How can we abandon our Companion – Madz Tumbali, SJ

John 11:1-45, 5th Sunday of Lent

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As days and weeks progress, an experience of “resurrection” seems to be getting more elusive. From our first case of COVID 19 reported on January 30, 2020, we are now at 1,075 in the Philippines. At a global level, from the first report on November 17 last year in China, we are now at 602,146 with the United States as the hardest hit thus far.

How timely indeed are the words of Martha: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” A few times in the past days, when fear and paranoia would overpower me, I asked in prayer, “Dear God, is this how everything shall end?”

Happily, the readings for today tell me that even my question is wrong.

In the first reading, Ezekiel announces a great news: that after undergoing death, symbolized by the dry and scattered bones, they shall see the restoration of the people of God. Restoration, and not death, is how the end shall look like.

The psalmist (Ps 129 [130]) asks for mercy, a cry founded on the assurance that there is a God and that he is full of mercy. “If you, O Lord, should mark our guilt, who would survive? But with you is found forgiveness… mercy… redemption.” – Yes, forgiveness, mercy and redemption, not punishment and annihilation.

St Paul, in the second reading, declares that Christ and death cannot come together. Only those who are attached to the world will be devastated when loss and death take place.

The words of the Lord in the Gospel may also console us: To Martha (and perhaps also to us today), he said, “This sickness will end, not in death, but in God’s glory.” Complementing this, the Lord wept – a sign of God’s deepest and most personal sympathy to the lowest and most fearsome moment that every one of us shall inevitably undergo: death. Jesus himself will also consummate his humanity when he dies on the cross. His promise that He-is-with-us counts as part of the full experience of human suffering and death. Then, he revived Lazarus after he introduced himself: “I am the Resurrection and the Life. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies, will live…” What is striking here is that Jesus declared this right where death was taking place; indeed, a very strong invitation to Martha and to us to put our faith in him, to fully surrender what we cannot understand yet and simply be docile to his will against the clouds of despair and fear.

In the Holy Father’s message and blessing to the City and to the World yesterday, an inspiring answer has arisen from the Lord’s questions: “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” Pope Francis reflects, “We can look to so many exemplary companions for the journey, who, even though fearful, have reacted by giving their lives. This is the force of the Spirit poured out and fashioned in courageous and generous self-denial. It is the life in the Spirit that can redeem…”

These exemplary companions are obviously the frontliners whom we have been supporting in our little (and hopefully big) efforts here in Loyola House and Ateneo. In addition, the companions whom we can look up to during these times can also be our own Society of Jesus in its almost 500 years of tradition.

A book about the Jesuits, published in 1661 in England, can teach us how to proceed in this time of crisis:

[The Jesuits are] more admirable in the time of contagious diseases and plagues. Whenever these happen in any place where the Society is… [it is a custom that] the Rector calls all his Subjects together, and acquainting them with the urgent necessity, desires them first to commend the matter to God, and then those who find in themselves a desire to be exposed, and are ready to lay down their life for their Neighbour, should… acquaint him with their resolution. Out of those who offer themselves, the Superior chooses whom he thinks fit; and these commonly are very abled men, for the Superior cannot think it fit to expose novices or imperfect persons to so great danger. This is what was practiced [since] the beginning of the Society… thanks be to God…. None even the enemies of the Society can say that in the towns where the Jesuits live, either prisons or Hospitals, or the poor, or infected persons are neglected by them. Though notwithstanding this practice costs the Society lots of many brave and gallant men. (M.G., An Account of the Jesuites: life and doctrine, 1661: 50-51).

The book counts at least 15 casualties related to this holy but dangerous work during the plagues from 1624 to 1649 in Ghent, Dunkirk, London, and Rome, that included Father General Vicenzo Caraffa, who died several months after working as a volunteer in preparing and distributing food for the hungry during an epidemic in 1649. The number does not include Scholastic Luigi Gonzaga who contracted the disease and died while serving in a makeshift field hospital opened by the Jesuits during a plague in Rome in 1591.

To conclude, let me use another reflection of Pope Francis. At some point in his address, he gives a solution on how to remove our fears: “Embrace the Lord!” To embrace the Lord means to see the glory of God over death, as the readings remind us; to embrace the Lord, for frontliners and for our Jesuit ancestors who gave their lives, means to take care of the sick, the dying, and the dead – who are Christ themselves. And so, we, who vowed as “Companions of Jesus,” how could we abandon the Lord? Amen.

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