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.
The Peace Pulpit
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.
It may seem strange that when we begin this season of Advent and we are looking forward to celebrating once more, the coming of Jesus into the world, his birth at Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, that as we look forward to that beautiful feast, we have a gospel lesson that speaks to us about the end of the world, the end of time, the end of the universe as we know it. And yet as we think about it more deeply, it's really not that much of a contradiction because we have the experience, don't we, that so often when something ends, something new begins.
I’m sure when I ask you that question about whether you wish to be confirmed or not, it seems very strange because as Father Schaffer made so clear, you’ve had a good program of preparation and followed it, participated in it, and you’re all here this morning. So it might seem strange to you, but it’s important that I ask that question and here’s why: Think about it -- when you are being confirmed and you answer that question yes, what are you saying yes to? Is it to a ceremony that will be over in 40 minutes or so, then we all leave the church and that’s it?
I presume if we were to choose lessons for the celebration of a peace Mass kind of Eucharist that we are celebrating this afternoon, we probably would not choose the ones we have just listened to. They're not quite the sort of thing we want to think about and pray about when we want to celebrate the gift of peace that Jesus has brought us. Yet if we listen deeply as we can to this word of God today, I think we can find a message that is very important and will guide us on the way to genuinely be the peacemakers we know we're called to be.