Sunday, 5 May 2019

3rd Sunday of Easter 2019

It was Easter Sunday and I was waiting for my flight to Chiangmai for my annual retreat when the messages started trickling in. Was I aware of the attack on “Easter worshippers” in Colombo? Apparently these were not Christians, if you followed Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton tweets, as opposed to those somewhere in the Antipodes who were not called “Friday worshippers”. Anyway, I digress. The shock rippled throughout the Catholic world and for the first time we will soon be adopting some security measures so that you may worship minus the anxiety.

The reaction was to be expected. How could this happen? The thing is, even though the targeted hit was unexpected, a pertinent question remains: should we have expected anything less? Recall what Jesus told His disciples. Whilst the denunciation of such a surgical strike was in order, the horror of our reaction may just expose the soft belly of our entitled age which glorifies perpetual physical youthfulness and the preservation of bodily life.

Truth of the matter is that there have been more martyrs of the faith—in odium fidei—today than all the previous centuries put together. Just one case, before 2013, there were approximately 1.5 million Christians in Iraq. Today they number less than 120,000, according to a report from the UK. No, not all were killed but substantially many were persecuted. As mentioned earlier about recalling what Jesus told His disciples, Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka was a stark reminder that the hallmark of Christian discipleship is persecution and if the occasion arises, it often leads to martyrdom. The first reading presented this stark reality in the life of the disciples and the Gospel at the end also acknowledges this..

I am not in any way suggesting that we take no preventive means to ensure that people are kept safe. Not everyone wants to die. If you do, perhaps there is a place for you in the psychiatric ward of Sultan Aminah Hospital. I too would like to live longer. In fact, Jesuits, at the end of their retreat, pray the Suscipe—Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will... Guess what? I may pray it but deep down, I am hoping that God will not take up my offer.

Even though we naturally we resist dying, yet, an openness to the possibility of dying for one’s faith is not a form of sick and macabre masochism. It is not as if one were begging for another attack. “#Kill me”.

Why? Because life is good and it is to be preserved.

However, sacred though life is, it is not the supreme good. The Catechism (CCC. 2278) is quite clear on this: We are not bound to do everything to save our life or that of another. In the case serious illness, one is not bound to accept expensive and burdensome treatments. For example, it costs RM4.5M to treat  a person’s disease. The question here is not if the person is worth the RM4.5M but rather if the cost is so prohibitive as to end up with the family borrowing from loansharks and suffering the consequences of not keeping up with repayment. Such a teaching presumes that there is a higher good than simply the preservation of life. Thus, martyrs are honoured by the Church because they would rather sacrifice their lives than give up a greater and higher good, that is, their Faith and their union with God.

If we did not know it, perhaps this is a good time to learn about it. The ultimate destiny of life is union with God. Hence, the good we call life is our destiny in heaven. There is no weighing one’s decision when choosing between a good and a bad option. In every scenario, we choose the good and reject the bad. But, when deciding between two good options, the less good of the two must be readily sacrificed. And it means that no matter how good we have it here on earth, it is not good enough for heaven. Hence, all life is a preparation for that life in heaven. To preserve one’s life at the cost of heaven is an absurdity akin to choosing the bad instead of the good. In the kingdom of grace, the good is the enemy of the better.

In order that we may enter into that life in heaven, we need to be free, to rid ourselves of the encumbrances or inordinate attachments that prevent us from reaching that goal.

A good example of this freedom comes to us not on Good Friday but rather the Passion on Holy Thursday’s Gospel. Jesus was calm before Pilate, the High Priests, the Sanhedrin and the murderous crowd. We marvel at His composure even in the face of death. Some would say that that was because He is God. If you reflect on it, He actually achieved total freedom in the Garden of Gethsemane. He had prayed to the Father for the cup to be taken away from Him. In a sense He was human like all of us are. He was not keen on suffering. No one in the right frame of mine lives FOR martyrdom. Each one may live to witness but never in order to die. Thus, martyrdom, in the sense to be killed inodium fidei, is not the goal of this life but rather the result of one’s life. In other words, one gets killed for witnessing. In the case of Jesus, He had faced the consequence of His life in the Father at Gethsemane. The acceptance that the result of living in accordance with the Father’s will would be death gave Him the total freedom to face the angry crowds—Pilate, High Priests, Soldiers and people. “You would have no authority over me if it were not given you in the first place”.

However, we do not need to stare death in its face to realise that the Lord in His Resurrection has won eternity for us. All we need is to embrace what we believe in. At home, at work, in business—the principles you hold as central to our faith will automatically draw you into the firing squad of criticism, ridicule or ostracisation at best. Or, persecution, imprisonment or martyrdom at worst but mercifully that is not the usual lot that many of us have to contend with.

Many of us will not be tested extraordinarily. Our destiny belongs with what is called white martyrdom. The dying that is required as we face the vicissitudes of daily living. Just to grow old is already a challenge. So, if one cannot endure this form of martyrdom, can you imagine how one will react when faced with red martyrdom? And if you need to test your resolve for white martyrdom, try living without your mobile phone for a week. Your fingers could be atrophied and it would feel as if you have died many deaths in that one week. For we are a spoilt generation, softened by our indulgences and deluded into thinking that discipleship is supposed to be an easy walk in the park. The devil and death may have been crushed by Christ the Lord but you can be sure that Satan and his minions will not rest in an all out effort to bring about the destruction of the Church and downfall of her children. Our prayer to St Michael the Archangel at the end of Mass is a recognition of this constant combat taking place.

However, Easter resurrection with its promised of eternal life is our guarantee that Satan will not prevail over the Lord Jesus. We too will overcome like the Lord but not before we undergo the trials of life. Red martyrdom must be preceded by white martyrdom and just in case you feel “special” like “Why me?”, remember that no servant is greater than the Master. Holding to the promise of the resurrection makes death bearable by lessening our fear of death. The resurrection dares us to believe as well as gives us strength to die for our belief. Martyrdom, red but mostly white, is real and if we do suffer through no fault of ours, it is an indication that we are on right and narrow path to our Resurrection and heaven.