Message of the Obispo Maximo 2020 Holy Week Celebration

The Most Revd. Rhee Millena Timbang, Obispo Maximo

TO ALL BISHOPS, CLERGY AND FAITHFUL In the Iglesia Filipina Independiente

Dear People of God:

We celebrate today the Palm Sunday which ushers the beginning of the Holy Week Celebration and brings us to the last week of the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus on earth. Brought upon by the liturgical renewal of the Church, today is also known as the Passion Sunday since the narrative of the Passion of our Lord Jesus is being read today as the Gospel of the Eucharistic Worship following after the Blessing and Procession of Palms.

By this celebration we enter into a solemn week-long observance of the passion and death of the Lord Jesus in anticipation of his glorious resurrection on the Easter Sunday. This observance starts with our commemoration of the Lord Jesus’ triumphal entry to Jerusalem, the city upon which he would be arrested, tried, humiliated, tortured, and hang to death upon the cross by the political and religious authorities of his time who considered him as “enemy of the state,” but also the city upon which he would fulfil the expectation of the law and the prophets that he came as the Lord and Saviour of the world in God’s way, and that is the way of the cross. 

We recollect in our celebration today his joyous entry to the city of Jerusalem where he would be victorious against the power of the tomb and all the forces of sin and death, because he came with the power of the almighty God his heavenly Father who anointed him as the Messiah, who claimed upon him as his beloved Son, the God in history who demonstrates his awesome power by the sign of the cross, the God of life and hope. The people, long oppressed by a tyrant power, recognized in him the power of God, and so received and acclaimed him, waving palm leaves and branches of trees, spreading their garments on the road, shouting 

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Matthew 21:9b)

This commemoration of his triumphant entry to the holy city of Jerusalem is a celebration of his victorious entry to our lives where we greatly need him as our Lord and Saviour, as the powerful

God who will work great things for us as we continue to seek for life and hope every day. Hence, today, as the Liturgy of the Blessing of Palms says 

“We greet him as our king, proclaiming that he reigns in our lives and in the lives of all people, and promise to follow him that we may share in his victory.” (Exhortation, The Blessing of Palms) 

It is of course the victory of life and hope that the Lord Jesus wrought upon the cross. And so in this week, we accompany with the Lord Jesus in his victory through his passion, death and resurrection, and we persist in our journey towards life in its fullness, towards God’s full reign, hoping to continuously bear the palm leaves and branches of trees which for the nation Israel of old and for us today have become signs of God’s amazing power of triumph and victory over all forces of sin and death. The Lord Jesus won all these for us upon which we are likewise expected to “follow the example of his great humility, and share in the glory of his resurrection” (Collect for Palm Sunday).

We are sad however that we cannot physically gather together as regular congregation in our parish communities to celebrate the solemnities of the Holy Week. We cannot at the moment hold these church celebrations, and even the following weeks after this holy season, because of the medical/health crisis that we presently face. We have caused the temporary suspension of all our services, worships, appointments and activities all throughout the Church because we want to immensely contribute to the on-going battle against the corona virus disease which the whole nation is locked in nowadays by abiding with the advisories of the DOH and LGU’s, by observing proper hygiene and preventive actions, by deterring mass gathering, so that we may all prevent the further outbreak of this dreaded virus. As we said earlier and we need to repeat it that

“We have to seriously undertake all these precautionary measures for our common safety, security and health as a people and as a nation. We cannot underestimate the sting and harm accompanying the infection and spread of COVID19. It is now a pandemic crisis and has brought mortality to increasing proportion all over the world. In our particular situation here in the Philippines, the statistics on infection cases and death are now alarmingly increasing. There is no indication when it shall end considering that the crisis has yet to peak in our case here in the Philippines.” (OM’s Dir ective to the Clergy of the Dioceses of Surigao, Dinagat, and National Cathedral, March 22, 2020) 

Terribly alarmed by this situation, we issued series of advisories to our bishops and clergy, and to the whole Church, in order to provide guidance in our undertakings as corporate body and to drive home the point concerning the gravity of the crisis we are battling with. We are up against a killer virus, invisible to our naked eyes, and so we do not know when it shall attack us and who will be its carrier. We have all become vulnerable, and gripped with fear and uncertainty, and even doubt our human capability to protect our health security. And so in these advisories, we ask everybody to see the need to combat the spread of the dreaded virus and overcome the bad situation we are all in at the moment. We have to reiterate our appeal that   

 “Let us not be complacent. This virus is a killer and the reports we heard or read or seen are enough for us to realize that there is no amount of adventurism that could impress anyone among us if we make ourselves and our members and congregation more susceptible to infections. The law in fact describes this act as criminal offense against public health and safety. The need of our time is to become safe, certain and rational.” (OM’s Advisory, Series #8, April 1, 2020)

This is the whole intent why we went for the temporary suspension of our regular routine as a Church to ensure that we all contribute to the prevention of further outbreak of this dreaded virus by deterring mass gathering. During this Holy Week Season, and perhaps in the following weeks before the national emergency situation is lifted up, we find it uncomfortable that we cannot do our regular routine as a Church especially for many of us in the IFI which incorporated public worship as integral part of our spiritual life and faith development. Borrowing the words of the TEC’s Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, 

“We find ourselves in the strange position of fasting from physical gathering for worship of almighty God, not of sloth or disobedience, but in obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ, for whom the primacy of love for God and neighbour is the way of life. In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, refraining from physically gathering together to hear God’s holy Word and receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion is itself an act for God and our neighbour” (TEC Presiding Bishop Word Regarding the Theology of Worship during the COVID19 Pandemic).  

Our serious engagement to refrain from holding public worship and mass gathering during this time of crisis is principally motivated by this same love for God and for our fellow human beings. We value and uphold the gift of live sourced up from the almighty God who is the creator of heaven and earth and the giver of life. We recognize the primacy and sanctity of this God-given life in the persons of our fellow human beings, especially the poor among us who are so vulnerable in this time of crisis. By restraining ourselves to come together as our regular routine being Church, we prevent the virus to move and infect others, we put as primordial the health security of every human person in our community and society, and we demonstrate the highest act of reverence, homage, and worship to the almighty God who is the divine source of this life. We say it again here that suspension of all church services, worships, appointments and activities for the moment is not driving ourselves away from God and manifesting doubt and faithlessness. It is rather demonstrating sensibility and common sense rooted in our being rational persons.

“Our call therefore in this trying time is for us to inform our faith with reason, so that truly and meaningfully we continue to celebrate our humanity under the providence of the almighty God whose divinity is lived among us human persons through our Lord Jesus so that his desire to safeguard and promote human life is pursued at all times, even in time of crisis, in the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” (OM’s Advisory, Series #6, March 23, 2020)

It is truly the same love for God and for our fellow human persons that is driving us as well being Church to continue to exercise our prophetic witness, social advocacy and pastoral concern with our people, especially the poor among us, the daily wage earners, the medical and health workers who are at the frontline, who are being disadvantaged because of the way the national government is handling the coronavirus crisis. The national government is ill-prepared to handle the situation despite being alarmed as early as January this year. Instead of mobilizing medical and health experts to lead the campaign against the breakout of the virus, the government’s response was militarist as it deployed state security forces in full battle gear and given the instructions to arrest and shoot anyone who are found violating the enhanced community quarantine. To date, the national government cannot yet respond to the plea of those at the frontline to equip them with proper protective gears in order to safeguard their health security, And worst, until now, it has no clear course of actions on how to feed the hungry families of the urban poor and informal settlers and the daily wage earners whose day to day survival depended on the income they get from their daily work. It is important that we all stay at home and engage in self-quarantine, but the sad reality is, there are thousands and thousands among us who need to go out from their homes to find foods for their families in order to overcome their daily basic needs. Rather than being meticulous to political agenda and acquiring more emergency powers, the president should have been focused to use the huge resources of his office for the well-being of those who are vulnerable and hapless in our society.  The Filipino people expect their president to be magnanimous in the present situation, to temper the fear of the crisis with compassion, kindness, and humility, and to subdue uncertainty of the time with sincerity, civility and diplomacy, rather than with arrogance and high-handedness typical of a tyrant among his own people.   

We as Church continue to exercise our prophetic witness, social advocacy and pastoral care in this time of national crisis because this is the imperative of our faith; this is our moral obligation and ministerial mandate derived from the example and teaching of our Lord Jesus and sharpened by the witness of the apostles and of the founding leaders of our Church in the likes of Apo Aglipay and Don Belong and others heroes of the nationalist and revolutionary tradition of our people. On Maundy Thursday in this Holy Week, we as Church shall again be confronted with the image of the serving Lord Jesus who washed the feet of his disciples to demonstrate an example of servanthood and service, and who gave us the new teaching and commandment of loving one another

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” ( John 13:34 )

Consistent with this charism as Church, we persist to call the attention of President Duterte and his government to really enhance its capability to arrest the otherwise worrying health situation of our nation by and through (1) conducting mass testing now zeroing with all patients with COVID19 symptoms and with the sickly and elderly, all frontline medical and health workers, and in all communities where there are already confirmed cases, and to prohibit testing prioritization of politicians, government officials and VIPs; (2) pouring out of the government resources including the P275B fund to establish more regional and provincial testing centres, to designate quarantine facilities for the segregation of those infected patients, acquire more personal protective gears for the frontliners, equip government hospitals with necessary facilities and hire more health workers, and provide foods and subsidies to the populace, beginning with the poor and indigents and daily wage earners throughout the duration of the community quarantine period; (3) locking down the country by prohibiting all arrivals of tourists, workers, investors and others, whether by planes and boats, or of hauling vessels operated by large mining companies, coming from countries known to have been infected by the virus; (4) releasing the political prisoners all over the country especially the women, the sickly and elderly for possible infection of the coronavirus due to jail congestion; and (5) observing the basic constitutional and fundamental rights of the Filipino people even in the midst of this medical/health crisis. We sound this call in this holy season as our evident manifestation of the love for God and for fellow human persons, concretely expressing the IFI ethos of Pro Deo et Patria. This is our way to accompany with the Lord Jesus in his last week of journey to Jerusalem, as it is the same way that we accompany and be in solidarity with the Filipino people, particularly the struggling sectors, to live in their “world which is at Holy Week,” (in the words of the late Bp. Barbara Harris, the first woman bishop of the Anglican Communion) for a long time now under the prevailing unjust social system and structures defining our society. Always, we strive to be faithful with our God and to be consistent with our history despite the risk of being red-tagged as “enemy of the state” like the Lord Jesus, the head and the church’s sure foundation.  

We thus invite our lay and ordained members to continue to engage with personal prayer, bible reading, individual reflection and group discernment, and to take part in any loving service offered for the sake and wellbeing of the least of the Lord’s brothers and sisters anywhere, in order enhance their spiritual life, commitment to mission and deepening of faith in this holy season despite the fact that we cannot hold our regular church services, worships, appointments and activities. Our church buildings may be closed in this time, but we as a Church have remained open to listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit in prayer, worship and service through other means to bring us into communion with the God in Jesus and with each other and with the world. In this abnormal situation, we are being challenged to become of “a different sort of church” (using the words of the COE Archbishop Justin Welby), in order for our church members to continue to be in unity and in relationship with God in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. And indeed through the gift of the modern technology, we have become of a “different sort of church” because through livestream services, we, which cannot come to gather for public worship to receive the Sacrament of the Communion, but “can at least (as Cranmer put it) “see with our eyes” even if they cannot “smell with our nose, touch with our hands and taste with our mouths” and continue to experience “the kind of spiritual reception that is at the heart of the sacrament, even if physical partaking is not possible” (The Eucharist in a Time of Physical Distancing: A Paper from the London College of Bishops) . Through the livestream services we likewise continue to hear God’s word being read and proclaimed, as Archbishop Justin Welby puts it: “We will take this opportunity to fast from the Sacrament while we feast on the Word” (The Eucharist in a Time of Physical Distancing: A Paper from the London College of Bishops).      

In the latest OM’s Advisory, Series #8, April 1, 2020, we encourage churches to resort to livestream their services provided however that all protocols for health security are observed, that what is accomplished is a virtual celebration rather than actual celebration of any church service. There is the great possibility that actual celebration covered livestream would attract the attendance of a large group and to compromise self-quarantine of the minister and church members, and thereby allowing ourselves to become possible medium of the transfer or movement of the virus in our family and community. Nevertheless, we are expecting that through the livestream we hope to follow the services for the Holy Week and particularly pray with our members and congregation locked in their homes and, together with them, listen to the exposition of God’s word.

It is for this particularly ministry that we directed the Staff of the Obispado Maximo (Central Office and the National Cathedral) to provide livestream services via FB Account “IFI Obispado Maximo” from the National Cathedral to the whole Church in this difficult time. For almost three weeks now, despite the unfamiliarity of the trade and the limited facilities and resources available, the IFI Obispado Maximo strives to improve their craft day by day to enable the National Cathedral provides the livestream for the Daily Morning (at 8am) and Evening Prayer (at 5.30pm)  and for Sunday Eucharist (at 8.30am). For the Holy Week, the National Cathedral is expected to continue to broadcast via livestream the Daily Offices and the Eucharist, together with the new addition such as Meditation on the Last Seven Words of the Lord on Good Friday, and the live Bible Study Sessions for the exposition of certain subject relevant to the Holy Week Celebration every evening. These services intend to uplift us in these uncertain times, to enable us to grow in faith and hope, to provide us opportunity to connect as one body while at home, and to strengthen us to journey with ourselves in this traumatic experience as people and nation towards healing and recovery. We invite all in the Church to follow these services. We undertake these livestream services mindful of the words of one minister who observes that 

“The reading of sacred scriptures, healing prayers, and connecting to a faith community are essential for short- term and long-term healing and hope. The scripture can be a place where lament, frustration, and hope are mingled together in a faith that grows through trial. God’s scripture can and will calm our anger, our pain, and our frustration” (Clayton Smith, Growing Through Disaster: A Book Review). 

Indeed, we are in a difficult situation nowadays and we live in a lengthen Holy Week of our national life, but still we are called as Church to continue and remain steadfast with our work. It is in this trying time that we as Church are needed to provide faith and hope to our people and society. It is in this time, that we proclaim the truth of God’s loving mercy and claim his protection as we persist to lead our people and members to the Lord Jesus, singing with all trust and confidence in his love and power through the refrain of the church song’s “God Will Take Care Of You”: God will take care of you, Through ev’ry day, O’er all the way; He will take care of you, God will take care of you.

Praying for all of God’s loving and gracious protection, through this Holy Week and in this time of medical/health crisis. May God have mercy on us.

Palm Sunday 2020

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