Sunday, 26 April 2020

3rd Sunday of Easter Year A 2020

I know. It is already the 3rd Sunday and it feels like our passage out of the tomb is similar to being trapped in a never-ending maze. There appears to be no light at the end of the tunnel except to forge ahead in this meandering labyrinth. The Gospel this Sunday can help us in this pilgrimage. Given the present paucity in the public celebration of the Mass, the road to Emmaus is just as well a good place to begin a reflexion on this unique situation where the Mass is absent in the lives of so many who hold the truth of the Real Presence.
It is an accepted interpretation that the trek from Jerusalem to Emmaus which ends with the Lord breaking bread is an ambulatory depiction of the Mass we celebrate. Just as in our regular Sunday Eucharist which is broadly composed of two liturgies—of the Word and of the Eucharist—He began by enlightening the minds of the two disciples with Scriptures: “Then starting with Moses, He explained to them the passages through the Scriptures about Himself”. Secondly, to crown the day, He celebrated the liturgy of His own Body and Blood: “While He was at table with them, He took the bread, said the blessing, broke it and gave it to them”. This narrative gives us the familiar phrase that “They recognised Him at the Breaking of Bread”.

Well and good but somehow at the start, the two Disciples also expressed something which may resonate with us today. Even though quite a few have expressed that the lifting of the lockdown would not be soon, those of us who are waiting for the curtain to lift are impatient at this extended intermission. We hear at the start of the conversation with Jesus that the two had harboured expectations: “We had hope”. Some of us too have hoped that we can somehow return to the life which we know so well.

We are, after all, Homo Consumptor (or in mock or dog Latin, Homo Consumericus). Our entire economic life is premised on this cycle of exploitation, production, and consumption. The closure of malls has only witnessed the explosion of online shopping—our courier services are not only overwhelmed by delivery deadlines but are also laughing their merry ways to the banks. Furthermore, we are expecting oil price to rebound once the supply chain that feeds our consuming habits cranks up again.

To match this consuming philosophy, the coronavirus pandemic is considered merely a glitch of nature, as it were. And if Louis Vuitton can conscript or re-purpose its production line to manufacture face masks, you can imagine how every endeavour is directed to the discovery of the elusive vaccine to help us, not so much as to live healthily but to return to a life we have come to expect as typically ours as a Homo Consumptor. Imagine what the so-called “new normal” of social distancing would do to an economy that rests solely on the consumption of leisure?

What is relevant to us is if we would dare to run against conventional wisdom that this nature’s glitch could also be God appearing and speaking to us. Just like what He did to the two oblivious Disciples in their despairing departure from Jerusalem. Of course, our current theology does not permit a God who dares to punish us let alone chastise us. We have imprisoned God in a gilded cage of mercy without justice. A capricious God is not reasonable, it would appear, for it would harken back to the days of the Olympian deities easily insulted and wounded by our insolence.

However, canon law possibly provides us with what is more in tune with our understanding of God. Whatever penalty we find therein, its aim is never punitive but rather rehabilitative, restorative, and finally redemptive. The Mass was once commonly called the Holy Sacrifice. The notion of redemption gels with the language of sacrifice. He offered His life as a sacrifice in order to redeem us and to restore us to grace. Hence, if God were to punish us, He is not out to even the score or to get even with us—a kind of tit for tat. No. If at all, God punishes, it is in order to reconcile us to Himself as St Alphonsus de Ligouri characterised in the prayer of a sinner: O God I have so much offended you, chastise me in this life, that you may spare me in the next”.

Perhaps, Covid-19 is the pause we all so needed for the purification (or to use the argot du jour, sanitisation) of our expectations. Whatever the cause of this viral affliction, be it nature’s caprice or God’s punishment, we are being purified. God’s wrath and His mercy are not polar opposites or mutually exclusive but rather they are two sides of a coin. Even if we choose the think Covid-19 in terms of eco-catastrophe as the result of our misuse of freedom, it belongs to the permissive will of God that we are being afflicted by this pandemic to turn us back to God.

We are in the darkness of a long and lengthy Lent. But there have been lights shining if only we are attuned to them. It is not the light of commercial success—like the “ka ching” of online shopping. Rather, the pollution over parts of China, the mass and cheap production centre of the world, has improved and here in our country, even our rivers are cleaner now. Once we return to normalcy, we may have to rethink our cycle of consumption to replace it possibly with an economy that better expresses what it means to be graced human rather than how much we can regain commercially. It may be true that the market is about life, but life is not entirely about the market. Scarcity, competition, and consumption are not the only invisible hand that runs the economy. When the lockdown is lifted, there will be wounded to be cared for. Even now, they are already showing up on our radar. How do we mobilise the other invisible hand of Christian charity, so that the human landscape can better mirror the image of Christ? St Peter puts it through the language of grace in the 2nd Reading to live worthily the new state of life which we have gained through Christ’s Resurrection. Thus, caring for those injured by the pandemic is witnessing to Christ who has risen and is also alive in us.

This economy of sharing, giving and self-sacrifice is established on His memory, not on a virtual memory of Him. The two disciples’ experience walking to Emmaus establishes the paradigm for who the Church is and how central the Eucharist is to her identity. The Eucharist should belong to the essential services because Christ the Lord Himself wants to feed us with His Body and Blood. We should never be content with this virtual feeding but creatively must look for ways, within the law, to allow this essential service to be available in spite of everything.

Finally, Dietrich Bonhoeffer commenting on the Church as the Body of Christ said something to this effect that “Christ’s body (the Church) takes up physical space here on earth. The body of Jesus Christ can only be a visible body or else it is not a body at all”. For now, we seem to be trapped in this isolating tomb of “Eucharistic fast” and worshipping in exile, almost in a disembodied Church. Yet, we are resolutely hopeful because the Lord is still sacramentally present in both word and sacrament to the small the community we have, as in 3 religious sisters and a sacristan. In hope we pray for the end to this prohibition of providing this essential service, a cure for Covid-19 and most of all, we pray that this deprivation of the Mass will only deepen our love for His Sacramental Presence.