Sunday by Sunday
FAITH Magazine January-February 2008
Our regular guide to the Word of God in the Sunday Liturgy
Sunday 6th January
The Epiphany of the Lord Year A
Some of the last figures to emerge at Christmas are the three wise men, the leading intellects of their day. Their science and learning were driven by a profound desire to find the truth and meaning that lie at the foundation of everything. The light of the star was the light of reason that brought them to God made man, not in the splendour and dignity of a palatial throne, but in a poor and wretched manger. You would have thought that men of such sophistication and rank would have recoiled at what they found but they did not.
These men were great because they were open to having their expectations turned upside down; open to a higher Wisdom. Their courage was admirable: they ventured into a strange land, into the domain of a hostile ruler, unafraid of where the truth would lead them, unafraid of looking mad and misguided among their own contemporaries.
And what of the God they found? Yes, God reveals himself in the wonder of creation but the real sign is that of hiddenness – from the failures of the Israelites to this tiny baby in a manger through to the broken body on the cross. The long and eagerly anticipated Saviour now made his appearance in abject poverty. The lesson is in the appalling contradiction: the things of this world that seem to us so important are not, in the end, important at all. And more: this sign of hiddenness points to the fact that the reality of truth and love, the reality of God himself, is not found in the world of things but beyond it, in the sphere of a new order that this tiny baby was ushering in. The kings, whose hearts were not caught up in the pomp and wealth of their status, were open to receive him.How receptive are our hearts?
Sunday 13th January:
The Baptism of the Lord Year A
The atmosphere in Jerusalem at the time of John’s baptising was one of eager anticipation. Here in their midst was a prophet at last, baptising not in the usual way of customary ablutions but in a new way that called for conversion. He called those gathered to transform their thinking and acting; he proclaimed God’s judgement and announced the arrival of One who is greater. The whole of Judea and Jerusalem was there but the really striking thing was that Jesus was among them. How could Jesus count himself as one of the crowd of sinners awaiting baptism? To this natural question, Jesus replied that he should ‘do all that righteousness demands’ and, by ‘righteousness’, he meant bearing the whole yoke of the Father’s will.
The full significance of his actions would only be seen later, in the light of Jesus’ cross and resurrection. In immersing himself in the Jordan, Jesus was burdened with the sins of all of us – thus his first move in his public ministry was to take our place as a sinner. The baptism was an anticipation of the cross, just as the Father’s words, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved’ were an anticipation of the resurrection.
What does that mean for us who are baptised? It means that on the day of our baptism and every day after we must go to the place of Jesus’ baptism where he identifies himself with us, and we identify ourselves with him. Every day, we must strive to become more fully what we became at our own baptism, i.e. children of God, and share in the Son’s obedience to the Father. That place where we meet sin and death in ourselves is now the place where we meet the resurrection. Jesus’ baptism, then, is the seed of our hope.
Sunday 20th January: 2nd Sunday Year A
When John says, ‘I did not know him myself...’ we can assume he did know whoJesus was but not what Jesus was. The truth having been revealed to him, however, he knew that he existed only to point others to Christ. What does he tell us of Christ? That the Spirit came down on him like a dove. In Palestine, the dove was considered a sacred bird; it was neither hunted nor eaten. In reference to God’s creative Spirit hovering over the waters, the Spirit fluttered like a dove over the primal chaos breathing order and beauty into it.
The Jews believed that the Spirit embraced the prophets of the Old Testament, so that i. the truth of God would be presented to them; ii. they would have the power to recognise it; and iii. they would have the ability and courage to proclaim it. For the Jew, the Spirit meant that God was entering into a person’s life, and this happened to Jesus in a unique way at his baptism, the day before the events of today’s Gospel. We may experience moments of illumination, but John tells us twice that the Spirit rested on Jesus, i.e. took up permanent residence in Jesus. The mind and power of God permeated the whole of Jesus’ being.
The Spirit also acts at our own baptism: he illuminates us so that we see God’s will with clarity; he gives us the strength and power to do it; he purifies and cleanses us of sin; and breathes order and beauty into lives inwardly devastated and broken, making us whole again. Sometimes we forget to pray for gift of the Spirit – if we knew what we were praying for, we would pray for it with every breath we take.
Sunday 27th January 3rd Sunday Year A
The substance of the message is twofold. The first part calls for conversion and the reorientation of one’s whole life; the second part supplies the reason for the command – that God’s sovereignty and power are very near. By his teaching, proclaiming the Good News and healing, Jesus indicated to us that the kingdom of heaven is already here. The reign of Satan, the reign of sin that had so darkened our intellects, hardened hearts and ravaged our bodies was now, at last, nearing its end. ‘The people that lived in darkness has seen a great light.’ Here is the Messiah the Jews had been yearning for.
The call of the disciples is very striking from a number of points of view. First of all, it was customary for prospective disciples to seek out a teacher rather than vice versa. Here we have Jesus himself hand picking those first apostles whose lives would be changed for ever and who, through Jesus, would go on to change the face of the earth. When Matthew writes, ‘He saw two brothers...’ the idea of that ‘seeing’ is far more intense than a mere looking. Rather, it refers to a deeply penetrating gaze that saw these men through and through – their strengths as well as their weaknesses.
The personal and deliberate nature of the call, as well as the sheer simplicity of it, with very little by way of preparation, emphasise just how attractive and compelling Jesus’ call was. But the call was not a one-off. Along with the other disciples, they would spent the following few years with Jesus, learning, gradually, and with plenty of misunderstandings along the way, the kind of Messiah Jesus was. Their Yes to Jesus would have to be reaffirmed time and again. The generosity and openness of their response was all Jesus needed to help him in his mission of spreading the news of the kingdom. That is all he asks of us, too.
Sunday 3rd February 4th Sunday Year A
The simplicity and familiarity of the beatitudes can sometimes dull our response to them. Often they are dismissed as an impossible ideal with poetic value but little else. In fact the beatitudes have a very definite value in our day-to-day living. The setting itself gives the tone for this authoritative teaching: while Luke’s account of the sermon takes place on the plain, Matthew has Jesus up a mountain, thus evoking the biblical notion of mountain as a place of divine revelation, and Mount Sinai in particular as the place where God’s will for his people Israel was revealed.
The formula of the beatitudes would have been familiar to the crowd from the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament. What is very unusual is the timing of the reward. The Wisdom books assume that virtue will be rewarded in this life, whereas Jesus’ beatitudes speak of fullness in God’s kingdom to come. When Jesus looks at his disciples from the mount, he sees they areliterally poor, hungry, persecuted; yet worldly standards are turned on their heads when they are seen from God’s perspective. And so the beatitudes are not purely eschatological: when we begin to see ourselves and the world as God does, then something of the eschatoni s already present. Jesus brings deep joy in the midst of our suffering.
Thus the beatitudes teach us the meaning of discipleship, a meaning that can never be understood in purely theoretical terms but rather in the joy and suffering of living life in union with God, the constant lived reality of dying in order to rise again. As Benedict XVI writes on the beatitudes, in Jesus of Nazareth,Christ who had nowhere to lay his head is truly poor; Christ who said ‘Come to me... for I am meek and lowly in heart’ (Mt 11:28–29) is truly meek. In truth, the beatitudes are an expression of the mystery of Christ himself, and a call to communion with him.
Sunday 10th February 1st Sunday of Lent
Jesus’ temptation in the desert is not so much about the devil luring Jesus into this or that sin but about portraying Jesus as the Son, who had to be like us ‘in all things’ (Heb. 4:15). The three temptations in today’s Gospel both reflect the inner struggle of Christ’s mission and broach the subject of what really matters in human life. At their core lies the act that is common to every sin, from Genesis onwards, namely that of pushing God to one side as a secondary concern.
Our lives are too full of urgent, important matters to be bothered about God. We build our own foundations without reference to him and refuse to give credence to anything beyond the material and the political. We reckon that what really matters is that which is here in front of me; God is an illusion. And so the first temptation is a demand for proof of divinity, something Jesus would encounter again and again. Even today, we long for that great miracle that will take all ambiguity and uncertainty away, and yet we have been given all that we need to believe.
To the second temptation Jesus answers, ‘You must not put the Lord your God to the test.’ It centres on how we can and cannot know God. The idea that we can submit God to a series of laboratory-like experiments is so arrogant and misguided as to end our search before we begin it, because we are already denying God his status as God by setting ourselves above him. The third temptation speaks of the earthly powerlessness of Jesus and our perennial desire to secure this precarious situation with earthly power. This dynamic would recur in Jesus’ earthly life, when he and Barabbas would stand before Pontius Pilate. One a leader of an armed struggle, promising freedom and independence, the other a teacher calling us to lose our life to gain it. We can hardly be surprised at the outcome thatday. Who would we choose today? To what extent do we really understand who Jesus, the true Messiah, really is?
Sunday 17th February 2nd Sunday of Lent
The three Synoptics link Peter’s confession to the Transfiguration, which is significant because it shows that Jesus’ glory is inextricably linked to his passion. The glory, or divinity, and the cross go together and only when we put them together do we come to an understanding of the true Jesus. On the mountain, the truth which Peter declared in his confession was made manifest, albeit briefly, to the senses – that is, in the presence of light, Jesus becomes light. He is truly ‘light from light’. But Peter continues to misunderstand and, in asking about putting three tents up, he fails to see that glory can only ever be preceded by suffering.
The long-awaited salvation, revealed throughout scripture, has to be reinterpreted in the light of the suffering Christ, and the heavenly voice confirms this: the Father tells us that when Jesus speaks of his suffering and death we should listen to him, for this too is part of God’s master plan. Although paradoxical, the passion and glory together make sense in (and only in) the Sonship of Jesus. ‘Listen to him’, the Father tells us, even when he calls us to lose our life that we might win it.
It all makes sense in the light of the Son’s surrender to the Father’s will, just as the suffering we ourselves endure before the hoped-for glory only makes sense within our own sonship and submission to the Father. The passion was not something that merely ‘happened’ to Jesus: he gave his life freely. So, too, our own suffering can always be the result of our own choice, a positive action for God. The choice of doing the Father’s will can never be denied us. And, in all the struggle, let us never forget that, whether in suffering or in glory, we, too, are the Father’s ‘beloved’.
Sunday 24th February 3rd Sunday of Lent
John 4: 5-42
The Gospel today speaks to us of true worship. Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that the day has come when old controversies surrounding worship on Mount Gerizim in Samaria and its rival Mount Zion in Jerusalem are irrelevant: those who want to worship God can now do so anywhere. Jesus tells the woman, ‘You worship what you do not know’, and there is a sense in which this is true. The Samaritans only acknowledged the Pentateuch and rejected all the rest of the Old Testament. They knew nothing of the prophets or the psalms and so their religion was stunted because they were not open to much of the knowledge they might have had. What of our own worship?
To worship the Father ‘in spirit and in truth’ is not easy. Very often we select the articles of faith that suit us and ignore those that don’t. Those aspects of our faith that we find difficult or too challenging are quickly disregarded. Another type of false worship is ignorant worship. God wants the whole of us to worship him, our minds and hearts together. We may have come to faith through an emotional response but the time must come when we think it out. Our faith is inherently reasonable and, unless we know why we believe, it is unlikely to sustain us in the heat of battle. We might also ask ourselves: is my faith founded on love of God and gratitude for his many gifts or am I just covering my back against divine wrath? God wants love, not fear.
So Jesus points us to true worship. No longer confined to a certain place or time, true worship exists wherever an altar is raised for the one true sacrifice of the Mass. As Christ gave his life (in its entirety) in worship to the Father, so we must do likewise - the worship we offer through the Son in the Church is the perfect worship of which Jesus speaks.