[The following is substantially a homily I preached in 2019; there isn’t much I felt needed changing — some things remain constant, despite massive shifts in the world around us…]
There are mysteries in today’s readings. The first and third readings reflect each other mysteriously enough. But there is a further mystery of sorts, the kind that usually intrigues me as I ponder why the Church selected these readings for today. In scripture, a “mystery” is a hidden plan of God, something that stumps us. It might even infuriate us.
The second reading and the gospel follow on from last week and the week before. The mystery begins with the first reading, which is often selected to illuminate themes in the other readings. If I were to give a title to the whole collection, I would name it “The Pains of Prophecy.”
Prophecy and prophets are mentioned in all three readings – Elijah, Elisha, and by his own word, Jesus. Each was marked from birth for the prophetic ministry. But it is Jeremiah who first attracts our attention. And the first mystery has to do with the call of Jeremiah himself, one of the most unlikely of prophets, but a model precisely in view of today’s gospel. In the Book itself, the author goes to some pains to indicate Jeremiah’s family background and the name of his home town, Anathoth, a little village not far from Jerusalem that provides the first of several keys to our prophetic mystery.
Anathoth was an ancient and sacred Phoenician town given to Levites from the tribe of Benjamin during the Hebrew conquest. During the reign of Solomon, it became the refuge of Abíathar the high priest, the last in the family of Eli, which had been under a curse stretching back to the days of the prophet Samuel. Jeremiah might have been an indirect descendent. In any event, it was in troubled Anathoth that Jeremiah reluctantly began his ministry. And there his prophecies quickly met disapproval from his neighbors and kindred, who silenced him and even threatened to kill him. Given the tone of most of Jeremiah’s preaching, it is no wonder.
A few years later Anathoth was sacked by both the Assyrians and the Babylonians and its citizens carted off into captivity. Jeremiah’s warnings to Jerusalem similarly went unheeded. He was arrested, imprisoned, threatened with death, and eventually deported to Egypt, where he presumably died in exile.
Part of the mystery in today’s readings turns on a similar rejection of Jesus. He frequently alluded to the pain of the prophetic career. In today’s gospel, he seems to go out of his way to incur it. Unlike Jeremiah’s message of defeat and destruction, his is one of hope. But like Jeremiah, Jesus is spurned and threatened by angry neighbors and even family members.
His message is clear in all the accounts, as we saw last week. God’s message of salvation is open to all, not merely to the respectable, the honorable, the wealthy, or the well connected, including Jesus’ own blood relatives. Worse, the promise is directed especially to outcasts, beggars, and debtors, even illegal immigrants, who the Bible calls “the resident alien in the land.” The wrong kind of people entirely. Jesus drives home the point by recalling the stories of Elijah and Elisha, both refugees from Israel but merciful toward foreigners, even their oppressors. Then, as my students might say, it gets even more worse. He cites a familiar proverb, “physician heal yourself,” which they were evidently thinking about him.
Moved to fury, they run him out of town and try to shove him over a convenient cliff, a grim foreshadowing of what he will suffer at the hands of the authorities in Jerusalem. But Jesus slips by and goes on to Capernaum. Nazareth itself was undoubtedly overrun by the Roman legions of Vespasian during the suppression of the Galilean Revolt in 67 CE, although like many small towns and villages it may well have surrendered without resistance.
Like Jeremiah, Jesus fulfils the pattern of prophecy by inciting those who should have shown him the greatest love to murderous fury, not by rejecting them, but by reminding them that God’s mercy is complete, impartial, inclusive, and particularly directed at the outcast, the oppressed, the poor, and rejected.
The link between the prophetic pain in the story of Jeremiah and that of Jesus is found in the second reading, which recalls the place of prophecy in the early Christian community, and, I believe, in our own.
Last week we learned that for pastoral reasons Paul ranked the charismatic gifts about which the Corinthians were quarreling, beginning with apostleship and ending with tongues and interpretation. Prophecy stood second, next only to apostleship. He has other lists, and it is not important how consistent he was, even when he introduces other items, such as the understanding of mysteries. For the one thing he is concerned about is love, greater even than faith and hope, and even prophecy.
Paul reminds us that envy, jealousy, and suspicion create the dissension that leads to a breakdown in the community of Love that must seal God’s people. Envy, jealousy, and suspicion inspired the townspeople of Anathoth and Nazareth to reject and even try to kill their own, home-grown prophets. Our normal vision, Paul tells us, is too narrow, too limited, too partial. Even the gifts may fail to overcome this partiality if they are not guided by and eventually superseded by love. Love is the solution of the mystery, of all God’s mysteries.
Now, as Paul says, we see things like a reflection in a bad mirror, partial and distorted, or in his Greek, ainigmatiki, which can also be rendered “mysteriously.” But ultimately, our vision will be clear as well as whole.
The call of prophets takes them on a journey that is difficult and sometimes fatal. I am reminded of so many who not only spoke truth to a hostile power, but sometimes paid for it with their lives, such men as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Oscar Romero, and in my own tradition St. Catherine of Siena. She was not killed for her prophetic preaching, but came very close to it. Unlike many religious leaders, Archbishop Desmond Tutu narrowly escaped assassination by the South African security police only because of his public visibility.
St. Paul, himself a martyr for preaching the gospel, had it right: only faith and hope can sustain a prophet who opposes the evil and treachery of mighty powers. But it is love, perhaps only love, that makes it possible.
To say that we live in fraught times is an understatement, but may be our lot for some time to come for reasons that are often hard to fathom. The crafted visions of the abundant life, free from pain, worry, and disease that we witness daily and nightly interlarded between news reports of calamities, disasters, mayhem, and terror strike a strange counterpoint. There’s more than irony in the proliferation of TV advertising for high-end cars followed by visions of empty lots and desperate salesmen – not to mention would-be consumers. That hundreds of thousands of our citizens (and many abroad) continue to oppose life-saving vaccines as COVID infections, hospitalizations, and deaths continue to overpower our medical facilities staggers the imagination. Today, in the public view, even world-threatening climate change plays a very remote second fiddle to the antics of rogue senators and bowl games. The clock is ticking.
I suppose it has always been like this to some extent – I just can’t recall when.
No doubt the era in which Jesus lived, taught, healed, suffered and died had its own fraughtness. Perhaps we can learn something from all that, even though our readings for today seem oddly disparate. A single verse from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, a continuation from last week’s reading, provides a clue. Before launching into an exhaustive catalog of gifts and ministries, Paul simply states, “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” [1 Cor 12:13].
We’re all in this together and we need each other.
It was something very much like that realization that led the prophet Ezra to summon the remnant who had returned from their exile in Babylon to the wreckage of Jerusalem. Ezra and Nehemiah would soon embark on a heroic effort to rebuild the Temple itself. Here, Ezra assembles the people and, we learn, reads the Book of Deuteronomy to them. It would take more than a few hours to read our present version of 34 chapters, and it is likely that the book was edited and expanded over the centuries. But the heart of the matter was the reading of the Law as it was handed down from the time of Moses centuries earlier.
Here too a long-remembered verse from that remarkable book provides a connection to the gospel account of Jesus’ citation from the Book of Isaiah when he rose to read in his hometown synagogue, apparently for the first time. In Deuteronomy 18:15-18 Moses proclaims,
“A prophet like me will the Lord, your God, raise up for you from among your own kinsmen; to him you shall listen. This is exactly what you requested of the Lord, your God, at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let us not again hear the voice of the Lord, our God, nor see this great fire any more, lest we die.’
“And the Lord said to me, ‘This was well said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kinsmen, and will put my words into his mouth; he shall tell them all that I command him.’”
Nehemiah does not tell us why the people wept when he read to them the book called Devarim (“The Words”). Was it from sheer joy or possibly from remembrance of the ancient promise? One way or another, the prophet instructs them to observe this day with a huge celebration, surely a tall order for a mob of hard-pressed refugees. “Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength!” [Neh 8:10].
Today, many churches through the United States will observe Respect Life Sunday. Others did the same last Sunday, recalling a tradition begun in 1984 when President Reagan designated January 22 to be set aside to celebrate God’s gift of life, and committing ourselves to protect human life at every stage – from conception to natural death. This date was chosen because on this date in 1973 the Supreme Court made abortion legal in all 50 states in the Roe vs Wade decision.
Positions on abortion continue to divide US citizens, perhaps more than ever and sometimes violently as the 50th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade nears and the Supreme Court appears poised to reverse the 1973 decision. The issues are grave, to say the least.
In the debate, and hopefully the decision, all the victims of unwanted pregnancy should be considered and held close, especially the very poor and defenseless. Nor should we forget those forced to undergo abortion against their will. Many years ago, I said this and I don’t think I would change it today:
“During the worst period of Communist party oppressiveness in China, the government ordered that a deformed fetus be aborted and that the mentally retarded could marry only if they were first sterilized. All pregnant women had to undergo mandatory pre-natal examinations. If tests indicate possible deformity or other problematic conditions, abortion ensued as a matter of course. Given the number of those under state care, the toll of that decision probably exceeded 10 million human lives annually.
“At almost the same time, I became aware of new treatments for children born with Down’s syndrome, which assist many in developing faculties and activities once considered forever beyond their ability. But even in the case of children who are severely retarded, as well as those born with birth defects, parents have often told me that the love of and for these poor ones have come to be the living heart of their lives. Henri Nouwen discovered that personally by working with developmentally challenged people in the L’Arche community in Canada. The revelation transformed his life.
“One of the most amazing scholars I met during my teaching years at Oxford University was a woman born without arms or legs who traveled the narrow, cobbled streets in a powered wheelchair. She tutored, lectured, and engaged in normal faculty activities. Such instances could be multiplied many times. The point is simple; God’s grace is poured out abundantly, perhaps more abundantly, through those who are accounted of little worth and is magnified by the compassion with which we address their needs.
“Compassion for the poor and suffering remains the bottom line of all world religions. This is certainly one of the lessons that God teaches us in today’s readings. We need each other. For we are all one in Christ’s body. And we are reminded today that each moment presents a new opportunity to build up that body, to become the whole Christ, to realize the unity of the Spirit in the gifts God has showered upon us to share.”
Pro Choice and Pro Life must ultimately mean the same thing, as we also learn from that ancient book: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the Lord, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him” [Deut 30:19-20].
At first glance, today’s readings seem to have little if any connection. The gospel account of the wedding feast at Cana continues the celebrations of the Epiphany, for it was traditionally commemorated on that occasion with the visit of the Magi and Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan – celebrations extended into the following weeks – all manifestations of the coming of the Savior of the World.
The story of the wedding feast at Cana appears nowhere else in the New Testament. It is completely unknown to
the synoptic tradition, but there may be reason to accord it historical significance because one of the central figures is associated in the Gospel of John in importantly distinctive ways: Jesus’ mother. The Beloved Disciple knew her well, as we learn from a later, and much sadder moment in their lives – the crucifixion of her son [John 19:26-27].
Here, however, we find the first of Jesus’ miracles according to the gospel of John at a party, a wedding feast attended by Jesus and his disciples, perhaps unannounced, and his mom, who seems to have been a significant guest, most likely well-known to the families. When the wine runs out, she is the first to learn of it and turns to her son. After some hesitation, Jesus does what he’s told to do by his mom. Amazingly so.
“Now there were six stone water jars there for Jewish ceremonial washings, each holding twenty to thirty gallons” [John 2:6].
At 25 gallons per jar, according to modern standards, 150 gallons would equal about one and a half bathtubs full or 750 bottles of choice red wine. That would come to roughly 3000 glasses of wine or, for a party of 100 guests, about 30 glasses apiece. As Palestinian wedding feasts could last up to three or four days, that would not be an astronomical number, but is a considerable amount, given that the bridegroom had already provided wine for his guests and had run out, possibly because of the extra guests invited by Jesus’ mother. We can assume that she was well known to the bride and groom and may have been sufficiently in charge to tell the servants what to do.
In any case, the additional wine was not only a surprise but a shockingly good vintage. Between them, Jesus and his mom had spared the young couple and their families considerable embarrassment and gave a wonderful demonstration that God loves abundance. It was a fitting start to a mission of grace and generosity. And, it should be added, anonymous generosity.
Perhaps the other readings are not so unrelated at it seems. There is an obvious link in the culminating verse of the reading from Isaiah. But the significance of this passage lies much more deeply embedded in the joyful promise by a gracious God:
“Nations shall behold your vindication, and all kings your glory;
You shall be called by a new name pronounced by the mouth of the Lord.
You shall be a glorious crown in the hand of the Lord, a royal diadem held by your God.
No more shall men call you “Forsaken,” or your land “Desolate,”
But you shall be called “My Delight,” and your land “Espoused.”
For the Lord delights in you, and makes your land his spouse.
As a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you;
And as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride so shall your God rejoice in you” [Isaiah 62:2-5].
Graciousness and abundance — a theme amplified by St. Paul in his letter to the Christian in Corinth. After listing a number of the gifts bestowed on the infant church in its members, he sums it up in a brief observation: “it is one and the same Spirit who produces all these gifts, distributing them to each as he will” [1 Cor 12:11].
Tomorrow citizens of the United States and many more throughout the world will mark the birthday of one of the most gifted of ministers of modern times, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. This celebration should be the occasion of some deep soul-searching at this time in our nation’s history, when the freedom, inclusion, and equal justice he dreamed of and fought for seem to be once more in peril not so much by external enemies as from within. Whether because of the ravages of poverty and unequal access to medical aid in the midst of a global pandemic, or because of the perceived threat to powerful interests, people of color and other minorities have become targets of suppression not seen in this country for generations.
The challenge of Isaiah could well have been uttered by King himself and once again bears significantly on the future of freedom and justice everywhere:
“…I will not be silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet, until her vindication shines forth like the dawn and her victory like a burning torch” [Is 62:1].
May the witness of Dr. King help lead us to confront the threats to full and unfettered participation in our collective efforts to secure the common good and lead to a greater resolve “That 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” [Abraham Lincoln].
Another year has sped by, or it seems so to those who are of a certain age. For the young, it most likely dragged on as the world went through yet another cycle of the shape-shifting coronavirus first called Covid-19. Social unrest and unprecedented natural disasters followed suit. In all, 2021 was not a year of public peace and social well-being, nor for most of the world’s people, of prosperity.
We now have come around in the Church’s year to the commemoration of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The joyful feasts of Christmastide are now hopeful memories, as the season of Christmastide ends with evening prayer tonight. Today we already sense urgency in the call for renewal of mind and heart. The gospels themselves move in a flash from the infancy narratives to the public manifestation of Jesus as the Promised One decades later. We know nothing about his formative years in Nazareth, although we can infer a great deal from what his message was when he began to preach.
All four gospels point to the manifestation of Jesus as prophet and messiah at the moment he was baptized by John in the Jordan. All testify that Jesus experienced an astonishing revelation, one shared by John the Baptist and apparently some of those gathered on the banks of the river awaiting their turn to be plunged into the water of redemption. Mark, Matthew, and Luke report a voice avowing “You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased,” a clear reference to the passage from Isaiah we heard in the first reading: “Behold 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” [Isaiah 42:1]. Here, however, the voice is addressing Jesus himself. And all four gospels note the descent of the dove, which John adds “remained on him,” the sign he had been given earlier [John 1:32].
In the second reading, which Luke places very early in the history of the movement that would become the Christian church, Peter alludes to this when he announces to the houseful of Cornelius, the Roman centurion, who was already a proselyte, “how God anointed [Jesus] with the Holy Spirit and Power” [Acts 10:3]. And, the account continues, “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” [Acts 10:44-48].
The fire on the earth had begun to spread.
In Jewish tradition, the Messiah was anointed with sacred oils to confirm 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, a visitation by a dove is unlikely, but each is recognized and proclaimed as God’s very child, called in the same way to save the world with the gifts we have received. St. Paul would insist, “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].
As St. Gregory of Nyssa so beautifully preached, “Jesus rises from the waters; the world rises with him.”
“A voice bears witness to him from heaven, his place of origin. The Spirit descends in bodily form like the dove that so long ago announced the ending of the flood and so gives honor to the body that is one with God.
“Today let us do honor to Christ’s baptism and celebrate this feast in holiness. Be cleansed entirely and continue to be cleansed. Nothing gives such pleasure God as the conversion and salvation of men, for whom his every word and every revelation exist. He wants you to become a living force for all mankind, lights shining the world” [Sermon 39 ‘in Sancta Lumina,’ PG 36, 350-59].
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 already and always at work in the world. We do not have to succumb to the forces of hatred, bigotry, and self aggrandizement at the expense of the common good. The grace of God is forever at hand.
A new year has dawned. Like a venerable Christmas stocking, the “old year” was stuffed with blessings, but they tend to be forgotten like auld acquaintance in the frosty light of the multiple misfortunes and mishaps that have seemed to strike every month, from flood and tempest, to wildfires, the latest variation in the Covid-19 pandemic, and what seems an endless cycle of school shootings. Americans will soon recall in graphic detail the horrific event of last January 6th and pray that we will never see another like it. The celebration of the Christmas feasts could hardly come at a more opportune moment.
They have piled on this year – in just over a week Christmas itself, then the Feast of the Holy Family, New Years (The Solemn Feast of the Virgin Mary), and today, the Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord. Each has its way of reminding us that damage things as we might, the levers of history do not rest solely in human hands. Père Lacordaire said it well: “All I know of tomorrow is that Providence will rise before the sun.”
We usually associate the Visit of the Magi with today’s celebration, traditionally observed on January 6th, the twelfth day of Christmastide. But from very early times, the Church commemorated three different events — the account of the homage given to the infant Jesus, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, and the Wedding Feast at Cana. Each was seen as a manifestation of God’s presence in Jesus. Each revealed a facet of God’s plan to save humankind – primarily from itself.
Today the Magi are the primary focus of attention — these mysterious strangers, outsiders from the East. From the earliest times, Christians have wondered who they were. One thing is certain: they three kings of Orient weren’t. The
title is linked to the Persian priests, the Maghdim (or ‘Magoi’) of the cult of Mithra, an offshoot of Zoroastrianism. There were in fact other Magi around Palestine at the time – two are mentioned in the New Testament: Elymas and Simon [see Acts 13:8 and 8:9-13]. Neither come off well. The title ‘magus’ itself is sometimes (erroneously) translated as “Magician.” But Magi were real, and they did study the stars.
Like the ox and ass invariably added to scenes of the Nativity, the crowns and gowns, camels, and slaves owe everything to later Christians’ imagination. The royal aspect, like the gifts — not to mention the ox and ass — are meaningful adornments supplied either by tradition or by Matthew himself based on verses from Hebrew scripture: Isaiah 60:6, Psalm 72:10-11, and for the ox and ass, Isaiah 1:3. Matthew’s gospel is in fact the only source for the story of the Magi, including the grim role played by Herod the Great, the Massacre of the Innocents, and the flight to Egypt. No historical records back up any aspect of the dramatic story, which may simply have been Matthew’s very Jewish way of making his case using scriptural allusions – Jesus is called out of Egypt as the new Moses. Otherwise, it was a very roundabout way for the evangelist to get the Holy Family from Bethlehem to Nazareth. Luke doesn’t even try.
After worshipping the child and leaving their mysterious gifts, the Magi pass out of sight. But what do they and their gifts tell us about this strange little king who was not a king and his plan for us?
What the Magi 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, it is said, stands for eternal worth, because it never tarnishes and never loses its value. Frankincense, which means pure incense, was used in the temple as a sacrificial offering to God. Myrrh is a resin gum often made into an oil used in medicine, perfume, and incense. These are rich gifts, not so much costly as priceless — for they are only appropriate as gestures of homage, love, and reverence — odd gifts, fit only for a king. Or a god.
But these were also dangerous offerings. The Magi very nearly paid for their visit with their lives, and the Holy Innocents certainly did. For these Persian star-gazers first looked for the King of the Jews where a king was likely to be found: in a palace. Palaces are dangerous places. The Magi eventually found what they were looking for, Matthew tells us, in a house, probably a very ordinary house, even a temporary lodging place. For Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus were about to become homeless refugees.
So who are the Magi, these representative Gentiles looking for the meaning of life? We are, of course, strangers and outsiders now brought into the realm of God’s saving love. And where do we look for the King not only of the Jews, but of all humanity? Among the rich and powerful? Or among the poor, the outcast, the homeless and oppressed? And what gifts do we bring?
If, like those first Magi, we look in the wrong place, we may not lose our lives, but we could lose more than our way. We could lose our souls if the gifts we bring reveal a real lack of insight into the mystery continually opening before us: “when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” [Mat 5:23-24].
There hasn’t been much talk this year about New Year’s Resolutions. But there is still more than enough time to pledge ourselves to a better, greener, more just and freer world, one in which the empty promises of ever-expanding commercialism are displaced by concern for the welfare of the planet and all its myriad living creatures. That would be a gift worth giving!
Like the Magi in Matthew’s gospel, let us search for the place God has chosen to be found, not just where we think God ought to be. Let us pray for the grace to recognize Christ where he is still in hiding, and the wisdom to use our gifts in his service, to extend his gospel of truth and freedom, peace and justice and love especially to those who most need to hear it.