February 25, 2018

THE WAY OF THE CROSS

BIBLE READINGS
Psalm 19

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

REFLECTION

Once upon a time, a Saint named Brother Bruno was praying alone at night. But he was disturbed by a loud croaking of a bullfrog nearby.  He tried to ignore the croaking and focused on his prayer, but he did that to no avail. So he leaned out of the window and shouted at the top of his lungs, “Quite! I’m trying to pray!” Since he was a Saint, the bullfrog obeyed his command. Silence came to the area and Brother Bruno returned to his prayer.

But another voice disturbed his prayer. This time it came from within himself. “What if God is pleased with that noisy croaking of the bullfrog?” he asked himself. “No way. God would never enjoy that kind of noise,” he refuted his own doubt. “But if God doesn’t enjoy such noise, why did God create a bullfrog in the first place?” he again argued with himself.

To find out, he once again leaned out of the window and said to the bullfrog, “Sing!” In a split second, the bullfrog continued its loud cracking noise. This time, however, it was joined by a band of other bullfrogs, multiplying the loud noise. But this time, Brother Bruno was not disturbed by the sound. To his own great surprise, the noise ceased to be a nuisance to him and he found out that his prayer was actually enhanced by the loud noise. Indeed, for the first time in his life, Brother Bruno discovered the deeper meaning of prayer.[1]

Friends, there are many ways that people connect with God. Some people meet God in silence; others encounter God in music; others experience God in their act of compassion or justice; others, like Brother Bruno, experience God in nature. Our reading today from Psalm 19 also opens with the revelation of God in creation.

The Psalm starts with a poem about the universe, specifically the sun (v. 1-6). The poem uses religious language that was common amongst Israel’s pagan neighbors. It may even originally have been an ancient pagan hymn of praise to the Sun god.[2]

In Psalm 19, however, the sun ceases to act like a deity. In the Psalm, the sun follows order, given to it by Yahweh, the God of Israel. In the Psalm, the sun is now part of creation as it joins with other parts of creation in proclaiming God’s glory (v.4b-6).

But their proclamation is not verbal. There is no word in their ‘speech’. Yet their voice is heard throughout the earth (v. 3-4). For the poet of Psalm 19, the universe is like a modern visual art – like a painting or a photograph - that contains no words, yet it speaks a thousand words. For the poet of Psalm 19, the universe is a source of wonder and inspiration of worship to its Creator. In the words of our Aboriginal brothers and sisters, nature is God’s temple, God’s cathedral.

Yet Psalm 19 doesn’t end there. The Psalm is a combination of what scholars define as creation psalm on one hand (v.1-6) and Torah psalm on the other (v.7-14).

God’s revelation in the universe is identical with God’s revelation in the Torah, the Jewish law. Just like the universe reveals who God is, God’s law also reveals who God is. Just like the universe is perfectly ordered, God’s law is also perfect.

To emphasize this, the poet uses different Hebrew words for God’s law, which are translated into different words in English. Each word is accompanied with a specific description. “The law of the Lord is perfect... The commands of the Lord are trustworthy... Reverence for the Lord is good... The judgments of the Lord are just...”[3]

Moreover, there is also great reward for those who follow God’s law (v. 11).  The law gives wisdom, strength, happiness, and understanding (v. 7-8). It is more desired than finest gold and sweeter than purest honey (v. 10).

It is thus clear that, for the poet of Psalm 19, God’s Law is nothing to be feared of. For the author of the Psalm, God’s law, like the sun, gives life and is the source of life.

Let me tell you a story about a man whose life was shaped by the disciplines based on God’s law. Oscar Romero was an ordinary man who was born in 1917 in a small and remote town in the mountains of eastern El-Salvador.

At the age of thirteen, he entered a seminary and started his training to become a priest in the Roman Catholic church. He was ordained at the age of 24 and spent the next 23 years of his life running a busy life as a priest in the city of San Miguel. He became popular and was widely acclaimed; although he was also resented by many of his colleagues because he could be over-demanding.

In his late 30s, Romero completed St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. Those who did these exercises were required to spend several hours a day praying and meditating. The exercises took a deep root within Romero and he always returned to them later in his life.

In 1966, after returning from a retreat, he committed himself to some disciplines to strengthen his spiritual life. He promised himself to meditate, pray, and read spiritual readings every day. He went to confession every week and to spiritual retreat every month.

In February 1977, at the age of 59, he was named Archbishop of El-Salvador. In those times, many of his fellow priests - especially those in rural areas - were preaching social justice and promoting small faith communities amongst the peasants, most of whom lived in inhumane conditions. But the ruler of El-Salvador - the dictator, Arturo Armando Molina - did not consider their work as church-work, but as socialists’ or communists’ agenda. As the result, the regime tortured and murdered many of the community and religious workers.

As the new Archbishop, Oscar did not back down however. In the three years of his ministry as Archbishop, he openly challenged the regime, mainly through his quiet but powerful sermons, broadcasted on the church radio. In his sermons, he called for an end to the state violence against its people and for the creation of a just society.

 

Oscar Romero was diagnosed with perfectionism and obsessive-compulsive personality style. His spiritual disciplines could become too rigid and he admitted that he himself sometimes failed to observe all his resolutions. But the disciplines must have given him the courage, strength, and serenity to face the brutal persecution of the state until, finally, he faced his brutal end.

In the morning of March 24, 1980, while he was celebrating the communion, an assassin came into the church and shot him. He was killed instantly. His death prompted one of the largest gatherings of mourners in Central America as 250,000 people attended his funeral.

Back to his time in seminary, when he was still a teenager, Oscar Romero wrote this poem:

Your word is pardon and gentleness for the penitent,
your word is holy instruction, eternal teaching;
it is light to brighten, advice to hearten;
it is voice of hope, fire that burns,
way, truth, sublime splendor,
life .... eternity....  [4]

 

Oscar Romero’s life is indeed a story about one person whose life was shaped, molded, and directed by the law of God.

Oscar’s life reminds us of another dimension of God’s revelation, which Paul talks about in his letter to the Corinthians: the mystery of the cross of Christ. As the early Christians were spreading the gospel to their communities, the cross was - and it still is - a terrible symbol. To be crucified on a cross was one of the most brutal capital punishments ever enacted by the Roman Empire. It was reserved only for “wretched” individuals such as rebellious slaves, pirates, or bandits. Done in the public eye, its goal was to humiliate its victims through degradation and torture before death. It was also the sign of divine curse for some Jewish people.[5]

Yet the Apostle Paul saw the cross of Christ as the ultimate source of God’s revelation. Unlike the Jews who believed in God through miraculous events, such us the events that surrounded their Exodus experience; or the Greeks who searched God through their elaborate philosophies, Paul found God through Christ crucified. According to Paul, this can occur because “what seems to be God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and what seems to be God's weakness is stronger than human strength.”[6]

In the Orthodox Church’s liturgy, the third Sunday of Lent is usually dedicated for the adoration of the cross. On that Sunday, after the Communion, a cross is carried in a procession around the church as the congregation sings.[7] What once a symbol of brutal repression has become the symbol God’s strength and resurrection.

Indeed friends, God reveals God-self through different ways: creation, spiritual disciplines, etc. During this Lenten season, we should remember that God especially reveals God-self on the cross, where God offers God-self to humankind. That revelation of God would shine even more clearly in our life as we take our own cross and carry it faithfully.

Amen.

[1] Anthony de Mello, The Prayer of the Frog-Volume 1, Anand, India: Gujarat Sahitya Prakash (1988), p. 3

[2] Fred Geiser, Commentary on Psalm 19:7-14, in WorkingPreacher.org

[3] Psalm 19:7-9 (Good News Translation)

[4] The story is an excerpt from two articles: James R. Brockman, S.J., The Spiritual Journey of Oscar Romero, in SPIRITUALITY TODAY, Winter 1990, Vol.42 No. 4, pp. 303-322; Shay Cullen, Remembering Martyred Oscar Romero, in Spero News’ website, Wednesday, March 31, 2010

[5] Richard Carlson, Commentary on Second Reading (1 Corinthians 1:18-25), in WorkingPreacher.org

[6] 1 Corinthians 1:25 (Good News Translation)

[7] Stanley S. Harakas, Journey to the Cross (1 Corinthians 1:18-25), in religion-online.org