At Bogotá in 1990 the Catholic Biblical Federation continued the journey that had taken it from Vienna to Malta and Bangalore. One of the most memorable parts of the Final Statement of the Bogotá Plenary Assembly was its reflection on the Emmaus story (Lk 24: 13-35). The encounter on the road to Emmaus involves the encounter of text and context. For the two disciples the text was of course the Hebrew Scriptures, the "law and the prophets". The context was their experience of Jesus, and especially the devastating experience of his arrest and execution. In their meeting with Jesus, text and context began to illuminate one another. It happened as Jesus and the disciples walked with one another and listened to one another. The disciples began to see new meaning in the familiar texts, and those texts showed them the deeper meaning of Jesus' life, that the Christ had to suffer and so enter into his glory. This was no mere intellectual understanding: their hearts were burning within them. But still their eyes were not fully opened; that came in the act of sharing, the breaking of the bread. (5.7 - 5.15)
The result of this encounter, at once a personal encounter and an encounter between text and context, was new life. A recognition of course that Jesus is alive. And "they themselves are risen and are reborn. The cross, a sign of death, becomes a sign of life and hope." And so, instead of fear, courage; instead of fleeing, return to Jerusalem; instead of dispersion, community; instead of fatalism, a critical conscience; instead of unbelief and despair, faith and hope. (5.16)
Let us note the elements here:
How did Bogotá see the context? It spoke in fact of eight contexts (6.1-6.8):
While placing such emphasis on context, Bogotá left for further exploration the relationship between the original context of the biblical text and the new context in which we must read it.
At the same time, Bogotá spoke of a new way of reading the Bible, which should give a new thrust to our biblical apostolate (7.5):
This call for a "new way of reading" has borne fruit in many parts of the Federation grappling with the question, "What is a faithful reading of the Bible?". This is again to raise the question of the relationship between contexts — how can we be faithful both to the text which was formed in its own context and to the challenges of our own context(s)?
Virtually all that Bogotá said of the context remains true today, nearly five years later. But another frightening phenomenon has also emerged —that of fragmentation, sometimes bloody fragmentation. In 1990 we had great hopes for unification, as the Cold War era came to an end. But with the collapse of oppressive and colonizing regimes, the hoped-for new world order became a fragmented disorder. Old enmities resurfaced. In several continents, divisions based on a complex mix of race, religion and culture became the source of violent conflict. The phrase "ethnic cleansing" made a frightening entry into our vocabulary. Sometimes this strife stemmed from legitimate desire for identity and community. Too often it was the result of exploitation of divisions by power-hungry groups and individuals. In other places differences hardened into division, as attitudes of hospitality to the stranger seemed in danger of being swamped by a wave of xenophobia. We dream of a world in which differences are welcomed and boundaries are rejected, but so often the reality is one of rejected differences and newly erected boundaries.
In the resulting conflicts many lives have been lost. But even where there is not such overt violence, poverty shortens life and deprives it of its dignity; the environment is plundered; cultures are destroyed by economic and cultural colonialism; the killing of the unborn in vast numbers is all too readily accepted.
This shadow side of our world is all too real. But there is also light, very real signs of hope. Often they are concerned with partnership and community. We may consider a few examples:
Thus we see in both the shadows and in the light the hope and desire for genuine community, for dialogue and partnership, each of which is necessary for truly human life, for overcoming the death-dealing forces in the world.
How then does the Biblical tradition speak of newness of life?
The metaphor of life is perhaps most prominent in the Johannine writings, as indicated in the double quotation that we have chosen to accompany our theme for Hong Kong. We need but recall a few familiar texts. What came into being in the Word was life, and the life was the light of all people (Jn 1: 4). Jesus gives living water (Jn 4: 10), which becomes a spring of water gushing up to eternal life (Jn 4: 14). The Son gives life to whomever he wishes (Jn 5: 21). Jesus is the bread of life (Jn 6: 35). In the climactic sign, the raising of Lazarus from the dead, Jesus is depicted as the great life-giver (Jn 11: 1-46) The first letter of John sets out its theme thus: "We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have
heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life . . ." (1 Jn 1-2).
In the fourth gospel this "eternal life" is something already present. The Son GIVES life (5: 21); whoever believes HAS eternal life (6: 47); Jesus IS the resurrection and the life (11: 25) Yet this eternal life also looks towards an unlimited future: "This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day." (6: 40)
This life is primarily a divine reality, a share in the life of God, the living One who is the source of all life (5: 26, 1 Jn 1: 2). It creates a communion with the Father and the Son (1 Jn 1: 3, 2: 23-24). We talk about "having" life, but the reality is one of personal relation and participation. Life in the Johannine tradition is not primarily about transformation of the world. But this life with God can only prove itself in our relations with other human beings. We cannot love God, whom we have not seen, without loving our brothers and sisters whom we do see (1 Jn 4: 20-21). Life is both gift and task.
Of course, there is the further, and literally scandalous, element. If we try to hold on to life, we lose it. Only by losing life can we find it. The grain of wheat must fall into the ground and die if it is to produce a harvest (Jn 12: 4-25). This saying looks forward to the Cross, and had already been expressed in the Lazarus story. Jesus gives life at the cost of his own life. Throughout the story there are references to the danger which Jesus puts himself into by going to Lazarus' tomb; the concluding verse (11: 53) has the authorities deciding to put Jesus to death. But he goes impelled by his love for Lazarus and his sisters. "Nothing could underline so clearly the cost to Jesus that communicating life incurs. Nothing could bring out so forcefully the love that impels the gift."
In the Synoptic gospels, the metaphor of the Reign of God functions in a way parallel to that of "life" in the fourth gospel. The central features of the Reign of God are familiar but well worth pondering again. "The blind see again, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor" (Lk. 7: 22). No one is excluded; everyone is invited. Indeed, those excluded by society are especially invited and enabled to be included. The Reign is "described" in parables which point to God's being able to be found in everyday reality —we live in a sacramental universe. The great symbol (in the fullest sense) of the Reign of God is the shared meal, table fellowship. Jesus takes up and expands the traditional symbol of the banquet, through the various meals that are recorded as part of his ministry, leading up to the Last Supper.
Paul's understanding of life can be grasped only in contrast to death. Death, for Paul, means slavery to sin. Death is a kind of king whose power is derived fromhamartia (Romans 5: 12-14, 17). Life, then, means the liberation of the total person from this power. ". . . so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification, leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." (5: 21) Hence, we "walk in newness of life." (6: 4)
If in Romans Paul speaks of walking in newness of life, in Galatians he speaks of walking in the Spirit, the Spirit whose fruits are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (5: 16-23). Life in the Spirit means bearing one another's burdens. (6: 2) This chapter, and indeed the whole letter, ends with the assertion that what matters is a "new creation" (6: 14), not circumcision or uncircumcision. This harks back to the proclamation of 3: 28 that there can be neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male or female — all are one in Christ Jesus. Paul speaks of new creation in Second Corinthians, there also linking it with reconciliation: "So for anyone who is in Christ there is a new creation: the old order is gone and a new being is there to see. It is all God's work: he reconciled us to himself through Christ and he gave us the ministry of reconciliation." (2 Cor 5: 17-18)
In the Lucan writings, death is seen not so much in cosmic terms as a power, which has humankind in its grip as in terms of the concrete foes of life, especially greed. "For one's life does not consist in abundance of possessions." (12: 15) Hence, we have Acts' ideal picture of a living community: all things held in common (with goods given according to need), spending much time together in the temple, joining in the breaking of bread (Acts 2: 44-46).
We must also go to the Hebrew Scriptures to learn of the fullness of life. The Wisdom tradition speaks of God as "the lover of life" (Wis 11: 26), the creator who loves everything that exists (v. 24). Hence, this tradition is constantly able to see God present in everyday life.
Fullness of life is encapsulated too in the term shalom, which as we know is a more all-embracing word than the English word "peace". Leviticus 26: 3-13 gives a good indication of the range of meaning — rain in season, good harvests, security, no one to make people afraid, peace, no dangerous animals, protection from enemies, God maintaining the covenant, "and I will walk among you, and be your God, and you shall be my people." Or again, we may go to one of the texts, which were prayed over in Bogotá‡, Isaiah 65: 17-25, with its picture of the new heavens and the new earth. Here we see long life, the fruitfulness of the earth, blessing, a God who listens and pays heed, peace among "enemies" within the animal world. This last, the wolf and the lamb lying down together, echoes Isaiah 11: 6-9, a vision of the earth full of the knowledge of the Lord. It is, of course, a vision of unity in diversity. And in the images used, the prophetic writer suggests that this unity must go beyond merely human reality to embrace the whole of creation.
Peace and justice so often are put together. The effect of justice is peace (Is 32: 17). In the days of the promised king, justice shall flourish, and peace till the moon fails (Ps 72: 7). Justice and peace have embraced (Ps 85: 10)
The Law is an articulation of the meaning and especially the social implications of this "life". Keeping the law is not a way of earning God's favour. Rather, it is a way of life lived in response to the fact that God has already shown favour, has brought this people out of the slavery of Egypt, has indeed made them a people with their own land, their own identity. Antony Campbell has expressed it very well:
In the Pentateuch, it can be argued that law has as its aim the preservation and furthering of life. The action of God in calling Abraham and in leading Israel out of the bondage of Egypt has given Israel the gift of life in freedom and independence. The further gift of the law is portrayed as guidance for the full living of that life.
We can see this in the content of the laws. Of the ten commandments, for example, no other gods, no images, not taking the name of God in vain, and observing the sabbath are all ways of keeping alive, in the reality of day-to-day living, the life-giving relationship with God. Honor your father and your mother protects the relationship between generations; it is pointed specifically toward life — "that your days may be long in the land" (Exod 20: 12). You shall not kill, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, or covet are all protective of social living in community, protecting life, family, property, and the fabric of society.
This understanding is found in the famous passage near the end of Deuteronomy (Deut. 30: 19-20): "Therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him; for that means life to you and length of days, that you may dwell in the land which the Lord swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them."
Enlivened and Inspired by God's Word the Church in different parts of the world has spoken of life and has tried to respond to the threats of death and the signs of hope that surround us.
The meeting held under the aegis of the European Bishops' Conferences at Freising in 1994 showed itself painfully aware of division and violent conflict: "In a world growing ever more fragmented the unifying power of God's word is needed, a power that can reach across religious, social and other boundaries to build the unity of God's people" (1.2).
The bishops of Asia have for two decades been grappling with these issues. In their programmatic statement in Taipei in 1974 they spoke of the threefold dialogue —with cultures, with religions, with the poor (Taipei 9-24). Here we have an immediate recognition of context. Obvious in the Asian context is the great wealth of cultures, the presence of the world's great religions, and yet massive poverty in many places (and this remains true despite the remarkable economic growth of recent years —especially since the economic benefits have been so unevenly distributed). Implicit in this is the recognition that the Word can be illuminated, can have new facets revealed, by encounter with this context. We can learn from the cultures, the religions, the poor. Otherwise, why speak of dialogue?
Perhaps a better word than dialogue is "partnership", since dialogue can too easily suggest merely an exchange of spoken or written words whereas the bishops deliberately spoke of a "dialogue of life". In the context of poverty this dialogue means:
... a genuine experience and understanding of this poverty, deprivation and oppression of so many of our peoples. It demands working, not for them merely (in a paternalistic sense), but with them, to learn from them (for we have much to learn from them!) their real needs and aspirations, as they are enabled to identify and articulate these, and to strive for their fulfilment, by transforming those structures and situations which keep them in that deprivation and powerlessness (Taipei 20).
Once again, we see the pattern of the Emmaus story — walking with, listening, despair turning to hope, new life. And of course part of what we bring to this dialogue is the Word of God, embodied in part in the biblical text, embodied in part, we hope, in our lives.
Very much in continuity with Taipei, the bishops assembled in Bandung in 1990 described mission in these words:
... Mission, being a continuation in the Spirit of the mission of Christ, involves a being with the people, as was Jesus: "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (Jn 1:14). Therefore, mission includes: being with the people, responding to their needs, with sensitiveness to the presence of God in cultures and other religious traditions, and witnessing to the values of God's Kingdom through presence, solidarity, sharing and word (Bandung 3.1.2).
Notice the inclusive formula — presence, solidarity, sharing and word.
The insights of Bandung were further developed by the Bishops' Institute on Interreligious Affairs, meeting in Thailand in 1991. They spoke of God's "dream for the world":
[Jesus] spoke of the dream through the image of God's Reign and described it in parables often of life and growth or of reconciliation. We may describe the dream as one of people and communities fully alive. That fullness of life is ultimately communion of life among individuals, among communities and with God (BIRA IV/12, 9).
At the most recent general conference of CELAM (Santo Domingo, 1992) the Latin American bishops re-committed themselves to working for "integral development", with the poor as their main concern (31). They saw the urgent necessity to promote and protect life from the many attacks to which it is subject (31). They called for inculturation, especially in the context of urban culture, and for "particular attention to the authentic incarnation of the Gospel in the indigenous and African-American cultures of our continent" (32). The Emmaus story provided the bishops also with inspiration: Jesus draws near those on the road, walking with the victims and the marginalized; he opens up vistas of hope that go beyond mere temporal messianism; the ultimate gesture in which he is recognized as the risen and living One is the sign of the breaking of bread (17-23). Hence, the importance of solidarity (as opposed to control) — "people helping others to bear their burden and sharing with them their own aspirations" 46).
The themes of life, dialogue, partnership and especially inculturation are prominent in the Message of the African Synod of 1994. The Synod speaks of evangelization as bringing about new life in Christ (9). Evangelization means first proclaiming the Good News of salvation realized in Christ and offering it to all (10). But evangelization is not limited to proclamation. Evangelization is a dialogue of love of which inculturation of the message is a necessary second moment (13). Dialogue is about relationships. The intrinsic value of a community is the quality of relation, which it makes possible. The Trinity itself is proposed as a "model" for such relationships (20)
Hence, the Synod points to the need for dialogue with African traditional religions (21), with Christian brothers and sisters (22) and with Muslims (23). Dialogue with Muslims is described in terms reminiscent of the "dialogue of life" — collaborating "in working for the peace and justice which alone can give glory to God"; "as servants of his Life in human hearts and in human communities, we are bound to give to one another the best there is in our faith in God, our common Father".
At the conclusion of its Message the Synod calls for renewed partnership between women and men. It sees the alienation of women as one of the major forms of the structure of sin (65). To women should be open not only the vocation of wife and mother "but all the social careers from which traditional and modern society tend to exclude [them] without reason" (66). Thus, women will be able to be participants in the bringing about of full human development (69), or, as we might rephrase it, the bringing about of fully human life.
The concern for life has also been prominent in recent teachings of Pope John Paul II. In 1993 the Pope participated in what he called "a celebration of life", the World Youth Day held in Denver, Colorado. In his address to the participants he pointed to two apparently contrary signs of the times -- widespread disrespect for human life, on the one hand, and the vitality, the liveliness, of youth and communities, on the other. On the one hand, "the sacred character of human life is denied... the weakest members of society are most at risk: the unborn, children, the sick, the handicapped, the old, the poor and unemployed, the immigrant and refugee, the South of the world." On the other, "young people from every corner of the world, in ardent prayer you have opened your hearts to the truth of Christ's promise of new life. Through the sacraments, especially penance and the Eucharist, and by means of the unity and friendship created among so many, you have had a real and transforming experience of the new life which only Christ can give."
Thus the Pope points to common prayer and to friendship in community as places where life is to be found. But this is true only if such prayer and friendship is outward-looking: "... you understand that Christ's life is not for you alone." The "Gospel of life" must "penetrate the fabric of society, transforming people's hearts and the structures of society in order to create a civilization of true justice and love." In living and preaching this Gospel of life, the Pope continues, Jesus "went in search of the men and women of his time. He engaged them in open and truthful dialogue, whatever their condition."
In his address on the Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, the Pope spoke of dialogue in terms of inculturation. He linked inculturation to incarnation and to unity in diversity. The mystery of the incarnation is the mystery of the divine and human in a determinate historical life. "The earthly life of Jesus is not defined only by the places and dates of the first century in Judea and Galilee, but also by his deep roots in the long history of a small nation of the ancient Near East, with its weaknesses and its greatness, with its men and women of God and its sinners, with its slow cultural evolution and its political misadventures, with its defeats and its victories, with its longing for peace and the kingdom of God" (7). Rejection of incarnation means clinging to a false notion of the Absolute. "The God of the Bible is not an absolute Being who, crushing everything he touches, would suppress all differences and all nuances. On the contrary, He is God the Creator, who created the astonishing variety of beings 'each according to its kind' as the Genesis account says repeatedly (Gn 1). Far from destroying differences, God respects them and makes use of them (cf 1 Cor 12: 18, 24, 28). (8)
We may note, then, some common themes emerging from these teachings coming from many different parts of the Church, in particular:
Precisely these three points constitute our theme for the Hong Kong Assembly of 1996 — The Word of God at the Service of Life: Toward Unity in Diversity — and its accompanying texts — "The Word became flesh . . . that they might have life and have it to the full" (Jn 1: 14, 10:10).
This theme seems particularly relevant in the setting of Hong Kong, where the church has expressed its mission in terms of being a BRIDGE. The most obvious sense of this image is that of being a bridge between the universal church and the local church, so long oppressed, in China. But surely also a bridge between the Gospel and the ancient culture of China, and indeed (given Hong Kong's economic centrality, technological advances, and youthful population) a bridge between the Gospel and contemporary culture. Bridge-building is about dialogue, ultimately about the forging of community.
We are likewise encouraged to reflect and act upon this theme by the Document of the Pontifical Commission on the Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. The document characterizes the objective of the biblical apostolate as "to make known the Bible as the Word of God and source of life" (IV C 3). It acknowledges the important role of basic communities, focused upon the Bible, with the threefold aim of knowing the Bible, creating community and serving the people. While the role of exegetes is a necessary one, there is reason to rejoice in seeing the Bible in the hands of people of lowly condition and of the poor; they can bring to its interpretation and to its actualization a light more penetrating, from the spiritual and existential point of view, than that which comes from a learning that relies upon its own resources alone (cf. Matt 11: 25) (IV C 3).
Inculturation, and hence unity in diversity, is encouraged. The biblical message has to take root in a great variety of terrain. This involves first translation, which is always more than transcription but something involving a change of context: concepts are not identical and symbols have a different meaning. Then comesinterpretation "which should set the biblical message in more explicit relationship with the ways of feeling, thinking, living and self-expression which are proper to the local culture." From there comes the formation of a local Christian culture. Inculturation is never a one-way process, but rather a process of mutual enrichment: the treasures of diverse cultures allow the Word of God to produce new fruits, while the light of the Word illuminates both the harmful and the life-giving elements present in each culture (IV B).
This incarnational vision has immediate implications for the building of community. Our Federation is especially conscious of the power of God's Word to be the centre around which community is gathered, to be the source of a community's nourishment. It is also in community that we come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of that Word, as we share our experience of God and of those key moments of our lives in which we become conscious of God's presence. Such a community is enriched by a diversity of gifts. It is a place where differences are respected and boundaries disappear.
In a place like Hong Kong, the venue for our Assembly, where Christian believers are a small minority in society, people can hardly fail to be conscious of the fact that community to be inclusive and outward-looking (to be bridge-building) will have to move beyond the basic Christian community to basic human community. That is true of many other places beside Hong Kong. We continue to struggle with the question of how a community can be at once Word-centered and at the same time inclusive of those of other faiths who hold sacred other Scriptures. This question must surely surface in the Plenary Assembly and in the preparations for it. We are encouraged to face that question honestly by Jesus' preaching of a Reign of God that is greater than any human community and indeed by Bogotá’s challenge to move from the book to the Word, and from private reading to transforming presence.
Finally, we come to some questions for reflection, which may serve as part of our preparation for Hong Kong: