Thursday, August 8, 2019

“All Things Are Vanity” (Ecc 1:2)

When that day comes, hopefully my son would also be confident that his dad “is rich in what matters to God” (Luke 12:21).

Soon after my dad’s funeral about 4 years ago, my siblings in New York City and I had to clear out his senior apartment in order to return it to the housing authority. A few weeks ago, I had to do the same for my mother-in-law; her senior apartment had been her residence for more than 15 years. But this time, it was done with my son’s assistance and for a different reason: she had been admitted into a senior home. Although the two experiences and the circumstances were not exactly identical, the emptiness and sinking feelings that captivated my heart as I went through my loved ones’ personal belongings were eerily the same.

It was a painstaking process of examining, reminiscing over, and eventually getting rid of somebody’s very personal possessions: old letters, including some written by me; cassette tapes and CDs that were familiar to me when growing up or younger; tarnished photos with images of people known to me, including images of myself and my family members; personal contacts; exquisite gifts and fine clothes from their loved ones, including me, that were tucked away neatly in special places. It’s a heartbreaking process that ended in the riddance of many things that had once been so dear to the heart of the deceased or the person no longer living there. It was also a very intimate process because what I sifted through were somebody’s personal possessions accumulated over many years. I was privileged to enter the personal chamber of somebody’s life.

“Vanity of vanities…All things are vanity!”, this Sunday’s first reading is ringing out loud in my head as I reflect on the above experiences (Ecc 1:2). In the gospel, Jesus also cautions us not to follow the footsteps of the rich man in his parable, who spends many years of his life storing up earthly “good things” but “is not rich in what matters to God” (Luke 12:19, 21).

Nobody other than God Himself can judge whether somebody is saved (Mt. 7:1). As St. Paul explains, “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees?” (Rm 8:24). But when it comes to my dad and my mother-in-law, I know the heavenly treasures that they have stored for themselves are plentiful; I am convinced, having lived and interacted with them for so many years, that throughout their lives they have followed St. Paul’s teaching in the second reading closely and sought “what is above” (Col 3:1). The realization is of great consolation to me.

As I methodically sifted through my mother-in-law’s belongings together with my son, I couldn’t help but realize that when the time comes for me to check into a senior home or leave this world, he just might be the one doing the same painstaking work for me. When that day comes, hopefully his heart, burdened inevitably by the same emptiness and sinking feelings that had once burdened his dad’s, would also be lifted up in faith and hope, believing that his dad “is rich in what matters to God” (Luke 12:21).

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

不得回頭

新盟約時代已像黎明般展開,回頭不再是一個可行的選擇;「延遲對天國的承諾無異於拒絕它」


本主日的讀經聚焦於兩個不同的片段,都是關於人在被召叫執行來自天主的神聖使命時,要求回頭去處理個人事務。它們分別來自舊約和新約:厄里叟在接替厄里亞為先知前,想告別父母;福音中的兩個人在接受耶穌的召喚,跟隨祂之前,希望「埋葬我的父親」及「告別我的家人」(路 9:59,61)。在舊約片段中,厄里叟的請求被答允,他亦完成了繼承先知的使命。在新約片段中,兩人的請求都被駁回,耶穌召叫他們作門徒的建議遂不能成事。為什麼兩者的結果不同?耶穌的駁斥是否過於苛刻?以下的反思嘗試回答這兩個問題。讓我們從耶穌的駁斥開始。

無論意圖有多好,回頭這行為表明了人的決心並不足夠。這人已決定了值得他立即關注和行動的事,並不是天主對他的邀請;與他個人比較喜歡做的事情相比,他被召叫去實行天主的使命相對地沒有那麼重要。在厄里叟的事件中,由於告別父母對他來說更重要,繼承厄里亞的先知事工必須退居二線。至於福音中那兩人,埋葬父親和告別家人是他們的當務之急;因此,跟隨耶穌是他們必須暫時擱置的次要任務。

我們不論以任何方式去看,這兩個片段背後的問題癥結,就是世俗的事情─無論事情是多麼美好和崇高─被看作比起天主的召喚更值得人毫無保留地忠誠奉獻。這就是聖經教導上主是一個「忌邪的天主」的原因(出 34:14)。我們與天主的關係就像婚姻:必須帶有基督和教會夫妻之愛的標記(參見 弗 5:22-30);這愛的關係,不僅是自由、忠信和有成果的,也是完全的─毫無保留的!

我們現已理解為什麼耶穌對這兩人的駁斥並非嚴厲,但仍然有一個問題有待解答:為什麼厄里叟可以回頭,但福音中的兩人卻不能做同樣的事情?

我們要牢記一個理解聖經的首要原則,天主就像一位優秀的教師,祂會考慮到學生不同的成熟程度,並相應地教育他們。《天主教教理》稱之為「天主救恩之愛的整個神性教育法」(教理 122)。天主向舊約時代的人啟示時,由於他們對來自天主計劃的理解在某程度上是很初步的,並未得到基督降生成所啟示的真理的益處,因著這神聖教育法,舊約時期的啟示可能「含有一些短暫和不完美的事」,但為了他們屬靈上的得益,這都是必需的(教理 122)。在舊約時期,當天主準備祂的子民去迎接基督的來臨時,祂允許了,或者我們可以說,暫時容忍了厄里叟的回頭。但現在當祂已經清楚地啟示了祂的救恩計劃,救贖也藉着基督完全實現了; 衪對祂子民─現在已成為天主的義子及「基督的同繼承者」(羅 8:17)─所要求的是一份完全的聖德,以及對祂聖意毫無保留的接受。任何低於山中聖訓所要求的美德的標準─「你們應當是成全的,如同你們的天父是成全的一樣」─都不會被接受(瑪5:48)。

新盟約時代已像黎明般展開─一個以基督無條件和毫無保留的自我奉獻的愛作為標誌的年代─教會作為基督的淨配,也需要具備同樣無條件和毫無保留的自我奉獻的愛。回頭不再是一個可行的選擇;「延遲對天國的承諾無異於拒絕它」(Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament on 路加福音 9:59ff)。


No Turning Back

Turning back is no longer an option; “postponing commitment to the kingdom is tantamount to rejecting it”


The readings of this Sunday put the spotlight on two different episodes about people turning back to take care of personal matters when called upon to undertake a divine mission, one each from the OT and the NT: Elisha wanting to bid his parents farewell before taking Elijah’s mantle of prophecy; two men in the gospel hoping to “bury my father” and “say farewell to my family” before accepting Jesus’ call to follow him (Luke 9:59, 61). In the OT episode, Elisha’s request is granted, and the succession completed. In the NT episode, both men’s requests are refuted, and Jesus’ discipleship propositions come to no avail. Why the difference? Are Jesus’ refutations too harsh? This reflection will attempt to answer these two questions. Let’s begin with Jesus’ refutations.

No matter how good the intention, turning back is an act indicative of a less than total commitment. The person has decided that the task deserving his immediate attention and action somehow is not the divine invitation being extended; and that compared to the task that he personally prefers to work on, the divine mission he is called upon to do somehow has less of a priority. In Elisha’s case, since bidding his parents farewell is more important to him, succeeding Elijah’s prophetic ministry must take a back seat. In the case of the two men in the gospel, the burial of father and the farewell to family are their immediate preoccupations; following Jesus is, therefore, a secondary undertaking that must be temporarily put on hold.

Every which way we look at it, the problem underlying both episodes is that earthly undertakings, no matter how good and noble, are allowed to take precedence over divine callings worthy of unreserved dedication. This is why the Scripture teaches that the LORD is a “jealous God” (Exodus 34:14). Our relationship with God is like a marriage: it must bear the mark of the spousal love of Christ and the Church (cf. Eph 5:22-30); it’s a loving relationship that is not only free, faithful, and fruitful; it’s also TOTAL – unreserved!

Now that we understand why Jesus’ refutations of the two men are not harsh, one more question still remains to be answered: Why is it OK for Elisha to turn back, and somehow not OK for the two men in the gospel to do the same?

One overarching principle to keep in mind for understanding the Bible is that God is like a good school teacher who takes into consideration His students’ different levels of maturity and educates them accordingly. The Catechism calls this the “divine pedagogy of God’s saving love” (CCC 122). As a result of this divine pedagogy, what God revealed to the OT people, whose understanding of the divine plan was somewhat rudimentary without the benefit of the revelation of the incarnate Christ, may “contain matters imperfect and provisional” but were somehow needed for their spiritual well-being (CCC 122). Elisha’s turning back was permitted or, shall we say, tolerated by God in the OT time as a provisional measure when the people of God were being prepared for the coming of Christ. But now that His plan of salvation has been clearly revealed, and the economy of redemption fully accomplished through Christ; what is required of His people – now the adopted children of God and “joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17) - is complete holiness and unreserved acceptance of His divine will. Anything less than the virtue of the Sermon on the Mount – “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” – will be unacceptable (Mt. 5:48).

With the dawning of the New Covenant era - an era marked by Christ’s unconditional and unreserved self-giving love - what is required of the Church, the spouse of Christ, is the same unconditional and unreserved self-giving love. Turning back is no longer an option; “postponing commitment to the kingdom is tantamount to rejecting it” (Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament on Luke 9:59ff).

Monday, May 20, 2019

Is Jesus Departing for a Distant Star on His Ascension?


“When he had said this, as they were looking on,
he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight” (Acts 1:9).




Let’s face it, the more we read about the gospel account of Jesus’ Ascension, the more we are reminded of its resemblance to the good-guy-bad-guy stories of Walt Disney. The bad guys beat up on the good guy; the good guy suffers terrible humiliations and hardships; a magical power from above appears to rescue the good guy and fix up the bad guys; the good guy rises from his demise and literally disappears into the sky in a thousand points of glimmering and swirling lights. What a wonderful ending that makes the child in us happy!

But Walt Disney magics are pure fantasies. In the real world we live in, reason, to the extent that our rational faculties allow us to command, must be the steering wheel that directs our thinking process as we strive to understand the empirical experiences happening all around us. When confronted with the extraordinary phenomenon of the Ascension, as recounted by St. Luke in this Sunday’s 1st and 3rd readings, we must ask: Where is Jesus going? Is he departing into a remote region of the cosmos somewhere? Is his Ascension a journey to a distant star? The scene that ended Jesus’ journey on earth, glorious as it is, remains perplexing and incomprehensible to human reason even after 2000 years. Could the Ascension account be a fabrication of Jesus’ followers, created like a Walt Disney, feel-good fantasy to gloss over the tragic death of their master? Questions such as these must be addressed and put to rest, leaving no excuse for the probing mind’s speculative instinct to fester further.

What we must not lose sight of is that before Jesus’ Ascension, there was his resurrection. As pointed out by Pope Benedict XVI, resurrection brings a whole new dimension of space and physicality that is completely foreign and incomprehensible to us. It’s a state of being not experienced by any human beings until it’s time for our own resurrection when “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake; some shall live forever, others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace” (Daniel 12:2).

What’s really enlightening about the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances is that they give us a first glimpse, no matter how primitive, of what it’s like to live in a resurrected body, even if the encounters were scantily and poorly illustrated by the witnesses, who understandably were shocked and disoriented, and simply lacked the intuition needed to understand the extraordinary experiences properly. Clearly, the resurrected Christ no longer exists in the spatial dimension of this world: the doors were locked where the disciples gathered, but he was able to enter somehow; and did so suddenly (c.f. John 20:19, 26). The encounters show that the resurrected Christ doesn’t exist the way we do: in one space alongside other spaces. Under normal circumstances, when a physical human body, or any physical body for that matter, rises up, it means the object is vacating from a lower space to enter into a higher space. This is the logic underlying our earlier speculation that maybe Jesus is going up to a distant star. But with the resurrected Christ, who exists in a new dimension of space and physicality, this is not the case at all.

This understanding of the resurrected Christ leads us to conclude that Jesus’ upward movement on Ascension is not his “going away” (again, forget about the “distant star”!), but his “coming” in a new and resurrected state; it’s not a departure, but a new form of closeness and continuing presence. This is evident in the post-Ascension reaction of the apostles, who “worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy” (Luke 24:52). If Jesus had really departed, shouldn’t they be perplexed and sad instead? Jesus, who has garnered a new dimension of being through resurrection, is now as close to us as ever, if not closer. He now has a divine presence that transcends our spatial dimension, a presence that manifests itself especially in the Eucharist.

No, Jesus’ Ascension doesn’t mean he’s relocating to a distant star. It doesn’t even mean he is leaving us. His upward movement is indicative of “an ontological leap”, to use Pope Benedict XVI’s language, that opens up “a new space of life, a new space of being in union with God”. To borrow a socioeconomic jargon, it’s “upward mobility” in its truest sense! With this understanding of Jesus’ Ascension in mind, we can appreciate better Jesus’ words to the Apostles before his Passion: “I go away and I will come to you” (John 14:28).

(Reference: Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth – From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, 272-293.)

Monday, March 25, 2019

Repent or Parish

Repent or perish (Lk 13:5). Jesus meant every word he said.


God’s mysterious name, “YHWH”, a 4-letter Hebrew word, or “Yahweh” with vowels added for pronunciation, means “I am He who is” (CCC 206). It reveals God’s primary attribute: a pure Being who simply “is”; a Being whose existence gives rise to all things; “and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:17). This awesome mystery that explains my consciousness, breathing, and writing in this moment – and your consciousness, breathing, and reading - is somehow revealed to Moses in the burning bush in this Sunday’s first reading.

The ancient Israelites did not take this biblical encounter between God and Moses lightly. Well aware of their privilege of receiving this revealed truth, Israel venerated God’s holy name as absolutely sacred. So much so they would refrain from saying it directly, choosing to address God as “Adonai” (HB), or “Kyrios” (GK), which is translated as “Lord” in English (CCC 209). (Therefore, when the New Testament writers refer to Jesus as “Lord”, it is effectively a recognition of his divinity, i.e. Jesus is God Himself (CCC446).) What is more, the Day of Atonement was the only day in the year during which the Jewish high priest was allowed to utter God’s holy name, Yahweh, and then only inside the Holy of Holies (Thomas Lane, “The Catholic Priest-hood”, p.38).

Connected to Israel’s veneration of God’s holy name is also a long history of its close encounters, interactions, and covenants with God. Yahweh is “the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob” (Ex 3:15); Israel is God’s Chosen People who are “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” according to this Sunday’s second reading.

Being God’s people chosen from among all nations is a special blessing. But if the blessing is not received well, it can turn into a curse. This is the warning underlying Jesus’ parable in this Sunday’s gospel. Israel is the fig tree planted by God in a special orchard (Jer 8:13, Hos 9:10). It is expected to bear fruit. What fruit? The fruit of repentance. As God’s “first born son” among all nations (Ex 4:22), Israel has failed to do what God asked of it: becoming “a kingdom of priests, a holy nation” (Ex 19:6). Not only that, now that God has sent them their long-awaited Messiah, Israel, ever “a stiff-necked people” like its ancestors, refuses to receive him (Ex 32:9).

For its failures and hardness of heart, Israel deserves nothing better than being cut down like a fig tree that bears no fruit. But God’s mercy knows no bounds. As the Responsorial Psalm re-minds us, “The Lord is kind and merciful” (Ps 103:8). Despite Israel’s impenitence, God will leave the tree “for this year”, hoping “it may bear fruit in the future” (Lk 13:9). One last chance, in other words. Result? Sad to say, Jesus’ warning was left unheeded. In 70 A.D., soon after Jesus’ death, Israel’s sins finally caught up with it. Jerusalem had to suffer a devastating massacre and destruction at the hands of the Romans. Its Temple was completely burnt down and all sacrifices ceased. Repent or perish (Lk 13:5). Jesus meant every word he said.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

你們要赦免,也就蒙赦免(路6:37)

我仍然滿懷希望,天主最終能贏得她的心,將一個判斷和譴責的心轉化為一顆慈悲和寬恕的心。


相當難以置信地,我在天主教中華殉道聖人堂主持的聖經研討聚會(BSP),已超過十六年。每年的聖經研討聚會,對作為領航員的我,及參與這事工的組長、參加者和志願工作者,在不同程度上都是美好的祝福。BSP 不僅幫助我們大家定期研讀聖經,還使我們繼續在靈修上成長,並把我們的生活建基於天主聖言 — 而聖言是「萬有之先就有」和「萬有都賴他而存在」的(哥1:17)。

今個主日的福音讓我想起了一位 BSP 的參加者,在課程中,她至少問過我五、六次,為什麼耶穌要求我們「愛你們的仇人,善待他們」(路 6:35)。很明顯,我沒有很成功地給她一個令人信服的答案,否則她不會一遍又一遍地問同樣的問題。一向樂觀的我,並不認為她揮之不去的懷疑是我的失敗。反之,我認為在她的懷疑背後,是基督宗教其中最困難的條件之一; 是一個很少人能夠掌握的條件。於那些能够做到的少數人來說,如果他們沒有一顆被聖神徹底點燃的心,及一個毫無保留地接受天主的愛的決心,他們就不可能成功。在本主日的第一篇讀經,我們就面對面見到這樣的一個人 – 達味。

「我的靈魂,請向上主讚頌,我的五內,請向主名讚頌」(詠 103:1)。本主日的《答唱詠》中,達味對天主毫無保留的愛,顯而易見。 「上主富於仁慈寬恕,極其慈悲,遲於發怒。他沒有按我們的罪惡對待我們,也沒有照我們的過犯報復我們。」(詠 103: 8,10)。達味非常明白自己的所犯的罪,他一次又一次經歷了天主的慈悲,他知道他無法在天主面前宣稱正義並譴責他的敵人。撒烏耳在他的邪惡中可能多次背叛和迫害達味; 他可能給了達味充足的理由去謀反和報復。 但是達味知道憐憫他的天主希望他對他人仁慈,特別是對撒烏耳這位上主的受傅者,達味必不得加害(參見 撒上 26:23)。

「你們應當慈悲,就像你們的父那樣慈悲。你們不要判斷,你們也就不受判斷;不要定罪,也就不被定罪;你們要赦免,也就蒙赦免。」(路 6:36-37)。我不能確定這位參加了BSP十六年的朋友是否有機會閱讀這篇文章。如果這麼多年來,我無法說服她寬恕她的敵人,我不奢望這篇簡短的反思能夠做到這一點。但我仍然滿懷希望 — 希望只要她繼續參加 BSP,並把自己的生命建基於天主的聖言上,上主最終必能贏得她的心,將一個判斷和譴責的心轉化為一顆慈悲和寬恕的心。亞孟。

Saturday, February 16, 2019

一生何求?



這十多天頗充實,完成很多工作。昨夜難得熟睡,雖較遲起牀,還可以在Starbucks買咖啡前,環繞Toogood Pond步行一週。零下七八度氣温加風速,但陽光普照。厚雪和冰地上獨步前行,倍感詩意。

其實人一生重要的不是要做很多事情,重要的是活好天主賜給我們的每一刻。無論處人或處事,都按真理而行;無論工作或娛樂,都彰顯著基督。「我生活已不是我生活,而是基督在我內生活。」(迦拉達書2:20)能這樣做,每人都可以平安面對最終審判(默示錄20:11ff)。

對,總有做得不好的時候,但天主不是要我們憑自己力量去達到完美。祂不是這樣無理的。祂體悉人的軟弱,「因為我們所有的,不是一位不能同情我們弱點的大司祭,而是一位在各方面與我們相似,受過試探的,只是沒有罪過」的主(希伯來人書4:15);天主已為我們準備了基督救恩,去彌補一切人努力的不足。祂要求的是我们真心地,全力奮勉地做,力求止於至善,其餘的祂自會照料:「正為了這個原故,你們要全力奮勉,在你們的信仰上還要加毅力...。」(伯多禄後書1:5,創世記22:14))

感謝主!