|Saturday, April 20, 2019|
Pontifical Urban University, Vatican City (Rome)
he point of departure for our Easter reflection this year 2019, is from the following passage of St. John's Gospel:
"Now my soul is troubled. What shall I say:
In reading through this passage of John's Gospel, I was overwhelmed by the Evangelist's description of Jesus' long-term struggle. His struggle against the forces of darkness and evil, and his capacity to hold the tensions that have followed him all along his earthly life and journey as the Incarnate Son of God, to the end; his triumph and resurrection from the dead after the crucifixion on the cross.
Beginning from the time of Jesus' birth at Bethlehem in the Manger, the attempt by Herod to eliminate him as a child, the flight to Egypt of the Holy Family to save the life of the Child Jesus from the evil design of Herod and his gang of banditry. His, was indeed, a life, lived in constant tensions and turbulence of the world and its evil men.
During Jesus' public ministry and earthly life, we noticed the long-term drawn out Calvary of rejection he suffered at the hands of the world powers - political, religious, traditional and legal institutions of his day; which finally, culminated in his condemnation to death on the Cross by the same ruling institutions. The passion, crucifixion on the cross on Good Friday, and his death, was not however, the end of the story. There was to be resurrection after death, ascension, and glorification at the right-hand of the Father in Heaven!
On the third day, the Easter Sunday, God vindicated his Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ, who was unjustly condemned to death on the Cross by wicked and sinful men of this world. On Easter Sunday of the Resurrection, Jesus triumphed over the powers and principalities of this world, - the prince of the world, Satan and his human agents. Jesus nailed the sin of mankind and Satan on the Cross, and by so doing became our Savior and Redeemer. He was vindicated by His Father, who raised him from the dead on Easter Sunday of the Resurrection.
This is the message of our redemption and salvation we celebrate at Easter, and each day of our lives as Christians, especially, during the Eucharistic celebrations. Christ is our Pasch! Our Pasch was immolated for us, for our salvation and liberation from the shackles of sin and damnation.
Our reflection begins with a brief discourse on the meaning of tension and certainty of triumph in the Gospel of John (12: 27-34). Thereafter, we shall relate it to the Nigerian reality, and by extension, the overall value of John's teaching on tension and certainty of triumph in time of trials and desperation; highlighting the implications of this passage of John's Gospel to the social transformation and creation of a new society, taking Nigeria as a point of reference.
Easter at the Crossroads of Tensions and Triumphs
The theme of tension and certainty of triumph is very central in John 12: 27-34. In this passage, John tells us about Jesus' tension and his triumph as he carried out his Father's will to the point of allowing himself be crucified on the Cross by men, to rise again from the dead on the third day. John tells us the meaning and significance of that struggle between tension and triumph in Jesus' earthly life, and what it turned out to be, its implications for the disciples of Jesus and the church.
But the end of the story is not tension; it is triumph and certainty in the face of danger. As William Barclay explains it, Jesus was certain that if went on, something would happen which would break the power of evil once and for all. If he was obedient to the Cross, he was sure that a death blow would be struck to the ruler of this world, Satan. It was to be one last struggle which would break for ever the power of evil.
Moreover, Jesus was certain that if he went to the Cross, the sight of his unpraised and crucified figure would in the end draw all men to him; but he knew that the only way to conquer and subdue the hearts of men for ever was to show himself to them on the Cross. "He began with the tension; he ended with the triumph."
In particular, what came between the tension and the triumph and changed the one into the other, was the voice of God:
"Now my soul is troubled. What shall I say: Father, save me from this hour? But it is for this very reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name!
It was the voice of God. Behind this coming of the voice of God lies something great and deep. For instance, there was a time when the Jews really and fully believed that God spoke direct to men. It was directly that God spoke to the child Samuel (1Samuel 3:1-14). It was directly that God spoke to Elijah, when he had fled from the avenging Jezebel (1Kings 19: 1-18). It was directly that Eliphaz the Temanite had claimed to hear the voice of God (Job 4: 16).
However, by the time of Jesus the Jews had ceased to believe that God spoke directly. The great days were past; God was far too far now; the voice that had spoken to the prophets was silent. Nowadays they believed in what they called the Bath qol, a Hebrew phrase, which means the daughter voice or the daughter of a voice. When the bath qol spoke, it quoted scripture most often. It was not really the direct voice of God; it was what we might call the echo of his voice, a distant, faint whisper instead of a direct, vital communication.
But it was not the echo of his voice that Jesus heard; it was the very voice of God himself. Here is a great truth. With Jesus, there comes to men and women not some distant whisper of the voice of God, not some faint echo from the heavenly places, but the unmistakable accents of God's direct voice.
It is to be noted that the voice of God came to Jesus at all the great moments of his life. It came at his baptism when he first set out upon the work God had given him to do (Mark 1:11. It came on the Mount of Transfiguration when he finally decided to take the way which led to Jerusalem and the Cross (Mark 9:7). And now it came to him when his human flesh and blood had to be strengthened by divine aid for the ordeal of the Cross.
The lesson of all this can be summarized as follows: What God did for Jesus, he does for every man and woman. When he sends us out upon a road, he does not send us without directions and without guidance. When he gives us a task, he does not leave us to do it in the lonely weakness of our own strength.
Moreover, God is not silent, and ever and again, when the strain of life is too much for us, and the effort of his way is beyond our human resources, if we listen we will hear him speak, and we will go on with his strength surging through our frame. Our trouble is not that God does not speak, but that we do not listen.
Again, Jesus claimed that, when he was lifted up, he would draw all men to him. Some take this to refer to the Ascension and think it means that when Jesus was exalted in his risen power, he would draw all men to him. But that is far from the truth. Jesus was referring to his Cross - and the people knew it. And once again, - inevitably - they - were moved to incredulous astonishment.
How could anyone possibly connect the Son of Man and a cross? Was not the Son of Man the invincible leader at the head of the irresistible armies of heaven? Was not his Kingdom to last for ever? "His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his Kingdom one that shall not be destroyed" (Daniel 7: 14). Was it not said of the prince of the golden age: "David my servant shall be their prince for ever?" (Ezekiel 37: 25).
Furthermore, had Isaiah not said of the ruler of the new world: "Of the increase of his government and of peace there shall be no end"? (Isaiah 9:7). Did the Psalmist not sing of this endless Kingdom" "I will establish your descendants for ever, and build your thrones for all generations" (Psalm 89: 4).
The truth of the matter is that the Jews connected the Son of Man with the everlasting kingdom, and here was he, who claimed to be the Son of Man, talking about being lifted up upon a cross. Who was this Son of Man, whose kingdom was to end before it had begun? This was the puzzle, the presence, ministry, teaching and life of Jesus had confronted the people with.
The lesson of history is that Jesus was right. It was on the magnet of the Cross that he pinned his hopes; and he was right because love will live long after might is dead. Jericho, Nineveh and Tyre are only names now, but Christ lives on. The empires founded on force have vanished, leaving only a memory, which with the years becomes ever fainter. But the "empire" of Christ, founded upon a Cross, each year extends its sway.
In Shaw's play, when Joan of Arc knows that she has been betrayed to the stake by the leaders of her own people, she turns to them and says: "I will go out to the common people, and let the love in their eyes comfort me for the hate in yours. You will all be glad to see me burnt; but if I go through the fire, I shall go through it to their hearts for ever and ever."
That is a parable of what happened to Jesus. His death upon the Cross made him pass through men's hearts for ever and ever. The conquering Messiah of the Jews is a figure about whom scholars write their books; but the Prince of Love on the Cross is a king who has his throne for ever in the hearts of men and women. "The only secure foundation for a kingdom is sacrificial love."
Implications for Nigeria at the Crossroads of Tensions and Triumphs
Our choice of this passage from John's Gospel for our Easter reflection this year, is informed by the present critical and uninspiring situation of things in Nigeria, especially, the turn of events in that country after the just concluded Presidential election 2019. The state of hopelessness and despair many Nigerians found themselves and their society today. This has made many people to begin to lose faith both in God and man.
'Where is God in all these? Where is God when all these evil things are happening in our land and lives?" These questions have confronted many Nigerians and people of good conscience as we all watch events in Nigeria deteriorate everyday nowadays. It is as if evil has taken upper hands in directing the affairs of the land. God forbid!
The tension, violence, insecurity of lives and property; in fact, a clear sense of hopelessness reigning in that country today, leaves much to be desired. Unfortunately, it is under this situation and atmosphere that Christians celebrate the Death, Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection of the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ this year, 2019 in Nigeria!
The desperation, humiliation, abandonment, and hopelessness of Nigerians living at home and abroad, orchestrated by the failed leadership at Abuja, is an open wound to the conscience of the world. In particular, the inhuman treatment of Nigerians living in foreign lands, and the government's insensitivity to their plights, should awaken the conscience of the world. The inhuman treatment and experience of Nigerians, home and abroad, in general, and the plights of the so-called illegal immigrants in Europe, Japan, India, China, Malaysia, Arab countries, etc., is a crime against humanity that cries out to the highest heavens.
The situation of discrimination and hardship that are forcing many young people from the country to risk their lives, traversing the Sahara Deserts on foot, and crossing the Mediterranean Sea with balloon ships, under dangerous circumstances, just to escape the tyranny, oppression in the country, is enough to tell the world that all is not well with the Nigerian state. What we are experiencing today in Nigeria under the present dispensation, is a world tragedy of the highest order, sufficient and enough, to force even the bravest warrior to throw in the towel. God forbid!
The sufferings of Nigerians, whether in their homeland or living in foreign lands today, is in actually fact, a typical example of the modern day "crucifixion" of Jesus Christ in his poor African people. Today, anybody who knows what is happening in Nigeria and voices them out ends up been witched-haunted and humiliated by the government through fabricated charges and use of EFCC, DSS, the Police and the Army against the individual. It is now hard to know who is telling the truth again in Nigeria, among government officials, and most of the elites, because even the government have their media men who post fake news on a daily basis.
What would be the message and meaning of this year's Easter celebration for a people living under tyranny and oppression as we have it today in my home country, Nigeria, and in many other African countries with similar story, as well as elsewhere in the world? This is the crux of the matter!
The motivation to base our Easter message this year on John's Gospel (12: 27-34), discussing the theme of "tension and certainty of triumph" at a time like ours today, came principally from a telephone conversation I had with middle-aged husband and wife who reside at our city of Onitsha, Nigeria. I was the officiating priest at the wedding of this couple at Onitsha about 27 years ago, when I was a young priest.
Early this April, about two weeks after the just concluded, cursed Presidential and national elections in Nigeria, I got a phone call from this couple, and as we exchanged the usual greetings and pleasantries, I didn't know what moved me to ask them, something I thought was just, a simple question! I asked the couple, "How is Nigeria at this time of post-election period?" Immediately I uttered that question, the atmosphere and tone of our conversation changed simultaneously. I noticed a kind of sudden silence and anguish that had descended and invaded the air of our telephone conversation. The wife of the man, after some minutes, however, broke the silence, and in few words, she said it all, as follows:
"Father! The atmosphere at home now is like that of a country in a mourning mood. For the past two weeks since the cursed Presidential elections, and as a result of the stolen mandate of the rightful winner of that election by the incumbent administration, a kind of an unexpected silence and mourning mood invaded the land and everybody living in it. … None of us could believe that such fraudulent and massive rigging of elections, a broad day subversion of people's will at the polling booths by the electoral umpire, INEC, witnessed at the last elections, is possible in the 21st Century. … In short, we are mourning our dear country Nigeria. It is as simple as that. … Those who were declared winners by INEC are not celebrating; neither are those who are robbed of their victory ventilating." Everybody is mourning! This is the situation we are living now in the country", said the lady!
The obvious "drawn out Calvary situation", people of Nigeria have been subjected to all these while by those who hold the Spirit captive, came to its climax and standstill, during the recently concluded 2019 "massively rigged", and fraudulently conducted Presidential and national Elections. The situation of hopelessness and confusion the country had found itself, especially, after that fraudulent Presidential election, is such that even the most sceptics among us, are now realizing that the future of Nigeria as a nation state is today hanging on the balance. Only the unrepentant gullible may presume not to see this.
What the innocent citizens of Nigeria are passing through presently (although in silence but not with resignation to the evil), caused by a corrupt and incompetent leadership and elites - those at the corridors of power in that country, is a crime that cries out to the highest heavens. In a situation of this kind, it is to be expected that men and women of good conscience and of proven character cannot continue to fold their arms while tyranny and banditry take over the land.
Today, Nigerians are being killed, - massacred on daily basis, like fowls, without reprisals or adequate response from those at the corridors of power or security agencies. In Nigeria today, the life of Fulani cows worth more than that of a human being! Government provide protection and security to the marauding Fulani herdsmen militants but none to the indigenous populations in their farms and villages under the rampage of the killer herdsmen militia.
Workers hardly receive their salaries at the end of the month anymore; the price of fuel and gas have skyrocketed beyond the reach of ordinary citizens; the same thing applies to the prices of essential commodities such as rice, tomatoes, etc. The value of Naira is as good as that of a Newspaper these days. The rate of unemployment in the country is a no go area. Foreign nations and Multi-national companies are today having field day, exploiting clandestinely, Nigeria's Crude Oil in the Niger Delta and other places with the connivance of those at the corridors of power and prominent local politicians and traditional rulers.
Countries such as China, India, among others, as well as Western nations' Mine Companies are doing the same with the recently discovered Gold and Uranium Mines, among other mineral and natural resources in Zamfara and other Northern States. These countries through the connivance of those at the corridors of power, give kickbacks to prominent politicians and traditional rulers from those States of Nigeria, while sponsoring bandits and Islamic militants to go and kill the indigenous populations where these resources are found, thereby causing disaffection among the local populace. People are being killed in on daily basis, in twenties and tens in Zamfara State nowadays, and the government looks as if it is incapacitated to act.
Furthermore, since last year, Nigeria was declared as the poverty basket case of the world, and early this year, as the country with the highest number of hungry people. Crime and banditry are on a daily increase, and the country's foreign debts is frightening under the present dispensation. Education and health sectors are only functioning in names. This applies to other vital institutions and organs of governance in the country. Vital federal ministries, parastatals and companies are now mannered mainly by a group of people from a particular clan and ethno-religious configuration, Sunni Muslim North of Hausa-Fulani Oligarchy. The government cares less nowadays about respecting federal character as enshrined in the Constitution in federal appointments.
The military and police as constituted today, have become the family affair of Northern Nigerian Muslim Hausa-Fulani Oligarchy. Professionality and moral probity for which Nigerian military and police were known in the past, are now bygone. The media, both print and electronic, have since, been silenced, a good number, compromised. The list could go on and on. As the people say nowadays, Nigeria has become a basket case of the world, a failed African state of the 21st Century. What a tragedy?
Innocent citizens of Nigeria are now living under tension, at the mercy of God. Today, it is like if there is 'no government in power in the country"; in fact, no rule of law and order again in the country to protect the lives and property of the people. Military and Police brutality against the citizens have since assumed an alarming proportion, while Islamic terrorism, banditry, killer herdsmen militia, kidnapping and general insecurity have overrun the land while government appears incapable of living up to its responsibilities.
Under such critical and unbearable situation, no one in his right senses would convince us that all is well with the Nigerian state today. "The Devil is hanging on the Cross", in that country today. In this case, what shall be the way out?
The Way Out: Lessons from the Gospel of John (12: 27-34)
As I reflect on this disturbing situation of Nigeria, my home country, it became clearer to me that the best thing to do is to face the fact and do the needful. This is how I came to the choice of our theme for this Easter reflection. It is something that may appear personal, since as Easter message, it has to have broadened scope and audience. However, the situation Nigeria is today is not all that, different from what is being experienced in many other African countries with similar story as ours.
This is applicable to other places in the world, where the citizens concerned are struggling against the rule of tyranny, oppression and domination in their various countries. Our Easter reflection and focus on Nigerian reality, is only a microcosm of manifestations of the same reality in other countries and places. Tyrannical reign anywhere in the world is a disgrace to humanity, and an offense against the Creator.
The psychological war and violence, which enveloped Nigeria and the masses, especially since the last fraudulently conducted Presidential elections, has left many concerned citizens, men and women of good conscience, speechless and hard to comprehend. The crude and arrogant manner, the electoral umpire, INEC subverted in a broad day light, the will of the people in that fraudulently conducted elections, is something the country may not get over so easily, for many years to come.
In other words, what people have been passing through in Nigeria since then, is better imagined than experienced. It is something one could only hope it happened not in reality, but in a horror film. Today, many weeks after the fraudulent elections, the country is still submerged in confusion; those at the corridors of power appeared more confused and more clueless now than ever. This is despite the fact that Islamic terrorism, banditry, killer herdsmen militia, kidnapping, and military and police brutality have "taken over" the country, and the government appeared crassly incompetent and clueless on what to do. That is, if it can convince anybody that it is not an accomplice of those evils that have invaded the land.
Under such critical and unbearable situation, no one in his right senses would convince us that all is well with the Nigerian state today. "The Devil is hanging on the Cross", in that country today. In this case, what shall be the way out?
In the passage of John's Gospel (John 12: 27-34), which we chose for our reflection this Easter, John tells us that in each station of Jesus' earthly life, the mission His Father gave him was always present. But in each of those moments, Jesus was confronted with the weight of the passion awaiting him on the Cross. Through his identification with the Father and the mission for which he was born in human flesh in the world, Jesus was able, however, to triumph over the crucibles of suffering and human wickedness visited upon him as he carried out his Father's will.
This is one of the greatest lessons of Easter message: the legacy of how to manage tensions in our lives and society, especially at a time like ours today, when everything seems to be losing focus and hope in the society. It is when in such situation of hopelessness and despair, that we must not fail to hold firm to our faith in the Risen Christ, by looking steadfastly at him on the cross, that is, the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. In him is our hope, triumph and resurrection.
In Jesus Christ, the dominion men exercise over their fellow men came down crawling, when God the Father vindicated and liberated his Only Begotten Son, wicked men had subjected to all kinds of inhuman treatment and suffering. Thus, in the same way God's dominion triumphed over men's, so will the dominion of men over their fellow men fall down before that of God, who raised Jesus Christ from death.
This implies that our Calvary, as human beings who are created in the image and likeness of God, and who have been redeemed by the precious blood of Jesus Christ, is not like the so-called "long-drawn out Calvary" without redemption. Our suffering, just like our sins, is a redeemed one in the power of Jesus Christ. We are created, not for suffering or damnation in this world, but for the glory of God. It is for this reason that Jesus Christ came to the world in blood and flesh. He commissioned us as his disciples and the church to be the bearers of the memory of his passion, death and resurrection in the society in which we live. We are debtors to the dangerous and liberating memory of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in history and society.
Jesus willingly allowed himself be maltreated by the wicked men of this world, in order to pay the wages of our sin, liberate us from the shackles of sin, and make us worthy to partake in the inner life of God, the Trinitarian life of communion and love. In this way, as we often sing, "No weapon fashioned against us, God's children, will ever prosper." Thus, our suffering on earth and at the hands of wicked people, regime or any human institution, is only temporary. God comes at the appropriate time to save his own. Just as Jesus was not disappointed by his Father when he cried out to Him from the Cross on Good Friday for our redemption, he will not disappoint anybody or people that beckons on him for their liberation and salvation.
In other words, the Cross of Jesus Christ is where the center of the world is. It is where men and women of all peoples and cultures should turn their gaze for redemption and triumph in life, both now and hereafter, but especially, in moments of trials, tensions, despair and hopelessness. It is where the disciples and the church must rely upon always, for source of strength and direction as we undertake the onerous task of transforming our lives and bringing about the reign of the Kingdom values in the society.
What all this implies in effect, is that it is impossible to touch Jesus, claim to be his faithful disciple, without touching the Cross, and without being the bearer of that redeeming and liberating message of the Cross itself, in the society in which we live and work. Anyone who claims to be a disciple of Jesus, must allow himself to be severely tried as he struggles on this mortal earth, albeit tormented by suffering. But this is to make one extremely beautiful, that is, as he joyfully gives back to God all he has received from him through love of God and neighbor, making his contributing in the social and spiritual transformation of the society in which one lives and works.
At this time of tensions and anxiety, when many people, families, communities and nations, including my country Nigeria, are living under critical situations between despair and hopelessness, I think that this passage of John's Gospel has a very important lesson for us all this Easter.
Wishing all, a Blessed and Glorious Easter Celebrations! Happy Easter!