The news about Senator Bong Revilla reading the Bible in detention stirred not a few catcalls from denizens online and at least one columnist. Many doubted that the alleged pork barrel grafter was finding spirituality among rats and roaches in his un-airconditioned cell.
Yet it’s common enough for people to get religion when things go bad. Not just because distress makes people call out for any succor, especially the divine kind. Perhaps more crucial, our Lord chooses the weak and wayward of this world to turn into instruments of His will and grace. Then it would be clear that God Almighty, not frail humanity, accomplished the amazing.
A rich, spoiled youth becomes the bird-preaching, poverty-embracing Francis of Assisi. A prayerful widow stirs Filipinos to bring down a powerful, wily dictator, kneeling before tanks and brandishing rosaries, crucifixes and holy statues. And amid the death and devastation of Yolanda, the homeless and grieving offer Sunday Mass under plastic sheets, their faith stronger after storm surges and killer winds.
Of course, the most dramatic act of God turning tragedy into victory is the dying and rising of His Son. The bloodied, broken Jesus of Good Friday becomes the dazzling, ever-living Risen Christ of Easter. Just when the world thought it was all over for the scourged, thorned and nailed Nazarene, it’s only just begun. And all we can say is: “Thanks be to God. To Him be the glory.”
Simon to Peter, Saul to Paul
That perennial theme of heaven taking earth and fashioning it into something or someone glorious imbues the Feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul on Sunday. Talk about gems from trash.
The apostle who denied Jesus thrice becomes the first pope, “the Rock” on which He builds His church. And there’s the Christian-hunting Pharisee-turned-Apostle to the Gentiles, whose preaching not only spreads the faith across the Roman Empire, but also lays its theological foundations.
It’s instructive, insightful and inspiring to recall these crumbly men at the very birth of Christianity, especially in this modern age when the Catholic Church faces daunting challenges and threats, from and, more perniciously, internal forces.
Instructive because the saga of both apostles demonstrate how adversity shaped and strengthened our religion, with persecution driving Peter and Paul to hold even tighter to the faith and proclaim it with greater fervor and conviction, and rejection by many Jews spawning the sharing of Christ with the world at large.
Insightful and inspiring because the constant and inexhaustible wellspring of faith and perseverance in a world that knew not Christ and disdained, if not despised His Gospel message of repentance, redemption and love, is Christ Himself. Today we face the same ignorance, disinterest and hostility toward the faith, even among Christians, and the only winning recourse and resource is, as always, none other than Jesus.
Like Saints Peter and Paul, we must pray to Him, constantly ponder and learn from His words and actions, and enthrone Him as the Lux in Domino filling our minds and directing our lives. This Christ-centeredness has always ensured that in a confusing world, full of deceiving ideas and distracting pursuits, Christians from the first dozen to the billion-strong today do not go astray, but keep the faith and finish the race.
Forget Jesus and our faith becomes just another self-serving human construct, a global tower of Babel erected by haughty pride doomed to eventually topple. Rather, cling to Him and the Church shall be the Mystical Body of Christ that we are destined to be, the Word, Love and Spirit of God come down from heaven to imbue and redeem our fallen world. Then Jesus’s pledge shall ring true: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Ashes to ashes, earth to eternity
That doesn’t mean all will be well, and our being and building shall last forever. All of this planet, even continents and empires, eventually pass. Only the Word and the Spirit endure in the new forms that emerge with the passing of the old. The Joy of the Gospel fills new generations of believers whose flames of faith are lit by the fading embers of spiritual forebears.
Again, the divine plan and principle unfolds, with God bringing forth His Truth and Mercy from the confusion, chaos and cacophony across the globe, even in His Church. And central to that heavenly unfolding is our mortal lives and earthen bodies which shall eventually return to primal dust. But in this inevitable passing, the mortal becomes eternal, the earthen heavenly, the dust divine.
Recalling the demise of family friends and fellow Jesuits, Ateneo philosophy professor Fr. Louie David yet affirmed in his Corpus Christi homily last Sunday:
“Even in death the body ever remains the temple of the Holy Spirit. Though we die, the Holy Spirit’s energy, the Holy Spirit’s dynamisms, by means of the sacraments, are poured out upon our bodies, both living and dead. On account of this transforming action of the Holy Spirit, an alteration occurs in the very nature of our flesh, as the seeds of its future resurrection and immortality are planted in it.
“Sanctification is not ‘spiritual,’ in the sense of non-material, but transformational, in that the entire human constitution, down to the body’s living cells, is spiritually altered by resurrection grace. Man’s soul is saved and sanctified through the physical channels of the preaching and sacraments of the Church, which are the normal media of human flesh. In the Holy Eucharist, particularly, we are incorporated into the body of Christ.”
Like Jesus, we and the Church struggle, falter, fall, bleed, face temptation, suffer distress, disease, disaster and death, and undergo countless other pains, flaws and sins of this life. We lose our way, fight losing battles, and, like Simon before Peter and Saul before Paul, deny Christ and disdain Christians. And as in Christianity’s beginnings two millennia ago, humankind dismisses the Gospel and derides its believers.
In such distress, Filipino Catholics cross ourselves, calling on God for succor even as we mark ourselves by the sign of His Trinity. Then from our defects and defeats the Lord shall bring forth His triumph. Amen.