我知道托爾金有深厚的天主教培育，亦知道他對 C.S. 路易斯皈依基督信仰的影響。但這不足以驅除我心裏一向對探險幻想小說的厭惡，並說服我去閱讀他廣受好評的文學作品。一點也沒有，直至巴倫主教的評論引發了我那難以抵擋的好奇心：也許我應接受挑戰，在《魔戒》故事中找到內含的天主教主題？可能 – 只是可能 – 在天主「重新收納」我為天主教徒多年之後，當我個人的價值觀已經調整到與教會一致時，我信仰的觸覺會真正的讓我嗅到書中的天主教思想嗎？
就是這樣，我便展開了最近的閱讀探索之旅。多個星期以來，我沉溺在托爾金幻想世界的「哈比人」、「精靈」、「矮人」、「人類」、「盪寇」、「巫師」、「嘍囉」、「樹人」中。世界命懸一線；被頹廢的黑魔王 — 索倫 — 所腐化；在瘋狂和全面戰爭的邊緣搖搖欲墜。在此情況岌岌可危的境況裡，消滅索倫的至尊魔戒這如此艱鉅的任務，不知如何，卻落在一個年輕、温文及身體細小的哈比人 — 佛羅多 — 的身上。為了這不可能完成的任務，佛羅多必須踏上危險的旅程，經由中土世界到魔多的末日火山，在那裏將魔戒徹底摧毁。整個世界的命運像千鈞一髮地懸於天平上：他的成功會帶來和平，失敗便是無盡的慘況。黑魔王已經橫行大地的邪惡勢力，會因他重獲魔戒，藉它的驚人力量而進一步鞏固，成了至尊。
這一點把我們帶到本主日讀經的主題。在讀經一，我們聽到那天上的園丁把一「嫩枝」種植在「高山峻嶺之上」，長大成為「一棵高大的香柏」，結出豐碩的果實，並為「各種飛鳥」供應涼蔭 (則 17:22-23)。在福音，一粒芥子 – 「比地上一切的種子都小」– 被種植後，生長成為「比一切蔬菜都大... 以致天上的飛鳥，都能棲息在它的葉蔭下」(谷 4:31-32)。
看看若瑟怎樣？在雅各伯十二個兒子中，他是最年幼的一個，年輕時被兄長擯棄並被賣到埃及為奴。但他克服一切困難，繼而做了埃及法郎的治國大臣，最後把雅各伯全家從大饑荒的蹂躪中拯救出來 (創 41:39-45:28)。
葉瑟最年幼的兒子達味又如何？由少年牧羊時學得唯一和最原始的武器 – 一個投石器及牧人隨身袋子裏的五顆石頭 – 在沒有他覺得極為笨重的傳統盔甲保護之下，他有辦法擊敗並殺死了哥肋雅，那身高九尺的培肋舍特人，其誇張的身型和滿囗狂言，令撒烏耳軍營中每個戰士喪膽 (撒上 17)。
還有十二宗徒呢？他們大多數只是貧窮的漁夫和加里肋亞本地人。但偏偏卻被耶穌召叫作宗徒, 使他們成為祂教會根基的「十二座基石」(默 21:14)。
當然, 我們知道整部聖經都和基督有關：所有的聖經故事、人物、制度和圖像，皆用其獨特的方式，最終把我們指向耶穌。耶穌就是默西亞，那在本主日讀經一，最後長成為「一棵高大的香柏」的「嫩枝」(則 17:22-23)。祂的王國 — 教會 — 就是那芥子，種植後生長為「比一切蔬菜都大... 以致天上的飛鳥都能棲息在它的葉蔭下」(谷 4:31-32, Ignatius Catholic Study Bible - 新約)。
在虛構但極富聖經意義的《魔戒》世界裏，有那個細小的哈比人 — 佛羅多 — 看來他不是那些熱衷於搶奪他手中魔戒的強大敵人的對手。但再一次，那「最後的，將成為最先的，最先的將會成為最後的」(瑪 20:16)。有福的不是權勢者，而是那謙遜和卑下的：貧窮、哀慟、溫良及飢渴的人 (參照 瑪 5:3-7)。我說天國住滿了出人意表的小人物，一點也不為過！在末日火山之頂，佛羅多光榮地完成了摧毁魔戒的英勇任務，徹底粉碎了黑魔王的雄霸邪惡之夢。
注釋一: 參照 Word on Fire J.R.R.托爾金, Master Evangelist 的視頻片段 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0Wm0yyPDCY, 8:40. Not much of a fan of fantasy adventure fictions, it was hard for me to picture myself picking up one of those books to read, least of all a multi-volume series consisting of over 1,000 pages of strange, fabricated characters, exotic places, and complex storylines. But it all changed a few weeks ago due to a comment made by Bishop Robert Barron on YouTube. He said J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic adventure series, The Lord of the Rings, was a novel that “began implicitly Catholic and ended explicitly so” (note 1).
I knew Tolkien’s strong Catholic upbringing, and was aware of his influence on C.S. Lewis’ conversion to the Christian faith. But that’s not enough to rid my heart of its inherent distaste for imaginary adventure stories, and convince me to read his critically acclaimed literary works. Not, that is, until Bishop Barron’s comment triggered a curiosity in me that was hard to resist: Maybe reading Catholic themes into The Lord of the Ring stories was a challenge I should take? Maybe – just maybe – so many years after God had “reclaimed” me as a Catholic and realigned my personal values with the values of the Church, my sense of faith was now authentic enough to allow me to smell out the Catholic ideas embedded in Tolkien’s book?
Thus began my most recent reading adventure, which is still unfolding. For weeks now, I’ve been wallowing in Tolkien’s imaginary world of Hobbits, Elves, Dwarves, Men, Rangers, Wizards, Orcs and Ents. It’s a world hanging by a thread; rotten by the decadence of the Dark Lord, Sauron; teetering on the brink of insanity and all-out wars. Its precarious state is such that the immense task of destroying Sauron’s Ruling Ring of Power is somehow left with a young, mild-mannered, and physically small hobbit named Frodo. To complete his impossible mission, Frodo has to take a perilous journey across Middle-earth to Mordor where the Ring is to be destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom once and for all. The fate of the whole world is hanging in the balance: his success will bring peace, his failure unending wretchedness. For the Dark Lord’s evil forces, already rampant across the lands, will become incontestable and achieve complete supremacy if he is allowed to regain possession of the Ruling Ring.
It’s not difficult to see the salvation-like nature of Frodo’s mission. Equally noticeable is Tolkien’s Christian mindset that chooses to put this world-saving mission with cosmic implications squarely on the shoulders of a young, inexperienced, and powerless hobbit who appears least qualified to bring the humongous task to successful completion.
This brings us to the theme of this Sunday’s readings. We hear from the first reading a “tender shoot” that is planted by the divine Gardener “on a high and lofty mountain” and grown into “a majestic cedar” that bears fruit in plentitude and provides shade to “birds of every kind” (Ezekiel 17:22-23). In the gospel, a mustard seed - “the smallest of all the seeds on the earth” – is sown and turned into “the largest of plants…so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade” (Mk 4:31-32).
How many times have we heard similar “Cinderella stories” from the Bible?
How about Joseph? Young and junior among Jacob’s 12 sons, he was abandoned by his brothers and sold to Egypt as a slave. But against all odds, he went on to become Pharoah’s vizier, and eventually saved Jacob’s whole family from the devastation of a widespread famine (Gen 41:39-45:28).
And David, the youngest son of Jesse? With the only and most primitive weapons he has ever learned to use as a teenage shepherd - a sling and five stones in his shepherd’s bag - and without the protection of conventional armor, which he finds too cumbersome, he manages to defeat and kill Goliath, a 9-feet tall Philistine giant whose exaggerated physical stature and foul mouth have terrorized every fighting man in Saul’s camp (1 Samuel 17).
What about the twelve apostles? Most of them are just poor fishermen and Galilean natives. But it is them whom Jesus calls to be his apostles, making them the “twelve courses of stones” of his Church’s foundation (Revelation 21:14).
Of course, we know that the whole Bible is about Christ: all biblical stories, characters, institutions, and images eventually point us to Jesus himself, each in its own way. Jesus is the Messiah, the “tender shoot” that becomes “a majestic cedar” in this Sunday’s first reading (Ezekiel 17:22-23). He is the “stone which the builder rejected [that] has become the chief cornerstone” (Ps 118:22, Acts 4:11). His kingdom, the Church, is the mustard seed that is sown and turned into “the largest of plants…so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade” (Mk 4:31-32, Ignatius Catholic Study Bible - NT).
In the fictional but also very biblical world of The Lord of the Rings, there is Frodo, the little Shire-hobbit who is seemingly no match for his powerful enemies, all of whom hankering to put their hands on his Ring. But once again, “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Mt 20:16). Blessings do not go to the powerful people, but to the humble and lowly ones: the poor, the mournful, the meek, and the hungry (cf. Mt 5:3-7). It’s no exaggeration to say that heaven is full of Cinderella occupants! At the Crest of Doom, Frodo’s heroic quest to destroy the Ring is gloriously accomplished, crashing into pieces the Dark Lord’s dream of evil dominion.
Note 1: See Word on Fire video clip on J.R.R. Tolkien, Master Evangelist - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0Wm0yyPDCY, at 8:40.