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!