24 March 2012

THE FIRST LESSON

5th Sunday of Lent
Jn 12:20-33 (Jer 31:31-34 / Ps 51 / Heb 5:7-9)

Our first lesson in life was about letting go.  The first education we all received was on separation.  Birth is letting go.  Unless mother and child let go of each other, both will die.  

Our first birthday was not only painful; it was also frightening.  Pushed out from our mother’s womb, we were dragged into the world of adults.  And for a welcome, we were given a good spanking, with the exact intention of making us scream our hearts out.  We cried while everyone around us was either cheering our mother or staring at us with eyes wide with joy.  Though, eventually, we were returned to our mother, we were surprised to notice that we already occupy a space that was different from hers.  This was how we began our individuality.  This is how it goes for everyone.  And the rest of life is a series of letting go for us all.

We experience birth pangs more than once as we face a whole chain of indispensable losses throughout our lives.  The truth is we die more than once before we breathe our last.  We die to being babies.  We die to being toddlers.  We die to being adolescents and eventually to being adults.  Concomitant to these, are still many other forms of dying.  St. Therese of the Child Jesus said, “We die our little deaths each day.”

Every dying demands renunciation.  We let go and lose something, including our selves, in every act of dying.  But it is only through losses are we transformed, do we adapt, grow, and make gains.  As many say, “No pain, no gain.”  But we like better what St. Francis of Assisi said, “It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

Physical death, however, has such finality that the Jews see death as the end of everything.  In the Judaic worldview, a dead person goes to sheol – the world of the dead – where no communication is possible between the dead and the living.  The decay of one’s body in death makes communication with the living impossible, for humans relate with their bodies.  Kapag wala na ang katawan, tapos na ang usapan.  Kaya po siguro sinasabi natin, “Huwag mo akong talikuran kapag kinakausap kita.”  Ang pagtalikod ay pagkawala ng katawan, katapusan ng pag-uusap, wakas ng pakikipag-ugnayan.  

Something is similar to this is when we are quarantined for some communicable disease.  Afflicted with some contagious illness we cannot communicate and relate with others, we are in fact forbidden to mingle with them, lest we contaminate them with the virus we carry.  Worse, this is condition may even be like “hell” for many of us, Filipinos, because, as Archbishop Chito Tagle once commented in a Lenten recollection some years back, “Filipinos do not die of contamination but of isolation.”

Sleeping is another experience similar to dying.  When we sleep, we become unconscious.  Our body may be alive, but still we cannot communicate with the living.

In both cases – getting sick and sleeping, there is a temporary end to our communicating with the living.  But for the Jews, death is the end to all human relations and its effect is final and permanent.  Dying, for a Jew, is falling into an eternal abyss.

Jesus changed all that.  Today, we hear Him say, “…unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  Death is no longer the end but the beginning.  Dying is not losing life at all, but is actually gaining abundant life.  Death is not the termination of human communication; rather it is the highest form of communication among human beings if the dying is life-giving to others.  Death is not the end of relationships; it is, instead, the summit of human relationships if the dying gives life to others.

During the Last Supper, Jesus institutionalized this teaching through the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.  When He broke bread and proclaimed it to be His body and He poured wine and declared it to be His blood, Jesus was teaching the Apostles that His death would not be the end of their relationship with Him but the beginning of His more intimate bonding with them.  He was explaining to them the meaning of what they were about to witness just a few hours after that Last Supper: His brutal passion and death that would render His body mangled and bloody.  His death would be for them and for those would come to believe in Him through them, the very source of life.  By His dying, indeed, He destroyed our death and by His rising He restored our life.  Thanks be to the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist by which we eat His flesh and drink His blood, and therefore share in His life.  The death of Jesus communicated His life to us and deepened our bond with Him in a covenant that is more perfect than the one envisioned by the Prophet Jeremiah in the first reading today.

Indeed the loss of Jesus is our gain.  His death is our life.  At the centre of the Christian story is Jesus’ radical act of self-forgetfulness.  Can we, who call our selves Christians, also forget our selves and think of others more?  Jesus is the grain of wheat that died in order to bear much fruit.  Are we, who claim to be disciples of Jesus, also willing to die for others?

The life of Jesus is our life, too.  As He lived so must we.  Let us be men and women for other, ever becoming more like Jesus Himself to them.  Let us live for others, always empowering them to become like Jesus, too.  If we need to die for others, let it be so; but may we never forget to live for others first.

Our first lesson in life is about letting go.  Such is also the great lesson we must learn in following Jesus.  And before we even try measuring how much we have already given up for Him, let us not forget what He gave up for us: Himself.

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