and conditional. But God's unspeakable gift of Love carries us beyond the confines of this realm, beyond the limits of time and space, and thus thrills us with divine joy, unspeakable in human speech. It is the joy of faith, the joy of love, not natural but divine. And strange though it may seem, this unspeakable joy goes along with the heaviness of the Cross. If we can understand this we should not be so afraid of trials and tests, indeed we should find joy in tribulation. On earth, trials and sorrow will be our inevitable lot, a light affliction nonetheless; but in heaven, we can only experience a far more exceeding weight of glory. All that is imperfect, and belongs to our present state of mortality, will be swept away by the power of immortality. And that which is humanly unspeakable will now be spoken because and heaven's language will become our familiar tongue.

So, we rejoice today; the Church joyfully raises her voice today; indeed the whole of humanity rejoices at the wonder of God’s love today. It is a love like no other love that you may have experienced. It is unconditional. It is unmerited and undeserving. No words can describe it except this - It is a love demonstrated by the greatest act of sacrifice – a Father who gives up a Son and a Son who give up his life. The secular world, who can never understand this offers us instead inferior copies and false imitations – a love that makes no demands, a love that does understand sacrifice, a cheap sort of love.  When it comes to love, humanity’s version is but a pale shadow compared to the truth of God’s love.  “God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son.” This is God’s love and it is this type of love that God would have us show to others.