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Reflections for the III Sunday

Fr. Antony Kadavil reflects and comments on the readings at Mass for the third Sunday in ordinary time.

Neh 8:2-4, 5-6, 8-10; I Cor 12:12-30; Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21

Anecdote: # 1:  Saint Oscar Romero’s “option for the poor.” Speaking in the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus used Isaiah’s prophetic terms, long since seen as referring to the coming Messiah, to describe his own mission. Jesus said he had been sent, among other reasons, “to bring Good News to the poor.” The success of Jesus’ mission, particularly with the poor who had no political power except that conferred by their sheer numbers, made Jesus a “dangerous” person to the religious authorities of Israel and eventually resulted in his crucifixion. The Christian Gospel is still dangerous when its truth is really put into practice.  This is clearly seen in the case of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who was assassinated while he was celebrating Mass because, like Jesus, he reminded people of the needs of the poor andthe oppressed in El Salvador.   The story began in 1979 when a young priest, Father Grande, was shot and killed on the streets of El Salvador.  His “crime” was that he spoke out against the government, which brutally suppressed all forms of protests and executed thousands of innocent people using its notorious “Death Squads.” When Fr. Grande’s great friend, Bishop Oscar Romero, was chosen to be the new Archbishop, the authorities thought he would keep quiet on the question of the oppressed poor in that country. Instead, Archbishop Oscar Romero became an outspoken defender of the poor and a critic of the state-supported “Death Squads.” To honor the memory of his martyred friend, Romero refused to appear in any public ceremonies sponsored by the army or the government. He soon became the voice and conscience of El Salvador.  His words and actions were reported throughout the whole world, so that everybody knew the atrocities happening in El Salvador.   Romero’s fight for human rights led to his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.  On March 24, 1980, at 6:25 PM, as the Archbishop was offering Mass in a hospital Chapel, a shot from the back of the Church struck him in the chest, killing him instantly.  Thus, Archbishop Oscar Romero died a martyr for the Gospel of Christ. He was beatified May 23, 2015 by Cardinal Angelo Amato representing Pope Francis and canonized by Pope Francis October 14, 2018, with the designation “Bishop and Martyr.” As we reflect today on Jesus’ words about his mission, let us remember Saint Oscar Romero and continue to strive to live out faithfully in our world and in our daily lives the “dangerous” truths of the “Good News” which is Jesus’ gift to us today. (https://youtu.be/NsqQeo57u8s)

Introduction: The Scriptures for today focus our attention on the importance and power of the Word of God and its challenge for us today.   The Word of God is called “sacramental,” in the sense that when it is spoken, read or heard, God becomes present in our midst. For that to happen to us, we must listen to the Word, accept it into our hearts, and then put it into practice as we live out our lives.

Scripture lessons: Both today’s first reading, taken from Nehemiah, and Luke’s Gospel, describe the public reading of Sacred Scripture which challenges the hearers to make a “fresh beginning” with a new outlook. In the first reading, after rebuilding the Temple and restoring the city, Ezra leads the people in a “Covenant renewal” ceremony. In this ceremony, with the active assistance of a few Levite helper-priests, Ezra reads and interprets the Law to the Jews gathered before the Water Gate from early in the morning till mid-day on the first day of the Jewish year. Today’s Responsorial Psalm (Ps 19) sings the praises of the Law of the Lord and its effects on those who accept it, ending with the prayer, “Let the words of my mouth and the thought of my heart/find favor before You, O Lord, My Rock and My Redeemer!” Taken from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, the second reading reminds us, “Together we are Christ’s Body, but each of us is a different part of it,” suggesting that, as different parts of Christ’s Body, we each have a share, as God’s instruments, in bringing the freeing and saving mission of Christ to our world in our times.   Hence, we need to work together like the different parts of a body, offering our time, talents and treasures to each other as well as to all we encounter in our lives in fulfillment of our Baptismal calling and promises. It is in mutual giving and receiving as one Body that we assist each other to experience the true freedom which Jesus offers us and wishes us to have, that is, freedom from our common legacy, the effects of Adam’s original choice of himself for god, namely, sin, darkness and the power of the evil one. Today’s Gospel describes how, on a Sabbath, Jesus stood before the people in the synagogue of his hometown, Nazareth, reading and interpreting what Isaiah had prophesied about the Messiah. Jesus rooted and grounded his mission and ministry in the written word of Isaiah, particularly in the passage in which the Spirit sends the prophet to bring glad tidings to the poor, liberation to captives, recovery of sight to the blind and freedom for the oppressed—language that reflects the Biblical year of Jubilee. These words had long since been seen as applying to the coming Messiah. To the great amazement and disbelief of his own townsmen, Jesus declared that Isaiah’s prophecy was being fulfilled in him at that very moment because the prophet was foretelling and describing Jesus’ mission and ministry. Jesus’ mission would be to give liberation to everyone who would listen to his “Good News,” accept it and put it into practice.

First reading, Nehemiah 8:2-4a, 5-6, 8-10, explained: After defeating Babylon, King Cyrus of Persia decreed that the exiled Jews, who had spent seven decades of exile in Babylon, could return home to Jerusalem.  The Jews who returned rebuilt their ruined Temple (Ezra 6:15-17), and finished rebuilding the city walls under Ezra, their spiritual leader, and Nehemiah, the Governor appointed by Persia (Nehemiah 6:15).  The Lord gave an important mission to both men. They were to teach the Hebrew Scriptures and inspire the people to the high ideals of their ancestral religion. In today’s reading, Ezra is leading the people in a “Covenant renewal” ceremony. In this ceremony, with the active assistance of a few Levite helper-priests, Ezra reads and interprets the Law for the Jews gathered before the Water Gate, from early in the morning till mid-day on the first day of the Jewish year (Nehemiah 8:8).   The Torah, thus, becomes a living Word of power, grace and forgiveness for these exiles. It evokes from them a dramatic response. They have come to realize the many ways in which they have failed to keep God’s Commandments in their lives. Hence, with tears of repentance in their eyes and joy in their hearts, the people respond with a great “Amen!”   Israel, as we sing in today’s Psalm, was rededicating itself to God and His Law. The passage describes the birth of preaching: the first homily took place at an assembly of the Chosen People of God during the 5th century BC!

Second Reading, 1 Corinthians 12:12-30, explained: The Christian community in the Greek seaport of Corinth was a mixture of people of various ethnic groups, a combination which occasionally caused divisions that threatened its unity. Paul was worried that the community might break apart into factions. So, in order to help them build up the Body of Christ in Corinth, he wrote about the need for them to have unity and mutual love. In today’s selection from that letter, Paul addresses a Christian community blessed with diverse manifestations of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Prophets, preachers, healers, teachers – you name it, the Spirit had bestowed the job on someone in Corinth! These folks often exercised their gifts in spectacular, ecstatic ways that drew a lot of attention, much as they can do today among people who attend revivals and the crusades of some Faith-healers. And that could have caused trouble. So Paul spends chapters 12, 13 and 14 of this letter trying to get the Corinthians to enjoy and express their gifts in ways that will give strength and unity to the community and glory to God rather than cause divisions by competition among them. Paul insists that the Corinthians must use their spiritual gifts to glorify God, not themselves. This particular passage tackles the unity-of-the-Church issue with the metaphor of the parts of the body. Each member of the Church is compared to one of the parts of the body, who with God’s special gifts is making a unique contribution to the health of the whole. Hence, Paul urges the Spirit-gifted Corinthian Christians to find Jesus in their community by recognizing Jesus in one another. The same plea is being addressed to us in our day. Even if the Spirit has not granted us the gift of speaking in tongues or that of healing powers, we can always choose to exercise the gift of love, which we have all been given, and which Paul ranks higher than all the rest. Paul, one of the earliest Christian authors, believes that it is essential for all Jesus’ followers to understand and appreciate the necessity of their own presence and of their freeing role in the ongoing life of Body of Christ.

Gospel exegesis: Synagogue worship: The Jews had only one main Temple, located in Jerusalem and used for offering sacrifices to God and celebrating the major feasts.  Throughout the rest of the country, however, there were synagogues, one for every ten families or more, where the community, particularly the men, could offer Sabbath prayers and study the Scriptures.  It was customary for the men to sit in the central part of the synagogue, where the scrolls were kept.  The women and children sat in a separate area on the side of the synagogue.  It was the Jewish custom for the reader to stand while reading, and to sit down while teaching (Mt 13:54;Mk 6:1)The prayer began with “Shema’’ prayer followed by the recital of the “Eighteen Blessings,” praising and thanking God. Then seven passages from the “Torah” the book of Law and three passages from the “Prophets” were read and interpreted. Finally, the prayer was concluded by a priest or the synagogue president blessing the assembly using the blessing from the Book of Numbers (6; 22 ff). (Visit: https://www.thattheworldmayknow.com/he-went-to-synagogue for details).

Jesus’ reading and interpretation: Today’s gospel describes how Jesus participated in the sabbath prayer of the synagogue in his native place in Nazareth with a band of his disciples. The synagogue Liturgy of the Word was based on seven readings. The first four were from the Law (the Torah or the Pentateuch) followed by explanations given by the rabbi who was the teacher of the Law. The second set of three readings, taken from the prophets, could be read and interpreted by any circumcised male over thirty years of age.  It was in this second capacity that Jesus read and preached on the passage from Isaiah (61:1-2a).  Naturally, the people of his native place were curious to hear from this carpenter-turned-prophet who had grown up among them, and who had worked miracles throughout Galilee.  Luke reports that Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news of him spread throughout the whole region. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,” Jesus said, “because He has anointed me…”This “power of the Spirit” was absolutely essential in order for Jesus to complete his mission.

“Theology of liberation”: The reading from Isaiah describes a kind of Messianic figure. Jesus identifies himself as that figure and declares that the mission and ministry prophesied are his mission and his ministry. In other words, Jesus declares that Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in Him. This mission was similar to the mission given to Moses in Exodus 3:7-10. Jesus claims that he has been sent to Israel: (1) to bring glad tidings to the poor; (2) to proclaim liberty to captives; (3) to give recovery of sight to the blind; (4) to free the oppressed, and (5) to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord. [“An acceptable year,” in this context, suggested the ancient “Jubilee Year.”] Isaiah meant that the period of his ministry would open for all Israel the long-desired restoration of Zion which the Lord God Himself would accomplish, giving Israel His forgiveness and restoring her to His love and favor. In selecting this Messianic passage as referring to himself (“This text is being fulfilled today, even as you listen”), Jesus sums up both the source of his power and authority, and the nature of his freeing and saving ministry. First, Jesus claims the power of God’s Spirit as the source of his work.  Second, Jesus makes this proclamation in the context of Judaism – on the Sabbath, from the Scriptures, and in the synagogue.  Third, Jesus identifies his work, the work of the Messiah, with that of the Suffering Servant of Yahweh (see Isaiah 42:1-4, in particular), who brings Good News to the poor, proclaims release to the oppressed and recovery of sight to the blind — figuratively and literally.  Fourth, this agenda begins in Nazareth and extends to all places where the Word of God will be heard and understood.

Life messages: 1) We need to receive Christ’s freedom, live it out, and pass it on to others: As members of Christ’s Mystical Body, we share in the freeing, saving mission of Jesus.   However, even after we have chosen to believe in him, to accept his teachings and to live them out in our lives, we are still in bondage.   We are captives of sin, and only Christ can set us free. We are often blinded by our evil habits, addictions and need for financial security.  Pride and prejudice can make us blind to the needs of the less-fortunate, prompting us to fear and avoid them, rather than to love and help them. We can also be blind to the presence of God within ourselves and others.  We are often not free to listen to a lonely, heart-broken neighbor.  We can be prisoners of materialism and consumerism, chained to pleasure, power, money and control of everyone and everything in our world. Accordingly, we need to be freed and raised to a richer level of life. Once we receive true liberation from Christ, we need to share it with those we encounter in our daily lives — in our families, communities, parishes and workplaces.

2) We need to let the power of the Holy Spirit fill us, and to be ready to have miracles done through us. Today’s Gospel tells us that Jesus performed miracles because he was filled with the power of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus promised the same Spirit to his disciples: “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth….  He lives with you and will be in you” (John 14:16-17).  To this very day, the Holy Spirit is available to all believers who sincerely ask Him to dwell in their hearts.  If we fail to receive, and then to use, His power and His gifts, we are left with nothing but our natural abilities, and we will be unable to be used as instruments in His freeing miracles.   Miracles occur every day through weak human instruments, although they may be less spectacular than the ones Jesus performed. People whose minds are ravaged by fear and hatred can be miraculously filled with peace and kindness.   Those whose hearts are crippled with bitterness and anger can be made gentle and peaceful.   Perhaps others, whose relationships with their spouses are strained, can be   miraculously healed by love and faithfulness.  These are true miracles, performed by the power of God, through the Holy Spirit, often making use of human instruments.  Let us be ready to become Spirit-filled instruments of Christ’s saving freedom.

3) We need to make Bible reading and study a part of our daily Christian lifeBible reading enables us to know Jesus more and to love him better. That is why we should set apart a time in the morning and in the evening to read a part of the Bible, giving priority to the Gospels and the Epistles. This reading should be an integral part of the evening family prayer. Children should be encouraged to read the Bible with the adults explaining to them what they read. We need to read the Scriptures as books inspired by God that teach us about God and how we should live our lives. We also need to ask for God’s grace to interpret what we read. God give us inspiration so that we may understand the text and apply its lessons fruitfully to our lives. Five or ten minutes each day will make it possible to read the entire New Testament easily at least twice each year. (Fr. Anthony Kadavil)

24 January 2019, 18:42