by Br Julian McDonald cfc
In the synagogue (of Nazareth) Jesus stood up and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and he found the passage where it was written: “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to bring liberty to captives…” Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down. All in the synagogue had their eyes fixed on him. Then he began by saying to them: “Today, this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 1, 1-4; 4, 14-21
With Epiphany behind us, we now move into the “Year of Luke”. (The miracle of Cana was celebrated by early Christians, and still is by the Eastern Churches, as the fourth revelation of Jesus to the world. The other three were the birth of Jesus, the adoration of the Magi and the baptism of Jesus. These were all part of Epiphany.) Luke deserves an introduction because of the perspective he brings to writing about Jesus. He was born a Greek, he studied to become a medical doctor, he was attracted to Jesus through his contact with Paul, and he came into the early Christian community without the prejudices and expectations held by the Jewish people. The Jews saw themselves as “the Chosen People”, and, indeed, they were. They led the ancient world in promoting monotheism. They firmly held that there is One God, not a panoply of gods. They had the benefit of the teaching and leadership of Moses and the prophets, and they held firmly to the belief that the Messiah would be born into their race and would come to rescue them from the oppression that had been visited on them for centuries. Their utter conviction that they were “the Chosen People” led many of them to adopt a sense of superiority and the unshakable belief that the Messiah would come in power and strength to scatter their enemies and establish them in comfort and security. They could not accept that the Messiah would find his way into the world as a baby born in humble and obscure circumstances, even though one of their prophets had proclaimed that. Luke, then, was able to look at the story of Jesus with the objectivity and discipline of a scholar with a scientific background and with a vantage point from outside Judaism.
With that long introduction, I begin today’s reflection with a story. While I rarely recommend books, I have no hesitation in pointing to Rachel Naomi Remen’s book entitled My Grandfather’s Blessings. It is a book for everyone, but especially for those who have, have had or are afraid of getting a very serious illness. Rachel’s very name suggests her Jewish background, and her grandfather was an orthodox Jewish Rabbi. She herself is a survivor of a lifelong, chronic illness. This is one of her stories from My Grandfather’s Blessings:
“Richard was a widower. His wife had died a long and painful death from cancer. After some time, he met Celia and they came to love each other and each other’s children dearly. Less than a year into their courtship, Celia discovered a lump in her breast and went for testing. She was alone when her doctor informed her that the lump was malignant. Her first thoughts were for Richard and his children. They had been terribly wounded by cancer only a few years before, and Celia reasoned that she could not bring this terror back into their lives again. She called Richard immediately and broke off their relationship without telling him why. She declined his phone calls and returned his letters over a few weeks. However, he persisted until she agreed to see him. She intended their meeting to be one of goodbye.
When they met, she could see the hurt etched into his face. But Richard gently asked her why she had broken up with him. Fighting back tears she told him the truth: that she had discovered a lump that turned out to be malignant, and that she had undergone surgery to remove it and was about to start chemotherapy. ‘You and the children have been through this once already, and I’m not going to put you through it again’, she explained. ‘You have cancer?’ he asked. Silently she nodded as the tears ran down her face. ‘Celia’, he said, and began to chuckle. ‘We can do cancer. We know how to do it. I just thought you didn’t love me anymore.’ But she did, and they got through it together, happily married.” (Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings, Penguin Putnam, N.Y. 2001)
As baptised members of the Christian community, we have inherited the blessing of God’s Spirit and the invitation to “bring glad tidings and “proclaim the Lord’s favour” to the poor, the blind, people in prison, the oppressed, the forgotten and the helpless. We all have the potential to breathe life and hope into others, just as Celia and Richard did for one another, when we do so, knowing that God’s Spirit is our guide.
Having been anointed by God’s Spirit in the Jordan, Jesus returned to his home-town of Nazareth, where he was invited by the synagogue officials to read and reflect on the Scriptures. For a moment, let’s imagine the scene: The people of Nazareth had surely heard that Jesus had been making an impression wherever he went. His growing reputation and the acclaim he had received had preceded his home-coming.
Having read a passage from Isaiah with which the congregation would have been familiar, there was an expectation that he would offer a reflection or commentary on what he had just read. Instead of doing that, he looked straight at the gathering and, without explanation or qualification, announced: “This is taking place right here, right now in this synagogue. Moreover, you’re hearing it from the mouth of the Messiah himself, from the one whom our people have been expecting for centuries.”
For a congregation looking for some insight into the passage from Isaiah that they had just listened to, this was beyond the pale. To have one they had seen grow up among them make an assertion like that was tantamount to blasphemy to the people of Nazareth. They interpreted what they heard as one of their own blowing his own trumpet and simply big-noting himself. That, understandably, accounts for the hostile reception they gave him. But that’s the focus of the gospel-reading for next week.
Today’s first reading from Nehemiah and the second reading from Corinthians complement the gospel-reading. 450 years before Jesus, Nehemiah had encouraged the people of Israel to rebuild the holy city of Jerusalem. They set about that task with a will, and saw the day when their efforts brought success. In a record homily that went for six hours, Nehemiah encouraged and congratulated the people, assuring them that what they had achieved was testimony to what God had done for them. That was something over which to rejoice and be grateful. Of comfort to them was the realisation that they were in God’s hands, and that was all that mattered. Paul, in turn, assured the Christian community in Corinth that as members of the people of God they were all of equal importance, essential to bringing life to one another, and all having the same status, with no one either inferior or superior. In speaking to the people among whom he grew up, Jesus stated that his mission was to bring God’s promises to realisation. As his disciples, and inspired by God’s Spirit we have the very same mission. And that’s not an option. It’s an imperative. Otherwise, we’re only play-acting.