Sunday, 24 May 2020

7th Sunday of Easter Year A 2020

This would be Day 3 of what could be considered the original novena. The Pentecost or Holy Spirit Novena took place when Jesus instructed the Apostles to remain in Jerusalem. If the Ascension were celebrated today, then we might just miss out on what a Novena is all about. The Eleven had returned to Jerusalem and there, gathered in the Upper Room together with Mary, the Mother of Jesus and some others, they waited in prayer for the coming of the Holy Spirit. 

Waiting-in-prayer has taken an unplanned but central role in our lives these days. What do I mean by this? 

At the start of the lockdown, stopped in our tracks, the widespread prediction was that people would soon get fat from depression bingeing. When this is over, we will be seeing lot of bursting or bulging waistlines. Instead, the contrary is true. Quite a number of people have slimmed down. Hanging in the air is a fog of anxiety created by our powerlessness. As the race continues with the search for a vaccine to Covid-19, we seem to have our back against the wall. In many places, the stranglehold on the economy is not viable or sustainable in the long run. There are two aspects of human life that we should take note of. One is that power abhors a vacuum. When a king is weak, there will be plotting behind his back. Our backdoor government is a prime example. The “Old Man” is not as powerful as he was before. Two is that the economy cannot stop. Right now, the CMCO is merely lip service to the contagion containment exercise because people without work will soon starve. 

This Sunday of waiting gives us a chance to see us for who we truly are. We are dependent creatures and for the longest time, we believe that we are in control of our destiny. Much like the Apostles. Prior to the Passion, Jesus predicted their loss of faith but Peter, brash and not a little arrogant said, “Though all lose faith in you, I will not lose faith… Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you” (Mt 26:35). Elsewhere, in John’s Gospel, Peter said, “I will lay down my life for you” (13:37). We witnessed how scattered they were when the Shepherd was stuck. Strong, generous and brave they were not because pride blinded them to their weakness. So, in the Upper Room, the Apostles teach us what it means not to be in control. The Good Shepherd truly knows His sheep, and He tells them to remain in Jerusalem. For the task He has entrusted to them, they will need His strength. There in the Cenacle, they experienced first-hand that waiting is praying. 

However, the suggestion of praying might seem insufficient for us as we are unaccustomed to helplessness. We are uncomfortable with powerlessness because our scientific skills and technological triumphs have lulled us into thinking that we are in control. At this moment, our saviour is the elusive vaccine that medical science is chasing after. Whereas, God has been reduced to the option of last recourse. How often have we turned to prayer the moment we encountered difficulties? Or, more naturally, do we not automatically think of a solution on our own first because we believe in our own capabilities and that we only turn to God when all else failed? The truth is, the more powerful we are, the more we need God. Science on the other hand generates a false disproportionality, that is, only the weak needs God. Hence, the original novena restores the right relationship we have with God by teaching us prayer and showing us that dependence is not a disability nor weakness.

Today is also Communication Sunday. We associate communication with preaching. However, praying also communicates. It is easier to spring into action because we are result-oriented. When success is predicated on output, it makes praying a losing proposition because it is not profitable—for most people, a waste of valuable time. But, praying communicates or expresses the correct relationship we have as creatures with God. 

We have received the pastoral directive that churches will remain shut for as long as the MCO is in place. If we consider this Easter as a prolonged Lent, we can also think of this pandemic as an extended novena—a sustained or protracted period of waiting and praying. If the prophets can cry out, “How long, Lord, do we have to cry for help”? We should pray like them. Interestingly, the word “patience” is related to both waiting and suffering. We are waiting for God and at the same time, many are suffering. 

While these nine days are a time of waiting for the Holy Spirit to come, we can also look at it as the Lord, through our suffering of Him seemingly not answering our prayers, is teaching us to look at the world differently. When a person breathes in an odour for a long time, after a while, he gets used to the scent that it no longer registers for him. Take your pick, fragrance, or flatulence, when you smell it all the time, it does not register any more. Same with us. Two phenomena might help us understand this lingering pandemic. The way we have treated the environment—not as stewards but as exploiters. Or the economic migrants. We are used to a certain way of doing things that we no longer think about them and their consequences.[1] 

Perhaps, we are now called to be more conscious of our responsibilities towards the environment as well as to those who never get a fair share of the economic pie. Our guards for example. The two of them work 7 days a week. Would you ever want to see your husband or son to slave like that? So, rather than viewing this unproductive period as God’s punishment, we can look at it as God’s gift to us, to wean us from the unquestioned status quo—destruction of the environment or exploitation of labour. When the pandemic is over, it is conceivable that we cannot go back to model of “business as usual” in the way we treat the environment and the manner in which we “consume” labour. When people are hungry, competition which is the norm of our economic engagement may need to embrace cooperation as an improved paradigm for progress. This type of conversion does not happen overnight. 

It is not surprising that this original novena is not popular. Instead, we have novenae to the Divine Mercy, St Jude and Our Lady of Perpetual Succour. Many novenae centre on asking whereas the Holy Spirit is given so that we may conform ourselves more fully to Christ. We do not always get what we want. Hence, these days we give ourselves to God for Him through the Spirit to shape us for the mission of the Son—Go baptise in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Thus, this is a time of patient waiting. In this pandemic, we have come to recognise that even though we are at the top of the food chain, we are not invincible. In fact, nothing is more vulnerable than to be on top. Only God is truly invincible. We are shown during this contagion what it means to be waiting for God. The waiting has not been easy, and it is definitely not pleasant. There could be more purification for us to undergo before we see the light at the end of the tunnel. In the meantime, we have a lot of praying to do. Like the Apostles gathered around our Lady, we can do no better than to pray.


[1] A good example is the description we have of social or physical distancing as the “new” normal. New normal in itself is an amoral description. It chronicles the way things are now. Almost like, take it for what it is and move on. Whereas, abnormal is a term which is morally loaded. We have taken it for granted that the environment is basically raw resources for our exploitation as much as cheap labour is material capital. The “new” in “new normal” provides space for changes to be accepted without questioning the cost of the change. In terms of ecological sustainability, we have been advocating the reduction of single-use plastic because of its environmental impact. But, with new normal since it is amoral, single-use packaging has become the accepted standard. It is possibly better to characterise what have now as abnormal. However, one needs to be careful here because the “old” normal was not “sin-free” as it also required critique for its profiteering and consumeristic attitude.