“The word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword.”
“Your words, Lord, are Spirit and life.”
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
Our readings today are about the Liturgy of the Word. God’s holy word, his own divine being, spoken in a holy setting, a holy moment, a holy encounter.
In Jewish tradition, there is a traditional saying, “When two sit together and words of Torah pass between them, the Divine Presence rests between them” (Mishnah Avot 3:3). The Torah is the Word of God, the Holy Scriptures of the Law (“Instruction”) given from God to Moses. When God’s word is read, His divine presence is there among them. Hopefully, all the Christians reading that are immediately reminded of Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” So Jesus, as usual, is not pulling his teaching out of thin air. But even better, he’s “making all things new,” showing, like he did on the Road to Emmaus, how everything God’s people received from God was actually preparing them for Jesus himself, the incarnation of the Living Word of God, who is himself Emmanuel, God among them.
Our first reading goes back to the Israelites having just recently returned to the ruins of Jerusalem after the Babylonian Exile. The Babylonians had been defeated by the Persians and Medes, and allowed the captive people to return to their homelands, but as subjects of the empire. The Israelite people remembered the great temple of Solomon, or heard stories of its grandeur, before it had been destroyed. But the temple they were able to build in its place, with Ezra as the priest, and with few supplies, was far from the splendor of its predecessor. Nehemiah, the governor sent from the Persians to maintain civil order, had led them in rebuilding the Jerusalem city walls. With the Temple and the city walls somewhat restored, Ezra and Nehemiah wanted to rally the morale of the people from their despondency and despair, and so they held this revival of their Jewish identity, a reading of the Law of Moses. They built out this elaborate wooden platform, and had all the men, women, and older children assembled as they recommitted themselves to their once-proud Jewish heritage.
But the revival did not immediately have the effect they had hoped for. On hearing the great wonders that God had done for their people throughout their history, and then the terms of the covenant that they had entered into, they heard both the blessings they would receive for abiding by the covenant, and the curses they would suffer for betraying the covenant. And the people wept. They saw the incredible goodness of God, which itself causes us to weep in gratitude and humility (if only more people today allowed themselves to be moved to weeping for repentance on hearing the Word of God!). But also, they saw how their people’s history reflected the curses that God had foretold would happen to them, if they were unfaithful.
But the leaders brought encouragement to the people. “Today is holy to the LORD your God. Do not be sad, and do not weep… Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, and allot portions to those who had nothing prepared; for today is holy to our LORD.” They were rededicating themselves to the covenant. What is past is past, God has told us that our people have paid the price of our unfaithfulness. He has shown us mercy, and is giving us this day to enter into the covenant anew.
In his commentary on this First Reading, Dr. John Bergsma says beautifully:
The people of God finds its identity in worship. In the absence of political power or economic prosperity, they find hope, joy, and peace in celebrating liturgy, which recalls God’s saving acts in the past and anticipates the ultimate salvation of God in the future. In many ways, this paradigm remains in place for the people of the New Covenant.
And so what do we see in our reading? Well, we see the Word of God being read to the people, and explained, from a raised position above the people, and then calling the people to a great banquet, and the instruction to provide food also for others. It shows the people standing up, kneeling down, saying “Amen, Amen.” Now it does say that the readings went from daybreak until midday, so we get a bit of a break from that. But other than that, it sounds very much like… the Liturgy of the Word, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist: A very Old Testament precursor of the Mass. Visitors to Mass often ask, why do Catholics stand and kneel at different places? Because the Liturgical Tradition of the Mass grew organically from the worship of Israel, the Temple and the Synagogue, the religious experience of the first generations of Christians.
And now we’ll look at the Gospel. It’s kind of a strange selection. The first paragraph is from the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, his Prologue, chapter 1, verses 1-4. Then it jumps to chapter 4, Jesus reading and preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth.
In the Prologue to his Gospel, St. Luke makes it abundantly clear that his gospel is for the purpose of providing solid facts, from eye-witnesses, to the truth of Jesus Christ. This is not a fairy tale, this not a myth, this not a legend. This happened. Luke says, “Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received.” Luke is well-educated, well-informed, intelligent, and articulate. The modern claim that Jesus might be make-believe is simply false. Luke is writing for “Theophilus.” The word means, “Friend of God” or “Beloved of God,” and so might be just a hypothetical person (meaning that Luke is really writing his Gospel to all the faithful). But it is very likely that Theophilus was really a person. That Luke addresses him as “most excellent” suggests that Theophilus was a person of high social and/or political standing. He might have been someone who paid for Luke to have the opportunity to write this account of Jesus. The translation of “orderly sequence” could be more closely translated as “accurate account,” “faithful to the event.” Also, the certainty of “the teachings you have received,” the Greek word is katēcheō, from which we get the word, “catechesis,” “to echo in the ears.” We hope that when we catechize, when we give an accurate account of our faith, it’s an echo of what what the Church teaches, of what the apostles have said, what truly happened. Luke’s gospel is catechetical, written to teach us, in the manner best laid out for his contemporary audience, of the truth of Jesus Christ. And after reading it, we must each give an answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” Hopefully we give the answer that came to Peter, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Interestingly, I just last week listened to Dr. Brant Pitre’s Lighthouse CD on his new book, which goes into the question of whether we can really reasonably believe in the historical truth of Jesus in the Gospels. I didn’t know when I was listening to it that it would include what he also provided as commentary on this week’s Gospel reading. I enjoyed listening to it, so I recommend you either read his book, or if you want to get the gist of it in an hour, listen to his CD about it!
Then we skip three chapters of Luke’s Gospel (most of which are the birth narratives of St. John the Baptist and Jesus which we encountered during Advent and Christmas, Jesus’ baptism, which we had 2 weeks ago, and his temptations in the wilderness), and catch up with Jesus in his first public appearance after his baptism: in the synagogue in Nazareth.
The synagogue and the Temple were kind of a two-part system. The Jews traveled to the Temple in Jerusalem for the three major annual feasts: the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover), Feast of Tabernacles (the Day of Atonement), and the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost).
But for the weekly Sabbath, they went to the local synagogue, where they had, essentially, a Liturgy of the Word (similar to a synagogue service today). They would sing a psalms, they would read from the Torah, and have readings from the Prophets (the Law and the Prophets). Then someone, a rabbi, (often a scribe or Pharisee), would comment on the readings. They would sing a song and go home. Very different from the Temple sacrifice. The Temple was ministered by the Priests, the Levites. The Synagogue was a lay movement, not priests, but those who study the Scriptures and teach the people what they mean. I’ve heard it said that Protestant services are more like synagogue services, and the Catholic liturgy of the Mass is more like the Temple liturgy.
So Jesus is at the synagogue in Nazareth. Throughout his ministry Jesus is often referred to as “Rabbi.” Jesus was recognized for his intelligence, wisdom, and skill, but he wasn’t a Levitical priest. He wasn’t of the tribe of Levi, but of Judah. However, as we read in the New Testament Book of the Hebrews, Jesus was indeed a priest, the high priest—not of Levi, but of Melchizedek—a priesthood in which priests are called by their particular vocation, and not by bloodline. And Jesus reads this excerpt we just heard from Isaiah 61. What’s special about this is that it is specifically about the Messiah, literally “the Anointed one.” And then they all look at Jesus to hear what he’s going to preach about it. Sometimes we might think that because Jesus sat down, that he was done. But in the synagogue the homily or sermon would be given sitting down, symbolizing that it was a teaching from the chair of Moses. On special occasions in the life of the Church, a bishop will give the homily sitting down, and when he (particularly the Bishop of Rome) teaches authoritatively, he is teaching ex cathedra, “from the chair” (of authority). And all Jesus says is, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” We’ll hear in next week’s gospel reading what happened after that. But what Jesus read from Isaiah was the job description of the Messiah, how the people would know that the Messiah had really come. And they didn’t know it at that point, but looking back (reading the rest of the Gospel according to Luke), we can see that this is exactly what Jesus did. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me (that was his baptism) to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”
The “year acceptable to the Lord” is a reference to the Old Testament tradition of the “Jubilee Year,” which was marked, among other things, that in that year, all debts are forgiven, all slaves are set free, and any land that has been appropriated, that used to belong to a family but they lost it through debt, will be returned to the original owners.
As Dr. Brant Pitre explains:
Now, just imagine if you lived in a Jubilee year and all your student debt, or all your house debt, or all your car debt, or all your credit card debt, whatever debt that you might have that’s weighing over your head, imagine if it was all gone, just like that in the Jubilee year. Now that would be an acceptable year, right? It would be a year of joy, a year of deliverance, and so what Jesus is saying here is that, or what Isaiah is saying, is that when the Messiah comes, his coming is somehow going to be coordinated with, conjoined with, a great Jubilee year. A great year of release, when all debts will be forgiven, and people will be set free from bondage; which, if you’ve been in debt, you’ll know, it is bondage. It is a burden, and to be freed from it is a source of great joy.
How did Jesus deliver on this Jubilee Year? By freeing those in the bondage of sin, by exorcisms, by healing the blind, the deaf, the crippled, the leprous, by forgiving the debt of sin.
In both the First Reading and the Gospel Reading, we have a reading from the Word of God, which provides both a call to repentance, and hope for salvation. In Ezra’s reading of the Law, that salvation is still far off. But in Jesus’ reading of the prophecy of the Messiah, salvation is present now. Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets.
I often tell people who are going to be proclaiming the scriptures: Take your time, don’t rush! Savor it! Let the people feast on the Word! You don’t rush through good food, you taste and appreciate each juicy bite! You don’t read this like you’re reading from a textbook or a magazine. This is the Word of God! You don’t read it, you proclaim it, with reverence and patience, letting each sound and each word fill its proper time. This is an engagement with life-giving, living wisdom, that feeds the mind and the heart, a communion of the Person of God with each person who hears it. Let the people have that privilege, that they might open themselves to this experience, this encounter, with the Word of God, the Word that brings truth, light, and life!
I said in the homily on Christmas night, “Do we need to go to church to be good? For the most part, yes. Because sin darkens the intellect and weakens the will. We need to be taught and formed in mind and heart in what is good.” It is human nature to seek what we see as good. But we’re often mistaken about what is good. Without being formed by the light of truth from our faith, we might be led to applaud New York state lawmakers passing legislation that allows the killing of an unborn child up to the moment before he or she is born, instead of respecting the dignity of his or her human life received at the moment of conception. We might be tempted to villainize victims, and fail in our Christian duty to care for the poor and vulnerable. We need to not just be Catholic, but be actively Catholic, and fully engaged in what our Catholic faith requires in the context of contemporary social issues. Hence the periodically updated guide from the US Catholic Bishops, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.”
This weekend begins Catholic Schools Week, and we are very proud to have our Catholic school. Our support of our Catholic schools, Our Lady of the Angels and Lancaster Catholic, is by far the largest expenditure in our parish finances, so we truly put our resources into what matters most: our children.
As they promised at their children’s baptisms, parents need to provide for the Catholic formation of their children, through their own homeschooling program, through the parish weekly religious education program, or best of all, full-time attendance at Catholic School. Of course, parents cannot abdicate their own responsibility to be the primary educators of their children (by bringing them to church every Sunday, by leading the family in prayer, by demonstrating how the Catholic faith guides daily life). But our Catholic School is, and has been for over a hundred fifty years, a valuable tool for parents to help in developing the “whole person” of their child: spiritually, academically, emotionally, socially, and physically.
This year we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the consolidation of Holy Trinity School and St. Peter’s School into Our Lady of the Angels School: 20 years under Mary’s protection.
So as we celebrate this Catholic Schools week, let us inform our minds and hearts by the living and effective Word of God, Jesus, who unites himself to us in the Eucharist, that our lives, formed in truth and love, might be God’s word active in the world.