[REFLECTIONS] Why, Lord?

[REFLECTIONS] Why, Lord?
We must have the courage to declare with hope: We are Christians. We believe in happy endings. If it’s not yet happy, then it’s not yet the end.

 

  

It’s a first in world history: an online Holy Week for millions of people, even in Vatican City, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Rappler presents a series of reflections to help you, our reader, enter the spirit of Holy Week even in quarantine.

 

Bishop Pablo Virgilio David delivered the following homily in the online Mass of the Diocese of Caloocan on March 29, the 5th Sunday of Lent. Rappler is republishing this with his permission in observance of Holy Week 2020.

I don’t know if you have noticed it, those of you who may have found more time to read the Bible during this lockdown; John tells his stories differently. He does not supply all the details. He leaves some of it to your imagination.

For example, he does not tell you why it is Martha who comes out to welcome Jesus in their home at Bethany and why Mary chooses to stay home. It doesn’t sound like her; it is usually Mary who is excited to welcome Jesus and engage him in a spirited conversation while her sister Martha stays in the kitchen to do all the cooking. Remember that story in Chapter 10 of Saint Luke?  

So how come Mary does not seem so eager to meet Jesus when she is told that he has arrived? You know my guess? I think she is sulking. In Tagalog we call it PAGTATAMPO. Masama kasi ang loob niya. She makes him understand that she resents his delayed coming. Why only now? I am sure Jesus immediately noted the absence of Mary when he was met by Martha. Where is your sister? It is only then that Martha comes back to the house to pull her sister out and tell her to welcome him. She does it with a heavy heart and with heavy feet. She could not even keep herself from expressing her honest feeling. Like her sister, she could be frank with Jesus. She says, “If only you were here, my brother would not have died.” What a painful declaration – you were not here…where were you when we needed you?  

There are definitely a lot of times in our lives when we feel like saying this to God. Where are you? Like during these times that we are waging a global war against an enemy we do not see, a pandemic. I wonder if you felt it in the reflection of Pope Francis on March 27 at Saint Peter’s Square, looking desolate and walking alone in an empty square that used to be always full of people. There was a part in his message when he said, “One of the things that hurts us and our families most when we hear it said is: ‘Do you not care about me?’ It is a phrase that wounds and unleashes storms in our hearts. It would have shaken Jesus, too.”

Imagine being the wife of a frontliner doctor who contracts the disease. Imagine your husband being intubated in the ICU and you cannot even attend to him even if you are also a doctor, because you also got infected and you have a special child, a son who is waiting for you at home? Imagine what it is like to learn that your husband was asking for a priest to give him the last rites and his wish could not be granted because nobody was allowed access to the ICU for COVID patients? Imagine him dying alone and being cremated within 8 hours and your family does not even have the opportunity to grieve his loss?  

It is certainly during times like these that we feel like expressing to God in our prayer a lament full of reproaches – addressed to a God whose presence, whose care and love we begin to doubt. Lord, where are you? Why have you forsaken us? What did we do to deserve this?

Like I said, John is such an interesting storyteller. He makes you fill in the gaps in his narration.  He will actually tell the reader the reason why Jesus could not be there. His life was in danger. He was a wanted man in Judea; he could get arrested and executed if he showed up. In fact the disciples warn him about this danger when he decides to go to Bethany. But he goes anyway.  

We are supposed to know the reason why he couldn’t come. But Martha and Mary do not know this. And Jesus does not waste time trying to defend himself before the sisters’ rebuke and lament. He does not say, “If you only knew the risk that I am now taking just to be here with you.” What does he say? Nothing. He goes with them in silence and says, “Where have you buried him?”  And when she weeps, he weeps too.

This Holy Week, we will surely be weeping.  We will be missing the palms of Palm Sunday, the Jesus images mounted on carriages for the procession, the senakulo, the Salubong. We will be feeling like it’s not Holy Week, like Jesus is not with us.  

I know, sometimes we think God is just up there in heaven watching us down here, uncaring, indifferent. I remember many years ago receiving a postcard from a friend with a paraphrasing of the Lord’s Prayer written on it, in French. It says, “Our Father in Heaven, stay there in your heaven! And we, we will just stay here in our own misery on earth, where life can sometimes be nice anyway.” It is a lament written by an agnostic writer named Jacques Prévert.  

Laments, they say, are an important component of our faith. Almost half of the Psalms of the Bible are made of laments.  It does not have to be “Praise the Lord” all the time. It’s okay not to be okay sometimes. We’re taught never to pretend in our prayer, to dare to express our honest feelings to God, the way Martha and Mary did. And God would be silent. But he will make his presence felt. He is not up there in heaven watching us indifferently. He is with us, weeping with us, suffering and dying with us, assuring us that death cannot have the final say if we hold on to him, even in the dark, even in the midst of temptation to despair, to fall apart and break into pieces.  

He teaches us to have faith, to hope, because of only one thing: our God is a God of love, and his love is our only guarantee of eternity. His love can never be defeated by death. He will see us through this. He will call out our names the way he called Lazarus to come out of the tomb, to awaken us from the slumber of death.  

For the past few weeks now, our homes have turned into virtual tombs during this time of our quarantine. Our streets have turned empty, no public transportation, business establishments are closed, our voices have been silenced. We have been shrouded by fear, bound, as it were, by the terror and anxiety of getting sick with the coronavirus, or causing our loved ones to get sick, especially our elderly and the vulnerable ones among us. Those of us who have contracted the disease are isolated and made to feel like they are lepers.  Some of them need help and cannot get it, some need a ventilator and the equipment is not available.  

But how can we even say he is not here? He has dared to be with us even if it could cost him his life. He is here, in our frontliners who put their lives on the line, in the doctors and nurses and all other caregivers, in the soldiers and barangay officials who patrol our streets, in the volunteers who bring food to the hungry, in those who dare to open their doors to the frontliners and the homeless, those who continue to produce food and make it available in the markets, in the stores, those who dare to be out there so that we could be allowed to stay home and defeat this unseen enemy.  

Saint Augustine tells us that when we are tempted to despair, it is then that we must stubbornly assert our faith and declare, “We are Easter people, and our song is Alleluia!” Our story is never truly a story of salvation if it does not end with redemption. The story of redemption never ends on the cross or in the tomb. It breaks out of the tomb. Our faith teaches us to believe that our stories will have a happy ending. The raising of Lazarus is a mere preview of the real happy ending: the resurrection of our suffering and dying God. 

And so we must have the courage to declare with hope: We are Christians. We believe in happy endings. If it’s not yet happy, then it’s not yet the end. – Rappler.com

Bishop Pablo Virgilio David heads the Diocese of Caloocan. A renowned Bible scholar, he is also vice-president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.

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