Saturday, April 07, 2012

Dissecting Holy Week

In our high school religion class under a Roman Catholic seminarian, we were asked: Why did God create humans? The same question had been asked of our teacher’s class by a nun who promised to give a gold necklace to the one who could give the best answer. Well, he felt sorry he could not give me a necklace that time. It was then I realized that I might just become the priest my mother had wanted me to be. Honestly, I found the answer quite easy, perhaps because I had heard it somewhere or we are serendipitously aware of important divine truths. If God reveals some things to us, who are we to deny Him?

My answer? God wanted to share His joy with us humans. So, is our life joy-filled and overflowing? Is our religion a true reflection of the JOY FROM HEAVEN? It has taken me all these years to seriously consider this question in the light of my experiences as a Christian.

I did struggle through a lot of moral and spiritual issues since adolescence. Eventually, I became a born-again believer in college in 1976. In 1990, I entertained revolutionary spiritual ideas and wrote a book that would overturn my own views of the “Eucharist” or “Communion” and would lead me to a lonely path away from organized religion. Writing my first book, The Missing Ingredient in the Lord’s Supper would cause a heartbreaking experience in my family life which I do not regret a bit to this day. Amazing lessons, experiences and discoveries would open up my life to new vistas of freedom and adventure I never thought possible.

Today, most of my friends, Catholics or Evangelicals, look at me as a drifter who is neither here nor there. Many of them probably consider me a heretic for espousing contrary and, as you will see, irreverent ideas. A lot of church-going people often take me to task for not attending church services. We all remain good friends and brothers; but unfortunately, we do not fellowship the way Christians should. That is one sad result in this so-called “good news” delivered by the Savior who bled for unity and peace among His disciples.

Yes, I do have a lot of explaining to do for my beliefs and I’ve done so in four published books and countless articles. A new manuscript-in-the-making adds to my collection of personal “apologetics”. Whether people believe the things I write or not is not the important thing. Much like the ancient prophets, I write in solitude and in contemplation of historical and contemporary realities while trying to keep a humble and obedient spirit before the Lord.

Religion is a very personal thing and I believe it is every individual's duty to discover for oneself a firm, fresh look at eternal realities based on God's past and active revelation in history and in one's life. In short, religion should not define us by what we do to fulfill certain obligations supposedly coming from God. We define it by what we do for God in fulfilling people's needs. (James 1:26-27)

One thing is certain for me: People have not changed from the time of Adam. Sin remains as grievous and as corruptive as in the time of Noah. Death is still the main problem that faces every human since the time of Cain and Abel. And the lust of the eyes and of the flesh and the pride of life remain to be the primary motivators of human behavior from the time of Eve. As such, the Bible does not and will never lose its value and relevance.

Holy Week does not fail to bring a sense of piety or spirituality, to Filipinos particularly. Everyone seems to be into some spiritual or religious exercise or activity, whether for physical or spiritual reasons. Let us take an incisive look at this event.

But before proceeding, you might ask: What qualifications do I have to speak for the Almighty God? How can a non-affiliated, non-ordained so-called Christian speak for such deep truths that require years and years of serious and dedicated study and practice? How could a mere free-lance writer or artist be any better than those who hold degrees in Divinity or Theology in established universities?

Well, if I remember right, the gospel was written in street Greek and proclaimed and practiced initially by unschooled people -- fishermen, tax collectors, housewives, peasants and soldiers. The original message itself came from a lowly carpenter. No, I am not avoiding the issue of qualifications! I am in good company, in fact, because the one who qualifies is God through His Spirit, not humans or human institutions. (2 Cor. 3:1-6)

Every person is called by God to hear His message. Anyone then who receives the message and the Spirit Whom Christ promised as His gift to any believer, has a ministry that originates from Heaven. The basis of the calling is not any human code or rule of conduct but the Scriptures inspired and written through the Holy Spirit. The written Word of God contains the Truth and is the Truth that each person needs in order to gain true knowledge of Christ and His Gospel. Nothing less, nothing more.

With that then, let us look at Lent by enumerating a few things that describe what it is and what it is not:

1. It is not a biblical feast or an event commemorated by the early first-century believers. This Quadragesima (Latin for “fortieth”, hence, Lent is the 40 days before Easter Sunday) originated as a pagan celebration of the return of spring (“lencten” in Anglo-Saxon) when the day began to lengthen and marked the end of winter. “Redeeming” this pagan practice, the early church leaders instituted the 40-day fast as a religious practice in preparation for Easter, basically what we have today. The name Easter itself derives from the ancient goddess Ashtaroth or Ishtar whom the pagans worshipped as the original "Queen of Heaven". (When we say "Happy Easter", is Christ happy that Ishtar is happy?)

Catholics and Protestants alike celebrate the Lenten season, as they do Christmas, either as a religious obligation or a social-cultural practice. Yet, in a strictly biblical sense, it has no basis in the teachings of Christ and the Apostles or in the practices of the first believers. It is a matter of religious choice, of course. Whether it is an essential spiritual exercise or obligation is a question we must answer individually in our conscience or before God, ultimately.

2. It is a virtual continuation and/or commemoration of the Jewish Passover Feast in its fundamental nature. Because majority of Christians today believe that Christ and the Apostles were celebrating the Passover Feast on the night the Lord was arrested, they have used the elements and the character of the Feast of Unleavened Bread as the basis for commemorating the Lord’s Supper in the Mass or in Communion services. However, before AD 800 or so, Christians in general, including Catholics, used leavened bread. Historically, the Eastern Orthodox Church has looked back to Pentecost Day in their celebration of the Communion by using leavened bread since the time of the Apostles. (My first book discusses in detail the origins, the meaning and the proper observance of the Lord’s Meal in the light of prophetic statements of Christ. It will soon be posted at this blog.)

Christ came to fulfill the Law of Moses which includes Passover. Having done so, He thus abolished the feasts. To continue doing things duly abolished makes a mockery of God's grace. In Christ, we are totally free from ritualistic obligations. (Paul did continue to participate in them to accommodate the "infant" Jewish and Gentile believers.) Yet, Christ Himself said that neither in Jerusalem, nor in Samaria, and, it follows, neither in Rome nor in Manila will the true worshipers still worship in temples, cathedrals or fancy buildings but rather in spirit and in truth. (John 4:23) Pray tell me where you can find spirit and truth at any time outside of the heart? Worship is a 24/7 LIVING SACRIFICE. (Romans 12:1)

3. The whole Lenten celebration is one big justification for the Catholic Mass. For many evangelical denominations, it is also a convenient way to accommodate themselves into the mood of the moment as their own form of Communion reflects that of the Catholics', having inherited it through an uncompleted reformation.

Official business and social activities grind to a halt as people meditate upon "the 7 last words", retrace the "way of the cross" and imagine the "wounds " and the "pierced side of Jesus". In this momentary retreat to religiosity or moral goodness under a palpable pall of death, many people do find enlightenment and even transformation. But is it one motivated by real repentance and faith in the whole salvation plan of God or merely out of self-pity and fear?

Telling the gospel story is one thing; but replaying and highlighting the crucifixion scene is a morbid and cross-eyed way of sidelining the significance of the resurrection and the effective reign of Christ in our lives. "It is finished" can both mean that Christ completed His part in the righteous demands of God for the payment of human sins and that humans had finally reached the limits of depravity, not by crucifying Him but by failing to fulfill His thirst to see righteousness even in our small deeds. When God asks for water and humans give Him vinegar and gall, we see how humans have utterly abandoned righteousness. As humans, we are totally screwed! For that, Jesus died.

Modern priests, like their ancient counterparts, demand compliance to prescribed forms and not genuine spirituality. It was Christ's defiance to such compliance to religious rigidity that made Him an enemy to the religious leaders. Remember: It was the Pharisees and the doctors of the law who had Jesus crucified and, today, their descendants continue to nail Him and bleed Him dry -- graphically, virtually, substantially, legally, religiously and morally. What the Father and the Son considered an abominable and despicable human act against Heaven, they effectively use as a big prop for a popular religion. The cross of Christ is now a tool used to maintain the guilt of sinners and their dependence upon a form of religion and not upon God. This they do in order to stake their claim to the throne of Christ as supposed guardians of human souls. Because of and against such usurpation, Jesus went to the cross. Ironically, He still hangs there bleeding and thirsting for us to look up to Heaven and see His throne.

4. In terms of the elements used in the Mass or Communion, the bread and the wine do not become the real body and blood of Christ. Transubstantiation has its beginnings in the teachings of de Lavardin in the 11th century although the basic concept came as early as the first century. The Reformation leaders criticized it as "false philosophy", which is what it really is with a lot of ancient mystical dressing. It is obvious in Acts that the Communion (“agape” or love-feast, as it was called eventually) was a common meal shared by believers and, therefore, involved plain, ordinary food including, of course, leavened bread and wine.

Where else can you find a festive meal that does not even satisfy hunger? God feeds and satisfies His people; humans today withhold the graces of Heaven ("You prevent people from entering the Kingdom!"). In this natural, simple, filling celebration of Christian fellowship, the Body of Christ becomes one in acknowledging the finished and perfected work of her Savior. Any remembrance or re-offering of His sacrifice through an empty rite is superfluous. Which brings us to a most crucial final point.

5. The so-called Eucharist, Lord's Supper or Communion is not a remembrance. It is a proclamation and celebration of eternal realities we experience as children of God. When Christ proclaimed the bread as His body, He referred to His real body which He would offer on the cross. He used the bread as our symbol to proclaim His finished work, not merely His death but more so His resurrection and His eternal reign as King of Kings. Thus, stating that we should "do this" (that is, eat) to "recall Him" (that is, to put in the mind, from the Greek "anamnesis", meaning "to think of") and not to "remember His death and suffering". (Luke 22:19) He was still alive, mind you, when He said these words and only meant for us to think of Him as He is and where He is -- alive and reigning with the Father in Heaven. Only eyewitnesses can remember; we are called upon to set our mind on Jesus. (2 Tim. 2:8, Col. 3:2)

This interpretation holds true because He said in Luke 22:15-16 that He "will not eat of it until it is fulfilled in the Kingdom." What could that mean? Three things: (a) He will eat it again WITH US! (b) He will fulfill or complete it. (c) He will complete it FOR US in the Kingdom.

Will we wait to eat with Christ till we all die? Or is He not reigning over His Kingdom now and eats or communes with us, that is, unites with us: we as His body, He the Head. (Eph. 5:29-30) No, not in a physical, transubstantiational way but in an essential, spiritual way through the Holy Spirit Who dwells in our hearts, the gift He promised to be our Advocate. Christ fulfilled or completed the Passover bread on Pentecost Day, a day when Jews offered leavened bread ("bread of the firstfruits") at the temple. (Lev. 23:17) From abnormal bread to normal bread! This fulfilled prophecy of Christ finishes the multi-millennial work of God in the history of the Israelite nation and prepared the entrance of Gentiles into the fold of God. Why use hard bread then when God obviously meant for us to use ordinary fluffy bread? How can we be so blind?

As a final proof, Christ promised not to drink the wine until He "drinks it new with (us) in My Father's kingdom" (Matt. 26:29). The Greek word for new, "kainon", means "of new nature or character". Today, people celebrate the Supper as if it were an exact mental replica of Christ's suffering and death. They still see the bread and the wine as flesh and blood. No, the "new nature" they take on are much more in keeping with the grace of God and not the corrupted ideas of humans. The bread symbolizes His one and undivided Body of believers, His Kingdom on Earth which He established on Pentecost Day, not His human flesh -- not anymore. Where is freedom in such anachronistic ideas? The wine, therefore, represents the Holy Spirit Who gives life to the Body, not human blood. No more! Where is grace and salvation in dwelling on elementary doctrines that do not exist or apply? Sin and death have been conquered; why dwell on them in mental imagery, in art form and in life style?

This patent "overdramatization of evil" has indeed kept many minds focused on the negative and non-essential matters -- that is, rehearsing the finished suffering of Jesus through rituals. Not much different from the ancient times when people diligently offered sacrifices but miserably neglected righteousness before God and mercy toward others.

The command then is this: "Think of Christ", Lord and Savior -- alive and reigning. We cannot do that when we keep thinking of His death and His suffering day in and day out, week in and week out. Satan must be laughing because instead of living free of the fear of death, we keep thinking of it and even use the living Lord to do so. For me, this is the worst irony of all. It is a spiritual bondage invented by false teachers and carried on in opposition to the glorious, life-giving principles of Jesus. Oh, how we have missed the simple, essential message of Christ! He did not come to die; He came to give us the joy of life from the Father.

And so, Christians today remain divided and confused over the gospel of Jesus. Many fail to see His fundamental teaching about joyful, abundant and victorious life. All because we follow the pagan traditions instead of the life-giving and liberating principles of God clearly revealed and taught by the first Christians.

Meditate upon what Jesus did and taught. Realize how easy and light His burden is. The somber, unsmiling nature of Holy Week says it all; not even Easter, that pagan festival posing as a symbol of resurrection cannot overcome the entrenched presence and unforgiving grip of death within human minds. And so, after Holy Week, many people conveniently go back to their unrepentant and degenerate ways.

I know; I used to be one and know a lot of people who remain as such and even as enemies of Christ even though they call Him Lord. People who still fear death are not perfected in love. For until we learn to remove the ancient strongholds that captivate our minds and our lives, we will continue to lead defeated lives, beholden to ancient lies from the Garden where our first parents fell.

Only Jesus Christ can set us completely free. Learn from His unveiled, unadulterated Word today.

(Painting above: Van Gogh's "La Resurrection de Lazare", 1889-1890)