Friday, January 24, 2020

The First "Biblemas" Ever! Readings for the Feast of the Word of God

For the first time in the history of the Church, we are celebrating the Feast of the Word of God this Sunday, the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time.  By his beautiful motu proprio “Aperuit Illis”, Pope Francis established a new feast day to be observed every year on the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time, celebrating the Word of God.  It is the Mass of the Bible, or “Biblemas.”  Get your Biblemas cards now!  They are going fast!  Put up your Biblemas tree!

The Third Sunday of OT is a wise choice for the observance of this feast day, because it is on the Third Sunday that we begin the ad seriatim or sequential reading of the Gospel of the year that will continue until the end of November. 

The Readings for this Sunday focus in part on the theme of joy, the joy that comes from recognizing Jesus Christ as the light of the world, the ray of sunshine from God who shows us a different way to live, a way that will lead to an eternal friendship with a God who loves us as our Father.  Jesus is the joy and light that first was promised to the people of Israel long ago, but is now available to the whole world, from Sweden to Swaziland.

1.  Our First Reading is Isaiah 8:23-9:3:

First the Lord degraded the land of Zebulun
and the land of Naphtali;
but in the end he has glorified the seaward road,
the land west of the Jordan,
the District of the Gentiles.

Anguish has taken wing, dispelled is darkness:
for there is no gloom where but now there was distress.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom
a light has shone.
You have brought them abundant joy
and great rejoicing,
as they rejoice before you as at the harvest,
as people make merry when dividing spoils.
For the yoke that burdened them,
the pole on their shoulder,
and the rod of their taskmaster
you have smashed, as on the day of Midian.

This oracle of Isaiah was composed around seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, during the time when the people of Israel, having been split into the twin kingdoms of northern Israel and southern Judah, were in the process of declined, decimation and destruction. 

When the prophet mentions the “degrading” of Zebulun and Naphtali, he is referring to the fact that these tribes were the first to be destroyed by the encroachment of the Assyrian empire, which was the dominant world power and threat to Israel during the eighth century (700s) B.C.  Assyria gradually destroyed northern Israel “from the top down,” beginning with the northern tribes (Zebulun and Naphtali) who inhabited the area around the Sea of Galilee.

[After “the land west (or ‘beyond’) the Jordan,” in today’s Reading, most translations read “Galilee of the Nations” or “Galilee of the Gentiles,” but the NAB on which our Lectionary is based takes the Hebrew word galîl as a term for “district” rather than a geographical proper name “Galilee.”  Be that as it may, the text is talking about the northern Galilee region of the land of Israel.]

The point of this text from Isaiah is that one day, God will restore hope to Israel, beginning in the north, the same place that hope began to be extinguished so many years before.

The prophet describes the gloom and darkness of the people being turned to light and joy, and the rod of the oppressor is broken “as on the day of Midian”—probably a reference to the stunning defeat of the Midianite tribes by Gidian in Judges 6-7 in the Valley of Jezreel, not far from the Galilee region.  While the image in this text probably has an immediate reference to freedom from political oppression, in hindsight we recognize that there are worse forms of oppression than the political: there is the bondage to sin and to Satan.  There is the gloom that comes from being addicted to habits and actions that harm ourselves, others, and our relationship to God (for that is what sins are) and extinguish love in our heart.  Moreover, it is not so easy to be free from these addictions, because we soon discover that there are powers in the world beyond the material and the physical—there are spiritual powers (demons) that take more than just will power and reason to overcome.  We need freedom from this interior bondage. 

Looking back, we can recognize that Isaiah’s oracle was speaking hope to us concerning a better and more substantial inbreaking of light and joy beyond simply the restoration of political autonomy in a small region of the Fertile Crescent.  Jesus has come to restore interior freedom and joy to all who are oppressed by the interior darkness that comes from sinful behavior and spiritual oppression.

2.  The Responsorial Psalm is Psalm 27:1, 4, 13-14:

R/ (1a) The Lord is my light and my salvation.
The LORD is my light and my salvation;
whom should I fear?
The LORD is my life’s refuge;
of whom should I be afraid?
R/ The Lord is my light and my salvation.
One thing I ask of the LORD;
this I seek:
To dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
That I may gaze on the loveliness of the LORD
and contemplate his temple.
R/ The Lord is my light and my salvation.
I believe that I shall see the bounty of the LORD
in the land of the living.
Wait for the LORD with courage;
be stouthearted, and wait for the LORD.
R/ The Lord is my light and my salvation.

This beautiful poem is a psalm of David in which he speaks of the desire always to be in God’s Temple, where he can behold the “face” [the Presence] of God at all times, and enjoy sweet communion with God.  In the context of today’s Mass, we recognize Jesus as the true Temple of God, the place where God’s Spirit dwells, as we saw in the Readings about the Baptism in previous weeks.  The first four apostles have the joy of “gazing on the loveliness of the LORD” and seeing the “bounty of the LORD in the land of the living” when they look at Jesus and see the wonderful healings and other miracles he performed.  Yet we, too, in every Mass behold the “gaze on the loveliness of the LORD,” when we look at the Sacred Host in obedience to the command, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

3.  The Second Reading is 1 Cor 1:10-13, 17:

I urge you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
that all of you agree in what you say,
and that there be no divisions among you,
but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.
For it has been reported to me about you, my brothers and sisters,
by Chloe’s people, that there are rivalries among you.
I mean that each of you is saying,
“I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,”
or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”
Is Christ divided?
Was Paul crucified for you?
Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel,
and not with the wisdom of human eloquence,
so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning.

The Second Reading for the next several weeks is working its way through St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. 

The church in Corinth was wracked with divisions, and the seriousness of the situation can be gauged by the fact that St. Paul mentions factions immediately after the opening “pleasantries” (1 Cor 1:1-9), at the front of the body of the letter. The different factions into which the local church was breaking are prototypes of the divisions that Christianity would suffer later in history.

St. Paul urges that there be “no divisions” among Christians, and this refers both to internal and external splits. The attitude among most Christians today that visible separations into different organizations and denominations is acceptable, provided we are “united in heart” or “united in Spirit,” finds no place in the teaching of the apostles.

It is providential that we are reading this text right after the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. While the importance of Christian unity is fundamental to the Gospel, I have misgivings about some ecumenical gatherings and movements, especially when they envision some re-unification of Christianity in which the Catholic Church and other groups will lose their distinctives and be absorbed into a larger “ecumenical” body.

The truth is, the Catholic Church is the “ecumenical body” that everyone should join in order to be reunified.  I know how chauvinistic that might sound, and fifteen years ago I would have immediately dismissed anyone who made such a remark.  But it remains the truth.  “Catholic” and “ecumenical” are, after all, virtually synonyms meaning “universal.”  The immediate objection to viewing the Catholic Church as the ecumenical body to which all should belong is that the Church’s authority structure is too rigid.  Certainly an inclusive ecumenical body should have a minimal authority structure and “lowest common denominator” doctrinal standards, right?  Well, no.  That’s what I’ve learned by experience. 

Authority is necessary for unity, and there is no real unity without authority. Most ecumenical organizations are unable to (1) maintain their own internal unity over time and (2) establish true theological communion, because they have no authority to make final, binding decisions about matters in dispute between their various constituents. The authority of the Pope and the Bishops in communion with him is necessary to keep the Church from being destroyed internally be irresolvable theological disputes.

People want unity without an authority structure, but there’s no way to have such a thing.  It’s like a square circle.  It just can’t exist, as much as people try.

The Catholic Church is the one Jesus founded and entrusted to Peter, Paul, and their co-workers like Apollos.  Peter and Paul together built up the local church of Rome and left their bodies in that city; therefore Rome became the focus of unity for the Church.  There is not a conflict between “Roman” and “Catholic,” between the particular and the universal. What is “Roman” is “Catholic” because to be Roman is to be in communion with Peter and Paul, these two apostles who were unique in the universal scope of their ministry and responsibility.

The structures of the Catholic Church were entrusted to her by Christ, and further developed over time under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, in order to maintain the unity of an international, universal body of faith.  Oftentimes, other ecumenical organizations are attempting to “reinvent the wheel” by developing new structures to unite Christianity.   The intention is admirable, but Jesus has already provided the means of unity: communion with those in apostolic and Petrine succession.

We must remember, of course, that the goal of unity is not the aggrandizement of the Church as an institution or in its external forms.  Rather, the goal of unity is to show forth the power of “the cross of Christ,” as St. Paul says.  Christ went to the cross to reconcile humanity with God and human beings with each other.  Perpetuated schism constitutes resistance to the message of the cross.

4.  The Gospel is Matt 4:12-23:

When Jesus heard that John had been arrested,
he withdrew to Galilee.
He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea,
in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali,
that what had been said through Isaiah the prophet
might be fulfilled:
Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles,
the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light,
on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death
light has arisen.

From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say,
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers,
Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew,
casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen.
He said to them,
“Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
At once they left their nets and followed him.
He walked along from there and saw two other brothers,
James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John.
They were in a boat, with their father Zebedee, mending their nets.
He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father
and followed him.
He went around all of Galilee,
teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom,
and curing every disease and illness among the people.

In our discussion of the First Reading, we touched on how Jesus begins his ministry of the reunification of Israel in the north, the same area where Israel began to be destroyed. 

This actually raises the theme of reunification observed above in the Second Reading.

Jesus is on a mission of unity.  He intends to reunify the sacred people of Israel.  In the later part of the Gospel reading, we observe Jesus choosing the first four of his Twelve Apostles.  The Twelve constitute twelve new patriarchs, taking the place of the twelve sons of Jacob who founded the tribes of the nation of Israel.

The Twelve Tribes were transformed into a mighty kingdom under the reigns of David and Solomon.  Now Jesus, the Son of David, begins to re-establish the kingdom of his father David when he announces, “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”  The “Kingdom of Heaven” ruled by King Jesus has both a divine and human dimension, as Jesus is fully human and fully divine.  In its human dimension, the Kingdom of Heaven is the Kingdom of David, because Jesus is the Son of David, and David’s sons had the privilege of being sons of God (2 Sam 7:14) by covenant. 

The reign of David over the Twelve Tribes had been destroyed long ago, broken by schism already in 1 Kings 12.  But now Jesus comes to re-unify and re-establish.

He calls fishermen to follow him and become “fishers of men.”  Although Matthew doesn’t call attention to the fact, this is actually a fulfillment of an oracle of the prophet Jeremiah:

Jer. 16:16 “Behold, I am sending for many fishers, says the LORD, and they shall catch them; and afterwards I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks.

Originally, Jeremiah’s words were set in the context of a larger prophecy promising the restoration of the people of Israel (Jer 16:14-15).  Nonetheless, his words sound ominous: God will hunt down his people for their iniquity (Jer 16:17-18).  Yet as fulfilled in Christ, the oracle takes on a different sense: the “fishers” will “hunt down” the survivors of Israel in order to offer them not merely punishment but a remedy for their sins.

The four fishermen Jesus calls are two pairs of brothers: Peter and Andrew, James and John.  Although the way the story is presented in Matthew causes it to appear as if the four men drop their nets to follow a total stranger, there is good reason to believe, on the basis of information in the other Gospels, that these four men had already encountered Jesus before and had some interaction with him.  Jesus is not calling to total strangers, but he is calling the men to commit whole-heartedly to what up to that time had been a casual relationship with him.  Having said all that does not reduce the drama of the scene and the radical nature of their decision: they walk away from their nets (i.e. their livelihood) and (in the case of James and John) their very own father (i.e. their family) in order to begin a new life with Jesus.

In Judaism, it was only permissible to cease the practice of one’s livelihood and break family ties for the sake of the study of God’s Word, the Torah, “The Law.”  In calling his disciples to abandon everything, not to study the Law but to “follow me,” Jesus is placing himself in the role of the Law of God.  He is God’s Word incarnate.  Imitating him is a form of studying God’s Law.  That's an appropriate point to make on this first-ever Feast of the Word of God.

Although the word “joy” is not found in this Gospel text, the whole story is infused with joy and light.  Peter, Andrew, James, and John were men “walking in darkness” who see the “great light” striding along the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  Unlike the Rich Young Ruler who is called to leave everything and “goes away sad” because he cannot abandon his wealth, these four disciples “go away happy” with Jesus.  They let nothing hold them back.

This Gospel reminds us of the joy of the Gospel.  Life would truly be depressing without Jesus.  Among all the world’s philosophers and religious founders, Jesus stands out as a light, telling us of a God who wants us to be his children, showing us the way to live a life of love in relationship with such a Father, teaching us that the sufferings of this life are the very means to draw closer to God.

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