Wednesday, 27 March 2013

EASTER: Freedom from bondage

Most activities, religious or otherwise, which are organised in Malta and Gozo around Easter and in relation to it have become largely folkloristic. This should not be surprising since practically all routine religious activities the year round have become so. They are either observed as part of a fixed calendar which is taken to wield some sort of habitual obligation, or hanged on to in a spiritualistic, nostalgic or sentimental manner. In both cases, they are depleted of their authentic religious significance (which, basically, is a personal relationship with God), and mainly retained for their conventional or mythical value.

Of course, traditionalisms, customs and lores definitely have their distinct social, political and psychological worth. This is to be appreciated and prized. Nevertheless, from a strictly ecclesial point of view, they are insufficient and positively inadequate.

If truth be told, buoyed by his personal qualities and genuine spirituality, Archbishop Cremona is unmistakably trying to turn the tide. This cannot but be highly regarded. Even so, undertaking such an arduous endeavour without directly changing ecclesiastical structures might well be considered to be wasted or at least largely ineffectual. Substantially, exhortatory exercises alone do not strike home; singlehandedly, they fail to modify or transform internal and/or pastoral organisational configurations. This for the simple reason that, by and large, they are looked right through by key people with entrenched attitudes.

Primarily, the root cause of such a situation and such an impasse is not lack of faith or want of goodwill (which, very often, are not to be doubted) but rather a deficient or even a defective ecclesiology, contextually if not dogmatically. The ailment is fundamentally ontological. In other words, anthropologically speaking most ecclesial strategic operators, both cleric and lay, seem to have lost bearing of what the Catholic Church in Malta and Gozo exists for and what it should be standing for in our society.

In essence, Easter is the celebration of freedom from bondage. Primarily, the bondage is spiritual, relating to all our disordinate relationships with property, people, money, and power. But it is also material, relating to social, political, and economic structures. Jesus’ passage from death to life—which is the main Easter story—had not been solely mystical but also physical. His message, from beginning to end, consistently had a political dimension as much as a spiritual one. Jesus’ close relationship with the world is at the core of this story and its message.

Freedom, than, is a liberation from what is generically and specifically called sin (or personal sin), but also from what has been often called ‘the structures of sin’. This tallies with the Church’s constant social teaching, based on the anthropology and ecclesiology of Vatican II, that Jesus’ freedom is directed towards the whole of the human person. To focus solely on one aspect of the Easter message (and also in everyday pastoral practices all the year round), with the almost total exclusion of the other, might justly be considered to be a distortion of Jesus’ whole message and mission.

The twofold dimension of Easter is graphically depicted in the Hebrew exodus from Egypt, the account upon which Jesus’ own Passover story is modelled and mirrored. The exodus had been a concrete and real act of liberation of a slave people from repression and oppression. It had not been solely mystical, though of course it had such an overtone. Its political consequence is obvious, and continues to be an integral part of the freedom message that the Church announces.

The celebration of Easter encapsulates the entire span of this vital message. For this reason it is considered to be the Christian feast par excellence. It not only recalls Jesus’ sacrifice for the whole of creation, overcoming death by death, but also renews that same sacrifice both mystically and concretely in today’s world.

In other words, the celebration of Easter is in itself a sign of the Church’s commitment towards the liberation of the whole person from the bondage of personal and structural sin. In Jesus’ sacrifice, the Church beholds its own sacrifice and self-immolation for the benefit of afflicted humankind. As Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI aptly said hours before resigning the papacy on February 28, ‘the Church is not an institution devised and created on a drawing table. She is a living reality. She lives through the passage of time, in the making – like any other living creature –, transforming herself. While her nature remains the same, her heart is Christ’.

It is this that guarantees the Church’s loyalty towards her founder and leader, and to his and her perennial mission in the world. Living, truly living, the Church alters her internal and pastoral structures in order to adapt, not its basic nature, or its fundamental teachings, but her mode of being in the world and her methods of communicating her evangelical message. The success of the Church’s evangelical transmission depends on the communicative models and methods she uses to spread the Lord’s message. These have to be tuned to the heeding aptitude of addressees, a propensity which largely rests on their material conditions. This assures the Church’s relevance to today’s people in a way they can understand and relate to.

From here comes the ecclesiological challenge which the Church in Malta and Gozo faces. That is to say, the way the Church understands herself and her anthropological role in today’s world. It is a challenge which calls the Church to be like unto Jesus: simple, unpretentious, down-to-earth, poor, unadorned, unassuming, meek, and humble. The bombastic, pompous and grandiloquent church displays and religious parades we very often have to behold and endure, even as we speak, only make her seem brazen and crass.

Deliberately or incidentally, they also project an image of power, and of an institution which is intent on seeking power. Such an image cannot express that Jesus is her heart. On the contrary, it is an image which is extremely detrimental to evangelisation. It augments and intensifies prejudices, misconceptions and misunderstandings. Paramountcy is not what the Church should be standing for.

“The Son of Man did not come to be served,” said the good Lord, “but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).

The celebration of freedom from bondage is still relevant today in all aspects of life. As neo-liberalism threatens the freedom of billions of people, repressing their individuality and oppressing their dignity, the victory of life over death which the message of Easter proclaims should offer the hope which is direly needed. The Church is an emissary of that hope. It is her paramount responsibility to convey it to all who require it.

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,” announced the apostle Paul, “that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you, through his poverty, might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

Appeared on Manic! (with The Malta Independent), Sunday, 17 March, 2013, pp. 28-29.


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