The core of the cross: Good Friday

s_sabina-particolare-porta1As I was looking at this image in the “porta lignea” of the basilica of St. Sabina in Rome, it stirred me to ask an interesting question. Why is the cross important for our faith?

 This picture shows the first representation of the crucifixion that has been preserved to our days. What is interesting is that it dates back as late as the 5th century. Other Christian symbols have been preserved from the beginning of the church: the fish, the bread, etc… but no crosses or crucifixes. Why? Did it take the first Christians five centuries to discover the centrality of the cross? Did the 5th century Christians suddenly discover the importance of the crucifixion?

This representation does not pretend to innovate a symbol, it is simply a representation of a scene shown among many other scenes. In fact, the crosses are barely visible, what is shown is the crucified. Does the cross deserve to be our most outstanding symbol?

Perhaps symbols evolve and change with cultures, but the core of our faith is expressed in the gospels, which some scholars have described as accounts of the passion and resurrection, with a long introduction. Accepting that Jesus “must suffer according to the Scriptures” is an essential condition to true faith in Jesus.

The cross is not just an unfortunate episode in the life of Jesus. Jesus did not even save us “in spite” of the cross, but through His cross. Jesus was not a simple hero or martyr whose torments were an expression of their fidelity and consistency. His passion revealed a Redeemer. If the incarnation of Jesus reveals God with us; the crucifixion reveals God for us.

Jesus had been in control of His life and destiny clearly throughout His whole ministry. He decided whom to cure, where to go, what to preach, when to leave, whom to approach. He is the master. There is, however, a turning point in the life of Jesus when He was assailed by an extreme distress. In the synoptics, it happened at the Garden of Olives. The gospel of John presents this extreme distress at the beginning of the Last Supper. From then on, Jesus was passive. He would let things happen to Him. He would not run away or hide Himself. He would not defend Himself or even pray to be delivered. He allowed men to do with Him as they pleased. This was a unique moment in the history of the universe. God had become vulnerable, tragically vulnerable.

The passivity of Christ is the passion of God who decided to be touched and hurt by the sin of the world. Christmas makes full sense only in the light of Good Friday. God’s incarnation was not to holiday with humans. God became man to allow Himself to be touched by man’s rejection. Capital punishment is simply that, the expulsion of a man from the community. The cross is man’s way to tell God, “we don’t want you with us”. The Son of God attracted upon Himself the ultimate expression of man’s sinful condition.

An omnipotent God could be totally dispassionate about man’s disobedience; a compassionate God cannot but implicate Himself in man’s self-destruction to the point of taking the effects of this destruction upon Himself. Christmas is God accompanying man; Good Friday is God substituting man as a true victim of human sins. And all this is not a symbolic ritual sacrifice;  it is pure crude history, a naked fact. God came to His creation and was tragically rejected in the nastiest possible way.

From now on, sin cannot say anything else. The human power to hurt cannot become more powerful. It has been exhausted. Of course, we are still free to hurt ourselves and others, and these hurts will be real and consistently have tragic effects in our lives. But from now on, these sins are only mere echoes of the main cry “Crucify him!” Sin had spoken its loudest.

However, is this the last word?

Do you understand what I have done for you?: Maundy Thursday

washingfeet3The word “maunday” comes from a verse version of the Latin “mandatum” command. It refers to Jesus’ command “you ought to wash one another’s feet” (Jn 13:14).

Interestingly, the church has never received this “command” in the ritualistic sense. Although there were a few Christian sects that practice the rite literally, the church has received this commandment only as an imitation of the spirit of this rite. In fact, the ritual of the washing of the feet  is not mandatory, not even on Maundy Thursday. All the more for us to strive to understand the spirit of this gesture. The poignant question of Jesus to his disciples is still a good question today: “Do you understand what I have done for you?” (Jn 13:12)  Do we?

 In Jesus’ time, the washing of feet was a custom that was not required from anyone, not even slaves, although “occasionally, disciples would render this service to their teacher or rabbi” (Raymond E. Brown).

It is not surprising that Peter refuses this apparent reversal of preposition. Peter, or other disciples, should wash Jesus’ feet. However, Jesus was very clear. He does not mean that the disciples have become suddenly masters: “You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am.” (Jn 13:13).

Jesus had intended something very different: “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. Amen, amen, I say to you. No slave is greater than his master nor any messenger greater than the one who sent him.” (Jn 13:14-16)

In other words, although the distinction between master and disciples is real, the relationship becomes one of equality. If the master dares to treat the disciples like masters, all the more, the disciples should treat each other like masters. Although we are all different, when it comes to service, we become all equal. Servants have, in a way, received the dignity of masters without being masters. Dignity refers to something’s goodness on account of itself (Aquinas). The disciples have received something good, a master’s treatment from the master. They now become equal in dignity.

Love, unlike washing feet, cannot be commanded (Deus caritas 18). God does not force us to produce an emotion towards our neighbors. It does not work like that. Often, we forget this, and change the commandment of love into a pretense of love: “I do not really love him, but I will act as if I did.” We pretend to love only because we are told. Like Peter, we accept the commandment without understanding: “not only my feet, but also my hands and my head as well.”

Love cannot be understood unless it is experienced. It cannot be produced unless it is received. Only the disciples that received the master’s treatment by the master can give the master’s treatment to others. Washing each other’s feet entails removing our clothing of pretenses of superiority, acknowledging the equal dignity of the other person, and treating them consistently.

In this way, love does not become a product of our strength but a natural reaction to the goodness we just discovered in the other person. At times, we may not like them. We may even have good reasons to hate them, but still Jesus washed their feet with our feet. Jesus saw in them something we must discover, and when we do… we realized what Jesus had done, we understand and we are empowered to love as Jesus loves.

Happy Feast Day: the objective Aquinas!

aquinas3Today we celebrate the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas. Details about his devouted life and intellectual prowess are well known. However the question remains whether his teachings are still relevant after seven centuries. What I find particularly relevant today is his overall approach as one of the best exponents of a philosphical tradition known as realism.

Truth has been reduced to empirical facts and knowledge to different opinions, with a consistent effect in a relativistic and utilitarian ethics. We have naively started to unquestionably believe the dogma that “I think it is, therefore it is.” While a debate between realistics would try to assess what is the true nature of marriage, for example, today’s debate simply claims that marriage is nothing in itself, and will only be what we want it to be. In other words, marriage, human nature, normal behavior is “nothing” per se, and we are entitled to give it the definition, (or reality) we want.

In our mentality, the human mind becomes a creative power, a source of being, instead of attempting to be a receptacle of reality “as it is”. The human mind can certainly interpret, and in this vein, be creative; but its creations should never be a substitute for the real reality.

If there is one word that keeps being repeated in Aquinas’ writings is “object”. And what we need today is objectivity as opposed to the over-subjectivity of today’s mentality.

We look at everything from the point of view of the subject. Positive (good?) emotions are emotions good for the subject; negative emotions are emotions the subject does not want to experience. However the value of emotions doees not lie  in what the subject experiences, but in how suitable they are to the object of the emotion. A speeding truck towards a subject that experiences no fear is lethal. The important bit  is not that fear stresses the subject; but that fearing the right object of fear will save his life.

For most this is plain common sense. But it is precisely this common sense for the importance of the object what is missing today. What we say about the object of fear, equally goes for the object of marital love. And while most will see fearing an incoming truck as common sense, just as many will see loving with marital love any person I choose depends on me, the subject, and not on whom I love, the object.

Our lives today are measured in terms of subective experiences. A life with lots and exciting experiences is worth living and actively pursued and proposed as the “ideal” style of life. We admire adventurers, travellers, those who achieve the ultimate thrill. In contrast the unasumming life of the ordinary folk is dismissed as boring and, of course, the life of the commatose patient a total waste. Experience is the mantra of our times.

We therefore need people who questioned that dogma. That life should not be measured in terms of experience, but in terms of fidelity. Humanity has always admired unassuming heroes that were steadfast in their commitments, even if this made them pass through undesireable experiences.

Fidelity needs an object (of fidelity). Truth is the subject knowing faithfully (as it is) an object as it is. Truth about the shape of the earth is knowing faithfully how the shape of the earth really is. Honesty is being faithful (accountable) to someone.

A  life centered around experiences will make of us coach-potatoes of life, sitting in the sofa of our lives waiting for things to happen to us, even if that implies changing constatly the sofa. Fidelity however makes of us active subjects in the search for the right object of our relationship. Fidelity is a true journey; experience-thirsty subjectivity is simply to be a spectator.

We need new (truer) cultural dogmas. Perhaps some dogma that says “the life full of experiences and devoid of fidelity is not worth living”. When we look back, how do we measure our lives?

While you won’t see people reading St. Thomas Aquinas on the MRT, although I have tried, his philosophy will always remind us that there is a right and wrong object out there that will change and transform us. Being more objective and less subjective, in the end, opens ourselves to God and his recreative power. Insisting that all depends on us, will simply isolate ourselves in an increasingly archipelagic world.

Happy feast day!

It is all about timing!

 

timing1At the beginning of this Ordinary Time we read the beginning of the letter to the Hebrews and the beginning of the gospel of Mark. Both readings refer to the importance of timing. “In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; 2 in these last days, he spoke to us through a son” (Hb 1:1). In the gospel, Jesus acknowledges this timing: “This is the time of fulfilment. The Kingdom of God is at hand.” (Mk 1:15).

It is good to tell the truth. It is not good to tell all of the truth, all at the same time. Truth telling, to be good, needs to be timely.

We don’t disclose the secrets of “birds and the bees” to children until they are ready. In the same way, God spoke only in “partial ways” to the ancestors until “the last days” when the people were mature enough to receive the message. Even the church comes to discover the truth gradually and with the development of time.

The measure of truth is reality. The measure of truth telling is the audience.

How true is what we say, depends on how what we say, agrees with the reality we are talking about. The truth about the shape of the earth depends on the actual shape of the earth. How much or when we can say this particular truth will depend on whether the person is ready to receive that truth. The fact that we are all going to die is true. How and when we should communicate that truth, will depend on the disposition of the person to accept it. In fact, truth revealing can at times be inconsiderate if we fail to take into account the disposition of the person to understand and accept that truth.

To intentionally hide or deprive the people from truth, is an injustice. To disclose the truth without consideration of the receiver, could become a kind of cruelty. Both truth and sympathetic consideration need to go hand in hand.

As we begin the season of ordinary time, we need to ponder carefully what the truth is, that needs telling here and now. Ideas only become fruitful and useful when they are presented in the right time at the right place. Discerning the times is our urgent mission “this time.”

St. Raymond of Peñafort

raymon10- Today he is the patron saint of the canonist, and in Spain, the patron saint of lawyers as well.
– He entered the Dominican Order in 1222.
– He compiled the different decrees of ecclesiastical laws for the first time into what would be considered in 1917, the Canon Law. His work was declared by the Pope as the only authoritative reference to be used in theological schools.
– He was appointed the Chaplain to the Pope
– He was instrumental in the foundation of the Mercedarians (an Order founded with the purpose of rescuing prisoners and slaves).
– He declined the bishopric of Tarragona
– Reviewed the Dominican Constitutions
– He asked Thomas Aquinas to write a work to present the Catholic faith to non-believers, known as the Summa Contra Gentiles, the first Summa of Aquinas.
– He made it compulsory for Dominican formandees to study Arab and Hebrew in order to present the faith to the Muslims in Europe.
– He organized a debate on faith before the royal court where Jews, Muslims and Christians could explain and examine their beliefs.
– He died at 100 years old in 1275.

Friday before the Epiphany

stbasilSometimes dreams are shattered. We yearn to do this or that, only to find that life has different plans. St. Basil and St. Gregory Naziancen had plans. They wanted to become hermits but were appointed bishops in times of persecution. Their dreams of being in solitude and quiet were shattered by a daunting mission. Had they become hermits, we may have never known of their inner spiritual riches. Sometimes, some good dreams are well shattered.

 “Wealth, explains St. Basil, is like water that issues forth from the fountain: the greater the frequency with which it is drawn, the purer it is, while it becomes foul if the fountain remains unused”

From a homily on prayer of St. Basil,

“Ought we to pray without ceasing? Is it possible to obey such a command? These are questions which I see you are ready to ask. I will endeavour, to the best of my ability, to defend the charge. Prayer is a petition for good addressed by the pious to God. But we do not rigidly confine our petition to words. Nor yet do we imagine that God requires to be reminded by speech. He knows our needs even though we ask Him not. What do I say then? I say that we must not think to make our prayer complete by syllables. The strength of prayer lies rather in the purpose of our soul and in deeds of virtue reaching every part and moment of our life. ’Whether ye eat, it is said, ’or drink, or whatever ye do, do all to the glory of God.’ As thou takest thy seat at table, pray. As thou liftest the loaf, offer thanks to the Giver. When thou sustainest thy bodily weakness with wine, remember Him Who supplies thee with this gift, to make thy heart glad and to comfort thy infirmity. Has thy need for taking food passed away ? Let not the thought of thy Benefactor pass away too. As thou art putting on thy tunic, thank the Giver of it. As thou wrappest thy cloak about thee, feel yet greater love to God, Who alike in summer and in winter has given us coverings convenient for us, at once to preserve our life, and to cover what is unseemly. Is the day done? Give thanks to Him Who has given us the sun for our daily work, and has provided for us a fire to light up the night, and to serve the rest of the needs of life. Let night give the other occasions of prayer. When thou lookest up to heaven and gazest at the beauty of the stars, pray to the Lord of the visible world; pray to God the Arch-artificer of the universe, Who in wisdom hath made them all. When thou seest all nature sunk in sleep, then again worship Him Who gives us even against our wills release from the continuous strain of toil, and by a short refreshment restores us once again to the vigour of our strength.

Signs of the times

The world is very “astute” when it comes to thinking outside the box and solving its own problems. Internet and google have grown incredibly in just few years mainly because it does work. It solves new problems with effective solutions.

The church has and will always have the same standard of morality, in spite of travelling through different times and cultures. However, the church has also different needs in different times. For example, orders were founded to satisfy these historical needs. And just like world inventions, they spread fast and wide. Today the church has even more new and pressing needs and the Holy Spirit has inspired men and women to satisfy those needs. Mother Teresa’s sisters grew into thousands in just few years. And new Lay Movements are spreading far and wide.

However the average catholic still seems oblivious to this duty– we all have to read “the signs of the times”. Vatican II made of it a technical term, but its practice has been as old as the church itself.

How much time do we spend thinking about the new needs of the world and the church? How are we called to make a difference?

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