Sunday, February 3, 2019

Baptism, death, burial: call and response

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

It is important to know and to keep in the mind that Lectionary during Ordinary Time seeks to harmonize the Church's reading from the Hebrew Scriptures (i.e., the Old Testament) with the Gospel reading. Hence, the reading from the New Testament letters may or not be harmonized at all. For those of us who preach, on any given week, it is possible to focus on either the first reading and the Gospel or to preach on the passage from the New Testament letter. It is sometimes possible, without engaging in scriptorture, possible to harmonize all the readings. I mention this because liturgical catechesis is so very important. Knowing the liturgy is what allows each one of us to participate fully.

The opening lines from our reading from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah is one that is frequently invoked in the pro-life cause: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you,a prophet to the nations I appointed you" (Jer 1:5). When used in this way, the assumption is that these words apply to each and every person. Such an insistence, of course, is perfectly consistent with something very fundamental to Christian theology, which has been co-opted by humanists, namely that every human being ineradicably bears the imago Dei, the image of God. In the context of this passage, however, it these words apply solely to the prophet. God gave Jeremiah a very difficult task, one that he carried out but not without a lot of complaining and lamenting. If you are familiar with what happened to this prophet as he did what God called him to do, you cannot blame him one bit. While Jeremiah remained faithful to his prophetic calling, despite himself, in strictly human terms, his mission was a failure.

When harmonized with our Gospel for this Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, the meaning of the words, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you...," is applied specifically to Jesus. Our Gospel reading this week not only picks up where last week's left off, it overlaps with it to ensure continuity. Jesus had just declared himself to be the Messiah. The initial reaction of the Nazarene assembly, most of whom would've been blood relatives of Jesus, was to ask, "Isn’t this the son of Joseph?" (Luke 4:22). Meaning, "This guy from down the block, who grew up here among us, cannot possibly be the long-awaited Messiah."

What angered the assembly to the point of them attempting to kill Jesus was his insistence that they, as Israelites, God's chosen people, had failed in their divine calling, their vocation. Using the Gentile widow of Zarephath, to whom Elijah was sent during an extended drought, and Naaman, the Syrian general, who was also a non-Israelite, as examples of how Israel had failed repeatedly, he really pissed off his hometown. Nonetheless, he was successful because he heeded the Father by means of their Holy Spirit in taking this opportunity to begin his public ministry, at least according to Luke. Of course, they did succeed in killing Jesus- that would happen in due course. He did "go away" (Luke 4:30). According to Luke, as well as the other Synoptics (Matthew and Mark), once Jesus departed, he did not return, at least not before his resurrection.

Excavated Synagogue of Nazareth, which is a chapel today

Vocation, from the Latin verb vocare, refers one's calling. In strictly Catholic terms, it refers to the call God places on one's life. At the end of the day, there is only one vocation: follow Christ. We received this call when we were baptized. We need to figure out just how the Lord is calling us to follow him, in what "state of life," to invoke another Catholic phrase, we are to live out our baptismal call: ordained, married, consecrated, single. Beyond determining which state of life the Lord calls us to, we need to drill down to how we live each day, giving concrete meaning to our call. This extends to our personal relationships, family life, communal life, parish life, our daily work, how we make a living, what we study, etc. Reaching back to our reading from St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians from last week, each one of us is the recipient of some spiritual gift that we are to put at the service of the Body of Christ, that is, the Church, which, in practical terms, refers to serving your parish, or the particular Christian community to which belong.

As with both Jeremiah and Jesus, we can't judge our success in living our vocation in worldly ways. There are no metrics we can bring to bear as proof of our efficacy. For example, becoming rich, far from being a blessing from God, at least according to Jesus's teaching, puts you in greater peril than being poor. In God's Kingdom, the poor have an advantage, always! Receiving recognition, awards, and high praise for what we do often only serves to make us less effective in the things that really matter, etc.

In his book Heart of the World, Center of the Church: Communio Ecclesiology, Liberalism, and Liberation, David L. Schindler, pointing to Hans Urs Von Balthasar, notes that "success is not a name of God" (135). Therefore, he continues, success "is not a Gospel category" (Ibid). In making these observations, Schindler had in mind a passage from Balthasar's work Moment of Christian Witness. In this passage, Balthasar notes that the person
who has died in baptism and has been resurrected by the power of God is the fruit of eternal life made manifest in temporal life. The early Church was well aware of this when she ascribed to her martyrs the power of a supernatural fertility for Christendom and the world at large. It is therefore by no means true that only a few very radically-minded Christians need to base their faith on the death of Christ, while the majority may remain content to let just a little of the transfiguring supernatural light illuminate their natural lives. That is a kind of dualism which could be better described by the use of such terms as "detachment from the world" and "openness to the world"... For Christians there is no question of such an attitude, for "all of us who have been baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death" and "we were buried therefore with him by baptism [34-35]
As Benedict XVI exclaimed in his first Easter Urbi et Orbi message after becoming Pontiff: Christus resurrexit quia Deus caritas est!

St. Paul exhorted the Christians in Corinth: "Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts." After enumerating a number of spiritual gifts he states there are three that remain after all the others pass away: faith, hope, and love. The apostle concludes by emphasizing that even among those charismata (i.e., "gifts") that endure, the greatest spiritual gift is love. While it is often difficult to perceive in this present darkness, it is only by love that we truly know others and are known by the God who is love. As Christ's resurrection shows us, contra the Song of Songs (8:6), love is not only as strong as death; love is stronger than death. It is only by looking through the eyes of love that we see reality.

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