Beyond the rituals of Holy Week

The Gospel narrative of the Last Supper leading to the passion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ happened more than two thousand years ago and foretold by prophet Isaiah a thousand years before when he spoke of the “sinless man who will atone for the sins of his people. By his voluntary suffering, he will save sinners from the just punishment of God.” Yet the passage of time did not dim its memory nor diminished the magnitude of Christ’s salvific act of dying on the cross. For Christ’s passion and death is an act of extreme sacrifice to express his love for mankind; infinite love that will remain true for all generations.

As Catholics enter the most solemn days of the Lenten season we once again relive Christ’s passion and death to reflect on God’s message of salvation. Depending on their traditions and cultures the faithful around the world reenact scenes, create tableau, recite prayers and devotions, and perform acts of reparation in observance of lent. In the Philippines these Lenten traditions range from the conventional to the more esoteric, including the blessing of the palms during Palm Sunday, visita iglesia and washing of the feet on Holy Thursday, reflecting on the Seven Last words on Good Friday, and self-sacrifice and other acts of penance as shown by the numerous self-flagellants and actual crucifixion of penitents on wooden crosses in some barangays of San Fernando Pampanga.

The Last Supper teaches us, about the importance of humility, selflessness and service as the true meaning of leadership.  The act of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples runs counter to how the world understands leadership. The accepted norm for most of us is for a leader to be served rather than to serve. In this sense, Christ was a revolutionary. He has shown the most extreme form of humility and love for man resulting in the ultimate sacrifice of His life on the cross. Humility is the acceptance that without Christ we can do nothing; that our abilities, skills and resources have been given by God not solely to serve our needs but to serve others. The humble leader lacks arrogance; gives preference in serving others rather than promoting oneself. Oftentimes, we misunderstand humbleness as lack of aggression, ambition and resolve. This revolutionary concept of leadership is the reason why oftentimes people are baffled when they encounter a humble servant-leader, a leader who personifies Christ’s humility and brand of service.  Yet, history has shown us that being humble is never incompatible with achieving great things. Roosevelt, Gandhi, Einstein and other great leaders stood out not only by their exceptional accomplishments but by their humility.  In the home front, people exalt Jose Rizal, President Magsaysay and Sec. Jesse Robredo for their humility and extraordinary service more than anything else.

The passion of Jesus Christ evokes images of gruesome physical and spiritual suffering. But for Christians, the suffering of Jesus is not only a poignant and heart-wrenching experience of a historic Man. Rather Christ’s suffering out of the abundance of God’s love for  mankind gives meaning to the sufferings of humanity.  In this modern and secular age where societies endeavor very hard to avoid any form of suffering and discomfort to the extent of sacrificing morality and rejecting the laws of God, Christ’s passion is a constant reminder that suffering is no reason for us to alienate ourselves from others nor should it separate us from God. As Pope Benedict XVI said “It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love.”

Pope Francis presents suffering from a different perspective. By choosing the name Francis, he wants the church to attend more closely to the needs of the poor, the afflicted, and the marginalized. Like his namesake Francis of Assisi, the new pontiff wants to protect humanity and even the environment from greed and exploitation which causes much suffering.  Surely, the suffering Christ teaches us to empathize with the least and the weakest in our society. We should not leave the government alone to solve the ails of the society rather each one of us in our own small way must invest time and resources in proportion to our capacities to alleviate the sufferings of the needy.

On the crucifixion and death of Jesus, Addressing priests, bishops, cardinals during his first homily, Pope Francis  exhorted: “We may be priests, bishops, cardinals and pope, but if we do not preach Christ Crucified, we are just mundane, of this world, we are not Disciples of Christ”.  Indeed, Pope Francis’ exhortation is as true to laity as it is to the clergy. When a man preaches the crucified Christ, he dies unto his old self, his selfish desires, greed, violence and utter sinfulness. He surrenders and submits his whole self to the will of God.  For the death of Christ on the cross is a sacrament of God’s eternal and infinite love for humanity.  Jesus himself preaches: Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Therefore, anyone who loves in the dimension of the cross will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.

Pope Benedict XVI said that these days, the situation of many families is made worse by the threat of unemployment and other negative effects of the economic crisis”, such as worry about the future of young people. But he advised families to “look to Christ’s cross”. “There we can find the courage and strength to press on.” He sought to assure his faithful that strength from God will help families “to make sacrifices and to overcome every obstacle”. Therefore, whether as a leader or a follower, or in whatever situation one finds himself in, identifying with the crucified Christ in the midst of challenges of daily living will always be a source of strength, power and a well-spring of love and compassion for all creation.

These rituals and practices are observed by the faithful for a variety of reasons. For one because they are the accepted customary practices handed down from generation to generation or as a personal expression of penitence and act of expiation of sins even if sometimes they deviate from the normative. No matter the means of religious expression it can be conceded that they are being done out of deep faith and sincere belief in the religious efficacy like atonement for sins to attain life everlasting. Yet apart from theological teachings and allusions, we can also draw virtues which we ought to apply in our more mundane and temporal affairs.

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