The Paschal Mystery and the Priesthood
(Talk of Bishop Socrates S. Villegas during the Retreat
of the National Congress of the Clergy on July 5, 2004
at the World Trade Center, Roxas Blvd. Metro Manila )
"The Sandal Tree as if to prove,
How sweet to conquer Hate, love,
Perfumes the axe that lays it low."
- Rabindranath Tagore
There is among the ancient trees one that is most prized until today. It is the sandalwood. Preparing for my reflections with you today, the sandalwood came to mind. Maybe because it was a day when my olfactory sense was not serving me well, as I was nursing a bad cold, and I was desperately trying to recall the most powerful scent that I had ever encountered. I needed the remembrance of the sandalwood scent to bring life to my senses.
You see, my dear brother priests, the scent given off by the sandalwood is known to be "legendary." An adventurer described it as "warm, sweet, slightly spicy... presenting a melodic blend, which is at once distinct yet not overpowering."
You could perhaps recall the smell from the ornate cabinets of our grandmothers who would insert the small sachets of sandalwood sawdust among their linens and finery.
Lest I go off into some more distant reminiscences about perfumery, let me tell you that I have been drawn to sandalwood because of the verses that Rabindranath Tagore had written, in my meditation I've come to realize how the sandalwood best represents Jesus Christ and the priesthood He has called us to.
Sandalwood is best known for its scent, as I've said earlier. Every part of the sandal tree's heartwood where the scent lies is saved - from logs, to chips to sawdust. What is even more remarkable about this precious wood is that its fragrance is left on the axe that fells and cuts it. The saw or axe that wounds the tree; that cuts it across, retains its odor, as if it were sandalwood itself.
Isn’t that story of our priesthood? Jesus is the sandalwood, the fragrance of all frangrances. The fragrance of the Lord cannot be detected by the nose; it can only be perceived by the heart – And how do we feel – or sense as it were – that scent? Looking at my own priesthood – and may I presume, yours, too – I can only conclude with certainty that overpowering scent of the Lord is “mercy.” I am a priest – you are priests – now precisely – and only – because of that mercy, “sa awa ng Diyos.”
We are now priests not because we are expected to do something good and thus need to be rewarded. Our priesthood has been freely given to us by the Lord. It is the fragrance that the Lord, the sandalwood, has left on us, the axe who have wounded Him. We have wounded the Lord. But the Lord, in His goodness, has even left on us His fragrance, which no amount of sin could take away; the fragrance of mercy, the fragrance of forgiveness, the heart of mercy.
The power to forgive has been given to us, priests. The Lord in the Gospel tells us_ 'Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven; whose sins you retain are retained. Peace be with you, as the Father has sent me so I send you. Peace!'
The power to forgive has been entrusted to the Church, and specifically to us, ministers, making us instruments of new life for all of God's people. The power to forgive is no token of power; it is not ceremonial or symbolic. It is real. Because of our power to forgive we can change bread and wine into the body and blood of the Lord so that sins may be forgiven. Through anointing we heal, banishing sickness not only of the body but the more so of the spirit
Such power, indeed, given to us, the axe, who have wounded and continues to wound the Lord. "They shall look at Him, whom they have pierced." How precious is the fragrance of the Lord! How precious is our priesthood!
But the Church is not so much about wielding power. We would do well not to focus on power because the Church does not exist to exercise power and dominion over subjects. The Church exists because of need - our need for God. More than the power to forgive is the need to forgive. And if we will not forgive, we will die. To live is to understand. To live is to forgive. To live is to heal others and in healing others do we find our own healing.
The Church is not about love of power but more about the power of God's love. We recognize our need to forgive because if we choose to ignore this need, we will certainly wither and perish.
But beyond that need to forgive lies something even more important that is our need to be forgiven. We beat our breasts in sorrow over our unworthiness because of our transgressions and we wallow in misery at the thought of our unforgivable acts. We enter into our ministry with a great sense of awareness that we are sinners, truly unworthy to be called to a lofty and sacred calling.
We were like Jeremiah saying out loud to the Lord in anguish, "How can I this be, I'm too young..."
Or like the feisty but always insecure Peter, "Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful Man…”
We moan with the words of the prophet Isaiah, "Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among people of unclean lips!"
Thus when we say that the priesthood is a call to share in the paschal mystery of Christ, it is not so much the power to confect the paschal mystery through the Eucharist, but more importantly it is to acknowledge with our entire being our need to forgive -- because we know how deeply we, too, need forgiveness - and become an instrument of life for other people. We have died and through forgiveness we have risen. We have seen death and because of our experience of death, we can rise up and see and understand the death, the dying that other people are going through. And we want to raise them up and lift them up from that miserable state.
The Lord may have allowed us to sin and to be crushed by sin so that we may understand our fellow sinners. We clearly understand this action of Jesus Christ by the way He knew Peter and treated Him.
The Lord alone knew the real Peter. We have always regarded Peter as the Denial King; the tempestuous apostle who was quick to react but seemingly just as quick to deny. With our human spectacles we view Peter as flawed, weak, not strong enough to proclaim to those who had asked him on the night of the Lord's suffering at the temple, that he was His friend.
But have we ever thought about how It was only Peter who, remained with the Lord at the Garden of Gethsemane , boldly drawing a sword to cut off the ears of one of the temple police. He alone remained with Jesus who had told the soldiers that it was Him they were after and that they should let His disciples go. But Peter remained poised to take on at least 200 armed men. Is that weakness? For me, courage couldn't have worn a better armor than Peter did at the Garden of Olives.
Jesus made Peter the first of His disciples, the first vicar of Christ on earth because Jesus saw the real Peter - the Peter who loved with boldness and daring, with steadfastness while at the same time forgiving Peter's moments of weakness. "Do you love me? Jesusasked Peter three times. "You know that I love you," Peter answered back each time with increasing force until the Lord's fragrance suffused him, filled his entire being.
That is our consolation. We may have axed the Lord but we can trust that fragrance of the Lord's forgiveness, of His love, will always remain with us.
Thus our ministry as priests comes not from the elevated platform of perfection, but from the human level of being a "sinner among fellow sinners. Yet I have seen the dying and rising of the Lord and I am here not because I am better but because I am a sinner like you, saved like you and to “show my gratitude to the Lord I lead you to the same fragrance.”
The call of the priesthood is a call to keep that fragrance; to remain in Jesus' love. "I am the vine, you are the branches. " In Holy Communion we pray that quietly, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, by the will of the Father and the work of the Holy Spirit, your death brought life to the world. By your holy body and blood, free me from all my sins and from every evil. Keep me faithful to your teaching and never let me be parted from you."
I am reminded at this point of a story a nun told me recently about a newly ordained priest giving confessions at the EDSA Shrine. It was just a few days after his ordination and he had been caught at the confessional box by a long line of penitents. Since he was also scheduled to preside at the last Mass of the day, the sacristan had to knock at the window of the cubicle to signal him that it was time for Mass. He finished up with the woman who was confessing, but as he got out a muddle-aged man in ragged clothes and slippers motioned that he was next in line to confess. Such was the troubled look on the man's face that the young priest seemed at a loss as to what to do. Sadly he told the man that he had to get ready to celebrate the Mass for the congregation.
There it was, the collision of two needs: the, priest's need to forgive and the man's more urgent need to be forgiven, to be absolved of his sins, to be reconciled with himself, and more importantly with, God.
At the close of the Mass, the man hurried towards the priest to bid him to hear his confession. And the priest did, onto the night I can imagine the peace that both received at the end of the day.
This, my fellow brethren in Christ, has shown how we are God's instruments of mercy. How we are called to scatter - nay permeate the whole atmosphere with -- fragrance. The fragrance of the Lord's mercy and forgiveness.
The most intimate encounter between a Christian and our merciful God is made possible through confession. As it is now, because of the long, line of penitents, because of the conditions of the confessional, because we are tired and we have so many other concerns, the encounter in the Sacrament of Confession tends to be reduced to a question of validity. Validity meaning to say, you say your act of contrition end make sure you are repentant and I just say the right formula and off you go your sins are forgiven. But the question is, does it show an encounter between a wounding ax, and a forgiving sandalwood? Do we still see ourselves as a sinner with a fellow sinner? Or are we so much concerned with the power to forgive, and the power of the right words. The question of validity is like standing at the railroad tracks and viewing a train passing by. We see the train, each cabin connected to the other through the technical precision of engineering. There is no derailment the cabins do not become unhinged as the train chugs smoothly along because their movements are synchronized, following the rules of engineering. But watching the train pass by can be the most boring thing,
In a way that is what we often make confession to be: a laundry list of sins, followed by the formula of absolution. It is like a train passing by, but does it become an encounter of mercy between a penitent sinner and a loving God?
Sometimes - or oftentimes -- we are afraid to bring in emotions to the confessional. We are afraid of our feelings and we celebrate the sacrament cerebrally, perfunctorily. But the sacrament of reconciliation is a celebration. More that being a judge, we are a loving father, a sandalwood who leaves a fragrance. We are not a washing machine, a forgiving machine, where a penitent passes through and the stains of sin are removed, sanitized, but also absorbs no fragrance and is left with no fragrance because of his encounter with us.
The sacrament of forgiving and being forgiven is not merely a matter of validity and formulaic rituals but an encounter of grace between a loving. God, who has been axed yet leaves his fragrance on the axe. It is the same fragrance that he shares with other people because of his being touched by God, the sandalwood.
That is the Paschal Mystery of our priesthood. Jesus Christ showing us love, death and life, through the very special grace of ordination. He imbues us with His fragrance of mercy and forgiveness. His fragrance that lovingly perfumes the axe that lays it low. And the mystery is that the fragrance stays with us for as long as we share it with others.