As we begin our reflection on the word of God today, I think it's important for us to remind ourselves of why we have this season of Lent, this period of 40 days of prayer and fasting.
The Peace Pulpit
Most of us are very familiar with the beatitudes as they are proclaimed in Matthew's gospel. The first beatitude especially seems to be an easier way of hearing what Jesus is saying, "Blessed are the poor in spirit. Theirs is the reign of God." But Luke simply says, "Blessed are the poor," the poor -- those who are without, "theirs is the reign of God." Matthew also does not give the four woes as Luke does, "Woe to those who are rich." When we hear those words proclaimed by Jesus, I think it makes all of us a bit uncomfortable because we know that we have so many blessings.
So we really wonder, I think, well, for many reasons about these words of Jesus, but especially about "Blessed are the poor." How could Jesus say that in a world where we confront, if we have any awareness at all, an extreme degree of absolute poverty for over a billion people on our planet? Absolute poverty means they have nothing. They're living in misery, desolation. What word can you use to describe that situation for those who are absolutely poor? How can Jesus say they are blessed?
A couple of weeks ago, you may recall the gospel lesson told us about what happened after Jesus had spent the six weeks of prayer and solitude in the desert. He came back into Nazareth where he had grown up. He went into the synagogue. Remember, he was given the book to read and he unrolled the scroll to the book of the Prophet Isaiah, where it is written those powerful words that Jesus read, "The spirit of God is upon me. God will send me to proclaim good news to the poor, to give the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free, and to proclaim God's year of jubilee."
As we listen to the first lesson this morning, I think perhaps we might not have really perceived the genius and the wisdom of Nehemiah and Ezra the priest. They were situated at a time when the chosen people had been dispersed, scattered, the unity of the nation was destroyed. They had been taken into a very difficult kind of exile. Many had betrayed their commitment to God that had been made, that covenant that had been made by God whereby God became their God and they were God's people. Now they had come back, found everything destroyed and over a period of years, they were trying to come together again, to rebuild their city, rebuild their temple, but most of all to rebuild themselves as a people.
Probably our first inclination as we hear today's gospel is to think of it in terms of a wedding and a joyful occasion, and how it certainly must have been a great blessing for that couple to have Jesus present at their wedding, and that's one of the reasons, I'm sure, why many people choose this particular episode from the gospel for their weddings -- a way of having Jesus show his blessing upon what they're doing.
As we were singing the response after our first lesson this morning, "God blesses God's people with peace," I thought how that could be true if we really listen to God's word. This morning, this is especially the case. This word that we hear today is a word that does show us the way to peace if we listen deeply and follow it. But to get the full meaning of the lessons today, I think it's important to remind ourselves of how this lesson today and this event in the life of Jesus fits in with what we have been celebrating over the past couple of months.
As we celebrate this Feast of the Epiphany, the manifestation or the showing forth of Jesus to all the nations, it’s important for us, I think, to hear the lessons and to celebrate the feast with the words of our Eucharistic Prayer in the forefront of our awareness, the prayer that we recite as we celebrate the Eucharist at the altar. You’re familiar with the words, I’m sure. We start out: “Yes, God, you are holy. You are kind to us and to all. For this we thank you. We thank you above all for your son Jesus. You sent him into this world because people had turned away from you and no longer loved one another. Jesus opened our eyes and our hearts to understand that we are brothers and sisters and that you are the one God of us all.”
I'm sure that all of us are aware that Christmas is the one feast day in the year where we have actually three separate celebrations of the feast, and each celebration has its own Liturgy of the Word with three separate lessons for each one of these liturgies. I think most of us are very familiar with the lesson that was proclaimed last night at the first Mass of Christmas, one usually celebrated just at the beginning of the new day. We might also be familiar with the Liturgy of the Word, the sacred scriptures, that are used at what we call the Mass of the Shepherds, the Mass that usually would be celebrated at dawn. Now we have the Mass of Christmas Day, with the three lessons that we just heard.
Last Sunday when we were reflecting on the scriptures, we pointed out how John the Baptist in fact underwent a very significant kind of conversion as it became clear to him that he was to proclaim the good news about Jesus, and that he was to be one who would turn people from following him and those like him who were trying to reform the chosen people, to follow Jesus in an even more radical way. That understanding of John comes about because, in the Gospel as Mark presents it and then Luke follows after Mark, we find Mark and Luke saying, "The time has come; the reign of God is at hand. Change your lives. Believe the good news."
Last Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, our scripture lessons focused on the final coming of Jesus at the end of time and called upon us to prepare ourselves for that moment, the end of history, the fulfillment of the coming of God's reign into our world, transforming it into that reign of God. And throughout Advent, we are also preparing for the feast of Christmas, the time when we remember with great joy the birth of that child in Bethlehem, born of Mary, but later proclaimed son of God in power after his resurrection. So throughout this season, we wait hopefully to celebrate with joy a memory of that marvelous day 2,000 years ago.