Sunday, January 27, 2008

Year A, Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isa. 8,23 - 9,3; Ps. 27, 4.13-14; 1Cor. 1, 10-13. 17; Matt. 4, 12-23

Our Gospel today consists of two parts: Jesus’ initial preaching of the Kingdom and his call to discipleship of four of the twelve, two sets of brothers: Peter and Andrew and James and John. In St. Matthew’s chronology of the life of Jesus, these connected events occur after Jesus’ baptism, which marked the beginning of his public ministry, after his forty days and forty nights fasting and praying in the desert, and after the arrest and imprisonment of John the Baptist, his herald. It was Jesus’ anointing by the Spirit upon his coming up out of the waters of the Jordan that his identity was made known, he is the Christ, which means the anointed One, the Messiah anxiously awaited by Roman subjugated Israel.

It is for this reason that the author of Matthew goes to great pains, both in this passage and throughout the book, to demonstrate from scripture that Jesus is the Messiah, the fulfillment of the prophecies, like that from Isaiah in today’s passage, which was also our first reading. The expectation of the Messiah at the time was that he would come from the holy city of Jerusalem. Instead Jesus of Nazareth is an itinerant preacher who comes from Galilee, which is separated from Judah by Samaria. He comes to Jerusalem from Galilee, a place that Isaiah, in our first reading, refers to as the "District of the Gentiles" (Isa. 8,23). What we glean from this is that God’s Kingdom is not a place, but a person.

That Jesus is the Kingdom of God in person is called by Origen, the great Church father, autobasileia. In his book Jesus of Nazareth the Holy Father, commenting on this insight, writes: "Jesus himself is the Kingdom; the Kingdom is not a thing, it is not a geographical dominion like worldly kingdoms. It is a person; it is he". He continues, "Jesus leads [us] to realize the overwhelming fact that in him God himself is present among [us], that he is God's presence" (pg. 49). It is for the furthering of the Kingdom, for the on-going healing, that is conversion, of a fallen and broken world, that Jesus calls disciples, an act through which he establishes the Church, the ekkelsia, the assembly of disciples.

Jesus’ announcement of God’s Kingdom is simple: "Repent" (Matt. 4,17). What does it mean to repent? Does it merely mean being sorry for my sins? Well, that is contrition, which is a necessary, but not sufficient part of repentance. The Greek word used in this passage is met-an-o-eh’o, which literally means a change of mind, or, more precisely, to perceive anew. Met-an-oeh’o is a compound word consisting of the preposition meta, meaning beyond and the verb no-eh’o, which means to perceive in a new and different way, to gain deeper understanding. This change of mind/change of perception is what we call conversion, which comes through faith, the gift of God that is truly knowledge, a way of engaging reality. To convert is to change from one state to another. Changing in this way, becoming like Christ, is the means of fulfilling our deepest desire. St. Augustine expresses this human desire in a letter written to a widow: "We want only one thing, the life which is simply life, simply happiness."

Jesus is the happiness for which we long, the life that is life. That this was recognized by Peter and Andrew as well as by James and John is indicated in our Gospel. Peter and Andrew left their nets at once "and followed him" (Matt. 4,20). Likewise, James and John, upon being called by our Lord "immediately . . . left their boat and their father and followed him" (Matt. 4,22). That we have been called by Jesus to follow him is a fact. It is something objective, not a discernment that needs to be made. The objectivity of our call is not something that is philosophically calculated, or theologically derived, but arises from our experience, the encounter that initiated us into the event of God’s Kingdom, our baptism. If you are baptized you are called. So, the only question is What is your response? Our Lord issues you a call that demands a response, to be given in freedom. An affirmative response is repentance, which consists of opening myself to what the Father is doing, through Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to me through the concrete, everyday, circumstances of my life.

Two suggestions for opening ourselves to what God is doing, to responding affirmatively to the call of Jesus Christ, are to get into the habit of examining our conscience every night before falling to sleep and to observe Friday as a day of penance. Nightly examining one’s conscience consists in honestly asking ourselves two simple questions: How was I faithful to Jesus’ call to repentance- how did I die to myself by reaching out to bring Jesus’ goodness to other people today? How did somebody bring the Good News of Jesus’ presence to me today? The second way, observing Friday as a day of penance, is simple too. While the strict obligation of Friday abstinence from the meat of warm-blooded animals was left to national conferences of bishops after the Second Vatican Council, the requirement to observe Fridays as days of penance in the universal Church was not changed. Therefore, each Friday is a day to unite with Jesus in his passion and death by keeping Friday as a day of either fast or abstinence and as a day for intensified prayer and charitable works. The tradition of first Friday is a beautiful way to bring this to its fullness, by attending Mass and perhaps going to confession. Friday prayer can be intensified by walking, even if only mentally, the Stations of the Cross, praying the Sorrowful mysteries of the rosary, or reciting the Chaplet of Divine of Mercy.

As regards our communion as disciples of Jesus Christ, St. Paul gives us much to work on. He tells the Church in Corinth that there are to "be no divisions among [them]" (1 Cor. 1,10). Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, former Dominican Master General, wrote that while the Church is fragmented in many parts of the world, it is nowhere more so than here in the United States. We usually think of the polarization in the Church today in terms "of left and right, progressive and conservative," Radcliffe writes. The problem with this way of thinking, he continues, is that "these categories are alien to Catholic thinking". Indeed, he goes on, these categories find their roots in the Enlightenment. Enlightenment thinkers "believed that the light had dawned because they had cast off the darkness of tradition . . . especially of Catholic dogma". In this they mistakenly believed that they had "liberated themselves from the past". But this belief pre-supposes a mutual exclusivity between tradition and innovation which is also alien to Catholic thought, just as we reject the opposition of faith and reason, two ways of knowing reality that are necessary not only for knowledge, but, more importantly, for wisdom (Overcoming Discord in the Church, NCR). After all, St. Paul was no mean innovator himself, challenging Peter and the Judaizers, as well as the Church in Jerusalem, led by James the Greater. It is arrogant to believe that we have plumbed the depths of the mysterium tremendum, just as it is hubris not adhere to the truth we know, the fact of Christ and all that it implies, as we encounter the Mystery together.

My dear friends, Jesus’ call to repent and follow him is a call to radical conversion, which means that it entails a commitment to changing from the very depths of our being, from our roots. It is a call that, when responded to in freedom, changes everything because it changes our perception of the world, of people, of ourselves. In this regard, the words of the Holy Father from the beginning of his first encyclical bear repeating: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est, par. 1). Like the Galilean fishermen, our encounter with Christ, through which we are initiated into the event of God’s Kingdom, includes water, the water of baptism. We are drawn deeper into this event, this mystery, by our confirmation, through which, like Christ, our true identity is made known, and through this Eucharist, by means of which together we become one body, one spirit in Christ, an everlasting gift to the Father, a communion of persons, like the Blessed Trinity. As we approach the holy season of Lent, Jesus says to you and me again, "Repent and come follow me". What is your response?

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