Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Risen Lord Lives on in the Church

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Sixth Sunday of Easter A, John 14:15-21, May 29, 2011

When the late Abp Antonio Franco, Apostolic Nuncio to the Philippines, visited the Diocese of Borongan, the people were too happy and enthusiastic to meet him. Indeed, all the barangays and towns that dot the around 200-kilometer stretch on Eastern Samar welcomed him with arches, streamers, and standing parade, with men and women, old and young alike, waving their improvised papal flags as the Nuncio’s convoy passed by. When he visited the northern town of Dolores, for instance, the long queue of people wishing him well was tremendous. One, of course, wonders why such a honor is accorded to him. But the people of God in Eastern Samar had one answer—they know the Nuncio is the representative of the Pope. Most of them have not seen the Pope in person, but the Nuncio was his representative. As the priest who welcomed him at the Borongan Cathedral said, “Our people are eager and happy to see you. We know that you come here not only as an Ambassador of the Vatican State to the Philippines, but also as the representative of the Vicar of Christ… But now, we are even more joyful, because we are able to see you who represent him. Through you, we wish to reiterate our expression of affection and loyalty to him.”

The central message of Easter is that Jesus is alive! But if he cannot be found among the dead, where is he? Where do we encounter him? In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of the Paraclete. It may be noted that John uses the term another Paraclete—to indicate that Jesus is the first Paraclete. Literally, the word means “called-to-one’s-side” or helper, and has reference to the Holy Spirit that the Father sent as a response to the prayer of his Son. As Paraclete, Jesus revealed the Truth about God the Father to his disciples until his death; but after his Ascension, the Spirit now reveals the Truth about Jesus. Thus, as Paraclete, the Holy Spirit continues the work of Jesus. This is what is meant when Jesus says that “I will ask the Father and he will give you another Paraclete—to be with you always: the Spirit of Truth” (John 14:17a). As Helper, the Spirit will be the source of Truth; and will act as Paraclete, as the disciples suffer hostility from the world. For John, the coming of the Paraclete is the return of Jesus to the community of disciples. That is why Jesus says that, even with his departure, he will not leave them orphaned, because through the Holy Spirit, he will continue to abide with his community. In fact, they will share his life, even as Jesus shares the life of his Father. Thus, the Holy Spirit appears to be the spiritual presence of Jesus in the community. In other words, if we ask the question, where do we meet Jesus? John’s answer is: we encounter him in the Holy Spirit, who is present in the community.

Because Jesus abides in the Church through the Holy Spirit, we are therefore given a very rich understanding of what being Church means. First of all, since, as the First Reading (Acts 8:5-8, 14-17) tells us, the Church in Jerusalem sent Peter and John to confer the Spirit on the developing Christian community to incorporate them fully into the fellowship, this implies that local churches cannot be isolated from Rome, even as the expanding church in Judea and Samaria cannot severe itself from the Church in Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit that is at work in the mother Church in Jerusalem is shared in the community at Samaria and Judaea. The spiritual presence of Jesus is thus shared and expanded. Until his death, Jesus was physically present only in the community of disciples, but with the coming of the Holy Spirit, he becomes present in all the communities that profess his name, and are at the same time linked to the mother Church in Jerusalem. How do we say this in our time? Perhaps this means that all communities must form a unity with the mother Church in Rome.

Secondly, because the Holy Spirit dwells in the Church, the community is in communion with the Risen Lord. The Risen Lord lives in the Church because the Holy Spirit is there. But quite apart from being present, the community shares the life of the Risen Lord, who shares the life of the Father. For this reason, the Church experiences the continuing action of God among men. The Father is revealed by Jesus and his saving-presence is shared through the Holy Spirit. That is why the Church is an icon of the Trinity: the saving work of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is shared in the Christian community. In other words, being Church is an experience of Trinitarian life.

And finally, this Trinitarian life is lived in love. “He who obeys the commandments he has from me is the man who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father. I too will love him and reveal himself to him” (John 14:21). The fact that the Spirit lives in the Church—this signifies that the Church is a charismatic Church. There never was a time that the Church was not charismatic, or it is not a Church at all. But this should not be taken to mean that ecstatic experience is always a necessary element of being Church. There was and there will be ecstatic experience; miracles of healing and driving of spirits might be present, but what being charismatic necessarily implies is the observance of the commandment of love, which is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In fact, in today’s Gospel, the presence of the Father is linked with the commandment of love: “If you love me and obey the commands I give you, I will ask the Father and he will give you another Paraclete to be with you always: the Spirit of Truth” (John 14:15-16).

In contemporary theological reflection, the Church is viewed as a Church of Communion, and there is no doubt that today’s Gospel provides a solid basis for such a theology. In the Church, the members are in communion with the Trinitarian God and with one another. In practice, this implies that the love of God dwells in the community and is shared among the members. On the other hand, the members are assured of the presence of the Trinity by their observance of the love-commandment. Their love for one another is a sign that the Trinity dwells in the Church. Which means that it is not enough to view the Church simply as an institution. Of course, to see the Church as a structured visible society has it own merits, but to look at the Church as a Communion is to emphasize the work of grace that unites all members in Christ and draws them into the communion with the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Jesus the Risen Lord--The Way to the Father

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Fifth Sunday of Easter A, John 14:1-12, May 22, 2011

One of the recurring themes of the late (now Blessed) John Paul II’s visit to Ukraine on June 23-27, 2001 was unity. In his Mass at the hippodrome of Lviv for the beatification of Bp Josef Bilczewski and Fr Zygmunt Gorazdowski, he said, for instance: “Let us feel ourselves gently nudged to recognize the infidelities to the Gospel of not a few Christians of both Polish and Ukrainian origin living in these parts. It is time to leave behind the sorrowful past. The Christians of two nations must walk together in the name of one Christ… May the purification of historical memories lead everyone to work for the triumph of what unities over what divides, in order to build together a future of mutual respect, fraternal cooperation and true solidarity.” At the Lviv airport before leaving for Rome, he said that unity “is the secret of peace and the condition for a true and stable social progress.”

This means not only that nations should not quarrel, but also that a nation may isolate herself. Like America. As Michael Hirsh puts it in his article “The Death of the Founding Myth” Newsweek (Special Davos Edition), “like it or not—and clearly large numbers of Americans don’t—we Americans are now part of an organic whole with the world that George Washington wanted to keep distant. The international community consists of nations that have different characters but are sinewed together through deeper markets than have ever existed and a historic level consensus on the general shape of societies, politics, human rights and international law.” For a Christian, however, there is a deeper rationale behind human solidarity. There is something that engulfs all of us, draws us together, and to which our earthly pilgrimage leads us. That something is our origin in God, and we will be at peace with ourselves and with others only when we have become united not only with mankind but with God himself. Thus, St Augustine can say that our heart has been made for God, and it will remain restless until it rests on him.

Which is why Jesus, in today’s Gospel, speaks of preparing a place for us so that where he is we may also be: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places… I am indeed going to prepare a place for you and then I shall come back to take you with me, that where I am you also may be” (John 14:2-3). But how can one dwell in the mansion of God? How can he be united with the Father? Jewish conventional wisdom teaches that it is achieved through the observance of the law: “Who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell in your holy mountain? He who walks blamelessly and does justice” (Ps 15:1-2). Literally of course, the text is about one’s being worthy to enter God’s sanctuary, but the substance is there. Thus Prophet Baruch: “Had you walked in the way of the Lord, you would have dwelt in enduring peace” (Bar 3:13). For a Christian, however, it would not be enough to follow the law. Keeping the law may bring some form of peace to a person or to a community, but it would never bring one to an experience of God’s life. It is not insignificant that Matthew makes Jesus declare: “Unless your holiness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of God” (Matt 5:20).

The unity with God is given to a Christian not so much by following the law, as by being in communion with Jesus, for “no one comes to the Father but through me” (John 14:6b). To bring home the point, John has Jesus say: “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6a). These three terms used to describe Jesus has to be explained. The term “way” depicts the mediatorial role of Jesus between the community of men and God the Father. It is unfortunately that, for some people, religion is about theories or laws that should regulate relationships. Of course, these are important, but these do not belong to the heart of Christianity. It is not even about duplicating the crucifixion, as some people are inclined to think. Christianity is first of all about the person of Jesus. It is Jesus who is the way to God, not a formula to be observed or magic words to be uttered. If we wish to be united with the Father, then we have to be united with Jesus, we have to be committed to him, and follow his way of life. That is why Paul can say: “Continue to live in Christ the Lord in the spirit which you receive him” (Col 2:6). The way of life that he lived, which is that of a loving obedience to the Father’s will, is what is of importance. Hence, Paul says: “Follow the way of love, even as Christ loved you. He gave himself for us as an offering to God, a gift of pleasing fragrance” (Eph 5:2).

The claim that he is the truth underlines his mediation of the Father’s revelation. He is the way precisely because he is the truth. This recalls what the Matthean Jesus affirms: “No one knows the Son but the Father, and no one knows the Father but the Son—and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him” (Matt 11:27). It is strange that some people are anxious to hear about new revelation from God, when God has already fully revealed himself in Jesus. The life of Jesus, that is the life of God; what Jesus taught, that is the teaching of God. In the words of a New Testament writer, “in this the final age, [God] has spoken to us through his Son” (Heb 1:1). John himself makes a similar affirmation: “No one has ever seen God. It is God, the only Son, ever at the Father’s side, who has revealed him” (John 1:18). Hence, if we wish to know the goal of our existence, and the way how to reach it, we only have to hear it from Jesus himself.

The reason for this is that he is the life. If the term “way” depicts his mediatorial role between God and men, and if “truth” expresses his mediation of revelation, the term “life” used to describe Jesus emphasizes his mediation of salvation, which is none other then life with God, unity with him. As we noted earlier, it is only in being in communion with Jesus that one can be in communion with the Father. It is for this unity and life that he came: “I came that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). So long as we do not have life, our heart will remain restless, because it was for the experience of this life that we were created. In fact, the present realization that all mankind is just one family, the experience that after all the world is one global village—this is to be taken as sign that finally the world is becoming aware that we are moving to a certain goal, which for a Christian is none other than union with God, but made possible through union with the risen Lord.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

What Leadership Is Really All About

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A, John 10:1-10

In a collection of essays assessing the Estrada years entitled, Between Fires, edited by Amando Doronilla, Katrina Constantino-David, in “Surviving Erap,” said of Erap’s leadership: “There was no shred of professionalism and decency in his government. Here was a president who did not have any capacity to govern and did not care. Here was an administration where Cabinet members were routinely denied the courtesy of trust and where cronies and relatives treated the state as their own private playground. Here was a government that had squandered all the goodwill and hope that the masses had placed in it. At that moment, I became convinced beyond any doubt that this was an administration I could no longer be part of, and that this was a president who would only bring the entire nation down.” Probably, no one challenged David’s right to criticize Erap’s government. After all, she was an insider, and knew where she spoke. But listen to this: “We stand by the moral conviction,” said the Presbyteral Council of the Archdiocese of Manila, “that [Estrada] has lost the moral ascendancy to govern.” This was said in the last days of the Estrada regime. Some quarters viewed this statement as a form of interference of the Church in what they perceived as an exclusive domain of the State. They thought that Christ never bequeathed to the Church a mission to proclaim a message of such nature.

Nothing, of course, could be farther from the truth. The Church has a prophetic function, and in the Old Testament, the prophets could not, on God’s instruction, remain silent in the face of injustice committed against his people. Prophet Ezekiel accused the political and religious leaders of his time of various offenses which have a very contemporary ring: instead of taking care of the people, they took care of themselves; they enriched themselves in office while the people wallowed in poverty; they failed to look after the sick, the poor and the oppressed; they ruled them harshly and cruelly; and instead of uniting them, they scattered them. If the people suffered in their exile in Babylon, it was the fault of the political and religious leaders who never concerned themselves with the welfare of the people. They were only after their own interest which they identified with the interest of the nation (Ezek 34:1-6).

Himself a prophet, Jesus followed the prophetic tradition. According to John, the leaders misgoverned the nation, as evidenced by the way they treated the man born blind (John 9:1-42). They themselves were blind to the needs of the poor and the disadvantaged, because they chose to see only their advantages and privileges. The fact that John tells us the parable of the good shepherd (John 10:1-6) immediately after the story of the man born blind indicates that, for him, these leaders were blind guides because they failed to recognize God’s work in Jesus who cares for people, even as he cared for the man born blind. Not surprisingly, in today’s Gospel, Jesus carries on the prophetic critique against the political and religious leaders of his time. For him, these leaders of Israel had no claim to real leadership. He calls them thieves and bandits: “Whoever does not enter the sheepfold through the gate but climbs in some other way is a thief and a marauder” (John 10:2). Here it is most likely that Jesus has in mind the Sadducees and the Pharisees, and is probably comparing them with the high priests, the religio-political leaders, at the time of the Maccabees. Of course, the Sadducees controlled the Temple complex, and it is curious as well as instructive that in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus refers to the Temple as a den of thieves (Mark 11:17-18). One wonders whether in Mark, the thieves have reference to the priestly aristocracy that dominated it.

There is something positive, of course, in today’s Gospel. In sharp contrast with them, Jesus presents himself as the shepherd of the sheep (John 10:2b). In depicting Jesus under the image of a shepherd, it is most likely that John is teaching that Jesus fulfills God’s promise that he will send a shepherd after the figure of David. As the true shepherd of Israel, Jesus lays down his life for his people, unlike a thief who seeks their death. Rather than taking advantage of them, he willingly sacrifices his life for them. He takes so much care of them that he knows each by name: “The sheep hear his voice and he calls his own by name, and he leads them out” (John 10:3). But if he is intimately close to his flock, if he wholeheartedly gives up his life for his people, it is because all he wants is to give them life, life in abundance: “I came that they might have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). By life John, of course, means the life that a disciple shares with God, which implies love and unity that prevail in the community of disciples. It is divine life shared among community members.

That is what leadership is all about. It is not about having more (in terms of wealth, power and prestige), but about giving up. This is what biblical language describes as good shepherding. Shepherding applies not only in the Church but also in the secular world—in business and economy, culture and politics. What this means in politics, in the present circumstances, the Bishops of the Philippines put it this way: “We need a President whom the people can look up to, who can inspire confidence and motivate them to unite and conspire towards the common good. Leadership is not the same as popularity or prowess in oratory. Neither is it the capacity to manipulate people towards self-serving ends. Leadership is rather a way of serving that draws people together and draws the best from them so that they dare to forge a better future despite all obstacles” (CBCP, Pastoral Exhortation on the 1998 Elections). In business, to shepherd could, for instance, mean “to attract, retain, and motivate individuals—recognizing their intrinsic differences and lifestyles—and to assist and make possible in every way the achievement of their personal objectives in the accomplishment of our corporate goals.”

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Where Do Christians of Today Encounter the Risen Lord?

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Third Sunday of Easter, Year A, Luke 24:13-35, May 9, 2011

I could not find its roots mentioned in Francisco Alzina’s Historia de las islas y indios de Bisayas, nor in William Henry Scott’s Barangay, nor in F. Landa Jocano’s Filipino Prehistory, but I think the practice must be ancient. I refer to the tradition of inhabitants in the southern towns of Samar island, in which they tender a great banquet to mark the 9th death anniversary of their love ones. I was once invited to such a celebration. After a mass offered for their deceased, those who attended the eucharistic celebration were given raw carabao meat. At noon, all of us were invited to the banquet, and after a few rounds of drink, the orchestra started to play, and dancing began. Whatever its origin, it seems to me that the practice answers the need of the living to connect their lives with those of their loved ones who died almost a decade ago. Celebrations like this refresh their memory, stirring up events that were dear to them and their deceased. I got the impression that commemorating the death of their loved ones in such a grand manner makes them feel as if the deceased were present with them in their celebrations, even as they recall events in their lives that memory suppressed. The living encounter the spirit of the dead as if these were present, as they celebrate these banquets. That probably explains why, though costly, the tradition goes on.

I mention this because it reminds me of a question sometimes raised in Christian faith: if people feel they encounter the spirit of their loved ones in these celebrations, where do Christians encounter the risen Lord? As should be obvious from the Readings of the Easter Season, the central message of the resurrection is that Jesus lives on (Luke 24:23), and that the resurrected Lord is no other than the same Jesus who walked with his disciples (John 20:18). But if he is alive, where do we find him? In Luke’s Gospel, the evangelist carefully points out that the resurrected Christ is identical with the earthly Jesus by demonstrating that the risen Lord performed the same ministries that he did when he was still with his disciples before his death. For instance, he taught his disciples about Moses and the Prophets; he interpreted the Scriptures to them; and he opened their eyes (Luke 24:27-31). But while stressing the identity, Luke likewise points out that there is a discontinuity between the risen Lord and the earthly Jesus. It is for this purpose that he narrates the incident in the Gospel today (Luke 24:13-24). Notice that when Jesus walked with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and joined in their lively exchange, these two who had seen the earthly Jesus failed to recognize him. They simply thought that he was just another Jerusalemite who was rather ignorant of what happened in the city the past few days (Luke 24:18).

At the same time, Luke, in portraying the ignorance of the disciples, could have in mind the situation in his own community in which Christians, who did not see the risen Lord, may have felt themselves less privileged than the disciples who did see the earthly Jesus. It seems that for Luke, what is decisive for the Christian community is not whether or not one saw the earthly Jesus or the risen Lord immediately after the resurrection, but whether one can at the present moment recognize his presence. To bring the point home, Luke tells us that when Jesus “had seated himself with them to eat, he took bread, pronounced the blessing, then broke the bread and began to distribute it to them” (Luke 24:30b). At this, the eyes of the disciples, who failed to recognize him, were opened, and whereupon they recognized that it was Jesus who was breaking the bread (Luke 24:31). For Luke, then, the presence of Jesus is recognized in the breaking of the bread. Of course, by breaking of the bread Luke does not mean an ordinary meal. The wording of the narrative easily recalls the institution narrative in which the same verbs practically occur: take, give thanks, break and distribute (Luke 22:19). That is to say, Luke wants to say that the risen Lord is recognized in the celebration of the Eucharist.

This, to be sure, should not be taken to mean that Christ is encountered in the Eucharist without any connection to practical life. The reason for this is that the act of breaking the bread has significance beyond the rite. If the bread is broken, it is because it is meant to be shared. This implies that such values as monopoly, exclusiveness, and selfishness cannot become media of the Lord’s presence. To monopolize business and industry, to place the wealth of the nation in the hands of a few oligarchic families, to arrogate to oneself the rights of others is to deprive oneself of the encounter with the risen Lord, however one tries to create an elaborate worship of him. No wonder that a distinctive feature of the early Church was the holding of possessions in common (Acts 4:32b-34). And the early Christians showed themselves always ready to help those in need (Rom 15:26; 1 Cor 16:1-3; Gal 2:10).

In its pastoral letter issued during the 1987 Eucharistic Year, “One Bread, One Body, One People,” the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) says in this connection: “It may be truly said that the task of the Church is to radiate the Eucharist in the life of the world. In this sense the ministry of the Church is first and foremost a ‘eucharistic ministry’. Such ministry works toward creating a new world of Christian communities where freedom and justice reign, a new world of loving and caring, sharing and working together—a kingdom of reconciliation and peace.”

The concluding appeal of the letter remains relevant: “Our present situation summons us to seek ways of breaking down the many dividing walls in our midst, binding up and healing our nation’s wounds; of sacrificing ourselves so that those who suffer hunger and other ills which accompany the widespread poverty in our land may find meaningful work and the means to fashion better lives for themselves and their children, worthy of sons and daughters of our Father who is in heaven. The Eucharist is “bread broken to feed a hungry world.’ It is also the bread of brotherhood and it is in the eucharist and from that we must find the motivation and power to realize, even in part, renewed social relationships and a new social order for our people—based on truth and freedom, justice and love. It is in the eucharist and from the eucharist that we must find the wellspring of that peace which we all seek, with such desperate longing, for our country today.”