Monday, January 30, 2012

Christian Must Help Put Closure to the History of Suffering

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Mark 1:29-39, February 6, 2012

IF ONE TAKES a bleak look at the world, he will see that the present, like the past, is a story of suffering and evil. There is much experience of evil that we read from the accounts in newspapers, magazines and the internet, and hear from the reports on television and the radio—suffering that stems from injustice, hunger, poverty, unemployment, deprivation of freedom, abuse of human rights, wars and natural calamities. And there is the suffering that is unseen—hiding behind the smile of a prostitute, the clown and the movie star and behind the joyful scenes that people upload in social networks, like Facebook.

In the 1st Reading (Job 7:1-4.6-7), Job found himself in a similar situation: the experience of so much suffering. Eliphaz told him that his suffering resulted from his unfaithfulness to Yahweh, for prosperity and joy come from faithfulness (Job 4:7). Of course, this is a popular understanding that unfortunately is very common even among Christians. If one prospers, this is counted as reward from God for something good one has done; if one suffers, God must have given punishment for an evil deed one has committed. Job, however, protested against such theology, for he has, as far as he knew, been faithful to God, and yet he suffered (Job 23:11). This probably explains why, as we notice from the 1 st Reading, Job had a negative view of life and his world (Job 7:1-3).

In today's Gospel, however, we are told that God's will is not suffering and evil; on the contrary, it has happiness and peace. It may be recalled that, last Sunday, it was noticed Jesus' word had authority and power (Mark 1:27), and in the concrete, it had power to save (cf Jas 1:21). In the Gospel, which continues to tell us what Jesus did in Capernaum, we see that Jesus' preaching of the Kingdom of God includes saving people from suffering. The Kingdom of God was not only preached; it was also being made present in his healing and exorcism ministry. For example, he cured Peter's mother-in-law of fever (Mark 1:30), and expelled many demons (v 39), both of which being considered as manifestations of the demonic power. Here we see the meaning of the preaching of the word: it is delivered in order to defeat the forces and manifestations of evil, save us from suffering, and let us thereby experience the joy and happiness of the Kingdom. The word is thus meant to effect transformation in our personal lives and in the life of the community.

Being a bearer of the word in virtue of his incorporation into Christ through baptism, the Christian has a vocation to alleviate human suffering and free his fellowmen from the experience of evil. As at baptism he has been freed from the clutches of the Devil, he has to use the power given him to free others from Satan's bondage. This is the call which Peter's mother-in-law received. She was healed of her infirmity through Jesus' word, and so she began to serve (v 30). Having heard and having been formed by the word of God, a Christian therefore has a responsibility to break the history of suffering.

The 2nd Reading also gives us an example of Paul himself. As a follower of Christ, he felt it was his obligation to preach the gospel (1 Cor 9:16). And what was his purpose? To save: "I have become all things to all, to save at least some. All this I do for the sake of the gospel, so that I, too, may have a share in it" (1 Cor 9:22-23). Like Paul, we, Christians, have the calling to preach the word with power. We have to show that our belief in the Word makes us servants and partners in accomplishing Christ's work of effecting liberation and happiness to men who suffer. Like Peter's mother-in-law, we exercise our discipleship in roles of lowly service to heal the world of sin and suffering.

In our recent history, the Acquired Immunity Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is an example of evil that has engulfed the lives of thousands of men and women. The Christian has the duty to show that his being a disciple of Jesus can help the world be freed from evil not only by looking after the needs of AIDS victims, putting the service of science and technology to discover a cure for it, but also by making his own life the preached word. He shows, for example, that a chaste life, a life that knows faithfulness to one's wife and abstinence on Fridays is a way of defeating the forces of current evils. Fittingly enough, only recently, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) issued a pastoral letter on AIDS late last year (2011), to create awareness among people, because the diseases is taking a heavy toll in terms of human lives. Much has to be done to put an end to the epidemic; obviously, condom is not the solution. The Christian community has much to contribute to halt the increase of incidence.

To be sure, we can always describe the world in terms of history of negative experiences, but such history need not be one of continual suffering. Evil in history must be put to an end. Christians have a vocation to shift its course because they themselves have experienced pockets of salvation effected by the Word. And God's will to happiness will become effective when we ourselves allow him to use us as his instruments--through which the power and authority of the Word work to make the world a better place to live in, in transforming the world so it may concretely mirror the vision of the Kingdom of God.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Word of Jesus--Laden with Power and Authority

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Fourth Sunday of Year B, Mark 1:21-28. January 29, 2012.

WHEN SOME POLITICIANS expound their platform and make promises during election campaigns, many people do not care to listen, even though they hear them speak. For them, their talks are merely part of the political rigmarole and circuses. Their speeches are grand, but their words are empty. In fact, they have become cynical to these politicians because they know that for the most part the latter's words and promises are never fulfilled. To put it differently, what they utter are devoid of authority. Hence, people hardly believe their words, which are scarcely any guide for them to listen and follow. Of course, some of those with empty words do win in elections, but that is because of things that do not come from the upper orifice, which are translated into votes. Even so, their words remain empty, and so they do not deliver the goods. Meanwhile, the people remain in the morass of evil.

But it is God's will that all be saved from evil and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4). For this reason, he raised prophets to speak his word. Because they speak for God, their words have authority. These are powerful. The Bible characterizes these words as having “exousia”, which means authority and power. The prophet Isaiah compares the word of God with the rain and its effects: "For just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down, and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to him who sows and bread to him who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it" (Isa 55:10-11). Thus, the word of the prophet Ahijah about Jeroboam (1 Kgs 14:10) was fulfilled: the entire house of Jeroboam was utterly killed off, "according to the warning which the Lord had pronounced through his servant, Ahijah, the Shilonite" (1 Kgs 15:29). Because the word of God has authority and power, it can destroy, as Jeremiah says (Jer 1:10), but it can also save: "the word that has been planted in you… is able to save your souls" (Jas 1:21).

In the century before the time of Jesus, it seemed to the Jews that God has stopped communicating his powerful word: "There had not been such great distress in Israel since the time prophets ceased to appear among the people" (1 Macc 9:27). The Jews were dependent on scribes who were experts of the Law of Moses and were called rabbis. They extracted rules and principles from the Torah for daily living, taught and transmitted the Law and its development, and gave judgment. Nevertheless, the Jews kept hoping that God would send his prophet again: "The Jewish people and their priest have made the following decisions: Simon shall be their permanent leader and high priest until a true prophet arises…" (1 Macc 14:41). After all they were assured—the 1st Reading tells us—of God's promise to send a prophet: "I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kinsmen, and will put words into his mouth; he shall tell them all I have commanded him" (Deut 18:18).

In today's Gospel, Mark would have us understand that by his coming, Jesus fulfilled this prophecy in Deuteronomy and the Jewish expectation. And elsewhere in the New Testament, we are told that God has finally spoken to us through his Son (Heb 1:1). In Jesus the Word, therefore, we have an infallible guide for human thinking and living, and a power to salvation. The Gospel tells us how Jesus spoke: "The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes… All were amazed and asked one another, 'What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him'" (Mark 1:27).

This poses the question: now that Jesus is taken up to the heavens, through whom does God speak with authority to us? God speaks his authoritative word through the Scriptures: "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work" (2 Tim 3:16). The Gospel remains powerful, as is shown in Thessalonica, where it came to the people in power and in the holy spirit, and they became imitators of Paul and Jesus himself (1 Thess 1:5-9). That is why the Bible is important to us. Also, God speaks through the ministers of the Church, who have been charged to preach the Gospel (2 Tim 4:2-5) to move us. And, according to the 2nd Reading, he likewise speaks to us through those persons, married or unmarried, who by their lives prophesy here and now the possibilities of the life to come (1 Cor 7:35).

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The New Social Order That Jesus Began to Establish for His People

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Third Sunday of Year B, Mark 1:14-20, January 22, 2012.

IF CHIEF JUSTICE Corona is on trial at the Impeachment Court, this is due to the vision of President Aquino to help create a Filipino society that is free of a culture of corruption, especially at the top, and of a culture of impunity. Leaders and prophets usually envision for their people a form of society that addresses the pains and sufferings of the present and immediate past. To be sure, at all levels of life—international, national, local and even personal--we all experience the negative: oppression, deceit, fear, destruction, war, suffering and death. Because of these negative experiences, we all wish to construct a better world. After the war of the allied forces against Iraq, George Bush spoke of establishing a new order. After the exile of the Jews, Isaiah had a vision of a new earth. During the industrial revolution, Karl Marx posited a classless society where the poor will come into their own. At the personal level, most of us try to achieve our vision of our own future: secure, full of milk and honey. Knowing that, in a sense, this is not the best of all possible worlds, and that a better world is possible, we try to envision it and put that vision into some concrete programs.

Today's Gospel is about Jesus' proclamation of a new social order: the Kingdom of God. In the Old Testament, this order is captured, among others, by the symbol of a new Jerusalem where God tenders a banquet: "On this mountain the Lord of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines" (Isa 25:5). And Jesus sometimes used the same picture for the Kingdom: "And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves cast out. And people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God" (Luke 13:28-29). This image embodies what all of us hope for—love, brotherhood, forgiveness, peace and happiness among men in the community. This was the center of Jesus' preaching, his life and even his death. But this new social order was not just a dream; it was a reality that began to be realized in Jesus, in his life and ministry. Moreover, it was not simply an otherworldly reality. On the contrary, Jesus made it clear that the Kingdom was to be experienced in this world, in the here and now. And he invited us to be part of this social order.

But what are we to do in response to the invitation? To be part of it, we have to pay the price. Though it has broken through in Jesus, it will not spill over to us unless we take two steps: first, we need to repent, and second, we have to believe in Jesus and his Kingdom. Like Jonah who—according to the 1st Reading--preached repentance to the inhabitants of Nineveh (Jonah 3:4-5), Jesus required us to repent: "This is the time of fulfillment. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15). Repentance is more than just being sorry for our sins. The Greek word, metanoein, literally means "to change one's mind," but as in the New Testament, it is close to the Hebrew shubh, which means to turn about, to return to Yahweh, and this presupposes a deep understanding of the nature of sin (Joel 2:12-13). It is a 180 degrees turn-around: "Wash yourselves clean! Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes; cease doing evil, learn to do good. Make justice your aim; redress the wronged, hear the orphan's plea, defend the widow" (Isa 1:16-17).

Repentance, therefore, means the setting aside of the past and the embracing of a new life. To embrace a new life means to embrace a community life in discipleship. That is how we express our faith in Jesus. Discipleship of the community is the translation of our faith into deeds. The Kingdom of God will come if we respond to his invitation (Mark 1:17), and follow the requirements of discipleship: "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me" (Mark 8:34). In communal discipleship, our concern is the Kingdom of God and its values: "Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you besides: (Matt 6:33).

This demands reordering of our heart and affection, our purposes and goals, our priorities and loyalties in the community. Only if we are willing to pay the price can we participate in this new social order, in which people experience the positive in community life—love, brotherhood, forgiveness, justice and peace, as Jesus so promised: "Amen I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come" (Mark 10:28-30).

Friday, January 13, 2012

To Be a Child of the Kingdom (Like the Santo Niño) Is To Accept Humiliation, Powerlessness and Poverty

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Feast of Santo Niño (Mark 10, 13-16),
January 15, 2012

ONE WILL PROBABLY find little difficulty in claiming that the cardinal is his uncle, the governor is his cousin, or the bar topnotcher is his best friend. But most likely, it will not be easy for him to openly admit that a certain prostitute is his sister, a convicted murder is a nephew, or street bum is his grandfather. For, in identifying himself with the powers that be, with those at the top of the social ladder, one feels that this raises his dignity a few notches above the herd of humanity. On the other hand, who would dare to add disgrace to one’s misery? But if the feast of Santo Niño has any message to tell us about being at the top or below with the miserable in the context of the Gospel, it is that we are never truly human, nor are we spiritually children of God, unless we are able to accept as brothers and sisters those rejected by the normal society.

Although today’s Gospel is about Jesus’ blessing of children (Mark 10:13-16), it is very likely that Mark saw some other significance in this narrative. Let us, to begin with, look at the story in its proper literary context. It is interesting to note that Mark has three predictions of the passion. (For Mark, to follow Jesus is to follow him on the road to his passion.) Each time Jesus uttered a prediction, there follows stories which betray a misunderstanding on the part of the disciples who heard them. Today’s Gospel comes after the second prediction. Together with this story of the blessing of children are the narratives on the question of divorce and on the danger of riches. In the story on the issue of divorce, the disciples could not understand why what God has joined could not be separated (Mark 10:10). And in the story of the rich man, the disciples were overwhelmed at the declaration that it is easier for a rich man to pass through the eye of a needle than for a wealthy man to enter the kingdom of heaven.

But what is the difficulty in Jesus’ saying, “It is to such as these [children] that the kingdom of God belongs”?

To understand it, we may recall that in the Palestinian Society of Jesus’ time, children were never given importance. The society was the world of the adults. Children had no rights; in fact, they were considered property of their father. A child is thus a symbol not of humility but of unimportance. One is nothing before the world of men. He has nothing to boast. He is empty. Hence, theologically, to be a child is to empty oneself of what he is, which is akin to what is known in Patristics as kenosis. Literally, this means empty, but this usually refers to the action of Christ described in Phil 2:6-7: “Though he was in the form of God, he did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather, he emptied himself and took the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men. He was known to be of human estate, and it was thus that he humbled himself, obediently accepting death, death on a cross!” That is to say, though equal with God in rank, Jesus put that rank aside. Though as God the highest honor belongs to him, he assumed the lowest rank of humanity, that of a slave. Though innocent, he accepted the punishment of the guilty. Thus, to be a child of God is to move from riches to nothingness, from powerful to powerlessness, from honor to humiliation, from the regal to slavery.

What Jesus did, and our tendency to identify with those at the top—these crystallize that there are two movements in human life: upward and downward. In the upward movement, we tend to accept honor and praise, we like to assume high position in society, and we delight in building towers that reach the high heavens for recognition. As we noted at the beginning of this essay, most of us do not recoil from such movement. But what is difficult to accept is the downward movement. This occurs when we become miserable, when we suffer defeat or humiliation, or are demoted, when we go down from the top to the lower rung of society. Viewed from this angle, for God to become a child, to empty oneself is to experience such movement. Part of that movement is loving the poor. And Jesus did not only give to the poor, nor simply sympathize with them. To love them, he became one with them. To love the miserable, he experienced their misery. Jesus loved us by becoming one of us, accepting human limitations, and even human misery.

That makes being a child difficult. We recoil at the thought of it, because we are scared of emptiness, loneliness, suffering and death. We backpedal because we are afraid of losing our self-importance, we are afraid to let go of our securities. As in the story of the young man who wanted to gain eternal life (Mark 10:17-27), our face may fall if Jesus challenges us to make ourselves children of the kingdom. With the apostles, we might exclaim, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus’ answer was to the point: “For man, it is impossible, but not for God. With God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27). This simply means that to accept the kingdom of God like a child is a gift. It is God’s gift. It would not be easy for us, left to ourselves, to make a downward movement. We tend to cling to ourselves, and to what is ours. Indeed, many of us even tend to take for themselves what belongs to others. We are basically selfish. But God can move us. He can give us this gift, and enable us to embrace poverty rather than riches, misery rather than opulence, humiliation rather than honor, to be at the last rather than at the first before the eyes of men. With God, we can even rejoice at our failure and defeat, at our suffering and death. With him, we can be real children of God. Like the Santo Niño.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Encountering Jesus in the Signs of His Presence in the Church

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel on the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord (Matt 2:1-12), January 8, 2012

IT HAS COME to our knowledge that a number of Catholics have recently embraced “born-again” Christianity and Protestant Fundamentalism. Of course, there are various reasons for this phenomenon, some psychological, others sociological. But if there is anything of interest to us this Sunday, it has to do with the claim made by former Catholics that in “born-again” Christianity and Fundamentalism, they have been in the Bible truths that were not given to them in Catholicism. Some would even assert that it was only in their new found religion that they have found Jesus—with the implication, of course, sometimes wickedly intended, that Catholic Christianity does not preach Jesus or the Bible, because all it propagates is her own “traditions”. But the Gospel on the feast of the Epiphany, when God manifested himself to all peoples, can enlighten us on how Catholics should respond to this issue.

But before going into it, let us first unravel the meaning of the Gospel account in relation to the celebration. Basically, the meaning of today’s feast is that Epiphany prefigures the conversion of pagans to Christ. Thus, one may note that early in Paul’s ministry, for instance, Gentiles were already accepting the Word of the Lord (Acts 13:47-48). In the account of Matthew, the magi represent the gentiles. Though tradition, under the influence of some biblical text, portrays them as kings, they were most likely astrologers or magicians rather than astronomers. And the problem that Matthew intends to answer is this: How did the magi come to know the truth about the birth of the Messiah? Astrologers as they were, they observed the movements of the heavenly bodies and interpreted them according to their craft. Believing that there was something more to the phenomenon about the star they were witnessing, they used their knowledge to read what God wanted them to know. For, as Paul himself asserts, God’s plan can be read from creation: “invisible realities, God’s eternal power and divinity, have become visible, recognized through the things he has made” (Rom 1:20).

In other words, they believed, and acted on their belief according to their craft. And in using the resources available to them, the magi were led to Jerusalem where, through the priests, the experts of the Scriptures, whom Herod summoned to his palace, they were to identify exactly where the new-born Messiah could be. That is to say, from the revelation of God in creation, they came to the knowledge of his revelation in the Scriptures through the prophet Micah: “And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the princes of Judah, since from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel” (Mic 5:1; 2 Sam 5:2). Through this scriptural passage, they were able to clarify what had been vaguely revealed to them in the heavenly bodies and their movement—the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, in the land of Judah.

The journey of the magi challenges us to ask: have we found God? How do we find him? Of course, it is truer to say that, most of the time, it is God who finds us. And even when we flee him, he still finds us, as Francis Thomson reminds us in his classic poem, “The Hound of Heaven.” Ordinarily, however, we look for him. And if the magi account has any lesson to teach us in this regard, it is that we can find him through what is ordinarily available to us. As the Bible itself points out, “for from the greatness and beauty of created things their original author, by analogy, is seen” (Wisd 13:5). God, in other words, is not always to be found in the miraculous, in the out of the ordinary. We can find him through our communities and through what is happening around us. Indeed, everywhere we go, God is there (Ps 137:9). Our task is simply to read the signs of his presence (cf Luke 12:54). And we do it with faith. And what we encounter in the community, in our environment, we should see it in the light of God’s Word, because the Scriptures, being the light (Ps 119:105), clarify it.

This brings us to the problem posed at the beginning of this homily. For us, Catholics, one lesson that the story of the magi gives us is that, to find Jesus, it is not necessary to move to other religion or embrace a sect or cult. In the Christian community, in the Church, we have enough ways by which we can encounter God, we have many signs of Christ’s presence. In our liturgical celebration, for instance, he is present in the person of the minister, in the community itself, in the word that is read from the ambo, and most especially, in the sign of the bread and wine. But as in the story of the magi, we cannot recognize his presence unless we have faith that God reveals himself through these signs.

But in addition to having faith, it is likewise necessary to act on our belief that God reveals himself through these liturgical signs. Take, for instance, his presence in the word. The “born-again” and fundamentalism mantra that “Catholicism does not preach the Bible but its human traditions” is utterly false. Everyday, the Scripture is read in the liturgy. Catholics are encouraged to own the Bible and read it. Bible study groups are available, and various forms of literature are published to help study the Word of God. But the problem is, even though we have the sign of Scriptures, many are not interested to open its treasures. It is simply pathetic to know that some “born-again” Christians would claim that they never have been taught about the Bible in the Catholic Church when in fact they never avail themselves of the ways to study the Scriptures when they were still under the Catholic fold. They failed to notice that the Bible has a prominent place in the Catholic Church. They are like the Jews in today’s Gospel from Matthew’s Infancy Narrative who had the Scriptures, but never know of the birth of the Messiah. As Jesus says in the Johannine debate with the Jews, “search the Scriptures in which you think you have eternal life; they also testify on my behalf. Yet, you are unwilling to come to me to possess that life” (John 5:39-40).

In the final result, what we really need is the faith of the Magi. Just as the magi were able to find the Messiah because they believed in the sign that God gave them, and relentlessly pursued the implication of their faith, so we Catholics need not only to possess faith in the signs of his presence that God gave to the Church, but also action to make that faith alive, meaningful to our personal life and that of the community, and to enable us to account for that faith before people, like the “born-again” Christians and fundamentalists, who need to be enlightened about what we believe in. Without that kind of performative faith, we will continue to have Catholics who, for instance, are more eager for miracles of healing and for spectacular performances than for the reception of the everyday miracle
of the Eucharist in the daily Mass.