Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) was fond of describing the Sunday encounter with the sacred texts as looking into a mirror: “The first requirement is that you must not look at the mirror, but must look in the mirror and see yourself in God’s word. Then, while reading God’s word, you must incessantly say to yourself: ‘It is I to whom the word is speaking’ ” (Provocations, The Plough Publishing House, 1999).
It’s hard to put ourselves in the place of Joshua and his family in today’s first reading. Most of us presume all religions basically deal with the same God. That God might go by the name of Yahweh, Allah, or the Lord, but we take for granted there’s only one God with multiple names.
Those who base their homilies on today’s Gospel pericope are actually homilizing on a homily.
Christians once presumed the Gospels were Jesus biographies: day-by-day eyewitness accounts of what this Galilean carpenter said and did during his public ministry. The Pontifical Biblical Commission drove the final stake through the heart of the biography option in 1964. Asked by the bishops of the Second Vatican Council to provide some general rules for interpreting the historicity of Gospels, the scholars eventually published a document titled “On the Historicity of Gospels.” Among other things, the commission insisted that, when reading the four Gospels, we be aware of the three stages that went into their formation.
The disciples did not automatically come to full awareness of the true identity of Jesus and the purpose of his mission. Through the Christian Scriptures, contemporary believers can trace their ever-deepening appreciation of who Jesus was. In Mark’s Gospel, for example, the true identity of the Son of Man and Son of God is withheld until a Roman soldier proclaims the dying Jesus to be that holy one. A couple of decades later, when the Gospels of Matthew and Luke achieved their final form, the early believers clearly understood that Jesus was Lord and Christ from the moment of his conception; the infancy narratives attest to this development in Christian faith. By the time the fourth canonical Gospel was completed (circa 90-100), there was no doubt that Jesus was God, the very Word of God made flesh -- an insight given voice in the Johannine prologue.
Today’s psalm refrain says that the hand of the Lord feeds us and answers all our needs. Sometimes that seems hard to believe. When we hear of wars, drought, hurricanes, tornados and starving children, one wonders just where the Lord’s hand is in it all. Today’s readings invite us to reflect on this problem.
Every Sunday night in the minor seminary we were treated to a movie, usually a three-reel, 16-millimeter copy of one that had been in the theaters a year or two before. Since we had just one projector, we took two breaks while the student projectionists loaded the second and third reels. One memorable night, after our first break, we quickly realized we were watching the second reel of a different movie. Whoever packed and sent the movie had made a mistake. But being good seminarians, we dutifully sat through the second reel, took a break and came back to watch the third reel of the original movie.
Today’s Gospel passage brings up several points that, though important for early Christian communities, we later Christians often overlook.
First, Jesus’ disciples realized he wasn’t a “one-man show.” He didn’t expect his followers just to stand around “oohing and ahhing” as he engaged in his ministry. One of the deepest insights the Holy Spirit helped them achieve after his death and resurrection was that they were expected to carry on his ministry. They were to become “other Christs.”
Do you know the “if only” lament? Many of us do, and chant it often. As we move through life, it becomes like background music or a theme song for the weary, the burdened and the worried: “If only I were younger, I’d have more energy.” “If only I were older, I could relax and retire.” “If only I had more time, I’d be able to do so much.” “If only others were more cooperative ...” “If only they could see things my way ...” “If only I were prettier, thinner, smarter, braver, stronger ...” “If only I had a better job, a more understanding boss, nicer coworkers ...” “If only I didn’t have arthritis, cancer, depression ...” “If only others would understand me, appreciate me, welcome me, accept me as I am ...”
Are you a planner? Do you set an agenda for your day? Is your BlackBerry or iPhone programmed to alert you to upcoming appointments? Do you make lists that help structure your time and order your priorities?
As with Jesus, so with John the Baptizer: We must be careful to distinguish the historical person from the Gospel person.
It’s clear from the way the evangelists treat Jesus’ baptism that the Baptizer’s inclusion created problems.