Today’s readings are about transformations. Some symbolically involve animals, such as fish and sheep, and the great surprise in store for the visionary of Patmos when he is taken into heaven to see the Lion of Judah. Others concern people — mainly disciples and martyrs. In all of them, we are challenged to consider what it takes to witness to Jesus.
There’s something worth noting in the first readings – the repetition of the word “name” in the Acts of Apostles and Psalm 30. Naming is an important biblical motif – a name not only
signifies someone, but invokes their power and presence. But it especially establishes their identity, it tells us not only who they are, but what they are – from the naming of our first parents in the Garden of Eden, to the mysterious “new name” endowed on his faithful witnesses by the Lamb of God in the Book of Revelation [Rev 2:17]. When Jesus changed the names of Simon bar Jonah and Saul of Tarsus to Peter (“petros,” rock, ] and Paul, he not only changed the men, he changed history.
To write or even speak the name of the Holy One of Israel in late Judaism was forbidden. “Lord” [Adonai] was substituted. But for even the earliest Christians, to call upon the name of Jesus is to find salvation – it is to call upon Jesus himself, his person, presence, and power, as we find in the first five chapters of the Acts of the Apostles in particular and in astonishing claims in later writings: “be it known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by him this man is standing before you well” [Acts 4:10. See Eph 1:21 and Phil 2:9-10].
Today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles shows Peter and John being threatened by the Sanhedrin for preaching about Jesus, “the Name.” This time, they were saved from a good beating by the intervention of Paul’s teacher, Gamaliel [Acts 5:42, 22:3], but they still rejoiced, as Luke says, that they had been judged worthy of ill-treatment for the sake of Jesus’ name. In time, they would suffer far more, and at least in Peter’s case, as Jesus predicts in John’s gospel, he would be led to his death for shepherding the people of God.
The second reading continues the great cosmic liturgy of the Book of Revelation. The visionary has been promised that he will see the Lion of Judah — God’s fierce war champion [Rev 5:5]. But what he encounters is a small Lamb, standing but also marked by slaughter. This Lion is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and is thus worthy “to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” At this early moment in Christian history, Jesus is already portrayed as the King of Martyrs as well as the Lord of Lords.
The Gospel takes us to the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus appears to the disciples for the third time, as John is careful to note at the end. And he shifts our attention to fish and sheep.
Fish appear several times in John’s Easter stories, although it is Luke who mentions that Jesus actually took a piece of fish from the disciples and ate it to show that he was not a ghost [Luke 24:41-43]. Since Peter was a fisherman, and so were Andrew, James, John, and some of the others, the prevalence of fish is not too surprising. Part of the imagery here reflects the great change in Peter’s life. Having already made him a rock and a gatekeeper, Jesus now makes Peter a shepherd. But before we give up on the fish story, it’s interesting to consider the number of fish the other disciples caught — “a hundred and fifty-three of them,” John carefully informs us, “and although there were so many, the net was not torn” [John 21:11].
As you might imagine, John is having a little fun with us. Scripture scholars say that at the time he was writing, there were 153 known species of fish — 26 of which lived in the Sea of Galilee. So these fish may have represented for John all the fish in the world — and not just fish, but people. For the Disciples are now fishers of men and women — all of them. Every last one is supposed to be netted. A very big order.
In Matthew’s gospel, we hear Jesus say “the kingdom of heaven is like a net which was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind…” [Matt 13: 47]. For his part, Luke tells the same story that John has here, but he places it very early in Jesus’ ministry. After the miraculous catch, Peter, Andrew, James and John all leave their nets and boats, and perhaps even the fish, to follow Jesus, who has told them, “henceforth you will be catching men” [Luke 5: 3-11 ]. John probably had this tradition in mind, but he places the story after the resurrection, just before Jesus’ commission to Peter, shifting the image from fishing to shepherding.
Not only does Jesus want all people everywhere to become his flock, his “catch,” he puts Peter in charge. The Big Fisherman is about to become the Shepherd of the Kingdom of God. Then Jesus questions Peter, challenging him three times to affirm his love, undoing the three denials in the chief priest’s courtyard. But Jesus he also promises Peter that his commission will end in martyrdom, when he would stretch out his arms to be crucified like his Lord.
For someone to devote their life, their whole heart, soul, and strength to preaching the good news of Jesus to an indifferent and sometimes hostile world, doesn’t necessarily lead to a dramatic and bloody death like that of Peter and hundreds of thousands of martyrs up to present times. It can, of course. For us today, it is more likely to end in the little daily martyrdom of ridicule, frustration, and plain hard work as a parent, a teacher, a parish administrator, a student, an office worker, a soldier, immigrant, or homeless person. Or for that matter, married couples, families, and just about all of the rest of us. At some point in coming years we will be commemorating the Martyrs of Ukraine.
The main point is that there is room for us all, and whatever it takes, whatever it costs, it’s worth it. And in the end the kingdom of heaven is best described in the words of the Book of Revelation as the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. Heaven is more like a wedding banquet than a harp festival. And weddings, all of them, should be a sign and symbol for us of that heavenly banquet, where all are invited, all are welcome.
Today is the Feast of the Resurrection for millions of Orthodox Christians throughout the world, from the splendid cathedrals of Moscow to the great churches of Greece, the basilicas of Eastern Europe and the Americas, and the subway tunnels and basements of Ukraine. The tragedy of the Russian invasion of that country seems more like an endless Good Friday than a joyous Easter, but despite the horrors of war, Ukrainian Christians struggle to celebrate their faith in the Risen Christ. It is not without sad irony that for Western Catholics this is also known as Divine Mercy Sunday. It is about that mercy that “falls like the gentle rain from heaven.”
Various translations have been offered for the memorable phrase that we have heard repeated in today’s responsorial psalm “God’s mercy endures forever.” The Hebrew has “hesed,” which is often rendered as “loving kindness,” “compassion,” “clemency,” or more traditionally “mercy.” It encompasses all of them [Ps 118. See also Ps 136, where the same verse is repeated as a choral response 25 times]. The English word “mercy” that comes from it especially points to kindness, forgiveness, and benevolence. “Merciful” is one of the oldest titles for God in Judaism, Christianity, and especially Islam, in which a favorite name for God is Al-Rahman, “God the Merciful.” In the Greek New Testament, it is rendered by “eleos,” which also connotes the divine quality of compassion and pity and once even the name of a goddess who was “characteristically kind, compassionate and gentle. She gives succor to all who ask for it. She is described as ‘among all the gods the most useful to human life in all its vicissitude’” [Wikipedia].
“Mercy” and its cognates appear almost 300 times in scripture. In Latin translations, we find “misericordia,” which contains the words for “pity” and “heart.” Not by chance, lots of hospitals are called “Mercy” for that reason. In the gospel accounts, when lepers and blind people and desperate mothers and soldiers and dying thieves encounter Jesus, what they usually beg for is mercy.
Mercy was a favorite name for girls and women in England and the American colonies, right up to the 19th century. And in Spanish-speaking communities “Mercedes” remains a very popular name. Conversely, to be known as “merciless” was a frightful insult, especially in wartime.
When in the year 2000 Pope John Paul II made this “Divine Mercy Sunday,” replacing the old “Low Sunday,” a title hardly anybody understood anyway, he picked the appropriate occasion. Today’s readings portray the divine clemency and kindness in dramatic fashion – the compassion that led the early disciples of Jesus to heal the sick, to comfort the bereaved and poverty-stricken, with often astonishing results as desperate throngs followed them even into the Temple. Even the often harrowing (and misunderstood) Book of Revelation begins with the refrain found over and over in scripture, “There is nothing to fear.”
In the gospel account of the confrontation between the risen Jesus and the skeptical disciple Thomas, there is no recrimination, not a hint of censure, but an invitation and forgiveness. Not by chance does John follow up the story of Thomas with the commission first of all to forgive sins.
It was because of the compassion, care, love, and forgiveness of God shown in Jesus and realized so clearly in his death and resurrection that this Sunday was a very good choice to remind us of divine mercy – God’s and ours. For mercy, however we define it, is also a human virtue and an expected attitude of mind and heart that signs all those who hear the Word of God and keep it.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. …You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. [Matthew 5: 43 – 48] For Jesus God’s perfect holiness is revealed by treating everyone with the same measureless compassion, even the wicked and unjust. And so is ours.
But true and lasting Faith comes through hearing the word of God with a heart open to good news. It may need to be a heart bruised and even crushed by the world’s cares and assaults, but it is a heart in which compassion, forgiveness, and kindness dwell and where the peace that only Christ can give has found its truest home. It is the heart of mercy.
The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.
[The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene I]
Today Vladimir Putin went to church and blessed himself with the sign of the cross. Let us pray for the peace of Ukraine and for Putin, that the tears of divine compassion may enter his heart and those of his followers.
Now with the fifth Sunday of our Lenten pilgrimage at hand, the goal of the journey approaches even closer. Today we are bidden by the word of God to consider what lies ahead, not in the past, to fix our eyes on the prize. The great mystery of salvation is about to unfold. But the temptation to look away, to rest our tired eyes and minds like the Disciples of Jesus on the mountain of Transfiguration or in the Garden of Gethsemane, or just to look back, remains great.
We are quickly, perhaps too easily distracted by the events of the day, whether terrible and disheartening such as the conflict in Ukraine or trivial episodes such as the fracas at the Oscar Awards, which has received at least as much attention in the news outlets this week. Wages, prices and the inflationary spiral grab notice as such things do periodically. Political engines are roaring more ominously than usual. The brackets of “March Madness” are captivating. Sudden and violent shifts in weather concern us for the moment, appropriately enough as have so easily forgotten the climate changes we continue to create by our wasteful misuse of the earth’s bounty. It is not easy in the midst of the clamor to focus on something so familiar as Easter.
The readings for today may seem oddly disparate in that regard, except for a significant theme that appears in each, call it a reminder.
In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah recalls the generous mercy of God, who prepared a path in the mighty waters of the sea for the people, an invocation of the Exodus. He insists, however,
“Remember not the events of the past,
the things of long ago consider not.
See, I am doing something new!” [Isaiah 43:18-19].
Look ahead, not behind.
In his letter to the Christians at Philippi, Paul describes the urgency which impels him to devote all his energy to the preaching of the Gospel, spurred ever onward by his faith in the Resurrection and eager to conform himself ever more closely to the pattern of Jesus’ life and death. “Thus do I hope that I may arrive at resurrection from the dead” [Phil. 3:10-11].
Like Isaiah, Pauls’ gaze is riveted on what lies ahead, not the events of the past: “I give no thought to what lies behind but push on to what lies ahead” [Phil. 3:13-14].
At first glance, the story from John’s gospel seems less focused on the theme we see in the readings from Isaiah and St. Paul. It is one of the significant accounts that center on Jesus’ relation with seven remarkable women. It prefaces a much longer and crucial passage from Jesus’ instruction in the Temple, which ends with his denunciation by the Pharisees and Scribes and an attempt to stone him as they would have the woman “caught in adultery” [John 8:58].
The hypocrisy of her accusers is portrayed in dramatic fashion, but it is what occurs after her accusers slink away in shame and confusion that connects this passage to those of the other readings. Apparently, the woman had a reputation as a sinner, possibly being a prostitute but clearly one involved in adultery. The penalty is listed in Leviticus 20:10, which stipulates that both parties were liable to suffer death, although stoning, the usual method of execution, is not mentioned. What seems evident in this case is that the other party, the male, has been let off, perhaps by paying a penalty price, which seems to have been possible for those with the means. That much hasn’t changed greatly in the modern world, usually abetted by well-paid law firms.
The woman is only a pawn. Jesus perceives that a trap has been set but he evades it by exposing the hypocrisy of the leaders of the crowd, leaving only himself and the woman cowering at his feet. But far from condemning or even chastising her for her sin, he bids her to go forward, to look toward a future made possible by mercy and forgiveness. “Go, and sin no more.” Prior to this caution, what he says is even more important for us as Lent draws to its climax: “Neither do I condemn you.”
That surely is the message of Lent as we approach the Feast of the Resurrection. What else could repentance be about?
The Episcopalian communion observes Transfiguration Sunday just before the beginning of Lent, while Catholics and others commemorate it today as a prelude to the great Lenten mysteries. The liturgical Feast of the Transfiguration has been celebrated on August 6th since the fourth century, but it is recalled here as fitting overture to the great drama of redemption that is about to unfold. Such an observance might seem irrelevant in view of the catastrophe facing the Ukrainian people today, but that is far from the truth.
In each of the synoptic gospels in which the Transfiguration is described, it is placed immediately after Jesus’ first prediction of his passion and death. To make the point sharper, Luke tells us that the conversation witnessed among Jesus, Moses, and Elijah concerns the departure, “exodus” is the telling word used, that he would fulfill in Jerusalem. And as Jesus and the disciples descend the mountain, Jesus warns them not to tell anyone of the vision they had seen, which they did not yet understand, until “the Son of Man is raised from the dead” [Matt 17:9]. Luke says simply that they told no one what they had witnessed.
The “theophany,” or manifestation of divine presence on the Mountain recalls the voice heard at Jesus’ baptism – “This is my beloved Son, listen to him” [Luke 3:22. 9:35]. Hearing the voice of God figures also in the first reading on all three Sundays of the liturgical year in the story of God’s covenant with Abraham. The passages from Matthew and Mark focus on the story of the near-sacrifice of Abraham’s beloved son, Isaac. This year, in Luke’s gospel, we recall the first great covenant God makes with Abraham, a bond ratified by a dramatic sacrifice. In both accounts, Abraham is promised not only a land flowing with milk and honey, but posterity as numerous as the stars in the night sky. Life from death. As Paul wrote to his fledgling church in Corinth, “Death is swallowed up in victory” [1 Cor 15:54], a final Transfiguration when, as we also heard in the second reading for today, Christ “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him also to subject all things to himself” [Phil 3:21].
The Ancient Covenant had been first enacted in darkness and at night in the midst of slain animals, blazing fire, and the voice of God. Now the Light of Glory shines through and from Jesus between living human witnesses that enacts a new covenant promise, the fulfilment of all the promises. Here, Moses and Elijah are not merely figures of the Law and the Prophets, but messengers, evangelists who presage the Messianic Reign of God.
Jesus is about to fulfill the ancient covenant and lead humanity into a land of promise beyond all expectation. But he would do this by emptying himself, and here is the connection with the Epistle to the Philippians. Jesus was about to suffer and die and so enter into his glory. For as he knew, death was waiting for him in Jerusalem, but death that would end in victory.
As the world waits with dread anticipation the outcome of the horrendous assault on Ukraine by Russian military might, the promise that death is not final, that justification and ultimate vindication are not idle dreams may give some sense of hope to the innocent children, women, and men who will perish in this terrible folly and the millions more being driven from their homes and country. For the rest of us, to witness their agony at the beginning of the Lenten season is an excruciating reminder that suffering and death all-too often precede the fulfilment of promise. Please support and pray for the Ukrainian people. May God strengthen their faith in their hour of trial.
In July 1783, after the cessation of war between the American colonies and England, Benjamin Franklin wrote the following to his friend, Sir Joseph Banks,
“I join with you most cordially in rejoicing at the return of peace. I hope it will be lasting, and that mankind will at length, as they call themselves reasonable creatures, have reason and sense enough to settle their differences without cutting throats: for in my opinion there never was a good war, or a bad peace.”
He continued pragmatically but added a lament for human suffering, “What vast additions to the conveniences and comforts of living might mankind have acquired, if the money spent in wars had been employed in works of public utility. What an extension of agriculture even to the tops of our mountains; what rivers rendered navigable, or joined by canals; what bridges, aqueducts, new roads and other public works, edifices and improvements, rendering England a complete paradise, might not have been obtained by spending those millions in doing good which in the last war have been spent in doing mischief! In bringing misery into thousands of families, and destroying the lives of so many thousands of working people who might have performed the useful labor.”1
Later that year, in September, after concluding a peace treaty with England in Paris, Franklin repeated himself in a letter to another old friend, Dr. Josiah Quincy, “We are now Friends with England and with all Mankind. May we never see another War! for in my Opinion there never was a good War, or a bad Peace.”
Franklin was wise and humane. But the peace treaty Franklin labored so diligently to achieve did not last, and wars have continued to plague humanity since then, growing in intensity, waste, and misery. The world is now witnessing what may be the worst possible example of a unjust, destructive, and horrifying war in Ukraine, one that threatens to draw much of the world into even more deadly conflict.
The Russian president has justified the unprovoked and bloody invasion by claiming “neo-Nazis” rule Ukraine, threatening Russia’s security, in addition to pursuing genocide against Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the eastern provinces — charges Ukrainian and Western governments insist are baseless propaganda. It is another Great Lie used to justify violence, destruction, and death in the quest for power.
There were several “lesser” but no less consequential lies when Mr. Putin and other Russian officials repeatedly insisted as late as January 27th that there were no plans to invade or occupy Ukraine, even as tens of thousands of infantry, tanks, and missile-launchers were ringing the much smaller country. Lying is, after all, contagious. In the words of that wise poet, “Oh what a tangled web we weave When first we practice to deceive [Sir Walter Scott, Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field].
Today’s readings, as we conclude the period of “ordinary time” in the Church’s calendar before undertaking the penitential season of Lent, provide a
telling commentary on the sins of speech, call them what you will – lying, prevarication, dissimulation, spin, or “alternate facts.” Even old Aristotle knew well what lying meant: saying that something is true when you know it is false. Lying, moreover is wedded to hypocrisy, doing the very things we denounce others for doing. It was the sin Jesus most frequently railed against.
The first reading, chosen no doubt for its echo in Jesus’ own words, sets the tone:
“… in his conversation is the test of a man. The fruit of a tree shows the care it has had; so too does a man’s speech disclose the bent of his mind” [Sirach 27:5-6].
The words of Jesus about honest speech with which Luke ends today’s gospel passage are preceded, fittingly and characteristically, by a long diatribe about hypocrisy – looking for and proclaiming evidence of malfeasance by others when comfortably overlooking it in our own case, which, after all, is so wonderfully excusable. Or so we wish!
“…each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks”[Luke 6:44-45].
The temptation to lie is perhaps pandemic, which is tragic. More so, the willingness of many to believe the lie. God grant that our hearts and those of all are filled with love, peace, and patience that find utterance in our actions as well as our words. The truth alone can make us free.
[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.
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.
As the days grow shorter before the great feast of the Nativity, it is sometimes hard to be “of good cheer.” Each week seems to bring news of more tragedy and disaster, of political conflict, war and rumors of war, not to mention economic hardship and the spread of contagion. Not much to celebrate — if we’re paying attention at all.
But the Sundays of Advent sound a different tone, one that the world needs right now. Scripture does not deny the sorrows and sufferings of life. But as we see in today’s readings, it offers an alternative to depression, desperation, and despair.
The joyful promise of today’s readings first calls on the prophet Baruch, son of Neriah, according to tradition the prophet Jeremiah’s scribe and a major compiler of the Hebrew scriptures. He appears to have been deported to Egypt with Jeremiah after the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 or 586 BCE. Citing the passage from Isaiah we are so familiar with from its musical citation in Handel’s “Messiah,” Baruch looks forward to the return of the captives to Judah on a great broad highway: “For God has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low and that the ancient valleys and gorges filled to level ground that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God” [Bar 5: 7-9. See Is 40:3-4].
The responsory verses from Psalm 126 continue the theme of the joyful pilgrimage back to Jerusalem after decades of captivity in far-off Babylon, now southern Iraq. The passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Christians at Philippi expresses the same longing as he looks forward to the return of Jesus in glory: “My prayer is that your love may more and more abound…so that with a clear conscience and blameless conduct you may learn to value the things that really matter, up to the very day of Christ” [Phil 1:8-9].
The gospel reading returns to the jubilant prophecy of Isaiah cited by Baruch, as Luke prepares us for his account of the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus himself. It is not only that John’s was a voice crying in the wilderness, but more accurately “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God…” [Is 40:3]. Not only or even especially in the desert, but in the wilderness of our minds and hearts, so that we may “be found rich in the harvest of justice which Jesus Christ has ripened in us,” as Paul has it.
Luke is at pains to identify the moment at which John and then Jesus appear in the real wilderness of the Jordan valley, citing the custom of dating events from the accession of a king or emperor as no common calendar existed. The Emperor Tiberius Caesar, the stepson of Caesar Augustus, reigned from 14 CE until 37 – which would place the public appearance of both John and Jesus in the year 29 CE, which has become the standard by which most events in the Christian scriptures have been dated. That would make Jesus about 33 when he joined John at the Jordan River, the age favored by tradition.
Palestine was not enjoying a particularly peaceful period. The Pax Augustana had given way to a sense of oppression and growing resentment at the Roman occupation. In the preceding years, several revolts had been mercilessly crushed by the Roman army. Taxes were high. Injustice was commonplace. In the midst of the disquiet, John’s message was simple and clear – what was required was to change the way of thinking—”repentance,” a sorry translation of the term “metanoia.” He chose to signify this change of heart and heart by baptism.
Bathing in the famed Jordan River was not uncommon, and ritual baths could be found in towns and villages as well as the city of Jerusalem. Some sects such as the Essenes practiced baptism daily, as a sign of internal purification. John’s practice was different. No longer did those expressing their desire for renewal plunge themselves in the water, but John himself baptized them. After his death by martyrdom, John’s custom of baptizing was continued by his followers, including Jesus’ own disciples. It is the form that is still used today. Luke also points out that John’s baptism was not simply a rite of symbolic purification but led to the forgiveness of sins. It still does.
It is here that Luke turns to the prophecy of Isaiah, the fulfilment of the ancient promise. The pivot-point of the moral and spiritual history of the world has arrived.
In this year of so many sorrows, as the wonderful Feast of the Nativity of Jesus draws near, I am reminded of the splendid song from Jerry Herman’s great musical Mame, in which after losing her fortune in the Wall Street collapse of 1929 the irrepressible Auntie Mame wistfully proclaims, “We need a little Christmas”:
“For I’ve grown a little leaner,
Grown a little colder,
Grown a little sadder,
Grown a little older…”
As we face yet another season of uncertainty, sickness, and conflict, we don’t need more plastic junk under the so-called “holiday tree” or empty variety shows,
“… we need a little music,
Need a little laughter,
Need a little singing
Ringing through the rafter,
And we need a little snappy
‘Happy ever after,’
Need a little Christmas now.
In truth, we need a lot of Christmas. The whole world needs more Christmas, the real Christmas, the celebration of justice, peace, and love, of kindness and benevolence. That’s what Advent is about.
Watching the cottonwood seed tufts floating lazily by on a golden afternoon in rural Ireland, seeing the blossoms on the philadelphus opening and filling the cool evening air with their intoxicating perfume, hearing the faint hum of bees in the background, it is difficult to bear in mind that the planet is in peril – all of it, the trees, flowers, animals, and overhead the brilliant blue sky, and the calm Irish Sea in the distance. That, however, is the fact, however much we wish it were not the case.
This past week, thanks to the amazing if sometimes pesky magic of Zoom, I was able to attend the second Catholic Climate Covenant Conference co-sponsored by Creighton University. In a world that often seems too disinclined to take the increasingly necessary steps to preserve the global environment, the Conference was a truly a beacon of hope.
On this Sunday which focuses our attention on the task of the true shepherd, I would be remiss not to single out the superb opening address by
Cardinal Blaise Cupich of Chicago, who situated the conference theologically and pastorally in the great encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudato Sí. (His address has been printed in its entirely by the National Catholic Reporter on-line. It was well worth reading – more than once: https://www.ncronline.org/news/earthbeat/cardinal-cupich-laudato-si-calls-us-economic-and-spiritual-conversion )
The many sessions with youth leaders in the Catholic environmental movement was especially reassuring. It has been evident from surveys conducted from just before the publication of Laudato Sí until this year that distressingly few priests and deacons tend to address environmental issues in their preaching. Although Pope Francis’ popularity has held steady across denominal lines, if less so among very conservative Catholics, his environmental appeal has taken years to motivate a general positive response even among the clergy. That, however, is changing, as the urgency of the situation becomes ever more manifest. A growing number of dioceses have instituted agencies to promote environmental awareness and action. Grass-roots organizations have grown exponentially, especially among the young people so well represented at the Conference.
If there are grounds for hope in the future, it lies here – in the “next generation.”
The world is blest with a number of leaders like Pope Francis and Cardinal Cupich who are leading the way to a hopeful future, which brings me back to the theme of today’s readings. Both Jeremiah and Jesus lament the poor leadership of the official shepherds of the people, specifically the religious hierarchy. Jesus may have known something about sheep and shepherds, although it is unlikely that he would have encountered many in his experience as a village construction worker and then an iterant preacher and healer. None of his immediate followers were taken from the folds. But even less than Jeremiah here, Jesus is not so much concerned with shepherds, but with their sheep, their followers.
As he will relate in another parable, wayward shepherds not only mislead the sheep, but endanger them. The hills of Palestine were a perilous place to get lost. Wild animals still prowled, and human thieves and thugs were plentiful. Careful and effective leadership requires courage and resourcefulness, a point Jesus will drive home in his parable of the Good Shepherd, the True Leader.
As I become aware at a distance of the disastrous fires in the Pacific Northwest, and the deadly and almost unprecedented rainfall and floods in Germany and Belgium, and other increasing consequences of global climate change, I am convinced that the need for concerted and effective action has never been greater. It is refreshing to be able to bear some good news in that regard.
God is a better gardener than I am, for sure. About fifteen years ago, I planted a Cedar of Lebanon sapling at the corner of the back garden. It took root and grew, and now is vying with the neighboring sycamores, ash trees, and the overbearing cottonwood poplars for a rightful measure of sunshine. A friend in Lebanon, who is trying to bring back these nearly extinct great cedars, places compost pots beneath the branches of the trees he has planted to catch the seeds when the mature cones open. When the seeds sprout, he plants them wherever he can. He is making great strides. In about 700 years, those hundreds of tiny seedlings will once again tower over the sides of Mount Lebanon. That requires patience and trust.
In today’s first reading, Ezekiel likens God to a forester who takes a short cut, snipping off a tender shoot from the crest of a cedar and
tenderly transplanting it to a mountainside in Israel, where Lebanon cedars normally do not grow. But God assures us that it will become a huge, majestic tree, home to all kinds of birds and wildlife. Expect great things, but be patient and trust.
In his parable, Jesus uses a much smaller and seemingly insignificant plant to make the same point, starting with a tiny seed (larger than a chia seed, but that doesn’t grow in Palestine). Carefully watered and tended, the little mustard seed develops into a good-sized shrub, which did happen in his time in the mountain regions. But Jesus is having a little fun with his audience, as he liked to do. His mustard plant will not rival the towering cedar, its frail branches filled with birds and wildlife, but that is not the point.
That would be the character needed for a good gardener or farmer, especially in fairly dry and rocky terrain, as much of Palestine is. Jesus, like Ezekiel and Paul, is referring to trust and patience, the ability to let nature – and nature’s God – work their miracle of life in the right way at the right time. Don’t expect instant success.
Patience is certainly not a virtue much in evidence today. As my venerable old first-grade teacher said, “I want what I want when I want it and I get it.” Sometimes. The waiting is hard. But that is where Paul’s advice to the Greek Christians of Corinth, a bustling port city, comes right to the point: “We walk by faith, not by sight.”
At the moment, world leaders from the seven major economies of the world are meeting on the rocky shores of Cornwall to hammer out policies and programs for dealing with the enormous challenges facing peoples everywhere – the Sars Covid-19 pandemic, which is devastating the poor countries of world, fragile peace accords, and perhaps the greatest challenge ever faced by humankind – a drastic climate change that will continue to disrupt not only economies, but the very existence of hundred of thousands if not millions of animal and plant species, including us.
These challenges will not be met and resolved overnight. But with trust and patience, they can, and must be, and will be resolved, if we only learn the lesson of the mustard seed and the towering Cedars of Lebanon. It will also require some very hard work. But humankind was set on this earth to garden, to tend and nurture Creation [Gen 2:15]. It’s time to get on with it.