Receiving, Responding to and Rejoicing in the Word of God Fulfilled in Our Hearing, 3rd Sunday (C), January 24, 2016

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Church of the Holy Family, Manhattan
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
January 24, 2016
Neh 8:2-6.8-10, Ps 19, 1 Cor 12:12-30, Lk 1:1-4.4:14-21

 

To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 

 

The following text guided today’s homily: 

The Shocking Fulfillment

Today we encounter Jesus preaching in his hometown synagogue, just as St. Luke tells us in his “orderly sequence” that he was doing in all the synagogues of the region of Galilee, leaving the people astonished. He was handed the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah and he read, from Isaiah 61, the passage describing the work of the eventual Messiah: he would be filled with the Spirit of the Lord, anointed to preach the Good News to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to the oppressed, to help the blind see, and to announce a Jubilee Year (Is 61:1-2). After reading that passage, he very dramatically handed the scroll back to the Chazzan and sat down, as all the eyes in the room were locked on him. And he gave a shocking, one-sentence homily: “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” Today, in other words, the Messiah has come and he is speaking to you now! Today, the long awaited one, whom you have been awaiting for more than a millennium, is here!

The words of Isaiah’s prophecy were being unveiled before their eyes. The Spirit of the Lord, that had come down upon Jesus in a visible way at his Baptism in the Jordan, as we celebrated two weeks ago, was very much still upon him. He was proclaiming the Gospel to the poor and lowly, to those who were humble enough to receive it, all throughout Galilee and making them lavishly rich with the treasure of God’s holy revelation. He was restoring sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, vigor to cripples, health to the moribund and would soon even be restoring life to the dead. He was proclaiming liberty to those captive to sin through his merciful forgiveness and was letting those oppressed by the devil go free through exorcisms. In all of this, he was proclaiming a “year acceptable to the Lord,” a Jubilee Year, which was a reset button that God wanted the Jews to press every 50 years to reestablish their bonds with him and particularly with each other through charity. All of the aspects of this Messianic prophecy — and all the others — Jesus was actualizing before their eyes.

The Way Not To Respond

We’ll see their reaction next week, but a little promo is necessary so that we can draw today the prophet consequences. All began to speak highly of him and were “amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” But then they began to doubt, remembering his origins, that Mary was his mother and Joseph his putative father, that Jesus had likely built several of the pieces of furniture and perhaps even some of the homes of those present. They couldn’t believe that the Messiah could really come from those humble origins. They also began to recognize the import of his words. If the Scripture he had read was being fulfilled in their hearing and he had come to proclaim the Gospel to the poor, liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, then they naturally began to ask themselves whether he was saying they were poor, captive, blind and oppressed. They didn’t want to hear it. No prophet, Jesus said, is accepted in his native place; neither is the Messiah, nor the Son of God, nor the Savior of the world. As we’ll see, when Jesus didn’t want to put on a show of miracles because of their lack of faith, they were all filled with anger, rose up, drove him out of the synagogue and up the brow of the hill on which Nazareth had been built intending to hurl him to his death. They went from amazement to doubt to fury to homicide. They went from praying in the synagogue to expelling and trying to murder their guest preacher. Not only would they not accept Jesus as a prophet by heeding his words and welcoming him as they would the God who sent him, but they, like preceding generations who “kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to it” (Mt 23:37), would seek to exterminate him, Thus in their reaction, other parts of Sacred Scripture were likewise being fulfilled, especially those readings we’ll hear throughout Lent about how the Just One would be beset and how the Savior would be a Suffering Servant, scorned and rejected, but who would heal us precisely through the stripes he endured, prophecies that were glimpsed in Nazareth but whose words would be fulfilled in the hearing and sight of those on Calvary.

The Way To Respond

The same Jesus who entered his hometown Synagogue on the Sabbath enters the Church of the Holy Family today. He speaks to us live as the Gospel is read. He comes to teach us, to heal us, to console us, to be with us, to strengthen us and to send us out. But for that transformation to occur, we first must accept him, let his word enter, take our flesh, dwell within us, and bear abundant fruit. Jesus wants us to receive him and his word not like the majority of Nazarenes, but as Mary of Nazareth, saying, “Let it be done to me according to your word.”

Honestly, are we prepared for that? Are we amazed and astonished by his word? Do we hang at the edge of our pews for what he teaches? Do we really mean what we prayed in today’s Psalm, that the Lord’s words are our “spirit and life” — in other words, that without his word we’re really spiritually dead? Do we believe, as we prayed, that his teaching is perfect, refreshing, trustworthy, wise, right, joyful, enlightening, pure, enduring, true, and just?

How are we supposed to react to Jesus as he comes to the Church of the Holy Family today? How are we supposed to act in response to his teaching? In today’s first reading, we see an incredibly rich commentary on how we’re supposed to receive, respond to, and rejoice in the Word of God. In it we find seven things that should characterize our interaction with Jesus’ word as we heard it together. These seven ways show us how to pray what we hear, what is typically called Lectio Divina, or “divine reading” or meditation.

The setting for the first reading was after the exile when, rummaging through the ruins of the Temple, they found the “Book of the Law of Moses,” what the Jews would call the Torah. They rediscovered with incredible joy and gratitude God’s holy Word. During their 70 years in Babylon, they had recognized that they had been brought into captivity ultimately because they had failed to live by God’s word. They were determined not only not to let that happen again but to make up for 70 years of lost time.

Ezra the Scribe brought the book of the law before the men, women and children old enough to understand (basically five and above) and proceeded to read from the Torah from dawn to midday — basically six or seven hours — and the “all the people listened attentively.” When he opened the scroll, all the people stood out of reverence. Then after Ezra blessed and thanked God for the word, they raised their hands high and answered “Amen! Amen!,” a Hebrew word that means “to uphold,” showing that they were intending to build their lives on it. After that, they knelt down and bowed before the Lord who was speaking to them as his holy word was announced. And there were seven things that happened that described the various stages of the assimilation of God’s word:

  • The first was reading. Ezra and the scribes read plainly from God’s word in discrete passages, like points of meditation. The word “read” in Hebrew means to “proclaim” since reading Sacred Scripture was always done aloud. It also means, “translate,” because many of the post-exilic Jews were rusty in Hebrew. It points to the connection between reading and proclaiming, making it intelligible to the minds and lives of those hearing. The first step is to let God speak.
  • The second aspect was interpreting, or explaining the word of God. As the scribes read, they helped the people to grasp some of the applications. There are often many meanings to God’s word. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes three different types of spiritual meanings, one linked to Jesus, another to ourselves and our response in faith, and a third to heaven and to our vocation to be saints. When we ponder and proclaim the word of God, when we listen to and read it, this aspect of explaining it is very important if we’re ever going to reach the third stage.
  • The third stage was understanding the Word of God. This is far more than an intellectual grasp of the material, but the Hebrew word means that there’s a knowledge at the level of one’s entire personality and that it impacts us at the level of our whole being. The Latin translation for this understanding sapientia, which is normally understood as wisdom, but it’s literal translation is to taste. When we understand the Word of God, we taste it, it delights us, it becomes part of us as we become what we eat, although, as Ezechiel himself experienced when God had him eat the scroll of the Word of God, sometimes this digestion of God’s word can seem bitter because it leads to the crucifixion of our old way of being.

These three stages are all basically the first movement of the Word of God as we seek to grasp at the level of our being what God is saying to us. It’s like the liturgy of the Word when God’s word is proclaimed through the readings and then interpreted and helped to be comprehended in the homily. The next four stages involve our response to what has been announced, explained and comprehended.

  • The fourth stage is listening to the Word of God. “All the people listened attentively to the book of the law,” Nehemiah tells us. The Jewish people are basically formed out of the command to listen. The famous Schema they pray each day reminds them of Moses’ words, “Hear, O Israel, that the Lord your God is God alone.” To listen means something different than merely absorbing the Word through our ears, as if it were just a form of auditory reading. Rather, in Hebrew there’s no distinction between hearing and obeying. It’s the same word. To listen to the Word of God is to listen to it as a word to be done, as an imperative once understood. In Latin, we keep the connection between hearing (audire) and obeying (ob-audire), which means a listening so attentive we’re hanging on every word. St. James calls us not to be merely idle listeners but “doers” of the Word. We’re called to say like Mary, who was praised by Jesus for hearing the Word of God and doing it, “Let it be done to me according to your Word.” To be a member of Jesus’ family, Jesus said elsewhere, we must do the will of the Father in heaven. This is the type of attentive listening to the Word that is being described here. Listening in order to act.
  • The fifth stage is converting. “Do not be sad, and do not weep,” the people are told, because they were all weeping as they heard the words of the law. St. James says the Word of God is like a mirror, and when they looked at the Mirror of God’s word, they saw who they were supposed to be and who they in fact were and it brought them to tears. They bowed down and prostrated themselves before the Lord, their faces to the ground. Likewise, the Word of God is meant to bring us to conversion, to change our ways, so that we may conform ourselves to what God is telling us through his Word. Sometimes people may prefer that, like Jesus in today’s Gospel, the preacher give a one sentence homily! But not only would that hurt the interpretation and understanding but it would rarely be sufficient to bring us to conversion. One might make a light bulb go off in a person’s head with one sentence, but it’s hard in in a short time to get to the person’s heart and the person’s emotions. Conversion takes time to drill through hardened hearts. And the ultimate goal of a homily, as the Second Vatican Council taught in its decree for priests, is conversion and holiness.
  • The sixth stage is responding to the word of God with acts of charity. The text tells us that “all the people raised their hands high, saying ‘Amen. Amen’” and immediately began to allot portions of food and drink to those who didn’t have any “because they understood the words that had been expounded to them.” The real impact of the Word of God is that it’s supposed to help us to love others as God has loved us. It’s a word of love. Hearing the word of God must change our life. There’s an existential commitment that God seeks when he speaks. Cardinal Giancarlo Ravasi, whose thoughts on this passage — during a 2013 retreat to Pope Benedict and the Vatican Curia immediately before the Pope-emeritus’ retirement — have inspired these reflections, said memorably,  “Non basta il culto senza la vita. Non basta la liturgia senza la guistizia. Non basta la preghiera senza l’impegno esistenziale.” Loosely translated this means that our worship is supposed to change our life, our liturgy is supposed to inspire us to justice, and our prayer is supposed to lead to the fruit of a total commitment of our life. That’s what we see happened with the Jews who “understood” the words of the Lord: it spurred them to charity. That’s what is supposed to occur for us.
  • The seventh and last stage is celebrating. There was a great feast. “Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks,” they were told, “for today is holy to our Lord. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength!” The Word of God is meant to fill us with joy and lead us to celebrate that joy with others, sharing our joy, our food, our drink, our lives with others. Rejoicing is supposed to be our great strength as believers and that joy flows from the total transformation the Word of God does in us. “The precepts of the Lord give joy to the heart,” as we prayed in the Responsorial Psalm! There’s obviously an allusion to the Eucharistic feast here, when, after having heard the Word of God, we eat the most unbelievable food ever and drink the choicest liquid. The Liturgy of the Word is interconnected with and leads to the Liturgy of the Eucharist. And the Liturgy of the Eucharist is meant to lead to the Liturgy of Life. It’s supposed to lead to agape, which is the overflowing, loving, joyful communion that comes from the liturgical celebration, as we “do this in memory of Christ” and seek to give ourselves and our lives to save others and lift them up.

And so we see that to receive the Word of God with faith we must first have it read, explained, and understood and then listen and obey it, convert in response to it, act with charity and celebrate it. Is that what we come to Church prepared to do?

A Modern Illustration

I’d like to nourish our understanding of these truths by a more modern witness to this type of love for the Word of God, for Scripture’s being fulfilled in our hearing. Back in 2008, during the Synod on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church held in the Vatican, Bishop Anton Justs from Jelgava, Latvia gave a simple five minute speech that brought his fellow prelates not only to their feet but to tears. It never ceases to do the same for me.

“In my presentation,” Bishop Justs began in simple, straightforward English, “I would like to talk about the martyrs of twenty century and in particular those in my country Latvia. These are the priests, men and women who died for proclaiming the Word of God. I remember one Latvian priest, [Father] Viktors, who during the Soviet regime in Latvia was arrested for possessing the Holy Bible. In the eyes of the Soviet agents, the Holy Scriptures were an anti-revolutionary book. The agents threw the Holy Scriptures on the floor and ordered the priest to step on it. The priest refused and instead knelt down and kissed the book. For this gesture the priest was condemned to ten years of hard labor in Siberia. Ten years later, when the priest returned to his parish and celebrated the Holy Mass, he read the Gospel. Then he lifted up the lectionary and said: ‘The Word of God!’ The people cried and thanked God.”

The Word of God, they knew, was a treasure worth suffering for, even the tortures of a decade in a brutal Siberian labor camp. It was worth getting down on one’s knees to kiss. It contained within the open secrets of a true and definitive revolution. Fr. Viktors clearly knew the value of the Word of God and became a living witness to its inestimable value. He knew it contained the words of eternal life because they were revealed and spoken by God.

Fr. Viktors was not alone in this testimony. “In Latvia, during the Soviet era,” Bishop Justs continued, “no religious books, no Holy Scriptures, no catechisms were allowed to be printed. The reasoning was: if there is no printed Word of God, there will be no religion. So our Latvian people did what the first century Christians did: they learnt the passages of the Holy Scriptures by heart. Still today in Latvia there is an oral tradition alive. We stand on the shoulders of our martyrs to proclaim the Word of God. Our grandchildren remember their grandfathers and grandmothers, who died for their faith; they want to be, in their turn, heroes of faith.
 In Latvia we proclaim the living Word of God! We go in the processions and on the pilgrimages, we sing songs and we pray and say: ‘This is the Word of God,’ for which our grandparents died.”

A people learning Sacred Scripture by heart, taking the Bible on Pilgrimages, proudly proclaiming the Word of God, and seeking to be heroes in witness to it — this is what the Catholic Church is meant to be. This is what the Church of the Holy Family is called to be. As these faithful Latvians demonstrate, the Bible is not a dead document but a “living word,” since the Word of God is not principally a book or a series of books but a Person, an incarnate Word, whom we encounter through the Bible’s sacred words. He’s the one who comes into our Church like he entered the Synagogue of Nazareth. He’s the one whose words are Spirit and life. He’s the one who continually fulfills Scripture in our hearing!

The Power of Jesus’ Words

Jesus’ words are not merely informative, but performative. They change us and change reality. When he said, “Let there be light,” there was light. When he said “Quiet!” to demons, they shut their traps. When he calmed a storm, there was immediately tranquility on the sea. And today Jesus speaks for us the same performative words he did in the Upper Room on Holy Thursday, saying over simple bread and wine through a priest through whom he is acting, “This is my body” and “This is the chalice of my blood!” And his words change bread and wine into Himself. And then, as St. Paul reminds us in today’s second reading, through our receiving Jesus worthily, he makes us by the power of the Word made flesh, Christ’s one body in many members. Let us receive the double fulfillment of these words in our hearing and allow that perfect, refreshing, trustworthy, wise, right, joyful, enlightening, pure, enduring, true, and just, and life-giving Word to enter in, change us and through us change the world!

 

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1 NEH 8:2-4A, 5-6, 8-10

Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly,
which consisted of men, women,
and those children old enough to understand.
Standing at one end of the open place that was before the Water Gate,
he read out of the book from daybreak till midday,
in the presence of the men, the women,
and those children old enough to understand;
and all the people listened attentively to the book of the law.
Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform
that had been made for the occasion.
He opened the scroll
so that all the people might see it
— for he was standing higher up than any of the people —;
and, as he opened it, all the people rose.
Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God,
and all the people, their hands raised high, answered,
“Amen, amen!”
Then they bowed down and prostrated themselves before the LORD,
their faces to the ground.
Ezra read plainly from the book of the law of God,
interpreting it so that all could understand what was read.
Then Nehemiah, that is, His Excellency, and Ezra the priest-scribe
and the Levites who were instructing the people
said to all the people:
“Today is holy to the LORD your God.
Do not be sad, and do not weep”—
for all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the law.
He said further: “Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks,
and allot portions to those who had nothing prepared;
for today is holy to our LORD.
Do not be saddened this day,
for rejoicing in the LORD must be your strength!”

Responsorial Psalm PS 19:8, 9, 10, 15

R. (cf John 6:63c) Your words, Lord, are Spirit and life.
The law of the LORD is perfect,
refreshing the soul;
The decree of the LORD is trustworthy,
giving wisdom to the simple.
R. Your words, Lord, are Spirit and life.
The precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
The command of the LORD is clear,
enlightening the eye.
R. Your words, Lord, are Spirit and life.
The fear of the LORD is pure,
enduring forever;
The ordinances of the LORD are true,
all of them just.
R. Your words, Lord, are Spirit and life.
Let the words of my mouth and the thought of my heart
find favor before you,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.
R. Your words, Lord, are Spirit and life.

Reading 2 1 COR 12:12-30

Brothers and sisters:
As a body is one though it has many parts,
and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body,
so also Christ.
For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,
whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons,
and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.

Now the body is not a single part, but many.
If a foot should say,
“Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,”
it does not for this reason belong any less to the body.
Or if an ear should say,
“Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,”
it does not for this reason belong any less to the body.
If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?
If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?
But as it is, God placed the parts,
each one of them, in the body as he intended.
If they were all one part, where would the body be?
But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,”
nor again the head to the feet, “I do not need you.”
Indeed, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker
are all the more necessary,
and those parts of the body that we consider less honorable
we surround with greater honor,
and our less presentable parts are treated with greater propriety,
whereas our more presentable parts do not need this.
But God has so constructed the body
as to give greater honor to a part that is without it,
so that there may be no division in the body,
but that the parts may have the same concern for one another.
If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it;
if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.

Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it.
Some people God has designated in the church
to be, first, apostles; second, prophets; third, teachers;
then, mighty deeds;
then gifts of healing, assistance, administration,
and varieties of tongues.
Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers?
Do all work mighty deeds? Do all have gifts of healing?
Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?

Alleluia CF. LK 4:18

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
The Lord sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor,
and to proclaim liberty to captives.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel LK 1:1-4; 4:14-21

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.Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit,
and news of him spread throughout the whole region.
He taught in their synagogues and was praised by all.He came to Nazareth, where he had grown up,
and went according to his custom
into the synagogue on the sabbath day.
He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
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.

Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down,
and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him.
He said to them,
“Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”

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