September 9 23rd Sunday of the Year (B)

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

First Reading (Isaiah 35:4-7).

In the more recent approach to the book of the prophet Isaiah it is usual to see at least three sections in it. What information we have on the prophet himself (who was active in the later eighth century B.C.) is preserved in chapters 1 to 39 of the book, and contains mainly prophetic warnings on the people’s infidelity. . A later section, chapters 40-55 (or 40-48) (known as Second Isaiah), was composed towards the end of the exile in Babylon about 550-540 BC, and is known as the Book of Consolation,. It contains promises of a return from exile and a glorious future. The other chapters are later still. Chapter 35 (from which today’s reading is taken), while in the first section of the book, raelly belongs in its outlook to Second Isaiah. In this reading the exiles in Babylon, who from the human point of view, had little hope of any future are exhorted to have courage. Their God is about to intervene to change their fortunes. The “vengeance” and “retribution” of God mentioned are not so much indications of divine wrath against human enemies of Israel, as a manifestation of God’s passionate desire to bring salvation to his people. God’s intervention will bring remedy and wholeness to the illnesses not only of Israel and individuals (blind, deaf, lame, dumb), but also to nature itself (desert, wasteland). This passage from a longer text of Isaiah chapter 35 is chosen to go with today’s Gospel reading, where this prophecy is seen as fulfilled by Christ.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 145). My soul give praise to the Lord.

Second Reading (James 2:1-5).

The letter of James lays great emphasis on informed and living, and lived, belief in Christ. James expects his readers to know the Gospel message and to live in accordance with it. This he stresses again and again. The Gospel message, “the word” as he calls it, is not something abstract. It is a power within believers that can save their souls. He calls it an “implanted word” (James 1:21). Today in our language we might say the presence of the Holy Spirit in our souls. The “word”, the Gospel message, gives the teaching to be followed. It is the law of liberty. One can regard this as a mirror. But unless put into practice by deeds it is comparable to a person who looks at his image in a mirror, and goes away forgetting what he has seen (James 1:22-25). As he reminds us (James 1:22), we must be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. In today’s reading James gives an example of the demands the “word”, the Gospel message, may make. He gives an example of a Christian liturgical gathering in a meeting place (which he calls a synagogue) where the congregation is properly arranged, with a presiding member of the community. A well dressed man is envisaged as entering, and invited to take a place of honour, while a badly dressed person is told to be seated in some inferior place. The Christian community in question appears to have been drawn from the poorer class, and is reminded by James of the basic Christian message that the poor are blessed. They are rich by the divine vocation to faith, heirs of the kingdom. James’s words are very close to the opening sentence of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor (or: poor in spirit) for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.

Gospel (Mark 7:31-37).

It is well to recall here the passage preceding this one in Mark’s gospel. Jesus went from Galilee, and the debate with the Pharisees and scribes, westwards to the pagan region of Tyre. There he was accosted by a woman, explicitly noted by Mark as a Gentile, a pagan, to cure her little daughter. Jesus replies that priority is to be given by him to his own people, the chosen people, but praises her faith and effects the cure. Mark is clearly indicating that Jesus, while principally preaching to Israel, did not forget the Gentiles. The continuation of Mark’s narrative stresses t his. Jesus came from Tyre to the Sea of Galilee by a circuitous route: northwards to the pagan region of Sidon, then south-eastwards and east of the Sea of Galilee through the pagan area Decapolis. We are not explicitly told where the present miracle was requested, whether in pagan territory or not, and whether the man in question was Jew or pagan – possibly a pagan in pagan territory.

            The manner in which Jesus heals the person is unique in the Gospels. Here there is no question of diabolic possession, or driving out a demon. Some of the devices used by Jesus, for instance the use of spittle, was common to both Jewish and Greek healers. Jesus sighing, either in prayer of grief, gives the command to the man’s ears in Aramaic (Ephphatha). The miracle is the fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah 35:3-7 (read in the first reading), although in Isaiah it was the eyes, not ears, that were spoken of as being opened, Mark wrote in Greek and the connection with the prophecy of Isaiah in made clear by his use of the Greek word mogilalos, rendered as “impediment in his speech”. This is a Greek word found only here in the New Testament and otherwise in the Greek translation of Isaiah 35:6 (“tongue of the stammerers”). The miracle worked by Jesus on this one man would be worked on the apostles whose eyes and ears would be opened to see fulfilment of the prophecies by Jesus and who would experience the power speech to stammering tongues. The actions and words of Jesus would also be repeated in the baptismal rite of new converts.

B. The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day

Call to Christian renewal in the Church in Ireland

Since the 2012 International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin there have been calls for renewal of the Church in Ireland, renewal in knowledge of the Gospel and of Christian teaching, and renewal in the full practice of the faith. Reflection on the Letter of James, providing the second readings these Sundays, gives us a good idea of what is involved.

            Faith is a mirror in which the Church can view the true image of itself. That faith be for believers such a mirror requires that they have a good knowledge of Jesus and Christian life as put before us in the Gospels, especially the Sermon on the Mount, in the New Testament Letters read at every Sunday Mass, and Church teaching. There we can see the true image of what Christian life should be. As believers in Christ, and in a world often hostile to Christian values, believers should look on this their Christian heritage not as a burden but as (in James’s words) the law of liberty, a heritage that gives direction to our lives, and as a guide towards true human and Christian living. Christian life is not just intellectual belief. Faith is a gift of God, an implanted word in our souls, which with Christian devotion inspires action. It is a word that can save our souls.

            True faith comes alive through practice. Being hearers of the word, knowing the doctrine, is not sufficient. In James’s words again, to hear only without ensuing action, is like looking in a mirror, seeing our (Christian) image, but soon forgetting what it looked like. Viewing without action, without a true Christian life, may have a person enter “Roman Catholic” in a census form but have little contact with Christian faith otherwise.

            What does renewal of the faith in Ireland mean and require? An initial requirement is recognition of the actual state of practice and faith among Catholics. In the recent census (2011) 84% entered themselves as Catholics, a percentage that may be adjusted ethnically upwards. Regular weekly Mass attendance is estimated at 34%; monthly attendance higher (say 50%).There is decrease in practise among the young, which need not necessarily mean lack of basic belief in God, in the divinity of Christ, in the Church. Renewal requires efforts to get the message of Christ across to the young, to convince them of Christ’s call to them to feed their faith through the sacraments and frequent attendance at Mass.

            The central role of prayer and devotion. Jesus presented himself as the Bread of life, come down from heaven. Yet he reminds us that no one can come to him except through grace from God the Father (John 6:65). As James reminds us (James 1:5; 3:13-18) there is a wisdom, a manner of evaluating things, that comes from God, and a wisdom that is of human origin, with secular interests. Christianity is the pearl of great price, to be understood as such.

            Prayer for vocation to the priesthood and ministers of religion. Only through a living faith in the community will this come about. Vocations should be prayed for and fostered.

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