Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Suffering Servant of the Lord: A Holy Week Reflection

Fr. Fransiskus Madhu (1976-2007)
Fr. Gerry Gudmalin, SVD, former classmate in the seminary, sent a text message last Saturday informing me that he is going to say the Palm Sunday mass in Lubuagan in Kalinga, the place where he was assigned until last year. The town became notorious as the place where one of our young Indonesian SVD missionaries was killed last year, on Palm Sunday April 1. 2007.

I remember writing last year in my website the sad story of the violent fate of a man of God like Fr. Fransiskus Madhu, SVD. For the link, click here.

Fr. Gerry Gudmalin recounted how he and Fr. Madhu equally divided their assignments for the Holy Week, one liturgical service for each of the seven villages (called "barangays" or "barrios").

For the Palm Sunday Mass, since Fr. Francis did not know how to drive a motorcycle, he was assigned to the village of Mabongtot, an hour trek going down from the town while Fr. Gudmalin went to a farther village. It was around 5:30 in the afternoon. The mass was to be held inside the public school building since there was no chapel in the village.

Fr. Madhu was still seated waiting for some things needed for the mass when a man with an M-16 armalite slung from the shoulder fired at the priest at close range. Fr. Madhu sustained five bullet wounds in his lower abdomen and side. He died on the spot. He was only 31 years old.

The police had identified the suspect who was with three other companions during the shooting and who fled after the incident. After one year, the suspect remains at large we still do not know why he was killed. The innocent is ambushed “wantonly” says the book of Proverbs (1:11).

Fr. Fransis, as he was fondly called, was the only son among five siblings. When his mother heard of what happened to his only son, she lamented: "Why did they kill him? Fransis was a good son."

The Suffering Servant of Yahweh in the Book of Isaiah
The story of Fr. Madhu was the first thing that came to my mind when I was preparing my homily for Holy Tuesday [celebrated at the chapel of the Pink Sisters Tagaytay 03-18-08]. His violent fate can be a sort of a modern template to understand the Suffering Servant in the Book of the prophet Isaiah-- this anonymous Servant is persecuted, humiliated, and eventually killed because he is beloved by the Lord.

Most of the first readings in masses during Holy Week are taken from second section of the book of Isaiah (chapters 40-55), from the so-called four Songs of the Suffering Servant. Earlier, scholars had even thought that these texts were, at the beginning, a separate book from Isaiah but were later introduced into the book to explain the sufferings of Israel who went into exile in 586 B.C.

The Suffering Servant on Holy Monday
On Holy Monday, we read the First Servant Song from Isaiah 42:1-7 – the Servant there is Israel, chosen by the Lord “to bring forth justice the nations” and who are called to be "light to the nations”.

The Suffering Servant on Holy Tuesday
For Holy Tuesday, the first reading comes from Isaiah 49:1-6, the Second Song of the Suffering Servant. We hear that the Servant is sent to Israel, to bring back the people back to the Lord. The mission of the anonymous servant is to help his fellow Israelites come out of their blindness and deafness. We do not know what kind of blindness or deafness the Israelites are suffering from. But in the Bible, Israel has always fallen to the temptation of worshiping other gods and blurring social justice.

If the Servant is Israel as we mentioned above, then Israel is sent to Israel. This is doing mission at home, charity beginning at home, "missio ad intra". In the course of this mission, the Servant meets disappointment: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and emptiness” (Isa 49:4). And that happens to all of us. After so many years of committing ourselves to serving people, for fighting for what is right and just, so many months of praying and searching for the truth, so many days of studying, and we get no results, the tendency is to become discouraged, almost wanting to give up.

But note that the servant here does not give up instead he says with confidence, “For sure, my cause [Hebrew "mishpat"] is with the Lord, and my reward with my God” (Isa 49:4). The servant keeps going even if he does not see many results.

The Suffering Servant on Holy Wednesday
On Holy Wednesday, the reading comes from Isaiah 50:4-11, the Third Servant song. We read that the opposition against the Servant becomes stronger and violent: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; My face I did not shield from buffets and spitting” (Isa 50:6).

But again, this servant is confident in the Lord’s help and states categorically, “The Lord helps me, therefore I have not been disgraced; I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame” (Isa 50:7).

The Suffering Servant on Good Friday
On Good Friday, we read the Fourth Servant Song, the most famous of the four texts—Isaiah 52:13-53:12.

The result of this violence done to the innocent servant is horrible: “no form, no comeliness, no beauty …people hide their faces from it” (Isa 52:2-3). The Servant of the Lord, now "ugly", is forsaken: “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of sorrows and accustomed to infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces spurned and we held him of no esteem” (Isa 53:3).

As I’ve written in my meditations in the recently published prayer booklet, Stations Cross (now available at St. Pauls], this biblical text could have inspired devotees in the Middle Ages to include the scene of the sixth station where a certain woman named Veronica wipes the deformed and now ugly face of Jesus.

This seemingly meaninglessness of the suffering of the Servant is understood in a different way here. The suffering of the Servant is now a suffering for others, a "vicarious suffering": “But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins, Upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his wounds we were healed” (Isa 53:5).

For the early Christians, when they wanted to make sense of the passion of Jesus, of the injustice, violence and shame of the crucifixion, they turned to these texts of the Suffering Servant of the Lord in the Book of Isaiah.

Charles Conroy, “The Servant(s) of the Lord in the Book of Isaiah,” in Journeys and Servants: CBAP Lectures 2003 (Manila: CBAP, 2003), pp. 49-62.

Randolf C. Flores, "'My God, My God, Why Have You Abandoned Me?' An Exegesis of Psalm 22:1-12," Diwa 31 (2006), pp. 24-41.

H. Simian-Yofre, Sofferenza dell'uomo e silenzio di Dio nell'Antico Testamento e nella letteratura del Vicino Oriente Antico (Roma: Città Nuova , 2005).

1 comment:

BRC said...

Thanks for your reflections on the readings for this Holy Week. Am just happy to see that indeed when we ourselves face the persecution we don't even think about, we have already Someone Who's been into it. The positive response of faith can indeed be a strength to reckon with when confronted with life's cruel realities. God indeed is our refuge. In Him is our hope, our strength, our joy no one can take away from us.

All the best to your Holy Week involvement. Take care and God bless