Wednesday, April 22, 2020

From Shadows and Images into the Truth

Ever a gifted orator, St. Augustine was able to deliver a whole lecture on biblical theology in a few words: “The New Testament is hidden in the Old, and the Old Testament is manifested in the New”.

Just got off a video-conferencing meeting with a family Bible sharing group. Although everyone felt a little unnatural, the virtual gathering was nonetheless a welcomed opportunity to meet and share at an unprecedented time of national lockdown. If there was one common thread connecting all the families in isolation, it was a feeling of anxiety and fear. One family expressed concern that sooner or later the nursing home where their mother resided just might experience an outbreak. Another wondered if daily life would ever be the same when the crisis finally ended, whenever that might be. All of us were hoping our children would not lose their jobs – it’s like waiting for the other shoe to drop!

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me “(John 14:1). These comforting words from this Sunday’s gospel cannot have come at a more opportune time! “Do not let your hearts be troubled”, “Do not be afraid”, “Peace be with you” – tender words such as these are constantly on Jesus’ lips (Mt. 14:27, Jn 14:1, 20:19). They sound great, but why should we believe him? In his own words, this is why: “If I do not perform my Father's works, do not believe me; but if I perform them, even if you do not believe me, believe the works...” (John 10:37-38). In other words, our faith in Jesus should rest in the works he performs. The works he performs are what the Father has foretold and commanded from time immemorial. He has brought them all to completion. So, believe!

The “Father’s works” that Jesus has brought to completion include everything foretold about him in the Old Testament – his divinity; his relationship with the Father; his incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension. No human mind can claim to comprehend how God could have known, foretold, and brought to fulfilment everything about Himself through activities and events freely chosen and acted out by erratic humans over time in the volatility of world history. It’s a powerful mystery unfolding before our very eyes in the Old Testament and New Testament books, demanding our deepest reverence and unreserved submission of faith. Ever a gifted orator, St. Augustine was able to capture this awe-inspiring concept about the Scriptures in just a few words: “The New Testament is hidden in the Old, and the Old Testament is manifested in the New”. The Catechism simply calls it “typology” (CCC 128-130). Let’s use this Sunday’s readings to illustrate this important concept, which is absolutely critical for any serious Bible reader to master. We’ll focus on reading 2 – 1 Peter 2:4-9.

“Stone” is one of the most important images used in the OT scriptures to prefigure the Messiah. The book of Daniel, for example, uses “a stone which was hewn from a mountain without a hand being put to it” to prefigure the coming of the Messiah, whose Kingdom will replace all earthly kingdoms (Daniel 2:34). Here in the 2nd reading, Peter identifies Jesus with this OT image and sees him as the “cornerstone” upon which God’s house will be built (1 Pt 2:6, Ps 118:22, Is 28:16). He is also “the stone that the builders rejected” as Israel, the people chosen by God to build His house, was first unfaithful to God and later also rejected Jesus, His Son.

As THE foundation stone, Jesus appoints Peter as his representative on earth: “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” (Mt 16:18). Peter, or “Petros” in Greek or “kepha” in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, is a masculine noun for a sizeable “rock” or “stone” (cf. Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, p. 37). What Peter, the rock or stone, is telling us is that we are also living stones by virtue of our baptismal grace. Therefore, “let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pt 2:5). In other words, all Christians are mandated to be living stones like Peter and, by extension, Jesus. Together as living stones and God’s holy people, we are the Church, the house of God, the new Israel (LG 9). Affirming the same teaching, St. Paul asks, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3:16). As the Church, we are holy because the Holy Spirit dwells in us.

By now our readers should be able to see the profound insight of St. Augustine’s dictum. The New Testament teaching that Christ is the Living Stone and we his Church, is already hidden in the Old Testament, even if it is not in a readily recognizable form (Dan 2, Ps 118, Is 28, etc.). The Old Testament images and prophecies that point us to Christ and his Church, while not immediately comprehensible in the context of the OT, are now made crystal clear in the truths and teachings of the New Testament (1 Pt 2, Mt 16, 1 Cor 3, etc.). St. John Cardinal Newman, sometimes known as an “invisible” Father of Vatican II due to his influence, used these last few words inscribed on his tombstone to teach us what reading the Bible from the OT to the NT is all about: “From Shadows and Images into the Truth”. His words are no less brilliant than the Augustinian dictum.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Christmas Spirit of Humility and Lowliness

My heart is at peace in following Jesus’ descending path to lowliness, which is really the ascending path to see God face-to-face.

It’s difficult to recall precisely how Christmas first left its marks on my young cognitive faculties. The earliest experience I can think of was the blurry image of my primary school teacher dressed up as Santa, holding a bagful of beautifully wrapped presents, blurting out “Ho-Ho-Ho” as he walked on stage in front of a rowdy crowd of hundreds of wide-eyed schoolmates. If my memory serves me right, I think my immediate reaction was one of apprehension. Who on earth was this strange character dressed in some outrageous outfits? Why was my teacher, who was normally composed and dignified, acting like a fool?

That was pretty much my childhood Christmas experience in a nutshell: presents, Christmas cards, funs, parties. Other than a small group of people from a Christian denomination nearby, who would come to my parents’ shop on Christmas eve - all dressed up, candles in hands, caroling cheerfully as they processed - Christmas to me was just a special time for social activities. But over the years, as my Christian faith deepened and my secular heart enlightened by the Holy Spirit, my perception gradually underwent a complete transformation. No longer do I see Christmas as a mere occasion for celebrations and festivities; I am convinced its deeper meaning lies in its religious solemnity. Nor do I enjoy much the delusional feeling of affluence that the Christmas presents bring; I believe the real affluence of Christmas can only be found in its spirit of humility and poverty, starting from the lowliness and destitution of the manger where Jesus, the “King of kings and Lord of lords”, was born (Rev 19:16).

Here we are, barely a month after the Christmastide, on this 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time, the Christmas spirit of humility, poverty and lowliness is still very much alive and visible in the Mass readings: Take care of the hungry, the homeless, and the naked, Isaiah exhorts in the 1st reading (cf. Is 58:7-8). In the 2nd reading, we find Paul preaching to his disciples not “with sublimity of words or of wisdom” but “in weakness and fear and much trembling” (1 Cor 2:1,3).

According to Pope Benedict XVI, the Beatitudes are the best definition of Christian discipleship. Who are Jesus’ true disciples? The lives of the true disciples of Christ must exhibit the ascetic attributes of the Beatitudes, says the Pope. “They are poor, hungry, weeping men; they are hated and persecuted” (Jesus of Nazareth I, p.73). Not surprisingly, the life of Jesus is in itself the fullest manifestation of the Beatitudes (ibid, p.74). It is a life of simplicity, poverty, sorrow, and persecution that culminates or, the world would say, “bottoms out” in his death on the Cross.

In the gospel, Jesus asks his disciples to be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world”; their “light must shine before others” (cf. Mt. 5:13-16). As Jesus will not ask from us anything that he himself doesn’t do, he himself is actually the light “set on a lampstand”, the light that “must shine before others” (cf. Mt. 5:15-16). As Jesus’ followers, we follow his example to “shine before others” when our lives manifest the same radicalism of the Beatitudes, the same poverty and lowliness that define the life of our Lord.

As I reflect on the years gone by, from childhood to old age, from primary school to senior community, from my first Christmas experience in Hong Kong to the most recent one here in Toronto; my heart is overwhelmed by a profound feeling of thankfulness: thankful because my understanding of the meaning of Christmas has really come a long way; thankful because with God’s blessing and unfathomable patience, I have managed to leave behind the culture of possession and delusional affluence to embrace the culture of service and inner freedom; thankful, most of all, because my heart is at peace in following Jesus’ descending path to lowliness (his destitution, poverty, suffering, and death), which, as my mentor Pope Benedict XVI has assured me, is really the ascending path to see God face-to-face (cf. Jesus of Nazareth I, p.95). As Christians, our conviction is that the only way to shine is the way of the Cross.

I’d like to conclude this reflection with this scriptural passage: “Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness…he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him” (Phil 2:6-9).

Thursday, January 2, 2020


「耶路撒冷啊!起來炫耀罷!因你的光明已經來到,上主的榮耀已經照耀在你身上。舉起你的眼向四方觀望罷![萬民]都聚集來到你這裡」(依 60:1, 4)。


本主日的第一篇讀經,先知以像雷射般精準的目光來看未來,預見新耶路撒冷蒙受「上主的榮耀」(依 60:1)。耶路撒冷聖城已成過去,它在公元 70 年被羅馬人攻陷、摧毀;按猶太歷史學家 Josephus,有百多萬居民被屠殺或因饑荒而死亡。但教會—新耶路撒冷—卻出現於世界歷史舞台上,把聖城延續下去, 但不是取代了它(CCC 756)。同樣地,耶路撒冷聖殿已成過去,它也被夷為平地,如耶穌所預言,沒有一塊石頭留在另一塊石頭上 (參 路 21:6)。聖殿既被摧毀,梅瑟法律規定的祭獻及亞郎司祭職,也無可避免地突然中斷了。然而,透過聖祭禮儀、以基督為中心的聖事及從伯多祿傳下來的聖秩職份,教會—新的耶路撒冷聖殿—接過了聖殿欽崇和聖化的神聖職務,並延續至今。

我們絕對不應該因為看見教會有時候會出現的「瑕疵...皺紋,或其他類似的缺陷」而震驚至目瞪口呆(弗 5:27)。我們這樣說並不是意圖輕輕抹過每次教會犯錯時所帶來的後果的嚴重性,和這些事情如何危害著伯多祿這條船(參閱路8:22-23)。如果說人生是一個讓我們學習及努力達致完善的過程,歷史便是一個讓教會—新耶路撒冷—進步並輾轉地日趨圓滿的過程。常被稱為聖城的教會,在經歷著煉淨;基督會使教會「成為聖潔和沒有污點的」(CCC 756, 弗 5:27)。「我們就是活石,要在此世形成一個屬神的殿宇」,直至天地更新,新耶路撒冷便會「從天上由天主那裡降下,就如一位裝飾好迎接自己丈夫的新娘」(CCC 756, 默 21:2)。

依撒意亞所預見的新耶路撒冷也是屬於天下萬民的:「萬民要奔赴你的光明...他們都聚集來到你這裡」(依 60:3-4)。儘管依撒意亞的預言對當代猶太人來說是不可思議的 - 因為他們排斥外邦人,認為他們是「不潔」的 - 但是它卻在至公的教會中得以圓滿實現。「至公」一詞最早由安提約基雅的聖依納爵(公元 108 年卒)首先使用,是普世及或天下萬民的意思。在第二篇讀經中,聖保祿在論及公教會這重要的特性時說,它是「藉著啟示,使我得知 ⋯ 的奧秘」(弗 3:2)。在這普世或至公的天國的奧秘中,「外邦人藉著福音在基督耶穌內與猶太人同為承繼人,同為一身,同為恩許的分享人」(弗 3:6)。

如此說來,我們便明白為何本主日的讀經以《瑪竇福音》三位賢士來朝的記載來結束。在多年準備、預言及期待之後;在漫長的分娩及產痛之後;歷史終於給人誕下了救世主,他是「一個嬰兒,裹著襁褓,躺在馬槽裡」(路 2:12)。祂會讓萬有修和,重歸於好:「無論是地上的,是天上的,都與自己重歸於好,因著他十字架的血立定了和平」(哥 1:20)。時候將到而且現在就是,拆毁所有屏障吧!除去一切仇恨和萬民之間的敵意吧!看啊!他們來了:來自東方和代表著外邦人的三位賢士;他們向新生王致敬,帶來了「禮物:黃金、乳香和沒藥」,明認著祂的王權、天主性和苦難;就如依撒意亞所預視的一樣 (瑪 2:11, Ignatius Catholic Study Bible)。

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

The New and Glorious Jerusalem As Envisioned by Isaiah

The time has come for all barriers to come down, all hatreds to disappear, and all hostilities among the nations to vanish.

“Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you…Raise your eyes and look about; [the nations] all gather and come to you” (Is 60:1, 4).

At a time when Israel’s survival as a nation is threatened by the collapse of the kingdom of Israel in the north and the invasion of Jerusalem by Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, in the south, Isaiah’s message of hope that extolls the splendor of Jerusalem and its glorious future must have sounded more like a mockery than an encouragement to its people. But with the benefit of hindsight and the enlightenment of history, now we know his prophecy is in fact so accurate that it strains credulity.

With a laser-sharp futuristic vision, the prophet foresees in this Sunday’s first reading a New Jerusalem upon which “the glory of the Lord shines” (Is 60:1). Gone was the city of Jerusalem, sacked and destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D; its residents, more than one million of them according to the Jewish historian Josephus, massacred or left to die from famine. Appearing on the world stage of history, not as a replacement but as a continuation, was the Church, the New Jerusalem (CCC 756). Gone also was the Jerusalem temple, razed to the ground, not one stone was left upon another as Jesus had predicted (cf. Lk 21:6). With the temple demolished, all but inevitable was the abrupt termination of the Mosaic sacrifices and Aaronic priesthood. The sacred duties of worship and sanctification of the temple have been taken over and continued until this day by the Church, the New Jerusalem Temple, through its divine liturgies, Christ-centered sacraments, and Petrine priesthood.

Never should we be taken aback by the “spot or wrinkle or any such thing” that we see in the Church every so often (Eph 5:27). We say this without minimizing the seriousness of the consequences that endanger Peter’s boat whenever the Church falls short (cf. Lk 8:22-23). If life to us is a process of learning and striving for excellence, history to the Church, the New Jerusalem, is a process for it to progress and spiral towards perfection. The Church, often referred to as the Holy City, is undergoing purification; it will be made “holy and without blemish” by Christ (CCC756, Eph 5:27). “As living stones we here on earth are built into it”, until the world is made anew and the New Jerusalem “[comes] down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (CCC756, Rev 21:2).

The New Jerusalem envisioned by Isaiah is also for all nations: “Nations shall walk by your light…they all gather and come to you” (Is 60:3-4). While unthinkable to the Jews at the time who shunned the Gentiles because they were considered “unclean”, the prophecy is perfectly fulfilled in the Catholic Church. “Catholic”, a word first used by St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. 108 AD), means universal or for all nations. St. Paul refers to this important attribute of the Church as “the mystery [that] was made known to me by revelation” in the second reading (Eph 3:2). In this mystery of the universality or catholicity of the kingdom of God: “the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph 3:6).

Now we know why the Church concludes this Sunday’s readings with Matthew’s gospel account on the visit of the three wise men. After many years of preparation, prophecy, and anticipation; after a lengthy labor and many painful birth pangs; history has given birth, in this “infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger”, to the world’s savior (Lk 2:12). He will reconcile all things, “making peace by the blood of his cross, whether those on earth or those in heaven” (Col 1:20). The time has come for all barriers to come down, all hatreds to disappear, and all hostilities among the nations to vanish. So here they come: three wise men from the east, representing the Gentile nations; paying tribute to the new born King; bringing with them “gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” in recognition of his Kingship, Divinity, and Passion; just as Isaiah has envisioned (Mt.2:11, Ignatius Catholic Study Bible).

Monday, November 25, 2019

A Voice in the Desert

We can’t possibly celebrate the coming of Christ without mentioning the one who prepared the way before him. Like Matthew, we see the appearance of John the Baptist in the desert of Judea as a fulfillment of another Messianic prophecy of Isaiah: “a voice of one crying out in the desert [will] prepare the way of the Lord” (Mt 3:3, Is 40:3).

A little background for John the Baptist’s appearance is in order. Around the time of Jesus, the Holy Land is a land of great unrest. The Davidic kingdom lies in ruins. Political uprisings against the Romans are common place. Israel has been waiting for centuries “the Prophet” that God had promised Moses - one like Moses, who would be able to see God face to face (cf. Deut 18:15, 34:10). Not only has the emergence of “the Prophet” remained an unfulfilled promise, Israel also has been without prophets for many years. For the chosen people of God, it feels as though they were living in a prolonged period of divine abandonment.

This explains why it is such a big deal when John the Baptist appears: finally, God is sending Israel a prophet, albeit the last O.T. prophet! What ensues is almost like a Ben-Hur moment. According to Matthew, “Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River” (Mt 3:5-6).

Turned out, an even bigger deal is still in store. It catches even John by surprise. Along with the multitudes of people that converge on the Jordan area where John’s baptism is being administered, Jesus, the person whose way he is to prepare, also appears (cf. Lk 3:7-14)! Like the crowds whom John admonishes as “brood of vipers”, he is also asking to receive baptism (Lk 3:7, Mt 3:13). Isn't Jesus the promised Prophet (cf. Deut 18:15, 34:10)? Why does he need John’s baptism? That will be a whole new topic for us to contemplate as the season of Advent continues to unfold.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Isaiah’s Messianic Prophecy on a Shoot from the Stump of Jesse

Known for its significance for the New Testament and its unbelievably accurate prophecies that find perfect fulfillment in Christ, Isaiah is seen as “the fifth gospel” by some theologians (New Collegeville Bible Commentary on Isaiah, p.6). In the first reading of the 2nd Sunday of Advent, Isaiah shows us why this honor is well-deserved. Through the prompting and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the prophet refers to the Messiah as “a shoot [that] shall sprout from the stump of Jesse” (Is 11:1).

“[T]he stump of Jesse” is a reference to Judah because Jesse, King David’s father, is from the tribe of Judah. As the only territory of the Davidic dynasty remaining under Jewish jurisdiction after the Babylonian Exile, Judea is like the desolate stump of a gigantic tree that has once been lofty and overpowering. The prophet predicts that out of this barren stump will grow a shoot or branch that will enable it to flourish again. What he is referring to is obviously the new Davidic kingdom – the Heavenly Kingdom that Jesus, the new David, will bring.

Not to be left unmentioned is the humor – the play on words – of the Scriptures: Jesus, the “shoot/branch” in Isaiah’s prophecy, grew up in a town called Nazareth, which literally means “branch town” (Lk 2:4, 39)!

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

“For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save” (Luke 19:10)

We like to think that we can have God in our own pockets. But we’ve got it all wrong. It’s God who finds us and reveals Himself to us; it’s Him who saves us.

“For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost” (Lk 19:10). With this stunning statement from Jesus, this Sunday’s Mass readings conclude with a big bang.

Jesus, the Son of Man, is divine; he is God. In making this statement, what he is saying effectively is that God has PERSONALLY come to seek us out and to save us! “What was lost”, understood in its individual sense, refers to you and me, who are “lost” because we are sinners. When understood corporately, the term means the whole creation, which “was made subject to futility…[and] is groaning in labor pains even until now” since the fall of our first parents (Rom 8:20, 22). What is so stunning about Jesus’ claim? Think about it: God, the Almighty, in whom “all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible” were created and before whom “every knee should bend”, somehow has chosen to humble Himself and descend into this lower sphere that is ours, which is both sinful and chaotic, in order to seek and save us (Col 1:16, Phil 2:10)! If this is not stunning, I don’t know what is.

The Judeo-Christian concept that sees salvation as a top-down, divine effort from above - not a bottom-up, human effort from below - is unique and highly intriguing. Just as intriguing is the consistency of the Scriptures in advancing this idea. “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you”, insists Jesus (John 15:16). Long before him, we have Ezekiel’s prophetic declaration: “For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will look after and tend my sheep” (Eze 34:11, italic mine). Before Ezekiel, Isaiah’s message is just as enlightening: “Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; With divine recompense he comes to save you” (Is 35:4, italic mine).

“Jesus’ death”, explains Pope Benedict XVI, “[is] the fulfillment of a love in which God himself comes down to us, so as to draw us back up to himself” (Jesus of Nazareth II, p. 253). In other words, salvation is a divine initiative in which God descends to seek and save us out of love, not a human endeavor in which we ascend to attain divine greatness, as so many religions outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition generally believe. It is a cosmic and monumental undertaking carefully thought out and miraculously accomplished by God and God alone. It’s a merciful act because its benevolence we do not deserve. It’s called grace because what’s bestowed on us is from above, beyond human ability and comprehension.

Is this a totally one-sided equation – a purely God-driven undertaking that requires or allows no human input whatsoever? No. What is required – and what God has graciously allowed in order to make us a partner, no matter how small, of this monumental endeavor - is our free and humble response to God’s call for repentance. It’s exactly what Jesus asked of us when he proclaimed the coming of his kingdom: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 4:17). He was inviting the world to get ready for this important partnership.

A case in point is this Sunday’s gospel. Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector in Jericho, repents upon seeing Jesus, and promises to give away half of his possessions to the poor and repay four times over anything he has extorted from anyone (Lk 19:1-2, 8). Zacchaeus repents in both words and deeds. He does so because he realizes he has sinned. And he is able to realize because he has humility in his heart, which causes him to repent. True repentance will not go unnoticed by Jesus. He sees in Zacchaeus, who is “short in stature”, a giant of a man because he, like Jesus, is willing to humble himself. He is ready for partnership; he can be saved.

It pains my heart to see that so many people still rely on their own effort to try to “find God”. They work hard to “elevate themselves spiritually to a higher level of perfection”. We like to think that we can have God in our own pockets. But we’ve got it all wrong. It’s God who finds us and reveals Himself to us; it’s Him who saves us even though His economy of salvation always has room for our input and partnership – our repentance. This reminder from Jesus is spot on: “It is not you who chose me, but I who chose you” (John 15:16).