January 24 2016 (C) Third Sunday of Year

A. The bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

B. Reflection & Dialogue: New Evangelization, with the Scripture at its Centre

The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

Introduction to the Readings. The first reading and the Gospel reading today are about new religious beginnings, with Sacred Scripture at the centre of the new age. The first is about Israel some time after returning from exile, with a call to resist assimilation by the surrounding pagan cultures. In the Gospel Jesus begins his public ministry by announcing that he is the fulfilment of the Scripture promises. This year, and in coming years, our Church is celebrating a year of faith, new evangelization, centred on the word of God in Scripture.

First Reading (Nehemiah 8:2-6, 8-10). Ezra read fr m the law of God and the people ,understood what was read. A little background knowledge will help understand better the significance of the reading of the book of the Law given in this text. The destruction of Jerusalem, of the Temple and the devastation of the land of Judah in 586 BC spelt disaster for the Jewish people. Those exiled in Babylon gradually realized the enormity of their past sins, repented and reshaped their Mosaic traditions for a prophesized new beginning. Those left behind in Judah, already tainted by pagan ways, would have become further irreligious. With permission to return home, the exiles seem to have come in different stages, intent on a new beginning. Their guide would be the Law of Moses (a form of our Pentateuch). The reformer Ezra, a specialist in the Law of Moses, came very probably in the year 398 BC. He was a reformer, set on ordering the new community in accord with the Law of Moses. There would be a solemn, public, commitment to the new reform programme, with a reading of the Law of Moses to the people and an interpretation of this Law so that the people could understand what was read. This is the substance of today’s reading. This Law of Moses, read and interpreted, would be central to Jewish religion from then on. This Law was not regarded as an imposition. The celebration was one for rejoicing.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 18[19]). Your words are spirit, O Lord, and they are life.

Second Reading (1 Corinthians 12:12-30). You together are Christ’s body; but each of you is a different part of it. Christian community at Corinth to which Paul is writing was composed of members of different natural talents and different social standing, from the slave to an elite, learned and otherwise. Paul is concerned for the spiritual welfare of the community, of the danger of some being regarded as inferior and dispensable by the more well-off. There is an inherent egalitarianism in Christianity, by reason of baptism of all into Christ, and all the gifts of members of the Church coming from the same Spirit. To illustrate his point Paul makes use of the image of the Church as a body, the Body of Christ, an image also used by Roman and Greek writers of the state, the body politic. In this reading Paul first stresses the combination of diversity and unity – many limbs in the one body. Applying this to the Church he stresses the unity: all baptized in the one Spirit, Jews and non-Jews (Greeks), slaves as well as free citizens, all given the one Holy Spirit to drink. He goes on to develop the image, implicitly reminding his readers that there is no place for any superior attitudes òn the part of the more prominent members of the community with regard to those they might regard as their inferiors – just as one member of the human body cannot “look down” on another. He concludes by stating that together all members of the Christian community are together Christ’s body, but each with a different part to play. He then lists the gifts that God has given to the Church in order of importance: first apostles, second prophets, probably members with the gift of a deeper understanding of the mystery of salvation, thirdly teachers, possibly with a lesser insight into the mystery than prophets, then others, but pointedly the gift of tongues (“many languages”), so prized by the Corinthians comes last of all. He ends, as he began, by stressing diversity and unity.

The Gospel (Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21). This text is being fulfilled today. Luke, the Third Evangelist, was a literary and quite accomplished writer. Working most probably in the 90s of our era he has given us two writings, his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. In the first he narrates the first stage of the Christian movement, as far as the ascension of Jesus. In the second he traces the continuation of this work from the ascension and Jerusalem, through the ministry of Paul to Rome itself, the centre of the Roman Empire. Each of the works has a prologue, dedicating it to a certain Theophilus, an otherwise unknown person, apparently a learned Christian of some social standing. In the prologue to the Gospel Luke remarks that he writes because he has found that a number of others had published accounts of Christian beginnings which he must have found deficient. He tells us that he intends to give an ordered account of the Gospel narrative. This should not be taken to mean a chronological order, but rather one in which the significance of the events is also brought out. Today’s reading illustrates this well. Luke, as the other evangelists, first narrates the beginnings with the Baptism of Jesus by John. He then refers briefly to Jesus’ activity in Galilee, only to take him to his home town Nazareth (or Nazara as Luke calls it), where in the synagogue in a liturgical setting Jesus opens the book of Isaiah and goes to Isaiah 61:1-2 (see also Isaiah 58:6), with the beautiful prophecy on the one sent by the Spirit of the Lord to proclaim the year of God’s salvation. Many Jews would have longed for the coming of this day. Jesus told his audience that it was being fulfilled even as they listened.

B. Reflection & Dialogue: New Evangelization, with the Scripture at its Centre

There are times when religious groups are made conscious that stock-taking is necessary if they are to remain faithful to their central beliefs and practices. In Egypt the Jews had forgotten, or forsaken, the beliefs of their forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The promises to these were recalled to them by Moses and a new covenant made with Israel. Today’s first reading tells us how the Jews some time after the return from exile had to regroup to avoid the danger of being assimilated, absorbed, by the surrounding pagan culture or the lax religion of many of their fellow Jews. In the early Church, as the Apocalypse (Revelation) of John reminds us, we read of the risen Jesus walking in and out among the lampstands (individual local churches), and having John write to make them aware of the danger of their errors and of mediocrity, and calling for renewal of their original fervour. Ireland, too, has known periods of mediocrity and renewal – in the twelfth century when the dioceses were set up, after the famine when there was a major regrouping, with parish missions, commemorated occasionally by mission crosses.

            Religion now in Ireland is at a crossroads. Over the past decades the numbers attending Sunday Mass have been decreasing. The knowledge of the faith by the younger generation, and often the not so young, is often negligible. We live in a world, and a country, of increasing secularism and an active and outspoken atheism. Together with this in Ireland there have been the revelations of institutional abuse, and worse still the scandals of clerical sex abuse, accompanied on occasion by institutional cover up. Yet despite all this, most Irish Catholics appreciate their faith and love their church. This is a time for stock-taking and re-evangelization, and this is what the Church is currently involved in. It is her desire that evangelization, new awareness of the truths and demands of faith, be done in connection with Scripture and in homilies on the Sunday liturgical readings. Pope Benedict has written well on this in his apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini (available online). See especially paragraphs 52-60.

            Attention to this new evangelization will be a matter for bishops, priests, deacons and others involved in this new activity. But the principles involved apply to all Churchgoers and all the laity, who can reflect on the Sunday liturgical readings and the implications of these for Christian living in the pluralist society of our time.

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