March 29, 2008

The Epitaph

2nd Sunday of Easter
John 20:19-31: “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’
After he said this, he showed them his hands and side.”

An epitaph is text honoring the deceased, most commonly inscribed on a tombstone or plaque. Many are quotes from holy texts like the Bible. An approach of many successful epitaphs is to 'speak' to the reader and warn them about their own mortality.

In the Philippines, the most common epitaphs are R.I.P (Rest in Peace) and S.L.N. (Suma-Langit Nawa). But in Manila North Cemetery, a funny but striking epitaph of an unknown tomb says it all…

Juan dela Cruz
“Ako Ngayon…Bukas Ikaw”

It is a reminder for all of us of our own mortality. When Jesus died on the cross, the disciples, except John, ran away and hid themselves for fear of being arrested and killed for following Jesus. They did not want to die, and so they hid themselves for fear of the Jews. Fear, frustration, and uncertainty of their future overwhelmed the disciples but they stood together. Then one evening, Jesus suddenly stood among them and said, “Peace be with you,” and immediately showed his wounded hands and side.

At first glance, it seems the showing of wounded hands and side contradicts the greeting of peace; but it is actually an offering of consolation, encouragement and hope to the disheartened disciples.

Jesus knew what was within the hearts of the disciples – great fear. As a consoler, Jesus consoled them in two ways: 1) by words, “Peace be with you” and 2) by action, “He showed them his hands and side.” His greeting of peace was intimately connected to his wounds. His wounds speak of peace!

Our gospel for today is an echo of the disciples’ “sinking experience” when they were caught by the storm in the middle of the sea (Read Mark 4:35-40). Jesus stood up and commanded the wind and the waves with two powerful words, “Be Quiet” and “Be Still.” It was a direct command to the sea, but it was also an implicit command to the on-going storm inside the disciples’ hearts to “Be Quiet” (which means ‘peace be with you’) and “Be Still” (have faith …look at my wounds, I did it and I won). To console others will always be by words and action.

The best consoler is the one who had already experienced the difficulty. Encouragement from a cancer survivor or cancer patient is more consoling than of a priest. Words on forgiveness from a father whose son was brutally murdered may moved our hearts to forgive. A scripture professor may impress us with his in-depth knowledge of the Bible but a very profound sharing that comes from the heart may bring us closer to God. The deepest and truest consolation will always come from somebody who had been there already.

When I was in Grade III, I remember when my class had our first polio vaccination. Fear gripped all of us. Imagining that big needle penetrating our skin and flesh gave us goose bumps. But when our first classmate, the first to volunteer, victoriously emerged from the clinic with a big smile; he proudly showed us his right arm with the needle’s mark. He confidently consoled us with his words, “Hindi naman masakit…parang kagat lang ng langgam.” His words were more than enough to make us a little braver to face the needle. I said to myself, “If he did it, I can do it also.”

This is the reason why Jesus showed his hands and side to his disciples. It was not only to tell them that he is alive. But by showing his wounds, Jesus wanted them to see the marks of cruelty, pain, hate, and torture that he has endured. Look! He demanded of them. The risen Christ was wounded, suffered and crucified; and yet he survived. Yes, he died on the cross…but now he is alive! The Father vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead. Thus, the wounds of Jesus became the signs of hope and strength. The wounds of Jesus are bound intimately to his words of peace. Kung kaya ni Lord, kakayanin ko rin, I will carry my cross and claim my own resurrection.

When I saw my classmate smiling after the injection, I knew I could do it also. It is easier to face any difficulties and challenges with somebody around. The presence of somebody is important. A pain shared is a pain divided. We need companions along the road of uncertainty. We need our family, friends and Christian community in our journey.

Unfortunately, some disciples preferred to be alone when struggling and disappointed. They did not want others to see them vulnerable or weaklings. They did not want to share their own feelings, struggles, and problems for many reasons. Thomas was one of them. There was no doubt that Thomas loved Jesus and he was willing to follow him even in death (John 11:16), but he was a natural pessimist. Like the rest, he was also greatly affected by the death of Jesus. Thomas was an “on and off” community member; but most of the time, he preferred being alone and sulk in his loneliness. And so when Jesus visited the community, he was absent.

We also miss many things when we isolate ourselves from our family, friends and Christian communities. When sadness overcomes us, we isolate ourselves from others. We become quiet in our family meals, avoid social gatherings, and inactive in church activities. We forget that in moments of difficulties, support group matters a lot. Staying with our family, friends, and community is important; for it is there that we are likeliest of all to meet Jesus face to face.

The greeting of Jesus, “Peace be with you,” is a forceful command for the disciples, encouraging them back to life, to hope, to be available to Him and the world again. His greeting of peace and revelation of his wounds call us not to run, not to hide, not to fear anymore, not to do a disappearing act; but to face the world with courage and spread the Good News. The empty tomb becomes the womb of our hope – Jesus defeated death and has risen. Go now! Claim Jesus’ victory over death, you are an empowered Easter child!

After a few more visits from the risen Jesus, the disciples became bold and courageous. Thomas went to India, Peter and Paul to Rome, Mark to Egypt and John to Syria and Asia Minor. They claimed their identity as Easter children – daring, courageous and full of life. What about you? Where do you plan to go?

A good epitaph speaks to us and warns us of our own mortality.
But the epitaph of Jesus in his empty tomb will remind us of our own immortality …

Si Hesus ay Muling Nabuhay!
Kahapon Siya … Bukas Ikaw!

- Fr.Willy M. Samson,SJ
Ateneo de Zamboanga

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