Thursday, December 15, 2011

What Appears Foolish to Men Shows the Wisdom of God

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B, Luke 1:26-38, December 18, 2011

A FEW WEEKS after the Marcoses were unseated in February 1986, many books were written about the four-day Edsa Revolution. One of the interesting features of the event, as narrated in several books, is that the outcome was far cry from what many actors of the event hoped to transpire, and the scenario many political analysts thought would take place. As is well known, Juan Ponce Enrile, together with Gregorio Honasan, Red Kapunan and the RAM had their own plans of what to do with the Marcos machinery. They had their own timetable. Of course, their plan failed, for what came off was People Power—a scenario which the communists and military adventurers never thought of. Indeed, even when the Edsa event continued to unfold, many political analysts came to the conclusion that it was highly probable that the communists would profit in the end. But they were wrong. No one thought of it—but People Power was born. And for a man of faith, this illustrates what the wisdom of God means (Rom 16:27). And it came as a surprise.

The First Reading and the Gospel can be seen in this perspective. Both focus on the wisdom of God. Of this wisdom, Isaiah puts it beautifully: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above yours, and my thoughts above your thoughts” (Isa 55:1-9). In the first half (1 Sam 7:1-5) of the Old Testament reading today, we are told that David wanted to build a house for the Lord. Realizing that he was living in a house of cedar while the Ark of the Covenant dwelt in a tent, the King proposed to build a temple for God (2 Sam 7:2). No doubt, it was a wise move on the part of David—even Nathan the prophet thought so. But his intention, however noble, failed, because God had a different plan in his mind; it was his son, Solomon, who would do the building (2 Sam 7:13-14). God had his own wisdom which David never anticipated. On the other hand, God’s plan for David—which the latter never envisaged, however wise he was—was to maintain the dynasty of David in perpetuity: “Your house and your kingdom shall endure for ever before me; your throne shall stand firm for ever” (2 Sam 7:16).

In today’s Gospel, we are furnished with another example of God’s wisdom at work. In Luke’s account of the transcendental origin of Jesus, Mary most likely thought that her marriage to Joseph would be no different from any normal marriage between a man and a woman. But God had a different mind about their marriage: it would be his vehicle in the incarnation of God. When the archangel, Gabriel, told her of God’s plan, Mary raised an objection: “How can this be since I do not know man?” (Luke 1:34). Obviously, Mary thought that she could not conceive God’s Son because no one had ever touched her. But the angel replied that her conception would have no precedent in human history, because the Holy Spirit would overshadow her. To conceive without having sexual intercourse is an impossibility; but the angel assured her that “nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). If the birth of Jesus did not follow the human course of things, it is because, in the words of Edward Hoskyns, it is “a dagger thrust into the weft of human history.” God’s ways are simply different from man’s, his wisdom is beyond human contingencies and plans.

This has a profound lesson for us. We are now in the age of computers which ushered in a culture of precision. In this culture, everything seems to be predictable. Almost nothing is left to chance. Some even hardly tolerate human error. There seems to be a common belief that we are in control of the future. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that we depend on our own wisdom so much that we hardly conceive that God may have a different plan for us. Yet, our experience shows that how the Church grows and develops, for example, does not reflect our own human wisdom. Very frequently, ours does not succeed. It happens many times that our own wisdom fails, and eventually we realize that in our failure God’s wisdom is manifested. And this brings us to the point. It is important that in our lives, we give space for God. We have to agree to his own plan, and this often requires that we scrape out our own, however well-laid. Like Mary, we have to say “yes” to his will (Luke 1:39), even when this is opaque to our understanding and goes beyond our own wisdom. After all, he made the Number One enemy of the early Christians the Number One “propagandist” of Jesus Christ—St Paul. The early Christians had a view of Paul that never coincided with God’s, but it is always God’s wisdom that prevails in the end. We might be wise, but God is far wiser than we are. What appears as wisdom to man, is sometimes shown as foolishness before God.*

Friday, December 9, 2011

Do Other People Recognize God's Presence in the World Through Our Christian Life?

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Third Sunday of Advent, Year B, John 1:6-8; 19-28, December 11, 2011

IT IS PROBABLY not an exaggeration to say that, of all mortals, those whose names are well known are showbiz celebrities and politicians. Almost to a man, both are eager to publish their names and everything they do, and writers are even paid to promote their self-importance. Probably, no mortals crave to have the spotlight focused on them than these two groups of people. No deed of theirs is so small to pass unnoticed. Of some politicians, it could be said that while alive, they name buildings and streets after them through people loyal to them. Notices are put up on government projects to say that these are being undertaken through their efforts. How they wish, one can only conclude about their frame of mind, they were always in the limelight, the center of attention of their followers and fans! And funny that some of them would even view themselves as larger than life.

In the Bible, God alone is the center of life. It is incumbent upon people, as creatures, to recognize how he works in history. Though God is transcendent, he is involved in the affairs of men. In his plan to share his life with them, he raised up a people to be his own to proclaim his deeds in history. By recognizing him as the only Lord and God, men can experience wholeness and integrity in their individual and communitarian life. (On the other hand, the lordship of men over others will only bring evils to the community.) It is for this reason that God raised prophets. The prophets proclaim that the caring and loving God is present among his people, and that he is working on their behalf. Thus, in the First Reading (Isa 61:1-2.9-11), Isaiah says that he was anointed by God to proclaim a new order which God is giving to those who had been exiled to Babylon: glad tidings to the poor, healing to the brokenhearted, liberty to captives, release to prisoners, comfort to those who mourn and a year of favor to all. He will ultimately establish justice upon the earth (Isa 61:1-2.11).

In all this, however, it is important to notice that in so proclaiming, Isaiah identifies himself as God’s servant who points not to himself but to the saving deeds of Yahweh among his people.

In the Gospel (John 1:6-8.19-28), we meet another prophet by the name of John the Baptizer. God is sending the true light to the world to enlighten men so that, once they accept the light, they will be empowered to become children of God (John 1:11-12). By accepting the light, men will receive light. When John came on the scene, preaching God’s word and calling them to repentance, people flocked to him in big numbers. He was an instant celebrity. And were he a politician, he could have utilized his popularity, and initiated a personality cult around him. But he did not. He never capitalized on his reputation. Asked by the priests and Levites from Jerusalem, he did not claim to be a Messiah (anointed by God), or an Elijah returned to earth (Mal 3:23), or a prophet like Moses (Deut 18:15.18). Rather, like Isaiah’s, his mission was to let people realize what God was active among them: that God sent his Son, the true light, and his job is simply to testify to the light (John 1:8). He was the voice in the desert prophesied by Isaiah to prepare for the coming of the true light, the Messiah.

Such is the call of every Christian, and of every Christian community—we are called to proclaim his saving deeds, we are called to be witnesses to the true light, Christ himself. Just as John the Baptizer proclaimed what God was doing among his people, so we must proclaim what God is doing in the community and in the world. And the witness to his living presence is our life itself. John the Baptizer’s appearance betrayed that he came from God. The same should be true of our life. It should point to what God is doing in our midst, among the people we are part of. There are various ways of doing this, and one of them is to be sensitive to the events happening in our midst. In these events, we can recognize what God wants to say to us. Here we become like road signs—people can point to us as signs of what real life is all about. We do not stand in the middle of the road. We are readable and clear signs of how God works in our present history.

Matthew puts it this way: “Your light must shine before men so that they may see goodness in your acts and give praise to your heavenly Father” (Matt 5:16). John has something akin to this: “But he who acts in truth comes into the light, to make clear that his deeds are done in God” (John 3:21). The focus of other people’s attention is not we, who are merely signposts, but God our heavenly Father. Thus the Gospel is a challenge: Is God recognized in our lives? Do people perceive his presence in the world through the life we lead? Being a Christian is not really about telling people about what one has done either in the Church or in the secular society, or about what one has contributed to the uplift of people from misery, no matter how noble this may be; rather, in contrast to being a showbiz personality or being a politician, being a Christian is about allowing people to recognize God’s presence in all we say and do.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

What's the Good News? It's Jesus Christ Himself

Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Second Sunday of Advent, Year B, Mark 1:1-8, December 4, 2011

IF THERE IS anything that we always welcome with joy, it is good news! Did not Fidel Ramos jump with joy when the news spread that the Marcoses had been transported to Hawaii? One can just imagine how happy a woman is after being told by her doctor that she has no cancer, after all! That is certainly good news that can make her face glow! For a person accused of murder, the good news is none other than the pronouncement of the judge that he is not guilty! These examples illustrate to us what good news signifies—it means liberation, justification, vindication to someone who, in one way or another, is undergoing negative experiences. These experiences are transformed into something positive that gives liberation, freedom and healing.

The First Reading (Isa 40:1-5; 9-11) provides us with an example of what good news means to God’s people in the Old Testament. Sometime in 697 BC, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, attacked Jerusalem and besieged the city. As a result, he took captive the King of Judah, together with the ministers and government functionaries, the officers and men of the army, craftsmen, smith, and “none was left among the people of the land except the poor” (2 Kings 24:11-17).According to the prophets, this happened because of the perversion of Israel (Jer 16:10-13; Isa 1:21-23; 10:1). The exile suppressed the national identity of the Jews, destroyed their spirit, and humiliated them—“we today are flushed with shame” (Baruch 1:15).

It was to this situation that Isaiah, 59 years later, proclaimed the reading today: “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is atg an end. Go up on a high mountain, Zion, herald of good tidings, cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of the good news! Here comes with power the Lord God, who rules by his strong arm” (Isa 40:2a.9). To hear that God would finally put an end to their servitude and exile—that was certainly good news! It was the answer to their prayer and confession of sins (Dan 9:18-19). One can just imagine the joy of the Jews, who have been living in exile for a number of years in a land foreign to their culture and life, at hearing this news of liberation! They must have been dancing on the streets and highways!

This brings us to the Gospel reading (Mark 1:1-8). Mark opens his work with a proclamation that it is a gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God (Mark 1:1). By gospel he does not refer to his work, the book which we read and which is divided into 16 chapters. Gospel—which originally denoted good news of victory in battle—means “good news”! And the “good news” that Mark proclaims is a person—Jesus himself. The greatest news is Jesus himself In Aramaic, Jesus is Yeshua, which is a late form of the Hebrew Yehoshua, meaning, “Yahweh is salvation”. In him, God reveals himself as Savior. In other words, the good news is Jesus embodies the salvation of God, which all people long for.

There are two best known Jesuses in the Bible. In the Old Testament, there is Jesus or Joshua, son of Nun, successor of Moses (Num 13:16). In the New Testament, there is Jesus of Nazareth (Luke 2:21). Just as in the first Jesus, Joshua, God executed his plan to bring his people into the land that he swore to their fathers he would give them (Deut 31:7-8), so in the second Jesus, the man from Nazareth, God will accomplish his plan to give his people healing, liberation and salvation. This means that in Jesus, God is acting again on behalf of his people just as he did for Israel of old. In Jesus, God brings liberation and salvation to his people. In Jesus, one finds the answer to the fundamental problem of existence. Today, we are enmeshed in many negative realities—injustice, exploitation, global greed, oppression, political and economic inequality and disenfranchisement, suppression of human rights, abuse of power, and destruction of environment, among others. All these involve separation from God and severance of common brotherhood, which are the essence of sin. But Jesus came to save his people from their sins (Matt 1:21) and its consequences. This is the good news. In Jesus salvation, integrity, healing, new life—all this is possible, can be given to humanity.

Jesus will accomplish this as Son of God (Mark 1:1), not as Son of Man, Prophet, or Son of David. What does this mean? Notice: that Jesus is the Son of God is never recognized in Mark’s account, except at the end, when a pagan soldier, seeing how he died on the cross, declared that he is the Son of God (Mark 15:19). This means that for Mark, salvation can only come from dying. Jesus will be able to give life, healing, salvation and integrity precisely because he is able to endure suffering and give up his life. And what does this imply for Christians? Since the purpose why Mark wrote his story is to know Jesus as Son of God, and since to know him is to believe that he is the suffering Messiah who died on the cross, the evangelist therefore wishes to ask us, who are Christ’s disciples, to follow the crucified Messiah in loving service and suffering, even to the point of dying. In this way, we become good news to people in need of liberation and salvation.