Friday, April 29, 2011

The Risen Lord Is Alive in the New Community

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Second Sunday of Easter, Year A, John 20:19-31, May 1, 2011

As I was reading Amando Doronila’s The Fall of Joseph Estrada: The Inside Story, it occurred to me that the whole story of the former President’s fall is something like what we see in cartoons—as the carcass of an animal begins to disintegrate, a new, stronger creature arises. Early in his term, Joseph Estrada’s Presidency was wounded by a series of scandals involving corruption, his battle with the press, and his tinkering with the Constitution, among others. When Gov. Luis Singson’s bombshell exploded, his Presidency was directly hit. And Clarissa Ocampo’s testimony was like a final sword thrust to its heart. When his 11 Senators prevented the opening of the second envelope, the Presidency began to leave him, and, as the people started gathering at Edsa, gradually entered the body of another, this time, a woman. When the Cabinet left him, the Army withdrew its support, and the Chief Justice sworn in Gloria Arroyo, the Presidency completely left him, and took a new flesh to dwell in.

The resurrection of Jesus admits of various meanings, but one of them is akin to this. As we noted last Sunday, God the Father, by raising Jesus from the dead, vindicated him. The resurrection proved that Jesus’ enemies were wrong, after all. But this vindication was efficacious. Just as the dying days of Joseph Estrada’s Presidency gave rise to a new people power gathered around a new President, so from the death of Jesus rose a new people. In today’s Gospel (John 20:19-31), this is indicated by a significant gesture of Jesus—he breathed on his disciples (John 20:22). This action of Jesus readily recalls God’s creative acts recounted in Genesis and Ezekiel. In Genesis, it is said that when God breathed into the nostrils of Adam the breath of life, Adam became a living being (Gen 2:7). Thus, the gesture of breathing completed the action of the creation of man. Similarly, in Ezekiel, it is told that when the wind breathed into those who were slain, they were given a new life (Ezek 37:10). There is no doubt that John had in mind these texts when he wrote today’s Gospel. By saying that Jesus breathed into his disciples, John wanted to teach us that with the death and resurrection of Jesus, a new life was imparted, and a new community was born. There was, in other words, a new creation—a new people was born through the Holy Spirit, which is what the air breathed signifies, by Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The second reading describes to us the form of this new creation: “The [members of the new community] devoted themselves to the apostles’ instruction and the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). A few words may be said of this text. Though the instruction included the Old Testament, it gradually focused on Jesus’ teachings and the interpretation handed on by the apostles. Later on, these were collected, committed to writing, and applied by preachers, teachers and catechists to their own particular situation. An important feature of this community life was the sharing of goods. Those who believed shared all things in common. They would sell their property and goods, dividing everything on the basis of each one’s needs (Acts 2:44-45). The practice obviously brought each member closer to one another, and encouraged the development of an ethics of renunciation of property and rejection of concentration of wealth. The breaking of the bread was an early feature of community life: “Every time then you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26). The breaking of the bread refers, of course, to the Eucharist, which replaced the temple sacrifice with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Finally, no doubt the prayers consisted of Jewish prayers, although in the long run, Christians gradually formulated their own, after the example of Jesus himself who taught the “Our Father” to his disciples.

It should be emphasized that these features of the early Christian community were an actualization of the new life in the Spirit of Jesus in the daily life of Christian believers. In other words, they reflect the work of the Holy Spirit in the community. From these features developed some of the fundamental structures of the Christian community. For example, the apostles’ instruction could be easily identified with the Church’s task of evangelization, while the breaking of the bread and the prayers pertain to the entire worship of the Church, but especially the Eucharistic Celebration and the sacraments. The fellowship of love, on the other hand, is related to the ministry of social service in the Church. If these have anything to teach us, it is that the present practices in the Church did not come from nowhere, nor were they invented by the present Church. On the contrary, they developed out of the effort of the Church to actualize the distinctive features of the early Christian community in the current situation as the members tried to demonstrate how the Spirit works in the new age.

Therefore, as we pause to consider the present structures of our parishes and dioceses, it is important to ask whether these stand in continuity with the earliest traditions in the Church. It is unfortunate that today, when people try to look at their Church—the parish or the diocese, it seems that their point of comparison is the world of business. They seem to think that what makes a business corporation successful must be applied to the Christian community. However, from the viewpoint of Christian faith, that is far from being correct. The parish, for example, is not about profits and successes, or about display of achievement. Looked at in the perspective of faithfulness to the early Church, it can be seen—in the words of the 1987 Synod of Bishops—as “the customary place where the faithful gather to grow in holiness, to participate in the mission of the Church, and to live out their ecclesial communities.” No wonder that the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP II) recommends that the parish “should be a dynamic Eucharistic and evangelizing community of communities, a center which energizes movements, Basic Ecclesial Communities and other apostolic groups and is in turn nourished by them.” By being such, the parish exhibits the life of the Spirit that God continues to pour out in the Church..

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Justified by God before Men, Jesus Sends his Church in Mission

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of Easter Sunday, Year A, Matthew 28:1-10, April 24, 2011

It is worth recalling that during the presidency of Arroyo, “May Gloria ang bukas mo,” a one-and-a-half hour-long program of the former President, and a brainchild of her publicist, Dante Ang, aired on radio and television, was sacked on March 2, 2002 on its 19th episode, obviously because there was no ground for its continued airing. It did not rate well. As the President herself admitted, it lost even to children’s shows like Batibot. On the other hand, almost at the same time, former President Bush’s war against the Taliban and the al-Queda network continued because even Muslim countries felt that it was justified. Without the support of other countries, it would not have gone on. Understandably enough, Bush refurbished the US image. For example, in face of the rising tide of anti-Americanism, he put up a new office to ensure that foreign correspondents in Washington as well as foreign leaders and opinion-makers overseas understand his ideas and policies. America cannot fight terrorism unilaterally. Which is why, when Bush declared that he was expanding antiterrorist campaign to include the axis of evil—Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, the European nations warned the United States that it would be making a mistake to go it alone in its antiterrorism campaign. A project, in other words, cannot go on unless it is confirmed, accepted, and justified.

Must the cause of Jesus go on? Last Sunday, we noted that the cause of Jesus was the Kingdom of God. If there was anything that unified and gave meaning to all that he said and did, it was the Kingdom. Because it was the center of his teachings and activities, everything radiated from it. Take it away, and nothing about them will ever be really understood. If Jesus was born to a poor family, if he taught love of enemies, if he dined with tax collectors and sinners to the scandal of the civil society of his time, it was because these well sprang from the demands of his proclamation of the Kingdom. His cause was so human, and it answered the longings of the poor, whose welfare the social institutions like the government and the state religion must look after. Ironically, however, the holders of the same social institutions rejected his cause. They judged him to be a rebel and a blasphemer. And so, to ensure the discontinuance of his cause, they tried him and found him guilty. They thought that by eliminating him, they could put an end to his cause. They would be able to stop the spread of what they thought was a brazen lie, a deception of the people, and the cause of the downfall of the nation. Thus, instead of confirming him, accepting him and justifying him, they rejected him. In the judgment seat of men, Jesus was clearly in the wrong.

But was he?

Today, we commemorate the resurrection of the Lord, which is the greatest feast in the Christian liturgy. But that Jesus came to life again—what does that mean? It is interesting to note that in the New Testament, the resurrection of Jesus admits of various meanings. In fact, each New Testament writer has his own distinctive way of interpreting the event. In John, for example, if Jesus’ death was his glorification (john 13:31-32), his resurrection was his exaltation (John 12:32). In Hebrew’s, it is Jesus’ installation to the function of a heavenly high priest (cf Ps 110:4), in Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians, it signals the imminent arrival of the parousia (1 Thess 1:10). Mathew, however, gives various meanings to it, which are far different from what we have just said. And one meaning that he stresses in the early tradition is this—Jesus may have suffered a lot in the hands of men, but that does not mean that he was in the wrong. Rather, he was in the right all along, even though he was like other righteous men who were persecuted and killed by wicked people. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You kill the prophets and stone the messengers God has sent to you” (Matt 23:34). (It may be noted that Luke even places Jesus in the line of Abel and the prophets who were persecuted: “The people of this time will be punished for the murder of all the prophets killed since the creation of the world, from the murder of Abel to the murder of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the holy place [Luke 11:50-51].) To show, therefore, that the prophet was not in the wrong, the Father resurrected him.

For Matthew, in other words, the resurrection was a vindication of the messenger of the Kingdom. Though people perceived him to be a liar, God had a different way of looking at him—he was obviously in the right. Which is why, in Matthew, Jesus was not only exalted by God; on the contrary, he was even given a commissioning role that is usually ascribed to God in the Jewish tradition. Thus, the Gospel today describes Jesus as giving the great commission: “When they saw him, they worshipped him, even though some of them doubted. Jesus drew near and said to them, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples; baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you. And I will be with you always to the end of the age” (Matt 28:17-30). In other words, the rising of Jesus from the dead signifies the continuation of his cause: The Kingdom of God, which summarizes everything that Jesus taught, must be preached to all the nations.

But not only that. Just as Jesus embodied the Kingdom, so those who received the message must live it. A people that embodies it must be born. This is the reason why the command to baptize is appended to it is that baptism initiates one to a community that lives the Kingdom and its values. This is why the birth of the Church is often associated with the resurrection of Jesus, for it is the Church, as a community, that lives the Kingdom. Jesus did not say that it lives anywhere else. This means that the resurrection implies a giving of the mission to the Church. Its mission is to embody the Kingdom in her community life. Now we understand the mission given by Jesus to his disciples at the Sermon on the Mount: “You are the light for the whole world… Your light must shine before people, so that they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:14a.16). The Church evangelizes not only by preaching the Kingdom to those who have not heard about it, but also—and this is important—by simply living its values in her very life.

That is why the Church must fulfill its mission, even if the world does not accept it. She cannot sack it. The Kingdom of God must be preached and lived even in situations that reject her mission. That it is not accepted does not prove that it is wrong. The Church has God’s assurance that her mission is not a lie, for he resurrected Jesus from the dead. On the contrary, she has to preach even if people do not listen to her’ she may even have to undergo various forms of dying and martyrdom. This meaning of the resurrection is well captured by a disciple of Paul: “I solemnly urge you to preach the message, to insist upon proclaiming it (whether the time is right or not), to convince, reproach and encourage, as you teach with all patience. The time will come when people will not listen to sound doctrine, but will follow their own desires and will collect for themselves more and more teachers who will teach them what they are itching to hear. They will turn away from listening to the truth and gave their attention to legends. But you must keep control of yourself in all circumstances, endure suffering, do the work of a preacher of the Good News, and perform your whole duty as a servant of God” (2 Tim 4:3-5).*

Friday, April 22, 2011


by Lope Coles Robredillo, SThD

ALONGSIDE THE LITURGICAL celebrations that the Church observes during the Holy Week are practices which, in the Philippines, have long been linked with it. Among them are the siete palabras, the way of the cross, procession of images, salubong, pabasa, cenaculo, and penitencia. For most Catholics, they not only add color to the week-long celebrations, but are, in fact, so associated with the Holy Week that it could not be conceived without them. It is not seldom that devotees--if only for these folk rituals—would spend the Holy Week in Sta. Cruz (Marinduque), Palo (Leyte), Grotto (Novaliches), or in some remote town in Bicol or Pangasinan, rather than in their own parishes. Some, for example, may decline to attend the Good Friday liturgy, but they will certainly make an effort to witness penitentes reenact the crucifixion on that day. Indeed, it happens that these activities attract more people than the liturgical celebrations themselves. But since these practices belong to the extra-liturgical spiritual life of the Church, the question is often raised: how do you look at them a critical point of view?

For the nonce, it may be well to focus on the pabasa, cenaculo, and penitencia, and, to start with, give a short description of these practices. Usually held at home, the pabasa is the singing of the life of Jesus in poetic form, called pasyon. Accompanied by a musical instrument, with the book placed between the two lighted candles, singers chant verses, oftentimes in alternation, before a crucifix. It is not uncommon for the host to serve drinks and finger foods during a pabasa. The cenaculo is the dramatization of the passion story, which normally begins with the scene of the agony in the garden, and ends with the crucifixion. It may take the form of simple passion play or a grand one similar to that of Oberammergau in Bavaria, where practically the whole village is involved in holding it once every ten years. Unlike the way of the cross which is aimed at meditating on the journey to Calvary, the penitencia seeks to dramatize the physical sufferings of Jesus bodily, either by physical flagellation, the carrying of a heavy cross, being crucified on it, or their combination. All of them are, objectively viewed, forms of participation in the suffering of Jesus: oral (pabasa), dramatic (cenaculo) and bodily (penitencia).

Expressions of Affective Faith

It is instructive that whereas in the siete palabras, procession, salubong and the way of the cross, the priest ordinarily accompanies the participants, especially in the provinces, he is conspicuously absent in pabasa, cenaculo and penitencia. Of importance, however, is that these three rituals are basically meant for the edification of lay people. And they are held without having to be joined with the liturgical celebrations going on in the church. The priest has no role in them. They belong to the popular tradition. But they are originally aimed at participation in the celebrations of the mysteries of redemption. If these observations have anything to tell us, it is that these rituals are expressions of the people’s affective faith, which scarcely finds place in the official worship in the Church. In effect, it may be said that these popular practices are expressions of the lay people’s affective dimension of faith and at the same time are catered to it. They enhance religious affections and feelings. In the chanting of the pasyon, it sometimes happens that singers, swept by their emotion as they sing the poetic lines, shed tears; in the cenaculo, the participants become emotionally involved as they dramatize the events surrounding Jesus’ death; and in the penitencia, they are able to empathize with him in his pain. On the other hand, Roman liturgy is sober and reticent, and such emotion experience has scarcely any place for expression in it.

At the same time, however, they also externalize the people’s understanding of the faith. Of course, the lay people did not compose the pasyon; priests did. Most likely too, they did not, at the beginning, write the script of the cenaculo; but they make the oral and dramatic expressions, and obviously, having been written for them, these influence their ways of thinking and acting. For this reason, it is not surprising, indeed, that in most cases, their knowledge of who Jesus is and his salvific work shows a familiarity more with the pasyon and the drama than with the gospels or the official Christology and soteriology of the Church. Moreover, today, the script of the cenaculo is being written by laymen and, although priests are consulted, the over-all outcome mirrors the understanding of lay people. But this is especially true of penitencia. Though its roots may be traced to the practice of doing penance during Lent, it expresses the lay people’s faith in what participation in the suffering of Jesus must consist of. The rituals, in the other words, are a vehicle which expresses the faith experiences of the participants, but at the same time serving to call that faith to mind, and to catechize their audience in that faith.

Reason for Attractiveness

That these rituals (particularly the cenaculo and the penitencia) attract more people than the liturgical celebrations has at least four significations. First, this indicates their success, at least in catering to the affective dimension of their faith, and the understanding of that faith. In other words, they are able to speak to the needs of the lay people. Unhampered by liturgical discipline, they undergo changes and additions as they develop and flourish in response to those needs. For this reason, they are meaningful to them. The second implication is simply the reverse of the first. These rituals may also be interpreted as an expression of their disaffection from the official Church liturgy. For lay people, it is difficult to appropriate the meaning of the prayers and the action of the official liturgy. Hence, they feel the need for a ritual in order to plug in to the reticent liturgical celebration. A case in point is the holding of hands during singing of the Lord’s Prayer. Although it is against liturgical norms to do so, people in Manila make that gesture because, as someone said, it feels good. More should be said of this, but the point is, there is wisdom in the proposition that liturgy should not be foreign to the affective dimension of the people’s faith.

Moreover, the lay people have been estranged from the official liturgy because, before the Second Vatican Council, they had a little chance--save for cantoras--to take an active part in the liturgy. They were simply spectators, who could not understand the meaning of the words and gesture in the liturgy. Third, in these folk rituals, the lay people are, on the contrary, the subject of the expressions of faith experiences, not merely the recipients or onlookers of the celebrations. And the medium of expression is the language they speak and are at home with. On the other hand, that of the liturgy before, which was Latin, was opaque to their understanding. Hence, they could never comprehend nor feel for themselves the meaning of the celebrations. And fourth, on account of all this, the rituals provide them identity.

Environment of Poverty

The aspect of disenfranchisement brings the discussion to the social location which these religious practices presuppose: an environment of poverty. In general, those who take part in pabasa, who are involved in the cenaculo, and who engage in bodily flagellation do not came from the middle class or above it. They belong to the lower classes–those often alienated from the official liturgy. Even today, they are, in many areas, still disenfranchised, because they are not given opportunities to take an active part and express their faith in parish celebrations to a degree which these rituals allow. (Eucharistic celebrations in which members of charismatic communities are able to express themselves emotionally are an exception rather than the rule.) Quite apart from the gulf created between the language of the liturgy and that of the poor people, the common values which these practices represent are the pain and the suffering which Jesus endured until death, and people who are poor easily understand and identify themselves with these values. Hence, solidarity in values also accounts for the popularity of these rituals in an environment of poverty. The crucifixion for them is God’s empathy from which they can derive strength and inspiration. Clearly then, these rituals speak something of the part of society or the environment in which they thrive.

Encounter between Faith and Culture

Their practitioners to some extend cut off from the official Church, and coming from the grass roots, these rituals--it is the whole understandable--reflect an understanding which is the outcome of the encounter between the Christian faith, which they received with much limitations, and the culture in which they were brought up. They presuppose an environment removed from the centers of religion and politics. Before the coming of the Spanish missionaries, our forefathers believed in animism. Here, it was taught that the forces of nature were controlled by spirits who, by magical rituals, could be rendered beneficent or harmful. These were performed by the diwatahan, tambalan or baylana. If Holy Week folk rituals have anything to tell us, it is the animism has not been completely erased from the Filipino psyche. If one makes a survey on those who join in the cenaculo, for example, he will discover that the motive for participation is not simply to share the suffering of Christ, if at all; some likely answers are: fulfillment of a promise, thanksgiving for a favor granted, or reparation for sins.

In a study made on the penitentes of Palo, Leyte, it emerged that fear of punishment was among the motives for submitting oneself to penitencia. The fear of punishment for doing something wrong the year round motivates a person to placate an angry God. By experiencing pain, one assures himself of forgiveness, escape from punishment, and peace of mind. Nonetheless, this is actually an animist theology, though one cannot blame the devotees .They probably have never been thought correct theology, or have correctly understood it, in the first place. On the other hand, the environment of poverty prevents them from having access to opportunities to learning orthodoxy. Hence, the theology of these rituals does not perfectly cohere with the official teaching of the Church. On the contrary, it represents the result of the people’s appropriation of the gospel message vis-à-vis their pre-Hispanic culture and their situation of poverty.

Which brings us to other shadows of these rituals. Alienated from the centers of Catholic authority and life, they are in danger, among others, of being engaged in for utilitarian purposes. That one participates in self flagellation to obtain God’s forgiveness values the ritual for what the subject can obtain from it. This borders on superstitions, which nurtures the belief that as long as one engages in the ritual, he will be safe, for example, from calamities. This is true of other expressions of popular piety which are celebrated in connection with liturgy. For instance, although a procession is designed as a public witness to the faith, this is not how lay people take it. In many cases, they do not participate in it for that end. That one takes part in it so his illness will be cured, or so his son will reform his life–motives like these are very common. It fact during fiestas in rural areas, many residents will complain if the conduct of the procession excludes their houses from its ambit, convinced as they are that this will also bar them from receiving the graces that are obtained through the intercession of their patron saint.

Subjectivism and Lack of Ecclesial Sense

Related to this is the risk that these rituals are anchored on subjectivism. As already noted, one reason for the popularity of a Holy Week ritual is that it caters to the people’s affective needs. Because it is in touch with their feelings, it makes them satisfied. But there is a danger in thinking that what satisfies is good. That is subjectivism. In official liturgy, of course, this is not supposed to happen, because liturgical signs have their own meaning. That is why the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of Sacraments, for example, forbids the raising of hands during the Lord’s Prayer because this gesture symbolizes communion. At any rate, lay people continue the practice because they feel good doing it. But it is precisely the role of liturgy to educate us in such a way we are able to express the meaning of liturgical gestures as our own, and so enter into the mystery of God and our own as a community. This frees liturgy from the danger of subjectivism. On other hand, since lay people engage in Holy Week folk rituals because they make them feel good and satisfy their affective needs, they do not lead to a real participation in the saving mystery.

In addition, these rituals hardly promote a sense of belonging to the Church. Because they focus on answering the effective needs of the participants, they, in general, are individualistic in orientation. If one were to ask the motivations of Black Nazarene devotees in Quiapo for joining the January procession or for wiping their handkerchiefs on the image, the responses would hardly differ from the ones that would be given for joining the cenaculo or the penitencia: personal favors, either material or spiritual. There is scarcely any sense of being community or of belonging to one. (Which reminds us the pre-Vatican II eucharistic celebrations where each member of the congregation acted as if he or she were not related to the other worshippers in the church.)They lack social direction. Understandably, the theory of salvation or soteriology they embody is likewise individualistic: it is the individual who is saved from material and spiritual evils. Hardly ever clear is the concept of salvation of the community, still less the teaching that we are saved through the community. Consequently, the idea of building up the kingdom as part of their mission is far removed from them. On the contrary, the understanding is oriented toward the maintenance of the status quo. It is not farfetched to say that these rituals are burdened with the pre-Vatican II theology. And since they tend to develop apart from the hierarchical structure of the Church, it is not surprising that, in some cases, they are celebrated without any harmony with the liturgical time and meaning of the Holy Week. And their lack of ecclesial sense of belonging opens itself to abuse. It does happen that these rituals are held either for the personal advantage of their patrons, or for tourism purposes, or both.

More Important than Liturgy?

As is true of other popular devotions, these Holy Week popular rituals–to many lay people–are regarded as more important than the liturgy itself for reason already noted. As a young priest assigned to the seminary, I used to say Mass in far-flung barangays. For lack of priest, only one Mass was celebrated in each of them once a month. One day, in one barangay, the old ladies asked me a favor after the mass: "Father, since you come here only once a month, may we suggest that instead of coming every first Sunday, you rather say Mass for us every first Friday?” Similar views can be encountered when it comes to the Holy Week rituals. For many, it is more fitting to act as Pilate in the cenaculo than to attend the Holy Thursday liturgy. It is more meaningful to undergo self-flagellation than to participate in the Good Friday liturgy, for, in the penitencia, one really experiences than the pain which Jesus himself experienced. And so on.

The problem, of course, is that this only reinforces the development of wrong values in the sense that these are at variance with those held by the Catholic Church. And precisely because many consider these rituals more important than the liturgy, there lurks the danger that they might think that all that is needed to be in the right before God is to take an active part in these folk practices. They might believe these are the ways of approaching God. That many ritual enthusiasts do not go to Church on Sunday, that they do not receive the sacraments, that they are more familiar with their practices than with the Bible--these reflect their lack of belonging to the Church and the importance they ascribe to these rituals. That the most important in being Christian is to follow Jesus daily in discipleship within the community, not in the yearly act of self-flagellation--this, it would seem, is still lost to the devotees.

Incomplete View of the Passion

Finally, the primary importance attached by the participants in the cenaculo, pabasa and penitencia to the death of Jesus results in the formation of values which have grave consequences for their faith and life. (Of course, such significance is not limited to the practitioners of these rituals. As may be observed during the Holy Week celebrations all the country over, it is only during Good Friday that people feel obliged to go to church; hence, pews are occupied to the full. But Easter and its Vigil, which are the culmination of the three-day celebrations, does not, except in parishes where small communities are flourishing, command as much crowd.) The value placed on the death of Jesus has serious implications for a theology of salvation, because this overlooks the life and ministry which led his death, and the vindication of him by God through the resurrection. In such a theology, Jesus came only to die. Which, of course, is a gross oversimplification. Seen in this light, suffering almost becomes valuable in itself, or at least part and parcel of being human which nothing can be done about. But then, this would almost associate Christianity with masochism! Suffering, however, is evil, even in Christianity. In systematics, God is always viewed as a pure positivity. In the Bible, Jesus never enjoyed suffering; if he suffered, it was a consequence of the life he led. He was murdered; he never sought pain and suffering. To say therefore that all that is important is to participate in the suffering of Jesus by simply undergoing self-flagellation or by joining the cenaculo is to oversimplify the meaning of Jesus’ suffering and death. Such a theological understanding would encourage the acceptance of injustice, oppression and domination, and could be used to justify them.


But despite these observations, there is no reason to dismiss these rituals as aberrations. On the positive side, what the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP II) says of popular piety readily applies to them: “These religious practices are rich in values. They manifest a thirst for God and enable people to be generous and sacrificing in witnessing to their faith. These practices show a deep awareness of the attributes of God: fatherhood, providence, loving and constant presence. They engender attitudes of patience, the sense of the Cross in daily life, detachment, openness to others, devotion’’ (PCP II, Acts and Decrees, 172). In their Third General Conference at Puebla, the Latin American Bishops describe the lights of popular piety, which may be said of any of our Holy Week popular rituals: it “presents such positive aspects as a sense of the sacred and the transcendent; openness of the Word of God; Marian devotion; an aptitude for the prayer; a sense of friendship, charity, and family unity; an ability to suffer and to atone; Christian resignation in irremediable situations; and detachment from the material world” (GCLAB, Puebla, 913).

But then, what is to be done?

Potential for Social Transformation

Despite their weaknesses, they should not be suppressed. Our attitude should be “one of critical respect, encouragement of renewal” (PCP II, Acts and Decrees,175). For one thing, these Holy Week rituals are engaged in by numerous but poor Catholic all over the Philippines. And being part of the Church, they are subject of the Church’s care. This even gains prominence today since the Church in the Philippines has declared its intention to become a Church of the Poor where, among others, its “members and leaders have special love for poor.” The Church must therefore value their faith expression, however distorted or superficial, found in these rituals. For this reason, we must help the devotees in such a way that these practices can contribute to the maturing of our faith. And, probably, this could be done in two ways. First, we can identify their values and motivations and purify them in the lights of Christian faith. Then we can transform them by imbuing them with Christian values. In the process, we can show how these rituals are connected, for example, with the entire life of the Christian, and with the life of others. The purpose here is primary their coherence with right beliefs and right living (orthodoxy and orthopraxis).

Second, in helping deepen their faith, we can explore the potential of these rituals for social transformation. At present, they are observed yearly, but do not have--it would seem--any visible impact on the communities they are held in. Probably for most, they are simply rituals, religious externals--period. But it is instructive that during the Spanish period, from the 18th century onward, the Tagalogs found in the passion story a motivation for revolt against oppression. (A Filipino theology of liberation must take into account the theology of the Filipino peasant religious movements.) We are still in the process of liberation, and as the Philippine bishops noted their Pastoral Exhortation on the Philippines Centennial Celebration, “today, our liberty is eroded as much by foreign invaders, as by internal enemies as the poverty of the many and the concentration of wealth among the few, inequality and lack of participation, injustice and exploitation, deficient culture values and mind-set, destruction of the ecosystem and deterioration of peace and order, to mention a few. True freedom demands that we, especially the poor and the disadvantaged, are liberated from this evils (cf. Gal 3:25-28). It requires profound changes in socio-economics and political structures, revolution of the heart (cf. Jas 4:1) and, most important, liberation from sin (2 Chr 7:14 Rom 6 18; 1 Tim 1:5). It dictates that we ourselves shape our history.” Of course, we should not utilize these rituals to incite revolt—that is unchristian. But surely we can ask: what values could be appropriated from these rituals which could serve as vehicles, in a very Christian way, and how they could contribute to the process of transforming society, which the PCP II speaks of (cf. PCP II, Acts and Decrees #97)? How can “they serve the cause of full human development, justice, peace and the integrity of creation” (PCP II, Acts and Decrees,175)?* (Note: The author wrote this essay in 1998].

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Fugitive--Abandoned by Men and God!

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion, Year A, Matthew 26:14-27:66
April 17, 2011

Probably few people are as fortunate as former President Joseph Ejercito Estrada. It may be recalled that during his Impeachment Trial, it was denied by the defense that he signed a PCI Bank document as Jose Velarde; but Clarissa Ocampo, former Equitable PCI Bank vice-president, testified in court that she was one foot away when Estrada did so in Malacañang on 4 February 2000. According to Prosecutors, an account of his with the Equitable PCI bank at one point contained P3.2 billion, when his declared not worth was only P35 million. But on 25 February 2002, he admitted on television that he had signed bank documents as Jose Velarde, bolstering credibility of the star witness Ocampo. Of course, by the looks of it, Estrada’s confession during an interview aired by ANC News Channel strengthened the plunder case, and that blunder in an ordinary mortal would have sent supporters away from him. But not so with Estrada. In fact, later, Jesus Remulla, spokesman of Partido ng Masang Filipino claimed, for example, that it was Ocampo who made Estrada sign documents using a false name. The Union of Masses for Democracy and Justice (UMDJ) spoke against the Impeachment Trial, calling it the “kangaroo trial of the century.” When finally, he ran once more for President against Manuel Villar and Noynoy Aquino, a good number, even millions, of Filipinos supported his candidacy, and the election results placed him not far removed from President Aquino.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is clearly not as fortunate as Estrada, even though, unlike him, he did not commit any blunder. Like other synoptic writers, Matthew portrays Jesus as the bringer of the Kingdom of God. By Kingdom of God he does not mean a religio-political theocracy in which God is represented by the high priest, or a community in which only the good and perfect people form part. By Kingdom he means God’s rule in a community in which the poor are not discriminated against, sinners are accepted, and the humble, the suffering and the oppressed come into their own. It is a community in which people experience acceptance, forgiveness, reconciliation, unity and love. In other words, it is the fulfillment of God’s promise to the prophets that he will live among his people. As a bringer of the Kingdom, he actualized it in his dealings with the people, especially the poor and the disadvantaged. In particular, his parables and miracles were meant to indicate God’s forgiving and healing word and action are now touching the very lives of his people. His fellowship with sinners was a living parable of salvation and forgiveness. In Jesus God was sharing his very life with Israel.

This was not the way Jesus’ contemporaries saw him, however. The Jewish leaders refused to see him as God’s eschatological messenger. Judging him on the basis of their understanding of the Law, the Jewish leaders, according to the Gospels, regarded him as one who claimed authority that was more than human. For example, he set his interpretation of the Law against the prevailing one in the community; he is portrayed as violating the Sabbath, and he even challenged the tradition of the Jewish Elders. In the Jewish perspective of the Law, Jesus was seen as a false prophet, and in cahoots with the prince of demons. And when he said something about the Temple that was unacceptable to the leaders of the nation, they viewed his action not as something linked with the Kingdom of God, which it was, but as an assault on their authority. But those who were against him were not only the Jewish leaders and their cronies. The leaders themselves found allies among the political leaders. In particular, they had the Governor on their side, and considering that they themselves had no power to put someone to death, they found in Pilate a perfect partner.

Since the Jewish leaders could not accuse Jesus of being a false prophet before Pilate, since this would not make sense to him, they denounced him as a pretender to the throne. Which explains the charge that was written on the cross and the capital punishment. The charge, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” was something a Roman governor could understand, and the fact that Jesus was crucified clearly indicates that Pilate considered him a rebel, crucifixion being a Roman punishment for insurgents. One can see, therefore, that the religious and the political leaders saw him as dangerous, and therefore had to be eliminated. It is not surprising that in some gospel passages, it can be noticed that Jesus recognized how precarious his life was. Clearly, he had no one powerful enough either in the government or in the state religion to support him. He could not even walk openly. And one could just imagine the psychological effect these had on Jesus. To bring home the point, one may just make a mental picture of himself being hunted down not only by the executive department with the military, but also by the judiciary and the institutional religion—where could one go to? He could only live the life of a fugitive, and that is note easy. Of course, a fugitive from the law can still hide, if he has supporters to shelter him. But even this was denied him. On the contrary, one from his own group betrayed him. And even those who promised to die for him eventually ran when the authorities caught up with him. Jesus, in other words, was abandoned not only by those who represented his own people, but even by those who were supposed to protect him. No life could be more painful than this. Men abandoned him.

Of course, the abandonment of him by his own men and the institutions of the country, not to say the scourging, the carrying of the cross and the crucifixion, could still be borne if he had someone to cling to. After all, we are often told that when one knows someone understands him, loves him, clings to him and accepts him for what he is and without condition, he can bear almost any kind of pain. That this is true—this is easily verified when we hear the stories of people who have been imprisoned, or tortured, or who are separated from their wives either as sailors or as contract workers abroad. The certainty, the assurance that someone loves us is sufficient ground to survive and bear all the difficulties. In the life of Jesus, one easily identifies his ground of existence with his Father. People may not have understood him, but he was certain that his Father did. After all, in the gospels he claims that no one knows the Father except the Son and no one knows the Son except the Father, and those he has chosen to reveal him. In the end, however, he was unsupported in his sufferings, the Father never freed him from it. This is probably the meaning of his scream at death, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46). That kind of suffering is obviously unspeakable. At any rate, that is how Matthew’s passion narrative portrays the death of Jesus—he dies as an abandoned Son of God, the Crucified Messiah.*

Friday, April 8, 2011

To Be a Christian Is To Be a Man for Others

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A, John 11:1-45, April 10, 2011

When some major TV networks featured an Abu Sayaf footage a few years ago, there was much outrage and furor—as well as approval. The TV footage showed machete-wielding Abu Sayaf rebels interrogating captured soldiers before chopping off their heads in an undetermined location at the Basilan jungles. There was much criticism on Malacañang’s decision to release the tapes to the TV networks. People were terribly upset, calling Malacañang insensitive and manipulative in gathering support to the holding of the Balikatan 02-1. Others, however, favored the airing of the footage, saying that it embodies the truth about the Abu Sayaf atrocities. Former President Arroyo herself, defending the decision to release to gory footage, declared that the people have the right to know. But amid the mounting outrage as well as increasing support, a person who called himself “Jun” claimed that the machete-wielding man seen on TV was not an Abu, but he himself who was forced to do it, because if he did not, the Abu Sayafs would have beheaded him instead. He killed others so that he might live.

Today’s Gospel is about Jesus who is the exact opposite of “Jun”—Jesus died so that others may live. But that is going ahead of the point of the narrative. At first blush, it would seem that the story is about Lazarus. But as one reads the story, he gradually notices that it leaves much to be desired. For example, after Jesus raised him from the dead, did Lazarus live a normal life? Did he die again? Why is it that we do not hear about him in the subsequent events in the Gospel? Truth is, these questions are irrelevant, because the story is not about Lazarus, but about Jesus. In the previous Sundays, we noticed that Jesus performed signs—he performed acts of power that brings the reader who has faith to spiritual realities. The water of Jacob’s well was a sign of the water of life, and the cure of the blind man was a sign of Jesus as giver of light. In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus once again performs a sign—the seventh—to bring the mind and faith of the believer to another spiritual reality: Jesus is the giver of life.

But what is life, in the first place? Does it simply mean a power that animates something or someone? It may be noticed that the word “life” occurs 36 times in the Gospel of John, 13 in the Johannine Letters, and 17 in Revelation. Since it is found 107 times in the Johannine writings and 135 times in the entire New Testament, the concept is therefore relatively important. But what does the term signify? Of course, there are various meanings of the word. Metaphorically speaking, for example, one might say that Jennifer is his life, or money in his life, or teaching is his life. In the Johannine usage, however, life is what God himself and Jesus possess: “Indeed, just as the Father possesses life in himself, so has he granted it to his Son to have life in himself” (John 5:26). Jesus has it from the Father: “Just as the Father who has life sent me, and I have life because of the Father…” (John 6:57). Life is therefore the fellowship of the Father and the Son, and this fellowship cannot be destroyed: “Whoever believes in me, though he should die, will come to life, and whoever is alive and believes in me will never die” (John 11:26). If we may attempt at a short description, we say that life is the experience of God in our lives, and this life is one of wholeness that is shared with others. In this life there is integrity of body and soul, and there is fullness of joy. In the letters of Paul, this seems to be akin to the indwelling of the Spirit: “You are not in the flesh, you are in the spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you” (Rom 8:9).

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says that anyone who believes in him will live (John 11:26). This means that a person, even here on earth, can already share or possess this life of fellowship with God if he puts his faith in Jesus (1 John 1:3). And the seventh sign—the story of Lazarus—is meant to illustrate this teaching. If Lazarus is Jesus’ close friend, he represents the Christian who believes in Jesus and, like Lazarus and his sisters, is loved by him. But who does Jesus love? According to John, he who keeps the commandments of love: “He who obeys the commandments he has from me is the man who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father. I, too, will love him and reveal himself to him” (John 14:21). John categorically states that Jesus loves Lazarus (John 11:3), and therefore one can assume that Lazarus, while he was living, obeyed the commandments of love. For this reason, Jesus gives him life. Because life has not been taken away from him, though he died, Lazarus’ death is only a form of sleeping (John 11:43-44). In this narrative, therefore, the physical death of Lazarus is simply meant to signify a spiritual reality. It is a sign of who Jesus is—he is a giver of life. At the same time, it is a sign of what he can do to those who believe in him—one does not die if he possesses the life of Jesus.

The story of Lazarus is narrated to challenge the hearer to believe in Jesus (John 11:26), and to believe in him is to love, for it is in love that faith is shown: “His commandment is this: that we are to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and we are to love one another as he commanded us” (1 John 3:23). By believing in him and loving him in the community of believers, the believer receives life from him. But if he rejects Jesus and even hates him, one dies. But if one receives life because he believes and loves, he is no longer in the realm of death, but even here on earth, he receives divine life: “That we have passed from death to life we know, because we love the brothers” (1 John 3:14b). For John, this is the only kind of life that endures—others perish with death. Life of wealth will go bankrupt, life of beauty will fade, life of popularity and fame wanes. If there is anything that persists even after death has occurred, this is our fellowship with God. And because this assumes that one loves his brothers, one cannot follow the example of a certain “Jun” who, if his story is true, blindly obeyed the Abu Sayaf to chop off the head of the soldiers, in order to have life. Such life would end soon in death. If Christ is able to give life because he died, so is a Christian: he must offer his life for others so that others may live, and in that way, he will surely receive a hundredfold life.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Christian Community as a People That Walks in the Light

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the 4th Sunday of Lent, Year A, John 9:1-41, April 3

During the presidency of Arroyo, a power outage hit the entire Luzon amid loud blasts, fueling rumors of coup d’etat. But National Power Corporation (Napocor) officials were quick to explain that the blackout was due to a short circuit that occurred when an overhead groundwire in a Tayabas substation snapped. According to Jo Maglina, Napocor corporate communication manager, when the groundwire fell, it hit the conductors connecting the 230 kilovolt Tayabas-Kalayaan line with the 500-kv Tayabas-Dasmariñas line, both of which bring power from generation plants in southern Luzon to the rest of the island. The general blackout not only resurrected fears for destabilization plots that the military immediately sought to allay. It also put businesses to a standstill and paralyzed the operation of many plants. Life in Luzon almost came to a halt. At night, people lived in darkness, and some could only move because improvised light guided them. Many might have felt they were living the life of the blind--scared, threatened, immobile or almost, and removed from the joys of normal living.

We recall this power outage because today’s Gospel is a story about a man born blind whose physical impairment Jesus cured (John 9:1-41). If this narrative occurred in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), this would have been treated as a miracle story, and the wondrous cure by Jesus would have been considered an evidence of the coming of the Kingdom of God. But far from taking it as a miracle, John simply calls this particular act of power as sign, and in the entire Gospel, this is the sixth of the seven signs. As a sign, it points to a greater and deeper reality. It gives the recipient, and those who witness the wondrous deed an anticipation and foretaste of what Jesus can give when his hour, that is, the hour of his passion, death and resurrection, comes to pass. From a material sign, one is led to a spiritual reality. In last Sunday’s Gospel, for example, the water from the well of Jacob is a sign of the supernatural water, God’s wisdom that Jesus, after his resurrection, gives to those who believe in him. In today’s Gospel, the physical blindness of the man is meant to teach us about our spiritual blindness, and the sign of the healing of the man born blind is intended to lead us to spiritual light that shines in darkness.

In the Old Testament, the light that shines on in darkness is none other than the word of God inscribed in the Law. The Law regulates a form of life that a Jew must live if he is to attain salvation. Hence, the Psalmist sings: “A lamp to my feet is your word, a light to my path” (Ps 119:105). In the New Testament, however, the light that shines on in darkness is none other than the Word made flesh. That is why, if John tells us about the story of the healing of the man born blind, it is his way of asserting that the true light is not the law but Jesus himself. Says Jesus: “I am the light of the world” (John 9:5b); and John claims that Jesus is the light that gives light (John 1:4). But if he is the light of the world, this implies that people who live apart from him dwell in darkness. And in John’s theology, darkness represents the kingdom of wickedness and evil; it is the realm of sin, and one who lives in darkness lives in sin and wickedness. “Men love darkness rather than light because their deeds were wicked. Everyone who practices evil hates the light; he does not come near it for fear his deeds will be exposed” (John 3:19b-20). Hence, if one lives outside the Christian environment, he is like the physically blind who lives in darkness; he lives a life of sin and wickedness. Just like Manila when it experienced the Luzon-wide power outage, people like him are blind, scared, unable to move for lack of a guiding light. They are removed from the joys of living with electricity; that is to say, they do not live authentic life. They simply exist, but they do not have real life.

This raises the question: how does one acquire real or authentic life? In the present narrative, the blind man was given sight because Jesus smeared mud on his eyes and commanded him to wash at the pool of Siloam (John 9:6-7). In John’s symbolism, this curing of the blind man by washing and the use of spittle is a symbol of baptism. In other words, for John, true light, which is the real or authentic life, is communicated to the believer through Christian baptism. Notice that we say “believer”—for the story assumes that the blind man has an initial faith in Jesus. Strictly speaking, John asserts that one who lives in sin wickedness receives the light of life through faith and baptism. In Christian theology, one who is baptized belongs to Christ; he no longer lives in sin that makes it impossible for him to be saved, but receives the light of grace that saves him.

The reception of true light, however, implies a moral imperative—once one receives light, he no longer walks in darkness. Despite the attempt of the Pharisees to persuade the cured man to renounce his belief in Jesus, he stood his ground. Though he experienced excommunication and suffered rejection in the hands of authorities, he demonstrated his courage in defending his gradual understanding of Jesus—he is a man called Jesus, a prophet, one from God and finally the Son of Man. It is in this sense that we can understand when Jesus says: “I have come to the world as its light to keep anyone who believes in me from remaining in the dark” (John 12:46), or when he declares: “He who acts in truth comes into the light to make clear that his deeds are done in God” (Jon 3:21). This teaching recurs in other New Testament writings. In a letter attributed to Paul, for example, we are told: “Now you are in the light of the Lord. Then, live as children of light. Light produces every kind of goodness and justice and truth” (Eph 5:8-9). Matthew expresses it differently: “Your light must shine before men so that they may see goodness in your acts and give praise to your heavenly Father” (Matt 5:16). This simply means that a Christian is to identify himself with the blind man who, having been cured, gives witness to Christ against the hostility and bullying of powerful authorities, even if this implies abandonment of one’s friends, family and the society to which he belongs.