Good Friday: When “negative” is “positive”

The Lord Is My Chef Good Friday Recipe by Fr. Nicanor F. Lalog II, 02 April 2021
Isaiah 52:13-53:12  +  Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9  +  John 18:1-19:42
Photo by Marc Angelo Nicolas, January 2020.
"Biyernes Santong Biyernes Santo."
(A popular expression among us Filipinos.)

Perhaps, today we can truly feel the meaning and gravity of our favorite expression when somebody looks so sad and gloomy, when somebody seems to have been totally lost: “Biyernes Santong Biyernes Santo”.

That is how we are today – stuck in our homes, others in hospitals while others almost about to give up as this new wave of COVID-19 gets stronger with about 15000 infections today!

As I have been saying since Palm Sunday, this could be our holiest Holy Week in our lives in this most unholy time of our history when we are given the opportunity to be holy, to be good and kind, to be forgiving and caring with others. Side by side every post in Facebook we find prayer requests for sick family and friends, help for those trying to find a hospital that would admit their sick, or buy much needed medicines and equipment like oxygen.

For the second straight year, churches are empty and everyone is home due to COVID-19 pandemic. Perfect example of “Biyernes Santong Biyernes Santo”… so bad… so negative.

That is often how we think of Good Friday – so negative in the sense it is so sad and gloomy, so painful and too difficult.

Ultimately, Good Friday is so negative for us because it means death. Even of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Nothing would be more sad than that.

Photo by author, Chapel of the Holy Family, Sacred Heart Spirituality Center, Novaliches, QC, 2015.

Lately due to this COVID-19 pandemic we have been living inversely or “baligtad” as we say.

We would always pray at every swab test for the virus that we be “negative”.

Never has been thinking negative has become so positive, so good, in fact!

And it all began more than 2000 years ago at the calvary when Jesus offered himself for us on the cross.

That is why Good Friday is called “Good”: the cross of Jesus Christ is a sign not of death but of the good news or gospel of life, hope, and eternal life. The cross of Jesus Christ is not a negative sign (-) but a positive sign, a plus sign (+).

We celebrate in the most solemn and unique way because the cross is no longer a sign of condemnation but honor. Before, it was a symbol of death but now a means of salvation. The cross of Christ has been the source of countless blessings for us, illuminating our path with light when our lives are so dark with sins and mistakes, sickness and disappointments. Most of all, the cross of Christ has brought us closer to God again and with one another despite our sins and past, promising us a bright a joyful Easter.

Yes, for some the cross of Christ is so negative: why display the body of the Lord everywhere in our churches and homes, bloodied and defeated, lifeless and dead?

See, my servant shall prosper, he shall be raised high and greatly exalted. Even as many were amazed at him – so marred was his look beyond human semblance and his appearance beyond that of the sons of man – so shall he startle many nations, because of him kings shall stand speechless; for those who have not been told shall see, those who have not heard shall ponder it.

Isaiah 52:13-15

Many times in life, and we have proven this, God uses of many of “negative” experiences lead us to more positive outcome and results.

Yes, we may be Biyernes Santong Biyernes Santo in sadness and fear, even anxieties.

But, we continue to pray and forge on with life’s trials and difficulties because we see the cross of Jesus Christ leading us to the light and life, joy and celebration of his Resurrection at Easter.

A very good Good Friday to you. Amen.

Photo by author, Chapel of the Holy Family, Sacred Heart Spirituality Center, Novaliches, QC, 2015.

Good Fridays on Sundays

Quiet Storm by Fr. Nicanor F. Lalog II, 11 October 2020
Photo by Ms. Anne Ramos, Good Friday “motororized procession” of Santo
Entierro in our Parish during COVID-19, 10 April 2020.
Lately I have noticed
since month of August
when we have a spike of the virus
I have felt heavy and serious
as Sundays have become 
more like a Good Friday
with the streets and church seats
both empty;  nobody seems to be happy
or Sundays have become more lazy?
How I miss the people I always see
wondering if they are safe and healthy
or maybe so wary just like me.
Sometimes I still feel
how everything is surreal
will I make it to next year
enjoying life without fear?
I have been wondering
if the Lord is still hanging
or have they crucified him again?
Life in the midst of COVID-19
has become more challenging
listening to silence so deafening
when God does not seem to be caring;
but, deep within
there is that calming
during Good Friday
that Easter Sunday
 is surely coming:
keep on believing, keep on praying
if Sundays look like a Good Friday
this may only mean one thing, that
Jesus is with us suffering COVID-19!

Darkest hour, Finest hour

The Lord Is My Chef Recipe for Good Friday, 19 April 2019
Isaiah 52:13-53:12///Hebrews 4:14-16;5:7-9///John 18:1-19:42
Jerusalem at dawn. Photo by author, April 2017.

Yesterday I saw the Maundy Thursday letter of Archbishop Soc Villegas to us his brother priests. I have never had a death threat in my life but have experienced being the subject of a fake news on being dead in 2005. And like the good Bishop Soc, I also asked “why me for doing what is right?”

It was one of the darkest hours in my entire life. I was then assigned at our diocesan school for boys in Malolos when I initiated an investigation on two married teachers allegedly having an affair following a tip from some faculty members. Our school principal who was well-respected by everyone headed the board. After a few days into the investigation, the teachers concerned resigned after realizing the overwhelming evidences their accusers have gathered against them. We were so glad the case was peacefully and easily resolved.

A week later, a teacher woke me up very early morning with a call, asking if the text message they have received was true that I have died of a heart attack past midnight. My immediate response to the teacher was, “why did you call me if I have died already?” She was crying and was so concerned as I listened to her on the phone. Then I asked her to send me the text message, but, later I changed my mind, telling her “what if it were true?”

I was never able to get back to sleep that morning because everybody was asking about the fake news that spread so quickly. I had to call my family to assure them I am very alive and well. By eight o’clock I realized the gravity of the matter: nuns were praying and masses have been offered for my “untimely death” that some priests have in fact came to see me in the school. I tried to brushed it aside, taking it lightly with my usual jokes. I even held my classes that whole day, telling my students that even if I die, I would always come to teach them.

Things became so different later that day for me. Especially when I prayed first in our chapel that evening and later in my room. Alone, I cried, feeling a deep pain within, asking myself what have I done wrong to deserve such a fake news? It was a pain so different, something you could really piercing through one’s self, slashing and shredding every bit of my being. That night I felt I have finally grasped all those existential absurd and pessimistic stuffs by Abert Camus and Soren Kierkegaard. Like what young people would say these days, “gets ko na sila”.

Crucifixion at the altar of the Betania Retreat House, Tagaytay. Photo by author, 2017.

It did not stop there. The “mystery texter” eventually texted me, threatening me of so many things, cursing me that I would suffer so much before I die. With that, I sought help from my friends in the news who referred me to a text scam investigator whom I never met but was so kind to help me for free. With his technical skills plus my news background as well as pastoral psychology, I was able to eventually identify my mystery texter who was a co-teacher of the accusers of the teachers in the illicit affair. It turned out, she was so broken-hearted after being dumped by the male teacher for another co-teacher who was prettier and lovelier than her. And she’s also married! She thought I was protecting the accused male teacher who happened to be an ex-seminarian but later we learned he was notorious in having illicit affairs among his married co-teachers.

She eventually resigned from our school in 2006 along with her group of co-teachers who all end up miserable in life. Their leader got separated from her husband who was caught in the act in another school banging an employee in a vacant room during summer break. Another was widowed. The third just got uglier. And she? She went to teach abroad in 2007 but had to go back home after learning her husband’s extra-marital affairs. She was able to go back to our old school because I never told my rector my findings. After a year and a half, she was fired from our school when the wife of our school driver caught them having an affair. I have never seen her nor her group since I left our school in 2010.

The Cross of Christ atop the church of our Lady of Lourdes in France. Photo by my former student Arch. Philip Santiago during his pilgrimage in 2018.

Thank you for bearing with me with my long story. It is the first time I have shared it with anyone except with one good teacher I have kept as a friend. Since yesterday I have been telling you about the “hour” of Jesus Christ, his passion that started at the Last Supper, culminating at his crucifixion. We said the darkest hour of Jesus Christ is also his finest hour because of his immense love. In the end, it was his love that triumphed over sin and evil. And that is why we call this Friday as Good.

When I recall that episode in my life, I thank God. You know when I was being attacked then by that mystery texter, that was the same year God gifted me my first trip to the US when my Ninang’s daughter got married. Life has become harder for me since then but has become “betterer”.

Of course I was scared at that time, checking on everything I was doing. Everything in my life has to be planned and calculated; I hate surprises that is why I am not fond of gifts, that I do not readily open them. But, was I angry or mad? No. Even at that time. I even pitied our teacher for being fooled. There is still pain in my heart when I remember those people behind those things but overall, I have transcended the episode. And I feel I have been transformed by it. The incident made me more resolved to be good and better as a person, as a priest. Most of all, it had taught me that like Jesus Christ, we always have to make a stand for what is true, what is good, what is just. It is always painful, lonely and scary to be on the cross. But it is on the Cross of Christ where we shine and share in his glory. It is only at the Cross of Christ where we are truly transformed into better persons because of love. It is only on the Cross of Christ where we realize the value and beauty of this gift of life, of every person in our lives that we start living authentically. At the Cross of Christ, we are assured always of a bright new day to get better and stat anew in life. A blessed weekend to you!

The Crucifix by National Artist Napoleon Abueva at the Holy Sacrifice Parish at UP Diliman. Here we find Good Friday and Easter Sunday, Death and Glory of Christ always together, a hairline apart from each other. See also the long arms of Christ that seem to be disproportionate to his body. According to a story, the UP Chaplain who commissioned that crucifix, the Jesuit Fr. John Delaney asked Abueva to make the arms of Christ longer than usual to show Jesus welcomes everyone; there’s a room for everyone in the Lord’s Cross, especially those suffering. Photo from Google.

Knowing is Intimacy

The Lord Is My Chef Sunday Recipe, Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion, Year C, 14 April 2019
Isaiah 50:4-7///Philippians 2:6-11///Luke 22:1-49
Photo from Bing.com.

Today we begin the Holy Week with two celebrations merged into one, Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion. The Palm Sunday is a tradition started by the early Christians in Jerusalem in the fourth century while in Rome during the 12th century, the Pope proclaimed the long gospel account of the Lord’s Passion on this Sunday to signal the start of Holy Week. Almost 2000 years later in reforming the liturgy, Vatican II merged these two traditions into one to usher in our holiest days of the year.

Like in the four Sundays of Lent except last week, St. Luke guides us today in reflecting the Lord’s Passion with emphasis on the Cross with its call to conversion. For St. Luke, the cross is the object of discipleship in Christ. Join me in reflecting on the last three words our evangelist had recorded when Jesus was crucified.

First word:

When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him and the criminals there, one on his right, the other to his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”

Luke 23:33-34
Mosaic of the Crucifixion at the crypt of the Manila Cathedral. Photo by Arch. Philip Santiago, October of the Jubilee of Mercy 2016.

This is very striking. Immediately upon his crucifixion, Jesus prayed for the forgiveness of his enemies! It is a total adherence to his preaching during his sermon on the plain, “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Lk. 6:27-28, Seventh Week Ordinary Time, 24 February 2019). Here we find the immense love and mercy of Jesus — no hatred, no calls for revenge or threats like “karma” against those who crucified him. He simply begged for their forgiveness because “they know not what they do.”

In Jewish thought, to know means more than an intellectual knowledge for it implies relationship. Knowing somebody for them is more than knowing one’s name but having ties with the person. And to know something is always to see things in this perspective, always in relation with a person. Had they known Jesus is the Christ, they would have not crucified him! Exactly the preaching of St. Peter at the healing of a lame man after Pentecost at the temple when he told them they have “acted in ignorance” in “killing the Author of life whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 3:15). St. Luke also notes in his Acts of the Apostles how the crowd upon hearing St. Peter’s preaching were moved or “cut to the heart” (2:37) that many were baptized on that day. Recall also how at the arrival of the wise men from the East searching for the child Jesus: the scholars of Jerusalem “knew” from the books how the Christ would be born in Behtlehem yet he was found by the pagan magis! Even the most learned man in the New Testament, St. Paul admits how ignorant he had been in persecuting and blaspheming Jesus before (1Tim.1:13) experiencing God’s loving mercy.

In the bible we always see this combination of knowing and ignorance at the same time to indicate that more than factual and cerebral knowledge, there is that deeper knowing of relating and of loving. If we really know somebody, the more we love, the lesser we sin. St. Thomas Aquinas used to say that the more we know and become intelligent, the more we realize the truth, the more we must become good and holy. That is why saints are the most intelligent people that they were able to do what is good and what is right.

In this age of Google and Wikipedia , Jesus is challenging us that if we truly know so much that we have become smart and more intelligent, then, how much do we really love and care for others?

Photo from Google.

Second word:

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you shall be with me in Paradise.”

Luke 23:42-43

The Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen used to claim that Dimas was indeed a great thief who was able to steal or snatch Paradise from Jesus just before dying on the Cross. It may be funny but very true. But more than “stealing” his salvation from the Lord, Dimas had displayed on the cross what we have discussed earlier about the combination of knowing and ignorance. I would say Dimas is perhaps the “most learned thief” of all time who truly knew what is most essential in life which is to know Jesus. The moment he called out to him “Jesus”, Dimas expressed his knowing Jesus, of belonging to Jesus. As we have reflected earlier, to know is to relate. Anyone who truly relates must first believe in order to love dearly. Dimas believed in Jesus that he called out to him while hanging on the Cross.

Today, Jesus is reminding us that the door to Paradise is him alone. And we begin to enter Paradise the moment we entrust our total self to Jesus like Dimas who came to know Christ at the Cross, and then believed him and loved him. If we really know, do we believe?

Altar of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre over the exact site where Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem. Photo by Arch. Philip Santiago, October 2017.

Third word:

Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” and when he had said this he breathed his last.

Luke 23:46

One of St. Luke’s unique feature is always presenting to us Jesus at prayer. Especially here at his crucifixion. See how his first words were prayer of forgiveness for his persecutors. Now at his death, St. Luke presents Jesus again at prayer, reciting Psalm 31:5, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

Here we find the whole picture of Jesus Christ’s life which is a prayer and his prayer is his very life. From the very start, Jesus has always been one with the Father which is the essence of every prayer called communion. And that is the important aspect of his being our Savior: everything he said and did was everything the Father had told and asked him. There is that perfect communion of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit so that in his death, Jesus offered his total self with us to God. Everyone and everything is thus sanctified anew in Christ. This became possible only with his kenosis, his self-emptying eloquently expressed to the Philippians by St. Paul in our second reading.

On the Cross, everything in the life of Jesus Christ came to a full circle, God’s whole picture emerged. Now more than ever, we have become closest to God in love. In his dying on the Cross, Jesus made known to us God, brought him closest to us so we can relate and be intimate with him more than ever. In his becoming human like us by bearing all the pains and sufferings expressed in the first reading from Isaiah, God proved to us his love in Jesus. Most of all, he enabled us too to be capable of knowing and loving like Jesus Christ by being intimate with him always. This is why these days are called Holy Week when we are filled with God so we experience him anew and have him more than ever in our hearts, in our very selves. Amen.