Matthew 26:14-27:66, Palm Sunday
Two years ago, when my kuya called from Davao to tell me that our mom was rushed to the ICU, I hurried home. I was used to visiting patients in the ICU—like parents of friends, strangers I had anointed, priests. But nothing really prepared you for when your own mom was in there. Mom was propped up on pillows when I entered her cubicle. Her eyes were open halfway and she was clearly catching her breath. Her hair was all disheveled, her skin sallow, and she looked like she hadn’t slept for many nights. Three weeks after that, she passed.
You know what, dear sisters and brothers, I think it’s fair to say that parents, most of them, if not all, our parents die of exhaustion. Ang mga magulang natin, namamatay sa pagod. And I bet, my dad will also die that way. He’s 80 now but he’s still working because he has to fend for my youngest brother and his family. After years and years of taking care of us, putting us through school, feeding and dressing us; after walking and driving us here and there, working for us, worrying and agonizing about us; after nursing us back to health, begging & borrowing money to cross us over the hungry years, and fighting for us and fighting about us; after enduring all aches and pains for us—namamatay ang mga magulang natin sa pagod.
Holy week is upon us again and we hear ourselves saying, “We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross, you have redeemed the world.” That prayer had always left me wondering: how could a passion and death more than 3,000 years ago continue to save me today? Well, Christian tradition already has answers to that. We call them “atonement theories,” centuries old. If you put them all together, they roughly go like this: that Jesus took the punishment that we otherwise deserved, and in exchange, he offered the Father his perfect righteousness. It’s like a very noble substitute: Jesus’s innocence “substitutes” our wickedness. It’s also like divine “payment”: Jesus’ suffering and death “pay” for a debt that we otherwise owe God. Another word we use is “ransom”. Jesus is the “ransom” paid to God, so we who are “hijacked” or “held captive” by sin can be “freed” from the punishment that we deserve anyhow. All this sounds familiar, doesn’t it? We learned it all in our youth, and hear it often cuaresma after cuaresma. But no matter how I think about it, the atonement theories sound to me too “mercantile”, for the lack of a better term. Debt and payment, and substitute and ransom— these just aren’t the metaphors that satisfy when I contemplate Jesus on the cross 3,000 years ago and me today. I don’t mean to question them. But they’ve just always left me with more questions than answers. How could a death 3,000 years ago continue to save me, save us today?
When I saw my mom all weary and out of breath, and three weeks later, when I finally blessed her body before cremation, I found my own little answer. Now what I came up with is not official Church teaching, by the way, and I wouldn’t embroider it on a pillowcase. It’s just how I personally make sense of how the Lord’s cross keeps redeeming me today, redeeming us.
I believe as a conviction that the Lord has made our hearts his dwelling place. There, he is closer to us than we can ever imagine. So, my mom’s heart is indwelt by Jesus; my dad’s; your hearts, and mine as well. Therefore, each time people who love us suffer willingly in order to save us from even more suffering, more pain, more loss—that is Jesus deep within them, his passion and death in their passion and death, saving us. Each time my dad and your dad, my mom and your mom—withstand the pain, the longing for us, the backbreaking consequences so they could save us from sickness, from loss, from despair—that is Jesus deep within them, his passion and death in theirs, saving us. Each time you willingly endure the deepest doubts, the darkest nights, the coldest qualms over whether the good you do for people you love actually do them any good at all—yet you keep going, you keep believing, and keep trusting past all the festering uncertainties—that is Jesus deep within you, his passion and death in yours, saving the people you love.
I even dare say, sisters and brothers, that without the Lord within us, we won’t have the strength to endure any suffering, let alone suffering for love. We wouldn’t even have the foggiest idea if suffering and loving have anything to do with each other. Suffering is meaningless without love. And love is impossible without the indwelling of the Lord. The Lord’s suffering for love is the beating heart beneath our suffering & love for each other.
I remember dad telling me one time, “Alam mo, anak, kapag inaatake ka ng hika noon, at hindi ka makatulog sa gabi dahil hirap na hirap kang huminga, dinadasal namin ng mommy mo na ilipat na lang sa amin ang hika mo, kasi mas kakayanin namin.” And I’m sure, if God heard their prayer, they would have lovingly endured it. I’m sure you feel the same way for your children, your loved ones. I’m also sure you’ve prayed the same prayer many times. Kaya kapag mamatay-matay na po tayo sa pagod para sa ating mga mahal sa buhay, ‘wag po tayong panghihinaan ng loob. Dahil ‘yan, ‘yan po ang kakaibang kapangyarihan ng Diyos sa ating pagkatao. When we feel like we’re dying from exhaustion over saving people we love again and again, may we never despair. For there lies the mysterious power of the Lord’s self-outpouring love beating within each of us.
So, that’s how I explain to myself how a death 3,000 years ago still saves us today, sisters and brothers. “We hold the death of the Lord deep in our hearts,” St. Paul says. And if it makes us feel better, even Jesus died of exhaustion. Kahit po si Hesus, namatay rin sa pagod. So, if ever we die of exhaustion, dear sisters & brothers, may we do so because of profound, self-outpouring love.