3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time January 23, 2022
The First Reading
This event in Jewish history took place around 400 BC and forms a pivotal moment in that history. It is considered by many to be the birth of Judaism. The faithful remnant are freed from the bonds of captivity in Babylon and return to Israel where they faced the arduous task of not only rebuilding their lives and the cities destroyed in the wake of the Babylonians, but also rebuilding their faith. Ezra was charged with the task of spearheading this renovation and rejuvenation of the Jewish faith.
The feast referred to in the passage was the Jewish Feast of Tents. It was a joyous feast that celebrated the bounty and blessings of God and was even referred to as the feast of Yahweh. The passage notes how everyone to whom the reading of the Law applied was present and accounted, demonstrating the people's eagerness and willingness to be faithful to God and the covenant He established with them. They even rise spontaneously when Ezra begins reading the word.
Passages like this from Nehemiah firmly ground us in the Jewish roots of our faith. Notice that the proclamation of God's word begins with a solemn blessing by Ezra and affirmation by the assembly. This is the practice of later synagogue services being projected back upon the event. Such practices continue today, not just in synagogues, but also in our celebration of the Mass. We gather as an assembly, are blessed by the priest and then we hear the word of God. One can see from the unfolding of this event that this was no ordinary reading of Laws and By-Laws. The Israelites believed that the Lord was present in His word. So when Ezra lifts up the scroll for all to see, it is actually the Lord God who is blessing the people through His own word. Ezra is merely the instrument of the blessing. Again the same holds true in our practice of the Liturgy of the Word. Just think of our responses to God's word proclaimed at Mass. At the end of the first and second reading, the lector proclaims, "The Word of the Lord," and we proclaim, "Thanks be to God." Sometimes we fail to recognize in that response that the lector is proclaiming that we have just heard God speak to us through His Word, which is why we are giving our thanks to God. Then, for the Gospel, we hear the clergy proclaim, "A reading from the holy gospel according to," and we respond, "Glory to you Lord," and then at the end we proclaim, "Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ" in response to the "Gospel of the Lord." The Gospel is unique in that we are hearing not just the word of God, but the Word of God, as proclaimed through the Word become flesh. So we respond with glory and praise to God.
Whatever our experience of Mass might be, we should strive to be conscious of the fact that these are no mere stories from millennia ago whose relevance is lost and forgotten. No, the word we hear proclaimed is a living word. It is none other than God's word, Christ Jesus, whose message for us is as eternal, steadfast, and unchanging, as He. Like our Jewish brothers and sisters, reflecting on God's word, written thousands of years ago, provides incredible insight into our lives today while also directing our future. The power of the word to do so is proof positive that it is indeed a living Word.
How does this festival occasion end? It ends with a huge feast of the choicest food and sweetest wine. Sounds familiar? When we gather together for Mass, we don't just feast on the word of God. That celebration prepares our hearts for the joy of what comes next, an extravagant feast where we have the choicest food and sweetest drink God has ever offered humanity. This food and this drink is none other than the gift of God's divine essence in the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of His Son - the Eucharist. Yet, how often have we let this miraculous occasion and encounter slip through our grasp, by not giving ourselves over completely to that which we are partaking? How often have we feasted on this incredible meal only to be distracted by life and thoughts that lead us astray from this divine encounter? Worse, yet, how often have we passed up on this divine encounter under the delusion that something else in our lives is far more important? The answer is, too often. We need to be proactive and conscious of who it is that we receive when we come to the Table of the Lord. If we make the effort, God we lead us the rest of the way, and transform us into the person He has called and created us to be.
This was an incredible occasion for joy in the Jewish community. Our approach to Mass should be the same! "The joy of the Lord is our rampart!" (Neh 8:10). A rampart is a wall that surrounds and protects those gathered behind it. If we strive to feast on the Word of God and the Eucharist every time we celebrate Mass, the joy of the Lord will surround us, protecting our hearts and minds, as part of God's effort to keep us holy.
When was the last time you made time to read and reflect upon God's word in Sacred Scripture? When have you sought answers to lifes problems and dilemmas, or guidance for decisions, using God's word, by allowing God to speak to you and provide you with the direction you seek?
The Second Reading
Paul continues his chastisement of the church in Corinth for the elitist position some in the community were taking and as a counter to the Gnostic influences that had crept into the community. He reminds us that every baptized member of the community is a member of the Body of Christ. Through this eloquent analogy, Paul emphatically declares that every person contributes to the Body in his or her own unique way, and is indispensable. If this is true, then when even just one member of the Body is absent, we are incomplete, incapable of functioning as a whole. Those members who are on the fringes of their faith, those who have walked away from their faith, and those who do not participate in their faith, are all still members of the Body of Christ. When the Body is wounded, we need to heal it in order for it to function properly and to make it whole again. So too, do we need to reach out to these individuals who are wounded, disillusioned, or apathetic in their relationship with God and the Church, so that we can heal them, help them realize that they are loved by God and the Church, and make the Body of Christ whole again.
As a member of the Body of Christ, it is not only our responsibility, but also in our best interest to reach out those members of the Body who have fallen away for whatever reason. As the Body of Christ, we are Jesus' hands and feet and as his face in the world we extend to these individuals the incredible gift of God's love and mercy.
The Body of Christ does not merely consist of the living, i.e., the Church Militant, who are those here on earth fighting the battle for holiness and striving to build the Kingdom of God. The Body of Christ is a Mystical Body in that it also consists of the Church Suffering, i.e., those being purified and refined into holiness in purgatory, and the Church Triumphant, i.e., those who have attained true holiness and the destiny for which God created them. These individuals too form the Body of Christ, which is another reason why the celebration of the Mass is so important to our lives as Christians. When we gather at Mass, we gather not just with our fellow parishioners, but also with all of the saints and angels in heaven and the souls in purgatory, and offer up our praise and thanksgiving to God. No one is ever left out, unless by their own choice. If you know someone who has made such a choice, call upon the Mystical Body of Christ, your family, friends, or neighbors, the souls in purgatory, and the saints in your efforts to restore this person to wholeness in the community. The Church will never be complete until you do.
Do you know someone on the "fringes" of the faith? What can you do to help restore them to the community and know they are loved by God and a valuable member of the Church?
The way the Church unfolds the mystery of Christ through the Sunday readings is truly amazing. Having just celebrated the baptism of the Lord two weeks ago, we were presented with the opportunity to reflect on what our own baptism means and how we entered into new life with Christ and became His disciples. Then last Sunday we heard the story of the Wedding at Cana and among the many themes contained in that gospel, we examined how Mary's command to the "servants" to "Do whatever he tells you," applies to us in our role as servants/disciples. This week we are presented with the story from Luke, in which Jesus declares Himself to be the suffering servant prophesied in the Book of Isaiah, which presents the perfect tie in to Cana and the Baptism of the Lord. Let's examine how so.
This event takes place shortly after Jesus' baptism and immediately following his temptation in the desert and victory over Satan. Luke informs us that "Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit." Having been filled with the Spirit at His baptism and then led by the Spirit into the wilderness for 40 Days, we now hear how Jesus is in the power of the Spirit. People are attracted to Him, and are seeking Him out. Word of Him is spreading throughout the entire region. He is teaching in the synagogues and is being praised by everyone. Recalling our own baptism, we too have been filled with the Spirit and are called upon to allow the Spirit to lead us, to surrender ourselves to the Spirit so that the Spirit's power may help us become the person we are destined to be. Imagine how "attractive" our lives would be to others if we lived in the Spirit! This is our goal as a disciple – to live as He lived!
When Jesus enters into the synagogue of His home town, one gets the impression that He just showed up, picked out a scroll and read a section from Isaiah. That would not have been the case. Jewish writings from the time provide us with insight and understanding into many religious customs, including the proclamation of God's word in the synagogue. The synagogue leaders would have reached out to Jesus and invited Him to perform this ministry, which was an honor and would have required Jesus to prepare beforehand. The proclamation of the Torah and the word of God was done with the highest dignity, and the one responsible for proclaiming the word would have been expected and required to prepare the text beforehand and to read it two or three times ahead of time so that the text was familiar to him. This was expected even of those who knew the scriptures by heart! In terms of how this impacts us today, it means that no one should ever go to the pulpit and just "wing it." The dignity of Sacred Scripture being the Word of God demands sufficient preparation ahead of time to allow God to have an "effective" voice. Jesus would have done this Himself.
Jesus chose to read a portion from the prophet Isaiah, but He does something interesting in proclaiming this passage. He omits the last half of verse two, which announces a day of vindication by our God (or vengeance in some translations), to comfort those who mourn. One would not catch it unless he were to compare the Gospel to the original passage as found in Isaiah. Why does Jesus stop short of proclaiming the entire two verses from Isaiah 61? The answer is because the Gospel is literally the "Good News." Jesus' message is not one of vengeance or vindication for those who mourn, but one of love, joy, and peace, for those who seek to embrace their role as a child of God! Jesus came to save, not condemn. He game to impart grace. This is good news indeed, for when we sin, when we fail in our covenant relationship with God, when we act like an ungrateful child before God, we can rest assured that God will never forsake us, for we are His children, whom He desires to save through His grace. There is simply nothing we could ever do to make God loves us less. Many struggle to believe this, let alone accept it as truth!
However, this truth comes with a caveat. Jesus claims this mission of the suffering servant as His own and boldly declares the passage fulfilled in the hearing of those gathered. If we who are baptized into Christ's life, death, and resurrection, share fully in the life of Christ, then His mission is our mission. As His disciples, anointed in the Spirit at baptism, and charged by Mary at Cana to "Do whatever he tells you," we too must take up the mantle of the suffering servant and bring the Good News (i.e., Gospel) to the a world full of God's chldren who are desperate to know they are loved by God. We must have our eyes intently fixed upon Jesus to succeed in our calling as disciples charged with the immense responsibility of going forth to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. There is no other way in which to live the call to discipleship.
How do you personally fulfill Christ's mission, as related in Isaiah, in your role as a disciple? What more can and should you do? Do you believe that you are loved by God and that there is nothing that you could ever do to make God love you less? If not, why not?
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