Homily for Easter Vigil, Year C 2019

Caesar is lord! Caesar is lord! The Roman soldiers chanted on Good Friday. Caesar has done again what he knows best – he has crucified another “imposter” Jesus the Nazarene. No one crosses Caesar without being crossed by him. He is lord. He dominates and, he has conquered the Messiah of the Jews. Even the Jews subscribed to Caesar’s authority when they said, “anyone who makes himself king is defying Caesar”. In other words, Caesar is their king, lord.

Jesus isn’t lord. Caesar is lord. For if Jesus were lord, He would have saved Himself and the Jews from the hands of the Romans. But He didn’t. This left His apostles, followers and even distant admirers in confusion. Is He a fraud, an imposter? But He worked miracles, forgave sins and even raised Lazarus from the death. Who really is He? There was silence, and darkness covered them. It was the dark cloud of desolation, despair. For their hope for a Messiah had gone.

It is in similar silence and darkness that we gather on this Night of all nights. We gather; I presume with our own questions. We are drawn into Jesus’ story and we hear our stories being told – stories of hopelessness. We feel the horror of death. It is as if we were trapped and we can’t escape. We feel the reality of Sheol, “a place”, John Saward described, “as abandonment and isolation, of darkness, of silence, from which no one returns and there is no praise of God”.

And where there is no praise of God, there is bad praise of self, of human beings, of the new Caesar. Like the Caesar of Jesus’ time, the Caesars of our time are good at crucifixion. They rise on social media, on other platforms to cross anyone who expresses a point of view that is contrary to theirs. They condemn their victims in the court of public opinion. Or maybe we are the new Caesars. We have arrogated to ourselves lordship. We cross anyone who crosses us.

But all this comes to light, and then fades away as the Paschal Candle is lit. Its light illumines us and shatters the darkness of our lives and of the world. For once, we can see again. We see not the horror of death, but the glory of the Lord Jesus. He is risen. Alleluia is our song. We are an Easter people, a people of hope. Death doesn’t have the last word. Caesar didn’t win. The Lord Jesus won. He is Lord, not Caesar. This is the good news. It breaks the silence.

We burst into joy as the Easter Proclamation is sung. We hear again the Good Story, “Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her, ablaze with the light from her eternal King, let all corners of the earth be glad, knowing an end to gloom and darkness. Rejoice, let Mother Church also rejoice, arrayed with the lightning of His glory, let this holy building shake with joy, filled with the mighty voices of the people… This is the night that with a pillar of fire banished the darkness of sin”.

Sin, the rejection of God and His governance of the whole world, is overcome. Thus, we heard with joy our salvation history in the seven Old Testament Readings. We heard that creation is good because “God saw all He had made, and indeed it was good”. Besides, “The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord”. Abraham’s story and the Exodus experience are all manifestations of God’s goodness. And the prophets Isaiah, Baruch and Ezekiel testified to His goodness.

We gather on this Night of all nights to also testify to His goodness, the goodness of His resurrection. He has risen; therefore, “We must realise that our former selves have been crucified with Him to destroy this sinful body and to free us from the slavery of sin. When a man dies, of course, he has finished with sin” (Romans 6:3-11). It means we have been set free from the lordship of sin, as tyrannical power. We can now live for God and live the Original Good.

This is the new life St. Paul spoke about in Romans. It is the life of the new creation in Christ. It is the life of the New Adam. We can only live this life, “If we in union with Christ we have imitated His death…” Death to sin. That is, we have to experience our own Good Friday, face the Caesars of our time as Christ did, without submitting to Caesar’s lordship. We have to remember what He said, “unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a seed”.  

This is the reality of life. We have to die to our former ways if we want to experience the resurrection. For there is no resurrection without death. The women in the Gospel Reading from Luke 24: 1-12 couldn’t remember Jesus’ saying, “that the Son of Man had to be crucified, die and rise again on the third day”. As a result, they were overwhelmed by the event of Good Friday. They became discouraged, depressed and they were drawn into Caesar’s power-game.

So, they went to the tomb, looking for Jesus’ dead Body. And they stood in the tomb as we heard “not knowing what to think”, because they had forgotten His words. This is often our story when we stop listening to the Word, or we don’t remember what Jesus asks of us. The events and the happenings of life overcome us. But everything changed; they rose from “not knowing what to think” to become proclaimers of the resurrection as soon as they remembered.

This is the Night of remembering. It is the Night of giving to God our memory of Good Friday so that we can receive and let the memory of His resurrection raise us from our own death. For the more we hang on to our memory of the Good Friday like the women in the Gospel did, the less likely are “we to imitate Christ in His resurrection”; and the more likely are we to believe that Caesar is lord. Let’s solemnly remember this Night and loudly proclaim Christ is Lord. Happy Easter!

Fr. Francis Afu

Homily for Good Friday, Year C 2019

The Church is literally naked. No flowers! No decoration of any sort. The sanctuary and the Altar have been stripped of their beauty. They stand empty. The realities of nakedness and emptiness confront us as we celebrate the Passion of the Lord. They are sudden, unusual. But they immediately evoke in us the memory of the Fall, where the word naked was first used – “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (Genesis 3:7).

What opened their eyes? The consequences of their distrust, disobedience and pride. Suddenly, the beauty of their humanity is gone, and man’s inhumanity to man began to manifest itself in all its cruelty and ugliness. They realised who they were not – inhuman. They also realised they were empty of true humanity. When Life is without God, without the Word and the Spirit, Love is empty of kindness, compassion, justice, peace, joy etc. For love is natural to humanity.

So, the naked Church, the empty sanctuary tells our story. They tell the story in a dramatic way that draws us not to ourselves, but to the Man who hangs on the Cross. He is naked. Reflecting on the Cross our nakedness. “See”, He seems to say, “what your actions and inactions have done. They have stripped you of the beauty of humanity. You can’t trust because you are not truly human. You can’t forgive because you are naked. Your sins are all you see”.

For true humanity bears God’s Image. It is the reflection of the goodness of God. It is self-giving. It is love, willing always the good of the other. Thus, there is no humanity without God. This isn’t surprising as the evidence in society is telling. The more godless a society becomes, the more inhuman it becomes. Auschwitz and Hitler, godlessness and concentration camps, go together. But why on earth would a person crucify another if not out of the lack of true humanity?

St. Thomas Aquinas sums this up with one word, “evil”. Evil is the lack of the Good – the lack of God. It is the lack of true humanity. The Good on the other hand is the presence of God, the presence of true humanity. He goes on to speak of the Good as donum, gift, present. It is the gift that is given freely without any expectation of benefit. It is given because it is in the nature of the Giver to give. So, on the Cross, we find Christ giving, willing our good, that is love.

Love therefore becomes the answer to evil. St. Paul puts it this way, “love overcomes evil”. And this is possible because love is God and God is love. So, the Cross which was an act of evil in the ancient world was overcome by love and transformed into an emblem of love and redemption. Thus, He freely carried the Cross in procession as a king processing to His throne – Calvary where He reigns. The Cross, Love therefore becomes the language of the Kingdom.

This is what makes Good Friday Good. The day speaks love. It brings to life all the sayings and teachings of Jesus – “love your enemy, do good to them, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who do you harm”. All this He summed up in one sentence, “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing”. This is love, willing the good of the other; forgiveness of one’s enemies. And it is only a king who forgives his subjects and excuses them.

So, on the Cross, Jesus was saying, I am your King, follow me. Despise what I despised on the Cross: wealth, power, pleasure and honour. These things you use to fill your emptiness and to clothe your nakedness are illusory. See! They don’t last. They end up distracting you, corrupting your mind, making you reject God, and by so doing you forfeit your humanity. Despise these things so that you can love fully what I loved on the Cross: the will of My Father.

It is in the will of My Father that you will find true beauty, the beauty that clothes your nakedness. Paolo Sorrentino captures this very well in his movie The Great Beauty. For him, the Greatest Beauty was the ugly looking nun, who had given up her all in order to unite her will with the will of the Father. Though physically she was ugly, but she radiated the beauty of compassion that comes only from the Father. This is the beauty that glows on the Cross.

It is beauty that never fades. It transcends time and territory. No wonder Pilate wrote the inscription, Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. For indeed His beauty transcends the beauty of the Temple in Jerusalem and its Liturgy. It transcends the beauty of the Wisdom of the Greeks. It also transcends the beauty of the good order of the Romans. It is the beauty that radiates not from stained glass but from broken people and messy stories.

He hangs on the Cross naked. Gathering to Himself all the naked. Crying their cry, “My God, My God, why have you abandoned Me”. The cry of a broken heart. Perhaps, it is your cry. He can feel your pain, your wound and He expresses it in a very profound way. Again, He radiates the beauty of brotherhood. He is one with us even in our mess. He goes all out for you and me because we are His brothers, His sisters. He heals us, redeems us and restores our humanity.

Thus, on the Cross, we behold the Man who was truly human. And as the Israelites looked up at the Bronze Serpent, we should look up at the Cross for the healing of our broken humanity. Come venerate Him. Venerate your own wounds in His wounds. Die with Him on the Cross to man’s inhumanity to man. And rest with Him in the tomb as you look forward to the resurrection, when your body will be raised in His Body and shine in Glory. The glory that will fill our emptiness.

Fr. Francis Afu

Homily for Holy Thursday, year C 2019

We have come here this night to encounter Jesus. First, we encounter Him as The Man who gathers. He calls us from different backgrounds; He brings in people with different personalities and genders. He cast the net into the world and hauled to the shore all sorts of “fish” (people, you and I). The impulsive fish – Peter. The scheming fish – James and John. The tax collector fish – Matthew. The fish without guile – Nathaniel. The traitor fish – Judas.

He gathers! The Perfect One gathers and brings to table the good, the bad, the ugly, the broken, the imperfect, the wounded and even the one who will betray Him. What sort of Man is He? He makes a bold statement; the Kingdom of God is about the in-gathering. It is about reaching out, casting the net as He would often say, and hauling it to shore. The image of hauling is many a time overlooked. But it has depth. It speaks of the exhaustion of the one who casts nets.

But why does He gather us? First, He brings us to the table, and He sits with us in fellowship. Second, He teaches. “He had always loved those who were His in the world, but now he showed how perfect His love was”. So, love is the heart of His message. He gathers us to teach us how to love and love well. To love not only the perfect, those who are good to us and love us, but to love even those who want us dead. He loved Judas. He sat and ate with Judas at the table.

Second, we encounter Jesus, The Man who serves. He doesn’t just say the right things and teach lofty ideas. He practised what He preached. He said, “the Son of Man came to serve not to be served. And if you want to be the greatest you must be the servant of all”. So, He stood up, took the towel and knelt to wash the feet of His own disciples. This was as countercultural then as it is now. Once again, He challenged the status quo, called us to rethink our way of life.

Do I practise what I preach as a priest? Do you live up to the advice you give to others? As parents, can we ourselves do what we ask of our children? As children, are we ready to do what we expect our parents to do for us? As politicians, can we live up to the campaign promises we are making? As citizens, are we living up to our responsibilities? Can we sincerely do what we expect our politicians to do for us? These are the implications of the action of Jesus.

But there is something more. He washed their feet. Feet that have gathered dirt. Feet that were smelling, scarred and some still bleeding from past wounds. He didn’t select what feet to wash. He washed the feet of all at table. Why? Jesus replied, “If I don’t wash you, you can have nothing in common with me”. So, He washed their feet. He gathers us here today, to wash our feet too. He wants us to have something in common with Him, the love that reaches out to all.

This is the hardest part, to love all. For it demands loving those we don’t like. I can’t stop thinking about how Jesus felt sitting at the same table with Judas or even sitting at the same table with Peter, a man who will deny knowing Jesus. But this is the man whose mother-in-law Jesus healed. It would have been understandable if Jesus didn’t know these men would betray and deny Him, but He knew their intentions, still He gathered them. He washed their feet.

And Jesus does the same thing today. He knows us. He knows what we are going to do in the next few minutes. Some of us may betray Him too. Despite what He knows of us, He comes to us. He gathers us. He washes our dirty feet – sinful feet. When He returned to table after washing their feet He asked, “Do you understand what I have done…. You call me Master and Lord… If I, then your Lord and Master have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet”.

Third, we encounter Jesus, the Man who gives. He gives us Himself under the appearance of bread and wine. He took bread. He blessed it. He broke it. And He gave it to us. The bread He took, was the bread we brought. The work of human hands. He took us, when He took the bread. Again, He didn’t select. He took what we brought to the table. And He continues to take what we bring to Him. So, don’t be ashamed of yourself. Come to Him. He will take you as you are.

What He takes, He blesses and what He blesses, He breaks. I have often found this part confronting. My seminary Rector Fr. Israel Ekpo once said, “Francis remember this when you celebrate Mass. ‘When you break the bread, be prepared to be broken’”. He breaks us, not to destory us, but to give us out. Just as He was broken and gave Himself to us. This is what He meant when He said, “If I don’t wash you, you can have nothing in common with me”.

Like Jesus, we are broken by those we love, those whose feet we have washed and with whom we have eaten at the same table. The temptation for many of us is to keep nursing the wounds of our brokenness. However, on this night, we are called to bring our wounds to the Lord. The celebration calls us to look up at the Bronze Serpent as God invited the Israelites to do, to look up at the Broken Body of Jesus, His Blood that will be poured out from the Cross tomorrow.

This is the beauty of Easter Triduum. It is one big celebration – the Paschal Mystery. Holy Thursday opens the celebration with the demonstration of Jesus’ love for us. But it doesn’t end there. The celebration keeps drawing us in, unfolding as we gather the reality and implications of love – happiness and suffering, death and resurrection. Like Christ, let’s give our lives away in acts of love for the good of others – My Body Given Up for you! My Blood poured out for you!

Fr. Francis Afu

A Day Before Easter Triduum

Dark clouds are gathering! The still voice is whispering! We can’t tell for sure what it is. But the mood is gloomy. We can feel the tension. There is horror in the air. Is it true that Christ is going to be betrayed? He was a Good Man. Healed the sick! Raised the dead! Gave hope to many! Fed the hungry… Why would someone want Him dead? They call it evil, sin, death.

Who wants Him dead? Them! Yes, we can hear them brooding and raging. They hate His guts. He upsets them and makes them feel guilty. Really? Yes, can’t you hear? But I hear you. I hear myself talking. We want Him dead too. Perhaps, we want Him dead so badly that we want them to do it for us. Crucify Him! Crucify Him! We shout in them.

Can we stop pointing the finger at them and start looking at ourselves? Maybe we are Judas going to the Chief Priests asking them to hire us to betray Him. Or, maybe we are the Chief Priests, the Scribes and the Pharisees bringing false charges against Him. But we have never seen Him. Yes, we have. Whatever we do to our brother and sister, we do to Him.

Fr. Francis Afu

Holy Week

For Bishop Robert Barron, “holiness is about finding our centre, finding God and sinking into His depth”. Another way of looking at holiness is from Matt Maher, “holiness is God living in us”. Holiness can also be seen as setting oneself apart for God and His purposes. When we put all three together, we have God’s Self-Giving and our responses.

First, holiness is about God’s Self-Disclosure. He makes Himself accessible. He took flesh, told our story, died and rose. Second, we respond to Him differently. We journey with a curiosity that leads to wonder and worship. Or we just battle along, finding the emptiness that speaks in whispers. But there is a restlessness that directs us outward to God.

Holy Week is the unfolding of holiness. It is joyful, telling in a serious way the reason for our joy – we are loved by God. It is sorrowful, revealing in a sequence the pain and the hurt of love – the Cross. Both contrast love “as we want it to be” (nice and in denial of suffering), from love “as it is revealed to us” (good and accepting of the reality of life).

Fr. Francis Afu

Homily for Palm Sunday, Year C 2019

Today is quite unusual. First, the Church is decorated in an unusual way with palm fronds or branches. Palms are widely used as a symbol of peace and victory. We use them today to announce the arrival of Christ, the King who comes in peace to win the victory over evil on the Cross. For 33 years, He walked the earth, faced opposition, suffered rejection even from those who benefitted from His goodness and, He was tempted in every way, but He didn’t sin.

What a triumphant entry! He couldn’t be ignored. The people responded to Him with joyful chants, “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord, the King of Israel. Hosanna in the highest”. He comes not in His own name but in the name of the Lord, His Father. He points us to the Father. “This is what My Father wants of Me and I obey Him”. In His Father’s name, He comes out quite openly and He is recognised as the Messiah.

From Luke 19:28-40, the Gospel we read after the blessing of the Palms He said, “If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ you shall say this, ‘The lord has need of it’”. Again, He is using “the Lord” here not in reference to Himself, but to the Father. “The Lord has need of the colt (a symbol of peace). In other words, the Father desires our peace, so Christ comes on the colt and we greet Him by throwing our garments, letting go the peace the world offers in order to receive His peace.

So, there is a dialogue between what the Father wants and our response. Thus, Jesus not only reveals His own response to the Father, but He also invites us to respond to the Father in obedience, without offering any resistance. The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 50: 4-7 picked up this theme. “For my part, I made no resistance, neither did I turn away”. How did he develop this attitude? By listening to the Lord like a disciple listens to his teacher, by obeying Him.

Obedience for Isaiah isn’t blind. It is informed – “Each morning He (the Father) wakes me to hear, to listen like a disciple”. Jesus obeys the Father because he knows the Father. Since He knew that the Father will come to His help and He would not be shamed, He was untouched by insults. He was at peace. Similarly, for us to enjoy the peace the Father gives, we need to know the Father and obey Him especially in those moments when we are knocked down by life.

Second, the Liturgy of the Word is unusual. Instead of the Gospel Reading, we have the Passion Narrative. Unlike other Sundays when an ordained minister reads the Gospel alone, today we all took part in reading the narrative. This is very revealing. In a way, we could say it tell us something about ourselves. It tells us how we might be betraying Jesus, condemning Him and killing Him on the Cross. This is very confronting. But it could also be liberating as we come to terms with the truth.

For some of us, we are the Chief Priests, the Scribes, the Pharisees etc who find Jesus very challenging. His way of life and His teaching upsets us. We can’t stand Him anymore, so we bring false charges against Him. We incite the crowd to rise and shout, Crucify Him! Crucify Him! Or, we could even be the crowd. We follow whatever people tell us about Him without verifying the facts. We could be Barabbas in “prison”, and suddenly, we are set free. What a joy!

Perhaps, we are Pilate, a man in authority. He had the power to save Jesus, but the fear of losing his office made him turn a blind eye to the fact of Jesus’ innocence and allowed Jesus to be crucified. We could be the people who jeered at Christ, or the soldier who mocked Him. Whoever we are, if we can admit the role, we played in the passion of Christ we can experience the forgiveness He offered on the Cross. Note, whatever we do to the least of our brothers, we do it to Christ.

Third, today’s celebration speaks of Jesus entry into Jerusalem as King. He is a different sort of King. He is King who is defeated. He is the King who came to establish the Kingdom of the Father. He invited us to be subjects of this Kingdom, to be ruled by Him and to imitate Him. Pilate affirmed His universal Kingship when He left the inscription – “Jesus the Nazareth, King of the Jews”, which was written on the Cross in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek (John 19:20).

Hebrew was the language of Religion, Ritual and Tradition. By writing in Hebrew, we are invited to submit to the Kingship of Christ by worshipping the Father the way Christ worshipped Him in obedience and trust. By writing in Latin, the language of politics, economics and commerce, we are invited to accept the Kingship of Christ, to learn from Him how to response to evil – “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing”.

By writing in Greek, the language of Philosophy and the Sciences, we are invited to listen to Christ, the Logos, the Wisdom of God. He was silent during His trial because He had already said what He had to say by His witness to the Father. So, His silence was an invitation to us to encounter Wisdom, to see things from the Father’s perspective and not solely from ours.

Finally, as we begin the Holy Week, let us learn from the unusual nature of today’s celebration and participate in the mystery of Jesus’ passion and resurrection. The Paschal Mystery can only make sense when we empty ourselves of our ego, accept the confronting reality of our brokenness and approach Christ in humble submission to His Kingship. It is only then we can experience the holiness of the Week. Wishing you A Spirit-Filled Holy Week Celebration!

Fr. Francis Afu

His Mercy is Limitless

Who was on trial in John 8:1-11? Was it the woman caught in Adultery? Was it Jesus? Or was it the Scribes and the Pharisees? There is no doubt, our answer will be the woman and Jesus. But when we read the passage in context, it is actually the Scribes and the Pharisees that are on trial. They are being tried in their own court using their own traditions.

“If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her”. What a convicting verdict! First, they had sinned when the caught a woman at the very act of Adultery. It was against Jewish tradition Tzniut for a man to look at a naked woman. Second, they had sinned by bringing her in that state to the Temple – Sacrilege!

This is a classic example of, “If you point a finger at someone, remember four other fingers are pointing at you”. While they set out to get Jesus, they ended up indicting themselves. But Jesus was merciful to them. He didn’t condemn them, instead, He convicted them, gave them opportunity to repent. Can we imitate Jesus in showing mercy?

Fr. Francis Afu

The Woman Caught in Adultery

David Brooks in his article The Morality of Selfism describes Indignation as one of the moral standards of a culture of Selfism. Selfism here means “the self – is still me (ism)”. The self hasn’t been confronted and called to account by the reality of the other. So, one is morally good when one is quick enough to express indignation over a wrong.

He somehow stretches his understanding of selfism to include “Group Selfism”. Where a group is morally right when it is quick enough to identify and express intense indignation over a wrong action or inaction. Their anger isn’t coming from the fact that they are innocent of the wrong they are angry about, but it is a way of showing off they are good.

This behaviour in a way describes the Scribes and the Pharisees in John 8:1-12. One can only imagine the effort they made to catch the woman in the very act of Adultery. Imagine if they were selfless, they wouldn’t have been quick to condemn the woman. They would have reached out to her and helped her repent of her sin – James 5:19-20.

Fr. Francis Afu

He Chooses the Weak – Scripture for the Day

1 Corinthians 1:27-30
To shame what is strong, God chose what is weak by human reckoning; those whom the world thinks common and contemptible are the ones that God has chosen – those who are nothing at all to show up those who are everything. The human race has nothing to boast about to God, but you, God has made members of Christ Jesus and by God’s doing he has become our wisdom, and our virtue, and our holiness, and our freedom.

… Catholic Blog dedicated to proclaiming the Word Online