Friday, June 22, 2012

God Writes Straight in Crooked Lines

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist,
Luke 1:57-66.80, June 24, 2012

IT IS INTERESTING to recall that in 1986, as the rebellion of Enrile and Ramos against Marcos and Ver in what turned out to be People Power or EDSA I was going on, many social analysts were convinced that, in the final result, the New People's Army (NPA) would emerge triumphant, should the revolt continue for long, not, as many people thought, the seemingly inevitable replay of Martial Law by Marcos nor the then likely military junta of Enrile and Ramos. It was feared that the military would be divided, civil war would ensue, and after the force of Marcos and Ver weakened, the NPA would simply come on the scene, and reap victory.

This scene was considered likely, because people thought in terms of power. Those who have power have the strength, and the powerful have the victory. But history is unpredictable, even ironical. During the election that preceded the revolt, Cory Aquino was thought to be a weak opponent, and the incumbent even claimed that the right place of the woman was not leadership, but the bedroom (Of course, that might make sense in a macho culture). But she who was considered weak and whose rightful place was the bedroom turned out to be a surprise: she, Cory Aquino, restored the democratic institutions. Of course from the viewpoint of faith, it was she — despite her perceived weakness — whom God used as instrument to free the Filipinos from an institutionalized dictatorship.

The example in recent Philippine history gives us a glimpse into the ways of God, which seems to be the theme of today's Gospel on the birth and circumcision of John the Baptist (Luke 1:57-66.80). Luke tells us that the birth of John was surrounded with joy because God had given some surprise to His people. Elizabeth, whom people despised because of her barrenness, was shown the compassion of God by the birth of John. And her relatives and friends, who appreciated God's mercy, were delighted with what God had shown her. But what they could not recognize was the surprising way the Lord dealt with her son. When the eighth day came after the child's birth, the right of circumcision was performed, as prescribed by the law ( Gen 17:10-12; Lev 12:3). The giving of the name was associated with this rite.  The name Jesus, for example was given at the circumcision (Luke 2:21).  At this ritual, her relatives and friends wanted to name the child Zechariah. 

Of course, the right to decide on what name to give belongs to the parents, but others are expected to help in choosing it.  The name of Ruth's son, for example, was given by her neighbor women ( Ruth 4:17). It is not surprising, then, that Elizabeth's friends and neighbors wanted to name the child after his father, Zechariah (Luke 1:57-59). At the time when Luke wrote the Gospel, it was probably a custom to name the child after his father. In the Bible, we have the example of Tobit who was named after his father (Tobit 1:9). But despite the objections of her relatives (Luke 1:61), it being that there was no one among her relatives with such a name, Elizabeth insisted that he should be called John (Luke 1:60-61). This is what the Lord, through an angel, commanded at the annunciation of John's birth (Luke 1:13).

It appears that Elizabeth's relatives and friends, like most people, judged events and persons in the light of tradition. Of course, tradition is valuable, but it may become a disadvantage when one becomes a prisoner to it, and closed to the working of the Spirit of God. God had a different mind for the child, and naming him John was a sign that something surprising was at hand. We are not told how Elizabeth knew about the name given by the angel, but we can be sure that she had already perceived that something different was happening. 

That the child was to be called John shows us that God thinks and moves in ways that do not conform to the human mind and movement. As the prophet puts it, "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 your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts" (Isa 55:8-9). God accomplished His purposes in ways unknown to us, like the fashioning of human life: "Just as you know not how the breath of life fashions the human frame in the mother's womb, so you know not the work of God which He is accomplishing in the universe" ( Qoh 11:5).

The way God works is often inscrutable, for He chooses new ways that are impossible to trace. The work of the Spirit, being a mysterious power, is difficult to fathom, just like the wind: "The wind blows where it wills; you hear the sound but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes ( John 3:8). The vocation of Jeremiah is a classic example in the Old Testament. The prophet wanted to become an intercessor for his people, but God denied him of his prayer (Jer 14:11-12); instead, He called him to become a Cassandra, one who predicts misfortune or disaster to kings (Jer 34:2-3).

In the New Testament, the early Church did not anticipate the admission of the Gentiles to the community; it was God's work that even the apostles did not envisage: "The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter were surprised that the gift of the Holy Spirit should have been poured out on the Gentiles also, whom they could hear speaking in tongues and glorifying God. Peter put the question at that point, 'What can stop these people who have received the Holy Spirit, even as we have, from being baptized with water?'" ( Acts 10:45-46). Of course, the biggest surprise is Jesus himself. Who would think that the child that was born to poor parents in an insignificant village is the Son of God?

What is therefore ultimately important is that we listen to the Lord, to what He wants, not to our own, even if ours is conceived in the best intention. We allow God to work His own purposes through us. For even the best that we think is not exactly the best for God. After all, Elizabeth's friends and relatives thought that naming the child Zechariah was the best thing that could be done. We must allow God to reveal His surprises to us.

Which brings to mind a point Pope John Paul II raised in his Apostolic Letter “Novo millennio ineunte”  in preparation for the celebration of the Jubilee Year.  One of the pastoral priorities he indicated was the primacy of grace. By this he meant we have "to open our hearts to the tide of grace and allow the word of Christ to pass through us in all its power: Duc in altum! On that occasion [when the disciples toiled all night at the sea and caught nothing], it was Peter who spoke the word of faith: 'At your word I will let down the nets.' As this millennium begins, allow the Successor of Peter to invite the whole Church to make this act of faith, which express itself in a renewed commitment to prayer."

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Eucharist: Bread Broken and Shared

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, Year B, Mark 14:12-16. 22-26), June 10, 2012

YEARS OF CONTROVERSY with Protestantism have honed the emphasis on the real presence of Christ in the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. This is because, for centuries, most Protestant Churches, in one way or the other, followed Luther in his denial of the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine. It is thus understandable that pre-Vatican II Catechism almost exclusively focused on the real presence and the sacramental character of the Eucharist. Catholics had to be well-prepared to respond to Protestant heretical doctrines. In consequence of this understanding, the Eucharist became, among other things, an icon of adoration.

Unfortunately, however, many people have so confined their understanding to the Eucharist in terms of real presence and sacrifice that they failed to appreciate its meaning for the daily life of the Christian. It is not too far-fetched to say that, though some Catholics have much devotion to the real presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, and yet hardly exhibit a life that is Eucharistic, it is partly because they fail to see the connection between the real presence and their daily action.

One way of seeing the connection between the Eucharist and our life is to look at it in terms of the words of the institution as recounted by Mark: “And when they were eating, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, ‘Take, this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drunk of it. And he said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many’ (Mark 14:22-23).

Jesus’ action, of course, fully corresponded with the way the meal was ordinarily held. The head of the household offered thanksgiving to God in that manner. Nevertheless, two things may be noted here. First, the four verbs used echo those in Mark 6:41 and 8:6-7 in the story of the multiplication of the bread. Mark portrays Jesus as using the same words and actions. And it is most likely that the correspondence is intentional. The multiplication of the bread has links with the Eucharist in terms of the meaning of the action. In the miracle of the loaves, Mark says that the disciples did not understand the meaning (Mark 6:52). But in the institution narratives, Mark no longer so affirms of the disciples, obviously because the Eucharist uncovers for them the meaning of the miracle.

Second, whatever the meaning of the account of the institution might have been in its original setting, the evangelist would have us understand that for the Markan community, the eucharistic celebration looks back on the death of Jesus in the same way that the Jews look back on the Exodus event: it is God’s saving activity. The death of Jesus is the act of redemption. Just as this bread is broken, so his body will be broken; just as this cup is shared, so his blood is to be spelt for the salvation of the many. And those who share in the fellowship, partaking of the meal, share in the body and blood of Jesus, and of course, in the fruit of redemption, as well as in the action. One then easily understands why Luke’s account ends with the saying: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). More than a command to repeat the ritual, the saying obviously commands his disciples to imitate the Lord who shared the bread and the cup in their practical life.

Thus understood, the Eucharist has implications for daily living. Even if we limit ourselves to these by no means exhaustive meanings of the Eucharist, it is obvious that the Eucharist implies the sharing of bread with the thousands who suffer from hunger and poverty. Greed and monopoly have no place in Christian life. If to be Christian is to partake of the Eucharist, one cannot be a Christian without having to share with his brothers and sisters in the community. An individualistic Christian is a contradiction in terms. Indeed, he must see to it that the miracle of sharing is repeated daily in the community.

But the meaning of sharing is not to be confined to the sharing of goods that a Christian possesses. Even more important is the sharing of oneself with others. This is the implication of the words over the bread and the cup. It is not enough to give money; one must share himself for the redemption of the community. This is seen, for example, in one’s death to selfishness, personal honor and glory. The command to repeat the ritual is fulfilled not simply at the ritual level—in the celebration of the mass—but at the practical level: in the sharing of goods in the community, and in the death of every member for the sake of the community’s salvation. For it is in dying that we are saved.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Trinity: The God Who Is Concerned with Men and Their Salvation

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of Trinity Sunday, Year B, Matthew 28:16-20, June 3, 2012

TODAY'S GOSPEL (Matt 28:16-20) IS almost universally called the Great Commission. Here, the Risen Lord instructs the Eleven to make disciples of all nations, baptize them, and teach them to observe everything he commanded them. In this commission, we have an explicit reference to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in whose name one is baptized. This is obviously the reason why the present text is read on this feast, even if the thrust of the passage is not about the Trinitarian understanding of God. It may be observed that to baptize in the name of the three persons has become the classic baptismal formula, and the verse in question is the earliest evidence for it. The Father, Son and Spirit appear in juxtaposition, as if to say that they are equal.

Despite the fact that the three persons of the Trinity are named, it would be wrong to think that the passage bears the dogmatic meaning it was given, as a result of development through the Trinitarian controversies, in later centuries. The Confession of three persons in one God was developed in an effort to account for the full implications of the mystery of Christ, whose life reveals that God is Father, Son and Spirit. The classical formulation of the doctrine was framed in the language of Greek philosophy which, unfortunately, is beyond the understanding of most of us. The consequence is that the doctrine emerged as something foreign to the daily life of Christians, appearing as it does as a mathematical problem to be solved. Of course, the dogmatic formula is a necessary, given the culture and world view of the time; but this does not prevent us from going back to the biblical understanding to see it relevance to our practical life as Christians.

Far from bearing the meaning of the Trinitarian definition of Nicea, the conception that God as Father, Son and Spirit reflects the Matthean community’s understanding of God in his dealings with men. For the Christians, God is not an immutable being, unmoved by the contingencies of human history. It may make sense in philosophy to say that God is a simple being, unaffected by the pain and suffering of humanity, and a unitary being, dwelling alone and beyond the access of humanity. On the contrary, the understanding of God as triune comes from the Christian experience that God is very much involved in the affairs of men. Rather than isolating himself from his creatures, God opens himself to them, seeking them out in love. John articulates it very well when he says that God is love (I John 4:8).

It is in the nature of love to be self-diffusive, and this gives us an inkling why God is not an isolated God, but a Trinity who meets us in love. That love is seen in Jesus who gave us his life for the ransom of all. Again, John perfectly enunciates it: “God’s love was revealed in our midst in this way: he sent his Son to the world that we might have life in him” (1 Jon 4:10). And he continues to diffuse his love and mercy by the power of the Holy Spirit who dwells in the Christian and in the community. Such an understanding of God is not foreign to the thought of Matthew who emphasizes the personal relationship between the Father and the Son, and the share of the disciples in that relationship through the Holy Spirit.

If it is in the nature of God to be Trinitarian, this implies that one cannot be a Christian unless he belongs to a community of brothers and sisters in the Lord. There is no such a person as an individual Christian; for there is no Christianity without a community. In the words of Paul, “If one does not belong to the body, he does not belong to Christ” (Rom 8:23). And because God is essentially love, so is a Christian. Jesus, in the gospel of John, says it well: “People will know that you are my disciples by the love you have for one another” (John 15:35). Of course, this love is not our love for one another, but the love which we share from the Father through the Son in the Spirit. “If we love one another, God dwells in us, and his love in brought to perfection in us. The way we know we remain in him and he in us is that he has given us of his Spirit” (1 John 4:12-13). The nature of God, and what a Christian should be are well expressed in John’s letter: “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God and God in him” (1 John 4:16).