Understanding the Bible as a Polyphonic Hymn

by Edmond Lo
Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48

1 John 4:7-10

John 15:9-17

Coming from a large family of 10 siblings, I’m keenly aware of how certain distinctive family characteristics – personality traits, physical and facial features, etc. – are somehow shared by all family members, each to a different extent. These are “legacies” from our ancestors handed down to us through our parents. They remind us of our kinship and common ancestral origin. Better than our birth certificates, these characteristics prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that we truly belong to the same family.

Unlike my family of 10 siblings, the Bible that we’ve come to know today is not the result of a biological and anthropological process of development. But as the word of God spoken humanly to reveal God to the world, through various authors over the centuries and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, it is in a very real sense “a symphony of the word”, “a single word expressed in multiple ways”, “a polyphonic hymn” sung by a great multitude of people from different times of human history but all in one accord (cf. Verbum Domini, n.7). There exists in this hymnal harmony we call the Bible a number of distinctive characteristics that the voices of its members share in common. Characteristics that are easily detectable by the careful listener, allowing him to identify the voices as either integral or peripheral to the overall harmony. In this Sunday’s Mass readings, we recognize one of those distinctive characteristics – the universality of God’s love.

Enlightened by the Holy Spirit, Peter baptizes Cornelius and his kinsmen, all of whom gentiles. "In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him," he explains in reading one. Ripples of the same message spread through the Responsorial Psalm: “The Lord has revealed to the nations his saving power”, “in the sight of the nations he has revealed his justice”. The message continues to intensify in the 2nd reading where love is singled out as the litmus test for determining whether one is of God. “[L]ove is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God”, John declares.

“This is my commandment: love one another as I love you”, says our Lord in this Sunday’s gospel. Echoing John’s teaching above - or chronologically the other way around – Jesus makes it clear that what it takes for us to remain in him is to “love one another as I love you”. How does Jesus love us? With a love than which there is no greater: “lay down one's life for one's friends”. It’s this love that enables us to remain in him, not one’s nationality, nor race, nor religious affiliation or lack of it. If the message of God’s universal love ripples through the first two readings, it emerges more like a tidal wave in Jesus’ proclamation of his "commandment of love. “Tidal wave” is too much of an exaggeration, you say? Just recall the rude awakening that Peter experienced earlier in the same chapter of this Sunday’s first reading, where God had to use a vision to help him understand His universal love. It’s this realization that enables him to profess in the first reading: "In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him."

Paul goes even further when he calls the universality of God’s love and salvation “the mystery of Christ”. It is a mystery because it was previously hidden from the world. The mystery is now revealed to his holy apostles by the Spirit (cf. Eph. 3:4-8). This explains the Judaic teaching against the gentiles (who were considered “unclean”) and Peter’s bewilderment when asked to consume foods deemed profane by the Mosaic Law (c.f. Acts 10:14). After all, according to the Old Testament school of thought, only Israel, God’s chosen people, was considered the holy nation of God.

If God’s love is universal, so is the Church He instituted to bring His love to everyone. It was for the fulfillment of the catholicity of his Church that Jesus on his Ascension into glory mandated his disciples to “go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit” (Mt. 28:19) – a mission faithfully and successfully carried out by the Church in her history of over 2,000 years; a mission so prominent to her identity and intrinsic to the core of her being that the Church Fathers had made a point of including it as one of the four marks of the Church in the Creeds: I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. The careful listener listening to the polyphonic hymn of the Bible knows that this teaching is biblical because it’s one of those distinctive characteristics that are integral to its overall harmony.