Holy Week For Bystanders and Fence-sitters
I recently attended a talk by Father Johnny C. Go, entitled, “Holy Week For Bystanders and Fence Sitters.” Bystanders are individuals do not offer any means of help in an emergency situation to the victim when other people are present. These would be rubberneckers near the site of an accident that cause traffic, which doesn’t help the situation and just makes it worse. They doesn’t get involved. Passersby would pertain a persons who pass by casually or by chance, as in unexpected moments, and may or may not get involved. If they do, they are just forced against their will. Fence-sitters are those who take a position of neutrality or indecision, as in a controversial matter. They are willing but are undecided as to when they will start to make that change.
For those who don’t know Father Johnny Go, he is a Jesuit priest who teaches in Xavier School, and is the author of the book entitled, “50mething Pieces Of Prayer & Reflection.” The talk was aimed at provoking us to think about things which we have thought about a lot and prayed over a lot in the past few years, as well as refreshing us on the mysteries of Lent, the suffering, death and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Father Johnny first talks about Exodus, with Moses’ first encounter with God, and his splitting of the Read Sea. Before Moses met God, he was a shepherd for his father’s flock of sheep. His first encounter with God was through a burning bush which seemed to burn steadily, although the bush wasn’t consumed by it. It was his curiosity that made him approach the burning bush and encounter God. As we read these passages from the bible, we were made to reflect and ask ourselves individually, “Why am I here?”, and “Is there any grace that I seek from the Lord this Holy Week?”
The burning bush is a very powerful and dramatic symbol to a metaphor. It’s the very first encounter between God and Moses, and Moses is one of the very few people in the Old Testament who could talk to God directly. They had an intimate relationship. As you recall how Moses met God, he was not exactly reflecting or doing anything holy, but he was tending to the flock of sheep owned by his father. This is how God meets us and speaks to us. If you look at the bible, most of these encounters were done at random, and the people God spoke to were not exactly in a state of grace. So, applying to us, it is not when we are at the church attending mass or when we pray that the Lord prefers to communicate to us. In Father Johnny’s opinion, the preferred way of God to interact with us is in our real life, when we live our normal life doing the things we normally do. If you have an idea that the way to meet God is to withdraw yourself from the world and attending retreats, Father Johnny doesn’t think that’s the way to meet God, and I agree with him. God meets us where we are. God wants to be part of our lives, because He wants to be with us. We don’t have to do anything to be in a suitable position to be with Him. He even sent down Jesus for us.
Knowing that God speaks to us in our daily life, what we need to do is whenever we feel His presence and feel Him telling us something, we have to stop what we’re doing and pay attention to what the Lord has to say. It’s pretty much exactly what Moses did. If you were Moses, and you saw a burning bush in the middle of your busy work, knowing that it’s risky to leave the sheep unattended and examine the bush, would you have done the same thing? Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure Moses put away his sheep first before examining the burning bush. Had Moses not stopped and examine the burning bush, he would have missed out on the wonderful things that he would have done in history. Same thing applies to us in our busy life nowadays. If we know that something we can do to help others despite our busy schedules, would we go ahead and do it obediently, or would we just brush the thought aside? We are told to seek God in all things. But the sad part is unless we try to find out, we will never really get there. It is up for us to find out in every situation if God will allow us to encounter Him in that particular moment.
The scripture says that when Moses turned around, it was when God called him. It’s like a condition that God sends, that before He would reveal Himself to us, we must turn aside. When Moses was called he was told to remove his shoes, which he did, for was standing on holy ground. Moses at that point changed his plans and decided to go with the Lord’s plan. So you’ll never know when you’ll get called. It requires a change in plans, which might be terrifying to some who may be unprepared and unwilling. By nature, we are so comfortable with our normal daily routines, like working within the same set time schedule, spending time with the family on a regular basis, seeing our regular set of friends on a regular basis. It’s really very hard to get disrupted from our own world in our lives. Sometimes restructuring our lives is needed, and we should be wiling to make the change just as Moses did. If God speaks to us through our hearts, and asks us to do things differently, or when there is a situation that just came up which is unexpected and which calls for a disruption in our daily routine, would you do as Moses did?
Based on the example of Moses and on the two terms introduced earlier, Moses refused to just being a passersby. He got involved. In our life God surrounds us with many burning bushes. Many of us end up being passersby, because we fail to change our plans, and to revise our routines. Aside from this, it’s is very convenient for us to be such. Urgent things that need our attention pop up very often in our life, so we get caught up in our own little world that it’s really very hard to break out from our routine and we end up as passersby. But Holy Week is a good opportunity for us to look into ourselves and see how we can change this and be able to hear what the Lord is telling us.It is the time when we are not busy like in Christmas season and Advent and the Holy Week is really our time to reflect on ourselves.
So the question we should ask ourselves is if we chanced upon the encounter of a burning bush of which you are not sure, would we be willing to take a chance and turn aside and linger to find out if God is there? With all the things that are going on in my life right now, will I be willing to turn aside, linger and find out if what looks suspicious like a burning bush is really going to be a burning bush? If the answer is “no” and we probably won’t turn aside, maybe we need to make a decision in the next few days, and try to make a space for God, as well as try to check on our burning bushes. It’s the only way we really are going to find out how God wants to encounter us.
What are the chances that we will change our plans, the way Moses did, and what are the chances us taking a chance at a potential burning bush? If the chances are very minimal, in the next few days we should make a decision on what we are going to do. For some, it may be a time to reflect and pray about this, if they are willing to be more existential. Some others may take other actions. The bottom line is we should reflect on our actions in the past.
We are surrounded by burning bushes all over the place, but the real life, the life of the world, is God Himself. So if we want to encounter God, this is who we go to. This is where we will see God in His wholeness.
With the the definitions of passersby, bystander and fence-sitter defined in the first paragraph, Father Johnny gave us one example of each from biblical characters in the persons of Martha the sister of Lazarus, Simon of Cyrene (modern-day Libya), and Thomas the doubting apostle. To those who don’t know them, Martha, Lazarus and Mary, all siblings, were close friends of Jesus. In fact, Jesus wept when Lazarus died, and He raised him from the dead. Simon of Cyrene, a weary traveler from another town, was the one who helped Jesus carry his cross out of his own will, as he was ordered to do so by the Roman soldiers. Thomas is one of Jesus’ apostles who was not present when Jesus appeared to the apostles after He rose from the dead. He mentioned that until he places his fingers on His wounds and see the marks of the wound, he would not believe. Jesus appeared and so he believed. All these can be found in the scriptures written by Matthew, Mark and Luke. All three gospels mentioned these, so there must be a great significance to these.
Let’s look at them more closely, so we can identify if we are like them. Let’s start with Martha. The bible tells us of a time when Lazarus was not home and Jesus visited Martha and Mary. Mary was seated next to Jesus, listening intently to what He was saying. Martha, on the other hand was busy preoccupied with serving Jesus food and drink. When she couldn’t stand it anymore, she told Jesus that it was unfair that Mary is seated comfortably while she herself is busy preparing something for Him. She asked Jesus to tell her to help her. Jesus answered that Mary was doing the right thing, and that He will not deny her of what she has a right to. Martha was mentioned in 2 other incidents where Lazarus died and in an event where Jesus was there. She was one of the people serving. She comes across as as a busy person. It seems that maybe there is a hint of resentment in her that she’s not appreciated. In Lazarus’ death, she told Jesus that had He been there earlier Lazarus would nor have died. It was a bit accusing to Jesus, but Jesus nevertheless didn’t take it personally. This tells us how close she was to Jesus, to be able to talk to Him like that. When Jesus did Lazarus will rise up from the dead, Martha countered, “I know, but on the last day.” That sort of gave the hint that maybe she may be a bit know-it-all. There are some people like that, who think they have undergone their share of life experiences and they know best. But if we really look at it, it was Jesus who was busy with His great mission, but nevertheless took time to visit people like them. Martha looks like a confused person. She is distracted by the things that are unimportant that she failed to see the goodness around her. She failed to see her burning bush.
An example of passersby is Simon the Cyrean (Libyan, as we call nowadays). He just happened to pass by the town but he was ordered to carry Jesus’ cross. So he helped Him. He was tired, he could have said no, but he had no choice. No one knows what he felt, and whether he was apathetic when he helped Jesus. But during that time, crucifixion was a common scene, so maybe he was desensitized by it. He may not have felt compassion and compelled to help Jesus, and that didn’t count. When we do things that we don’t feel like doing, we end up doing a lousy job.
Thomas the doubtful’s case is obvious. He is a bystander. He was told of Jesus’ miraculous appearance by his fellow apostles, and yet he did nothing, until Jesus appeared to Him. If he was really curious, he would have done more than waiting for Jesus to appear. He was willing to seek the Lord but did not do anything to seek the Lord. The Lord gave him 8 days before He showed Himself to him, to give him a change to change his mind, in my opinion. He failed, though. Thomas mentioned that he was willing to die for the Lord, and yet, his actions proved otherwise. There may also be possibility that he was doubting the apostles, not Jesus. In Thomas’ case, it’s not the doubting that mattered. It was his indifference that made him a bystander. Faith is not the absence of doubt, but faith is deciding to find out as much as you can. Instead, Thomas wanted Jesus to come to him. A believer doesn’t do that, but will do everything to find out.
There is a fourth approach to life, and that is standing by. Different from bystanders, Jesus was always ready to take on any challenges given to Him, and He was always loving in His ways, for He was so willing to help, for He loved us so much. Standing by would mean being at the ready for anything that might come your way, even the unexpected.
You can’t avoid the fact there may be times when something happens to the people around us and we are caught up in our own busyness doing our chores or even struggling on our own battles. What we can ponder on right now is in who’s life are we being a mere bystanders, and if there’s anyone in our life who may not be expressing his need, but is actually in need? Can I change from being a mere bystander to standing by this person, and offer help, even before he asks for it? Someone in our life is waiting for us to help him. We just have to take our chances and turn around to examine if the burning bush is indeed a burning bush.
There are 2 significant differences between old testament and the new testament. In the Old Testament, Yahweh always been depicted as passing by. God has been very much involved in our lives but He kept Himself distant. In the New Testament, Jesus was always very accessible and always turned around, despite His business in His mission. He always stopped and turned around to helped the people around him, and address their concerns. He never denied anybody of His attention. His actions of turning around to the person that He’s talking to is always prevalent in the New testament, meaning He made time for us.
God is really all about love, and love is really doing good, but it’s not easy to do so all the time. We expect God to force human choices because He knows what’s good for us, but He doesn’t do that. He doesn’t end human pain as well, as seen in Jesus’ crucifixion. But as long as we are filled with love and strive to turn around and find our burning bushes, we will always have hope.