27Jan 27 January 2013. 3rd Sunday (of Year C).

Neh 8:2-6, 8-10.  Ezra the Scribe set out to re-establish the Jewish Laws, to bring his people back to the religion of Moses.

1 Cor 12:12-30. As the body is one though made of many parts so the Church forms many individuals into a living unity in Christ.

Lk 1:1-4, 4:14-21. In the Nazareth synagogue Jesus cites Isaiah: He will bring freedom to the poor and the oppressed.

Theme: We celebrate as Christ’s Body in which we all, laity and clergy, belong. We use our God-given talents for the sake of his church.

First Reading: Nehemiah 8:2-6, 8-10

The priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand; and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hash-baddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieed, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:12-30

(or, shorter version: 12:12-14. 27)

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body-Jews or Greeks, slaves or free-and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as he chose.

If all were a single organ, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to he hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those parts of the body which we think less honorable we invest with the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts.

Gospel: Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to procaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

See: Kieran O’Mahony’s Lectio Divina on this Sunday’s Readings

Also: At the start of sequential readings from St. Luke’s Gospels, see the video at http://vimeo.com/57320089

Does Religious Law Matter?

In the First Reading and the Gospel today we have the seeds of an argument from the early days of the Church which  raised tempers between  conservative and progressive Christians, and was the main reason why St Paul’s journeying was everywhere dogged with controversy and hostility. On the one hand we have the famous priest and scribe, Ezra, leading a contingent of Jews back from exile about the year 400 B.C. and setting out to revive the integral Mosaic Law, translating and explaining it to the people, who welcomed this Law with  veneration. On the other hand we have Jesus Christ saying that his mission is to bring the good news to the poor and proclaim freedom to captives.

St Paul’s goal was  to help people understand the novelty of Christ’s grace and so attain this liberty, which he saw  as freedom from enslavement to the Old Law. “Now we are rid of the Law,” he wrote to the Romans (7:6), “freed by his death (meaning the death of Christ) from our imprisonment, free to serve in the new spiritual way and not the old way of a written law.” No wonder the Jews took offence, for they imagined that the Law by itself conferred life, that one’s religion consisted in knowing perfectly the Mosaic code of written laws, as well as the thousands upon thousands of oral laws and regulations added on by the rabbis to explain the code. And yet the Law seems to have failed the Jews: in spite of it they, like everyone else, were sinners. The Law gave information; without it, Paul says, he should not have known what sin is. But the Law did not give spiritual strength, Paul contended. Even though it proposed the loftiest ideals, it could never transform a being of flesh into a spiritual being, capable of living the life of God. It is not the Law, but Grace, which sets a person free from sin.

Religion in the Messianic Age, Paul would say, is no longer mainly about the observance of Law, but is a question of knowing a person – Christ himself – and of loving and following him. For if sin has lost its control over a person’s life, it is due to something radically different from the Old Law, what we might refer to as the law of the Spirit, a law which is no longer part of a written code, but rather a new spiritual force acting from within. “And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:17). For Paul the behaviour that counts can be summed up in one phrase: “You must love your neighbour as yourself” (Gal 5:14). In Romans he lists some key points in the Decalogue which he says are summed up in this single phrase, “You must love your neighbour as yourself “(Rom 13:8-10)

The spiritual person will instinctively avoid offending God or others. But whoever avoids evil simply because it is against a legal prescription has not yet attained the freedom Paul spoke about. The truly free person avoids sin simply because sin is wrong in itself. In the course of time, Christianity did formulate commandments, moral precepts, the teachings of faith. But these are intended purely to set standards and avoid moral collapse. In the first centuries after Christ, as long as Christians frequently received Holy Communion, the Church never obliged them to receive once a year. It was only when the initial fervour decreased that the Church laid down the law of Easter duty. This law was not aimed at the fervent, who were guided by the prompting of the Holy Spirit within them and did not need such a law. But commandments, such as we find in the Catechism, are required from time to time, for we all carry the treasure of God’s grace in frail vessels.

Our consciences can be led astray, and the interior call of the Spirit may be drowned out by the urgings of sinful nature. When in doubt we could do no better than follow the advice given to his followers by Fr Charles de Foucauld, the French army officer who, after conversion, became a hermit in the Sahara desert: “Ask yourself in all instances: “What would our Lord have done?”, and then imitate him. This is your only rule, but it is your absolute rule.”

The Same But Different

A long time ago, a young teacher rented a house in my home town and started a secondary school for boys. There had long been one for girls run by the nuns in the local convent. The bulk of the population in this area were small farmers, who migrated seasonally to England to boost their meagre incomes to raise and educate their children. The only secondary school then available for boys was the diocesan college which was situated in another town. Only shopkeepers, teachers and other professionals could afford boarding-school fees. So there was great joy and support for this enterprising young teacher. It was short-lived. The Sunday after the “Academy” as it was grandly called, opened, the parish priest handed down an interdict from the pulpit, threatening to excommunicate all those who sent their children to this school. The reasons given were that it was a threat to the diocesan college and that it usurped the church’s prerogative in the field of education. There was consternation. A protest was started, spearheaded mostly by women. It didn’t help that the most vociferous of these were, like my mother, themselves the wives of teachers whose school manager was the same parish priest. Deputations were sent to the bishop. The upshot of the affair was that the bishop instructed the local curate to start another school under the aegis of the church, which, in fact, opened just in time for me to begin my secondary education. As for the enterprising lay teacher, he found a post in a neighbouring diocesan college, where he spent the rest of his life until retirement. If he was embittered by his earlier treatment, he has left no record of it.

As we read of teachers’ congresses and parents’ associations, and the green papers and white papers issuing from the department of education, it is a far cry from those heady days when the church was the sole arbiter in educational matters. What is sad to observe is that here and elsewhere, every concession, from communion in the hand to girl altar-servers, had to be wrenched from a reluctant church. Now in full retreat, she continues to fight a rear-guard action, to preserve zones of interest she has neither the mandate nor the manpower to maintain. If the present crisis of vocations continues, she may not even be able to assure her sacramental mission in the future. And all this with a vast reserve of talent and goodwill in her pews only waiting to be tapped. One might be forgiven the un-theological thought that there must be one frustrated Holy Spirit somewhere out there.

I have often wondered why St Paul’s vision of the church as the body of Christ, with its different parts, each exercising different functions, never really caught on. Was it because its more egalitarian overtones clashed with the more enduring vertical vision of a hierarchical church? “In the one Spirit we were all baptised,” he wrote to the Corinthians, “Jews as well as Greeks, slaves as well as citizens, and one Spirit was given to us all to drink. Nor is the body to be identified with any one of its many parts. Now you together are Christ’s body; but each of you is a different part of it.” It doesn’t sit well with the more familiar chain-of-command version we are accustomed to.

Just over fifty years ago,  Pope John XXIII spoke of a “new Pentecost.” The Council Fathers at Vatican II spoke enthusiastically of collegiality and the active participation of the laity. It seemed the dawn of a new age. The church as the Body of Christ was about to become a reality. Since then the old regime seems to have reasserted itself in many ways. The Body of Christ continues to bleed. If we do not share its responsibilities, we share its ills. The disclosures of clerical scandals have brought home to us St Paul’s observation: “If one part is hurt, all parts are hurt with it.” Perhaps, it is the Holy Spirit’s way of teaching us that, like it or not, we clergy and laity alike are all part of the church, the Body of Christ. That school I mentioned at the beginning has long since passed away. There may be a moral there somewhere.

The Synagogue Sermon

The mission of Jesus is expressed with great force in today’s Gospel. The Spirit that had come upon him in the Jordan River was leading him to proclaim a message and a way of life to teach. He had moved away from home, and had made such an impression that word about him had got back to his home place of Nazareth.  We are told that he entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, as he usually did… and announced the start of a new age!

His sermon would be understood by anyone who was familiar with the words of the prophets. Isaiah had stated clearly what would happen when the Messiah came. Jesus read that wonderful passage to them, then rolled up the scroll and announced “Today these words are coming true even as I speak.” When he announced that he had come to replace the old Jewish love of law with a new law of love, it caused quite a commotion. At first we are told that everyone was pleased with his basic message; but in next Sunday’s gospel, we hear how this encounter ended up. Not too well, actually, but you’ll have to tune into the next episode next week!

Human nature has some in-built resistance to God that results from original sin. There is some basic rebelliousness within us, a stubborn pride leading to the blindness and the oppression spoken of in today’s gospel. By myself it is impossible for me to lift myself out of the quicksand of my own selfishness. But Jesus has come to join me, to lead me, to save me, and this is the powerful Good News announced in the Nazareth Synagogue.