Sunday, January 27, 2013

Fulfilled in your hearing! (Sunday 3C)

Today’s Gospel records the shortest homily Jesus ever gave; perhaps the shortest homily anyone ever gave: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus prepared this perfect homily for at least 40 days—this visit to his hometown synagogue follows his time of fasting in the desert, during which he conquered the devil’s three temptations.  And before that, he was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist.

It goes to show you what every good preacher knows: short homilies take much longer to prepare than long ones.

How carefully Jesus must have chosen the passage from Isaiah that describes his mission! The angels must have held their breath hearing its precision that Sabbath day in Nazareth, if only angels had breath to hold.

No speech in Shakespeare, no thundering ovation by Churchill can match the drama of those words “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” If the congregation in the synagogue that morning even dimly understood what they’d just heard, they’d all have fainted.

Which brings us to the question: do we understand what Jesus said to them? Because surely he says it to us as well: the ancient promises of God have been fulfilled for all time, for us no less than for the people listening to the Lord in Nazareth.

If you’re not sure how to answer: consider a simpler question. Does your faith bring you more freedom or less? Does it liberate or limit you?

The fact that Christian life demands discipline and sacrifice leads many people to identify it with repression or even oppression of the human spirit. Even some believing Christians secretly—or not so secretly—think life might be simpler, even better, if they didn’t believe.

Contrast this with the words of Isaiah that Jesus makes his own: “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…”

Who is Jesus speaking about? Who are the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed?

Without doubt they are the people in Mother Teresa’s home for the dying, the inmates in maximum security prisons, the visually impaired in countries where this condemns them to isolation and poverty, the people in countries with unjust dictators.

But equally, Jesus is speaking about you and me.

You and I can be poor without needing money: Mother Teresa often reminded the West of the poverty of loneliness.  She said that one of the greatest diseases is to be nobody to anybody.

You and I can be prisoners without being in jail. In the Letter to the Romans, St. Paul warns of becoming slaves to sin; Jesus himself tells us that no-one can serve two masters and that “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.'"

And of course addictions are a form of slavery, robbing us of the freedom and dignity that we’re meant to have.

Physical blindness no longer is the curse it once was, thanks to wonderful changes in social attitudes and technology. But being blind to our faults, blind to our blessings, blind to the goodness of others—this lack of vision is terrible and terrifying.

We can be oppressed through no fault of our own—oppressed by misfortune, injustice, and ill health, especially when life seems to pile on one setback or grief after another.

Jesus is talking about all of this when he preaches to us, here in church today. He stands, as it were, in front of this congregation and says “I am here to bring good news, liberty, sight and freedom.”  In one word, Jesus came to bring salvation.

Pope Paul VI explains this in his encyclical on Evangelization in the Modern World:

“… Christ proclaims salvation, this great gift of God which is liberation from everything that oppresses man but which is above all liberation from sin and the Evil One, in the joy of knowing God and being known by Him, of seeing Him, and of being given over to Him. All of this is begun during the life of Christ and definitively accomplished by His death and resurrection. But it must be patiently carried on during the course of history, in order to be realized fully on the day of the final coming of Christ, whose date is known to no one except the Father.” [n. 9]

Salvation is why the Father sent the Son; and salvation is why the Church exists.

But we must see salvation as more than a theological abstraction. It is something we need, a blessing now not just at the end of our days. And it is something everyone needs.

Pope Paul wrote that proclaiming the Gospel “to the people of today, who are buoyed up by hope but at the same time often oppressed by fear and distress, is a service rendered to the Christian community and also to the whole of humanity.

Only by grasping personally the gift of salvation, and the freedom it brings, are we able to grasp the mission and the message of Jesus. But at the same time, we understand that this gift is for everyone. There’s a universal need for salvation and sharing it with others is a service. They don’t do us a favour by coming to the Alpha Course: we do them a favour by inviting them.

We’re not inviting our friends, family members and co-workers to Alpha so that our parish will grow or our families be more united—we invite them because they need the Gospel.

But even those of us who truly experience the blessings of faith—turning to God readily in our trials, finding his help in time of need—may not completely understand how and why we are called to share this blessing with those around us.

To help us share the faith wisely and well, the parish is offering a half-day course next month called, appropriately enough, “TheShy Catholic Conference.” A gifted layman, Graham Osborne, will present the course after the 11 a.m. Mass on February 17. Those who attend will be better equipped for their baptismal mission—but at the same time they’ll better understand their own faith and the gift they’ve already received in Christ.

The great assembly described in our first reading is a model of what we are becoming as a parish: people who listen to the Word of God with attention and joy, both in church and with the help of our excellent adult faith formation and catechetical programs.

Let us pray that we too respond with humble “amens” to what we hear, in action as much as words.

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