Happy New Year! Today’s the first Sunday of the Christian liturgical year. And the first words from the scripture that we hear today, from the prophecy of Jeremiah, are filled with hope.
“The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and Judah. In those days, in that time, I will raise up for David a just shoot.”
When the Jews exiled in Babylon heard Jeremiah’s prophecy, they were certain that it was predicting their liberation by a charismatic, military leader. He would lead them back to Judah. He would restore Jerusalem to its former glory. There would be peace.
This prophecy came true for the Jewish people. However, it wasn’t because of a Jewish uprising. The Persian king Cyrus swept down and conquered the entire Babylonian empire. Shortly thereafter he released the Jewish captives and even helped them rebuild their temple in Jerusalem.
The Gospel reading for this new year is also hopeful. However, its message is cloaked in apocalyptic imagery. “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
This is the announcement of the Parousia, the arrival of the Son of Man, the judgment of the world and the beginning of the messianic time. The Parousia will break into history like a streak of lightening. The world as we have known it, with its rejection of God, its wars, its inhumanity, its injustice, will be judged and purged of all that resists the will of God. How can I say that today’s message is hopeful? It sounds so frightening.
In the Jewish and Christian celebration of the new year, the liturgy opens the door to the Parousia. We stand at the threshold, look at our world through the eyes of the Son of Man, judge it and purify it. Then we look through the eyes of hope to envision a new world.
Each year we repeat this cycle. We end the old world and begin a new one. New week the scriptures introduce John the Baptist into our commemoration of the new year. He is the first light of hope. His cry to us to “prepare the way of the Lord” is meant to motivate us to envision a new world, and to turn around our lives so that we might adapt to that new world.
The world is ever-changing, but not always for the better. It’s very important that the liturgy of the new year marks the beginning of a new and better world. It will be through each one of us that this world will begin to manifest itself. It’s for each one of us to prepare the way of the Lord in preparation for that great day when God will be all in all.
We have one of the most important passages in the New Testament for our reflection today. Jesus is standing in judgment before Pontius Pilate. The religious leaders are demanding his death. Pilate has little respect for the unruly people he’s ruling. He doesn’t know what they have against Jesus other than a trumped-up charge that he wants to be the King of the Jews. He knows that if a strong leader appears, they would support him in a rebellion against Rome. Evidently this man isn’t that charismatic figure and he isn’t going to lead a rebellion against Rome. Mockingly, Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus’ answer comes without any hesitation. “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate couldn’t comprehend the depth of Jesus’ answer. He spits out a flippant response. “Truth, what is that?”
In a few hours Jesus will be lifted up on the cross, and from that kingly throne he will testify to the truth. He will “draw all things” to himself, and “through him, with him and in him” all of creation will give glory to God, the almighty Father.
The Feast of Christ the King declares the all-encompassing presence of Christ. We
must never forget his prayer at the Last Supper. “That they all may be one, as you Father are in me, and I am in you. May they also be in us.”
Today we contemplate our harmony with one another, with all of creation and with God. Reigning from the throne of the cross, Christ the King pours out his love, the Divine Energy eternally drawing all creation into the very heart of God.
For me, my God, all joy and all achievement,
the very purpose of my being and all my love of life
depend on this one basic vision of the union between yourself and the universe…
I have no desire, I have no ability to proclaim anything
except the innumerable prolongations of your incarnate Being in the world of matter.
I can preach only the mystery of your flesh,
you the Soul shining forth through all that surrounds us.
From Mass On The Earth Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ 1923
Throughout the eight years I attended parochial grammar school. I went to the 8 o’clock “school” Mass every Friday and Sunday. This time of the year, the end of November, always stirred up a great deal of anxiety in me. The scripture readings frightened me by painting a terrifying picture of a world in turmoil. The priest added to my fears by inevitably preaching on the Last Judgment. My young mind always had me burning in the eternal fires. Here are a few of the prophecies that scared me.
“At that time there shall arise Michael, the great prince, guardian of your people; it shall be a time unsurpassed in distress since the nations began until that time.” (Book of Daniel)
“Those in Judaea must flee to the mountains, and a person on a housetop must not go down and enter to get anything out of his house, and a person in a field must not return to get his cloak. Woe to the pregnant women and nursing mothers in those days…For those times will have tribulation such as has not been since the beginning of God’s creation until now, nor ever will be.” (Mark)
“After that tribulation the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” (Mark)
“Nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.” (Luke)
“Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire.” (Malachi)
“But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark)
Church was frightening enough, but the world situation frightened me even more. When I was in grade school, 1954 to 1960, the United States and Russia were rattling nuclear missiles at each other. Right off our shores, Cuba was working with Russia to mount a nuclear arsenal against us. A nuclear war seemed inevitable. We even had nuclear attack drills in schools. Public basements were designated fallout shelters. Russia “conquered” the U.S. in the race to space with its launch of Sputnik. Mao Zetong’s communism was eating up
China. The Churches were suffering persecution in Eastern Europe and China. I feared that these events were the beginning of the end.
Today, as an adult, I’m no longer frightened by the biblical prophecies. I’ve learned that the Old Testament prophecies were meant to give hope. They were promising a day of reckoning that would come for the nations that threatened the people of Israel. In Jewish tradition this global purification of Israel’s enemies would mark the beginning of a Golden Age for Israel.
The New Testament prophecies reflected, post-facto, the horrific event of the destruction of Jerusalem and the burning of the 2 nd temple in 70 CE. The event was woven into the Gospels using apocalyptic vocabulary. It marked the end of the “old time,” and the beginning of the new post-resurrection time. It offered hope to the Christian community that was suffering persecution.
Today, these same prophecies are meant to give us courage as we navigate the threats and challenges that confront us. We’re in the midst of a pandemic. On one hand, it has compelled us to work together to combat the death and sickness it brought. On the other hand, this plague has shed light on the social inequality we live with that has weakened and hampered our response to this global crisis.
Today, these prophecies are meant to give us hope as we struggle with the present political turmoil that grips our country, and so many countries around the world. Today, even our Church is in crisis. These prophecies promise a new and better world.
This is the time of year when from the darkness, injustice, suffering and violence of our present world we turn to look to a new world to come. A world where we can work together in harmony to conquer our plagues. A world in which our differences enrich us rather that separate us. A world without threat or war. A world where children live without fear.
This is the time of year we’re invited to grasp hands with the author the Book of Revelation and rejoice in his vision: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.”
“I saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”
We begin our reflection this Sunday with a passage from the First Book of Kings. A severe drought had struck the Middle East and many were in peril of starvation. In this account the prophet Elijah was about to enter the city of Zarephath. He was tired and hungry from traveling. He saw a widow gathering sticks and asked her for a cup of water which she readily went off to get for him. But he shouted after her to bring a piece of bread, too. She confessed that she only had a handful of flour and a bit of oil. She had intended to make a small bread cake that she would share with her son. After that there was no more food.
Elijah pressed her to feed him first; she and her son could eat later. He promised her that her jar of flour wouldn’t go empty, and that her jug of oil wouldn’t go dry if she extended this gesture of hospitality. She trusted the prophet and shared her bit of bread with him. Elijah’s promise came true. Her flour and oil lasted until the end of the drought.
Mark’s Gospel mirrors this account in the scene we’ve read today. He tells of an impoverished widow who came to the treasury of the temple to offer a donation. Jesus pointed the widow out as a model of selfless giving and noted that she had given all she had to live on.
We have two powerful images of generosity and trust to think about this week. But we also have two powerful images of spiritual bankruptcy.
Mark introduced the account of the poor widow with a scathing condemnation of the religious leadership. “Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets. They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext recite lengthy prayers. They will receive a very serious condemnation.” He then ends the account with a disturbing proclamation. “Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.”
Sometimes the Gospel message brings us peace of mind or hope or a joy in realizing God’s loving relationship with us. Sometimes it makes us uncomfortable. Both are important. Today’s Gospel makes all of us, clerics and laity, quite uncomfortable.
Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes is a warning to religious leaders about the temptations posed by privilege. The scribes basked in their privilege and entitlement. Some of them even used their celebrity status to extort payment from widows for advice they’d give them. They who considered themselves examples of holiness were, in reality, the spiritually bankrupt.
Though we can identify elements of this same dynamic within the ranks of Christian leadership, we must take care not to be complicit by buying into the dynamic. Pope Francis has often condemned this element in the Church by pointing to the presence of clericalism and triumphalism among the clergy. The Church, lay and clerical, needs to take heed. Jesus called for a servant Church. We all need to be on our knees washing each other’s feet.
The poor widow’s model of generosity is a meant to disturb every one of us, rich and poor alike. By offering all the money she had to live on, she was placing herself totally in God’s hands. This was a pure act of righteousness. Some of the wealthy people in the temple with her that day were ostentatiously placing their money into the large golden trumpets used to collect donations for the temple Their donations, too, were representations of their self-giving. But they offered to God only what was unessential to their lives – “their surplus wealth.” Their reward was a caressed ego and the admiration of the adoring crowd.
We conclude this reflection with a phrase that Jesus would often use after a teaching, “Whoever has ears, ought to hear.”