Archive for March, 2013

March 31, 2013

The Prodigal Mother: a Blessed Easter!

What was Mary doing between Jesus’ death and his resurrection? This was the question posed to me during my holy week retreat two years ago, and only now I have only come to realize how important and profound that question was.

Mary stands out for the simple fact that she seems to be the person that was always around Jesus. Biblical scholars can debate what happened to Jesus between the presentation at the temple and his ministry, but we can be assured of one simple thing: Mary’s presence. She was there before Jesus was born into the world, when Jesus was in the world, up to his death and resurrection. But surely it must have been a difficult time during those three days: her son had just died, his followers have just went into hiding, and, if we are to take into account the Johannine narrative, was in the care of the most beloved disciple. It seems stranger to note that we are not told what happened to Mary after Jesus rose from the dead: one can, of course, imagine her happy, but again we return to our question: what was she doing during those days of waiting for her son’s return?

My unqualified yet justified (of course by faith!) answer to this is: nothing, except that she trusted her son’s word, for indeed, her son was the Word. I detect three things within the Marian trust that could help us understand not only her motherhood but also of our task in embodying Mary’s hope: memory, honesty, and courage.

(1) Memory: One must have imagined Mary being sustained by her memories of her own son: travelling into the night to hide in Egypt (or so we are told!), hopelessly losing herself in the temple to find her son, being “told off” by her very own son in his very first public miracle, all the way up to the cross, where she would not have forgotten her son looking at her, as if to say “we will see each other again.” But none can equal, I think, the memory of that night when the Angel Gabriel appeared to her to announce her special mission, with the disturbingly consoling words: nothing is impossible with God.

(2) Honesty: Mary, I think, is one of the most self-aware people to have ever walked this Earth – she knew she was not God. That exactly is the essence of being a mother: she is not her son. I think that the moment of annunciation was also the moment of terror for her: she was not God, and yet she had a godly task at hand. This if course didn’t get into her head – in fact it kept her sane: she knew she was finite, and a mother can only do so much, that is, to watch her son die, and to be condemned to be subject to time, waiting for her son’s promise.

(3) Courage: or maybe more of fortitude. God is dead, and the forces of evil seemed to have triumphed. Mary is left to the care of John, and nothing more. Like the apostles, Mary must have been afraid for her life. But something about her made her stand out apart from the apostles: she was the mother, and as they say, mothers know best. The source of that courage had to be unimaginably deep: her love for her son. There is then no question as to why Christ chose John to take care of her: he resonated the same filial and profound love, and John cannot but also be a source of strength for Mary.

It might be conjecture, but one can point out a striking parallelism: memory is none other than faith, honesty is none other than hope, and courage is none other than love. At the heart of it all was Mary’s sense of grace: everything had been given, and giving back amounted to nothing less than silent waiting, for she knows that in her heart, her Savior lives. God gives excessively, to the very end; Mary returns the favor, beyond the end, just like any mother’s love.

Such is the prodigal mother: one who is willing to risk life just to be by her dying son’s side. Too much for this world, too much for words: hence the lack of any account after the resurrection – pure love.

But I guess one can imagine them meeting three days later: one can imagine her shedding tears of joy at the sight of her son, “who was lost and now has been found, who was dead, and now has come back to life again:” indeed, a mother and a son who are, finally, home: with each other.

A blessed Easter!

March 15, 2013

The Preferential Option for Sacrifice; or, Reflections of a Disturbed Christian

The new pope continually amazes me. In his first mass as the bishop of Rome, he said this in his homily, which struck me as profoundly insightful, given not only the state of the Church today, but also how the most ordinary people live their lives “as if” oriented toward Christ:

“When we walk without the Cross, when we build without the Cross, and when we profess Christ without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord.”

I would like to characterize my life as a struggling Christian as one of a never-ending series of conversions and confessions, as I would like to say to one of my friends. Whenever I get comfortable with my faith something jars me into a realization that I have not lived up, so to speak, to what I say I profess in. And no doubt it creates a stir of embarrassment and contrition. It seems inconceivable for me to call myself a “true Christian” precisely because I don’t always live my life as if it was truly oriented in the glory of the Lord, as von Balthasar loves to say.

No doubt that sometimes I like to think of myself as a good Christian – a devout one at that! But hearing the pope’s words made me rethink my own convictions. And therefore with this disturbance I ask myself: what does it mean to live a Christian life in the context of the Cross?

We love convenience. When we get a chance to bend the rules for the sake of, say, not lining up to get our license because we’ve violated traffic rules, we immediately do it. We “pay off” people just for the sake of not going through the bureaucracy that all of us hate. A similar thing happened just about a week ago, and honestly, I have yet to wrap my head around it; seeing friends whom I considered “justified in the faith” despite their faults and inconsistencies do this was just disturbing for me to witness. What profoundly disturbs me is the fact that other people – namely, those whom we pay off for the sake of our convenience – were affected and/or were used in this exchange. When you factor in persons in the equation, it never just becomes “an equation;” it becomes a personal encounter with someone that is very much like – but more so very much different – yourself.

And I think that this is the most profound, most novel contribution of Christian discourse in the public sphere – what was revealed was our infinite capacity to love precisely because we are human persons. This was revealed in the body of Christ. And I think hand in hand with this gratuitous gift of charity is the unavoidable responsibility of sacrifice.

When we separate charity and sacrifice as if one could compartmentalize, say, one’s own hard drive, then I think we are veering away from what we profess in; it becomes a mere professing to. Let us try to understand this artificial distinction and perhaps it may yield something that we have yet to think about.

Professing to – no doubt the more convenient option. Who wouldn’t want to believe something that can be grasped, something that can be understood, and I daresay, something that can be achieved? When we “profess to,” we have the clear end in sight: I believe in this! We, so to speak, “know” what we are aiming for. And it becomes a great temptation precisely because in the Christian revelation, “everything has already been given.”

This of course – and unfortunately – creates a space for convenience and leniency. Up to a point where we can actually control our time and our actions, simply because “we know that we’re saved anyway.” What is paradoxical about this is that in having a clear picture of our end – and in effect, thinking that we understand the world – we forget those who share in this hope, and that the “target” of this conviction is himself or herself like myself, “in all things but sin.”

Professing in – this is none other than trusting in the Lord. St. Thomas loves to speak of credere in – and I think this sums up the responsibility of our faith. When we finally realize the infinite beauty of the revelation of the person, then I think it could serve as a good reminder – and a silent call – to all of us that even the smallest things bear the greatest responsibility. In professing in, we profess to a person – not an idea, nor a principle of power, not even the concept of Christianity. When we profess in, we profess – that is, trust – in a person.

And what does trusting in a person entail? – None other than the fact that we can never pre-empt nor can we ever place firmly in our hands the human person. Christ transgresses all boundaries, and that is a datum of our faith. The datum of our experience is seeing this transgression in every single human person whom we share with in this world. And it is a datum both of faith and experience that each person is infinitely deep; any amount of objectification is the glorification of violence.

The life of faith is never a life of convenience. I think the new pope shows this to us in the most profound way possible. Sans the new age illusion of all our connectedness and the intertwining synthesis of all human actions with each other – a bastardization of chaos theory – we can understand our responsibility as one of sacrifice.

Because we share the world with persons, and because persons bear the infinite capacity to love, it is clear why convenience is never an option: precisely because in doing so, we reduce persons as objects that can be manipulated. But the Christian revelation shows us otherwise, exemplified in Jesus Christ. And what disturbing way to show it to mankind than with His sacrifice on the Cross.

No doubt “we are only human” – but precisely the point! Because we are human, we can love, and love entails sacrifice. That is the whole point of Jesus becoming one of us.

But suppose we attempt to venture into professing in, and we understand the necessity of sacrifice, we can indeed still fall into professing to simply because we don’t see the point in sacrificing even if we do it. For what do we sacrifice to? Now here’s the hinge – we sacrifice to not an object, nor an idea, but to a person. And at the heart of it all, sacrificing for a person leads to the most profound sense of joy: not a joy where there is no tinge of suffering. Precisely the reverse: joy is to see the other grow with oneself. Suffering is inevitable, the Buddha likes to say. And I think it rings true for the Christian revelation – it cannot be avoided, but it is not the point. Precisely because the “point” lies outside oneself.

So the question: what is the point of being a Christian? – loving a person, orienting oneself to joy. And the novel thing about this is it is never an imperative to us – it is a choice. This is the most profound mystery of human freedom: the possibility of evil.

A friend likes to say: never lose sight of Christ! And I think this was what the pope was telling us – never lose sight of sacrifice that leads to joy! We tend to think sacrificing only happens in big events, in rallies, and fighting for the poor. I daresay that if the Christian revelation is true, then every encounter with a person – and of course the possibility of love – also entails the responsibility of sacrifice, a responsibility that never ends. Such is the task of the Christian today: to bear witness to the Cross that leads to joy. We can therefore understand Cardinal Tagle when he speaks of us becoming an “Easter people;” faith leads to joy, and faith only leads to joy when we root it in a person, in the most real sense of it: somebody like me.

Thus the greatest challenge is still one of avoiding convenience. A person is never a convenient option. Christ has shown us this. But it remains to be seen – indeed, I would know because I continually fail at this – how Christians have lived up to the name of their conviction. The pope continually reminds us of bearing the Cross, and because of it we are bound to fail.

That is why at the end of the day, trust is essential. And only in this context can we begin to talk about repentance. Only in this movement of trust and repentance in the context of love and sacrifice can we even begin to walk into the light of joy in full freedom.

I have yet to learn this, and I pray to God that I will have the strength and courage to embody this mystery wrapped in joy.