Sunday, November 13, 2022

Scriptural Hyperbole or Understatement? You Tell Me!

 “The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom… Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing” (Is 35:1,4-6). 

When younger, I just didn’t know what to make of scriptural passages like this. So much exaggeration! “Do people really believe this stuff? What is God thinking? Why do passages like this appear everywhere in the scriptures under His mighty inspiration, especially in the Old Testament books? Does He think we must necessarily accept His every word even if it’s clearly ridiculous?” I wondered aloud. After many years of hearing them at the Mass, my resentment gradually turned into indifference; my protest became a muffled groan. “O, well”, I would shrug my shoulders and sigh, “just another example of scriptural hyperbole!” 

Then something happened to me personally in the early nineties that changed everything. It was as though a bulb in my head had suddenly lighted up, or a veil that had covered my eyes for so many years since my birth had been lifted. Suddenly – miraculously - I began to understand God’s word! Like the Bride (the Church) in Song of Songs, to whom the fragrance of her Groom (God) “is like perfume poured out”, I found myself savoring every little word He said in the scriptures as though I could never have enough (SS 1:3). I wanted to find out more what He really meant, what the word in its original language referred to, what the immediate and overall contexts were, how the historical setting underlying those words would help me understand better the real message, etc. Slowly but surely, I came to realize that what I used to see as “exaggerations” or scriptural hyperboles were in fact gross understatements! 

Like a baby struggling to speak the adults’ language, we are only blabbering when it comes to expressing our feelings and experiences about God and the heavenly realities. As blessed as Prophet Isaiah is, he is struggling mightily to try to tell us what God has opened his eyes to see. In his gravely insufficient and inadequate human understanding and expression, he wants us to see what he sees – or what he is given by God to see. Completely overwhelmed and overpowered, he has to use the strongest words he can find from his repertoire of vocabulary to express his strong feelings and the unbelievable message from God.

What did Isaiah see? He saw “the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God” (Is 35:2). He can’t quite put it in words what it is like to behold God’s glory. “The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom” is the best he can come up with to describe the awe and unspeakable excitement in the human heart on seeing God’s splendor. Is Isaiah’s description enough to capture the true picture, the out-of-the-world experience that he was able to behold with God’s permission? Probably not. But one thing is certain: what he is given to see and understand is many times more unbelievable and powerful than the few words that he managed to put together for us. In other words, his words are grossly understated. 

More specifically, Isaiah is talking about the coming of the Messiah. “He comes with vindication” because his mission is to un-do the devastation that Satan has inflicted on us through sin and death; “he comes to save you” because he is our Savior (v.4). Having experienced first-hand what Jesus did to me in the fore-mentioned personal conversion, I can embrace Isaiah’s words with no hesitation: “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing” (vv. 5-6). If anything, I find his words still inadequate, not because they are exaggerated but because they are grossly understated. They can’t really express the earthshattering experience that I personally went through. No, it’s not even close!

So, what was it that happened to me in the early nineties that turned exaggerations into understatements and made me literally a different person? This cursory Sunday reflection can’t possibly do justice to my long, personal conversion story. Therefore, I won’t go into the details here. But I do want to conclude by quoting the words of a nun whom I once considered a personal nemesis because she really minced no words in criticizing me before my conversion. In her view, my way of thinking was “too secular”, my mindset "too liberal". Looking back, I must admit she was absolutely right.

On a beautiful sunny morning after my conversion, in a special trip I made to the parish where she served, I shared with her how God’s word had transformed me. I talked non-stop for almost an hour because there were so many amazing things that had happened to me. I just had to get them off my chest. She listened intently and patiently until I finally stopped, almost exhausted with emotions. Smiling and squeezing my arm tenderly, she said, “Edmond, the Holy Spirit has touched your heart!” Touch my heart He did! In fact, He was more like a skillful surgeon who weaved his knife lovingly and magically to remove my heart of stone and give me a heart of flesh (Eze 36:26)!

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

In This Lent, Let Yourself Be Overwhelmed by God's Mercy

 "Reconciliation is not primarily our drawing near to God, but his embrace that enfolds, astonishes and overwhelms us" (Pope Francis' homily at the penance service with consecration of Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary).

Still wondering whether you should go to confession in this Lent? 

Whatever the reason is that stops you from going to confession, the Holy Father reminds us that confession is not primarily about our own human effort to "confess well" in order to "draw near to God", important as it is. It's more about God, our Father, reaching out to and embracing us, His waylaid children. 

God's mercy fills the confessional. So much so it overflows and overwhelms us. So, go! Just walk in with an honest and contrite heart. And let yourself be overwhelmed by God's mercy and forgiving grace!

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Pope Paul VI's Case Against Contraception


Underneath embattled Kyiv, babies born to foreign parents via surrogate shelter in a basement

You may have read this unexpected news coming out of Ukraine. It's very sad. You feel for the new-born and helpless babies and the nannies taking care of them. It's essentially a babies production factory that was being moved to safety. As I reflected on this story, I thought of Pope Paul VI. Once again, it just proved how prophetic his encyclical Humanae Vitae (HV) was.

HV, published in 1968, is the classic teaching of the Church against contraception. Whether the topic is contraception or surrogacy, the bottom line issue is the same: Who controls life, man or God? With surrogacy, the answer, immoral and wrong as it is, is clear: man. According to the news report, the rich people in Italy, China, Canada, etc. wanted to have babies. They had money; the surrogate mothers in Ukraine needed money. So, they paid $17,500 to $25,000 to "buy and manufacture" the lives they wanted. They had the control over life, or at least they believed they did. They wanted it; they got it - using their money. And that's how much a life was worth: $17,500 to $25,000. In the world of surrogacy, life is something money can buy. It's been downgraded to become a merchandise, an object obtainable and disposable according to human wish. It has no dignity that the sacredness of life is endowed with by nature.

That's surrogacy. The same underlying principle is also violated in contraception. The couple gets to decide whether they want life or not. Use contraception if they just want the fun of the marital act. No contraception if what they want includes a baby. They resort to every means available to science and human intelligence: condom, contraceptive pills, sterilization, etc., with no regards to the dignity of the human body which has its natural system of life that is designed, created, and controlled by God.

Pope Paul VI understood that contraception crossed the fine line of man taking - or attempting to take - control of life, which is a sacred role that only God can play. He opposed contraception because he knew it was a violation of this basic principle (which is also the very first sin committed by Adam and Eve - eating the forbidden fruit because they wanted to be "like gods who know what is good and what is bad" (Genesis 3:5)). When the role of creating life is taken over by man, the creature, the dignity and sacredness of life is bound to be violated. Once this basic principle is forfeited, then other immoral practices that also violate the same principle will follow. Surrogacy, abortion, suicide, euthanasia, you name it. 

Pope Paul VI is truly a prophet in this regard.

Monday, March 7, 2022

“Go, and from now on do not sin anymore” (Jn 8:11)


A Special Sunday Reflection Written for Lent of 2022

“Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (Jn 8:7). In response to Jesus’ words, the Pharisees “went away one by one” (8:9). As they considered themselves sparkling clean in faith and morals, their departure, unsightly as it was, was not an admission of sins but a deference to the Roman law which didn’t allow the Jews to administer capital punishment (cf. Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, New Testament, Jn 8:7, 18:31). 

In discussing this gospel account, people often focus on how wisely Jesus eludes the danger of the airtight trap that the Pharisees have set up against him. The logic of the plot goes like this: If, in response to their accusation of the woman’s adultery, Jesus rejects the stoning, he will be contradicting the Mosaic law. On the other hand, if he authorizes it, he will be violating the Roman law. In one simple reply, Jesus manages to extricate himself from this tangled web viciously weaved together by the Jews and cause their plot to backfire. The result is their unsightly departure one by one, demonstrating an admission of sins at least in optics if not in their hypocritical ideology.

In this reflection, we will focus more on the beautiful epilogue of the story. It concludes the theme of penance and reconciliation that has taken center stage for three consecutive Sundays of Lent in Year C of the lectionary, including the previous two (c.f. Foundations in Faith, 3rd and 4th Sundays of Lent, Year C). After a rather chaotic opening scene in which hate-filled and bloodthirsty people made fierce accusations against the adulterous woman and demanded public execution, the setting of the epilogue is one of peace and quietude. The clamoring crowd is gone. The adulterous woman finds herself alone, face to face with Jesus. Unlike the unforgiving and accusatory crowd, his tone is kind and understanding. Condemn her he does not. Instead, he sends her off with words that epitomize the true meaning of penance and reconciliation: “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore” (8:11). 

This adulterous woman, my friend, is you; she is me. How often have we been accused and condemned? Maybe not by a clamoring crowd, and certainly not by the Pharisees, but most definitely by our own consciences. Yes, adultery might not exactly be our sins. But let’s not kid ourselves, who are we to say that some of our transgressions aren’t just as bad and deadly or maybe even worse? “If you, LORD, mark our sins, Lord, who can stand?” – the psalmist’s confession resonates loud and clear in the hearts of those who care to listen (Ps 130:3). In the peace and quietude of the confessional, we hear the same assuring and forgiving words of our Lord: “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore”.

The good news is that our sins - all those skeletons that we keep checking again and again to make sure they stay hidden in the darkness of our closets – are forgiven! It is not because we have done anything to deserve God’s clemency. As St. Paul says in the 2nd reading, to “gain Christ and be found in him”, to be worthy of God’s forgiveness that enables us to live in communion with him, is “not having any righteousness of my own based on the law but that which comes through faith in Christ” (Phil 3:9). It’s simply by God’s grace that we are saved. Amazing grace, indeed! 

As we conclude this reflection, we must ask: What about all those unbelievable miracles that God promised to do in the first reading? “In the desert I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers” – where can we find them (Is 43:19)? As Isaiah has already explained in the same prophecy, God “put water in the desert and rivers in the wasteland for my chosen people to drink, the people whom I formed for myself, that they might announce my praise” (43:20-21). Anyone considered a member of “the people whom I formed for myself” – the Church – will be able to drink of this living water and live! The Holy Spirit is the “water” in the deserts of our hearts, the “rivers” in the wastelands of our souls. He is the water “flowing out from beneath the threshold of the temple” that became “a river that could not be crossed except by swimming” in Ezekiel’s vision (Eze 47:1, 5); the clean water that God will sprinkle “to cleanse you from all your impurities” (Eze 36:25).

It’s time indeed to announce God’s praise: “The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy… Those that sow in tears shall reap rejoicing” (Ps 126:3, 5). We, the descendants of Adam and Eve, the ancient Church of God from time immemorial, are the people who sow in tears. We read of it clearly in the Old Testament books. But now is the time to reap rejoicing, for Christ, the Lord, is come!