HOLY WEEK SEEMS TO be the holiest week of the Christian year especially for the Catholic faithful. It is also the busiest. The week starts on Palm Sunday with the commemoration of Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem. So often the Holy Week is considered one of the beautiful traditions" or "customs", a self-evident "part" of our calendar. 

We take it for granted and enjoy it as a cherished annual event which we have observed since our childhood. We admire the beauty of its services, the pageantry of its rites and, last but not least, we like the fuss about the Paschal table. Then when all this is done, we resume our normal life. But do we understand that when the world rejected its Saviour, when "Jesus began to be sorrowful and very heavy....and his soul was exceedingly sorrowful even unto death," when He died on the Cross, "normal life" came to its end. 

It is a long week with added church services that leave even those who gain renewed energy from worship tired at times. Clergy often take one of their vacation weeks the following week in order to recover.  Even for pastors, whether they admit it or not, know that when they announce the additional Holy Week services some people are groaning a little inside. The most comforting part of Holy Week is not the waving of triumphal palms on one Sunday morning, or the flowers and joyous hymns on the next. It is what happens in between. It is Jesus on Holy Thursday sharing a table with the people he loved the most. It is him washing their feet, and showing that the mark of a true leader is whether they can serve others. It is Jesus still loving those disciples even though he knew that, at best, they would abandon him, and at worst, they would betray him. And it is Jesus in the garden, alone, heart-broken, and struggling between what he wanted to do and what he knew he had to do. And on Good Friday, it continues. The world turns against him, and the ones who cheered his entry into Jerusalem instead cheer his death. He suffers. He calls out to a God who does not seem to answer. He doubts. He feels pain, and loss, and grief. And in the end he loses the life he knew.  Sometimes you are tempted to ask by those who are going through a difficult time whether God is angry when they have doubts, or when they wonder why God does not seem to be answering prayers. They ask if God understands when we suffer, or when we feel alone. When they do, let them point first not to the Christ of Palm Sunday or Easter, but to the Christ of Holy Thursday and Good Friday. The one who lived as one of us, who loved as one of us, who doubted as one of us, who suffered as one of us, and who died as one of us. And only then should they point to the Christ who rose again, and overcame the worst that the world could throw at him.

It is sometimes worrisome that we are forgetting the lessons of Holy Week. Holy Week is most definitely a very sacred time of the year, for it is now that we will commemorate and remember the last week of Jesus' life on this earth. These are the days leading up to the great Easter Feast. The Lenten season of sacrifice and self-denial is about to come to an end, but this coming week is extremely important for all Christians. The greatest focus of the week is the Passion (suffering). The Easter Triduum is important to Catholics. This is the three days just before Easter. On Holy Thursday, two events shape the Liturgy of the Great and Holy Thursday: the Last Supper and the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. The Last Supper is the ultimate revelation of God's redeeming love for man. The betrayal by Judas reveals that sin, death and self-destruction are also due to love, but love directed at that which does not deserve love. The mystery of this unique day, and its liturgy where light and darkness, joy and sorrow are so strangely mixed, challenges us with the choice on which the eternal destiny of each one of us depends. At the Mass, the priest will wash the feet of twelve men, just as Jesus did. Also on this night, priests all over the world will renew their sacred vows. This is because, at the Last Supper, Jesus not only instituted the Mass (Eucharist) but also the ministerial priesthood.

From the light of Holy Thursday we enter into the darkness of Friday, the day of Christ's Passion, Death and Burial. In the early Church this day was called "Pascha of the Cross," for it is indeed the beginning of that Passover or Passage whose whole meaning will be gradually revealed to us.  On Good Friday, the day of the crucifixion and death of our Lord, we have the veneration of the Cross. A service is held at three o'clock in the afternoon (the hour He is believed to have died) and another later in the evening. We go forward and kiss the Cross in order to show honour and respect for Christ's sacrifice for our sake. There is no consecration of the Eucharist on this day, and the Communion we receive will be from the night before, which has been reserved in the tabernacle.

Holy Saturday is a vigil. We keep watch for the expectant rising of Our Saviour. This was the day He went down into the netherworld in order to bring back up with Him into heaven those who had died before His coming. Up to this time, the gates to heaven were closed and no one could go there because of the original sin of Adam. Jesus changed all that. By paying the price for our sins on the Cross, He gained for us our eternal salvation, and heaven was opened once more. Also on this night, persons who have spent months of preparation will be received through Baptism and Confirmation into the Catholic Church for the first time. It is a joyous occasion. On coming to the Church on the morning of Holy Saturday, Friday has just been liturgically completed. The sorrow of Friday is, therefore, the initial theme, the starting point of Matins of Saturday. It begins as a funeral service, as a lamentation over a dead body.

Holy Week is a time to clear our schedules of unnecessary activities. Our minds and hearts should be fixed on Jesus and what He did for us. Let us bear the Cross so that we may be worthy of wearing the crown He wore. Such is the wonderful meaning of the Last Supper. He offered Himself as the true food of man, because the life revealed in Him is the true Life, and the movement of Divine.  The Last Supper is the restoration of the paradise of bliss, of life as Eucharist and Communion. But this hour of ultimate love is also that of the ultimate betrayal. Judas leaves the light of the Upper Room and goes into darkness. "And it was night."(John 13:30) Why does he leave? Because he loves, answers the gospel, the "silver" more than he loves the Lord. Each year, as we immerse ourselves into the unfathomable light and depth of Holy Thursday, the same decisive question is addressed to each one of us: do I respond to Christ's love and accept it as my life, or do I follow Judas into the darkness of the night?

But why does the Father desire this death? Why is it necessary? The death of Christ is described as His descent into Hades.  "Hades" in the concrete Biblical language means the realm of death, which God has not created and which He did not want; it also signifies that the Prince of this world is all powerful in the world. Satan, Sin, Death - these are the "dimensions" of Hades, its content. For sin comes from Satan and Death is the result of sin - "sin entered the world, and death by sin." (Romans 5:12).

Now this hour has come and the Son of God enters into Death. The Holy Fathers of the Church usually describe this moment as a duel between Christ and Death, Christ and Satan. For this death was to be either the last triumph of Satan, or his decisive defeat by Christ. The duel develops in several stages. At first, the forces of evil seem to triumph. The Righteous One is crucified, abandoned by all, and endures a shameful death. He also becomes the partaker of "Hades," of this place of darkness and despair. But at this very moment, the real meaning of this death is revealed. The One who dies on the Cross has Life in Himself, i.e., He has life not as a gift from outside, a gift which therefore can be taken away from Him, but as His own Essence. For "In Him was Life and Life was the light of man." The man Jesus dies, but this Man is the Son of God. As man, He can really die, but in Him, God Himself enters the realm of death. This is the unique, the incomparable meaning of Christ's death. In it, the man who dies is God, or to be more exact, the God-Man. God is the Holy Immortal; and only in the unity "without confusion, without change, without division, without separation" of God and Man in Christ can human death be "assumed" by God and be overcome and destroyed from within, be "trampled down by death." Death was not only destroyed by God, but was overcome and trampled down in human nature itself by man and through man.



Theology, prosperity gospel and youth formation in Africa

WISH TO congratulate the organisers of this theological week for focusing this forum on Youth Formation and Prosperity Gospel. I am particularly hopeful that such a forum will help take theology further out of the classroom where it risks being fossilised as a mere teacher-student, speaker-listener exercise. Today, especially with the kind of topic chosen for this theological week, theology must descend into the public square and only thus try to find new perspectives and solutions to the challenges faced by the faith and the faithful in our time.

The topic around which we assemble is quite relevant and actual. "Theology, Prosperity Gospel and Youth Formation in Africa" I am also hopeful that given the calibre of the speakers assigned to the topics, the proceedings will be published for the use of a wider audience.

A cursory look at the history of the Church in the past shows a back-and-forth between periods of sound doctrine and heresies at different stages of History. I am convinced that Prosperity Gospel is one of the biggest heresies of our day. It seems to me to be the other side of the coin of the "Pleasure Gospel" which is part of it but also distinct from it. While the Church in the past has dealt with heresies through the calling of Councils and Synods where by the sound doctrine is more clearly defined and promulgated, it seems unlikely that such a strategy can effectively deal with the deceit of "Prosperity Gospel". In any case the prosperity gospel impacts on youth and adult alike today but for the sake of this intervention we keep the theme as it is.  

Speaking in context, and in the "soundbite language" of youth today, theology, can be defined as the study of (the things of) God. If this is accepted, the corollary china and cutlery with which theology should be served for the consumption of the public should be Catechesis.

Before writing down these thoughts I did a small survey among about 13 catholic youth of between 18 and 35 years about these two concepts. For them in summary, theology better describes theory, or classroom intellectual exercises on God and religion while catechesis or catechism (as some of them stated) better covers the practical, street or home version of it. Forgive their naivety but I am also a believer in the idea of Pope Paul VI who reputedly  advised that no church theologian should be trusted if he cannot teach catechism to children.

Where does this situate my comments then? It is this: I believe that theology as concerns Revelation, the Deposit of Faith and the Teachings of the Magisterium of the Church up till Contemporary times has more than it takes to guide our youth aright to confront contemporary ravaging and misleading prosperity gospel.  Perhaps, there is however an important chip missing in the jigsaw. That chip is our dexterity to keep interpreting and presenting Theology with methods, thought patterns stories, idioms, language, places that resonate with the frames of reference of today's youth.

Fr continuity in the Church we must remember the 2012 Synod of Bishops on Evangelization and the Transmission of the Good News which was held in Rome. Using my privilege of participation in that Synod I made a short presentation in which I argued that evangelization and by inference theology in our day must recruit the youth as allies, and explore new places, language and idioms of self- expression to stay relevant and coherent.

This conviction of mine did not begin just at that Synod. About 8 years ago I attended the opening ceremony of CATHAN here in Nigeria. During the free-for-all I stated that I would like to see our theology incorporate a certain branch of theology which I labelled "the theology of the Streets" ie. of the market woman, the vulcanizer, the conductor and the traffic warden and okada riders. I was practically sneered at by the "intellectual theologians" present who told me that the theology week was for more refined thinking and thinkers (read "elites"). I licked my wounds and left but I have never given up those thoughts.

For me, Theology and catechesis simply do not have meaning if they are not communicative and communicating. Theology does not exist only in abstractions but in relation to the cognitive faculties of the human being addressees nor does catechesis make sense outside of the understanding and action  of Christians in their daily lives. Here is what one of the youths whom I consulted wrote: "We must affirm the difference between the 'prosperous gospel' and 'prosperity gospel'. Yes. The gospel  is prosperous. It is an endeavour which by its very nature  carries along its success, since  its  nature  is  the proclamation, the heralding of the good news, and the one proclaimed is the Word made flesh. However, the nuance of the prosperity gospel swindles the significance and meaning of the 'prosperous gospel', for what it does is to limit the gospel to material blessings". He went on to say that authentic theology must uncover that deceit and express it with similar means by which the deceit is portrayed 

My interpretation of this proposal which I agree with is that within that space where meaning is negotiated for action, and with contemporary tools and means (where authentic communication belongs) we must couch our theology and descend with it into the public spaces and experiences where people daily find themselves.

Additionally in our diagnosis we need to identify the tools that drive Prosperity Gospel (PG) today. Without discounting the oratorial skills of pastors of PG, we should all agree that keen attention to other factors like Music, Art, Poetry, Audio Visuals, Films Sports and other youth friendly areas has helped the growth of the phenomenon. We need just a little examination of conscience to realize that these are areas in which the Catholic Church heavily invested in the past for the purpose of catechesis and evangelization but which have largely been abandoned. It was easy for PG to move in and exploit those lapses to establish its roots since nature abhors a vacuum and would happily fill it wherever it occurs. 

An added benefit of this forum is to help us admit that the "battle of evangelization today has largely shifted and changed. We can no longer fight it with the same weapons or the same attitude. We are like in the half time of a football match whereby it is possible or even necessary to change our tactics and weapons though not the essence of our faith.

Therefore without usurping the task given to our competent speakers I propose that in the formation of our youth to face the challenge under review we need to:

"Make the youths participants and allies in our catechesis project rather than mere subjects of our theology. The contemporary communication environment has changed the parameters of contemporary pedagogy such that youth hardly pay much attention to non-participatory discourses which do not have the force of compulsion like having to pass an examination or so. In other words, they listen best when they can also speak. It is in dialogue rather than instruction that we can equip them theologically. These youths are the ones who daily come in contact with the foot soldiers of prosperity gospel and equip them with effective answers (catechesis) to survive the onslaught. This idea was part of my submission at the Synod of Bishops of 2012 on New Evangelization and the Transmission of the Good News" in Rome.

"Demonstrate a clear awareness and concern for the real problems which challenge the faith of youth in their daily activities and relationship. One of such areas of course is the attraction of the prosperity gospel.  Others are errant ideologies on human life and procreation, human sexuality, marriage and the family, friendship and courtship, human dignity and the dignity of work etc. In this process we must incorporate our cultural heroes-past into the flow path of this "dialogue-theology". This refers to our Tansis, Bakhitas and Bakanjas who focused their lives on lasting values and legacies. Same goes for heroes from our cultural, secular and even political heritage (Julius Nyerere, Nelson Mandela, Dora Akunyili, Dr. Ameyo etc) who have lived unforgettable lives without yielding to the errant teachings of pop and pleasure Christianity

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