Friday, July 24, 2009

One Bread, One Body, One People

17th Sunday of Year B
(John 6:1-15)
July 26, 2009

IN last Sunday’s commentary on the Gospel, we observed the glaring divisions that characterize our world: political, economic, and cultural. But our religion has not been immune to division. Within the Christianity, Christians are divided into Catholics and Protestants. But this is too general a division. Within the Catholicism, we have the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox and the Eastern Churches . In Protestantism, the division is almost atomistic: Anglicans, Lutherans, Baptists, and hundreds of other churches, not to mention the Pentecostal and Fundamentalist sects. The division shows its ugly head when the quarrel between Churches become violent. Of course, religious wars have become almost a thing of the past, but division remains a social fact.

Division, to be sure, is a great scandal, because it contradicts the very essence of the Church. That essence demands that the Church is one. As the 2nd Reading puts it, we must strive “to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace: one body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Eph 4:3-6a). Here Paul describes the calling of all Christians to unity, which has been established by means of the union with the Father through the Son in the Spirit. Disunity is unthinkable, and from the reading, we can point out the reasons. First of all, we are all one body (Eph 4:3), the body of Christ. If the body is divided, so is Christ. There is one Spirit (Eph 4:4), who calls us to the same vocation: eternal life. This is our hope. By the one Spirit, we receive one baptism (Eph 4:5) by means of which we are incorporated into the one body. Finally, the body is constituted as the one family of God, who is our one and only Father (Eph 4:6). This is our identity as Christians: one body. And we must become what we are.

The Christian community, therefore, must be one. If the various Churches, given the historical, cultural, economic and cultural factors, cannot be united, at least one can exhort that our small faith communities, our religious congregations, our presbyteriums, and our very own Christian families should exhibit that vocation: to show our unity with God in our relationships with our brothers and sisters.

And how is that unity demonstrated? The gospel (John 6:1-15), which relates the episode of the feeding of the multitude, teaches us that at least we can express that unity in the liturgy and in our concrete day-to-day life. There is no doubt that in the gospel reading, John takes the narrative not as a miracle story, unlike the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), but as a sign (semeion), a vehicle in the revelation of Jesus as the bread-giver for the life of the world. As such, it points to the Eucharist. This is probably the reason why John uses the verb eucharistein in the sign-narrative. To know the Eucharist—Jesus himself the giver of life, one must examine the episode. Just as in the past God fed his people with manna in the desert, so Jesus feeds his people now in the Eucharist. The feeding of the Eucharist, in other words, is a sign that we are the one family of God. Thus, our gathering around the one table is a demonstration that we all belong to the one body of Christ. It is for this reason that when we come to the Eucharistic Celebration, we do so not to pray alone or together, but we do so in order to act out who we are: one people celebrating the death of the Lord (1 Cor 11:26) which constituted us into one family of God. The Eucharistic Celebration is therefore a communal celebration. It is not a collection of people praying at the same time. The Eucharistic Prayer beautifully expresses our vocation to unity: “May all of us who are in the body and blood of Christ be brought together in unity by the Holy Spirit” (Eucharistic Prayer II)

But the unity that we celebrate in the Eucharist is to spill over to our everyday life. As Christians, we cannot close ourselves to our brothers and sisters in need. Our unity is displayed in our solidarity with the poorer members of the Christian community. A great scandal that members of faith communities, congregations, presbyteriums, and our families can create is to refuse to share with their lesser members, at the same time celebrate with them the Eucharist. Paul stresses this point well. For him, such a practice is a contempt for one body of Christ, and a dishonor to the poor. The meaning of the Eucharist is not realized: “When you meet in one place, then, it is not to eat the Lord’s supper, for in eating, each one goes ahead with his own supper, and one goes hungry while another gets drunk…. Do you show contempt for the church of God and makes those who have nothing feel ashamed?”(1 Cor 11:20-22b). That is why, in the Gospel, the five barley loaves were shared, and all—not just a few—had their fill. Thus, the Eucharist motives us to share, and preserve the unity of the community by seeing to it that there is no one needy among its members (Act s 4:34). That way, we live a life worthy of our call to unity.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Failures in Leadership and the Task of Shepherds

16th Sunday of Year B
(Mark 6:30-34)
July 19, 2009

After the Second World War, we saw the emergence of various forms of division. The partition of Berlin into East and West was a microcosm of the political division between Socialism and Capitalism. The fantastic wealth of the First World countries is morally difficult to reconcile with the poverty of the Third World , and the economic gulf between them is wider than ever. In the Bible, sin is described in various ways, and one of the common descriptions is that it is a separation of man from God and of man from his fellowmen. But if men have become divided, it is because they separated themselves from God. The story of the Tower of Babel demonstrates how the sin of pride can result in the almost infinite divisions of men and women and the scattering of humanity (Gen 11:9)

What causes the division and scattering of women and men? Various are the factors, but even to date, one who looks at the problem theologically can be almost certain that, among others, it comes from shepherds who separated themselves from God, and who, for that reason, failed in the task of leading and guiding the people. Thus, king Zedekiah separated himself from God by not governing the people with wisdom and (economic and political) justice; so they were scattered and exiled to Babylon (Jer 23:2). This recalls God’s word to Ezekiel in the parable of the shepherd: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves!… You have fed off their milk, worn their wool, and slaughtered the fatlings, but the sheep you have not pastured… You did not bring back the strayed nor seek the lost, but you lorded it over them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered for lack of a shepherd, and became food for all the wild beasts”(Ezek 34:3-6).

But God’s will is not division; rather, it is atonement—that is to say, at-one-ment: to bring people in union with Gold and with men. Thus the prophecy of Jer 23:4: Ï myself will gather the remnant of my flock from all the lands to which I have driven them and bring them back to the meadow; there they shall increase and multiply. I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear and tremble, and none shall be missing.” This prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus. In the gospel today, Jesus took pity on the people and, unlike Zedekiah, took the role of a shepherd. How is it fulfilled? In the gospel, Jesus feed them with the word. According to the 2nd Reading , he removed the barrier of hostility (the Law) that kept people apart, and reconciled them into one body through the cross, his death (Eph 2:15-16). In other words, Jesus not only took care of his people, but he also died from them so that they could become one people of God.

Today, there is still much division among people nay, it has even multiplied. The political division between Capitalism and Socialism continues, despite the fall of the Russian Empire and the death of Mao Tse-Tung. The economic gulf between the Wealthy and Powerful Countries and the Poor and Weak—but euphemistically described as Developing—Countries remains unbridgeable. The cultural rift between the Colored and the White continues to baffle us, despite the recognition that all are equal, since others still feel they are more equal than others. And quarrels of religions have not stopped, for all the inter-religious dialogue and ecumenism. These aside, we have to add the division in our own country, in our homes, and among friends. Even so, as followers of Christ, we are called to assume the role of shepherds. By our word and life, and more so by our death, we have the vocation to do our human part in the reconciliation of man with God, which is the reconciliation between individuals, families, and countries. God has called us to be instruments of reconciliation. The will of God, as already noted, is unity. As shepherds, it is incumbent upon us to abolish what keep us apart.

This exhortation is specially addressed to Christian leaders. There is always much temptation for leaders to give priority to their own position and power rather than to service. Not surprisingly, some are interested in giving rewards to flatterers, sycophants, and admirers, and they knock down those who disagree with them—that is to say, those who tell the truth. They are tempted to give importance to their own pockets, rather than the welfare of the people. And so, the consequences are clearly recognizable: we do not progress as much as we have to, we are back to square one, and remain a divided country. But Christian leaders have to make a difference. They can set examples of shepherding and even offer themselves for crucifixion. As Jesus once did.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Medium and the Message

15th Sunday of Year B
(Mark 6:7-13)
July 12, 2009

When Manny Pacquiao scored a huge knockdown over Ricky Hatton last May 3, 2009, almost the entire world knew the victory in minutes. In the country, the news the swiftly spread, and there was much rejoicing in the streets. That is because good news, like love, is diffusive. A victory in battle, a winner by a landslide in an election, a topnotcher in bar examinations—good news like all this is too good to be ignored. The same may be said of the Gospel. The word “gospel” literally means good news—the good news of what God has done to his people. And like anything that brings glad tidings, it is meant to be announced by those who receive it. That is why, in today’s Gospel, the disciples of Jesus were told to go on mission, preaching in good news of the kingdom (Mark 6:7)

The readings today give us a glimpse of what this mission to preach is all about, and how are we to understand it.

First, although people measure the success of a preacher in terms of his ability to gather thousands of listeners, yet, when it comes to preaching the Gospel, what matters is not the apparent success or failure of the evangelizer or the missionary. Rather, what is of the essence is his fidelity to the Gospel message. Amos denounced Jeroboam’s government of injustice and inhuman policies, and delivered God’s word against him that Amaziah, the priest, thus summarized: “Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel shall surely be exiled from its land”(Amos 7:11). It did not matter that his message was not accepted by Jeroboam and Amaziah; what was important was that Amos was faithful to God’s word to him: “Go, prophesy to my people Israel ”(Amos 7:13). In the gospel, the disciples were told that the people could refuse them (Mark 6:11). What we really need are preachers, priests, catechists who are faithful to the Word of God!

Second, the proclamation of the Word must be free. It is not meant to protect or to be subservient to particular interests, social classes or ideologies, or to the State. Sometimes, it happens that a preacher would try to tame the Word to it will not hurt people, on the guise that the Church must not create enemies, but rather gather them to the Church. Still, a preacher must not defang the gospel. Amos did not emasculate the word by, for example, making it sweet to the ears of Amaziah. On the contrary, he denounced the injustice in selling the poor for sandals (Amos 2:6) while the rich drank from the basin (Amos 6:4), and the corruption that resulted from prosperity. He called spade a spade, even if this was not pleasing to the ears of the King, and would lead to his persecution. The Word of God must not shy away from confronting the hearer!

Third, the proclaimer cannot lose sight of the purpose of preaching: it is intended not simply that the hearers will know the word of the Lord, for its purpose is not primarily information about God and man. Far more than mere intellectual knowledge, the word of God being preached has for its main purpose the freedom of man from all evil that oppresses him (Amos 2:6-7) on the one hand, and the restoration of the whole man (Mark 6:13) on the other. This includes forgiveness of sins through Christ who redeemed mankind (cf Eph 1:7-8), making all believers into one community under the headship of Christ, and under the Fatherhood of God in the Spirit (vv 8-13). In other words, preaching has for its purpose the total salvation of man in all the aspects of his life. While one can appreciate those who are very knowledgeable about the Scripture, the point is that knowledge of Scripture is valuable if it is able to lead one to Christ and action on behalf of those in need.

The last element that we ought to know about proclamation on the basis of the readings today has something to do with the messenger, unlike those already mentioned which have reference to the message. The gospel demands that the preacher should be poor. As the Markan Jesus instructed, the preacher is not to take anything on his journey—no food, no traveling bag, not a coin in the purse of his belt, no second tunic (Mark 6:8-9). Of course, the point is not that the missionary in our time has to get rid of his car, empty his freezer, throw away his credit cards. Rather, it is that his lifestyle must be such that other people will see in him the living word of God. If he is to be credible to his hearers, he cannot but remove everything that gets in the way of his proclamation of the word. In the 13th century, Francis of Assisi made it clear to all that Jesus’ instruction can be followed, and poverty made his message highly believable. In many cases, the medium is also the message. One cannot organize BECs if he rides in the latest car model.

This is what it means to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God . And every Sunday, nay, every day, the instruction is given to us in the liturgy, when the celebrant dismisses the crowd: “Go, the mass is ended.” What we heard in the liturgy of the word, what we shared in the liturgy of the eucharist, we proclaim and share them with the rest of humanity—in our homes, in the market, at the office, in streets.