Friday, January 25, 2013

Teaching in the Synagogue

                                    3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today's first reading from the Book of Nehemiah gives us a glimpse of an ancient Jewish religious practice. The whole assembly of the people of God come together on one of the high holy days to hear the word of God.  The scribe stands on a high platform similar to our pulpit, opens a scroll since books were not yet invented, and commences to read "plainly from the book of the law of God." The purpose of the reading which lasts from daybreak to midday is to remind them of the law, their inheritance.

This first reading today obviously ties in with the Gospel reading from St. Luke. Every three years when we come to Cycle C in the readings we will find that most of the gospel readings come from St. Luke. Although not one of the original apostles, Luke was a disciple of St. Paul. Shortly before his death Paul wrote to Timothy, "Make haste to come to me; for Demas has deserted me, loving this world...Luke only is with me." Luke also wrote the Acts of the Apostles which is mainly an account of St. Paul's missionary journeys.

Christian artists have usually used four symbols to depict the four Evangelists. St. John is depicted as an Eagle since theologians regarded him as reaching closer to the heavens because his gospel seems to be the most mystical. St. Matthew is portrayed as a winged Man because his gospel begins with the human genealogy of Christ. St. Mark is portrayed as a winged Lion because his gospel begins with John the Baptist, a voice crying out or roaring in the desert. Luke is portrayed as a winged Ox because theologians believed that his gospel emphasized the sacrificial nature of Christ's mission.

At the outset of his gospel Luke states his credentials. His information comes from "eyewitnesses from the beginning," and from "ministers of the word" who have handed the teaching down. After "investigating everything accurately anew" he proposes to write down his own narrative "in an orderly sequence"

            so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings
            you have received.

After this brief introduction today's reading jumps to chapter 4 in Luke's gospel. We skip over the story of our Lord's infancy (which we heard at Christmas), and the Temptation in the Desert which the Church saves until the first Sunday in Lent. In chapter 4  we find Jesus at the outset of his public life. He has returned to Galilee "in the power of the Spirit" and the whole region is aware of Him. "He taught in their synagogues and was praised by all."

Then one day on the Sabbath he went into the synagogue at Nazareth (according to his custom) and like Ezra in the first reading He stood up to read. He was handed a scroll and we can picture Him unrolling it until he came to the specific passage from Isaiah that He wanted to read, a passage that outlines His sacrificial mission:

            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.

This mission is His but as members of His Mystical Body it is also ours. St. Paul reminds us in today's reading from Corinthians that we, whatever our rank or station, are all parts of the Body of 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.

Not only do we all have our individual roles to play, we also have to be concerned for one another.

            If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it;
            if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.

This is one of the reasons why it is so important for us to come together here just as the Israelites did in the time of Nehemiah. Every hour of every day a Mass is being celebrated somewhere in the world by people of every race and culture. No society on Earth is as diverse as our Church. Male, female, young, old, families, celibate monks and nuns, all are welcome. All it takes for membership is Baptism.

It is so important for us to see each other here. For our young people what better example can they see than an elderly couple walking out of Church still holding hands after years of love and devotion to each other? It is equally important for our elderly to see young people here who can carry on the tradition and work of the Church. All of us are the sons and daughters of immigrants. What more inspiring sight can we have to see our brothers and sisters from Africa, Latin America, and Asia joining us every Sunday in one Spirit?

So what if were not all apostles, teachers, or prophets. We all have our work to do. We all have our role to play in the Body of Christ. We just can't stay home and try to do it on our own. We need each other.###

Reading 1. Nehemiah 8:2-4a, 5-6, 8-10
Reading II. I Corinthians 12: 12-30
Gospel. Luke 1:1-4; 4: 14-21  (In the synagogue)

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Marriage at Cana

                                    2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Marriage at Cana
Stained Glass Window
Assumption Church
Fairfield, CT*

In the first reading Isaiah speaks of a time when Jerusalem or Zion will no longer be called forsaken or desolate. Whenever we hear the words Jerusalem or Zion we should know that they refer to the whole people of God. So when the prophet says,

            As a young man marries a virgin,
            your Builder shall marry you;
            and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride
            so shall you God rejoice in you,

he is talking about the restoration of ourselves to God through the work of the Lord.

In this second Sunday in Ordinary time we have in the marriage feast at Cana a third epiphany of the Lord. Two weeks ago we had the great feast of the Epiphany itself where the new born Lord appears to the world in the visit of the Magi. Last week, we saw a second epiphany at the Baptism of the Lord. "Heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.'"

For most of Cycle C, the gospel reading will be taken from St. Luke's gospel but for this Sunday the Church chooses to recall the first of the signs or miracles that Jesus worked, the changing of the water into wine at the wedding at Cana. Is there a more famous or well known story than this one in all the gospels? St. John notes that the mother of Jesus was at the wedding and that Jesus and his disciples were also invited. Then as the wine ran short at the feast, Mary utters her only words recorded in the Gospel other than those at her Annunciation and Visitation. She tells her Son, "They have no wine." He hesitates, "Woman, how does your concern affect me?" Nevertheless, she says to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you."

In most of the miracles of Jesus someone approaches him with the belief that he can help them or someone they love. In this case it's his own Mother who seeks his help for the young married couple. He proceeds to turn six huge jars of water into wine. Someone once said that the same God that sends the rain that waters the vines that nourish the grapes that produce the wine merely sped up the process at Cana. John concludes that this first miracle was also an epiphany or appearance of the Lord.

             "Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs at Cana in Galilee
              and so revealed his glory,
              and his disciples began to believe in him."

Two weeks ago it was the Magi who came to believe in Him, last week it was John the Baptist, and now its his disciples. What are they to believe? That He is the One come to fulfill Isaiah's prophecy. This is a central theme in St. John's gospel, that God has sent His Son into the world to heal its wounds, to make all things new, and to the restore the relationship or marriage between God and His people.

By now most of us even if we have not read the books or seen the movies must be aware of J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy, the Lord of the Rings. In that great masterpiece there is also a kingdom that is desolate, forsaken, and on its last legs. Against incredibly powerful and evil enemies a fellowship is formed to restore the kingdom. Although they appear to be weak, each of the members of the fellowship will discover on their journey that they each have strengths or gifts that are needed if the fellowship is to succeed.

At first they are even unaware of their own gifts or strengths. They even distrust or deprecate the gifts of the others. Dwarves don't like elves, and vice versa. The hobbits, half the size of men, are regarded as useless in the quest. They themselves would prefer to just remain in their comfortable homes or hobbit holes and avoid dangerous adventures. Yet in the end each one's gifts will be necessary in the struggle to restore the Kingdom.

Isn't this what St. Paul is saying to us today in today's second reading.

            There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit.
            there are different forms of service but the same Lord
            there are different workings but the same God
            who produces all of them in everyone.

We err when we think that our gifts are better than someone else's. We also err when we think that our gifts are our own doing and not gifts from God at all. Who will remember the athlete celebrating his own triumph or lording it over a defeated rival? Who will ever forget the picture of the football player falling to his knees and making the sign of the Cross after catching the winning pass even though the TV cameras quickly moved away?

However, we also err when we undervalue our gifts or when we fail to even recognize that we have them, or when we refuse to use them--what our Lord called hiding your light under a bushel. Worse is when we envy the gifts of others and wish that they had been given to us.

If we haven't made our New Year's resolutions already, we still have time to go back to our comfortable hobbit holes and take stock of what the Lord has given us, what strengths or weapons we have as we set out to do our part in restoring the Kingdom. Scripture is the word of God and when St. Paul speaks to the Corinthians he speaks to us.

 "To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit."  

Reading 1. Isaiah 62: 1-5
Reading II. I Corinthians 12: 4-11
Gospel. John 2: 1-11 (Wedding at Cana in Galilee)

*Photo by Melissa DeStefano

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Baptism of the Lord

Verrocchio: Baptism of the Lord

Last week we celebrated the great feast of the Epiphany of the Lord which brought to completion the 12 days of the Christmas season. Epiphany is a Greek word which means manifestation or appearance. The appearance to the Magi signified the mission of our Lord to the Gentiles as well as to the Jews.

Today we celebrate another divine appearance. Today's feast commemorating the Baptism of the Lord marks the beginning of the public life of Jesus. In one week we've gone from the little babe in the manger to our Lord's appearance to John the Baptist at the Jordan river. 

The first reading from the Book of the prophet Isaiah introduces a mighty figure:

            Here is my servant whom I uphold,
            my chosen one with whom I am pleased,
            upon whom I have put my spirit;

These words find their counterpart in today's gospel. After the Baptism of Jesus,

            Heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit
Descended upon Him
In bodily form like a dove
And a voice came from heaven,
‘You are my beloved Son;
with you I am well pleased.’

Let's examine the scene of the Baptism a little more closely. First, Jesus comes to John to be baptized and John hesitates because he recognizes that someone far greater than he is standing before him. Nevertheless, Jesus insists on following the precepts of the Law since He is the one who will bring the Law to its fulfillment.

After the baptism we have the first manifestation of the Holy Trinity--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is unfortunate that over the years religious artists have found it almost impossible to depict the Holy Trinity. They have had remarkable success with the Son because Jesus did take on a human form. For the most part artists have had to resort to depicting the Father as a white-bearded old man--an angry one at that-- flying around in the sky. Even worse, they've depicted the Spirit as a bird, because today's gospel says that Jesus saw the Spirit descending "like a dove."

These images, well-intentioned as they are, have led to a lot of misunderstanding. We are made in the image and likeness of God. God is not made in our image and likeness. God is not an angry old man and the Holy Spirit is not a bird. Especially in the case of the Spirit, the image of the dove has led many to trivialize and underestimate His role.

Not only did God create the world, the world could not exist for an instant without the continued presence of His Holy Spirit. Every breath we take, every move we make is inconceivable without the presence of the Spirit of God. We're like fish swimming in the ocean but the ocean is the Spirit of God. Just like fish we don't realize that we're in the ocean and that every thing that sustains us comes from the ocean of God. We're even worse than fish because we think that we can do without the ocean. We can even, if we're smart enough, convince ourselves that it doesn't even exist.

St. Peter had no misunderstanding. Today's second reading from the Acts of the Apostles takes place after the Resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Even after those incredible events, Peter and many other Christians had difficulty in realizing that the word of God had come for all nations and not just for Israel. In this scene which ends in the house of the pagan convert, Cornelius, Peter finally realizes that "God shows no partiality." He then recalled the scene at the Baptism where it all began.

            You know...what has happened all over Judea,
            beginning in Galilee after the Baptism
            that John preached,
            how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth
            with the Holy Spirit and power.

From that day on the teaching of the Church has always been that our own Baptism is similar to our Lord's. At Baptism it's not just that the stain of original sin is washed away. We believe that at our Baptism we become children of God, and that we receive His Holy Spirit. In a way we should regard the day of our Baptism as the most important day of our life.

I know that there are those who do not attach much importance to the sacraments anymore. But at the outset of His public life Jesus, despite the objections of John the Baptist, attached great importance to His Baptism. He chose to have the waters flow over Him and to be anointed by the Father "with the Holy Spirit." At the outset of our own children's lives, why would we not choose to follow His example? ###

Reading 1. Isaiah 42: 1-4, 6-7
Reading II. Acts 10: 34-38
Gospel. Luke 3: 15-16, 21-22 (my beloved Son).

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Magi from the East

                                    Epiphany of the Lord

Adoration of the Magi
Assumption church
Fairfield, CT*
Click to enlarge

Today we celebrate the great feast of the Epiphany of the Lord. Epiphany is a Greek word which means manifestation or appearance.  Traditionally, the story of the "magi from the east" has been seen as a sign of the manifestation of the Lord to all nations.

Today's first reading from the Prophet Isaiah with its mention of caravans of camels and dromedaries bearing gold and frankincense has from the earliest days of the Church been associated with the story of the Three Kings or Wise Men. Today's gospel account from St. Matthew only tells us that "magi from the east" followed the star "to the place where the child was." It doesn't say that there were three of them, or that they were kings. But  tradition and art have added the familiar features to the story.  

We have three kings probably because of the three gifts--gold, frankincense, and myrrh--which are associated with royalty. In art one of the Kings is usually portrayed as an old man, another is middle aged, while the third is young and beardless. They symbolize all the ages of mankind. Tradition called them wise men because the word magi came to mean "magician", or one familiar with the secrets and mysteries of nature. It is common to think of them as astronomers or astrologers because of the famous star that they followed to Bethlehem.

Although legends have embellished the story of the Magi, there is an historical core to their story. There were, after all, "magi" in the East. The members of the ruling priestly class of the Persian empire to the east of Palestine had for centuries been called "magi." They would have been familiar with the Hebrew scriptures and prophecies because so many Jews had emigrated to Persia in the centuries before Christ. Their journey to Bethlehem would have been over a thousand miles but it would have followed established and frequently traveled trade routes.

The reaction of King Herod to their news certainly fits what history has told us about that cruel despot. In those days it was common for rulers to kill anyone who might be a potential threat to their crown. Herod murdered his favorite wife--he had ten--and five of his own sons when he suspected that they were plotting against him. The slaughter of the Innocents which St. Matthew describes a little later in this chapter is certainly in line with Herod's character.

What is the importance of the visit of the Magi? Why is the Feast of the Epiphany one of the greatest in the Church's calendar?

We know that after the Resurrection of our Lord the first converts to Christianity, even the Apostles themselves, had difficulty in understanding that the mission of our Lord was not just to the Jews. There was a great debate in the early Church where some argued that Gentiles had to convert to Judaism before they could be Christian. In St. Paul's epistles we see that this issue centered around the question of circumcision, that particular rite which signified one's membership in the nation of Israel.

In fact the very first Council of the Church was held at Jerusalem precisely to discuss this very issue. There St. Paul, inspired by his own vision of the Lord, argued that the message of Christ was for all mankind. As he says in today's reading from the Letter to the Ephesians,

            it has now been revealed
            to His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit:
            that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body,
            and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus...

For Paul the Messiah promised to the Jews was to be in Isaiah's words a light to all nations. We will see next week that St. Peter, as observant a Jew as St. Paul, will have his own vision in which he sees that what God has created no man can call unclean. Perhaps it is only after the question had been decided that the early Christians began to reexamine the words and life of Jesus for new meaning.

He came to call sinners. He cured the Roman centurion's servant. The Sermon on the Mount did not mention race, creed, or color. He praised the Good Samaritan and insisted that the foreigner was more a neighbor to the beaten Jewish traveler than his countrymen who passed him by on the road to Jericho.

They even discovered an incident at the very beginning of our Lord's earthly life which indicated that He had come as a light to all the nations. The "Magi" had come from the East to bring Him gifts and do Him homage. On the other hand, the despised ruler of the Jews had only sought to put Him to death. Apparently, Herod and his advisers couldn't even see the star that led the "Magi" to the child.

The Christmas season comes to an end with Epiphany. The twelve days of Christmas are completed. Next week, we will begin to follow Jesus as He begins His public life. We will have a whole year to find Him on His way to Jerusalem. A few years ago I found a wonderful Christmas card which said simply,

            Wise men still seek Him.

Reading 1. Isaiah 60: 1-6
Reading II. Ephesians 3: 2-3a, 5-6
Gospel. Matthew 2: 1-12 (Magi from the East). ###

*Photo by Melissa DeStefano