FJanuary 27, 2019
Third Sunday of Ordinary Time
Nehemiah 8:2-10; 1 Corinthians 12:12-30; Luke 1:1-4 and 4:14-21
This is the homily I preached at the conclusion of the 37th Annual St. Rita’s Men’s Gathering in Central Point, Oregon.
“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
In your hearing.
There were no printing presses in the ancient world. A book was a very rare and expensive thing, worth the equivalent of man’s wages for a year, because that’s about how long it took to copy out by hand onto a scroll. And so the reading of the Bible was a communal event, a matter of people coming to the synagogue or some other place and hearing the scriptures proclaimed, as Jesus proclaims Isaiah in the Gospel today and Ezra proclaims the Torah in the Book of Nehemiah. That’s what the word read means in both Hebrew and Greek, to proclaim aloud.
And the mass preserves this sense of reading. We have all kinds of books now and paper and pens and laptops and I-Pads, and that’s great, that’s a blessing, but it can also lead to a sense of the Biblical stories as static or distant or abstract, just something to analyze. But through the Eucharist the scriptures are fulfilled in our hearing at every mass, are made present, and not just at mass but in our lives. “The Gospel of the Lord,” the priest or deacon says, and he doesn’t lift up the book when he says it. It’s not the book that’s the Gospel. It’s the words of the Gospel spoken into the air in that moment and taken into the ears and minds and hearts of the people in the congregation and then out into the world. “You are the Body of Christ,” St. Paul says today, and I don’t think that’s a metaphor. I think it’s literally true. It’s not Christ then and Christ therebut Christ now, Christ here, in our bloodstreams, our breathing. Today, Jesus says. Today.
The bread and the wine that are brought up are symbols of our work and of our messy, ordinary lives, and these are taken to the altar and made holy, and in that act we realize that everything we do is holy, if we offer it to God, if we act in his presence.
When the priest holds up the consecrated host he doesn’t say, “this wasBody of Christ.” He says, “it is.”
All the little moments of our lives. All the little moments of light and of darkness and even of stumbling. The scripture is fulfilled in our sight and in our touch and we are freed of our prisons, healed of our wounds. The Red Sea is parted. The dove comes down.
I’ve been to the Holy Land, and I’ve looked out at the Sea of Galilee, and it was beautiful and I was moved. But these hills are beautiful, too, and these trees, these lakes. This sky. It’s blasphemous to say that any place is holier than any other. Jesus didn’t just die, he lived; and he didn’t just rise, he ascended; and when he ascended he sent the Spirit to fill all the world. And in another way and from another perspective he has always been present and always diffused, always distributed, as Colossians says and the great Prologue to the Gospel of John. All were created through him and all were created for him and in him everything continues in being. He is in our DNA, in our molecules, our quarks.
“A thought,” Teilhard de Chardin says, “a material improvement, a harmony, a unique nuance of human love, the enchanting complexity of a smile or a glance, all these new beauties that appear for the first time, in me or around me, on the human face of the earth—the spiritual success of the universe is bound up with the release of every possible energy in it.”
We don’t just pray when we pray. We pray when we fix a faucet or mow the lawn or make dinner for our kids. We pray when we write or walk or have coffee with a friend.
Any increase that I can bring upon myself or upon things is translated into some increase in my power to love and some progress in God’s blessed hold on the universe. With every creative thought or action, a little more health is being spread in the human mass, and in consequence, a little more liberty to act, to think, and to love. We serve to complete the work of creation, even by the humblest work of our hands.
So we can rejoice, and look, and see. Listen. Hear. Touch. In Christ and through Christ our lives are holy and everything about our lives. Our work is holy, if we do it with integrity and do it well. Fixing an engine. Programming a computer. Writing a poem.
A friend of mine died the other day. He was a professor of biological and ecological engineering—one of his specialties was waste management and water quality—and I keep thinking of this conversation we had on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica, in Rome. He and his wife were part of our pilgrimage group, and we’d just had mass in the basilica, beneath those high vaulting arches.
We were all moved–I know Jim was–but what he was talking about on the steps of the church were the glories of the Roman water system, that great network of channels and pipes spread out beneath the city, engineered 2,000 years ago and still in use, still running. You can drink the water that pours from the fountains, it’s still pure, and Jim just really admired that, and he was right to.
What’s beneath the basilica is just as precious as what’s in it. That moment was holy and all the moments. Jim didn’t talk a lot about his faith, he didn’t say churchy things, but he was faithful, the Lord in his love flowed through him, in his kindness and his generosity, in all that he knew about pipes and waste and systems of purification and exchange, and it flows through us, too, all of us. If we let it. If we let it.
Jesus isn’t just on a page. He didn’t just live long ago.
The words he spoke are being spoken still, in the words of a friend or the song of a bird or in the light that shines in the mornings. On the steps of the basilica. On our own front porch.