Monday, 6 April 2020

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord 2020

As we enter into Holy Week, the underlying emotion is one of disappointment. It is almost surreal that we will be celebrating such an important liturgy without popular participation. That being so, perhaps the denial or the lack of people may just highlight for us the true nature of the Eucharist, that absent of people, it is still a public celebration for its purpose is for the salvation of the world. Hence, “private” or “public”, the Mass does what it is supposed to do—to save mankind. The liturgy, properly speaking, is not just our worship of God but it is also God’s service to His people because every Eucharist has for its main celebrant, Christ Himself, who serves through the agency of His instruments, the priests.

We have two Gospel Readings and what is interesting is that first Gospel read after the Blessing of the Palms, is a kind of prelude to the Triumph of next Sunday—Easter. It marks the triumphant entry of God into His own city. Over the last one week or more, our daily Gospel passages were taken from John. There we hear of a Jesus who is in total control—His time has not arrived yet. Therefore, He was able to elude capture by His opponents. But in the second Gospel, taken from Matthew, we witness the full weight of the religious and political machinery brought to bear upon Jesus. We watch how quickly the tide of popular acclamation turned against their Lord and God.

Here is a God who for the love of His people has decided to give Himself into their hands so that He can work His salvation. To accomplish our salvation, this King who entered Jerusalem rode not on a beast of war but a beast of burden. The humble manger He was laid in will soon become the humiliating wood of the Cross. In short, we have a King who came as human as we are. The veiling of the Cross that symbolises the hiding of His divinity shows His humanity now on trial. The whole idea of a God who saves is put on trial by the humiliation of Christ’s humanity. Our salvation is staked on the Cross. What can we learn from this turn of event, that is, the exaltation of Christ that so quickly descended to His humiliation?

His humanity on trial also means that our humanity is on trial which poses these questions. 1. Does our humanity need to be saved? 2. Can our humanity be saved?

In the past, when people sneezed, the automatic exclamation is “Bless you”. Of course, this came about from an era long forgotten. When bubonic plague struck Europe, people dropped dead like flies. And symptomatic of the plague was sneezing. When a person sneezed, people would say, “Bless you” for good reasons. Firstly, one is falling sick and what better way to get well than to ask for God’s blessing. Secondly, one is falling sick and is in danger of death. “Bless you” acknowledges that life is truly in God’s hands.

Today, when a person sneezes, immediately our Covid-19 senses tingle and our radar goes into overdrive... “Bless you” will be the last thing on our mind whereas the first should be, “Hold your breath and run”.

Again, does our humanity need to be saved? Can our humanity be saved?

In this climate of Covid-19, there is a stigmatisation of humanness—that is, there is a denouncement or indictment of what makes us human. We eat, drink, sleep and even defaecate, if you like, pass motion—all human activities or rather normal bodily functions of what it means to be alive. We cough, sneeze and fall sick. Again, these are routine human capabilities. At best, we are just weak when we are taken ill or at worst, it is the natural reality of ageing and the process of dying.

Even Christ Himself submitted to this human process: Christ died. In our Mysterium fidei, we say this “Christ has died. Christ is Risen. Christ will come again”, suggesting a fact that while human progression of dying is typical, it also indicates that death is not the end of it and that there is life after.

Today we are urged to wear masks, sanitise and to socially distance ourselves. While these enter into the array of precautions taken to minimise contact and contagion, the underlying message is that Covid-19 is not the virus, man is. We are the virus and as such, everything “human” about us has become deadly. Clearing one’s dry throat is already suspect for those who are obsessively compulsive. There is a denunciation of what it is to be human. The new normal is that our humanity is not the road to “salvation”. Rather, death should be avoided because our humanity does not need salvation. We only need to survive. This stigmatisation of our humanness is only made possible because of the virtualisation of life—paved by the information superhighway.

The Church exists only because the work of Christ’s salvation carries on. She is the sacrament of His salvation for the world. But there seems to be a divorce between the Church and salvation (not to mention the Church and evangelisation) because the deprivation of Mass and therefore of the sacraments does not really constitute a problem at all. So easily we turn to live streaming as if it were the new normal now. The virtualisation of Mass through live streaming might seem to be a bonum, a good, an advantage brought about by the advancement of technology but ultimately the central message is that firstly, the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist, is no longer necessary for salvation. Spiritual Communion is a good, but it has to be an exception rather than the rule. If it becomes the rule, then the Church is no longer necessary in the economy of salvation and therefore, the priesthood is totally useless.

But starker than a useless priesthood is that we have conceivably arrived at a point where there is no humanity to salvage. God is unnecessary and the Church is no more than a spa, a luxury we afford on the way to a more pleasurable long life. This escape from the stark reality of our humanity (eat, drink, sleep, contact, and etc) is to shrug off the necessity of salvation. The fear which grips the Church is symptomatic of the triumph of the spirit of the age. GK Chesterton said this: “We do not want a Church that will move with the world. We want a Church that will move the world”.

Perhaps, in this time of social distancing, rather than run and hide, we must stand up (not foolishly) for humanity through our Sacramental presence. Otherwise, the prolonged absence of the sacrament will create an incongruence between “faith” and “action”, between what we truly believe in and how we ought to behave. We hold the truth that the Eucharist is truly a food for the journey our viaticum, but our survival instinct articulated through enforced social distancing fundamentally renders that belief empty or useless. That some priests try to be present through creative ways of making the sacraments present is indicative of an attempt to bridge the gap between belief and action—lex credendi, lex vivendi.

As the 2nd Reading reminds us, “His state was divine, yet Christ Jesus did not cling to His equality with God but emptied Himself”. He became human because humanity was worth His condescension. He came to be with us so that we may have the possibility to be like Him. We are worth saving because we have been created for eternity, not merely to survive. Humanity’s honour has been restored by the journey that Christ makes during Holy Week—a path that necessarily takes us through His passion, death and resurrection. We accompany Him, our Lord and our Saviour.