Shepherd's Voice July 2021 - LEAVING THE PAST BEHIND


The advent of the monsoon rains with the gushing waters, gurgling streams, wells filled to the brim and the entire landscape of our country turning green brings freshness, joy and hope to our spirits after the sweltering heat of the summer. For us in North India the month of July comes with ‘newness’ in its wings.
We witness how Mother Nature leaves much of the ‘past’ behind and moves into a new present heralding hope for the future.
After the stormy days of the Covid-19 second wave the Spirit of the Lord is also infusing hope in us of a bright new life of social harmony, economic well-being and all-round growth only if humanity responds to the summons of God’s grace and orders its life not on mundane values only that bring prosperity for some and misery for others but on the values of the ‘Kingdom of God’ which Our Lord Jesus Christ has so clearly laid before us. The key to this new way of life is ‘repentance’ which calls for a break with the past and stepping into anew present with its thrust for the future.
There is a small story I came across about an ‘Old Man who lived in the Village’. This old man who lived in the village was one of the most unfortunate people in the world. The whole village was tired of him; he was always gloomy, he constantly complained and was always in a bad mood. The longer he lived, the more bile he was becoming and the more poisonous were his words. People avoided him, because his misfortune became contagious. It was even unnatural and insulting to be happy next to him. He created the feeling of unhappiness in others. But one day, when he turned eighty years old, an incredible thing happened. Instantly everyone started hearing the rumour: “An Old Man is happy today, he doesn’t complain about anything, smiles, and even his face is freshened up.” The whole village gathered together. The old man was asked: “What happened to you?” The old man replied: “Nothing special. Eighty years I’ve been chasing happiness, and it was useless. And then I decided to live without happiness and just enjoy life. That’s why I’m happy now.” The moral of the story is: Don’t chase happiness. Just enjoy life.
And no one can truly ‘enjoy life’ unless one is also rooted in the One who is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn. 14: 6).
St. Paul speaks of the ‘wisdom’ that comes from “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1Cor. 2:2). This is not human wisdom but the power of God. It looks like foolishness and weakness but the “foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1Cor. 1:25). He underlines the “wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away” (1Cor. 2:6)
So many times we want to remain in the ‘past’ and refuse to move into a newer present whether it be attitudes, old memories good or bad, guilt feelings, behaviour patterns, customs, mores, traditions etc. – it is very difficult to leave the past behind. The baggage of the past often takes away the joy and zest of life that every present opens before us.
The ‘good’ past of our life of course offers a stable foundation emotionally and otherwise to our life’s edifice; a ‘bad’ past can make us unstable and shaky. Yet, whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’ we need to walk into God’s ‘newness’ every day, nay every moment. It is worth pondering on the words of St. Paul to the Philippians: “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14). The dynamism of the ‘upward call of God’ is or should be the distinguishing mark of our Christian discipleship. This can happen only when we abide in Him like ‘branches in the vine’ (cf. Jn. 15).
St. Paul never tires of stressing on the ‘newness’ theme: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2Cor. 5:17). He loudly declares: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20).
There are several examples in the Holy Bible of persons who broke totally with the past in order to enter into a new present and shape a new future:
In 1Kgs. 19:19-21 there is the story of Elijah selecting Elisha. After the event, Elisha requests Elijah’s permission to say goodbye to his parents. Elijah permits it freely. However, Elisha changes his mind; decides not to go home even for that last rite. Then he takes the yoke of oxen, slays them, breaks the plough and the yoke and makes fire out of them, roasts the meat on the fire and distributes it to the people. He then follows Elijah.
Elisha indeed wanted to bid good-bye to his parents but then decided not to go. He realized that responding to God’s call was more important than responding to family relations. This is what Jesus would refer to later (cf. Lk. 9:60: “Leave the dead the dead to bury their dead; as for you come and follow me”). Once the call is received there can be no turning back. Turning back can be disastrous. One can turn into a pillar of salt as it happened with Lot’s wife (cf. Gen. 19:26). Usually salt gives taste and keeps food fresh, but to be ‘pillar of salt’ is to be a source of corrosiveness; it stands for motionlessness, lifelessness and death (excessive salt has made the sea next to Lake Galilee a ‘dead sea’).
Elisha not only slew the oxen but also burned the farming instruments, which is like burning the bridge after crossing the river – there was no going back.
In the story of the woman with the alabaster jar of expensive perfume or pure nard, Mark states that she broke the jar and poured the ointment on Jesus’ head (cf. Mk 14:3). Perfume was in fact an important item for the profession of that woman. She brings it to Jesus and empties it on him, keeping nothing for herself. The ‘brea king’ of the jar is quite like the ‘killing’ of the oxen by Elisha. The past is gone. There is a total break fr m the past. The old identity is gone; a new identity is born. Luke says she poured the perfume on the feet of Jesus. Perfume was the symbol of her sinful life. She now pours it over the feet of Jesus. Her sinful life is o ffered at the feet of Jesus. Now she is ready to begin a totally new life.
The description of the early Christian community after Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles (cf. Acts 4:34-36) is also a powerful testimony to the ‘break with the past’ that the Holy Spirit brings about in our life. Empowered by the Spirit they sold not some of their belongings but all they owned. Now they had nothing to fall back on – no land, no houses, no wealth, no security except the Lord and his Gospel. They had broken off from the past an d a new life had begun for them.
There are also examples in the New Testament of those who refused to break from the past.
The rich young man (cf. Mt. 19:16-22) could not follow Jesus because he had great riches. He didn’t have the courage to break from the past. He went back sad because he had great wealth. The ‘wealth’ represents not only material possessions but all our ‘attachments’ that prevent us from being ‘free’ in the Holy Spirit. However to follow Christ 100% means to enter into the freedom of the Holy Spirit which the Lord offers us.
The episode of Ananias and Sapphira (cf. Acts 5:1) is another example. They sell everything but put aside some of the proceeds. This shows a reluctance to break from the past.
[Cf. “No turning back” by George Ponodath, SJ in his book Cave of Plenty: A Retreat Manual (St. Paul’s, Mumbai, 2019), pp. 320-324].
The question I must honestly ask myself is: ‘Have I really broken with the past?’ Or I still long for the ‘fleshpots of Egypt?’ After their liberation from Egypt the Israelites as a nation would look back and long for the meat and fish of Egypt. They would grumble about food in the desert (Ex. 16:2; Num 11:4-6) rather than enjoy the freedom into which Yahweh had brought them.
Every encounter with the Lord in the Gospels results in ‘newness’. Nobody remains the same any more, from the fishermen disciples, to sinners forgiven by the Lord, to those healed by the Lord of various kinds of diseases and infirmities especially possession by demons. They all become new persons ready to embark on the grace-filled journey of a new relationship with the Divine Messiah, the Liberator and Lord. Only the ‘blind’ Pharisees, Sadduc ees, Scribes, Lawyers etc. who constantly opposed the Lord and finally put him to death refused to enter into the newness the Lord was offering them, because they were very much attached to their status quo which they feared to lose. They held on to their traditions and closed their hearts to the call of the New Covenant.
May we have the courage to ‘leave the past behind’ if we wish to enjoy the fullness of life Christ offers us.

+ Archbishop Anil Couto
Archbishop of Delhi

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