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

依撒意亞預見的新耶路撒冷

「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)。


那是以色列面對滅亡的危機,四面楚歌的時刻。在北面,北以色列王國已經瓦解;在南面,耶路撒冷又被亞述王散乃黑黎布入侵。先知依撒意亞充滿希望的訊息,既讚揚耶路撒冷的光輝,又幢景美好的將來;對以色列人來說,這本來是鼓勵的說話,其實更像一個莫大的諷刺。然而,在歷史的光照和藉著回顧的幫助,今天我們才知道他的預言其實準確得令人難以置信。

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)。