What the liturgical texts call “this joyful season” of Lent begins later this week. Once known as “Quinquagesima Sunday,” today marked the fiftieth day before Easter. This year it leaps over the 8th Sunday of the Year, so Easter will seem “early” on April 12th, if not as early as it will be next year – April 4th. We should see some flowers. In the meantime, we here in the Midwest will be mixing our ashes with some snow come Wednesday…
Lent is a period set aside for the amendment of life, and today’s readings, particularly the gospel selection from the Sermon on the Mount,
seem very apt to prompt serious reflection. Two of them focus specifically on the prohibition of retaliation and revenge. All touch on the notion of holiness of life, a particular kind of holiness. I chanced upon the following homily in the files from 2017, given in the midst of another election cycle. As the French say, ‘plus ça change, c’est la même chose’… (Quick translation: “Here we go again.”) There’s not much I would change. Or need to…
The words of scripture today [Lv 19:1-2,17-18, 1 Cor 3:16-23, Matthew 5:38-48] present us with a helpful corrective to much of the talk that has crowded the airwaves during the last several weeks – actually several months. If you are like me, you are now pretty tired of hate-filled speech, recriminations, name-calling, and reciprocal accusations. The country seems to have entered an era in which civility, much less truth-telling, has become outmoded. So if we are to believe that the words of scripture are meant for us today as always, we might well pay attention. Otherwise, why are we listening to them at all?
All three readings take up the challenge of dealing with our brothers and sisters respectfully and honestly. The first reading from the Book
of Leviticus provides Jesus with the greatest of all the commandments. And the gospel takes us to the heart of the Sermon on the Mount, the core of Jesus’ teaching about how we are to treat one another. No exceptions.
The Leviticus reading states boldly and shockingly the seemingly impossible demand, “Be holy, as I am holy.” How can anyone be holy the way God is? Jesus accurately cites this passage when he says “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Scared yet? If we pay attention to the way English tends to mess up the language of the Bible, it gets clearer and maybe a little less scary.
The Hebrews knew very well that God’s holiness was unique – “qadosh,” they called it. That’s the word we use at the Sanctus of the Mass, a usage that goes back to the Book of Isaiah, when the Seraphim cry out in the temple, “Holy! Holy! Holy! The Lord God of Hosts!” Isaiah was terrified. For “The Lord is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens. Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth?” [Ps. 113, 3-5]. No one could expect even to look on the majesty of God and live through the experience. But like Moses before him and many people later, Isaiah is protected. He survives and his life is completely changed.
God’s own holiness is incommunicable, but it surrounds and sanctifies persons and places close to God. Human holiness is something else. The Hebrews called it “hasad,” meaning to show oneself kind or merciful, the way God is kind and merciful. It means being a truly godly person, someone in whom goodness and mercy shine forth as they do in God. This is what Jesus is referring to when he commands us to be “perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The word used in the gospels actually means “fully mature, complete, thorough.” Like God. Unstinting in kindness, goodness, and mercy.
Jesus spells it out in what may seem almost impossible terms – offer no resistance to injury, turn your face when you are struck, give up your stuff when it is required, be generous, merciful, and just. In a word, love one another. I recently saw an account of a young man who was held up on the street by a hoodlum who demanded money. He gave it up and then added to it. He next asked the robber why he was robbing people and the man said he was hungry. So the young man took him to a café, fed him, and refused to take back the money when it was returned to him. And it changed the robber’s life. This really happened. They actually became friends.
St. Paul explains why we find these kinds of commands and even their fulfillment baffling and silly and in doing so, also gives us a pretty good way of handling current events:
“God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile” [1 Cor 3:17-20].
So pay it forward, as the kids say. Let’s be like God the way God wants us to be. The way Jesus showed us.
Around 1853, an American abolitionist preacher eloquently proclaimed his faith in the ultimate victory of justice. His words were later cited by Abraham Lincoln and memorably by Martin Luther King, Jr., among many others, including President Obama. Parker said, “Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice” [Ten Sermons of Religion, III : “Of Justice and the Conscience”].
Today’s readings underscore and highlight such a verdict, and it is as relevant today as it was in 1853 or when it was cited by the young
Martin Luther King a century later when he wrote, “Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but that same Christ arose and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. Yes, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ There is something in the universe which justifies William Cullen Bryant in saying, ‘Truth crushed to earth will rise again’” [The Gospel Messenger, 1958].
We are in the midst of Black History Month in these once-United States, and Parker’s words, even as abbreviated by King and others, are worth noting again in the light of our Scripture readings, not least as the penitential season of Lent approaches.
Joshua ben Sirach, in the great work once called Ecclesiasticus, reminds us that God’s wisdom is vast and powerful, his gaze searching and inescapable, his justice inexorable: “he understands every man’s deed. No one does he command to sin, to none does he give strength for lies.” In his letter to the Christians at Corinth, St. Paul is no less uncompromising: “my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away” [1 Cor 2:4-6].
And with The Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s gospel, we hear Jesus amplifying the Decalogue itself, condemning not merely murder, but anger and abusive language; not only adultery, but lustful intent; not only lying, but swearing oaths falsely. Hard advice in an era when false witness seems to be the norm rather than the exception, when dissimulation, not to say outright lying along with abusive language, has become the currency of political speech here and throughout the world. But “unless your justice exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” [Matt 5:20].
The young Thomas Jefferson, haunted by his own compromises over slavery in the new Republic, expressed concern about the fate of a democracy erected on the shifting sands of expediency and self-interest when he demanded,
“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the Gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.” [Notes of the State of Virginia, Query 18, 1781.] As with Parker’s reflection, this prediction, too, was cited by Abraham Lincoln a few decades later in an era of great moral and political danger spawned by those very compromises. But the moral arc of the universe stretched on.
Not long before his assassination in 1964, Martin Luther King thought again of Parker in concluding his Baccalaureate address at Wesleyan University: “The arc of the moral universe is long,” he repeated, “but it bends toward justice.” [https://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/11/15/arc-of-universe/] As we continue but not conclude our consideration and commemoration of Black History in these trying times, may we too find consolation and encouragement in the words of King, and that old Abolitionist preacher and his disciples who inspired him. Truth crushed to earth will rise again. Justice will prevail.
As the years roll on, it seems to me that what was once called “ordinary time” in the Church calendar becomes less and less ordinary. Or are we living in the “new ordinary”? The term “unprecedented” appears more frequently in weather reports and news broadcasts. I suppose the most ordinary moment of this week will be the annual self-congratulatory entertainment industry extravaganza known as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Awards ceremony. How interesting to see a film about two popes in the running! It’s arguably unprecedented… (One-pope films such as The Shoes of the Fisherman and The Agony and the Ecstasy have risen to prominence, but never achieved Oscardom.) If The Two Popes wins an Oscar, that would be doubly miraculous.
In the meantime, the ordinary Catholic world is taking a breather from high political drama, international conflict, mass shootings, sports events, and increasingly turbulent weather to ponder the mystery of God’s love and care as revealed in the readings for today’s liturgy. But, as usual, the rumblings in the background cannot be entirely ignored. Nor should they be. It’s context.
The first reading from Isaiah draws on what is the most telling and ever-present theme among the prophets and
writings, beginning in fact with the Book of Exodus – the injunction to provide for the victims of misfortune and oppression, characteristically orphans, widows, and resident strangers (read: refugees) in the land. It is the measure of the justice of God’s people:
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you do afflict them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry; and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless” [Exodus 22:21-24 (RSV)].
It would be difficult to find among dozens a clearer statement than this:
“‘Cursed be he who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen’” [Deuteronomy 27:19 (RSV)].
And the last of prophetic works, and the final book of what Christians call “the Old Testament,” proclaims:
“…I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts” [Malachi 3:5b (RSV)].
Jesus’ compassion for widows, his affection for children, and concern for “aliens” such as the Roman centurion, the Syro-Phoenician woman, and the Samaritan woman, testify to his awareness of this tradition. This is perhaps most poignantly recounted in the story Luke tells of the bereaved widow about to bury her only son when Jesus stops the funereal procession and performs an astounding work of mercy [Luke 7:12-15].
“Share your bread with the hungry,” Isaiah commands, “shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own.” He adds that if we heed God’s instruction, our light will shine like the dawn, a presentiment of what Jesus will preach later on about the light of compassion. Isaiah also has a few words about how we talk to one another, and in this day of Twitter and Facebook, shouting candidates, and irascible commentators on cable television, it sounds strangely apt:
“If you remove from your midst oppression,
false accusation and malicious speech…
Then light shall rise for you in the darkness,
And the gloom shall become for you like the midday.”
The responsorial psalm emphasizes the point – the just do not fear an evil report, but shine like a light in the darkness for the upright [Ps. 112:4]. Something Jesus’ words call us back to.
Today’s gospel reading from Matthew’s gospel is taken from the Sermon on the Mount. This passage occurs immediately after the Beatitudes – it’s Jesus’ commentary following his benediction on the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for justice, the merciful, the pure in heart, peacemakers, those who are persecuted for the sake of justice, and those who are reviled, oppressed, and defamed.
Jesus then calls his disciples the salt of the earth — the seasoning that sweetens the bitterness of the world, as in the story of Elisha at Jericho, when he sweetened the bitter waters by putting salt into them [2 Kings 2:18-22]. But what if salt goes flat? The unrefined sea salt of the Middle East could do that. And if his followers lose their faith, their reliance on the simple truth of the gospel, what would happen to the world then?
Here Jesus turns to the imagery found in Isaiah and Psalm 112 – that light must not go out, it is there to illuminate the darkness of the world. Our lives must be like an oil lamp set in a dark and windless place, enabling others to see clearly. If the light dims, if we lose heart, the world grows a little darker, a little colder.
Let your light scatter the darkness, Jesus says…. the darkness of greed and indifference, of weakness and fear, and the so-called human wisdom that exalts self-interest over the welfare of the desperate. Then God’s love and truth will itself shine through the darkness. And, as Isaiah has it, “your own hurts will be quickly healed. Your vindication shall go before you,… you shall call and the Lord will answer,… and the gloom shall become for you like midday.”
Today, as millions prep for the 54th annual ritual of the Super Bowl, Christians throughout the world will first celebrate the Presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple, once called the Feast of the Purification of his mother, Mary, and also Candlemas. The events coincide, as the presentation and redemption of the firstborn son would follow on the completion of the period of ritual purification of his mother, and Luke adverts to this ancient Jewish custom. The association of candles as an offering to the Church goes back as early as the fourth century. The association with light can be traced to the Song of Simeon, the shortest of the three “Canticles” found in the first two chapters of Luke’s gospel and which contains the evangelist’s understanding of the entire scene:
“my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” [Luke 2:30-32].
The first reading from the book of the Prophet Malachi is possibly best known to most of us from Handel’s
brilliant setting of it in “The Messiah.” It contains majestic, powerful imagery, even a little frightening. The words are well chosen for a festival once known as the Purification. Then, of course, it was a reference to the ritual purification of the Mother of Jesus, who with Joseph, brought Jesus as a baby to Temple. And as the liturgy says that at his baptism years later Jesus’ immersion cleansed the waters of the Jordan, so the Purification of the Virgin Mary brought God’s purifying presence to the Temple in a wholly new way – suddenly and unexpectedly, except, perhaps, to two unexpected witnesses.
Simeon had waited long and patiently for the revelation of “the Christ of the Lord,” and had been promised he would see him before he died. There is no indication that he was aged, although he is often represented as a very old man. This is likely from association with the remarkable appearance of a truly old woman, another prophet, Anna, whom Luke describes in far more detail: 84 years of age, truly elderly by the standards of the time, and a widow for perhaps 65 of those years. She was the daughter of Phanuel and of the lost Tribe of Asher, once known as the happiest of the tribes (“Asher” means Happy.) Such detail indicates that Anna was well known. Luke may well have learned about this mysterious couple from Mary herself, who just a few verses earlier is said in regard to the events of the Nativity to have “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” [Luke 2:19].
A dark cloud falls over this remarkable scene when Simeon prophesizes to Mary that not only would Jesus be the occasion of the “falling and rising” of many in Israel, but also that “a sword will pierce through your own soul” [Luke 2:35a]. There was no offering without sacrifice, and Luke notes that Joseph and Mary had dutifully brought two innocent birds to be slaughtered as a substitute offering for the life of their son, as the law prescribed – the offering of the poor.
Luke tells us that after the ceremony the family went directly to “their own town, Nazareth,” returning to Jerusalem when Jesus was about 12, where presumably lost, and significantly for Luke in particular, he is again found in the Temple, “my Father’s house” [Luke 2:45]. Although the Gospels record that much of Jesus’ later life and ministry were bound up with the Temple, where he taught, preached, prayed, and debated with the priests, scribes, and Pharisees, his identification with the Temple is especially remembered in two passages. In the first, Jesus says, according to John’s gospel,
“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Judeans then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he spoke of the temple of his body [ John 2:19-21].
Perhaps the most significant reference comes very near the end of Scripture in the Book of Revelation, when the New Jerusalem, the Holy City, is finally revealed by God: “And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” [Rev. 21: 22].
For Luke, too, Jesus is the living and eternal Temple of God, and his followers, as members of Christ’s body, are also God’s Temple. Which is why St. Paul also insists, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If any one destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are” [1 Cor. 3:16-17]. Not just singly or even especially singly, but as corporate members of Jesus the Christ, God’s people: “For we are the temple of the living God,” Paul says, “as God said, “I will live in them and move among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” [2 Cor 6:16].
So the Presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple has particular meaning for the People of God, one which commemorates the dwelling of God among human beings, the last liturgical echo of the Christmas season, and a prelude to the sobering liturgies of Lent. We are left with an image both charming in its simplicity and intimacy, as two prophetic souls call to mind the great promises of the past, but also chilling in its forecast of the suffering and sacrificial death this costly identification with God’s presence will bring into the lives of Jesus and also his mother. But it also looks ahead to Resurrection. The year has found its pivot.