Friday, March 30, 2012

Jesus' Death: Victory Over the Forces of Darkness

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord, Year B, Mark 14:1-15:47, April 1, 2012

FROM THE 1980s to the 1990s, the country of El Salvador has been described as a land full of violence against the poor. During these years, thousands of Salvadorans, including farmers, teachers, elderly, and children were killed, not sparing the innocent. Among the victims of the regime was a certain Christian named Oscar Romero, an archbishop. In the exercise of his prophetic ministry, his mouth was unstoppable; it gave voice to the cry against the violence to the poor. He was the outspoken critic of the regime. Treated as an Enemy of the State, he was brutally murdered on March 24, 1980, while celebrating the Holy Mass. That his death occurred during a Eucharistic celebration has much symbolic value, because it imitated the body and blood of Jesus which he was consecrating, themselves signs of God’s love for the poor, even as Archbishop Romero died defending their cause.

But apart from its symbolic value, the death of Oscar Romero is a concretization of what, in the theology of the Gospel of Mark, the death of Christ means for us. Although Jesus was treated by his enemies as a criminal, and died like one, yet he gave up his life as the faithful Servant of Yahweh. In the Old Testament, the figure of the Servant of God is described in Isaianic four songs (Isa 42:1-4; 49:1-7; 50:4-9, 52:13-53:12) which attempt to give sense, meaning and purpose to Israel’s historical experience of exile in Babylon. The author probably hoped that in identifying themselves with the Servant of Yahweh so described, the people of Israel would find meaning in their seemingly senseless history, painful and humiliating as it was. The 1st Reading is part of the third song which portrays the Servant who does not refuse the divine vocation to bring the message of liberation to God’s people. Though people do not accept him, yet he persists in obeying God, willingly submitting to insults and beatings: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting”(Isa 50:5-6). He has great confidence not in his own power but in the power of God who called him (v 7),

The Church takes the Servant of God in Isaiah to refer to Jesus who, according to the 2nd Reading (Phil 2:6-11), was obedient to the Father’s will. Like the suffering Servant, he accepted the task of proclaiming the gospel to the poor, taking up their cause, and of liberating men from sin. His faithfulness to the task was proven by his acceptance of his death on the cross, a shameful and humiliating death, even as the Servant of Yahweh, though harshly treated, submitted and opened not his mouth, like a lamb led to the slaughter (Isa 53:7). Because of his faithfulness, God proved him right, and glorified him (Phil 2:11). His death is therefore not his defeat. In Mark’s understanding, the battle with Satan that began in the temptation story (Mark 1:13) ended with the victory of Jesus who, in his crucifixion, was acknowledged as the Son of God (Mark 15:39). Hence, those who mocked him, derided him, and crucified him were proven wrong. For this reason, Jesus’ loud cry before he died on the cross (Mark 15:37) should be interpreted as a cry of victory over his enemies.

It is, of course, not difficult for us, as Christians, to see in the death of Jesus an example to follow (cf 1 Pet 2:21-25). And Archbishop Romero was one of those who understood the exemplary meaning of Jesus’ death. Like the Eucharist which he celebrated (1 Cor 11:26), his death was a proclamation of the death of the Lord. But what is relevant to us is the view that even though Romero died, his death did not mean the triumph of the government which had a hand in the assassination to silence him. The Salvadoran government did not become a showcase of justice with the murder of the Archbishop. Rather, like Jesus’, his death can be seen as part of the fulfillment of God’s plan to liberate the people of El Salvador, especially the poor, from misery. His death was an act of liberation itself. It brought light to the plight of the poor. It made clear how evil the regime was. It had a saving value for the people of El Salvador. Therefore, he was not really defeated, nor was he silenced. Indeed, like the Servant of Yahweh, one can assume that Romero has already been crowned with victory in heaven, for he was obedient to his vocation to proclaim the gospel of liberation to the poor. Our analogy, to be sure, has its limits, because, for one thing, unlike Christ’s, Romero’s death has no eschatological significance. Still, it somehow gives us an idea how the death of Jesus was a victory over the forces of darkness.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Paradox of Human Existence: Finding Life By Losing It

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B, John 12:20-33, March 25, 2012

BY NATURE WE recoil at the thought of death and love life. Under normal circumstances, we all wish to avoid death; in fact, in face of sickness and threats of death, we seek to prolong our life. Normally, we try to escape suffering. When ill, we seek immediate healing. We all dread death. We fear extinction. That is why, striken with terminal cancer, for example, people are terrified; they feel shattered. They are horrified at the thought of dying. The reason for all this is that, consciously or unconsciously, we all wish to live forever. This is true even of those who do not believe in God. There is no untruth to the observation that faced with the fact that death is inevitable, many people, often without explicitly intending to, immortalize themselves through various ways. Some write books. Others erect monuments. Still others sire children. To live forever is innate to human nature.

In today’s Gospel (John 12:20-33), Jesus was confronted with death. And John does not hide Jesus’ horror over it: “My soul is troubled now” (John 12:27). Which echoes Mark’s portrait of Jesus’ agony: “My heart is filled with sorrow to the point of death (Mark 14:34). Of course, John does not have an account of Jesus’ agony in the garden, unlike the Synoptics, but the anguish and other elements of his agony are found in the Gospel. The statement, “what can I say? Save me from this hour” (v 27), really conveys the inner tension which Jesus suffers. This, of course, is quite ironic, even paradoxical, because when he came, Jesus went about doing good, healing all who were in the grip of the devil (Acts 10:38). But when the Devil turned to him, he could not free himself from his grip. Thus his prayer, “save me” (John 12:27b). He prayed to be freed from the hour of his passion.

The point of the passage is this. Though Jesus cannot be saved from the hour, he triumphed over the natural shrinking from the horror of passion and death. The reason for this is that “it was for the purpose of bringing salvation that he came” (v 27d), and this can be achieved only through suffering. He brought salvation because he obediently accepted the cross. Far from doing his own will (see Mark 14:36), he clung to God, for he was all that mattered. On account of this, salvation--or, in John’s vocabulary, life--became possible. Thus Reading II: “In the days when he was in the flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to God, who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered, and when perfected, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him”(Heb 5:7-9). Also, by his suffering, Jesus showed to people who God is: God fulfills his promise of a new covenant (Jer 31:34, Reading I) to people who are the beneficiaries of his Jesus’ suffering.

This truth of salvation is akin to the situation of a woman in labor. The first time she is about to give birth, a woman is gripped by fear, even by the fear of dying, but the thought of her husband whom she loves and who loves her, and her baby, makes her undergo through it all. She at first may recoil at it; nonetheless, she submits to it. But through her labor, a new life is ushered in to the world. A baby is born.

The same may be said of our life as Christians. To find eternal life, we need to undergo constant dying. We die to our selfishness, to our ambition to dominate others, acquire enormous wealth, and be number one. To do this, of course, is not easy because, earthbound as we are, we tend to attach so much importance to self and its selfish cravings for power, wealth and honor. But in the long run, we find that these do not guarantee happiness, nor is one able to cling to power, wealth and honor forever. In the end, we discover that these have to go, leaving us disillusioned. There is much truth to Jesus’ saying that “whoever would preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will find it”(Mark 8:33). As a Christian, one has to suffer, even die, for Christ and his body the Church. Then, new life will surely sprout. “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it produces much fruit”(John 12:24-25). That is enough guarantee that one will live forever. Books can burn, monuments can crumble, generation can be obliterated, but the life that comes from suffering for the Gospel is the only thing that will remain forever.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

How Can We Attain Eternal Life?

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B, John 3:14-21, March 18, 2012

WHEN A SHIP wanders off course in a stormy night, what gives life and hope to its passengers and crew is the lighthouse that beacons. If one is lost in the forest, he gains hope when he finds a footpath, and there is hope for him as long as he follows it. When one walks the boulevard at night, he is assured of safety as long as he does so along the lighted path. The more he wanders from it, the greater the danger of losing his life. In these instances, the image of the lighthouse, the footpath and the lighted path describes an opportunity which one must not miss or neglect if he is to be saved, if he is not to perish.

In today’s Gospel, which is really a part of the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus that turns to a monologue, John stresses a similar point. The image he uses for this purpose alludes to an event in the Old Testament in which a bronze serpent was raised on a pole by Moses. Of course, in Europe, there was a healing cult of Asclepius and Glycon, and the caduceus has become a symbol of medicine in European tradition. In hospitals, serpents are displayed as a sign of hope, salvation, healing and life. And it is possible that the story of the bronze serpent image in the Old Testament (Num 21:8-9) reflects this aspect of serpent symbolism: hope, healing, salvation and life. Here, the Jews impatiently grumbled against God for leading them from Egypt through Moses, but the Lord punished the rebels by sending them a great number of serpents. Realizing their folly, they asked forgiveness, and God instructed Moses to raise a bronze serpent so that those who were bitten, by just looking at it--that is to say, by believing in God’s power manifested in the bronze serpent--could recover. In appropriating the serpent image to Jesus, John wanted to say that just as the contemplation of the bronze serpent in the desert brought healing and salvation to the Israelites bitten by the fiery serpents, so the very sight of Jesus lifted up on the cross can bring life and salvation to those who have faith in him, in more or less the same way that as long as the crew and the passengers of the ship look on and not lose contact with the lighthouse that beacons, they will be saved from the raging storm at sea.

Hence, the statement of the Jesus in John: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that all who believe may have eternal life in him” (John 3:14). This saying represents John’s theology of the cross. It is in the crucified Jesus that eternal life is found. The crucifixion, which is also Jesus’ glorification in John, is therefore God’s invitation to share his life, and all man has to do is to accept the offer. But does this mean that one can acquire eternal life by just trusting in the crucified Lord? Far from it. In John, “to believe in” means to have personal allegiance to him (John 1:12; 3:18; 12:46). First of all, this includes an acceptance of his revelation. In the 1st Reading (2 Chron 26:14-16.19-23), the Jews did not enjoy safety, but were delivered to the Chaldeans because they refused to listen to the revelation by the prophets, or, more accurately, to the prophets who were the interpreters of God’s revelation (2 Chron 36:16). Second, it implies putting oneself entirely in the hands of Jesus (John 6:37; 17:2). In the language of Paul in the 2nd Reading, this is because life, salvation or healing is God’s work, not a consequence of our good deeds or our efforts to save ourselves (Eph 2:8).

In our response to the life and salvation Jesus gives from the cross, it is important, therefore, that we do not deviate from his revelation, especially from his teaching. Just as one who goes off course shown by the beacon coming from the lighthouse navigates dangerously, so one who does not accept the teaching of Jesus cannot hope to acquire eternal life. Faith in Jesus, according to John, therefore requires that we follow him, both his words and his examples. The second implication of the Johannine concept of faith urges us to unite ourselves spiritually with Jesus by sharing in the power that comes from the cross. Just as a man who does not walk under the light of the boulevard is in danger of being stabbed or held up, so we must walk under the power of Jesus, under his light, for this is the one that gives us spiritual life, strength and sustenance. That power or light is none other than the love of God in Christ who, in his mercy, made us alive (Eph 2:4). God’s love consists in his sending of his Son to us that we may have life through him (1 John 4:9).*

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Where Can We Encounter God?

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Third Sunday of Lent, Year B, John 2:13-25, March 11, 2012

IN ALL WORLD religions, there is a universal belief that God, however he is conceived, is far distant from all of us. He is transcendent and incomprehensible. He is the wholly Other. “For I am God, not man” (Hos 11:9b). But the discovery that God loves and cares for us, that we cannot exist without him makes all of us long for his presence. Whatever might be our reason, we seek him, we want to be with him. But where are we to find him? And how are we to encounter him? How are we to participate in the realm of the divinity? Of course, for some, God is thought to reside in the church. Accordingly, they spend hours praying in the church rather than under the tree. For others, he is encountered through intermediaries. This explains why devotion to the saints, often in the form of novena, litany, and celebrations of their feasts, is popular: one has a sure access to the Father through the blessed in heaven. Still others would insist that God is encountered in the poor. And so, they take up the cause of the underprivileged. To work for them is in a sense to worship God.

For the Jews in the Old Testament, however, God was encountered in the Temple. He was thought to have made his dwelling there: “When the priests left the holy place, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord so that the priests could no longer minister because of the cloud, since the Lord’s glory had filled the temple of the Lord. Then Solomon said, ‘The Lord intends to dwell in the dark cloud; I have truly built you a princely house, a dwelling where you may abide forever” (1 Kgs 8:10-13). Through the Temple, the Jews made some contact with the divinity. This consisted principally in the performance of sacrifice, which took various forms: holocaust, peace offerings, sacrifices of expiation, cereal offerings, and the showbread and perfume offerings (Lev 1-7). It was also in the Temple that they prayed (Ps 5:8) and performed various rituals of purification. A sign of their election as God’s people, the Temple was the privileged venue of encountering God and worshipping him.

But even in the Old Testament, the sacrificial system in the Temple was already subjected to severe criticism. According to the prophets, God does not like burnt offerings (Ia 1:11-17), and is not pleased with them (Hos 8:13). He is not found through them, either (Hos 5:6). For what really pleases God is not sacrificial offerings, but a contrite heart and spirit (Ps 51:16; Isa 66:2). Accordingly, Isaiah stressed the importance of reforming one’s life (Jer 7:3-4). True worship cannot consist in superficialities; for this reason, the prophets emphasized that the people of Israel needed spiritual worship. Since the Temple was the place where sacrifices were offered, it was quite logical that Isaiah denied its necessity: “The heavens are my throne, the earth is my footstool. What kind of house can you build for me; what is to be my resting place?” (Isa 66:1). Micah was even more radical: he predicted the destruction of the Temple: “Zion shall be plowed like a field, and Jerusalem reduced to rubble, and the mount of the temple to a forest ridge (Mic 3:12; see Jer 26:18).

In today’s Gospel, we have the Johannine version of the so-called cleansing of the Temple. But what is really involved here is not the cleansing but rather, in John’s view, the replacement of the Temple. When Jesus said that he would destroy it, he was simply bringing to fulfillment what the prophets earlier prophesied. For John, Jesus is the new Temple, the place of God’s presence and man’s encounter with him (John 2:21). This means that God is to be adored through Jesus. Since God is encountered in Jesus’ risen body, his body is the source of the waters of life (John 19:34; 7:38). He draws all (John 12:32). In this understanding, worship takes on a new meaning. To worship God is not primarily to do something for him, as, for example, doing the commandments or offering various sacrifices, but to be united with Jesus in faith. This is accomplished through sharing in Jesus’ risen body (John 6:51), since it is the center of the new worship. This implies, among others, that we ought to offer our life for others (cf Heb 7:27; Mark 10:45). One cannot encounter Jesus in his risen body without having to share in his suffering and death. Consequently, to worship him always implies the offering of our selves. St Paul expresses it this way: “I beg you through the mercy of God to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice holy and acceptable to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, so that you may judge what is God’s will, what is good, pleasing and perfect”(Rom 12:1-2).

Friday, March 2, 2012

How Can We Eternalize Peter's Experience of Jesus at the Mountain?

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Second Sunday of Lent, Year B, Mark 9:2-10, February 4, 2012

WHEN WE ARE with people we admire, it is our wish that we could remain with them longer than is possible. A very close encounter with the Benedict XVI, President Barak Obama, or someone like Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Rudolf Bultmann is such an example. But we know that such an encounter is too brief. That is why we take pains that in events like that, pictures are taken to capture those moments. Pictures are useful not simply to recall the event, but also to allow us to relive the experience. Human nature is such that we wish to eternalize our present happy experiences.

Those of us who understand this will easily sympathize with Peter in the Gospel today. It may be recalled that in Mark, from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (Mark 1:14) until the episode in Caesarea Philippi where Jesus asked the disciples who he was (Mark 8:27-29), nobody seemed to know the mystery of Jesus. Even Peter who described him the Messiah (Mark 8:30) seemed ignorant of the title he gave him. He could not understand a crucified Messiah (Mark 8:31-32). But in today’s Gospel (Mark 9:2-10), Peter had a glimpse of the mystery that shrouded Jesus. He was overwhelmed with awe by what he saw—a transfigured Jesus--and he wanted to eternalize his experience. So he said, “Rabbi, how good it is for us to be here! Let us erect three booths on this site, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Mark 9:5).

But there is more to this. When he saw Jesus, Peter recognized that his Master acquired a new kind of life which the Jewish people have been longing for. That life is symbolized by the white garment—“his clothes became dazzlingly white, whiter than the work of any bleacher could make them” (Mark 9:3)—which is a symbol of the life of resurrection (Rev 3:4; 7:9). Because that has dawned on Jesus, Peter seemed to think that the new age has dawned for all. For this reason, he offered to build three tents as a way of saying that he wanted Jesus to anticipate the future when God will dwell with men. This object of hope is echoed by Paul: “Indeed, we know that when the earthly tent in which we dwell is destroyed we have a dwelling provided for us by God, a dwelling in the heavens, not made by hands but to last forever. We groan while we are here, even as we yearn tgo have our heavenly habitation envelop us”(2 Cor 5:1-3; see also Rev 21:1-3).

But God did not allow Peter to eternalize his peak experience at the mountain: it was not yet the parousia, but simply its foretaste. Thus, speaking from the clouds, he said to the disciples, including Peter of course, that they have to listen to Jesus (Mark 9:7). And what words of Jesus they are to listen to? In Mark’s theology, it is this: “If a man wishes to come after me, he must deny his very self, take up his cross, and follow me. Whoever would preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will preserve it. What profit does a man show who gains the whole world and destroys himself in the process? What can a man offer in exchange for his life? If anyone in this faithless and corrupt age is ashamed of me and my doctrine, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes with the holy angels in his glory… I assure you, among those standing here there are some who will not taste death until they see the reign of God established in his Father’s glory” (Mark 8:34-9:1). But in listening to Jesus, we have to do so like Abraham, who gave up human assurance (Gen 22:1-2) because we can rest assured in God (Rom 8:38-39).

What assurance? It is that if we wish that God dwell with us, if we wish to be dressed in white, then we have to follow Jesus in his suffering (Mark 8:34-35). The sharing and the eternalizing of Peter’s experience at the mountain is given to those who deny their very self, and take up their cross. Indeed, if we do, we will not even taste death, and we shall attain that experience even here on earth (Mark 9:11).

In view of this, and in the light of the transfiguration of Jesus, the sufferings and failures in our life with Jesus are thus given a new perspective. If we suffer and fail with him, we do not experience simply bad moments that we could have avoided all the better. No, they are rather part and parcel of Christian life, of discipleship. They are, so to speak, constitutive elements of the experience of God’s glory (1 Pet 4:14). In our sufferings and failures for and in Christ, God is already pitching his tent among us, and we are already wearing the white garment, even as Jesus himself was recognized as the Messiah as he hung on the cross (Mark 15:39).