Sunday, September 25, 2016

Faith in Jesus and faith of Jesus

It is very helpful to look back at our own experiences of encountering Christ. It is often called “religious experience”. A religious experience can be seen in some instances.
For example we are surprised and feel wonder about the fact that we exist. We live. We say, “It is I who is here, not anybody else.” Other people exist, and there are people we truly love. We are glad about their existing and living; we are grateful. But then we also have the anxiety over not-existing. For example some relationships end. Friends go. People die. We will die. Jesus is encountered and we feel that he has given us the chance for something more stable, more permanent—and this is eternal life.
Sometimes we are amazed at how we do things and we are able to accomplish certain things. We are in-charge of many things we do. Yet we also feel that we can lose control. We cannot control all the events that happen around us. Events can happen and we are not sure of what they can do to us; maybe they will lead us to living in ways we do not like. Jesus comes and we feel that even if we are not in full control of life’s flow we can have unconditional security in him. He is not going to leave us hanging.
And then we have the experience of coming face to face with our own freedom. We realize that we are responsible for many things we do. Some things we do are “bad”—we harm others, we hurt others. We feel lonely with our freedom. Jesus comes and we feel he can understand us. He is patient and guiding. We are comfortable in him—we can be accountable to him and we feel he will be at our side even when we commit faults.
Religious experience can be this—the experience that there is Someone who guarantees life in an absolute way, someone who secures us in an absolute way, someone who accompanies us in an absolute way. Did we ever see this in Jesus? How real is Christ to us?
There are moments in life when we say that we encounter Christ. Maybe we can look at our prayer life, community life. Maybe we see Christ in social situations, in the poor and the struggling. Maybe in our own personal difficulties we suddenly encounter Christ. We can look back at our younger years; there may have been moments of encounter.
The encounter with Christ is very often said to be marked by a call. Well, at least we can be thankful for the encounter because we experience being motivated. We say a deeper yes to our lives as Christians, we say a deeper yes to our faith. We have a feeling of meaningful decision making. There is Christ supporting us, accompanying us. For those of us who have accepted a clear call—such as the call to religious life—the encounter with Christ deepens the motivation.
We may have been born in Christian families and since childhood we were exposed to things Catholic. The faith has been transmitted to us by our families, teachers, catechists, priests, etc. The encounter with Christ makes us become more personal with our faith. The faith is not just an external thing; we interiorize the faith thanks to encountering Christ. Faith has a face.
The Apostles and the early Christians experienced the encounter with Jesus and they were impressed. Jesus had a very strong impact on them. Over centuries Christians have had experiences of encountering Christ. We can think of saints and martyrs. We can also think of the many ordinary and unknown Christians who, in their own simple ways, had an experience of encountering Christ. Historians note that the very early Christians moving to the East from Palestine were not doing any professional mission work, but because of the depths of their intimacy with Christ they were able to bring so many to the Christian faith. In the gospel account of John we read, “We saw his glory” (Jn1/14). The Apostles and the early Christians experienced Christ in a glorious way. They have, indeed, seen his glory.
That impact made people move and let Christ known. Christ lived in them; in their hearts. The experience of encountering Christ served as a “motor” for moving on in life—finding sense and vocation for living. Christ is who drives us all the more, living as well as we can, our faith. This is so crucial, we may not notice it.
The Church is, in fact, a community that started with a deep experience of Christ. Today we may be complex in our lives that even Church life becomes flat and routine. But let us remember that underneath the whole motivation of the Church is an encounter with Christ.
Life can be so busy we are so preoccupied by many matters. This is why we need to pause now and then; give ourselves the time to look at ourselves, at our experiences. How is Christ present in our lives? How real is he? Some saints have always proposed a review of life—an “examination of conscience”—to check now and then our experiences with Christ. Prayer life should never be abandoned.
This faith and confidence in Christ is so important because it will also guide us to living the faith and confidence of Christ. Because Christ is so real for us we want to be in his footsteps and have his faith too. So let us say: have faith in Christ is to also have the faith of Christ.
To grasp the faith of Christ let us look at his work as mediator. Christ had full confidence in his Father and he knew that as he continued with his mission his Father was not going to abandon him. The confidence of Jesus made him obey unconditionally the Father. Jesus had faith in his mission. He took it seriously even at the point of the cross. He communicated to us what came from the Father; it was a message of love symbolized by the Kingdom. Jesus had faith in us, humans, to the point of Incarnation and thus leading us to the Father. He had faith in us he became one with us—the Word became flesh. He was in solidarity with us so that in our poverty and abjection we may be made “rich” in God. This was the faith of Jesus and we internalize it.
Like Jesus we keep confidence in the Father. Like Jesus we obey the Father. Like Jesus we go on mission, fulfilling the mission of God. Like Jesus we bring ourselves close to the poor, the marginalized, the little ones of the world. Our faith is the faith of Jesus.
This is our “credentials”. If others ask us what strengthens us in vocation and mission, we can say that it is the faith of Jesus. We are not satisfied in having faith in Jesus. Because of the confidence and trust we hold on Jesus, we want to follow his footsteps and live the faith of Jesus.

Monday, September 19, 2016

We are an Apostolic Church

1. The Apostles discovered they were loved

Jesus showed himself to be a brother to all, even the weakest, the hated ones of society, the marginalized. Jesus was brother to them. Each person was unique for Jesus. Each was truly valued by Jesus.
The Apostles discovered this freedom of Jesus to love. They saw in Jesus this freedom to move to others, even the persons rejected by society. What does this say to us? We accept in confidence the love and concern of Jesus, no matter who we are and no matter what our personal histories are. Each person is always loved by Jesus. Jesus was so concerned with telling others about the love of God, symbolized by the Kingdom. He wanted to show people how much they were really loved by God. So to each person Jesus would say, “As much as God loves you, I love you”. Accept that Jesus is really brother to us. 
With Jesus we see ourselves called to be brothers and sisters to each other, including the sinners, the poor, the marginalized. We see ourselves all loved by God, including those from other religious traditions. 

2. The Apostles discovered prayer

Jesus showed his intimacy with the Father. This was such an impressive revelation of Jesus. To the Father Jesus never stopped praying. Jesus was so concerned with the concrete lives of person, but he always prayed and prayed a lot. He called God his Abba, his Father, and it was in his prayer.
The Apostles were so impressed by the prayer life of Jesus that they asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. What does this tell us? We may have difficulties in prayer, sometimes we may not even want to pray. The Apostles were fervent Jews and they did the Jewish practices like join the synagogue and go to the Temple. Those were external moves. They wanted to pray, which was more internal and intimate. We may be going to mass, attend processions, be active in many activities. Where is prayer in all that? Do we spend quality time, like Jesus, in prayer? 
Jesus surprised the Apostles. Jesus prayed a lot…a lot. Jesus liked to go in silent places to pray. He went into direct contact with his Father. He discerned his path in prayer. He consulted the Father.
Jesus taught his disciples how to pray and he taught them the “Our Father”. The prayer is a surprise because it does not ask God to do things for us. In that prayer we also “consult” God; we ask God what he expects of us. Is this the core of our prayers? Do we pray like Jesus, “Your will be done”? The Apostles discovered that in prayer we seek for what God wants. Father what is your will? Jesus had this prayer often, and before his death he prayed in the garden again saying, “Your will be done”. Like Jesus we see ourselves seeking for God’s will in prayer. We pray.

3. The Apostles discovered that failure was a possibility

As time went on in the life of Jesus he was provoking the anger of authorities. Jesus was taking risks. Jesus became famous, he had many following him and listening to him and watching. In the eyes of the Apostles Jesus may have become a “star”, a “success” in their society. Really Jesus was so famous he was pressed from all sides by crowds. The Apostles felt that the success of Jesus was also their own success. They were his disciples. Jesus called them to follow him and they did…and they were not mistaken. They were on the road to success. 
But all of a sudden the Apostles noticed that Jesus was also accumulating enemies. He got into trouble with those in charge of the Temple. He got into trouble with the authorities who imposed Sabbath. He got into trouble with those who refused to mix with sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors. Jesus took risks. He loved so much the “little ones”, the hated and marginalized. He pained in his heart for them. He was also disturbed by the hypocrisy of the authorities.
Well, Jesus took the risk up to the point that he was crucified. He was humiliated and tortured. Jesus did not run away from that all. He faced them squarely. His love for people, especially the “little ones”, was so strong he did not run away from the threats to his life. Jesus was so serious with the mission of his Father he did not run away from the threats to his life. 
It was horrible for the Apostles. They saw their dreams of success crumble. The Gospel account of Mark tells us that Jesus was left all alone. Even the Apostles abandoned him. 
What does this tell us? We have the experience of the resurrection. We know Jesus won. But let us pause for a while and notice that there are moments when we abandon Jesus. Our faith is lukewarm; we would rather join the success of the world. Following Jesus can also face risks; Jesus called his disciples and told them they too will make risks. Are we people of risks for Jesus?
With Jesus we take risks too. We may be failures in the world. We may be rejected in the world. But we take risks. We take seriously our being Christians, disciples of Jesus.

4. The Apostles discovered “rising in time”

The Resurrection came. The Apostles saw Jesus alive after the crucifixion. But their faith did not arise immediately. They hesitated. They did not know what to do, how to react. Some of them doubted. During the day of the Pentecost the Apostles were hiding in fear for the crowds. It took time to know Jesus again; the Apostles had to re-recognize him.
But Jesus showed himself and always assured them of peace. Jesus stayed with them and slowly made them feel at ease with the fact of his resurrection. Jesus had to “re-form” them again. 
We are assured of the Resurrection. But we also take it gradually, we need time. We may need to “rise in time” from our dark sides and we take all the help of grace for this to happen. Jesus understood the struggle of the Apostles. He had patience. This also means that, for us, we welcome the patience of the Lord. Jesus is risen, he has won. We need time to fully appropriate this. We need time to let the Resurrection be true for us. Just like the Apostles, we continue in faith, slowly, gradually, and with full respect for ourselves. Today this means deepening our faith, making efforts to learn and understand all the more. This means asking for graces to help us appropriate the Resurrection in our lives. This is what “conversion” means: to gradually accept that there is the Resurrection. We gradually accept that indeed, sin and darkness do not rule over our lives. We may not be so convinced at times. But we are on the move to fully understanding and accepting it. 
With the Apostles and disciples of Jesus we believe in the Resurrection of Christ, we make the leap of faith even if we feel we need time to digest the meaning of the Resurrection. Remember that we too prepare our own resurrection. We work for justice and peace, signs that tell our societies that the resurrection is real. In our fidelity to the faith we know God will raise us. 

5. The Apostles discovered the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit is present among us. We may not have a face-to-face encounter with the Holy Spirit, but we recognize how he inspires us and prompts us. The Holy Spirit is the force that makes us move on in faith. The Holy Spirit makes us mobilize our gifts and talents for the service of the Church. The Holy Spirit guides us to understanding our faith deeper each day. The Holy Spirit makes us courageous to live out our faith.
During the Pentecost the Apostles discovered this force—the force of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Thus they took the courage to move out into the world—into the “ends of the earth” and “to all creation”. The Apostles discovered the force and inspiration to tell the world about the Good News. 
For us this means to be available to the prompting of the Spirit. We may not be very courageous, but in faith we receive the strength of the Spirit.  
With the Apostles, and with Mary, we have confidence in the Holy Spirit. We want to share the Good News to the world and we have the Holy Spirit to support us and prompt us to move on. With the Holy Spirit we serve the Kingdom. 

6. We are such because we are a community, an “Apostolic community”

We can say that the Church is a community of persons touched by Christ. We live together as brothers and sisters to each other with God as Our Father and Jesus as our brother. 
We are a community of prayer. We talk to God and we consult God.
We are a community of risk taking. In service to the Kingdom, with our works of justice, peace, love, hospitality we take risks. We may be faced with hostilities but we do not shrink away. We take risks even if it means the cross.
We are a community of believers in the Resurrection. We show our confidence that we will rise…that the Resurrection is promised to all. We keep this faith even if, often, we do not fully understand. Each day we “rise in time”, making the Resurrection more true to our lives.
We are a community inspired by the Holy Spirit. We take guidance from the Holy Spirit, we take courage with the Holy Spirit.
We are just like the Apostles.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Two testaments, the New Covenant in Jeremiah and Ezekiel

Two Testaments
1.  Why do we say “Testament”? The Bible books were written in Hebrew and in Greek. Then it was later translated to Latin. For a long time Christians did not have access to the original texts in Hebrew and Greek. They relied on the Latin Bible. It was only on around the 15th century when ancient manuscripts were recuperated. So for a long time Christians read the so called Vulgate Bible, that is, the Bible in Latin. The first Latin translation was done in the 4th century. The Latin Bible used the word Testament. It was the word used for “Covenant”. The Bible is really the book of two covenants, the old and the new. Today we say “Old Testament” and “New Testament”.
2.  “Testament” means the initiative of someone. This is a juridical term, it is used in legal cases. So when someone takes the initiative to present an evidence in court, that person is making a “testament”. The Latin word tells us then that God took the initiative to present to us his truth, his plan, his vision for us. He first chose Israel and he took the initiative to establish a Covenant with that people. Testament means therefore that God took the initiative to elect his people and make a Covenant with them.
3.  Before it was even written, the Covenant was an event. In that event the status of the people of Israel was determined. They were given the identity of a people living a specific life of being God’s people following the Laws stipulated in the Covenant.
4.  In the Bible we can note some indications of showing that “Covenant” was also understood as “written text”. We read, for example, the phrase “a scroll of the covenant” (1Mac1/57). We read also the expression “All this is the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the Law which Moses commanded us as a heritage for the community of Jacob” (Sir 24/23).  St. Paul used the expression: “when they read the old covenant” (2 Co 3/14). We can see that a little before the start of the Christian era “Covenant” was interpreted as a written text—something written. This was continued to the Church times. When people referred to the written scriptures they would use the terms “Old Testament” and “New Testament”, that is, the Old and the New Covenants.
5.  We see the expression used for the first time “New Covenant” in Jeremiah 31/31. This Covenant, said the prophet, will be written but “in the heart”. (The Latin translation, however, did not translate this as “Testament”….but we need not go into this technical discussion.)
6.  The Latin expression Novum Testamentum, New Testament, appears in Lk 22/20 and 1 Co 11/25. (See also He 8/8; 9/15; see 2 Co 3/6 and 2 Co 3/14.)
7.  In 2 Co 2/12 – 4/6) St. Paul states the “superiority” of the New Covenant over the Old Covenant. Before misunderstanding St. Paul, let us make it clear that when he said “Old Testament” or “Old Covenant” he referred to the written texts as the phrase attest: “when they read the old covenant” (2Cor3/14). When St. Paul mentioned “New Testament/Covenant” he did not mean written texts. The New Testament as we now know it was not a written text yet. So the written texts as we read them now were very unknown to St. Paul.
8.  Two Testaments are Two Covenants
9.  Ok, we see that when we encounter the word Testament it will still trigger in us the notion of two written sections of the Bible. But in the deeper sense Testament should really awaken the notion of Covenant. It is more than just written texts and translations.
10.       Let us pick it up from Jesus. Jesus said: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Mtt5/17). Jesus was to accomplish what was in the previous historical stages, from the birth of Israel to the prophets. He was not to destroy the original Covenant God had with the people of Israel. He was to “renew” it, “deepen” it. Make its fuller sense come out. He was to reveal the fullness of God’s intention in the Covenant.
11.       The people of Israel had enormous difficulty staying faithful to the Covenant. Somehow they just could not get their act together and be the people of the Covenant. The prophets over and over again criticized the people, telling them about how unfaithful they were to the Covenant. So it became necessary to renew the Covenant. It became necessary to reveal the deep meaning God wanted in the Covenant. A “new Covenant” was necessary. The word “new” did not mean dropping the “old”. It simply mean deepening it and making it more interior to the people—in their hearts. The Covenant established with Moses was still “external”, it was not completely “internalized”. So the New Covenant would be an internalization of God’s initiative.
12.       We Christians retrospect on the prophets, notably Jeremiah and Ezekiel, to see how they were pointing at the fulfillment of the New Testament in Jesus. We read Jeremiah and Ezekiel in terms of Jesus Christ. We say that what Jeremiah and Ezekiel wrote was already pointing to the fulfillment of the New Covenant for all nations and it was Jesus to fulfill it.
13.       When we go to mass we hear the priest pray, “This is the cup, the cup of the New and Everlasting Covenant” and it will be “shed for all”. The mass picks this up from the event of Jesus during the Last Supper. St. Paul recorded the meaning of that Supper when he wrote: “In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ (1Cor.11/25). It is the New Covenant in the blood of Christ. Jesus fulfilled the Covenant of God through the extreme giving of his blood. Now he has established the real communion with God, the real bond with God—a bond that has been aspired in the early Covenant. From the start God took the initiative to call us in communion with him—he already gave his “testament”. Now it is definitely fulfilled in Christ.
1.  Towards the later period of Jeremiah’s ministry the Southern Kingdom of Judah was destroyed by Babylon. It was a total destruction of Judah, the Temple—center of the Jewish nation—was destroyed, the city was devastated. The basic places that served as reference for the Jews were lost to ruins. A big part of the population was exiled. The year was about 586BCE. Remember King Josiah earlier reformed the Jewish society and the majority of the people took that seriously. But now, as the people underwent the exile, they asked deep questions: why this devastation? Why this exile? Has the Lord God abandoned his people? Has the Lord God been so weak and powerless?
2.  Let us read from Jeremiah and see how the pain was expressed.
Let my eyes stream with tears night and day, without rest, over the great destruction which overwhelms the virgin daughter of my people, over her incurable wound.
If I walk out into the field, look! those slain by the sword; If I enter the city, look! victims of famine. Both prophet and priest ply their trade in a land they do not know.
Have you really cast Judah off? Is Zion loathsome to you? Why have you struck us a blow that cannot be healed? We wait for peace, to no avail;
for a time of healing, but terror comes instead. We recognize our wickedness, LORD, the guilt of our ancestors: we have sinned against you.
Do not reject us, for your name’s sake, do not disgrace your glorious throne.
Remember! Do not break your covenant with us. (Jer 14/17-21)
3.  During that time people of the different nations in the region believed that their gods were fighting along their side. The victory of an army was attributed to the god of the people. Defeat meant that their god was powerless. When a nation, therefore, lost a war, the people would shift allegiance to the god of the victorious.
4.  For the Jews it was different. They continued to stay firm with their identity and they tried to see a different profile of their God. Two prophets heled them here, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
5.  Of course the situation with Babylon was a trauma for the people. Even Jeremiah could not understand well. Did God really reject his people? Or maybe…was God just an illusion, he cannot do anything with the violence hitting the people?
6.  Jeremiah did not doubt God. He continued his faithfulness. Jeremiah remembered the sins of the Jews: “We recognize our wickedness, LORD, the guilt of our ancestors: we have sinned against you” (Jer 14/20). Yet Jeremiah also reminded God of the Covenant : “Remember! Do not break your covenant with us” (Jer14/21). Jeremiah stayed firm in his faith. While everything went falling apart around him he announced a new covenant. He never lost hope in the human capacity to step out of human violence. Jeremiah did not doubt the plan of God. He knew that the love for his people was stronger at that moment.
Hear the word of the LORD, you nations, proclaim it on distant coasts, and say:
The One who scattered Israel, now gathers them; he guards them as a shepherd his flock.
The LORD shall ransom Jacob, he shall redeem him from a hand too strong for him. Shouting, they shall mount the heights of Zion, they shall come streaming to the LORD’s blessings: The grain, the wine, and the oil, flocks of sheep and cattle; They themselves shall be like watered gardens, never again neglected. Then young women shall make merry and dance, young men and old as well. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will show them compassion and have them rejoice after their sorrows.
7.  Jeremiah could not accompany the people to exile. He was kidnapped and brought to Egypt and there he died.
8.  Jeremiah spoke about the “new covenant”.

See, days are coming—oracle of the LORD—when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors the day I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. They broke my covenant, though I was their master—oracle of the LORD.
But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days—oracle of the LORD. I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
They will no longer teach their friends and relatives, “Know the LORD!” Everyone, from least to greatest, shall know me—oracle of the LORD—for I will forgive their iniquity and no longer remember their sin. (Jer31/31-34).

9. When we say “covenant” it means that God and people form a
solidarity, a pact. God will be the God of his people (see for example Dt 29/9-12). Jeremiah mentioned this too: “I will be their God and they shall be my people” (Jer31/33). The covenant will, however, be new. God led the people out of Egypt and gave them a new life. God was to protect his people and care for them, he was “master” in this sense. This was part of the election of the people. But the people were also to engage in the Covenant—they had their role to play. That was to live properly in the new land they were given; they were to live according to the Law that liberated them from repeating slavery. People had to recognize the Lordship of God, a Lorship of liberation and Law. But, as Jeremiah said, “They broke my covenant, though I was their master—oracle of the LORD” (Jer31/32).
10.A covenant also meant accepting and following the agreements.
It meant attachment to the agreement of the Covenant. It became necessary to give one’s whole for the Covenant (see Hos 4/1-2; Hos 66; Is 11/9). In the New Covenant God was to place the Law in the heart!   
11. God promised to place the Law inside the hearts of people.
As Isaiah said, “They will no longer teach their friends and relatives” (Jer 31/34). There will no more be lessons. God will make effective his lessons without need for new prophets and teachers and rabbis. In the hearts of people—by their own initiative—the people will assure their fidelity to God. Why? Jeremiah says: “For I will forgive their iniquity” (Jer31/34).
12. In the future God will assure reconciliation. The Law will
not be an imposition on people. It will be a response of the people. People will live according to the Law of the heart—the law of Love. This will be basic in the new covenant. People, by their own initiative, will assure obedience to the Lord God.
13. In the old covenant God communicated his will. He had to
tell people what they had to do, in accordance with the Law. In the new covenant God will have a new style. The Law will not be from the external, it will be from within, the heart. People will have the capacity to recognize and accomplish God’s will. We Christians understand this to mean the giving of the Holy Spirit who will work in our hearts (see Rm 5/3-5; 8/1-17).


1.  A year before the big exile, in 587BCE, Jerusalem was already ransacked by the Babylonian army. The Temple was destroyed. A group of Jews were already deported. Ezekiel was one of them. He was a Temple priest. He was among the first exiled to Babylon. His insights were given in symbols and visions. He accompanied the exiled people. For him God did not abandon his people. God continued to accompany them. He had a vision. Let us read.

The word of the LORD came to the priest Ezekiel, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar. There the hand of the LORD came upon him.
As I watched, a great storm wind came from the North, a large cloud with flashing fire, a bright glow all around it, and something like polished metal gleamed at the center of the fire. (Ez.1/3-4).

2.  Above the firmament over their heads was the likeness of a throne that looked like sapphire; and upon this likeness of a throne was seated, up above, a figure that looked like a human being.
3.  And I saw something like polished metal, like the appearance of fire enclosed on all sides, from what looked like the waist up; and from what looked like the waist down, I saw something like the appearance of fire and brilliant light surrounding him.
4.  Just like the appearance of the rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day so was the appearance of brilliance that surrounded him. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell on my face and heard a voice speak. (Ez 1,26-28)
5.  The vision showed something very new in the religion of the Jews. To the traumatized people Ezekiel announced that God was not linked to a Temple, not to a region or place, not to sacrifices and rituals. God accompanied his people wherever they were. He was with them in their exile.
6.  Let us read another passage.

You say, “The LORD’s way is not fair!” Hear now, house of Israel: Is it my way that is unfair? Are not your ways unfair?
When the just turn away from justice to do evil and die, on account of the evil they did they must die.
But if the wicked turn from the wickedness they did and do what is right and just, they save their lives;
since they turned away from all the sins they committed, they shall live; they shall not die” (Ez.18/25-28).

7.  This was an insight common to the prophets and here we read it in Ezekiel. In the region of the Near East people of the nations believed that their destinies relied on divine will. The gods planned and executed their plans. People just had to accept their fate in the divine plans. Ezekiel saw it differently. He saw that the human was responsible for human destiny. Ezekiel promoted an idea of humanity free in choice and paths to take in life. The refusal to walk in the path of the good led to death.
8.  Now, recognizing fault and turning in conversion led to life. Moral life now had a very big role in religion. To please God meant living morally as proposed by the Laws of the Covenant.
9.  While the people were on exile they started a new practice in their religion. There was emphasis on listening to the Word of God and faithfulness to the Ten Commandments. In Babylon they started a new practice of meditating on the written texts. Religious practices no longer revolved around Temple sacrifices and the other rituals. Now religiosity turned to celebrating the Word, meditating on it. Commenting on it and praying.
10.               The prophet then focused a lot on the moral life of people. He looked around him and noticed the ways of the people. He reminded the people that their choices had undeniable effects and consequences.
11.               Yet Ezekiel remained a man of hope. He knew the faithfulness of God; he reminded the people of God’s fidelity. Let us take an example.

I will sprinkle clean water over you to make you clean; from all your impurities and from all your idols I will cleanse you.
I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.
I will put my spirit within you so that you walk in my statutes, observe my ordinances, and keep them. (Ez 36/25-27).

12.               The insight of Ezekiel will become important for the meditations of later Bible authors. The question about human destiny will continue to be asked in a world marked by violence and injustice. In fact during the time of Ezekiel the first eleven chapters of Genesis started to be written. The point is, a new view of human life and God’s relationship will emerge.

God, in Jesus Christ, can express his plan in different ways

1.       The Vatican II council was a big step in having a positive view of other religions. Let us look at this example.

“The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men”. (Nostra Aetate #2). Notice that the document states that there is “a ray of Truth” in the other religions.

2.       Pope John Paul II himself, in his Redemptoris mission, als wrote of “seeds” and “rays” present in other religions. We read, “Through dialogue, the Church seeks to uncover the "seeds of the Word," a "ray of that truth which enlightens all men''; these are found in individuals and in the religious traditions of mankind” (#56).
3.       Human life is really marked by the interactions with the complex social life. There are institutions, structures and systems in which each person is situated. The same holds for persons in religions. A member of a religious tradition is inside a whole complexity of texts, symbols, rituals, moral codes, etc. When people search for the mystery of salvation, they cannot avoid moving within the systems and institutions of their religions. Each religion then can offer to its members the opening up to the mystery of salvation. We can say that religions are ways of expressing God’s will to save.
4.       The Church Fathers in the early history of the Church wrote of the universal presence of God in all humanity. Of course this means including Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
5.       We must insist that Jesus is Saviour of all. This is how God revealed. Christology is normative—it is “norm”. We cannot give up Christ’s unique mediation. We believe that other religions are paths of salvation because they carry in them the presence of Christ. But if people are saved by Christ it is not in spite of their religions but because of their religions.
6.       Other religious traditions can manifest Jesus Christ. The Church is not the only place where salvation can happen. Remember that the Church is in the service of the kingdom. The Kingdom is bigger and wider than the Church; the Church does not have a monopoly of the Kingdom. The Holy Spirit then can work where he wants and the Church is to respect and discern that. 

     “the universal activity of the Spirit is not to be separated from his particular activity within the body of Christ, which is the Church. Indeed, it is always the Spirit who is at work, both when he gives life to the Church and impels her to proclaim Christ, and when he implants and develops his gifts in all individuals and peoples, guiding the Church to discover these gifts, to foster them and to receive them through dialogue. Every form of the Spirit's presence is to be welcomed with respect and gratitude, but the discernment of this presence is the responsibility of the Church, to which Christ gave his Spirit in order to guide her into all the truth (cf. Jn 16:13)” (Redemptoris missio #29).

7.       If we look at other religions where can we see the deep values of Christ? We can look into the written scriptures of other religions. We can look into their liturgies, cults and other related practices. We can look into their moral codes, their works of justice, hospitality and peace.
8.       We see in all the religions the beauty of striving to go out of being “too full of oneself” and opening up to others and to something greater.
9.       If we engage in dialogue with other religions, we do it as Christians. We are responsible for being ourselves. We enter into dialogue by being true to ourselves too: we are Christians. We have our faith. This is not necessarily an obstacle to dialogue.
10.   Let us look at our Jewish brothers and sisters for a moment. We still believe that they are elected by God. They stay as they are and we do not substitute for them. Christianity is not a substitute for Judaism. Judaism stand on its own; the Jews are who they are. Jesus himself did not think of substituting a new religion to replace Judaism. Jesus expanded horizons and he extended to all nations the election of the people of Israel.
11.   If this is how we relate with Judaism, can we not do the same with other religious traditions? If we respect the autonomy of the Jews, can we not also respect the autonomy of other religious traditions? There are many religions, it is a fact. We can hold as principle that other religions stay valid as they are.

12.   God revealed to us in history through Christ. God can also reveal in other ways. Judaism was a preparation for the coming of Christ; we can say the same for other religions: they are preparations for the full manifestation of Christ. Other religions also belong to the plan of God. There is no need to deny their status. God works in them and prepares them in God’s own ways. God’s salvation in Christ can have different expressions; other religious traditions may be, precisely, expressions too.     

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Immanuel: Isaiah and Matthew

1.    We would certainly like that God had a name. But if, indeed, he has a name, it should come from him. It must be a revealed name.
2.    In chapter 6 of Isaiah the author/prophet claims to have seen the Lord. The Lord God sits on a throne, like a king, and there are angels—seraphim—with him. YHWH is the name, it is given by God to Moses in Exodus 3. YHWH is saint, holy. YHWH can be YHWN Sabbaoth, Lord of Armies. Isaiah-I uses a lot this name.
And Immanuel?
3.    Notice that as Isaiah speaks to King Ahaz he does not say the name YHWH nor YHWH Sabbaot. The context may require that name to be used because the Syrians and the Northern Kingdom threaten Ahaz. There is a kind of “holy war” going on. But an assurance is given: the coalition threatening Ahaz will not hold (see Is 7/7). God gives a sign, Immanuel. This means “God-is-with-us”. The sign seems to say that God is near us, with us, together with us. God is not, this time, a God of armies and power and might. (see 2 Samuel 7/7).
God’s holiness
4.    Be afraid of YHWH Sabbaoth, says Isaiah in another chapter (see Is 8,/3). But this is not said here. Here the holiness of God is his power. No it is not force that makes him powerful, it is his holiness. He is God with us, near us, together with us. Now he is God-with-us, Immanuel. He is the “Holy One of Israel” (Is 12/6).
What about Matthew?
5.    Isaiah 7/14 is cited in Matthew. The angel visits Joseph and announces that Mary “will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’which means ‘God is with us.’ (Mt. 1/20-21).
6.    Matthew puts in passages from Isaiah. Is this Immanuel Jesus? Of course it is…from the point of view of Matthew.
But wait. Joseph is to give the child a name, “Jesus”. Why does Matthew add “Immanuel”?
7.    Let us look at the community of Matthew. It is a community largely of Jews (and a few Gentiles) who suffer the pain of separating from Judaism. Matthew comforts them showing that Jesus inherits the promise of God. Joseph is from the David line. He gives the name Jesus. Then, thanks to Isaiah, the birth of this Jesus is from a virgin, accomplishing thus the Scriptures.
8.    Now, the name Jesus is “savior of the people” or “God saves”. It can mean that the promise of God is limiting his salvation to the David line and those associated with David. The Immanuel, this time, indicates, for Matthew, that the salvation given by Jesus has a universal dimension. In Jesus God is with us. “Us” means everyone, Jew, Greek, everyone.
9.    The angel tells Joseph to name the child Jesus. But Immanuel is to be given by “them”…”they shall call his name Immanuel” (verse 23).
In Matthew there is a problem: Jesus will not be recognized by the Jews but will be recognized by Gentiles. Matthew starts this off with the story of the Magi. At the end of Matthew we read that Jesus sends his disciples to all nation (see 28/19).
If Joseph is to call the child Jesus, believers will call him Immanuel. They will later recognize the salvation given by Jesus and they will recognize the presence of God in Jesus. This can explain why verse 23 is about the future: “they will call his name….”
10. At the end of Matthew Jesus declares that he will be with his disciples always (see 28/20). In other words, Jesus is “with us” always, he is Immanuel.

11. Matthew makes it clear that the birth of Jesus is in conformity with God’s plan for all nations. So the circle is closed with the end of the account by saying Jesus is with us for always. 

Two messages of Isaiah II: Consolation and the suffering Servant


1.   Bible experts note that the 2nd Isaiah may have been written during the exile but with the growing presence of the Persians under the rule of King Cyrus. The Persians seem to be winning against the Babylonians. In this historical context the prophet Isaiah-II needs to keep the flames of hope alive among the people of Israel. Let us look at Chapter 40.
2.   Chapter 40 starts with a prologue, vv.1-11, and later a question is raised. Who is like God? Can the idols oppose him?
3.   In the prologue, vv.1-11, we see that the God of Israel is a speaking God. In spite of the infidelity of the people God speaks to them. God has chosen his people and will restore them, he will re-establish them and he will re-establish Jerusalem. Thus, the people must see that never does God abandon them. Even in their exile God has been with them.
4.   Note that four sections can be seen in vv.1-11,namely, vv.1-2, vv.3-5, vv.6-8 and vv.9-11. Let us look at them in a general perspective.

• v. 1-2. A cry is launched. Comfort the people! It is an urgent cry. To comfort or console is to allow to “exhale”, like a big exhalation given when pain is relieved. The people of Israel must be able to “exhale”. Isaiah-II is known to be the “book of consolation”. It is about the people able to “exhale” finally. They do not have to always hold their breath. They can breathe freely. The exile has ended, (or is about to end). The sin of the people is expiated, the people can be rewarded double!  
• v. 3-5. Here we read that a voice proclaims. God will let the people return to their land. The return to the land is like a new Exodus and God will lead the way. The land will be “level”, no “ups” and “downs”. The glory of God will be revealed in this liberation. Others will see that glory. 
• v. 6-8. Here we see the recognition of the fragility of the exiled people. Indeed they are fragile like grass. Grass and flower wilt away, but not the word of God. So we see the opposition: fragility and permanence. This is a fact of human life, a fact of human existence. Being in exile or being in the land, human existence is “grass” and “flowers”.
• v. 9-11. Jerusalem is here mentioned; it is the city that will be restored. Jerusalem with Mt. Sion is messenger of good news. Be happy to announce the coming of the Lord, the true master of history. He is like a shepherd of sheep. He will care for his flock.
5.   The prologue is written during the time of the exile but it is already looking forward, ahead. Pull away now from the past, pull away now from the condition of being stuck. Look ahead to new times.
6.   In verse 5, note the verbs “too see” and “to speak”. “the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (v.5). The people will see that the Lord has spoken. There seems to be no intermediary. Each one can see the effectiveness of God’s word! 
7.   In verse 8 we read that “the word of our God stands forever”. The word of the lord stands and can thus intervene radically. It has energy.

Suffering Servant
1.   Who is this servant? It can be Jacob/Israel. But is some verses we cannot be sure who, see  42/1; 44/26; 50/10; 52/13 and 53/11. The term can have many meanings.
2.   Perhaps the servant is an individual.
3.   In 44/26  to 45/13, it is the Persian King Cyrus. This King is, at times, called a “shepherd” or even “savior”! This is such a big surprise because the tiles are offered to a pagan king.
4.   Look at 49/5-6. This is about a person with a mission. He has a mission to both the people of Israel and the other nations. Who could it be? Is he a representative of the people, like the exiled King Jehoiachin? Could it be Isaiah-II himself?  But 49/3 mentions Israel. So could this be the people of Israel? Maybe the servant is the nation!
5.   Look at 50/4-11. We see mentions of face and cheeks and garments. Who could this be? Could it be the prophet Isaiah-II? Maybe it is him who went through difficulties in announcing the word of God.
6.   The servant as group
7.   We can note two words, “servant” and “elected”. These can mean the elected people of Israel. See for example 41/8-9; 43/10; 49/3.
8.   The Servant can represent the whole nation, the people of Israel. They are the elected people. They have a mission for the other nations. See 42/6; 49/6 and 49/8. Maybe it is a small group within the people of Israel, the “remnant”. They remain faithful to the Lord God in spite of the infidelity of the people.
9.   If we look at chapters 50-53 the Servant can be all the people of Israel. They are considered faithful. They suffer and yet they stay faithful to God. This can be an interpretation. With the suffering of the people a universal mission is opened. Other nations can be called to the Lord God. Chapter 53 looks like a summit of the Old Testament.
10.       How about Jesus as the Suffering Servant? Around after the time of Jesus some Christians did a retrospect back to the book of Isaiah. This may look simple to us, but actually it was daring. The early Christians dared to be different. They did not strictly follow the line of their Jewish counterparts. New Testament authors applied Isaiah 42 and 53 to Jesus himself. The texts of Isaiah allowed the authors to interpret the crucifixion of Jesus. That death could be best understood in the light of God’s plan expressed in the phrase, “in accordance to the Scriptures”. Of course we can always read the texts of Isaiah without necessarily applying them to Jesus, but the early Christians did it. They saw Jesus in those texts. They felt that Jesus was already announced in Isaiah.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Why is there still evil if salvation is assured?

Some thoughts about evil….(not “some evil thoughts”)

1.  In class we discussed salvation from a Biblical perspective. So Jesus saved us. Fine, fantastic. But a question repeats itself in class, every year, every semester. Why is there still evil if salvation is assured? So let us think of how to address this question.
2.  Sometimes we would like to put God on trial. We might want to raise the question: Why does God allow pain and suffering? Why does God allow “bad things” to happen? This hits on the nature of God. God may be good, but because of the presence of “bad things” allowed to happen, who knows, maybe God is also bad. Or maybe God is not powerful enough to stop “bad things” from happening! Maybe he is not powerful after all.
3.  There are those who would like to spare God from criticism by saying that God cannot be the object of suspicion and criticism. To spare God, the reality of evil is softened. Some might say that evil is only an illusion. If we look at the “bigger picture” of life and history, for example, “bad things” happening are rally part of a whole process that leads to “good things”. “Bad things” happen so that “good things” can come next. Oh, a young good person died? Oh, do not worry, thanks to that early death that person is spared from doing grave sin. Sometimes, by making God innocent, people will put all blame on humanity. This is what happened in the book of Job. The friends of Job were insisting that Job’s misfortune was a result of his having done something wrong, he just had to look back and see how it occurred. The idea of his friends was that something bad happened to Job because he did something wrong. Job of course kept his stand, he was innocent.
4.  Talking about Job he had suspicions about the motivations of God. The fascinating book has verses that describe, at times, how each of us may feel in front of God. Job felt that God was like a spy watching his every move and waiting for him to commit “bad things”. Job felt he had no rest in front of God. If possible, the span of time swallowing saliva can be a moment of rest, but even that is not given. Job rebelled but he did not blaspheme.
5.  Some very spiritual persons might say that suffering can be educative, it can purify, it can prepare us for heaven, it makes us closer to God and maybe God is communicating to us through the suffering he sends. This line may be very consoling but not to someone whose family is ruined, or to someone gravely and tragically ill. I cannot imagine myself saying, “Do not worry, God is testing you, he is checking how close you are to him, so be thankful for your suffering”.
6.  Jesus Christ never gave an elaborate explanation of evil and “bad things”. He had no theoretical discourse on the root origins of these things. But he underwent a combat against all sources of evil. This is what his incarnation signified. This is what his parables and miracles signified. This is what his crucifixion signified.
7.  Let us pick it up from here—the possible response to the question of evil. There may be no theoretical and high sounding reply to the question, but there can be a practical response, nonetheless. Christian faith holds that creation is good, sin came into the world through human abuse of freedom, God’s love is patient, the Word became flesh, the Holy Spirit endows us with gifts, the Church with her sacraments was established and we are all called to lead good lives and we can pray. With this whole arsenal of combat gear we can combat evil. Win or lose…well, we hope in the resurrection. Christ did a combat, we follow his footsteps. He himself needed salvation, not from sin but from death.
8.  The Incarnation of Christ is an affirmation of this reality. Christ, the Word made flesh, recognized that the human condition is marked by pain and suffering and evil and “bad things”. But Christ also affirmed the value of the human life. The Incarnation is a statement of God giving so much value to our human flesh (Michel Henri).
9.  The great response of Jesus, his great combat, against evil was the going-to-the-cross. In full obedience and confidence to the Father, he was willing to face the cross and show how serious he was with the Kingdom. No threat can stop him from his mission. Stand up for the Kingdom even if “bad things” are hurled at you. It is a combat.
10.     So, why is there still evil if salvation is assured? We really do not know. What we can say is that Christian action is “redemptively” oriented. We are “co-Saviours with Jesus” (Rene Voillaume). That may not be a response to the question, but it can be a starting point.
11.     What about sin? Like evil, it is a dis-order. Sin is “against creation”, it is a “de-creation”. The Bible would say that the disorder of the world—the “bad things” happening are results of the basic illness which is sin (see Lk5/31-32). Evil is a symptom of sin. This is a Biblical view.
12.     But what does “symptom” mean? It means that there is a link between the reality of evil and the reality of sin. “Bad things” happening is seen as expressions of sin. This may sound very strange for modern thinking. Sometimes we would say that even if we “do nothing”—we have not yet done anything wrong and we have been silent most of the time—“bad things” still happen. Why? Well, here is where original sin comes in. We have a “solidarity” also with each other, we share the condition of sinning. We are in communion with all humanity. We are equally responsible with all humanity. Even in our innocence, we are responsible. (I say responsible, not guilty.)
13.     We may not feel at ease with the idea that we contracted and (biologically) inherited the sin of Adam and Eve; but we can still recognize that deep within us is always the capacity to sin. Even if we do not sin now, the capacity to sin is present. Great Saints have always been struggling with this. The presence of this capacity is a mystery. This is how we can approach original sin. All humans encounter this deep presence and no human is able to overcome it and delete it. We are in a combat even here.
14.     In the “Our Father” prayer we end with saying “deliver us from evil”. Notice we do not say, “deliver me”….we say “deliver us”. That includes all humanity. We have a unity with all humanity even in our capacity to do evil and thus sin. So we pray that we are not put in situations that will trigger our tendency to sin. Our solidarity with all humanity is not only a solidarity of sin but also a solidarity of combatting against sin.

15.     I suggest that we read, in our private time, a letter of Pope John Paul II, SALVIFICI DOLORIS.