Every gardener knows that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a simple grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24-25).

A masochistic nation?

In conversation with other gardeners, this one once wrote how deep in the profoundest regions of our national psyche one finds a sense of worthlessness that constantly drives our best national efforts to perdition. To be sure, this is not a subjective sense shared by the many at the conscious levels of being. Oh, who would not be embarrassed to be told that: that we are a masochistic nation? But this feature of our national character is one observed by the curious around the world though lightly dismissed by our majority populace at Lenten time – during Holy Week’s centuries-old phenomenon of Filipino self-flagellation.

Actual Crucifixion – Pampanga

As the on-again-off-again summer heat threatens to reach its peak, from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday, piercing lamentations fill the air with the pabasa chanted in singsong manner in town chapels or kapilyas and visitas. Listening intently, seekers of suffering try to get all the details of Christ’s tortures and themselves get ready for self-whipping and even literally physical crucifixion though not usually to the point of death. In the town next to mine Penitentes, with crowns of leaves and dressed in brown robes, drag heavy wooden crosses on their shoulders as they walk barefoot on the hot pavement. Flagellantes strip to the waist and beat their backs with ropes until they are raw. In other towns some even suspend themselves from standing crosses.

Researchers tell us that these practices started in the early 1700’s. Spanish friars had effectively adapted indigenous oral traditions of telling stories to tell the stories of the bible. The Filipino poor related in a special way to the stories of Christ’s suffering and sacrifice which they found heart wrenching. They looked at the forsaken Jesus and saw themselves going through the same life of suffering – having now been subjected to colonial humiliation, to loss of land and dignified existence, with very little hope and more expectation of worse and worse sufferings. The realization was nothing less than one of worthlessness. Whatever they did, the foreign invader beat them to a pulp.  Would it not be better if they did it themselves – beat themselves to the limit? After all, they were nothing. Or they could at least put one over the foreign invader by surpassing his power to beat them up.

The theory suggests that while the religiously flavored masochism we observe is seasonal – during the semana santa – it is really constant in other tones at all times, the political area not excluded – as when we refuse a new system that would allow us the right to commit our own mistakes.

In the political area

One has to be really blind – and many of us are – not to see how national self-flagellation characterizes all areas of political endeavor.

The very political system we have adopted, for starters, is one that makes us gluttons for self-punishment. In the system we wear, we deny ourselves the right to goof – a fundamental human right, if I may say so, although this gardener had a hard time finding it in the 1945 United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights.

The right to err without overly punishing ourselves is probably one of the most important human rights you can imagine because it defines the very essence of being human – of belonging to that species whose one most predictable trait is its ability to make mistakes. “To err is human…” we used to quote to each other – an argument used against the installation here of nuclear power plants. One error and you may not be allowed a second one. And nothing could be more predictable than human error. Ergo, logically, no nuclear power plants please. We got that one right. Japan agrees – almost too late.

Our present political system, however, does not recognize the right of a nation to commit mistakes. For instance, should we realize we’ve made a mistake as to the person we put in power to govern us we find we can no longer correct our honest mistake effectively except by either shooting our selves in the foot with investment-eschewing militant street actions or, worse, by being forced to wait for the next elections six years later. In the interim, consequently, we find ourselves necessarily lagging behind our neighbors in economic development by a factor of twenty to thirty years – having masochistically made of ourselves a pariah to investors. And it is not that we don’t know this – because we do. But the very idea of changing political clothes nicely phrased as the form of government is one that we don’t easily embrace precisely because we fear change may ultimately merely mean running twenty times faster just to stay in the same old rut. It is argued that change will benefit persons in power. Ergo, boo on change! Suffer if we must – we’re used to suffering. We’ll stay at the level of the pasyon – with very little will for going all the way to death and resurrection. We will not die to the old nor put on the new. We choose merely to suffer without end because, ok lang, we are not yet over the stage of self-flagellation.

Resurrection: fact and meaning

Some years back, Monsignor Pedro Quitorio, spokesman of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, clearly though ineffectually said at the start of Holy Week: “The Catholic Church rejects flagellation, crucifixion and other traditional practices of Filipino Catholics. We are doubtful that these activities are real expressions of Christian faith.”   The good Monsignor was acknowledging that folk Catholicism remains a big obstacle to achieving a more mature faith in this predominantly Catholic nation.

He had to emphasize that “the real message of Holy Week is not only that Jesus Christ died for us, but that Jesus Christ also gave us hope for new life by rising to life from the dead.”

Now, the fact of Christ’s resurrection has never been much doubted by Filipino Catholics nor, unfortunately, considered central to their life. I doubt if we were much disturbed by the skepticism that was supposed to have been engendered years ago by the Discovery Channel’s airing of James Cameron’s documentary, “Lost Tomb of Jesus,” that claimed the discovery of a tomb with ossuaries bearing the names of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and “Judah son of Jesus.” It was consequently irrelevant when scholars and archaeologists disproved Cameron’s findings, saying that the text on the Mary Magdalene ossuary actually read “Mary and Martha,” and that the tomb was more than likely the tomb of St. Paul’s friend, another Jesus, who was also known as Justus, son of Joseph. And very few noticed that following this revelation, Discovery channel pulled its planned repeat of the program.

Like Pope Benedict XVI who wrote in the introduction to his book, Jesus of Nazareth: from the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, the Filipino Catholic will always instinctively say, “I trust the gospels.” If he spent but a minimum time of seriousness in Catechism or Theology 101,even without having taken up classes on law or evidence, he would nonetheless be able to tell whoever cares to listen that the fact of Christ’s Resurrection is attested by more than 500 eyewitnesses, whose experience, simplicity, and uprightness of life rendered them incapable of inventing such a fable, who lived at a time when any attempt to deceive could have been easily discovered, who had nothing in this life to gain, but everything to lose by their testimony, whose moral courage exhibited in their apostolic life can be explained only by their intimate conviction of the objective truth of their message. One of the witnesses, the Apostle Thomas, may even be considered the early founder of critical science – because he insisted that he would not believe Jesus had risen unless he was able to see and touch the evidence.

This fact of the Resurrection is further attested by the eloquent silence of the Synagogue which had done everything to prevent deception, which could have easily discovered deception, if there had been any, which opposed only sleeping witnesses to the testimony of the Apostles, which did not punish the alleged carelessness of the official guard, and which could not answer the testimony of the Apostles except by threatening them “that they speak no more in this name to any man” (Acts 4:17). Finally the origin of the Church, requires for its explanation the reality of Christ’s Resurrection, for, as G.K.Chesterton remarked following Augustine of Hippo, the rise of the Church without the Resurrection would have been a greater miracle than the Resurrection itself. Yes, Panyero, Your Honor, one can establish the fact even in a Philippine court. But what would that fact mean? 

Science and theology

Everything Jesus said and did was said and done in the light of a plan for the world that would be realized through him and was coming with him. His vision focused on the ultimate meaning of every human being and the fulfillment of the deepest aspiration of every human heart – the divine plan for all creation that started some 13.7 billion years ago, a plan that Jesus called the Kingdom of God.

Today there is hardly a scientist who doubts the Big Bang theory originally proposed in the 1920s by the Belgian priest-scholar, Georges Lemaitre, and the new story of creation that the theory has engendered. Well, scientists and their new story of creation – the new cosmology – including the centrality of evolution first proposed by Darwin, must now face the challenge of the New Creation itself, which is the deepest meaning of the Resurrection – an area of theology too important to leave to the theologians alone much as cosmology itself has become too important a branch of science to leave to scientists alone. The line distinguishing theology and science ceased to be disjunctive decades ago and is most clearly conjunctive now. It is not science versus theology but science and theology together.

Galileo Galilee has reportedly accepted the apologies of the church that he so loved and condemned him; Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, theologian and scientist, is silenced no more. We shall finally accept that the kingdom is not to be in another world but this one. The Resurrection demonstrates that the Kingdom of God happens here, in the midst of human affairs. It is meant for this world here and now.

The most general characteristic of human existence is our being in the world, in bodily mode, confirming the Resurrection of the body as an integral part of biblical hope. To believe in the Resurrection is to believe in the God of Jesus and the Kingdom, in the inevitability of the New. It is to believe that this power for the New is a power stronger than Death. In common sense, Death signifies END, FINISH. But in this power of the Resurrection that Christianity has witnessed, St. Paul is moved to ask, “Death, where is thy victory? O Death, where is thy sting.” Nowhere. And that really is the gardener’s tale.


Charles Avila -The Gardener
The Gardener’s Tales

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