Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Our Identity as People of the Cross

Thanks to Arte Bautista for this picture of the Crucifix in our parish

Last Sunday, the ISIS released a new video this time showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian men who were all Coptic Christians. In the video, these Egyptians were called “people of the Cross.” In fact, as the camera took a close up shot of each of the men, some of them were seen with their lips moving in prayer to the Lord Jesus. These 21 men were definitely victorious martyrs of the Faith because they all died for being Christians.

A friend of mine posted this status on his Facebook account. I did not ask permission from him but I think (and hope) that he would not mind. He wrote: “The Coptic Orthodox Christians of Egypt, who are now in the news.... they fast 210 days a year, they stand 5-6 hours in their Sunday liturgies, they guard the oldest Christian monasteries and the sacred sites that mark the journey of the Holy Family into Egypt, they have crosses tattooed into their arms or wrists (which means they can't hide their Christian identity), they have a 9-hour fast before communion, their clergy are always required to hold a cross in their right hand (essentially marking them out as targets), they have endured 1,400 years of unrelenting discrimination with bouts of bloody persecution. And they have survived, comprising 10 - 20% of the Egyptian population despite all of that. Sure, they have very real problems in their community too, but whenever I read of my fellow Catholics wailing at the 2 days of fasting we have, the 1-hour Eucharistic fast, the scant few minutes of kneeling we have to do on Sundays, and other very light obligations we have, I always, always think of them.”

Today, we begin our Lenten journey with a day of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. The unusually large number of all of you here present speaks of how Ash Wednesday is very close to our hearts. Although it is not a holyday of obligation, many of us want to be here just do that we could have our foreheads signed with ashes. (Well, some might cheat their way out of the fasting part by saying that they have Chinese ancestry or that they forgot to fast – even though they have the ashes to remind them of it) The strange part of it all is that the Lord repeatedly warned us: “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people might see them.” We are supposed to give alms, fast, and pray in secret because our religious acts are not for public entertainment but are simply for the appreciation of the Father who sees everything in secret. And this is true: we keep our fasting, our prayer, and our almsgiving secret. However, there is one thing we could not keep hidden: the mark of the cross made out of ashes on our forehead. First, we wear ashes on our foreheads not as a sign of humility…but rather as a sign of humiliation. Embarrassing as it may, we publicly admit who we were: We are dust and to dust we shall return. If I may use the words of Pope Francis himself: Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are not God. Second, we are marked with the sign of the Cross on our foreheads. Such undeniably identifies us as a people of the Cross. If the Copts have the Cross tattooed on their wrists and so find difficulty in hiding their Christian identity, so also the Cross on our foreheads this day will undeniably identify us as people of the Cross. And is it not true that we would rather keep our Christian identity to ourselves. We have gotten it all wrong. The Lord Jesus himself said that we should keep our righteous deeds secret but not our Christian identity. If we acknowledge him before men, he will acknowledge us before his Father. and this Christian identity is strengthened by the 3 acts that we should secretly perform: fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. Fasting decreases our attachment to sin and fortifies our love for the Cross. Almsgiving increases in us the virtue of charity. Prayer deepens our communion with the Lord. By these righteous acts, we become what we truly are: People of the Cross. “In my flesh,” said St. Paul, “I endure the sufferings which Christ has still to endure for the sake of his body, the Church.” 

Let us keep this day of penance in solidarity with those who endure immense sufferings from the hands of their persecutors. Let us keep this season of penance. Let us not neglect to fast, pray, and love. By doing so, our faith becomes firmer, our hope increases, and our love becomes more ardent. In communion with the persecuted Christians, we implore the Lord: “Spare, O Lord, your people, and make not your heritage a reproach, with the nations ruling over them! Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’”

Jesus, I trust in you. O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee!

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