Friday, March 9, 2012

The Spiritual Sense of Conversion

Third Sunday of Lent Year A

Every Catholic today wants to get to know the Bible. What is Jesus trying to say here? What do all these weird facts, figures, characters, customs, and details mean? So, you have loads of Catholics, at least those who want to make sense of the readings they hear every Sunday or the verses they read everyday, jumping on the bandwagon of Bible study programmes. There is such a great thirst for understanding the Bible that this massive interest in biblical studies often betrays a lack of discernment in choosing the right programme. Many Catholics often find their way to other Protestant Bible study groups because they find their own parishes bereft of similar courses.

I’m not going to go into an evaluation of Bible study programmes here but would wish to make this clarification. It is a myth that Catholics do not know the Bible or have very little contact with the Bible! The truth is that Catholics do not only know the Bible, but are saturated in it. We confess it in our creeds, live it in our precepts and Church laws, celebrate it in our sacraments and pray it in our devotions and sacramentals. The way we approach and come to know the Bible, however, may be quite different from the way Protestants study it.

We know our Bible through the lenses and actions of the Church. We encounter it through our liturgy, not only in the Liturgy of the Word, but also throughout the whole Mass, in the Collects, the prefaces of the Eucharistic prayer, in the Anaphoras, the Eucharistic prayers. We know our Bible through the praying of our rosaries and the divine office when we say our morning and evening prayers. We learn the Bible through our Catechism, which brings to us both the Word of God in Sacred Scripture as well as in Sacred Tradition. We only come to beat ourselves, and I must add ‘unjustly’, when we seek to compare ourselves with the Protestants who study the Bible verse by verse. Let’s just say that the Protestants approach the Bible in its literal sense, the meaning conveyed by the words of scripture. Here, one tries to ascertain the meaning intended by the sacred writers. To assist us, we have various literary tools at our disposal – archaeological findings, literary sciences, knowledge of ancient languages. Catholics do no reject this and the early fathers of the Church like St Jerome and those of the Antiochene school, were well versed in this. But Catholics view the Bible in a ‘fuller sense’ (sensus plenior). They read the Bible not only in its literal sense but come to discover the rich layers of meaning found in its spiritual sense.

What is this Spiritual Sense? Traditionally, the spiritual sense can be divided into a further three subdivisions: the allegorical, the moral and the anagogical sense. The Allegorical Sense helps the reader to see how those things, events, or persons mentioned in the text point to Christ and the Paschal Mystery. For example, the story of Moses leading his people across the Red Sea becomes an allegory of Christ leading his Church to salvation through the waters of baptism. The Moral Sense points to the Christian life in the Church. This is when we ask the question, ‘What is this verse or this passage telling me to do in my life?’ And finally, the Anagogical Sense points to the Christian’s heavenly destiny and the last things. Last week, we heard the story of the Transfiguration. The anagogical sense of the story is that it points to our destiny – we too will be given new bodies on the day of our resurrection – we will be transfigured, like butterflies emerging from our chrysalis.

Understanding the four senses of Scripture provides an interpretive key for unlocking many spiritual treasures in the Word of God. With this approach, we see more clearly that the events and people mentioned in the Bible are intimately linked to our own Christian experience and serve as models for us to follow. We can now understand that if we were to only focus on the ‘literal’ sense, as do the Protestants (though this too is undeniably important), we would be left impoverished.

Rooted in Catholic Tradition, many saints, doctors, Fathers of the Church, and even Jesus and the New Testament writers themselves used this method of shifting through scriptures by looking at in both its literal and spiritual sense. Unfortunately, the spiritual exegesis has become somewhat of a lost art, with many modern scholars either downplaying or ignoring it. But the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us these different senses, especially the ones found under the spiritual sense, is as much part of the treasures of the Church as is the literal sense.

For the next three Sundays, we will get a taste of the spiritual sense when we consider the gospel readings that tell the story of coming to faith – the Samaritan Woman at the Well, the Healing of the Blindman and the Raising of Lazarus. According to the rubrics of liturgy, the gospels of Year A lectionary are preferred to those of Year B and C whenever there are candidates celebrating the Rites of Scrutiny and Exorcism. Since, we will be celebrating the first set of Scrutinies at this mass, we have chosen the gospel reading from the Year A Lectionary. This story of the Samaritan woman is rich with details and would be a treasure trove of discoveries for biblical exegetes. But in the context of the RCIA, they take on a richer meaning when considered through the spiritual lenses.

Let’s look at the characters and try to recognise the allegory therein. First we have Jesus. Of course, the person of Jesus represents himself. He is the focus of the story. He is the source of Living Water. But He is also the Bridegroom who has come to court his bride. If we were to examine the conversation that takes place between the Samaritan woman and Jesus, we would be able to detect a slight hint of flirtation. Was Jesus a flirt? We will soon get to bottom of this behaviour when we understand what the Samaritan woman symbolizes – she is the Church, she represents every Christian. Thus, Jesus, the Bridegroom, is here courting his beloved bride, the Church – drawing the latter into a relationship which is not based on fear or need or shame, but on love.

As noted earlier, the Samaritan woman represents the Church. She also represents those who are searching, just like the Elect, the candidates for baptism here, who have been searching for meaning in their lives. But initially, she does not know what she wants. She is searching for worldly fulfillment – the opportunity to have water without having to visit the well again. She looks for the elusive earthly Utopia – the final solution to all her problems, the perfect situation that excludes imperfections, companionship that will finally take away the sting of loneliness. She wants love as evidenced by her previous failed relationships and her present extra-marital arrangement. Throughout the story, we witness a gradual transformation. She moves from being ashamed of her background and incredulous to the claims made by Jesus, to a woman who courageously witnesses to her neighbours the new found faith she has discovered in Christ.

The five husbands and the man she is living with symbolises the false gods in our lives. We constantly have to contend with the temptation of idolatry, no so much in praying to other deities but in placing other things, situations or persons above God. Though these temptations seem to promise fulfilment, they are most certain to disappoint because it is only God who can fill the aching hole in our hearts and quench our thirst and hunger for love and meaning.

The well which sets the scene for the story also has an allegorical equivalent. It symbolises the waters of baptism. How can we draw and drink deep from the Source of Life Giving Water? It is through baptism. In some Eastern Orthodox icons, the well is depicted in the shape of a tomb or a cross. In fact, the baptismal pools in early churches were indeed constructed in the shape of a cross. The allusion is clear. The well represents baptism and its effects – we die and we rise with Christ.

My dear Elect, today the story of the Samaritan Woman is your story. It is the story of your transformation, your movement from a life of sin to a life of grace. Today, you will celebrate the first set of Scrutinies where you would be challenged to put off your false gods in order that you may be free to enter into communion with Christ. Are you ready to renounce the false gods in your life? Are you ready to empty yourselves of all your false securities in order for God to pour his life-giving water into your hearts?

And finally at Easter, you will come to waters of baptism where you will die and rise with Christ. It is at your baptism that you will experience drinking the Life-Giving Water, the Water that springs forth from the heart of Jesus, the water that promises eternal life.

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