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 is 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).

Wednesday, August 28, 2019



本主日的主題很清楚—謙卑。讀經一的每一節都洋溢着這主題:「我兒,執行你的工作時,應當謙和 ⋯ 你越偉大,在一切事上越當謙下 ⋯」(德 3:17-18)。在福音裏,耶穌叫人赴婚宴時,要坐末席,祂的訊息也是謙卑。但是為什麼本主日的讀經二要取自致希伯來人書第12 章,那使人恐慌震慄的西乃山天主顯現的場面卻不太清楚。當然,這場面是萬分觸目的,但那被西乃山的嚴峻氣氛和「烈火、濃雲、黑暗、暴風、號筒的響聲」所震懾而嚇至魂飛魄散的整代以色列人,與謙卑這題目究竟有什麼關係(希 12:18-19)?就讓我們認真思考一下。

要了解希 12 ,當從整部《希伯來書》的角度看。連繫著這書的一個共同點在於兩組強烈對比:那可見的與不可見的,以及地上的與天上的。對作者來說,可見的和地上的是預示的表象,把我們指向那不可見的和天上的。有很多例子,但在這簡短的反思中,我們只引申其中一個來說明。在舊約聖經,大司祭在會幕中代表以色列民奉獻禮品和祭獻,為使他們的罪得到赦免。但其實在一所由人手興建的建築物中,奉獻農穫、飛鳥、動物等受造物,並不足以赦罪。《希伯來書》明白這些獻祭只是一個預示,指向著耶穌。祂為救贖我們的罪,在十字架上以自己的身體作祭獻。祂是永恆的大司祭,進入了那看不見的天上聖所,獻出自己的寶血,為全人類獲得永恆的救恩。

同樣地,「那可捉摸的」 西乃山和那令以色列人魂飛魄散的天主顯現的經驗,其實是要將我們指向熙雍山,即「永生天主的城,天上的耶路撒冷」 (12:18, 22)。聚集在天上耶路撒冷的是何人?「千萬天使的盛會,和那些已被登錄在天上的首生者的集會,接近了審判眾人的天主,接近了已獲得成全的義人的靈魂,接近了新約的中保耶穌」(12:22-24)。這是什麼場合的盛會?這是個欽崇朝拜天主的禮儀。為什麼要欽崇朝拜?他們沒有其他事做嗎?這是因為我們生命的意義就是為了欽崇天主—我們生命中的每一刻都應該光榮天主,祂是我們的整個存有,我們生而為人的理由,祂當受我們全心全意的欽崇和讚美。我們在世的時候未必會這樣做,但在天堂,我們會這樣做:每一刻都是為天主和與祂共融而活。所以創世記六天創世的記述在第七天達到了高峰,即安息日,天主之日。我們本來就是為了歸向天主而受造。這樣看吧:一個不為天主而活和不與祂共融的人,會是怎樣的呢?聽來他好像是在地獄,在一個受永罰的地方。

《希伯來書》的作者提醒當時的基督徒團體,他們參與彌撒聖祭時「並不是走近了那可觸摸的」(12:18)。藉着可見的聖祭,他們「卻接近了熙雍山和永生天主的城,天上的耶路撒冷」,「接近了千萬天使的盛會和那些已被登錄在天上的首生者的集會,接近了審判眾人的天主,接近了已獲得成全的義人的靈魂,接近了新約的中保耶穌」,而成為天上聖祭的參與者 (12:18, 22-24, 天主教教理 1136, 1139) !

如果西乃山上的以色列民,只是「走近了那可觸摸的」- 那為我們指向的標記 – 便已經如此震慄驚嚇,那麼當我們基督徒以敬畏至聖的心參與彌撒聖祭,知道自己接近的是那真實的奧秘—「熙雍山和永生天主的城,天上的耶路撒冷」時,我們豈不更應該要謙卑自己(12:22)?彌撒是真正「天國臨現人間」;而根據教宗聖若望保祿二世,「我們在地上慶祝的,是參與天上禮儀的奧蹟」。人經常會問為什麼天主教徒在參與彌撒的時候,會下跪、低頭、捶胸和做各種謙卑自己的動作?我們現在明白了。

Attending Mass with Humility and Holy Fear

Why do the Catholics genuflect, bow their heads, strike their chests, and make all kinds of gestures to humble themselves in the Mass? Now we know why.

It is clear what the theme of this Sunday is. Humility. It permeates every verse of the first reading: “My child, conduct your affairs with humility…Humble yourself the more, the greater you are…” (Sir 3:17-18). In the gospel, it is also Jesus’ message when he asks people to take the lowest place at the wedding banquet table out of humility. What is not so clear, however, is why the featured story of this Sunday’s second reading is from Hebrews 12 - the frightening scene of the Sinai theophany. While the spectacle is impressive, what do the stern and terrifying atmosphere of Mount Sinai and a whole generation of Israelites cowering under the threat of “a blazing fire and gloomy darkness and storm and a trumpet blast” have to do with the overall theme of humility (Hebrews 12:18-19)? Let’s think this through carefully.

To understand the Hebrews 12 passage properly, one must read it in the context of the whole book of Hebrews. One common thread running through Hebrews is the stark contrast between the visible and invisible dimensions, and the earthly and heavenly elements. To the author, the visible and the earthly are signs prefiguring, or pointing us to, the invisible and the heavenly. Numerous are the examples, but in this brief reflection we shall highlight just one to illustrate our point. In the OT, the high priest represents the people of Israel to offer gifts and sacrifices in the tabernacle for the redemption of their sins. But the offering of created things – harvests, birds, animals – in an earthly structure built by human hands is incapable of redeeming sins. Hebrews understands such offerings as a sign foreshadowing and pointing us to Jesus’ redemptive offering of his own body on the cross. He is the eternal High Priest who entered into the invisible sanctuary of heaven and offered his own blood to obtain eternal redemption for all.

Similarly, Mount Sinai, “which could be touched”, and the terrorizing theophany that Israel experienced are a sign pointing us to Mount Zion, “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (12:18, 22). Who are the people gathering in the heavenly Jerusalem? “[C]ountless angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, and God the judge of all, and the spirits of the just made perfect, and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant” (12:22-24). What is the occasion of this gathering? It’s a liturgical worship. But why worship? Don’t they have better things to do? This is because worship is what life is meant to be – every moment of our life is for the glorification of God, who is the reason for our being and is worthy of the undivided attention and praise of worship. While we are not necessarily doing that in this world, that’s what we will do in heaven: living every moment of our life for God and in union with Him. This is why 6 days of creation in the Genesis creation account culminates in the Sabbath – the 7th day, the day of the Lord. We are created for worship. Look at it this way: What happens to a person when he doesn’t live for God and is not in union with Him? That sounds like he’s in hell, a place of eternal damnation.

The author of Hebrews reminds the Christian community of his day that when they attend the Mass liturgy “You have not approached that which could be touched” (12:18). Through the visible liturgy, they have “approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” to become part of the heavenly worship where “countless angels in festal gathering,
and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, and God the judge of all, and the spirits of the just made perfect, and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant” are celebrating (12:18, 22-24, CCC 1136, 1139)!

If the Israelites at Mount Sinai, who had only “approached that which could be touched”, that which was only a sign pointing us to the real thing, were already terror-stricken; how much more should we Christians humble ourselves and go to Mass with holy fear in our hearts, knowing that what we have approached is mysteriously the real thing - “Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (12:22)? For the Mass is truly “heaven on earth”; what “we celebrate on earth is a mysterious participation in the heavenly liturgy” according to Pope St. John Paul II. People often ask: why do the Catholics genuflect, bow their heads, strike their chests, and make all kinds of gestures to humble themselves in the Mass? Now we know why.

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



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。


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.)