Monday, February 23, 2009

Eternalizing Peter’s Experience

Second Sunday of Lent B
(Mark 9:2-10)
March 8, 2009

WHEN we are with people we admire, it is our wish that we could remain with them longer than is possible. A very close encounter with the Holy Father, President Barrak Obama, or someone like Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Rudolf Bultmann is such an example. But we know that such an encounter is too brief. That is why we take pains that in events like that, pictures are taken to capture those moments. Pictures are useful not simply to recall the event, but also to allow us to relive the experience. Human nature is such that we wish to eternalize our present happy experiences.

Those of us who understand this will easily sympathize with Peter in the Gospel today. It may be recalled that in Mark, from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (Mark 1:14) until the episode in Caesarea Philippi where Jesus asked the disciples who he was (Mark 8:27-29), nobody seemed to know the mystery of Jesus. Even Peter who described him the Messiah (Mark 8:30) seemed ignorant of the title he gave him. He could not understand a crucified Messiah (Mark 8:31-32). But in today’s Gospel (Mark 9:2-10), Peter had a glimpse of the mystery that shrouded Jesus. He was overwhelmed with awe by what he saw—a transfigured Jesus--and he wanted to eternalize his experience. So he said, “Rabbi, how good it is for us to be here! Let us erect three booths on this site, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Mark 9:5).

But there is more to this. When he saw Jesus, Peter recognized that his Master acquired a new kind of life which the Jewish people have been longing for. That life is symbolized by the white garment—“his clothes became dazzlingly white, whiter than the work of any bleacher could make them” (Mark 9:3)—which is a symbol of the life of resurrection (Rev 3:4; 7:9). Because that has dawned on Jesus, Peter seemed to think that the new age has dawned for all. For this reason, he offered to build three tents as a way of saying that he wanted Jesus to anticipate the future when God will dwell with men. This object of hope is echoed by Paul: “Indeed, we know that when the earthly tent in which we dwell is destroyed we have a dwelling provided for us by God, a dwelling in the heavens, not made by hands but to last forever. We groan while we are here, even as we yearn tgo have our heavenly habitation envelop us”(2 Cor 5:1-3; see also Rev 21:1-3).

But God did not allow Peter to eternalize his peak experience at the mountain: it was not yet the parousia, but simply its foretaste. Thus, speaking from the clouds, he said to the disciples, including Peter of course, that they have to listen to Jesus (Mark 9:7). And what words of Jesus they are to listen to? In Mark’s theology, it is this: “If a man wishes to come after me, he must deny his very self, take up his cross, and follow me. Whoever would preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will preserve it. What profit does a man show who gains the whole world and destroys himself in the process? What can a man offer in exchange for his life? If anyone in this faithless and corrupt age is ashamed of me and my doctrine, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes with the holy angels in his glory… I assure you, among those standing here there are some who will not taste death until they see the reign of God established in his Father’s glory” (Mark 8:34-9:1). But in listening to Jesus, we have to do so like Abraham, who gave up human assurance (Gen 22:1-2) because we can rest assured in God (Rom 8:38-39).

What assurance? It is that if we wish that God dwell with us, if we wish to be dressed in white, then we have to follow Jesus in his suffering (Mark 8:34-35). The sharing and the eternalizing of Peter’s experience at the mountain is given to those who deny their very self, and take up their cross. Indeed, if we do, we will not even taste death, and we shall attain that experience even here on earth (Mark 9:11).

In view of this, and in the light of the transfiguration of Jesus, the sufferings and failures in our life with Jesus are thus given a new perspective. If we suffer and fail with him, we do not experience simply bad moments that we could have avoided all the better. No, they are rather part and parcel of Christian life, of discipleship. They are, so to speak, constitutive elements of the experience of God’s glory (1 Pet 4:14). In our sufferings and failures for and in Christ, God is already pitching his tent among us, and we are already wearing the white garment, even as Jesus himself was recognized as the Messiah as he hung on the cross (Mark 15:39).

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Jesus the New Adam

First Sunday of Lent B
(Mark 1:12-15)
March 1, 2009

That the forces of wickedness seem to prevail is an impression we get from observation of what happens in the world. Corruption, for example, is endemic in many countries. One eats stories of corruption in the country for breakfast. But the problem of corruption in these countries is not simply that it has seeped into the psyche of many people in governments; the bigger problem is that it has become institutionalized. The findings of World Bank with regard to the infrastructural projects it funds in the Philippines quite illustrate it well.

This is how the power of sin works. Whereas the sin of the fall affected Adam, it continues to affect not only individuals but also institutions. Indeed, sin has become institutionalized that even if a new comer in a government office begins with good intention and good behavior, he ultimately becomes like the rest—a basket of bad eggs. Because of the power of sin, every day there is a reenactment of the experience of Adam—we succumb to temptations. The effect of this seeming triumph of evil is that wicked acts seem to go on with impunity, and doing good seems to go without reward. This observation is reflected in the Scripture itself: “It is vain to serve God, and what do we profit by keeping his command, and going about in penitential dress in awe of the Lord of hosts? Rather must we call the proud blessed; for indeed evildoers prosper, and even tempt God with impunity?” (Mal 3:14-15).

Today’s Gospel (Mark 1:12-15), however, asserts that God has begun to bring to an end the triumph of the forces of wickedness. It began with the Spirit sending Jesus out toward the desert (Mark 1:12). That the Spirit seizes someone and drives him to a certain place is common in the Scriptures (1 Kgs 18:12; Ezek 8:3; Acts 8:39). In Mark, the evangelist portrays God sending Jesus into the battle with Satan. This harks back to the battle which began in paradise. During the battle with the Serpent, Adam was defeated. He believed in what the Serpent said about God’s command of not eating the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen 3:6). Because he succumbed, the result was devastating: man, whom Adam represented, was not only at enmity with his fellowmen (Gen 2:8-16), but also with the environment (Gen 3:14-15).

Unlike Adam, however, Jesus was victorious in the battle with Satan in the desert. He was the righteous man who triumphed over the forces of evil. As a consequence, he was not harmed by the animals in the desert (Mark 1:13b), and was protected by the angels (Ps 91:11-13). As the Testament of Nepthali says, “The devil shall flee from you, and the wild beasts shall flee from you, and the angels shall cleave to you” (TestNaph 8:4). It appears therefore that, in Mark, the evangelist presents Jesus as the righteous man who undid the fall of Adam.

Because in Jesus the power of goodness has begun its triumph over the forces of wickedness, we are assured that the peace of God will achieve its victory on earth. In fact, early in his preaching, Jesus claimed that the Kingdom of God was making an advance (Mark 1:15). Today, we continue to claim territory on behalf of the Kingdom of God , because we have the power given us by Jesus. That power was given to us in baptism. In the second reading, which advises the early Christians to suffer nobly in imitation of Jesus, Peter preserved for us a creedal formula: “he was put to death insofar as fleshly existence goes, but was given life in the realm of the spirit. It was in the spirit also that he went to preach to the spirits in prison… He went to heaven and is at God’s right hand, with angelic rulers and powers subjected to him” (1 Pet 3:18.22). According to this confession of baptismal faith, the death of Christ, which we share in baptism, produces life.

That is to say, when we are baptized, we participate in the paschal mystery: we share in his suffering, we continue to battle with the forces of evil, but because Christ triumphed over death, and in fact angels, authorities and powers are subject to him, we are assured that in being one with his new life, we will also be victorious against the forces of wickedness. The new life that began in the resurrection will have such an effect that, ultimately, we will see the Kingdom of God established among us. On account of this, we need not despair about evil in our midst. Thus, for instance, if only the laity make use of their power that God gave them in baptism, they would have enough resources to fight corruption in the country, because they have the assurance that the spirit of Jesus will triumph over it. They will be provided with sufficient courage to reject bribes or grease money because the spirit of Jesus will lead them to honesty, dedication and integrity. What they need to do is to cooperate with his Spirit; this done, they can claim a territory for the kingdom of God in our midst.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Freeing the Prisoner of the Paralyzing Past

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B
(Mark 2:1-12)
February 22, 2009

WHEN a person is paralyzed, he is practically no longer the master of himself. Dependent on others, he is not in control of what he thinks should happen to him. He is not free to chart his future. He can even be brought to places where he would not dare to go. He looks at the world through the eyes of others. At the same time, he no longer moves with the community. In fact, he is often left behind. The community to which he actively belongs in the past tends to alter its attitude. And no matter how much he tries to think that nothing has changed in him except his physical condition, the members of the community will likely imprison him to his condition, sometimes to the effect that they will tend to think there is almost nothing more to him than a paralyzed body.

At the heart of today’s Gospel (Mark 2:1-12) is a miracle story: it is a narrative about Jesus curing a paralytic. This, of course, represents a continuation of the theme which Mark stressed at the beginning of his gospel: the power of Jesus’ words. Unlike those of the teachers of the Law, his words had authority and power over sickness and diseases, and over the powers of evil. That the man was paralyzed demonstrates the extent to which Satan holds sway, and Jesus came precisely to free men from these powers. But at the same time, the story adds a new dimension to the theme: Jesus had power over sin. In bringing this out, Mark is trying to stress that Jesus is more than a miracle worker. The truth is, he comes from God. And to crystallize this theme, he inserted into the miracle story (vv 3-5,11-12) the conflict dialogue (vv 6-10) on the origin of the forgiveness of sins. On the basis of various scriptural texts (Exod 34:6-7; Isa 43:25, 44:2; Ps 103:3), the teachers of the Law argued that forgiveness is a divine prerogative, which God will exercise in the life to come. In having Jesus exercising this divine prerogative, Mark wishes to say that in Jesus God’s presence, power and authority reside—a proclamation which he later on puts on the lips of a Gentile soldier, who saw how Jesus died on the cross (Mark 15:39).

From this text alone, it is difficult to infer the relationship between the two themes: the healing of the paralytic and the forgiveness of sins. Of course, we are familiar with the findings of psychology which shows that our guilt could sometimes paralyze us, and one may be tempted to conclude that if the paralytic was healed, it was because Jesus forgave his sins. After all, this was how Jesus’ contemporaries thought of physical illness: it had sin for its cause (cf Luke 13:1-5; John 9:2-3). But this is not consistent with what appears in other traditions where Jesus never ascribed physical illness to human sinfulness (John 9:3). The most that can be said is that in touching his condition, Jesus saw that the man needed more than just physical healing. To be able to go back to a really normal life, he needed not just the restoration of his physical defect, but also his reconciliation and fellowship with God. But of course, because the teachers of the Law believed that the man could not be cured unless his sins are forgiven, Jesus did cure him to illustrate that he had the power over sin. Mark’s purpose would be polemical, then. But the point is simply this: so the man could be truly whole again, Jesus not only made him walk, but also forgave his sins.

By exercising his power over sin, Jesus freed the man from the prison of his past. Sins against God and neighbor—like greed, lust, and pride--affect our whole person; they change the way we perceive ourselves, our outlook, our attitude to others, and even our relationship with God. There are people who may be physically well, but because of wrong human relationships, they are often caught paralyzed. They are virtual prisoners of their own past. They are bitter about themselves, and about others, and suffer in isolation. They cannot move forward, or cope up with situations which under normal circumstances one can easily put under control. By uttering his powerful word of forgiveness, Jesus offered the paralytic a fresh start. His turbulent soul was healed, his conscience unburdened. And having received forgiveness, he acquired a new power which freed him from the encumbrances of his life, and which made his life whole again. One can be sure that when the man walked away, bringing up his pallet, he was a completely new person, and extremely happy at what had happened to him (cf Isa 43:18-19, 1st Reading ). And, of course, this shows that to lead a truly human life, it is important not only that we are physically healthy, but also that we experience God’s forgiveness, and fellowship with him.

Bringing the Outcast to the Christian Community

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B
(Mark 1:40-45)
February 15, 2009

It is unkind to say it, but in our unkind contemporary society, probably no one is more unfortunate in the eyes of many people than a person with the Acquired Immunity Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). One may steal billions from the government, have more than one wife and make erroneous decisions that affect the life of our people; but one can still be acceptable and even perceive oneself as respectable. To be known as a person with AIDS, however, is to invite ridicule and ostracism. It is to be banned from one’s social circle and suffer loneliness; it is to die before one goes to the grave. No wonder that save for a few, those who have AIDS keep their misfortune to themselves. But how would AIDS victims feel should the government legislate that those who contracted AIDS are to wear distinctive clothing, identify themselves whenever other people are in their vicinity, and be confined in an island between Jolo and Palawan ?

One may not be inclined to believe it, but a lot almost similar to this befell on one who has leprosy in the Jewish society at the time of Jesus. (We may assume that in this particular case, the man had Hansen’s disease, though one should bear in mind that the biblical term covers any repulsive scaly skin disease, like psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis.) As the first reading and the Gospel today indicate, the leper had an appearance that easily distinguished him from others, and gave him a bad identity: his garment was rent, his head bare, and his beard muffled (Lev 13:45a). He was ostracized, and unable to talk with others who were unlike him. He had to shout from a distance, “Unclean, unclean!” (Lev 13:45b), as a warning for people not to approach him. Wretched and ritually unclean as he was (Lev 13:46a), he could not participate in religious activities. He lived as an expellee from the normal community (Lev 13:46b; Num 5:2). Of course, all these stipulations served to protect the community, and considering that medicine was primitive, they were justifiable. Still, these could not hide the pain which the victims of Hansen’s disease felt. Indeed, they suffered not only physically, even as their bodies rotted away. Even more painful for them was their being unwanted, their loneliness, since, social outcasts as they were, people avoided them. It is not an exaggeration to say that many of them would have felt themselves worthless.

However, the experience of such pain and suffering is contrary to God’s will. Far from wanting that they live in misery, he it is his will that men be saved from all forms of evil (cf 2 Pet 3:9). It is not his desire that anyone be lost; rather, it is his plan that all form part of the community of the saved, where there is acceptance, togetherness, wholeness and happiness. Which is why Jesus was angry at the misery (pain, loneliness, ostracism [Mark 1:42]) which accompanied the disease, and took pity on the leper. He healed him of his leprosy. The consequence was of course more than just the restoration of the sick man’s health. Even more important to Mark was the fact that he was socially and religiously made whole again. He returned to his family, to his circle of friends, and was restored to the normal religious community. People could now associate with him, and he could participate of the sacrifice in the Temple .

Of course, today, we have few lepers, but we have a number of modern counterparts whom our unkind society normally rejects. We can think of moral lepers: prostitutes, guest relation officers, calls girls and criminals. We also have physical lepers: HIV and AIDS victims, tuberculars, neurotics and psychotics. And to some extent, we have social lepers: dockworkers, squatter settlers, barkers, hold-uppers and small-time thieves (big-one ones, ironically, are often honored in high places). In many ways, they are the alienated, the unwanted in our contemporary world. We normally discriminate against, if not exclude them from the respectable society. We erect various walls to keep them out, in much the same way that the Jews put barriers between those within and those outside the respectable Jewish society. But if the Gospel (Mark 1:40-45) has any lesson, it is that we are invited to accept such people to the Christian community where no one is excluded on the basis of money, morality, and gender: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave or free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus”(Gal 3:27), for our vocation is to be one: “to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace: one body, one Spirit… one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all…” (Eph 4:3-6). So as Christians, we have to make every effort that all people, no matter the kind of leprosy they have, should have a place in our Christian community, where humanity, justice and dignity are restored, and where they will be accepted, and treated as fellow Christians. We have to make every effort to support them, and uplift them from misery through our love and concern for them.