Friday, May 24, 2013

The Trinity in Revelation and Redemption

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, John 16:12-15, May 26, 2013

THAT PEOPLE IN ancient times easily believed in the existence of an intelligent being who is different from earthly beings is reasonable enough.  Because they were confronted with a universe that was beyond their grasp, they naturally posited the existence of someone from whom come what they see, hear, touch  and even what they know of.  But his existence was not the problem.  The problem was how to discover the secrets of this intelligent being.  Because it was important to get in touch with him in order to have good health, life, solution to many questions and other things which they were not capable of making or acquiring, ancient people had recourse to dreams, omens, divination, casting lots, and astrology, among others.  It was thought that by these techniques, they could discover the mind of this intelligent being.

            But the Christian God, our God, is not a God who hides his face from men.  On the contrary, he is a God of revelation.  He discloses himself and his plan of salvation to man.  In communicating to man his plan to save him, God likewise reveals who he himself is to man—a Trinity.  The belief that there are three persons in one God is distinctive of Christianity; other revealed religions, like Judaism and Islam, do not have this belief.  In Christianity, however, it is one of the fundamental beliefs of religion; it belongs to the heart of what Christianity means.  But belief is one thing; explaining the belief is another.  And efforts to explain it have been less successful.  Of course, traditional theology, framed in Greek categories of thinking, uses such concepts as substance, persons, hypostasis and relations to unravel the mystery.  But while these make sense to one who has studied in the university, the attempt is hardly intelligible to the average modern reader who has not been schooled in scholastic theology.

            In today’s Gospel (John 16:12-15), however, which forms part of Jesus’ farewell discourse at the last supper, John provides us with a dynamic approach to the Trinity, which focuses on the roles of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in the work of revelation and redemption.

            In John, God does not communicate himself except through the Son.  The revelation that comes from God is the Son’s sharing in the possession of the Father: “Everything that the Father has is mine” (16:15).  At his disposal the Father places everything for his revelation: “The Father loves the Son and has given everything over to him” (3:35; 13:3).  In John 5:19-47, the relationship between the Father and the Son is even more fully explained, and the divine power of the Son is shown in dynamic terms.  The Father so commits to him life-giving power that every act of the Son is an act of the Father: “For the Father loves the Son and everything the Father does he shows him… Just as the Father raises the dead and grants life, so the Son grants life to those to whom he wishes… Just as the Father possesses life in himself, so has he granted it to the Son to have life in himself” (5:21-26).  The Father bears witness to the Son especially through the works which he does through him: “These very works which I perform testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me.  Moreover, the Father who sent me has himself given testimony on my behalf” (5:36b-37a).  (It is for this reason that later theological dispute would assert that the Father and the Son are one in nature and in operation.)

            Because the Son is the fullness of the Father’s revelation, what then is the role of the Holy Spirit in God’s communication?  In saying that “I have much more to tell you” (16:12), Jesus does not mean that there will be further revelation after his resurrection.  Rather, what he means is that it will be only after his rising from the dead that there will be full understanding of his revelation.  And it is the role of the Holy Spirit to guide the Church to the depths and heights and the fullness of God’s revelation in Jesus: “When he comes, however, being the Spirit of Truth, he will guide you to all truth” (16:13a).  The account of the early Church provides an example.  An Ethiopian eunuch, a court official in charge of the entire treasury of Candace of the Ethiopians, had come on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  While returning home, sitting on the carriage, he read a passage of Isaiah, but could not grasp it.  It was not until Philip, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, guided the eunuch that he was able to understand that the Suffering Servant in Isa 53:7-8 referred to Jesus (Acts 8:26-35). 

            The Holy Spirit does not mediate any new revelation, therefore.  Instead, he merely draws on the fullness of that revelation in Jesus; what he conveys to the Church he receives from the Son: “he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:14).  (In later theological reflection, this gave rise to the dispute on whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.)  He interprets and applies what he receives from Jesus to each coming generation in terms of its significance for the contemporary situation in the Church:  “he will speak only what he hears, and he will declare the things to come” (16:13).  That is why when the Magisterium, the Church as Teacher, proposes to the faithful something on doctrine or morals, it does not enunciate a new doctrine, but only interprets for the present generation what has already been said in the Sacred Scriptures.

            To conclude: when speaking of the roles of the Trinity, it has been customary to say that the Father creates, the Son redeems, and the Holy Spirit sanctifies.  This probably explains why images of the Trinity portrays the Father with extended hands, with the sun, the moon and the stars behind him, as if he were in the act of creating, the Son crucified on the cross, which is the wood of redemption, and the Holy Spirit as bright dove with extended rays.  Strictly speaking, however, this cannot be accepted without many nuances.  Creation, for example, may be attributed to the Father, but it is clear that “all things came through [the Son]” (1:3) in the power of God’s Spirit (Gen 1:2; 2:7).  The same may be said of redemption and holiness.  Thus the Eucharistic Prayer III:  “All life, all holiness, comes from you [Father], through your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, by the working of the Holy Spirit.”  But today’s Gospel provides us with an easier way of understanding the Trinity in terms of the role of each person in God’s communication: the Father communicates to men through the Son in the Holy Spirit.*

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Church Accomplishes Its Mission through the Holy Spirit

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Solemnity of Pentecost, John 20:19-23, May 19, 2013 

PENTECOST IS NOT a distinctively Christian celebration.  Originally, it was an agricultural feast that celebrated the end of the grain harvest, much like the fiesta celebration in many villages in the Philippines in honor of St Isidore the Farmer.  Later, however, it came to be associated in the Old Testament tradition with the Exodus and the giving of the Covenant.  In Christianity, it acquired a new significance as it became the day in which the Spirit of Jesus was given to the Church.  But even in the New Testament, the giving of the Holy Spirit admits of various views and meanings.  Of course, these differences reflect the diversity of the theological interests of the authors.  And most of us are familiar with the Lukan account in the 1st Reading (Acts 2:1-11) whose words and images hark back to the giving of the Law at Sinai.  For Luke, Pentecost is the day when God’s people, represented by the disciples, were reconstituted, and empowered to mediate salvation to all peoples.

            John, however, has a different theological concern.  He already exhibits a different view of the happening by collapsing the division of the mystery into Death, Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost to a single Easter event   For him, the Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus are bound up with the outpouring of the Spirit, for these redemptive deeds are essentially one.  And as can be gleaned from today’s Gospel (John 20:9-23), the giving of the Holy Spirit in John signifies the commissioning of the Church.  Jesus sent the disciples on a mission: “I send you” (20:21b).  Although the commissioning is placed in a post-resurrection setting, it really picks up a theme in the Last Supper Discourse in which Jesus prayed for the consecration of the disciples, whom he would send into the world (17:17-19). 

            In the understanding of the Johannine community, the sending of the disciples is patterned and grounded on the sending of the Son by the Father: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (20:21).  As Jesus was accomplishing his mission in the world, the Father was present in him, in his words and deeds: “Whoever looks on me is seeing him who sent me” (12:45).  In the same way, those who see the disciples, the Lord’s representatives, will also see the Son:  “He who accepts anyone I send accepts me” (13:20).  Thus, Jesus is also present in the words and deeds of the Church, which the disciples represent.  The three (Father, Son, and Church) are stitched together.  In much the same way that Jesus came to do the will of the Father, so the Church cannot detach itself from Jesus in fulfilling its mission.  It must remain faithful to him.

            The Church will accomplish its mission through the reception of the Holy Spirit:  “He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ (20:22b).  The disciples are endowed with the Holy Spirit who consecrates them for the mission:  “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world; I consecrate myself for their sakes now that they may be consecrated in the truth” (17:18-19).  Because of the Spirit, they will even do greater things (14:12), have a more penetrating understanding of Jesus’ teaching (14:26), and they will be able to carry out the task even in a hostile world (15:25-26).  It is interesting to note that standing in awe at current development, many think that the success of the Church’s mission depends on the use of technology, money, alliance with governments, and wisdom of missionaries.  Of course, these may be important.  But what is decisive is the Holy Spirit.  Without his power, all efforts will not succeed.  John Paul II made a similar observation in his Novo millennio ineunte: “There is the temptation which perennially besets every spiritual journey and pastoral work: that of thinking that the results depend on our ability to act and to plan.  God of course asks us to really cooperate with his grace, and therefore invites us to invest all our resources of intelligence and energy in serving the cause of the Kingdom.  But it is fatal to forget that ‘without Christ we can do nothing’ (Cf John 15:5).”  The Holy Spirit’s power alone is life-giving.  When God breathed into the nostril of the man he formed out of the clay, Adam became a living being (Gen 2:7).

            What is the mission?  Simply to celebrate liturgy or confine itself to the sacristy, as some critics often argue about the Church’s mission?  According to John, the Church’s mission is to continue the mission of the Son (John 20:21).  The Church does not engage in a new work.  The mission of Jesus is simply carried out and interpreted in various times, places and situations.  As Jesus did, so the Church must bring life: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not die but may have eternal life” (3:16); “I came that they may have life and have it to the full” (10:10).  The Church must bring this message of life to individuals, communities, and the world.  By life, John of course means neither natural life nor everlasting life but eternal life—the vital and intimate relationship with the Father and the Son, which comes from faith in Jesus and being obedient to his word.   As such, it is eschatological, and one who receives this life dwells in the sphere where God dwells.  This is life in its highest degree. What destroys that life is not death, because it survives bodily death but sin.  (This is the Johannine equivalent to the Synoptic focus on the Kingdom of God which appears only thrice in John.)  And the Church will be able to give that life because the Spirit himself, who gives power to the Church and its mission, gives life, and is the source of eternal life.*

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Jesus' Ascension as an Assurance of Our Participation in His Heavenly Glory

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord,  Luke 24:40-53, May 12, 2013

IN OLD TESTAMENT and Intertestamental Literature, voyage from earth to heaven is a widespread motif .  The journey of Enoch, Moses, Elijah, Baruch, and Abraham easily comes to mind.  The Book of Enoch, for instance, recounts how this son of Jared was taken up into the heavens, and was appointed guardian of heavenly treasures, chief of the archangels, and attendant upon God’s celestial throne.  Of course, in ancient religions, we even find a detailed account of the voyage through the seven spheres of heaven with their gates, hostile spirits and other obstacles.  But the Christian understanding of the ascension of Jesus is quite different.  In Luke, for example, it signifies the end of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and his earthly ministry, a beginning of his exaltation, and a new way of his presence among us.

            To stress that the ascension marks the end of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and of his earthly ministry, it may be noted that with his account of Jesus’ ascension (Luke 24:50-53), Luke’s narrative on the journey to Jerusalem comes to a close.  In Luke 9:51, Jesus, whom the Samaritans did not welcome, resolutely determined to journey to the city, where the ultimate rejection awaited him.  Here in the farewell scene, that journey is completed, as Jesus blesses his disciples.  At the same time, this sets the end of Luke’s account of the story of Jesus, for just as it began in Jerusalem, with Zechariah unable to bless the people gathered in the temple (Luke 1:21-22), so it ends in Jerusalem, with the disciples praising God in the temple, after Jesus blessed them (Luke 24:52).  The ascension, therefore, marks the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  In ascending, Jesus entered into God’s presence.  This is the essential meaning of “going up” or “ascending far above all heavens” (Eph 4:10).
            This, of course, is only one side of the coin.  The other is that it signifies the beginning of Jesus’ exaltation: “God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every other name” (Phil 2:9).  “God exalted him at his right hand as leader and savior” (Acts 5:30a).  It also indicates the start of his glorification and his enthronement at God’s right hand: “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26);  “Jesus Christ who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him” (1 Pet 3:21c-22).  As a high priest, he passed through the heavens (Heb 4:14) and entered the heavenly sanctuary (9:24).  These images and meanings are, of course, related to Jesus’ coming into God’s presence.

            But what about his relationship to us?  Since Jesus is now an exalted and glorified Lord, the mode of his presence changed.  Jesus entered into a new form of presence with his disciples, with us, and in the world.  He is present to his disciples on earth in a spiritual way.  With us, he is especially present in his signs—in his word, in his minister, in the assembly, in the Eucharist and the sacraments, and among others, among the poor.  But his presence among us and in the world is the beginning of the parousia.  This has been initiated into the world, but in a hidden form.  For this reason, ascension serves as a principle of hope, an anticipation of glory for those who proclaim his death and resurrection in their lives.  His invisible presence in his signs will be disclosed definitively in his return in glory.  The preface proper to the feast puts it this way: “Mediator between God and man, judge of the world and Lord of hosts, he ascended, not to distance himself from our lowly state, but that we, his members, might be confident of following where he, our Head and Founder, has gone before.”
            What does this mean in simple language?  That Jesus must ascend—this brought sorrow to his disciples.  But they were assured of his presence of another kind.  Of course, life is a series of arrivals and departures.  After graduating from high school, one goes to college.  One says good-bye to bachelorhood when he enters into marriage.  But the transition from one term to another is never easy.  Some individuals get married, but their mentality remains that of a bachelor.  Yet, one cannot appreciate the stage of life one enters unless there is a change in mind-set.  Some parents find it difficult to realize that their sons and daughters are no longer children: they simply cannot let go.  The same may be said of faith.  That Jesus is seated at the right hand and no longer present to us in the way he was physically present to his disciples during the public ministry—this is not necessary a disadvantage for us.  On the contrary, we must ever rejoice because of it, even as the disciples were filled with joy as they witnessed the ascension. 

              Today, his presence to us who believe in his power is no less real than his presence to his disciples.  And that experience of his presence is the beginning of the parousia.  If we have an intimate relationship with him, we are assured of the final revelation of that participation when he returns in glory.  The final transition will occur, and what Jesus is, we will experience and share.         

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Holy Spirit as the Church's Guarantee of the Continuity of Jesus' Cause

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C, John 14:23-29, Year C, May 5, 2013
THAT WITH THE death of Mao Zedong in 1976, there was a struggle between the left wing and right wing over the control of China, the former advocating the continuation of revolutionary mass mobilization, the latter the overhauling of Chinese economy—this quite illustrates a normal feature in transition periods.  One of the problems that a country, community, company or movement faces in the process of institutionalization is the prospect of the death of the founder.  Sometimes it happens that the original vision of the founder is lost once a new one is installed.  What he said and did is barely recalled and hardly influences the direction the community takes in a new situation.  In China, the Gang of Four suffered defeat, while the reformers under Deng Xiaoping prevailed.  Usually, though, this does not happen to a democratic nation, because the Supreme Court is there to interpret the original vision enshrined in the constitution, but this does not prevent the new leader from revising the constitution.  But this cannot happen in the Christian community that Jesus founded; or it would be divided and lose it continuity with the divine source.  Today’s Gospel shows us how it cannot.

            Like the previous Sunday’s, today’s Gospel forms part of Jesus’ farewell discourses placed by John in the context of the last supper.  Though, historically, these discourses could be understood in a situation wherein the community of John was expelled from the synagogue, yet they are meant to answer the problems spawned by Jesus’ physical departure from the disciples.  Once Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven, who will continue his teaching and work?  Like any other historical person, Jesus could not have taught everything to his disciples, nor could he have, considering the circumstances of his death, done it completely.  And even without adverting to Mark’s portrait of the disciples who frequently misunderstood Jesus, it was simply impossible for them, as historical persons, to understand everything he taught them.  And there are other related problems.  For instance, who will sustain the disciples in the aftermath of the shattering experience of Jesus’ death?  Will his departure spell the end of the community?

            It is on account of these problems that in John the supper discourses look beyond Jesus’ death to the resurrection.  After his physical departure, Jesus will remain with the community of disciples through his spiritual presence: “I will ask the Father to give you another Paraclete—to be with you always” (John 14:16).  The Spirit is thus none other than the spiritual presence of Jesus.  Jesus is the first paraclete, and the Holy Spirit is another.  Jesus and the Spirit resemble each other: both are sent by the Father (3:17, 4:26) both remain with the disciples (14:20; 14:17), and both guide them (14:16; 16:13). Moreover, even if the world of men and sin hates the community, they are assured of not falling into the lie and the devil, because the Spirit is a Spirit of Truth (14:17), who will guide them into all truth (16:13).  Of the functions of the Holy Spirit, the Gospel mentions two of them: to teach all things, and to bring remembrance: “The Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will instruct you in everything, and remind you of all that I told you” (14:26).

            Since Jesus is the once-and-for-all revelation of God (Heb 1:1), the Holy Spirit will not make any new revelations.  That is not his work.  Nothing is to be added to what has been revealed by God in the life and person of Jesus.  Rather, it belongs to him to help—Paraclete means helper—the community understands the meaning of the words and actions of Jesus that up to the time of his death were obscure to the disciples.  Thus, for example, it was only after the resurrection that they were able to understand the saying, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (1:19).  In addition, what Jesus spoke of implicitly, the Spirit will make it explicit.  He will enable the community to perceive the deeper meaning of Jesus’ teaching.  Moreover, he will unfold new interpretations of what the early Jesus revealed to the community. 

            However, the Spirit uncovers not only new understanding and interpretation, but even application of God’s revelation in Jesus.  In the community’s encounter with new problems that arise when faith is confronted with various situations, the Spirit will make a creative application of the gospel.   That way, the community perceives the relevance of Jesus’ teaching to contemporary life.  When the early Church, as related in the 1st Reading (Acts 7:55-60), faced the problem of circumcision vis-à-vis the admission of the Gentiles to the community, the resolution reached by the disputing parties at the Council of Jerusalem reflects the workings of the Holy Spirit: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit, and ours, too, not to lay on you any burden beyond that which is strictly necessary” (Acts 15:28).  As a great Johannine commentator, Hoskyns, puts it, “the Spirit’s work is more than a reminiscence of the ipsissima verba of the Son of God; it is a living representation of all that he had spoken to his disciples, a creative exploitation of the gospel.”

            By fulfilling his teaching function, the Holy Spirit bears witness to Jesus:  “When the Paraclete comes… he will bear witness on my behalf” (John 15:26).  He ensures, in other words, that, even if conditions and circumstances change, the identity and continuity of the truth that Jesus revealed to the first community is assured.  What Jesus said, the Holy Spirit recreates and perpetuates. Hence, when the Church speaks on such issues as militarization, globalization, migration, etc. from ethical and doctrinal perspectives, one is assured that it is the same truth the disciples had heard that is being preached today.  Through the Holy Spirit, the Church is guaranteed with the continuity of Jesus words and works, even without his physical presence.