Friday, August 31, 2012

Must Christians, Qua Christians, Make the Law Central to Their Life?

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Mark 7:1-8,14-15.21-23, September 2, 2012

MIKHAIL GORBACHEV’S CHIEF military adviser committed suicide on September 25, 1992.  Unlike Pavlov or Yanayev, he was not linked with the coup plotters.  It was believed that he killed himself because he could not imagine, still less bear to see, the fall of the Russian Empire, the USSR.  In other words, the world that gave meaning to his being a Russian and being a part of the Russian government collapsed.  What is significant to us is the world that gave meaning to the existence of the Russian people—it is a world mediated by communist teaching.  In sociology, such a world is called symbolic universe.  It defines what it means to be a Russian, it regulates the way of life of the citizens, and it makes them what they are.  Of course, life would be difficult without such universe, for it would be meaningless.

            At the time of Jesus, the symbolic universe that regulated the relationship between the individual and the Jewish society, between a Jew and his fellow Jews was the Law of Moses.  By this is meant not only the Ten Commandments or the Pentateuch, but the entire Old Testament.  The Law defined the people of God and stipulated the way of life that a Jew must live.  So, just as what defines the Filipino way of life is the Philippine Constitution, so what regulated the Jewish way of life was the Law.  Understandably enough, the Jews must observe it faithfully if they wished to live a meaningful life.  Thus the 1st Reading: “Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you.  In your observance of the commandments of the Lord your God, which I enjoin upon you, you shall not add to what I command nor subtract from it” (Deut 4:1-2).  Because of the centrality of the Law in Jewish life, it is not surprising that they have been called a people of the Law.

            But must Christians, qua Christians, make the Law central to their life?

            As we learned in the preceding Sundays, Jesus declared himself the bread of life.  If we want to live, if we wish to have eternal life, we must eat the bread of life.  As we noted, in John’s Gospel, this means two things. First, since Jesus as bread of life is God’s wisdom, we must become something like the incarnate word, the Bible people read,, or , in the words of St Paul, the letter of Christ, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God (2 Cor 3:2).  Since Jesus as bread of life is God’s sacrament, the Spirit lives in us and we live in him, and we mediate Christ’s presence to men.  Of course, such a view is not found in the Gospel of Mark, but the thought is not foreign to it, for by his criticism of the Law, Jesus in Mark is trying to say that he is the norm of life, he it is who regulates the relationship between God and the people, between the individual and society, and among the members of the community.  Not the Law but first of all Jesus, or in John, the bread of life, constitutes the symbolic universe for Christians.  Here, Law is relativized—it finds its fulfillment only in Jesus.

            It is for this reason that in the Gospel, Jesus criticized the Law.  If religion were solely concerned with the observance of the law, it would probably be very easy to practice it.  To go to church regularly, to abstain from meat, to give contribution to charities—these are not difficult to do.  But according to the Gospel, there is a danger that we might separate these from the intention of the commands of the law—the matters of the heart and of the spirit.  The law, at its bottom, is really rooted in the love of God in men.  To be sure, our external life may be faultless, but the heart is full of evil and bitter thoughts.  Rightly then Jesus quoted Isaiah: “This people pays me lip service, but their heart is far from me.  Empty is the reverence they do me because they teach as dogmas mere human precepts” (Isa 29:13; Mark 7:6b-7).  The heart is hardly within the sphere of the Law.  But even more important, Jesus replaced the role of the Law.  What regulates a pleasing life before God is not the law, but Jesus himself.  

As we noted in John, this is what eating the bread of life means.  But for Mark, who seldom uses signs, Jesus’ criticism of the Law is his own way of saying that the center of Christian life is not the Law, but Jesus himself—his life and ministry, but especially his passion, death and resurrection.  If communism follows the doctrine of Marx for its symbolic universe, Christians follow the person of Jesus who gives meaning to the Christian world view.  Since Jesus is the center of Christian life, this implies that one cannot be a Christian by merely following the Law.  No wonder that in the 2nd Reading, James exhorts his reader to welcome the word—the word of salvation that, in the New Testament, is none other than Jesus himself—and to act upon it:  “Humbly welcome the word that has taken root in you, with its power to save you.  Act on this word.  If all you do is listen to it, you are deceiving yourself” (James 1:21b-22).  In Luke, of course, to welcome the word and act on it is what discipleship, a life centered on Jesus, means—a thought which is not foreign to James.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Eucharistic Jesus--The Supreme Standard of Christian Life?

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, John 6:60-69, August 26, 2012

TIME WAS WHEN people recognized only two giant empires in the world: the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).  Today, only the former survives; the union of soviets crumbled, or, to use a neutral word, broke up.  But what is of concern to us is not whether it really collapsed or not, but rather what its breaking apart meant to the Russians powers-that-be.  If we go back to history and try to interpret what happened in the USSR on August 18, 1992 when a coup d’etat was attempted against the Soviet Prime Minister, a disinterested inquiry would tell us that the root of it all was perestroika: the restructuring of politics, economy and other aspects of soviet life.  The coup attempt happened a day before the signing of the treaty on power sharing, the relationship between the central government and the soviets.  The treaty was part of the implementation of the perestroika to bring about a better life to the people.  Thus, the major issue was between those who rejected it and those who accepted it.  Said Mikhail Gorbachev: “For some, this [treaty] is maintaining the empire, for others this is the collapse of the empire.”

            In today’s Gospel (John 6:60-69), a parallel issue is being presented to us.  It may be recalled from the previous Sundays that according to John Jesus proclaimed his own goal for man to achieve in order to make him happy: eternal life, a life in which people are one and love one another, and experience freedom and integrity.  And just as Gorbachev had his perestroika, Jesus had a program to attain that form of life: the bread of life.  As we saw in the preceding Sundays, Jesus, as Eucharist, presented himself first as Wisdom—the Word of God, and the Christians, as an implication of Jesus’ claim, are a community of the Word, hearing it, living it, and embodying it.  This is what it means to eat the bread of life.  Next, he offered himself as Sacrament—the sign of God love for his people, manifested in his dying for them, and for this reason the community lives the spirit of Jesus, he dwells in the community, and the community lives in him.  The members of the community share with others all they have and are, and are filled with the Spirit, manifested in their faces, and in their songs.  This, too, is what eating the bread of life means.

            But the Gospel challenges us: do we accept him as the bread of life?   Do we accept him as the principle, guide, standard and supreme norm of our lives?  Do we accept him as our redeemer, saving us by giving himself to us as bread of life?  Such a challenge was also offered to the people in the Old Testament.  As the First Reading (Jos 24:1-2.15-17.18) points out, Joshua at a renewal of the covenant in Shechem after the Israelites entered into the promised land gathered all the tribes and gave them a challenge: “Decide today whom you will serve, the gods your fathers served beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are dwelling” (Jos 24:15bc).  The people answered: “We will serve the Lord for he is our God” (Jos 24:18).  Similarly, in the New Testament, we who have seen the power of God manifested in the life and death of Jesus are given the challenge: “Do you want to leave me, too?” (John 6:67).  Shall we refuse to believe that in eating the Wisdom and the Sacrament of God we will attain everlasting life?  John, of course, presents Peter as the model of our response to the challenge: “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We are have come to believe, we are convinced that you are God’s holy one” (John 6:69).

            But the implication of this yes of Peter to Jesus words is quite enormous. For to accept Jesus as the supreme norm of our life means that we decide to empty ours and fill it with the life of Jesus, which is more than simply saying that we imitate him in discipleship.  Moreover, if we link this to the Second Reading (Eph 5:21-32), accepting Jesus as the bread of life implies that we cannot manifest in ourselves and in our lives the life and death of Jesus without having to form a new family of God, in much the same way that those who affirmed the Lord as their God at the time of Joshua eventually recognized themselves as the people of God.  By eating the bread of life, we form in the final result God’s family headed by Christ himself who loves the community.  And his relationship with the community becomes itself the pattern of the relationship that exists among the members—loving one another, giving up one’s life for the sake of the other (Eph 5:23).  We cast aside our past life and unite ourselves with the members of the community in an unbreakable bond of unity (cf Eph 5:31).

            At the beginning of our reflection, we adverted to the program of perestroika which Gorbachev initiated.  But the program was not accepted.   Russian leaders like Yanayev, Yozov (Defense), Pavlov and others mounted a coup, obviously because the perestroika meant for them the loss of their power, status and privilege.  In the light of the Gospel, one wonders whether anyone of us would stage his own coup by not allowing Jesus to become the supreme norm of his life.  Of course, in our liturgy, we are reminded in the response to the Eucharistic Prayer that the right attitude to the challenge of Jesus is to say “Amen” to him.  That way, we follow Peter who said, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Sacramental Meaning of the Eucharist: The Christian Community as Sign of Encounter with the Lord

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, John 6:51-58, August 19, 2012

WHEREAS LAST SUNDAY’S Gospel describes the Eucharist as God’s Wisdom, today’s deals with the Eucharist as Sacrament.  To understand the significance of this dimension of the Eucharist, one of the ways of approaching it is by referring to the 1st Reading, which speaks of Wisdom tendering a banquet: “[Wisdom] has dressed her meant, mixed her wine, yes, she has spread her table… she has sent out her maidens; she calls from her heights out over the city: ‘Let whoever is simple turn in here; to him who lacks understanding, I say, come, eat of my food, and drink of the wine I have mixed” (Prov 9:2-5).  In this passage, God’s plan for his people is called Wisdom, and is compared to a banquet.  As the man who goes to the banquet is given sustenance, so the man who follows the plan of God lives a holy and good life.  That is to say, if the Christian community wants to live a life which brings happiness and well-being, it has to follow the plan of God—imaged in Proverbs by the drinking of God’s wine and the eating of his food.  If it sustains itself with God’s plan, it will forsake foolishness and advance in its ways (Prov 9:6).

But what is God’s plan?  As the Gospel implies, God’s plan is for us to have life, and live forever (John 6:57-58).  By life we do not, of course, mean winning the first prize of the lotto, or always having enough supplies in the freezer or a mountain of deposit in the bank, or having the best vacation house.  Whatever value one may place on these, it is obvious that they do not abide.  Rather, life, if it has any significance to our life on earth, means first of all an experience of fellowship in the family and in the Christian community, a sense of belonging and integrity, a sense of wholeness and community.  In such community, we do not harbor resentment against others, we experience forgiveness, wholeness, and oneness.  These are the values that abide, and we are confident that God will eternalize them.

How is such a life attained?  Says Jesus: “Let me assure you, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  He who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has life eternal and I will raise him up on the last day.  For my flesh is real food and my blood real drink.  The man who feeds on my flesh and drink my blood remains in me and I in him” (John 6:53-56). This does not mean, of course, that all we do is eat the body and drink the body of Jesus in the Eucharistic Celebration, and then we can rest assured that this will do us good.  We must not ever think that the Sacrament is like a vitamin—taking it frequently will make us spiritually healthy.  Rather, this first of all requires faith.  Unless we have faith that Jesus is present in the Sacrament, we will not benefit from its saving power.  To partake of the Sacrament therefore presupposes our belief that Jesus is truly present in it.  Because we receive him in faith, Jesus remains in us and we in him, and we have life in him:  “The man who feeds on me will have life because of me” (John 6:57b).   

Of course, this indicates that our faith is not simply theoretical.  Once we receive him, we must endeavor to dwell in him.  Faith requires a response from us: the Lord dwells in us so that the life we live is the life of Jesus himself.  Thus Paul:  “I have been crucified with Christ and the life I live now is not my own; Christ is living in me.  I still live my human life, but it is a life of faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself to me” (Gal 2:19-20).  In receiving the Sacrament, therefore, we make an effort to live what it signifies: a life in imitation of the Lord who suffered for others.  Like the broken bread and the shared wine, we become persons-for-others.

It is in this sense that we read the 2nd Reading (Eph 5:15-20).  According to Paul, as a response to the offer of faith, we must keep careful watch over our conduct; we avoid wine leading the debauchery.  We avoid what can hurt, bring disorder and create division in the community, for these values make us less than a sacrament of the body and blood.  On the contrary, we discern the will of God, and we must be filled with the Spirit.  And what is his will?  The will of God is, among others, to make others happy, and forgive them.  That way, the community becomes a place where we gain integrity and well-being, wholeness and happiness.  Hence, when we receive the Eucharist, we proclaim that we are a people in whom God dwells, and we are a people who live the life of God: happy, whole, singing with all our hearts because we know how to love, forgive and be compassionate.  By so acting, we are actually demonstrating to all that we are a community transformed into a sacrament of the Eucharist.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Sapiential Meaning of the Eucharist: The Christian Community as God's Living Word

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, John 6:41-51, August 12, 2012

TODAY'S GOSPEL (John 6:41-51) FORMS part of Jesus’ discourse on the Eucharist (John 6:26-58).  Of course, when people speak of the Eucharist, they usually associate it either with the Body and Blood of Jesus that one receives during the communion rite, or with the Mass itself.  This Sunday’s gospel and the next Sunday’s, however, give us a wider view of what the Eucharist means, for they treat two aspects of it. Whereas, next Sunday, the theme concerns on the Eucharist as Sacrament, in today’s gospel, the theme is sapiential: the Eucharist as Wisdom. 

What does the Eucharist as Wisdom mean?  As John portrays him, Jesus considers himself the bread of life, whom the Father has sent as a sign that God cares for his people; he provides support for them.  It is for this reason that Jesus performed the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves (John 6:1-13) on account of which, those who have been following, hungry and poor, had their fill.   

Unfortunately, though, the Jews could not recognize the meaning of the multiplication of the loaves.  For them, it was simply meant to satisfy hunger; they could not see beyond that function.  Hence, his parenesis: “I assure you, you are not looking for me because you have seen signs but because you have eaten your fill of the loaves.  You should not be working for perishable food but for food that remains unto life eternal, food which the Son of Man will give you” (John 6:26b-27b).  Like the manna of the Old Testament, the multiplication of the loaves was a sign so that they will understand that man does not live on bread alone, but “by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut 8:3b).  Man must eat the Word—God’s Wisdom--because it is the bread of life, and the Eucharist is that Wisdom.

That for Jesus the Eucharist--which is he himself--is God’s Wisdom is evidenced by his quotation from Isaiah 54:13 in the same discourse: “It is written in the prophets: ‘They shall be taught by God’” (John 6:43).  For John, this Isaianic prophecy is realized in Jesus who says that “everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me… he who believes in him has eternal life; I am the bread of life” (John 6:43-47).  It may be recalled that according to John in the beginning was the Word, and the Word came into the world and became flesh (John 1:1-14).  If this is linked with the Isaian quotation, what emerges is that God teaches his people through his Word, his Wisdom, who became man--Jesus.  Thus, if John says that Jesus is the bread of life, he means that Jesus is God’s wisdom, on whom men must live so they will have eternal life.

It is in this context that the 1st Reading (1 Kgs 19:4-8) must be interpreted.  Just as the bread given by the angel was able to sustain Elijah in his journey to Horeb (v 8), so the Eucharistic Word of God, if eaten, can sustain the Christian community, which is a pilgrim community, in its journey toward the mountain of God--eternal life.  An analogy is in order.  The Indians have a saying: you are what you eat.  What one eats mentally, for instance, eventually makes him, or at least affects his behavior.  In 1992, when the motion picture “Booyz N the Hood,” which was about violence, was shown, it triggered a wave of violence.  If one is always glued on television, or on the internet, he will eventually acquire the language of that medium.  The reason for this is that man has a mind, a body and a spirit, and just as good food is needed for bodily health, so for our spiritual life, we need good mental and spiritual food, and that is none other than God’s Wisdom—the Eucharist.

This interpretation has implications for liturgy and life.  When we celebrate the Eucharist, what is most important is not only transubstantiation and communion.  The Word is of no less importance.  In fact, the Word and Communion are inseparable.  The Jesus who is present in the sacrament is the very the same Jesus who is present in the Gospel, for he is Word-in-Flesh.  That is why we partake from two tables: the Table of the Word, and the Table of the Sacrament—both of which express the Eucharist.  For our daily life, this implies that if Jesus the Word became flesh, so the Christian community must embody the Word.  In the Eucharist we gather not only to hear the Word, but to live it.  We listen to what we ought to be.  

 Indeed, if we do this, we are imitating the nature of the written word of God.  Before the Bible became a book, it was first lived.  In other words, it is not a dead book, but a living one.  The Christian community must therefore keep it alive by living it: the community is itself God’s Word—the Eucharist.  Understandably enough, that community lives a life in which the word of God is lived: it exhibits compassion and forgiveness, getting rid of all bitterness, passion, anger, harsh words, slander, and malice of every kind (Eph 4:31-32, 2nd Reading).