Friday, April 9, 2021

我們復活後還會吃喝嗎?

這是我為今年復活第二主日所寫的反思。不是所有宗教都一樣,耶穌跟隨者深信在末日人將復活。怎樣復活?真的化腐朽為神奇?請看看!

 我們不能說復活是一個可以用實證或個人存在經歷來理解的經驗。我們很難想像我們的身體有朝一日不但會,而是一定要在死後「復生」。

一個身體如果經已腐化,並已溶解為先前已存在的物質,又怎能恢復其原本的形態(假如這就是聖經所指的「復活」的話)?試想想:若我們死後,靈體能繼續存在,住在天主永恆的國度裏,活在福樂中, 不是挺好嗎?為甚麼聖經教導我們必須重新取得肉身?靈魂與身體重新結合,意味著人要存在於時空的秩序裡,和要受到官感上的限制;這不是會阻礙我們靈魂的自由和靈性的清晰嗎?復活是否表示要重返普通生物般的生活?(復活的基督和門徒們一起吃喝,看來似是證實了這一點(參照 若 21:12 -13, 路 24:13ff))。在我領洗後多年, 類似的問題曾令我質疑福音裏復活故事的可信性。雖然是教會的訓導, 我那時並不相信死者的復活,是一件壯觀和充滿希望和喜樂的大事。

本主日福音中復活的記述,基督兩次向門徒展示祂的傷痕 — 第一次,多默不在場,然後是當他回來時。這兩次顯現本身並不足夠回答以上所有的問題,但也足以給我們一個好機會去研究其中的一些問題,特別是有關復活後身體的特性的問題。

首先是關於耶穌復活後身體上的傷痕。我們可否從耶穌這次顯現來斷定肉身所受的傷害,會影響復活的身體,而且復活後它們依然完整無缺?若這是真的,為那些寄望復活能給他們一個完美身體的人,這提議一點也不吸引!對那些失去了牙齒,連骨頭也靠螺絲牢固的冰棍球員們,他們可回復健康和重獲一個完整的身體的唯一希望,也煙消雲散了!此外,耶穌後來在提庇黎雅海邊及在厄瑪烏路上給門徒們的顯現又如何呢 (若21: 1ff, 路24:13ff)?兩次的顯現都涉及飲食。這是否意味著了我們復活後的身體會繼續像普通生物般生活?實在有很多問題有待解答!

當有疑難時,我總會求教於我少數幾位導師中其中的一位—教宗本篤十六世。他的答案是什麼?「復活的上主的三個表現 — 顯現、講解、同吃共飲 — 是有連貫性的;這是祂證明自己還活著的方式」(納匝肋人耶穌卷一 271頁)。換句話說,復活的基督不是因為需要食物的滋養而進食,而是因為祂要門徒們知道祂確實戰勝了死亡,祂還活著。說得真好!但吃了的食物往那兒去了?天使聖師聖多瑪斯.亞奎納有答案:它已溶解為以前已存在的物質 (神學概要, I.238)。也可以用同樣解釋去看他的傷痕。它們顯現於復活的身體上不是必需的,而是為了門徒們的需要。

許多基督徒,包括我在內,常常無法瞭解逾越奧蹟所釋放的龐大力量。耶穌那獨一無二,前無古人後無來者的救贖行動,把自亞當厄娃犯罪以後,撒旦對人類的壓制粉碎淨盡,澎湃的救恩藉此傾流如注。我們的罪不僅被天主羔羊的寶血所贖;連那可腐朽及經常與靈性作對的肉身,在末日因耶穌復活的力量,也將經歷一個徹底的轉變和更新 (參照 羅7:18-19; 神學概要, I.167)!聖保祿在討論復活的身體這議題時,他明智的觀察是:「播種的是可朽壞的,復活起來的是不可朽壞的;播種的是可羞辱的,復活起來的是光榮的;播種的是軟弱的, 復活起來的是強健的;播種的是屬生靈的身體,復活起來的是屬神的身體」(格前15:42-44)。

在第三天 - 復活主日 - 耶穌的復活改變了一切!第三天也是第八天,新一週的第一天。這一天的神學意義極其重大。聖保祿甚至說,「假如基督沒有復活,那麼,我們的宣講便是空的,你們的信仰也是空的」(格前 15:14)。

容我解釋這沉重的要點。如果第一週 (或首七天) 帶來了第一次的創造 (即這世界,其創造在《創世紀》有詳述) ,第二週,由第八天展開(也是第三天, 復活的那天) ,引進了新的創造,我們作為天主的兒女也是這新的創造的一份子。因耶穌的復活,我們自然的身體也會在末日復活,並分享耶穌復活了的身體那光榮的特性:神光、神速、神透、神健 (神學概要,I.168; 天主教教理 645)。這些特性已在耶穌復活後的顯現中展示出來,包括本主日的福音。在那天,被靈性化及光榮化的身體將完全屬神,並與靈魂恢復完美及和諧的結合 (聖若望保祿二世, 1981年12月日 公開接見)。

正如上主所應許的,這一切都會實現:「看,我已更新了一切」(默 21:5)。在那天,一切都會恢復原來的美麗,並藉著基督與天主完全重歸和好,包括人的身體 (參照 哥1:20)。這真的是一個全新的天地。「以後再也沒有死亡,再也沒有悲傷,沒有哀號,沒有苦楚,因為先前的都已過去了」(默 21:4)。

Friday, March 26, 2021

Will We Still Eat and Drink on Resurrection?

Does this mean our risen bodies will continue to live biologically? So many unanswered questions!

Resurrection is not an experience we can claim to know empirically and existentially. It is hard, if not impossible, to wrap our heads around the idea that one day our bodies will and must “rise” again after death. 

How is it possible for a corrupt body that has dissolved into preexisting matter to regain its original bodily form (if that’s what the Bible means by “resurrection”)? Think about it: Isn’t it pretty good if we could continue to exist spiritually after death and live in the blessedness of God’s everlasting kingdom? Why then does the Bible teach the necessity of regaining our bodily form? Will rejoining the body, which must exist in the temporal and spatial order and is subject to the limitations of senses, impede the freedom and spiritual clarity of our soul? Does resurrection signify a return to biological life (which appears to be the case for the risen Christ who ate and drank together with his disciples (cf. Jn 21:12-13, Lk 24:13ff))? For many years after my baptism, questions such as these had made me question the credibility of the resurrection stories in the gospel. I was unconvinced that the resurrection of the dead was a cosmic event of hope and joy, even if it was a Church teaching.

The resurrection account in this Sunday’s gospel, in which the risen Christ shows his wounds to his disciples twice - first in Thomas’ absence, and later when he returns - doesn’t answer all the questions above. But it does give us a good opportunity to examine some of them, especially those pertaining to the properties of the resurrected body.

First of all, the wounds on Jesus’ risen body. Are we to conclude from this appearance that the inflictions suffered by the biological body will somehow affect the risen body and remain intact even after resurrection? This cannot be a very enticing proposition for those hoping the resurrection would give them a perfect body! For hockey players living with no teeth and broken bones secured by screws, their only hope of regaining a healthy and complete body has just gone up in smoke! And what about Jesus’ subsequent appearance to his disciples on the seashore of Tiberias and his appearance to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Jn 21: 1ff, Lk 24:13ff)? Both appearances involve the consumption of edibles. Does this mean our risen bodies will continue to live biologically? So many unanswered questions!

When in doubt, Pope Benedict XVI is one of the few mentors to whom I always turn. His answer? “Appearing, speaking, and sharing meals: these three self-manifestations of the risen Lord belong together; they were his ways of proving that he was alive” (Jesus of Nazareth I, p.271). In other words, the risen Christ ate not because he needed the nourishment of the food, but because he wanted his disciples to know that he had truly overcome death and was alive. Makes sense! But where did the food go after consumption? The Angelic Doctor has the answer: It was dissolved into preexisting matter (The Compendium of Theology, I.238). The same explanation is applicable to his wounds. They show on his risen body not because they must, but because the disciples need to see them.

What many Christians have often failed to fully comprehend, myself included, is the awesome power unleashed by the Pascal Mystery. The outpouring of salvific grace as a result of Jesus’ single, never-before-and-never-after redemptive act has truly rendered Satan’s stranglehold on humanity since the fall of Adam and Eve completely powerless. Not only have we been redeemed from sin by the blood of the Lamb of God; the body, corruptible and often in conflict with the spirit as it is, will also go through a complete transformation and renewal on the Last Day by virtue of the power of Jesus’ resurrection (cf. Romans 7:18-19; The Compendium of Theology, I.167)! As St. Paul has wisely observed in addressing the issue of the risen body: “It is sown corruptible; it is raised incorruptible. It is sown dishonorable; it is raised glorious. It is sown weak; it is raised powerful. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:42-44). 

On the 3rd day – the Easter Sunday – Jesus’ resurrection has literally changed everything! The 3rd day is also the 8th day, the first day of a new week. The theological significance of this day just cannot be overstated. St. Paul would go so far as to say, “And if Christ has not been raised, then empty (too) is our preaching; empty, too, your faith” (1 Cor 15:14).

This is heavy stuff, but let me explain. If the first week (or the first 7 days) brings the first creation (which is this world, whose creation has been detailed in the Book of Genesis), the second week, launched by the 8th day (which is also the 3rd day, the day of resurrection), ushers in the New Creation, of which we, the children of God, are a part. As a result of Jesus’ resurrection, our natural bodies will also be raised and glorified on the Last Day to share the glorious properties of Jesus’ resurrected body: impassibility, clarity, agility, and subtility (The Compendium of Theology, I.168; CCC645). Such properties are already on display in Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, including in this Sunday’s gospel. On that day, the spiritualized and glorified body will be fully permeated by the spirit and return to perfect unity and harmony with the soul (St. John Paul II, General Audience, December 9, 1981). 

This whole thing must come to pass just as our Lord has promised: "Behold, I make all things new" (Rev 21:5). On that day, everything will be restored to its original beauty and fully reconciled to God through Christ, including the body (cf. Col 1:20). It’s truly a brand-new world. “There shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, (for) the old order has passed away” (Rev 21:4).


The Word of God Is Love Not Violence

Just as Isaiah’s nakedness doesn’t make him a flasher; Jesus’ destructive act doesn’t make him a violent person.

“Lord, you have the words of everlasting life” is the response to the Psalm reading for this Sunday. The Psalm passages are quoted from Psalm 19 – my favorite psalm.

Psalm 19 begins with a beautiful, high-spirited exaltation, paying tribute to God’s magnificent creation that speaks. Speaks? Yes, God’s creations – the sun and the moon, the sunrise and the sunset, the flowers and the trees, the mountains and the valleys – speak; using a language that “proclaims its builder’s craft”; communicating a message that imparts knowledge and wisdom; uttering a sound that cannot be heard and yet resonates loud and clear “to the ends of the world” (cf. Ps. 19:2-4)! What the psalmist is extolling is the word of God; a word that is “perfect”, “true” and “just” (Ps. 19:8-10). 

Earlier in the first reading, the same word, pronounced by God in the midst of a theophany as part of His covenant with the holy people on Mount Sinai, is solemnly promulgated: delivered through Moses, the intercessor between God and His people; given to Israel, who promises with one voice to “do everything that the Lord has told us” (Ex 24:3); and decreed in the Decalogue, which means literally the “ten words” or the Ten Commandments (CCC 2059-2060). Written on two separate tablets – three on one and seven on the other – these are words of love: “the first three concern love of God, and the other seven love of neighbor” (CCC 2067).

I always remember what my professor taught me when I was taking a course on the Old Testament at the St. Augustine Seminary of Toronto. He said the Greeks lived in a world of numbers, but the Israelites lived in a world of word, dynamic and prophetic. Word to them is electricity to us – a force that makes things happen and is indispensable. At this point, every reader who is human and breathing would probably ask, having gone this far in reading the Bible, “Who is this word”?

John began his gospel by tackling this question head on: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1). The Word is further identified as Christ incarnate, who “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn 1:14). But if Jesus, the Word of God, is “perfect”, “true” and “just”, as the Psalm reading tells us he is; and if the Decalogue - the 10 words of love - also finds its origin in him; how are we supposed to understand the act of violence committed by the same Word of God in this Sunday’s gospel? What Jesus did was unambiguously violent: “He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables” (John 2:15). 

Let’s be very clear. It will be ignorance to the extreme for anyone to suggest that the temple cleansing story is meant to justify the use of force. Let’s face it; it would take a radically different direction for Jesus, whose ministry and message throughout the gospel are all about love, peace, and humility, to suddenly promote violence. Those who read the Johannine narrative in context can’t possibly miss its culminating theme, namely, that the temple is a sign of Christ’s body, which will be destroyed and raised up in three days – an allusion to the Cross and the Resurrection (Note 1). This is how Jesus explains his action: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19).

Still, why is it necessary for him to resort to a violent act to communicate his theological message? To truly understand Jesus’ action, we must keep in mind his prophetic ministry and how it works. If I were to pick 10 OT promises that any scriptural reader must remember at all times, this one, revealed by Moses, would be one of them: "A prophet like me will the LORD, your God, raise up for you from among your own kinsmen; to him you shall listen” (Dt. 18:15). Turned out, the promised prophet is Jesus – the Prophet of all prophets. 

The OT prophets came from, shall we say, a very special species. They were mostly shunned by the very people they were summoned to enlighten: kings, political leaders, and religious authorities. Sometimes they had to do very unusual things in order to drive home their messages. Hosea married a harlot in order to show Israel God’s displeasure with its infidelity. Ezekiel was asked to eat bread baked on cow’s dung in order to forewarn the Israelites of the abomination of having to eat unclean food while in exile (Eze 4:12-15). God’s instruction to Isaiah was even more bizarre: He was asked to walk naked and barefoot through Jerusalem for 3 years! The prophet followed God’s order to a tee, not because he enjoyed exposing himself – God forbid! - but because he needed to convince the Judeans of their futile attempt to court the Egyptians and Ethiopians. These nations were bound to be defeated by the Assyrians and taken away as captives in their nakedness (Is. 20:3-6).

Given Jesus’ prophetic ministry and the way it works, it’s fair to conclude that there’s a deeper significance to Jesus’ destructive act in the cleansing of the temple. Just as Isaiah’s nakedness doesn’t make him a flasher; Jesus’ destructive act doesn’t make him a violent person. Both acts are prophetic, meant to communicate a prophetic message. In Jesus’ case, the message is to warn the Jews of the violent destruction of the temple (which happened in 70 A.D.). The temple is his body. The destruction of a temple made by human hands is the beginning of the new Temple in heaven. It’s a sign pointing to the Cross and the Resurrection. He himself is the new Temple, the Body of Christ, the Church. Through Christ, a new way of worshipping God is about to begin, when all peoples are gathered and united in the sacrament of his body and blood, worshipping God “in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:23, note 2).

Note 1: See Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament on John 2:19.

Note 2: See Jesus of Nazareth – Holy Week, pp. 21-22.

 

Madness or Love? It’s all in the Eyes of the Beholder

Call him a madman, a weirdo, or anything you want; the reality is, the fire in Paul’s heart, ignited by the Spirit, is something people won’t understand unless they are prepared to welcome the same Spirit into their hearts.

A friend of mine has a rather unusual position on the issue of parenthood. In his view, the world we live in is full of sorrows and tribulations. He thinks bringing innocent children into this world of toils and snares is both unfair and cruel because you are effectively making them suffer against their will; which is also why he and his wife have decided against having children. His view is unusual but not uncommon these days in a world captivated by the culture of death. Obviously, this is not what the Church teaches. The Church has always encouraged parenthood. It’s considered the culmination of the married couple’s expression of love, which gives rise to a selfless and generous participation in the creative work of God (CCC1652).

My friend’s pessimistic life view will find resonance in Job’s words in this Sunday’s first reading. “Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery? Are not his days those of hirelings?”, Job asks as he struggles to understand the sudden onslaught of misfortunes that have left his life in tatters and complete disarray (Job 7:1). Abandoned and mocked by his friends - even by his wife - Job begins to see life as a “drudgery”; a futile and meaningless exercise that one must grudgingly put up with. This is a very dark mindset that often drives people desperate for a way out to end their own life or, in my friend’s case, avoid starting a new one. In fact, ending his life is exactly what Job is counseled to do. “Curse God and die”, his wife yells at him in disgust (Job 2:9). 

A suicidal mind is, of course, not what the Bible wants from us. After many difficult struggles; heated arguments with friends, who openly question his claim of innocence; and serious intellectual reflections that include a heart-to-heart discussion with God, Job finally regains his trust in God. In the end, he is convinced that God is always in control in spite of the inexplicable personal misfortunate that befell him; and that God, in His unfathomable wisdom and omnipotence, has a plan that is simply too profound for the human mind to fully comprehend.

God’s plan certainly is difficult to comprehend, but Job’s decision to continue to trust God in spite of personal sufferings and devastations is not any easier to understand for many people. It takes faith and humility. When I first read Job while taking a university course on Medieval Philosophy, I hastily wrote the book off as “blind faith”. As a young and aspiring “philosopher”, I considered it an affront to my rational mind. But what goes around comes around. So many years later – now that I’m done studying, done raising children, done pursuing a career, done admiring the philosophers, done ridiculing the Bible – I find myself embracing Job’s position unreservedly. I honestly believe that of all the explanations and solutions put forward by all the great thinkers, philosophers and theologians alike on the issue of suffering, Job’s is the only sensible one. 

What have changed? Just one thing really: my heart. Where the person gloriously enthroned in there used to be me, now it is Jesus - him and only him, front and center, unreserved and all-consuming. That’s it? That’s it. The change didn’t come easy. But when it did, repentance followed; so did faith and humility and a rush for action to proclaim the unspeakable joy of knowing Christ. The experience was just overwhelming, consuming my whole being, pushing me hard to make up for lost time. 

The urge was irresistible - almost panicky. It was a powerful awakening that “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37). Like the three thousand who heard Peter’s gospel message and received baptism on Pentecost, the urgency just dawned on you powerfully. As though your life depended on it, you blurted out loud desperately: “What are we to do?” (Acts 2:37). No one can express the urgency I experienced better than Paul when he says in this Sunday’s 2nd reading, “If I preach the gospel, this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it!” (1 Cor 9:16); and again elsewhere, “For the love of Christ compels us” (2 Cor 5:14). 

For many people, Paul and people like Job should simply be written off as madness. Felix, the Roman governor, was one of them. "You are mad, Paul; much learning is driving you mad", he shouted after hearing Paul’s spiritual conversion story and his defense against the charges made by the Jews (Acts 26:24). Call him a madman, a weirdo, or anything you want; the reality is, the fire in Paul’s heart, ignited by the Spirit, is something people of this world won’t understand, unless they are prepared to welcome the same Spirit into their hearts. 

People call what they don’t understand “madness”. For them, Jesus who preaches in the synagogues and performs healings tirelessly in various villages in this Sunday’s gospel may well be just another madman rejected by the world – one who “came to his own home, and his own people received him not” (John 1:11). For my friend, parenthood may well be just another form of madness. But if faith in God, proclaiming the gospel, and promoting the culture of life are different forms of madness; madness is what we must choose.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

At the Nativity Every Jaw Should Drop


When the Magi come to pay homage to the powerless infant in the manger, the time has come for Jerusalem to take the center stage, and for Daughter Zion to become the Bride of Christ.

Epiphany means “revelation”. The Solemnity of the Epiphany is historically associated with three “revelations” of Christ: to the Magi, the foreigners coming to Jesus, in a manifestation of the universality of his salvation; at his baptism in the Jordan, where the Trinitarian mystery is revealed; and at Cana in Galilee, where the overflowing joy of his nuptial union with the Church  is highlighted through the first of his signs (note 1). All three revelations remind us of the immensity of God’s saving love in Jesus as the Christmas mystery continues to unfold. 

What makes the Bible such a fascinating book to read is its uncanny ability to continue to surprise us at every turn of its narrative of the long history of salvation. When the fullest of time has come for God to reveal Himself to the world in the most definitive way, He chooses not to show up authoritatively – the way He appeared to Abraham, as three men standing at the entrance of his tent (Gen 18:1-10); or present Himself mysteriously - to Moses “in fire flaming out of a bush” (Ex 3:2-3); or exhibit His omnipotence terrifyingly - to Israel in “peals of thunder and lightning…and a very loud trumpet blast” on Mount Sinai (Ex 19:16). In the most unexpected and self-deprecating manner, He chooses to manifest Himself in a powerless and defenseless infant, “born of a woman, born under the law”, “laid in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn” (Gal 4:4, Lk 2:7).

I don’t know about you. For me, the Nativity is not only a timeless and beautiful story, but also the most shocking twist and turn in all of human history. One that the most nerve-wrecking suspense from a Hitchcock movie cannot even come close in comparison. St Paul says every knee should bend at the name of Jesus (Phil 2:10). I say every human jaw should drop to the floor in reflecting on the Nativity!

The surprises are indeed many. Chief among them is the profound mystery of Christ’s incarnation. Who would have thought that of all the ways that God could have used to come to us, He would choose to allow Himself to be restricted by His own creations – space, time, and the human nature? Who would have imagined that the almighty God would put Himself in harm’s way by plunging deep into the undercurrents of human history?  Who would have predicted – other than God Himself through His prophets – that He would come into this world through a virgin birth, and make Himself known to the world as a powerless infant in the little town of Bethlehem (cf. Is 7:14, Micah 5:1)? 

“And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us”, John proclaims the mystery joyfully in the prologue to his Gospel. “The Son of God became the Son of Man so that the sons of men could become the sons of God.” Like everyone else, St. Athanasius’ struggled mightily to understand such a profound mystery, but this definition he coined goes down in history as one that inspires countless theologians, clergy, and laity alike. Christ came not only to redeem us, but also to elevate our human nature to lofty heights unimaginable by any human mind. In so doing, he enables us to partake of God’s divinity, making us the children of God (2 Peter 4:4)! “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are” (1 Jn 3:1)! Dumfounded and in disbelief, John can find no better words to express his amazement.

This has been a powerful reflection on the Epiphany of the Lord. But the jaw-dropping surprise doesn’t stop there. The theme of all three Mass readings is the universality of God’s saving grace. A universality that manifests itself in Jerusalem’s distant future, when “nations shall walk by your light”; when “your sons [shall] come from afar”; when “the wealth of nations shall be brought to you” (Is. 60:3-5). 

To St. Paul and the Jews, whose understanding of salvation has been restricted by God’s progressing pedagogy in the Old Testament to mean “salvation for Israel only”, the revelation of the mystery of universal salvation is a very big deal; or, shall we say, another jaw-dropping surprise. It’s a secret that “was not made known to human beings in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit, that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel”. (Eph 3:5-6). When the Magi come to pay homage to the powerless infant in the manger, the time has finally come for the secret to turn into a reality, for Jerusalem to take the center stage in world history, and for Daughter Zion to become the Bride of Christ – the Catholic Church.

Note 1: See Foundations in Faith - Catechist Manual Catechumenate Year B, p. 32.


Saturday, November 28, 2020

The Holy Spirit’s Knock-Out Punch!

 


For those of you who are studying the Scripture seriously, I hope the Holy Spirit would also punch your lights out the way He did it to me!

Hidden in the corners of my mind are traces of memories left behind by a long spiritual journey that eventually led me to the totality of embracing the Cross of Christ. Like distinctive visions from an old-time movie, they would play out before my eyes in my prayers and meditations – a little scratched and blurry here and there, but the experiences are as vivid as yesterday. The carolers who sang joyfully as they walked past my parents’ eatery on Christmas day when I was a small child; my grade 10 classmate who bravely spoke up against our teacher’s disparagement of her Christian faith, and then broke down and cried; strumming my guitar casually as I sang Amazing Grace for the first time together with several camping friends under a starry sky – experiences such as these and many others that had brought me closer to Christ continue to support and re-energize me as I inch forward in a faith expedition that never ends.

As unforgettable and powerful as these experiences were, none of them could really deliver the “knock-out punch” that was needed to humble my puffed-up ego and enable me to truly surrender to Christ. But when it finally came (thank God it did!) it was in the least expected manner - in the form of a prolonged period of scriptural enlightenment. Through magisterial teachings and theological studies, the Holy Spirit was able to demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that all of the Scripture was about Christ and formed a coherent whole only when it was read through the lens of Christ. That was no ordinary proposition. It’s tantamount to claiming that Jesus is everywhere in the Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, from the Old Testament to the New Testament! The notion totally knocked me off my feet because I had always thought that Jesus, being a 1st C historical figure, was nowhere to be found in the Old Testament. 

This Sunday’s first reading from Isaiah 61 is a case in point. It provides a good illustration of the power of the pneumatic punch that eventually knocked me right out. 

“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me” (Is 61:1) – Written more than 500 years before Jesus’ birth, this prophetic passage is already giving us many fine details about him (note 1). He is the Messiah – the Anointed One. He is to be anointed with the spirit of God and sent forth by the Father. 

What’s the purpose of the sending forth? “Bring glad tidings to the poor”, “heal the brokenhearted”, set free the captives and prisoners, announce God’s favor and vindication (cf. 61:1b-2a). In other words, Jesus is sent forth for all of us. In many ways, especially spiritually, every one of us is in extreme poverty. Like the “unclean” lepers in the Gospels, we are in dire need of healing and cleansing. Like Israel’s enslavement in Egypt, we are prisoners longing to be liberated. Beginning from Adam, the whole humanity has been fatally injured and unjustly persecuted by the power of Satan (cf. Lk 10:25-37; Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth I, pp. 199-200). But Jesus, the new Adam, has done us a huge favor. By the power of the Cross and his resurrection, we – humanity under persecution by Satan - have been vindicated. His saving grace is accessible to all of us. Anyone who is willing to embrace Christ and live in truth and righteousness is already victorious!

The Divine Author skillfully uses various images to present our Savior to us: He is clothed “with a robe of salvation”, “wrapped…in a mantle of justice”, “a bridegroom adorned with a diadem”, “a bride bedecked with her jewels” (Is 61:10). Small wonder that marriage is the main theme running through the pages of the Scripture. Our Savior comes to us as the Lover; he lovingly embraces us, the Beloved – the Church. He is a bridegroom adorned with a diadem. Compared this image to the fake bridegroom in Revelation who had “seven heads and ten horns, and on its heads were seven diadems” (Rev 12:3). More is not necessarily better! If the last image of “a bride bedecked with her jewels” is a little baffling to some readers, just keep in mind that it’s referring to the Church – Jesus’ “bride”. As the Body of Christ, the Church and Jesus are one.

Don’t know about you, but when I first understood – truly understood – the profound meanings of Old Testament passages such as what we’ve just read in this Sunday’s first reading, I was spiritually knocked unconscious, lying flat out and motionless on the canvas of the boxing ring! Like Jacob’s mysterious and bruising wrestle with God, I had battled Him for decades and He won with that knock-out punch (cf. Gen 32:25-30)! But that was not it. I had to take the same pneumatic punch over and over again in that prolonged process of scriptural enlightenment! “Love does no harm to the neighbor” (Rom 13:10). Surely, I wish to do my readers no harm. But for those of you who are studying the Scripture seriously, I hope the Holy Spirit would also punch your lights out the way He did it to me!


Note 1: It is generally believed that Isaiah 24-27, 56-66 were written by Trito-Isaiah in about 515 BC. Trito-Isaiah could be a disciple or several disciples of the author of Isaiah 40-55. The Prophet Isaiah himself wrote Isaiah 1-23, 28-39 sometime in the 8th C.


The Shepherd and the King


  Jesus is no ordinary king. Like David, his Old Testament type, he is a Shepherd-King.

The theme of shepherd permeates the whole Bible. It also appears in this Sunday’s readings as the Church celebrates the feast of Christ the King to bring this liturgical year to a close. Why is the shepherd theme important? What are the underlying messages? Why uses it to celebrate Christ the King?

Shepherd is a popular biblical theme partly because the ancient Hebrews were a pastoral, seminomadic people. In Genesis, Abraham and Lot, his kinsman, had many flocks and herds. Eventually they had to go their separate ways in order to avoid internal conflicts (cf. Gen 13:5-9). Jacob spent many years tending his father-in-law’s flock in exchange for his consent to marry Rebecca (Gen 29:15ff). Moses also was a shepherd in Midian before leading Israel out of Egypt (Ex 3:1).

More significantly, the Bible uses the shepherd theme to reveal a very important message in God’s divine plan: The false shepherds of this world have led His people astray; God, the Good Shepherd who cares deeply about His sheep, will come among us to shepherd His people personally. This loving and trusting relationship between God and His people is beautifully portrayed in this Sunday’s psalm reading, which is traditionally attributed to David who was incidentally both a shepherd and a king: 

The LORD is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack. In green pastures you let me graze; to safe waters you lead me; you restore my strength. You guide me along the right path for the sake of your name (Psalm 23:1-3).

In Old Testament time, God entrusted His people, Israel, to the care of the shepherds He appointed, i.e. the leaders of Israel, particularly the political and religious leaders in Jerusalem. Unfortunately, they failed terribly in discharging their sacred duties. Thus, God chastised them through prophet Ezekiel: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves!... You have fed off their milk, worn their wool, and slaughtered the fatlings, but the sheep you have not pastured” (Ez 34:2-3). He promises in the 1st reading, “I myself will look after and tend my sheep” (Ez 34:11).

Ever faithful and true to His word, God does return in the person of the incarnate Christ. In Jesus, God is indeed pasturing His sheep Himself. In New Testament time, “God’s sheep” can be understood as a reference to the New Israel – the Church instituted by Christ. 

On this Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, it’s fitting that we use the theme of the Good Shepherd to celebrate Jesus’ kingship. Like a good shepherd, the King knows his people and cares for them (cf. John 10:13-14). However, he is no ordinary king. Like David, his Old Testament type (i.e. a biblical character that mysteriously prefigures and anticipates Christ), he is a Shepherd-King. He “lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). 

As the Good Shepherd, Jesus epitomizes every attribute of a good king, not only does Christ the King protect his sheep, to the point of shedding his blood for them, he also shepherds them “with an iron rod” (Ps 2:9, Rev 12:5). In other words, he disciplines his sheep and holds them accountable for what they do. “The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal (but the sleek and the strong I will destroy), shepherding them rightly” (Ez 34:16). The Shepherd-King’s work is not finished just because of his Ascension to the Father. His shepherding work will conclude with the Last Judgement, in which “he will separate [his flock] one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Mt 25:32). When was the last time you fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed a stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the ill, and visited those in prison (cf. Mt. 25: 35-36)? Let’s prepare ourselves well to meet the Shepherd-King while we can!