My Dear Friends and Parishioners,
It’s a real challenge to write an Easter message this year. There’s just so little that’s normal right now. I’ve watched Pope Francis imparting his Urbi et Orbi Blessing as he stood in an empty Saint Peter’s Square. I’ve watched streamed congregationless Masses from the Cathedral. But it’s all so strange so surreal. I miss my friends and family. I miss being with you at Mass.
We’re in a frightening time right now. A few hundred feet from our church, Lenox Hill Hospital has set up an outdoor morgue in the middle of 76th Street. Happily, I know of only two parishioners who have come down with Covid 19. One was hospitalized, but is now home. The other is convalescing at home. Both are doing well.
Marlon McPhail, the cook for the priests and brothers, was hospitalized with Covid 19 last week. We’re praying for him. We’re being exceptionally careful in the house, washing door knobs and countertops multiple times a day, and staying away from each other as much as possible. For the past three weeks we’ve gone out only to purchase groceries and medications. Each of you, I’m sure, are trying to be as conscious as possible of social distancing, wearing masks when around other people and disinfecting surfaces, phones and hands often.
I think we will realize that history has to repeat itself after this virus is gone. We had to adjust to a new world after 9/11. Eventually, we’re going to have to adjust to a new national and global economy. We can project. We can guess. Most essentially, we must sustain our hope. We adjusted to the aftermath of 9/11. We’ll adjust to life after Covid 19 – but it will be a new world.
Easter is the season of hope as we contemplate the Paschal Mystery- the mystery of life – death – resurrection. On the next page I’ve printed a short parable sent to me by a colleague. It’s a parable of hope. May it bring you some comfort as, together, we battle through these difficult times. God bless each and every one of you.
Fr. John Kamas, SSS Pastor
And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.
And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.
And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.
The account of the death and resurrection of Lazarus is, I believe, one of the darkest moments in the Gospel of John. We’re told several things in the first few sentences. Lazarus and his two sisters were personal friends of Jesus. Their home in Bethany was his home away from home. Jesus loved them. Word was sent to Jesus that Lazarus was ill. We can presume that the sisters wanted Jesus to come back to Bethany because they feared for Lazarus’ life.
For two days Jesus made the decision to stay put.
When he finally announced to the disciples that he would return to Bethany they protested because the last time he was there a hostile group tried to stone him. Jesus then announced that “our friend Lazarus is asleep, but I am going to awaken him.”
Here we begin to enter the darkness with Jesus. Lazarus was dead and has already been laid in the tomb.
The religious leaders were plotting to kill him, and when he finally got to Bethany it was clear that Martha and Mary felt that he had abandoned them in their hour of need. When Martha greeted him at the gate of the town she told him quite bluntly, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would never have died.” When Mary came out to see him she threw herself on the ground weeping, repeating what her sister had said. When Mary left the house to meet Jesus the townsfolk who were sitting shivah with her followed. They, too, were weeping loudly.
In Lazarus’ death Jesus was most certainly foreseeing his own death that would take place during the nearing feast of Passover. The sadness and hopelessness of Mary, Martha and the people gathering around him seemed to have overwhelmed him. “He became perturbed and deeply troubled.” When he came to the tomb he broke into tears. Many of the mourners criticized him. “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?” John’s Gospel doesn’t include Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. Instead, he places it here, in Bethany. With a command Jesus reached into the darkness engulfing the world around him. “Take the stone away!” Martha immediately protested. “Lord, by now he will smell: this is the fourth day since he died.”
“The one he loved” has been in the tomb four days. This detail was meant to emphasize the finality of Lazarus’ death. Jewish tradition held that the soul hovered around the body for three days. His soul had most certainly entered the world of shadows.
Jesus prayed aloud to his Father – he prayed that everyone around him would believe that he was sent by God. Then he cried out – a cry so intense that it pierced the walls of death. “Lazarus! Come out!”
Try to picture what happened next. “The dead man came out, his feet and hands bound with strips of material, and a cloth over his face.” Picture it! How would he come out with hands and feet tied and blinded by a veil over his face? I can only picture him squirming out of the entrance of the tomb
– head first. At Jesus command, Lazarus was born again!
I can’t stop my reflection here. I’m compelled to move ahead to John’s account of the burial of Jesus. “They took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, following the Jewish burial custom. At the place where he had been crucified there was a garden, and in this garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been buried.” This description is so similar to Lazarus’ burial and yet so radically different.
Jesus’ body was carried to the garden of Adam’s sin – the sin that brought death into the world. But….Jesus was put into “a new tomb.” No one had ever been buried in this tomb. Adam and all his descendants had been buried in tombs just like Lazarus’. The tomb sealed Adam in the kingdom of shadows. But now….Jesus, the new Adam, was buried in a new tomb, one in which no one had ever been buried before. This new tomb was the doorway to the Kingdom of God.
Recall what Jesus taught. “I am the door. Anyone who enters through me will be safe; and will go in and out and find pasture.” Remember what Jesus told Lazarus’ sister, Martha. “I am the resurrection. Anyone who believes in me, even though that person dies, will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Every account of the resurrection of Jesus dwells on the image of the empty tomb. We’re invited to stand before it and to listen to the words of Jesus. “In all truth I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born through water and the Spirit.”
Today, I invite you to clothe yourself in faith. Stand before the empty tomb, the garden tomb in which Jesus was buried. In prayer, listen for him to cry out your name. Listen! “Be unbound! Be set free!”
The story of the man born blind begins innocuously. Walking along the road on a Sabbath day, Jesus and his disciples passed a man who had been blind from birth. Some of the disciples asked a question. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Most of us raise similar questions when we see a child or adult who was born with a severe physical challenge. We don’t usually ask who sinned, but we might ask, “Why did God allow this to happen?” In Jesus’ day illness was viewed as a punishment from God for a sin. Poverty was viewed in the same way. Jesus’ answer was simple; nobody sinned. Good answer. But he added, “It is so that the works of God may be made visible through him.” They must have just begun processing the statement when Jesus threw them totally off track with what must have seemed like a non-sequitur. “We have to do the work of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work.” Then Jesus gave an even more confusing statement. “While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” With that statement the conversation ended. Jesus went over to the blind man, spit on the ground, made some mud, and rubbed it on the blind man’s eyes. He then told him to go to the pool of Siloam and wash. He did as he was instructed and returned able to see!
Can you imagine the joy the man experienced?! But his joy was to be quickly frustrated because some people who knew him began to argue about him. Some recognized him as the blind beggar they had known, but others, incredulous, said he just looked like him. They listened to the story of his healing and asked him where they might find Jesus. He told them that he didn’t know. His answer frustrated them even more so they took him to the Pharisees who immediately politicized the healing and condemned Jesus for having broken the Sabbath rest. They asked the blind man what he had to say about Jesus. His answer infuriated them. “He is a prophet.”
Then they called in his parents. This is a tense and very sad part of the man’s story. The religious leaders had previously circulated a threat among the population that any followers of Jesus would be excommunicated from the synagogue. This meant segregation from the Jewish population, and the forfeiture of the Jewish exemption of offering incense to the Roman Emperor. This was a serious threat. The blind man’s parents broke under the threat and abandoned their son. When asked about the healing they told the Pharisees “We do not know how he sees now, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age, he can speak for himself.”
The Pharisees called the blind man in again and began a second interrogation. Aggravated by their hounding him the blind man lashed out at them. “Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?” With that, they pronounced him a sinner, threw him out of the synagogue and excommunicated him.
The conclusion of the story adds a wonderful dimension. When Jesus heard of the man’s excommunication he tracked him down to ask him a question. “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” The man must have looked at him with puzzlement and fascination.
He had been sitting by the roadside begging, as he always did, when this man Jesus came over to him and initiated his cure. He was blind from the moment of his birth but in a few short minutes a healer put mud on his eyes, he washed in the Pool of Siloam, and could see the light of the sun for the first time. He could see the people along the road. He could see his parents!
But that same day, his parents abandoned him and he was removed from the safety net of the Jewish community. He could see, but he was alone. Jesus’ question offered him hope. “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
Was this man, this prophet, the messiah? “Who is he, sir, that I might believe in him.” He looked into Jesus’ eyes. “You have seen him, the one speaking to you is he.” His response came from the depth of his heart. “I do believe.” And he worshiped him. At that moment the once blind beggar saw the Kingdom of God and hope filled his heart.
Like the moral at the conclusion of a Medieval Miracle Play Jesus gave an explanation of what had happened. “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind.”
The blind man represents each of us. Now and then God’s healing hand touches us. We’re asked to respond to that touch – to go to the Pool of Siloam – to wash the spiritual cataracts from our eyes. This may happen to the convert who is seeking God and a deeper life. This may happen to the believer whose faith has become insipid. It may happen to the person who is reeling from a trauma or personal tragedy. It may happen to the person who has simply lost the way.
This story of the man born blind reassures us that God is reaching out to heal us. When we respond to that gesture we will be healed. We’ll see the world differently and enjoy a more intimate experience of God. The story is also telling us that our healing doesn’t exempt up from the tribulations of life. The story is asking us to say yes to God’s healing so that we can bring the light and hope we have received to a blind world.
The whole thing started when Jesus asked a woman for a drink of water. It was high noon. The sun was intense. Jesus was tired. His disciples left him there alone so that they could buy provisions in the little town nearby. After a bit of time, a woman came to draw water. He didn’t have a bucket so he asked her to give him some water. She wasn’t nice at all. She snapped at him. “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink!?” A simple request ignited a long-standing hostility – Jews and Samaritans hated each other. He responded to her in a very strange way. “If you knew who I was you’d ask me for ‘living -water,’ and I would lead you to the spring of eternal life.”
Things got stranger. He asked her to call her husband. When she said she had none, he proceeded to tell her all about her life and the husbands she’d had. The reason she came alone to the well during the hottest time of the day was to avoid the other women of the town who were probably hostile towards her because of her life.
She gasped. “You’re a prophet!” But she quickly jumped back to the old antagonism. “You Jews condemned us for building our own temple.” He gently told her that a day was coming when everyone’s heart would be a temple, and then everyone would worship in spirit and truth.
Every time he spoke, something within her was consoled, something was healed.
She didn’t feel so isolated, so unwanted, so unacceptable. She got chills. Looking straight into his eyes she said, “When the Messiah comes he’ll teach us everything.” Could her hunch about this man be correct? He returned her gaze. “I am he.” She gasped.
His disciples returned at that very moment. She left him and ran back to town to tell everyone that she had found the Messiah. They returned with her and, when they saw him, believed what she had told them. They opened their hearts to him, “You’re the savior of the world!”
Today we share this story with our catechumens, the men and women who will be baptized and brought into the Church at Easter. They’ve been longing for that same “living water.” By our sharing the woman’s story with them today, we’re sharing our own stories as well. In our own way each of us met him during the heat of the day as we were searching, either consciously or subconsciously, for living water.
In our personal reflection today, let’s call to mind how we met him. What were the circumstances? Who were the people or events that led us to discover him? What spiritual blocks were removed so that we could let him into our lives? Even though we’ve been baptized we’re still searching for him. Every day is an opportunity to meet him in the heat of that day. Every day we have an opportunity to listen to his words of consolation and healing. Every day we can open our hearts to him. Every day we can point those who are thirsty and searching to the well of living water.
It’s interesting to see the way Jesus revealed himself to his disciples. It began when he brought them to Caesarea Philippi, an important place for Jews and non-Jews. The city’s central feature was a magnificent white marble temple dedicated to the emperor-god, Caesar. The Syrians had worshiped their god Baal there and some of their temples still remained. The Greeks believed the god Pan was born in a cave there. The Jews revered the place because the water that flowed from the spring in the cave was one of the sources of the Jordan river. So much of Jewish history was connected to the Jordan.
Immersed in this religious ambience Jesus asked the most important question he could ask: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Simon immediately gave him the answer he had hoped for: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” Jesus’ response was powerful and totally unexpected. “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.”
This was an extraordinary moment for Simon Peter and the other disciples. But almost immediately, a crisis hit. Jesus told them that he was traveling on to Jerusalem. There he would be rejected by the religious leadership and killed. Peter jumped on him over the comment. Jesus retaliated. “Get behind me, Satan. You are an obstacle to me. You are not thinking as God does, but as humans do!”
Without missing a beat, he turned to all the disciples. He shocked them all by telling them the price they would have to pay to be his disciple. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
In a few short moments Jesus had anointed Peter as the “rock of the church,” told him to “get behind me,” called him a “Satan,” and challenged each of them to “take up his cross and follow him.” There was probably very little talking after that short altercation. But there was more to come.
Six days later Jesus chose three from the group, Peter, James and John “and led them to a high mountain by themselves where he was transfigured before them.”
It was no accident that Jesus chose to bring the witnesses of his transfiguration to a mountain top. Sacred places were often elevated. Think of Moses going to Mount Sinai to receive the Law, the Mayan pyramids, the temple mount in Jerusalem, St. Peter’s Basilica on the Vatican Hill, or even the churches on the Upper East Side with grand staircases lifting the worshipers up from the street level. Jesus was lifting them up from the earth physically and spiritually. The vision was clear. He took on the divine light. He revealed himself glorified in heaven in conversation with two heavenly figures, Moses and Elijah.
Elijah was the prophet who was taken to heaven in a fiery chariot. It’s still common belief among Jews that Elijah will return to inaugurate the Messianic Time. Moses was the charismatic leader and law-giver during the Jewish Exodus. Luke adds in his account of the Transfiguration that Jesus, Elijah and Moses were speaking about Jesus’ personal exodus from this world back to the Father.
Peter, frightened and bewildered by what he saw, tried to somehow normalize the event – to bring it back down to earth. “I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But he was interrupted by the overshadowing of the shekinah, the cloud of divine glory. This was the cloud that descended upon Mount Sinai when Moses was given the commandments. That day God spoke in thunder and lightning. At the Transfiguration God spoke clearly and directly. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
At hearing the voice, the three collapsed with terror. A terrifying silence followed. Then each of them felt the touch of a gentle, reassuring hand.
“Rise, and do not be afraid.” Everything was back to normal. Or was it? “As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, ‘Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’”
Why are we asked to contemplate this passage at the beginning of every Lent? Because it’s essential that we look beyond the Jesus we so easily know, the first century rabbi, healer and mystic, to the Christ, the crucified and resurrected Lord. The transfigured Christ blinds our earthly eyes so that we can see him through the eyes of our soul – the eyes that see the path that leads us through the Paschal Mystery.
The Prologue to John’s Gospel puts this into a context for us. “To those who did accept him he gave the power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God. And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.”
The Transfiguration is an invitation for us to be reborn, to experience the mystery of Christ. Paul puts it this way: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 13:14) Clothing symbolizes the person. He’s asking us to become, not Jesus, but the transfigured Christ. When Jesus told Peter, James and John not to speak of the vision until he had been resurrected, he was telling them that he was walking the path of the Paschal Mystery but he had not yet completed his personal Passover. Though we look at the transfigured Christ, we have not yet entered fully into his Paschal Mystery.
During Lent we’re asked to contemplate our participation in Christ’s Paschal Mystery. We asked to ponder our life, death and resurrection. We’re challenged to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
A few days ago we w e r e marked with the dual sign of sinfulness and redemption – the cross.
We carried it in quiet witness onto the trading floor as Wall Street bought and sold. In the crowded subways and busses we declared its presence over and over as our heads bobbed and we stood and sat and squirmed our way in and out. Sex workers, addicts, the lost and homeless left the churches of Times Square signed with the mark of the crucified. The cross was everywhere.
It’s awe inspiring, on this one day of the year, to see the multitude of crosses infiltrate the city. Ash Wednesday is the one day when the cross dominates this secular society of ours. I often wonder what the smudged cross means to the people who carry it. The attraction to receive this cross is powerful. More people come to the church on Ash Wednesday than Christmas or Easter. What is it that draws so many to that cross?
In the course of the day I spent close to eight hours imposing ashes. I haven’t used the traditional formula, “Remember, man, that thou are dust and unto dust that shalt return,” for several years. I made the decision to do so after years of imposing ashes on the foreheads of the children I work with every day. I often wondered what those words meant to these innocent grade school children. Why was I reminding them of the certainty of death? They were just beginning to live! I wondered what Jesus said to the children who came to him, the children whose heads he touched with the hands that would one day be nailed to a cross. I decided to use a phrase they could understand. “Remember, God loves you.” The first Ash Wednesday I began using this new formula proved to me that my choice was a good one.
An elderly man came up to me to receive the ashes. As I always do, I looked into his eyes as I said the words, “Remember, God loves you.” Then I placed my hand on his head for a moment. His reaction was a bit startling. He began to cry and said, “No one’s ever said that to me before.” My spontaneous response was, “It’s true, you know.” He hugged me and then walked down the aisle and knelt in a pew for a while before leaving. Later on, a well-dressed woman came forward. I did the same thing. She grabbed my hand and burst into tears. “You have no idea how much I needed to hear that today!”
Over and over again I said the words, “Remember, God loves you.” I watched each person walk to a pew afterward and kneel down. I would wonder what those words meant to that person. Some people stayed for a minute, others longer. Almost everyone lit a candle before they left the church – a little sentinel to stand witness to their prayer. Many people came back to me before they left the church to say a simple, “Thanks, Father.”
From that day on Ash Wednesday has been a solemn day of remembrance for me. I see it as the day when we Christians become living banners celebrating God’s love.
Walking down the street, shopping, washing dishes in the back room of a restaurant, picking up the garbage, patrolling the streets, tending to the sick in hospitals, walking through Grand Central, picking up the kids at school we carry the banner: “Remember, God loves you!”
This Lent, let’s hope and pray that people begin to believe us.
I came across this poem while I was on retreat last summer. It moved me deeply. Every year on Ash Wednesday I tend to give the same exhortation. I encourage fasting and discourage dieting. Fasting has to do with the soul, not extra fat.
Fasting jolts me out of my own complacency by feeling the ache of hunger. It helps me feel the daily poverty of so many in the world. When I look into the window of Maison Kaiser with my mouth watering I think of the hundreds of millions who would have to use an entire week’s salary to buy a single croissant.
When I fast I think of original sin. Why do a few have so much, and a multitude so little? When I fast I look at the cross and ask why? When I fast my soul is unsettled, yet I feel more alive. I see the world more clearly. I hope this poem touches your soul as deeply as it touched mine.
What does the bag lady give up for Lent?
she hugs the edge of pew set in shadow uncoveted by the pious and shifts her bones to rearrange ache, wipes her nose frosted in scab on an unkind sleeve, swims in the pain of throbbing corns signaling rain, cradles in her lap her lifeline sack, maternal as a tiger.
does she, as the priest exhorts, promise to fast for 40 days? does she, for Jesus’ sake, offer up butter on popcorn colored bubbles in her evening bath? does she, with Joan-of-Arc zeal, abstain from cream in her breakfast coffee and Pepperidge Farm muffins of apple and spice, and the necessary dab of chived sour cream on her daily baked potato?
does she make all things new by rising at five from cool, crisp sheets of patterned rose to sink in prayer in Persian nap? does she walk the other mile at Friday Stations in tight safe slippers avoiding the blood does she send her cloak as Martin of Tours to prove she is sister to one who shivers?
what can Lent mean to one who sits sleeping in the last back pew, sits dreaming of warmth and fresh rye bread, sits unheeding through let-us-greet and reflect and adore and repent and clasp hands in peace? what can she tithe of secrets stored in the paper vault, scorned by thief ignored by moth? one-tenth of a can of kippered sardines, black oozing banana, Saltine clones immaculately conceived hermetically sealed astutely retrieved from a discarded bowl of chili at Wendy’s?
what can she share except her inch of crucifix
By Ethel Marbach as printed in the St. Anthony Messenger, April 1982
Chapter five of Matthew’s Gospel ends with a declaration by Jesus: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have not come to abolish but to fulfill.” He then proceeded to push every one of the laws to a radical conclusion. He extended “you shall not kill” to “whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” “You shall not commit adultery” became “everyone who looks at a
woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” “Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce” became “whoever divorces his wife causes her to commit adultery.”
These statements are jarring, to say the least. Was Jesus exaggerating to make a point? Or should these statements be taken literally? I think if we link them to his opening statement: “I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it” we can get a much clearer, and deeper, understanding of his teaching.
Jesus was taking the law, the Ten Commandments and their endless interpretations, and transformed it – fulfilled it. Matthew began chapter five with Jesus listing the new commandments. “How happy are the poor in spirit…How happy are the gentle, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for justice, how happy are the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers.” Jesus transformed the old law from “You shall not” to “how happy you can be.” We read these last Sunday.
Today’s gospel is a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount, and really challenges us to take a giant spiritual step. Jesus opened the door to joy. If we follow Jesus’ example by not living for ourselves, but for others, the “thou shalt nots” of the old law easily give way to the joy of the beatitudes. “Thou shalt not” leads to a spirituality based on divine judgment. The beatitudes lead to a love of self and love of neighbor, and a wonderful knowledge that we’re loved unconditionally by our heavenly Father.
The Romans had the saying, “Nil utilius sole et sale.” There’s nothing more useful than sun and salt. They believed that salt was the purest element of the earth because it came from the most basic components of creation: sun and water. Plutarch said that meat was a dead body and would decay, but that when salted and dried it was given a new soul.
Salt was the most common preservative. Not having refrigeratin, meat and fish were salted and could be stored for long periods of time. Every once in a while, friends of mine treat me to a dinner of homemade baccalao, salted cod fish. So, we’re still using salt as a preservative today. But let’s face it, is there anything worse that a salt-free meal? Salt is a gift from sun and water, and it makes life so much better.
There was another use for salt. This is foreign to us but important for us to understand. In the ancient world only the wealthy enjoyed the luxury of a personal oven. Communities shared an outdoor oven. They were made of stone, fired up and kept going for long periods of time so that the families of the village could make use of them. The inside of the oven was lined with packed salt that provided excellent insulation and efficiently retained the heat. The salt would have to be changed periodically as it would corrupt from the heat and would be thrown onto the pathways.
We’ve put together a few ideas about the use of salt during Jesus’ time. Now, let’s think about the meaning of his statement to us: “You are the salt of the earth.”
The disciple is called to make life taste good. Our relationships must be respectful, supportive,caring and filled with joy. The work that we do must be honest and true. It must be performed with care and caring for the good of the human family.
Thinking about the salt used in the communal ovens Jesus may have imagined the commitment and endurance necessary to be a disciple. He spent his life selflessly giving himself to the people who were like “sheep without a shepherd.” He would eventually pour out his life on the cross, emptying himself in love. Following his example, Jesus asked his disciples to burn themselves out in love and ministry.
Salt was the purest element and essential to life. I would think Jesus was telling us, that as his disciples we, too, must be pure and essential to life. In the sermon on the mount he said, “How happy are the pure of heart for they will see God.” When we hear the word “pure” we generally think about sexual behavior, but that doesn’t capture the enormity of this teaching. To be painfully practical, we’re living in a society that has abandoned the purity of the truth. Phrases that wage war against truth like “fake news” and “alternate facts” ring out every day, it seems. Jesus was asking his disciples to stand in opposition to the world – to maintain purity of heart.
The authentic disciple must never loose sight of Jesus standing before Pontius Pilate. His words should ring in our ears. “I came into the world to bear witness to the truth and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.” Pilate’s closed heart tragically responded: “What is truth?”
There are many Pilates in positions of power throughout the world. Today, each and every disciple is called to stand in contradiction to them. We offer the life that truth brings. Some among us who are called to a prophetic ministry may meet the same fate as Jesus. But through us, the truth will continue to reach out, offering life, offering healing, offering a vision of a new world. As his disciples we must never forget his words to us. “You are the salt of the earth.”
Eight days after his birth, Jesus was circumcised and given the Hebrew name Joshua. We refer to him by the Greek translation of his name, Jesus. His circumcision was the sign of the covenant between God and Jewish people. That day Jesus became a Jew.
Three weeks or so later, his parents brought him to the temple in Jerusalem for another ceremony, the redemption of the first born. It was a simple ceremony recalling that all life belonged to God. A small amount of money, five shekels, was given to the priest to buy back the child. That ceremony was followed by another one involving the child’s mother who was considered unclean for forty days after the birth of a baby boy. A sacrifice was required to conclude that period. She offered the sacrifice of the poor, two turtle doves or two young pigeons.
Mary and Joseph came to the temple to fulfill these dictates of the law. They were surprised when a man suddenly walked over to them and asked to hold their child in his arms. He looked like a kind and holy man and had a beautiful smile. Mary handed him her baby boy. The man, Simeon, broke out into a poetic rhapsody. “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in the sight of all the peoples, a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”
As beautiful as his words were, Mary and Joseph must have wondered what this was all about. They didn’t know that he had had an interior vision in which the Holy Spirit promised him that he wouldn’t die until he had seen the Christ with his own eyes. Today was the day! He must have been weeping as he spoke those words. He concluded with a prophecy that he spoke directly to Mary. “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted – and you yourself a sword will pierce – so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
If this wasn’t enough, immediately after, an eightyfour year old woman who was a prophetess, came forward and intensely fixed her gaze on the child. She left them and began to speak “about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Israel.”
After they had performed their religious duties, Mary and Joseph returned to their home in the Galilean town of Nazareth. The gospel writer concluded his narrative of Jesus’ infancy with a short note. “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him. It’s a lovely story we’ve read today, but what’s the deeper message Luke is trying to convey to the people of his day and to us? The Jewish world had been anticipating the emergence of a messianic military leader who would usher Israel into a golden age. Luke was introducing this long-awaited leader, but he was very different from what everyone expected.
There was great power all around this messiah, but it wasn’t military power! The announcement of his birth came to the poor and lowly. Mary was told that he would be “the Son of God,” and through him a new world order would emerge. Angelic messengers invited Mary and Zachariah to participate in God’s marvelous plan. A chorus of angels announced his birth to poor shepherds with the words: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” Simeon, the mystic, proclaimed Jesus “the glory of Israel,” and surprisingly, “the light,” not only for Israel, but for the whole world – Jews and Gentiles alike! Anna the prophetess, continued the proclamation of the good news that the shepherds began after seeing him in the manger. “She spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.”
Luke was telling us God is among us – he calls him Emmanuel which means “God with us.” Nothing can be the same anymore. The light of God’s revelation has appeared in the person of Jesus, the Christ!
This feast we’re celebrating today, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, reminds us that Jesus Christ was the divine Light. That Light will never be extinguished no matter what trials and tribulations the world experiences! It’s traditional, today, to bless candles and to process around the church with them. So today we will light candles and present them to families with newly born children. This is to remind each and every one of us to follow the example of the shepherds, Simeon and Anna in proclaiming the presence of the Light. Let’s pray today that we, and these new-born children, will continue to carry God’s Light throughout the world.