Monday, January 29, 2007

Year C, Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

By request, here is my homily from this past Sunday. For a limited time, you can watch the Intermountain Catholic re-broadcast of the entire Mass without registering, but if you are an IC subscriber (why wouldn't any Utah Catholic be?), register on the site and, among other perks, you will have unlimited access to archives of Masses from our lovely Madeleine.

The Cathedral of the Madeleine
27-28 January 2007

Readings: Jer 1,4-5.17-19; Ps 71, 1-6.15-17; 1 Cor 12,31-13,13; Lk 4-21-30

On Being a Prophet

Today’s first reading, taken from the book of Jeremiah, lays the groundwork for what God is saying to us today. In this passage, God tells Jeremiah that even before he was born, God dedicated and appointed him "a prophet to the nations" (Jer 1,5). Furthermore, this passage gives us a deep insight into why Jesus, in our recitation from St. Luke’s Gospel, says, "no prophet is accepted in his own native place" (Lk 4,24).

The reason God made Jeremiah "a fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of brass," is because he is to speak the word of God to an errant nation, his own nation, the covenant people of Israel, and pronounce God’s "sentence against them for all their wickedness in forsaking [God]" (Jer 1,16). Jeremiah, the young prophet, is to speak divine judgment "against the whole land: against Judah’s kings and princes, against its priests and people." Because of the words he speaks, Judah’s kings, princes, priests and people "will fight against [Jeremiah] but not prevail over [him]" (Jer 1,18-19).

This brings us to our Gospel for this Sunday, which is unique in the lectionary because it overlaps last Sunday’s Gospel. The setting for this pericope, this narrative is a Sabbath in the synagogue of Jesus’ native Nazareth. In last week’s Gospel, Jesus, after standing and reading a messianic passage from the scroll of the prophet of Isaiah, sits and announces both last week and today, "this passage is fulfilled in your hearing" (Lk 4,21). It is vital that we recognize just what Jesus is saying not only in order to understand the response of those present in the synagogue on that Sabbath, but more importantly to form our own response to his proclamation.

Throughout Galilee, prior to returning home, Jesus was healing the sick, casting our demons, teaching at synagogue, and disputing with the religious authorities about the Law. This sets the stage for his remarkable revelation in the Nazareth synagogue, which is the astounding proclamation from his own mouth that he is the Messiah, the Anointed One, he of whom Isaiah and the other prophets foretold, and through whom the radical in-breaking of God’s kingdom was occurring before their very eyes and being proclaimed to their ears. Their response was the response of fallen humanity. They "were filled with fury" and so they "drove him out of the town," to "the brow of the hill" in order "to hurl him down headlong" (Lk 4,28-29).

What we must come to recognize is that the word of God does not grow old or become outdated. God did not just speak long ago in a faraway land. He speaks to us today. Today, as in Jeremiah’s day and in the time of Jesus, God speaks and what God says is consistent, saying the same things to us as he said to his people then through prophets, thus demonstrating that sin is still at work in the world and that "there is nothing new under the sun" (Ec 1,9). Such recognition gives us deep insight into what a prophet is. Contrary to the belief of some, being a hierarchical figure is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for being a prophet. Of course, a prophet can be a hierarchical figure, as in the case of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who as archbishop of San Salvador agitated the political powers to the point of being shot and killed while saying Mass. More often, however, as in the case of both Jeremiah and Jesus, a prophet is an outsider and an irritant to both political and religious authorities.

Just as what God says is the same, our response has a remarkable, if troublesome consistency with that of the people in the synagogue of Nazareth. After all, what political or religious leader wants to listen to a voice calling them back to God's way, away from corruption, the neglect of the poor and the misuse of their office? What comfortable, relatively well-off, patriotic, God-fearing, Christian wants to be reminded of the diseased, the starving, the abused, the mentally ill in his midst who are in desperate need of his help, not to mention the havoc his consumption habits are wreaking on our planet? In short, prophets are irritants, disrupting the artificially smooth flow of the daily life of the privileged and powerful. In our day, the powerful, and those who profit from the status quo do not want to listen to the voices of those who challenge war and aggressive international policies. Even within the Church there is a tendency among some to label the voices calling for fiscal transparency and accountability in the abuse cases as troublemakers and agitators.

To give just a few examples from recent decades of prophets in our midst, speaking God’s comfort to the afflicted and, as with Jeremiah and Jesus, afflicting the comfortable, we call to mind Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez, and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. These past few weeks have seen both the passing of Abbé Pierre, known as the conscience of the French nation, who, amidst the ruin of World War II, founded the Emmaus movement, an international organization dedicated to assisting the poor and homeless in wealthy, Western societies, and the senseless murder of the Christian Armenian voice of conscience in Turkey, Hrant Dink. Today in our country, Sr. Helen Prejean, whose ministry of reconciliation, memorably captured in her book Dead Man Walking, and the resultant film, does much to convict the conscience of our nation, which takes such pride in calling itself Christian, about the death penalty which, according to Pope John Paul II, should be practically abolished (Evangelium Vitae, 56). If we are properly disposed we can hear God’s voice in unexpected places, such as in the wilderness of popular culture in both the music and activities of the band U2, an Irish band that was revolutionary in my youth for building bridges by having both Protestant and Catholic members and calling for an end to violence in Belfast and who now, among other things, bring much needed attention and relief to poverty and other issues on the forgotten continent of Africa.

Right now, we need prophets to speak to our nation on the issue of immigration, to remind our elected representatives that, contrary to Robert Frost’s ironic poem, good walls do not make good neighbors and to remind all who would call themselves Christian that welcoming the stranger among us falls under Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbor and was an offense for which God, through the prophets, frequently chastised ancient Israel. For our neighbor, as Jesus teaches us most powerfully in the parable of the Good Samaritan, is especially the one whom I see as "the other," the person who is different from me and, hence, is one who makes me uncomfortable.

As we have seen, being a prophet requires great courage. It requires great courage because prophets, as our Lord says, are not accepted in their own native places. Just as those in Nazareth that morning asked after hearing Jesus proclaim himself Israel’s Messiah, "Isn’t this the son of Joseph?", so those to whom prophets speak often fail to hear in their voices the very voice of God and echoes of the words of Christ because, as St. Paul writes, God uses, "earthen vessels to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us" (2 Cor 4,7). Not being accepted, beginning with the prophets of old, extending through the Lord himself, and continuing in our day, often means laying down one’s life, as in the cases of Archbishop Romero, Dr. King, Hrant Dink, and Bobby Kennedy, who, after the assassination of his brother, took a risk and, moving outside the bubble of his own privileged life, had his eyes opened and his conscience convicted by what he saw and experienced and concluded that as a country we not only could, but had to be a better, more just society, which is the only way to realize a more perfect union.

Finally, this brings us to what motivates a prophet and what motivates God, our Father, to call men and women to speak on His behalf. It is a one word answer that is written about powerfully by the apostle in today’s second reading- love. Being motivated by love properly understood and rooted in God’s revelation, is the touchstone by which we also discern false prophets of which, as in Jesus’ day, there are many. Therefore, we must be careful not to forget that love of God and love of neighbor, while inextricably linked together, are distinct, one (love of God) leading us to the other (love of neighbor). "If I have no contact whatsoever with God in my life," writes the Holy Father, "then I cannot see in the other anything more than the other, and I am incapable of seeing in him the image of God. But if in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be 'devout' and to perform my 'religious duties', then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely 'proper', but loveless" (Deus Caritas Est, 18). This being Choir School Sunday, let us note that our school's motto concisely captures its mission: Caritas Christi Urget Nos. These words are from St. Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians: "For the love of Christ impels us, once we have come to the conviction that one died for all; therefore, all have died. He indeed died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised" (2 Cor 5,14-15). In this we see that the fundamental mission of Christian education is nothing less than an education in selfless love,

So, we must see that what makes the other more than merely the other is seeing in him/her not only the imago dei- the divine image- but seeing Christ. In both baptism and confirmation we are anointed with sacred chrism as priests, prophets, and royalty. This calls us to be alter Christus- other Christs. My dear sisters and brothers, as we celebrate this Eucharist, let us ask how and where God is calling us, individually and as a community, to stand up and tell all He commands us (Jer 1,17)- for in the face of sin and injustice prophets remain neither passive nor silent!

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