Wednesday, March 30, 2016

His Wounds and Ours

Second Sunday of Easter Year C

In today’s Gospel, we have one of the most famous, as perhaps most poignant, of all the accounts of the resurrection appearances of Jesus Christ. It has been a week since Mary Magdalene and the disciples encountered the unsolved mystery of the empty tomb. Today’s passage provides a sequel and an answer to the post resurrection story. The first part is situated in the evening of the Day of the Resurrection whereas the second part, which happens a week later, provides the conclusion to the story. Jesus appears at the first evening, but Thomas shows up a little late. He is not among the Apostles when Jesus reveals Himself. When his friends report to him of their sighting of the resurrected Lord, Thomas does not believe and he sets a test, “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.”  Faith is subjected to the litmus test of empirical proof. A week later, the risen Christ again surprises the disciples. This time Thomas is there, and Jesus obliges his doubts. “Put your finger here,” says Jesus. There’s no indication Thomas lifted a finger; rather the sight of Jesus’ wounds seems sufficient to bring Thomas to his knees in an act of recognition and adoration.  

Many call Thomas the doubting Thomas. But this may seem to be an unfair judgment that singles him out for criticism. To be honest, all of the Apostles doubted, all of them ran away and abandoned Jesus, and all gave in to fear and despair. All of them initially thought that they were encountering a ghost or a disembodied soul. But Thomas went beyond what the others were prepared to do. He went beyond insisting that he wanted to see and touch Jesus in the flesh. He insisted on seeing the wounds and touching them. Not the unscarred and unmarked flesh of his Master, but the very parts of his Master’s severely tortured body that would have caused others to avert their vision. In one sense, by touching the wounds of Jesus, he begins to understand that the risen Jesus is not a ghost, but that he is truly real. But I suspect that there is something more profound in his demand. By encountering the wounds of Jesus, he is able to encounter the authentic Jesus, the real Jesus, the whole deal, warts, blemishes, scars et al.  Because he is able to encounter the Jesus that shed his blood on the Cross, he falls to the ground and pronounces a profound act of faith. Thomas is able to encounter Jesus in all of his humanity and all of his divinity.

One necessarily should juxtapose this scene with that of another - the vision of St John in the Book of the Apocalypse (5:6, 11-12), where the seer describes the scene of the Lamb that had been “slain” surrounded by thousands of angels singing its praises. I find it infinitely comforting that the wounded one is the object of heaven’s praise.  There, before the great throne in glory stands the slaughtered Lamb. Even in the glory of God’s presence, the wounds are visible. In fact the wounds elicit the thunderous praise of the heavenly hosts. There is something wonderfully beautiful and of a mystery about Christ's risen body. His wounds are his badge of glory. His wounds are trophies of his victory. But significantly for us, in Jesus’ wounds, the wounds of human life are never far from the heart of God. He brings the wounds of humanity into the presence of the Almighty and transfigures them forever. In a way, we need no longer be ashamed of our wounds, some are readily visible while others remain hidden. Our Lord’s wounds assures us that our wounds and scars are never hidden from God’s vision.

But the wounds of Christ can also be a cause of scandal. It raises serious doubts that cannot be easily explained away. The wounds of Christ reminds us of the wounds that we see in the Body of Christ, the Church. The Church suffers from many visible wounds, caused by persecution on the one hand but also by sin. In the case of sin, the most painful and insidious wound must certainly be of division among its members, which can often prove devastating and scandalising, a cause for disillusionment.  But there is hope. As Christ appears after His resurrection, wearing His wounds like trophies, we come to discover the truth that though we may be wounded by much that happens in life, we need not be broken beyond redemption. Likewise, the Body of Christ wracked by division and splits, conflicts between individuals and groups, ambition and competition, the sinfulness of its members, can experience healing and restoration. The necessary path forward is forgiveness. A forgiveness wrought by Christ Himself and not by man.

Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, constantly reminds us as did the Church Fathers that the Church is like a hospital, full of wounded and sick people. The sickness is sin whereas the medicine forgiveness. Ironically, one of the most serious sins is a lack of forgiveness, the rejection of the medicine that would be its antidote and cure. We often forget that no Christian is perfect, not even the clergy. When all these imperfect people get together, disagreements, hurt feelings and misunderstandings are inevitable. As much as we find this discomforting, we need to remember that this is the authentic Church, the real Church, the whole deal, warts, blemishes, scars et al. It is a Holy Church, certainly, because Christ has redeemed Her by His Sacrifice on the Cross. But it remains a wounded Church because of the infidelity of Her members.

If we can accept a scarred and wounded man as Saviour and Lord, can we not expect the same from the Church, His Mystical Body? If we are only capable of accepting a perfect unblemished Church with perfect members, are we also rejecting the Risen Lord who appeared with His wounds?  If we can recognise the intimate connexion between the Bridegroom and His Bride, Christ and His Body, the Church, then we would also be able to recognise the true nature of the gift of Jesus to His Apostles. He offers them and through them, the Church, the gift of the Holy Spirit and the grace of forgiveness, recognising that both are necessary in a Church that continues to be wounded by the sins of her members. This understanding will help us see each other in a new light. No longer would we be repelled by the ugliness of the wounds of the other, but recognise how the Wounded Lord is also present within them. No longer would we turn away those who are sick and broken, but instead offer them healing and the balm of forgiveness.

Wounds within the Body of Christ can only be healed through repentance and humility. Repentance requires us to humbly and honestly acknowledge our roles in the wounding of the Body of Christ. Unless there is such recognition, no true healing can take place. Wounds will fester and eventually become gangrenous and life-threatening. The causes of divisions in the Church are many, but ultimately the main reason is that we have taken our focus off  Our Lord Jesus Christ. No wonder every hurt or injury often appears to be personal. It is because it’s hard to be thinking about how Christ or the Church is hurting when I’m busy thinking it’s all about “ME”!

This is why our faith in the resurrection must never waver. The resurrection reminds us that the One who gets to write the ending is not just a failed hero, but the Risen, Living and Victorious Lord. He will have the final word and not the misunderstandings, pains and hurts that we experience in life. Though our communities often appear to be on the verge of destruction and dissolution through conflict and scandals, its integrity is secured as long as it remains part of the Mystical Body of Christ. Our wounds do not signify the end of life or happiness. In truth, they are living signs of what is to come, Eternal Life and divine beatitude. I know that all of these is hard to believe especially when we continue to encounter the brokenness of our communities.  But the Lord reminds us again, “Blessed are those who have not seen but have believed.” This is our Faith. We believe not because we have seen. We choose to believe in order that we may see!

Saturday, March 26, 2016



在今天的福音中,人们都在跑来跑去,他们到处奔波。复活清晨,玛利亚玛达肋纳跑到坟墓那里,当她看到石头已被挪开,便立刻跑回去通知门徒们。接着,伯多禄和耶稣所爱的那个门徒往墓穴那里跑。耶稣所爱的那个门徒跑得比伯多禄快 ——这可能是他比较年轻的缘故吧。伯多禄随后抵达, 他立刻走进坟墓去,而耶稣所爱的那个门徒则留在外面。当伯多禄看见了空的坟墓之后,就感到很困惑——他还是不明白。但是,当耶稣所爱的门徒随着伯多禄之后进了坟墓, 虽然他看到了同样的情形,却有不同的反应,因为他一看就相信了。

有时, 我们也像今天福音中的人物那样跑来跑去,到处奔波.我们为追求幸福、为追求财富,也为追求女朋友或男朋友而忙碌。然而, 很多时候我们都是在逃避某些事而忙碌。结婚多年以后, 有些人想摆脱当年热烈追求的那个男人或女人。我们要避开让我们伤心的事、要摆脱痛苦与不幸、要逃避恐惧。为了不去想令自己不开心的事,我们尽量沉浸在工作及其他活动之中。有些人因为不美满的婚姻或家庭纠纷而跑来教堂以求解脱。有些人宁可工作夜归,就是为了要逃避家庭问题。


今天, 当我们在庆祝复活节——教会最大的庆节之际,天主邀请我们回家。我们受邀请认真地看看这空的坟墓。我们要面对我们最深的恐惧、探讨所面对的问题、正视破裂关系的创伤,因为如果我们看得够深入的话,也许会 一看见就相信了。若我们用伯多禄的眼光来看待问题的话,那我们就看不见天主、也看不见耶稣。然而,若我们用那主所爱的门徒的眼光来看待我们的问题及伤痛,这样,即使在看不见天主的情况下还是能够认出祂的临在。

假如我们避开那些伤害我们的人, 那么彼此之间的关系将永远无法修复。但是, 如果我们有勇气去面对我们最深的恐惧,如果我们敢于重回到我们破裂的关系中,不再逃避的话, 我们将被治愈并得释放。空坟墓的奇迹使我们感到惊讶。玛利亚玛达肋纳、伯多禄和那主爱的门徒回到坟墓去是想要提醒自己有关耶稣的死亡。不料, 当它们抵达时,却意外地获得了生命——复活的生命。

当我们有能力面对我们生命的坟墓时,天主也会使我们惊讶。这位使耶稣从死者中复活的天主也必把我们从痛苦、不幸及恐惧的坟墓中救助我们,让我们获得重生。在这复活节, 愿大家都得到治愈及释放。

Life has Descended into Death

Easter Sunday 2016

“Easter has arrived early this year!” The words were met with instantaneous grins from the inmates of the Correctional Facility in Bentong a week ago. I had gone in with some priests of the diocese to hear confessions and celebrate mass at the facility. I know, and you know, that as far as the universal Liturgical Calendar was concerned, Easter was still a week away. But for the Catholic and Christian prisoners, Easter was already here! Easter was bursting forth from the liturgy of that Eucharistic Celebration and it had somehow mysteriously brightened that very room and dispelled the gloom that had hung over this place of incarceration. Indeed Easter is always present in the hearts of all who believe that Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen! Such faith is rooted in the belief that no prison, no fortress, no barrier, nothing, absolutely, nothing can keep the Lord out.

For many of the prisoners in this correctional facility, their life sentence seemed like eternity, while others on death row, were already feeling the noose tightening around their necks. The closest analogy would be hell, and yet this would be pale shadow of that horrifying prospect. Alienated and cut from the world and their love ones, the prison walls must be the closest thing to the nether regions on this side of the threshold of life and death. Yet, with the simple announcement that I was going to celebrate the Easter liturgy that morning provided them with a glimpse of another reality. The mass was the closest thing to heaven on this side of the threshold of life and death. The mass reassured them that with every Good Friday, comes the bright promise of Easter. Good Friday was the worst thing that ever happened in all history but Easter Sunday was the best thing.

It was not difficult to draw a comparison between the prison cell and the Easter event. Christians had been doing it for centuries. What happened between Christ's death on the cross and his glorious resurrection from the tomb on Easter Sunday morning? The Scriptures tell us that the Lord Jesus holds the “keys of death and Hades” (Rev 1:18). St Paul in his letter to the Ephesians tells us that Jesus “descended into the lower parts of the earth” (Eph 4:9). St Peter the Apostle tells us that Jesus “preached to the dead” (1 Pet 4:6) and “to the spirits in prison” (1 Pet 3:18). In last night’s vigil liturgy, the Easter Proclamation announced “this is the night, that when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld.” Yes, no living person was there to witness this momentous event but both Sacred Scripture and Tradition already attests to what our Easter Christian brethren describe as the “Harrowing of Hell” and what we affirm in our Creed that Christ indeed “descended into hell.”

In a famous ancient homily which was preached on Holy Saturday - the day before Jesus' resurrection, the scene of Jesus descent to Hades (or Hell) is vividly described. Jesus unlocks the door to Hades to announce his victory over death, Satan, and all the powers of Hell. He then releases Adam and Eve and all the just who were waiting for their redemption by the Messiah. Jesus executed the greatest gaol break from most secure ultra-maximum security prison. He then speaks these powerful words to Adam, “I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.” Christ descended into hell not as another victim of the devil, but as Conqueror. He descended in order to ‘bind up the powerful’ and to ‘plunder his vessels’.

Beyond iconography, the harrowing of hell is also the dominant symbol of Orthodox Easter liturgies. Again, in Western churches the empty tomb is what you will see depicted on Easter Sunday. But Orthodox services recreate the harrowing of hell. Specifically, the priest exits the church with a cross. The sanctuary is immersed in darkness and the doors are closed. The priest then knocks on the door and proclaims, "Open the doors to the Lord of the powers, the king of glory." Inside the church the people make a great noise of rattling chains which conveys the resistance of hell to the coming of Christ. Eventually, the doors are opened up, the cross enters, and the church is lit and filled with incense.

As incredible and important as the descent into the underworld was, what can we, who are living today, learn from it?
The first lesson is certainly that of hope, and the world, so short of hope and rich in skepticism and cynicism, is most in need of this. In all the various trials and tribulations we may bear, even when we find ourselves in the depths of sin and despair, the darkest prison of addiction or depression, the truth of the descent into hell insists that we nonetheless hold to a firm hope in Christ. Aquinas put it best: “No matter how much one is afflicted, one ought always hope in the assistance of God and have trust in Him. There is nothing so serious as to be in the underworld. If, therefore, Christ delivered those who were in the underworld, what great confidence ought every friend of God have that he will be delivered from all his troubles!”

Hope ultimately leads to consolation. Few, if any, Christians journey through this life without ever experience a sense of abandonment by God. Spiritual writers speak of this as the experience of desolation, the experience of the soul where the sun (sol) is eclipsed from our vision, where all seems dark and silent. The silence is deafening, the darkness is blinding. But the descent event should assure us that even then, Christ is there with us. As then Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Emeritus Benedict, wrote in his Introduction to Christianity: “This article (that Christ descended into hell) thus asserts that Christ strode through the gate of our final loneliness, that in his Passion he went down into the abyss of our abandonment. Where no voice can reach us any longer, there is he.”

Ultimately, the descent into hell should renew our awe and wonder at what Christ achieved on the Cross. It also should deepen our awareness and appreciation of His love: even after the unimaginable suffering He endured on the Cross—which culminated in a cry of abandonment from God the Father—Christ did not immediately rush back to heaven, He did not shrink back from entering the place of ultimate spiritual desolation and isolation to personally rescue those who had died before His crucifixion. As much as we are often tempted to flee from the suffering and pain of this world, from the long hand of justice, from various responsibilities and financial burdens, and even from death; but experience tells us that we can run from trouble, but trouble will find us out. But Easter reminds of another who runs toward us, who runs after us, and who even runs into the very murky trouble that we have found ourselves in. He has come to free us from the prison of death and hell for He is “the life of the dead.” Yes, Easter has arrived, “death is swallowed up in victory” and has lost its sting! Yes, Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!