In today’s first and third readings, Qoheleth and Jesus excoriate the vain quest for false values.
They tell us different ways how the endless pursuit of wealth, pleasure, and power is, in the end, both self-defeating and soul-killing. Even the quest for bare necessities and security can blind people to the true and lasting values life has to offer. It is especially heart-wrenching to view the grief and suffering of ordinary people whose modest homes and life savings are wiped out in the sudden fury of fire flood, and warfare. To hear them speaking about going on, resisting the forces of greed and violence is truly a sign of hope. There is a better way.
Similarly, although just as forcefully, the reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians condemns the folly of vain and often self-destructive goals. But he also extols the true values of a life worth living. “Set your hearts on the higher things.”
In many respects the world today is becoming more difficult to navigate, not least because of the disasters people themselves create. The threat and actual consequences of global climate change and the peril of war have never been so pressing, not least in an era of economic downturn and new challenges to global health.
The choices we have to make in the near future will be difficult, but necessary on a scale never witnessed before. The fate of the world now lies in our hands as it never has before. Clarifying our values and resolutely pursuing life-affirming goals is now the only way forward.
Occasionally, I read in the papers an account of someone who has experienced tragedy in their life and announces that even if they still believe in God, they no longer pray. They simply no longer feel that there is any point to it. No one is listening and no one is coming to help. In contrast to the bitter resignation of those deeply wounded by terrible events, especially intended hurt spurred on by malice and hatred, I have been deeply impressed by the faith of the people of Ukraine, who even in the midst of pitiless bombardment, pray and when possible proclaim their faith in public worship.
I am reminded here of the gripping story related by Elie Wiesel in his play “The Trial of God” [trans. by Marion Wiesel, intro. by Robert McAfee Brown (New York: Schocken, 1995)] which describes the decision of a group of rabbis when imprisoned and no doubt awaiting death in the infamous concentration camp of Auschwitz to put God on trial for the murder of the Jewish people. Wiesel testifies that he witnessed the event himself when a teenager in the prison camp.
After nights of argument, the rabbis decide that God is guilty of abandoning his people, committing a crime against humanity. After the dreadful silence following the verdict, the oldest member of the group, a Talmudic scholar, announces that it is time for evening prayer.
The story of Lot in the Book of Genesis is not merely about the destruction of the sin-ridden cities, but of persistence in prayer, the point of Jesus’ teaching and parables in today’s gospel reading. In Genesis, Lot haggles with God like Teyve in “Fiddler on the Roof,” failing in the end only because it was not possible to find even a handful of decent people in the cities.
Jesus urges not only persistence in prayer, but steadfast belief in the mercy and forgiveness of God. In the second reading, by contrast to the catastrophe that befalls the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah, Paul extols not only the mercy and forbearance or God, but God’s total forgiveness achieved by the death of Jesus, the total and final sin offering. The word Paul uses here, ‘paraptoma’ in Greek, means something like “falling aside” or “deviation” — perhaps not as strong as “sin,” but less ambiguous than “trespass.” It is not the ordinary word for “sin,” but implies tasking a wrong step or just going off the path. Paul uses it to cover a multitude of sins, as the saying goes, including both serious errors and a gradual falling away from the right path. All that has been wiped out, erased by being nailed to the cross.
God does not wait for us to ask for forgiveness, which is preemptively extended, as Paul insists. We have only to accept it.
In the end, God wasn’t able to spare Sodom, not because God lacked mercy, but because the people refused to repent — unlike the people of Nineveh in the story of Jonah. The Canaanites brought destruction on themselves.
There’s something a little mercenary about always petitioning God for favors, as if, in Meister Eckhart’s words, God was a cow we turn to when we need milk or cheese or even steak. We’re not concerned with the cow, but with ourselves. It’s very easy to turn prayer into a form of self-centeredness and God into some kind of wish-granting machine. In the end, true prayer really asks that we first get ourselves right with God — not that God get things right with us.
So should we pray for other people and for help when we need it? Of course. But we should do it in the right way. In Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, Arthur famously says to Sir Bedivere:
…Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
But we should also be aware that some forms of prayer are better than others — something we might remember from our catechism classes long ago. From a spiritual viewpoint, adoration, praising God out of gratitude or love, is a higher form of praying than wheedling.
Nevertheless, a few years ago research done on prayer indicated that praying is good for us in general and, perhaps more importantly, good for others. [The Journal of Psychology and Theology 19:71-83.] A more recent study showed that in a carefully regulated experiment, people who were ill improved significantly more than a control group when they were prayed for, even if they did not know people were praying for them. It also seems that people’s happiness in life is related to the way they pray.
What happens when people pray also suggests that it is less important how often a person prays than how well — happier people prayed less frequently, but more attentively. It also seems clear that they were more concerned about God and other people than with themselves.
How then are we to understand the words of Jesus? “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened to you?” Perhaps Soren Kierkegaard said it best: Prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who prays. When we pray rightly, then, as Jesus taught us, our prayer is always answered, because it turns us to God and God’s saving will for the world. The miracle we are praying for is that we — all of us — will become more faithful and loving, more receptive to God’s gift, and above all, perhaps, to the merciful presence of God in our midst — even when things are not going the way we think they should.
Pray, then, for the people of Ukraine, for those suffering from hunger and natural disaster, and for peace in the world. Then do something about it.
Ireland is almost 800 miles closer to Kiev than New York is to Los Angeles – -about half that distance. Not exactly neighbors, but closer than one might think. Since 1991, Ireland has welcomed thousands of Ukrainian children, the victims of radiation poisoning in Chernobyl, to spend their Christmas holidays or a month of rest time in the summer. During the past terrible year, Ireland also received into the country over 41,000 Ukrainian refugees fleeing a terrible and unjust war. That may not seem like a large number, but for a country of just over five million, it has taxed resources to the limit. And still they come. Ireland remains welcoming.
In an ancient series of Irish proverbs beginning with the word “eochair” (‘key’), we are told that the key to miracles is generosity:
O King of Stars!
whether my house be dark or be bright
it will not be closed against anybody;
may Christ not close his house against me.
God’s message to us today is about hospitality.
Traveling through the deserts of the great American southwest and Iraq, I have witnessed how important hospitality is in hot, barren, and unforgiving lands. In times past, to refuse hospitality to a wanderer was equivalent to murder. And so desert people treated each other, both friends and strangers, extraordinarily well when traveling.
This leads us to the story of Abraham in this section of Genesis, the prelude to the account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah we will hear next week, those cities whose sin was the ultimate act of inhospitality to wanderers in the ancient desert. But in today’s other readings, Jesus and Paul have something to say to us about hospitality as well.
The Genesis story takes place near what the Bible calls the Terebinths of Mamre — a site near Hebron which became the burial place of the patriarchs — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It lies in the hill country of Judah, about 20 miles south of Jerusalem and has long been a center revered by Jews and Muslims — the people of the Book. Desert people. Famous for its oak trees as well as its grove of terebinths — “Turpentine Trees” — Mamre was a place where water and shelter were found, an oasis and therefore a good place to camp. And that is what Abraham and Sarah were doing when God came calling in the form of three strangers.
How Abraham and Sarah tend to the apparent needs of these strangers determines the future of the Hebrew people as a whole and the fulfillment of God’s promises. For Christians, too, it is no small thing to tend to extend hospitality and care to the needy. Looking back to this incident, the Epistle to the Hebrews instructs us, “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” [3:1-2]. There is more to it than that. The author goes on, “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them; and those who are ill-treated, since you also are in the body.”
In that mysterious final phrase as well as in both the gospel and the second reading, St. Paul’s letter to the Christians at Colossae, we learn far more than they seem to tell us about our lives as followers of Jesus. In the end, it’s also about justice, as the responsory to Psalm 15 we have just sung reminds us: “Those who do justice will live in the presence of God”.
First, St. Paul tells us about the great mystery, “the glory beyond price” that God has revealed in Jesus. He calls it “the mystery of Christ in you, your hope of glory.” That presence of Christ, himself the visible presence of God among us in human form, forms the basis of a whole new ethic, but one grounded in the story of Abraham and Sarah. In the gospel reading it finds its echo in what Jesus says to Martha in this little parable about true hospitality.
She has been dashing around preparing a feast for their Visitor and also complaining that her sister Mary is not helping. Martha is simply carrying out the most fundamental requirement of traditional hospitality, providing generously for her guest, just as Abraham and Sarah did. What Jesus tells her is that she is overlooking what Mary has not forgotten — attending to the presence of the one in their midst.
This is not just a lesson about the relative importance of the active and contemplative lives, as the medieval writers liked to imagine, or how just a single dish rather than many is sufficient as some scholars seem to think. It is about recognizing Christ in our midst, especially in the form of the stranger seeking asylum, the poor, the hungry, those in prison. And here we have the real echo of what Jesus teaches in Matthew’s gospel: “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. … Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” [Matt. 25: 34-36, 40].
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus says, similarly, “Whoever receives a little child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me; for he who is least among you all is the one who is great” [Luke 9: 49]. In short, pay less attention to what you are providing and more to those who need your help and you will gaze on the very face of God. Just like Abraham and Sarah. And Mary.
We find him especially in those the world tends to forget and overlook — the powerless, the homeless, the outcast. That’s the great mystery of God’s love and presence, “the mystery hidden for ages and generations past,” the foundation of all the promises and their fulfillment. So do not fail to be generous to the poor, the orphan, the widow, and not least the resident stranger in the land, for by such hospitality you will not only entertain angels unawares, you will inherit eternal life.
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.