[This Sunday I am still in the grip of the unfortunate aftereffects of inhaling Volatile Organic Compounds released from renovations in the building last week, so I am falling back on an older homily, slightly tweaked for the New Year at hand… but only slightly! Some things don’t change much.]
Today we find ourselves in the thick of Ordinary Time, somewhere between Christmas and Lent. We are likely to find a lot things much more interesting than scripture and church services, at least if the media is an accurate index. We can get excited or appalled, depending, at various political crises, The Pandemic, the economy, Global Climate Change, the Snowstorm, or even that Big Football Game coming up next week.
Thanks to Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, Reddit,YouTube, and our iPhones, we can fret round the clock if we choose to. But what has any of this to do with today’s liturgy? Quite a lot.
To begin in the middle, St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth that he wanted them to be free of
all worries. His advice seems to be: don’t get married. I suspect that today people would ask him what planet he came from. But having been a marriage counselor for 25 years, I can agree with him at least this far: anyone who marries and tries to raise a family in today’s world is going to worry. But if Paul thought that unmarried people didn’t worry, he was very much mistaken. They worry about most of the things married people worry about, in addition to worrying about getting married. Apparently Paul never watched The Bachelor or The Bachelorette. I wonder what he would think of Christian on-line dating services?
In fact, what Paul was trying to get across is that often the real cause of worry, of mental suffering, is trying to have things both ways — trusting in God and also trying to please everyone else. Or at least not irritating them excessively. And his ultimate message is still sound advice: start with God, and the rest should fall into place. And if it doesn’t, our trust in God, our reliance on God, will steady us and provide the strength to get back into the struggle. No one is really free from all anxiety. Paul himself spoke of the anxiety he felt for all the churches [2 Cor. 11:28]. Having peace of heart does not mean a life without suffering, anxiety, and worry. It means having a way to cope with them.
The other readings point us toward Jesus. For the ancient Hebrews, the passage from Deuteronomy gave rise to the expectation of the coming of the Prophet of the Final Days, a new Elijah who would usher in the Kingdom of God. It was taken by early Christians to refer to Jesus, who was remembered like a new Moses, especially in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus mainly resisted such identifications during his life on earth. In this passage from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus orders the demonic spirit to be silent when it recognizes him as the “Holy One” of God, a title not used elsewhere of Jesus in Mark. One way or another, Jesus was recognized even by non-human agents as more than just a prophet, more than just a healer. He was the Holy One, the Son of God, the Savior, much as the angel had foretold in Luke’s gospel: “the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God” [Luke 1:35].
The people are amazed. They point out that Jesus’s teaching is new, and authoritative — not a repetition of well-known passages of scripture, not just commentary. Something different was happening. Eventually, they will demand to know by what authority he teaches and does the surprising things they hear and see, and he will refuse to tell them. For now, they murmur in awe and perhaps fear.
And what is this teaching that seems so new and authoritative? So far, all Mark reports Jesus to have said is “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” God’s realm, Jesus is saying, has broken in on this world of ours. It is already changing everything. Now is the time to change our way of thinking, to change our way of living. God is inaugurating a new day, a whole new world.
Jesus calls us to live in the light of that day, living justly and with compassion, forgiving our enemies and doing good to those who persecute us, caring for the oppressed and unfortunate. Matthew puts all of this in Jesus’ great Sermon on the Mount. Luke spells it out with the prophecy of Isaiah, the text of Jesus’ first teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” [Luke 4:18-19].
Freedom, health, and liberty — not only from captivity, disease, and political or religious oppression, but also from anxiety and worry even about God. And about other things as well. You have found acceptance, Jesus says, God’s forgiveness is always accessible. Live as though you truly believed that, and your anxiety will disappear.
Let us pray that, as Christians, we will put God first, and the demands of party, country, favorite football team, work, and even of family, not merely second, but rethink them and re-order them in light of our loyalty to the Holy One of God.
This morning I noted that Church documents still call this the “Third Sunday of Ordinary Time,” as opposed to “Third Sunday of the Year,” which is correct as things go, not least because this is the fourth Sunday of the year 2021. But I have some reservations about “Ordinary,” which from a liturgical point of view makes sense but that’s about it. We are living through an unusually extraordinary period of time, globally and locally. People long for “normalcy,” although what that was varies considerably, much of it depending on the socio-economic bracket and perhaps the ethnic and age group one belongs to.
In any case, the extraordinary events of our time are not likely to diminish for months, if ever. I suppose it was always the case and today’s readings suggest that – and a way to muster through sometimes seismic shifts in our political, economic, and personal situation.
The extended parable of the Book of Jonah provides a good example. The shortest work in the Hebrew Scriptures, it has little to do with the real Nineveh. I know because I visited the site several years ago. It borders the city of Mosul in northern Iraq. In fact, however, Nineveh was one of the largest cities of the ancient world, the capital of Israel’s greatest enemy. But rather than a three day’s walk, it takes about thirty minutes to walk from wall to wall. And the big fish that delivers Jonah by air from the Mediterranean Sea to the shores of Nineveh (located on the banks of the Tigris, it is nowhere near the sea), is a machina ex Deo that provides some comic relief. Actually, the whole book is a comedy with a relatively happy ending. In actual fact, Nineveh came to an inglorious end when it was conquered and destroyed by an invading Babylonian army in the late seventh century BCE.
But that is not the point, even though Jonah-in-the-belly-of-the-whale is still the most popular motif in northern Iraqi art and has influenced Christian and Muslim scripture from the beginning. In a nutshell, Jonah is about the saving graces of repentance, forgiveness, and compassion. Even the animals put on sackcloth and the Book of Jonah ends with a declaration of divine solicitude for the “cattle.”
The segment we hear today from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians seems to have little to do with all that until you realize that what the Apostle to the Gentiles is preaching is ultimately about heeding the word of God, as Jonah and the people of Nineveh finally did. But it is no less and more urgently about repentance, forgiveness, and compassion. Paul urges his readers to unglue themselves from this-worldly reoccupations and pay attention to what really counts.
It’s a timely message. Today, it is impressive and gratifying to witness the massive effort of some of those hardest hit by the current pandemic and economic downturn to care for those even more desperate. Even children are collecting and helping distribute food and clothing. The heroic efforts of the medical community to treat and hopefully save those attacked by the virus, even at the cost of their own health and lives, is a testament to love and compassion. The metanoia of the people of Nineveh from lowest to highest led to their salvation (at least in the story), and it points the way for us.
Our third reading, Mark’s account of the calling of the disciples, follows on the version we heard last week from the Gospel of John — as if reminding us that Jesus knew well whom he was now calling to follow him. He asked, simply enough, that they abandon the way of life they had followed so long and worked so hard at and become fishers of men and women, harvesters of souls, salt of the earth, and light to the world. This is what Jonah and John the Baptist and Jesus all preached and what Paul wrote about. They are simply telling us not to identify ourselves with the moments of passing experience, not to build monuments to our sense of self — or lack of it. Like Nineveh, these will fade away into the ruins of time.
No, as Paul insists, in all that we do, whether we eat or drink, whether we marry or remain single, or anything else, we are to fix our minds and hearts first on God’s presence and glory [1 Cor 10: 31]. The rest, as Jesus promises, will sort itself out. But neither he nor Paul encourage us to disregard the world, whether social or natural, for one remains the sole arena of our salvation and the other points sacramentally to the merciful presence of God. And so we work for peace and justice, we strive to save the world, not, like old Jonah, to rejoice in its destruction.
We could learn a few things from Jonah. Like him, and so unlike Jesus, we find it very difficult to forgive, even when our enemies repent and do penance. We prefer revenge, as witness the sudden upsurge in executions in the federal prison system after a 60-year respite. For some reason Americans seem to find forgiveness difficult — especially when matters of race, color, and class are involved. And when the subject of rehabilitation arises, most people simply shrug and change the subject.
Like Peter, James, and John, our task is not to reject the world, nor even to leave it, but to transform it, to claim it for God by our peace-making, our love, our compassion, and our prayers. The true sign of Jonah is the everlasting love and saving compassion of God.
Yes, we can learn something from the Book of Jonah.
Early this past week I happened to tune into “Morning Joe,” an early-morning news-and-commentary broadcast. Something Joe Scarborough said startled both me and his co-hosts when he branded the insurgents who lay siege to the US Capitol on Jan. 6 as “a Christian mob.” A professed Baptist, Scarborough explained that he saw a cross and some other Christian symbols displayed by the rioters. If that were enough to make a mob or a movement Christian, then the Ku Klux Klan would fit in nicely, as well as dozens of other repressive governments at home and abroad who appropriate symbols both hallowed and desecrated over the centuries.
There was nothing Christian about the violent and deadly attack except a few scattered symbols and the apparent presence of a large number of white evangelicals bent on “taking back their country.”
As I watched the unfolding riot, having turned on the tv looking for a weather report shortly after noon, there was no sign of ministers, priests, rabbis, sisters, and other church leaders walking arm in arm peacefully over bridges of hate and racism in the name of love, justice, and freedom. For that we have to go back to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 and especially the March from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, or the March on Washington this August to protest that Black Lives Matter.
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., a Baptist minister and preacher, was prominent alongside the late John Lewis at Selma and in several “freedom marches,” and it is to King, whose memory will be celebrated tomorrow throughout this country, that Scarborough should turn to discover what a Christian demonstration looks like. King offered his life in exchange for justice, peace, and non-violence. He was not the first to do so, nor will he be the last. But he needed no flags, tee-shirts, or crosses to prove his faith and that of his followers.
The commemoration of King’s life and legacy hardly come at a more opportune moment in our nation’s history, as hate, racism, injustice, violence, and deceit still find occasion to foul the air waves and streets. Like the prophet Samuel, whose call we learn about in today’s first reading, not only King but all those who profess the Christian faith are called to listen and respond. King’s response was outstanding and epoch-making. Ours may not be, but it is nevertheless incumbent on us and at least a candle that lights up a little of the darkness in the world.
Like Samuel, King actually heard God calling in the night. The passage we have just heard from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian
Christians, reminds us that as temples of the Holy Spirit, the presence of God lives within us. We are not limited to external hints and clues and directions. God is right here, inside, whispering, listening, guiding, and raising us up. The problem is that we seldom pay attention.
The simple truth is that like Samuel, and the disciples we first meet in the gospel reading today, all of us are called to prophecy. In fact, every moment of our life presents an opportunity to hear the Word of God and follow it. Like Samuel and King, we are not merely passive recipients of instructions that come to us in a burning bush or a still small voice in the night. We also need to act. Some of us may act heroically.
In the story from the gospel of John, the first disciples are given an invitation, a call — “come and see.” But going to see Jesus means looking for the Word of God — paying attention, even in the still small hours of the night. But as Martin Luther King learned, no less than Samuel and those first disciples did, we have to do something. That is how we follow Christ. So let us pray that both awake and asleep we continue to keep open the eyes and ears of our hearts, ever attentive to the signals of divine intent that ring around us like voices calling in the night. And let us pray that we will put into practice what we have heard whispered in that dark stillness.
Later this week Catholics in the United States will observe a day of prayer for the protection of unborn children, one of several such observances now inserted into the liturgical calendar. It should be a time for prayerful reflection on the gift of life, for all life is holy, all life “matters.”
“The poor beetle, that we tread upon,
In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great
As when a giant dies.” (Measure for Measure, Act III, Sc. 1)
Early yesterday, the current administration carried out its 13th federal execution since July. The killing of Dustin Higgs ended “an unprecedented series that concluded five days before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden — an opponent of the federal death penalty.” The execution was scheduled for Friday, the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. After a protest by Martin Luther King III, King’s eldest son, noting that Higgs, a Black man, was scheduled to die on his father’s birthday and following other last-minute appeals, the execution was delayed one day.
As noted by the Associated Press, “the number of federal death sentences carried out under Trump since 2020 is more than in the previous 56 years combined…” The only woman on death row, Lisa Montgomery, who was suffering from brain damage and mental illness, was executed Wednesday, the first woman executed in 67 years dispute appeals for clemency from around the world, including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the ACLU, the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, Sr. Helen Prejean, and a thousand others — many of them religious leaders.
There was chatter among the mob that ransacked the Capitol building on Jan. 6 about staging executions of members of Congress, and a noose was prominently displayed, which to the best of my knowledge is not a Christian symbol, Mr. Scarborough. Our call to peace, justice, and non-violence led by Martin Luther King, Jr., is a summons unfulfilled. Let us continue the task set before us so long ago by the Prince of Peace, himself unjustly executed by governmental authority.
Some things, once seen, remain etched in memory. Even though very few of us were present and personally witnessed them, some things cannot be unseen – the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy; 9-11; the killing of George Floyd; the anguish of a parent, child, spouse, or friend witnessing the death of a loved one; and now, the deliberate attack on the U.S. Capitol building. We remember happy times, joyful events, and occasions of rare heroism, devotion, and care. But tragedies and catastrophes overshadow them, no doubt because of the overwhelming power of negative emotions — horror, fear, anger — felt repeatedly as the social media broadcast such dismaying images over and over.
We come away from witnessing such events, even so mediated, burdened with sorrow and possibly hopelessness, fearful of our countrymen and for the future. We now hear commentators and pundits claiming that “democracy is fragile.” I submit that democracy is not fragile, it is strong and robust, and survives assaults on its very foundations, wounded perhaps, but resolute. Democracy is not fragile, but it is vulnerable.
On this day, the last Sunday of the Christmas cycle, when Christians around the world commemorate the baptism of Jesus and the beginning of his public
ministry, it is well to remember that goodness and nobility of purpose are not only possible, but at work in the world. The grace of God is always available. We do not have to succumb to the forces of hatred, bigotry, and self aggrandizement at the expense of the common good. [See Is 42:1-4,6-7, Acts 10:34-38, Mk 1:7-11.]
The baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River made so indelible an impression that it is described in all four gospels, something of a rarity. It is also alluded to in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles appointed for today and finds mention elsewhere in that work . Mark’s description, the oldest of all, skips the dialogue between Jesus and John and cuts to the point, the divine testimony of Jesus’ identity. It is not evident whether Mark is referring to a vision John had or if only Jesus saw the sky opened and the Holy Spirit descending “like a dove” on (or over) Jesus. John’s gospel makes it clear: “John [the Baptizer] bore witness, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him” [John 1:32]. But Mark tells us that the Voice, also heard in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, is to Jesus himself: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” [Mark 1:11]. You are my son…
Here, the stirring words of Isaiah find their application and fulfilment: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations”:
“I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness” [Is 42:1, 6-7].
The gospels testify that it is at his baptism that Jesus is revealed as the Messiah, the ‘Christ’ — words which mean in both Hebrew and Greek “the anointed one.” In Jewish tradition, the Messiah was anointed to identify him as the one through whom God would save the Chosen People. And that is also why every new Christian is anointed with holy oil when baptized. A Voice may not come from heaven, but each is recognized and proclaimed as God’s very child.
At first glance today’s second reading doesn’t seem to have much to do with all this – it is part of the story of the first non-Jewish converts to Christ, the Roman centurion Cornelius and his family and household. But it is very relevant at this moment, especially that wonderful saying, “God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him” [Acts 10:34-35. See 1 Cor 12:12-14 and Gal 3:27-29]. Peter has just realized that no one is to be refused baptism — everyone is called to Christ. And so the great door of salvation was thrown open to all peoples everywhere and forever.
Peter also recalls that it was after Jesus’ baptism that he began his saving work – “…God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; … he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him” [Acts 10:38]. And so it is with those called to be one in Christ Jesus: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” [Rom 6:3-4].
The Baptism of Jesus coveys a message of resolute hope in the midst of whatever catastrophes life may throw in our path. Democracy may be shaken to its foundations, but so long as people of faith and good will hold fast, “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Today’s celebration is one of the oldest in the Christian tradition. In Ireland it is traditionally called Nollaig na mBan, “the Women’s Christmas,” sometimes “Little Christmas,” or even the Feast of the Three Kings, and in an English tradition “The Twelfth Day of Christmas,” complete with twelve drummers drumming, eleven pipers piping, and all the rest. It marks the end of the Christmas festival. It is a celebration of light and glory. Whatever we call it, in these dark times, the Epiphany shines like a bright light still burning in the night. I am reminded of Jerry Hermon’s wonderful song from Auntie Mame,
…we need a little Christmas, right this very minute
Candles in the window, carols at the spinet
And we need a little Christmas, right this very minute
We need a little Christmas now…
Of course, Mame was singing about Christmas itself, but it still fits well. In this year of so much confusion, sickness, suffering and death,
…I’ve grown a little leaner, grown a little colder
Grown a little sadder, grown a little older
And I need a little angel sitting on my shoulder
I need a little Christmas now…
‘Epiphany’ comes from the Greek word for “manifestation” or “sudden appearance.” We still use it to describe an unexpected inspiration. But THE Epiphany is a feast of the Lord that summarizes just about everything. From ancient times, Christians celebrated in one grand festival the manifestation of God’s saving grace to the Magi, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, and the miracle of the Wedding Feast at Cana. Each progressively and surprisingly revealed God’s plan for the salvation of the world.
The first reading from the Book of Isaiah sets the tone with its rhapsodic celebration of light and glory and adds a touch of royalty that will later get
attached to the Magi, abetted by Psalm 72, our responsorial song. It’s all about the salvation of the Gentiles, the non-Jews who had seemed barred from God’s favor. It’s about inclusiveness in today’s terms. [See Is 60:1-6, Eph 3:2-3a,5-6, and Matt 2:1-12]
The letter to the Christians of Ephesus, from which we take our second reading, spells it out explicitly: “the Gentiles are now co-heirs with the Jews, members of the same body and sharers of the promise through the preaching of the Good News” [Eph 3:6]. Matthew’s version takes the form of a wonderful story of revelation, desperation, and salvation.
The gospel reading focuses our attention on the sudden appearance of the magoi, mysterious strangers, star-gazing Gentiles most likely from Persia, who come to Jerusalem seeking the new-born King of the Jews. Christians have always wondered who they were. Or even if they really existed at all, despite some relics in the Cathedral of Cologne and those wonderful names, Caspar (or Gizbar), Melchior , and Balthazar. (Or in the Ethiopian Church, Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater. Take your pick.) Perhaps they are only characters in a story Matthew uses to make a point. Perhaps he was thinking of the passage from Isaiah we just heard. He doesn’t say.
One thing is clear: they three kings of Orient weren’t. The crowns, number, and names come much later, when kings no longer persecuted Christians and Christianity itself had become an imperial religion. They could have been Zoroastrian priests from Persia, these Maghdim as they were called, and God only knows how many of them came looking for the King of the Jews. The three gifts they brought, borrowed by Matthew from the ancient scriptural sources, could have accompanied as many as a dozen visitors, as related in some traditions. In makes sense, for belief in a universal redeemer was part of Zoroastrian religion at that time, which held that after the appearance on earth of a virgin-born savior, God would triumph over evil. Not perhaps by chance the birthday of Mithras, a semi-divine figure of this eastern religion greatly favored by the Roman military, was celebrated on December 25th. He was, incidentally, said to have been born in a cave.
And so, after worshipping the child and leaving their gifts, these mysterious strangers pass out of sight, having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, who was planning on murdering the child and most likely them as well. Their gifts, like their quest for the King of the Jews, point us ahead, however, to other anointings, other searches for the King of the Jews, and a final dream in Matthew’s gospel, that of a Roman wife who warns her husband, sitting in judgment, not to have anything to do with the man called Jesus then on trial for his life [Mat 27:19] .
Now, however, we are left with the Magoi and their gifts. What do they tell us about this strange little king who was not a king and his plan for us all?
In light of the kind of gifts usually exchanged on Christmas today, what the Magoi didn’t bring was as important as what they did bring. No toys, clothing, food, liquor, tools, or even weapons — after all, Herod was fully capable of slaughtering children as well as adults. What they brought wasn’t necessary, wasn’t big, and wasn’t even useful — except, perhaps, for the gold. What they brought represented lasting value and precious fragrance. Gold (chrysos), it was held, stands for eternal worth, because it never tarnishes and never loses its value. Frankincense (Libanon), which means pure incense, was used in the temple as a sacrificial offering. And myrrh (Smyrna) is a resin gum often made into an oil used in medicine, perfume, and incense. These are not so much costly as priceless gifts — appropriate as gestures of homage, love, and reverence — odd gifts, fit only for a king. Or a god.
The Magoi eventually found what they were looking for, Matthew tells us, in a house, probably a very ordinary house. But the Holy Family who lived there were about to become homeless refugees and the Magoi vanish into the mists of time.
So who are these representative Gentiles looking for the meaning of life, the strangers and outsiders brought into the realm of God’s saving love? We are, of course. And where do we look for the King not only of the Jews, but of all humanity? Among the rich and powerful? Or will we find him among the poor, the outcast, the homeless, refugees, and the oppressed? And what gifts do we bring him today?