“Filled with the Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when they were over he was hungry.”
This is Luke’s introduction to the account of the temptation of Jesus. To get a clearer understanding of the temptations to come, we need to understand this introduction.
John had just baptized Jesus along with the crowd that gathered at the Jordan River. Afterwards, as Jesus prayed, the voice of the Father anointed him for his mission. “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” The Spirit then descended upon him in form of a dove, recalling Noah’s sending out a dove as the water resided, revealing a new world.
He immediately retreated to the desert and remained there alone for forty days. Luke comments that Jesus ate nothing during that time. It’s impossible for anyone to live without food for that length of time. What could Luke be saying by noting this? This time in the desert was a period of gestation. Jesus had been anointed for a mission by the Father and fortified for its execution by the Holy Spirit. Now, he had to do some inner work. He had to ponder his mission, his father’s will for him. When he con
cluded that time in the desert, he left hungry to begin his mission. That was his food he yearned for. As he would later tell his disciples, “My food is to do the will of my Father.” (John 4:34)
Taking his first steps out of the desert he was confronted by the dark energy he was appointed to battle against. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” Here’s the temptation. Jesus’ mission is directed to the human heart. His miracles and healings will certainly get people’s attention, and relieve some personal suffering. But Jesus was anointed to address deeper needs. “One does not live on bread alone.” His mission is to feed the heart, to bring new and deeper life to the spirit.
A second assault followed. Jesus was shown the glory and power of the great kingdoms of the world. The vision was a bribe. All Jesus had to do was to embrace the dark power that rules the earth. But Jesus was anointed to plant the seed of the kingdom of God in the midst of its darkness. God’s kingdom is one marked by unity and harmony, of justice and peace. It’s in direct opposition to the dark power that controls the world. Jesus’ answer came: “You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.”
The last temptation is a prelude to the
agony that Jesus would experience in the garden. The tempter twisted the words of Psalm 91, words of comfort and reassurance of God’s fidelity, into a challenge. “Throw yourself down from here for it is written, ‘he will command his angels concerning you, to guard you.’” Jesus’ response was quick and to the point. “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” Later on, Jesus leaned on the support this psalm conveyed when he prayed in Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still not my will but yours be done.” In spite of his fear, Jesus submitted himself totally to the will of his Father.
Why does the Church ask us to reflect on this passage to begin the season of Lent? We’re beginning a forty-day retreat, a time of spiritual rejuvenation, a time of reflection on our mission as disciples of Christ. We tend to forget that as disciples we stand in total opposition to the powers of darkness, to the world. In order to accomplish our mission, we, like Jesus, have to submit our will to the Father. This is what Lent is all about. Getting in sync with Christ, uniting our wills with the Father.
As I write this reflection, the powers of darkness are ravaging Ukraine. Those same powers are dividing the country we live in. Many Christians have succumbed to the darkness. Christians are among those invading Ukraine. Christians are among those dividing our country. Christians are among those peddling lies and spewing hatred, division, and racism. Many Christians have fallen. Many Christians have been consumed by the darkness.
Now more than ever, every one of us needs time in the desert. Every one of us needs to recoup, to recommit ourselves to Christ and his gospel of peace and harmony, of sacrificial love. Let’s be brave. This Lent, let’s proclaim with Christ, “I have conquered the world.”
For the past two weeks we’ve been reading chapter six of Luke’s gospel, the presentation of Jesus’ central teaching, the kingdom of God is here. He began with four beatitudes and four contrary woes. They were followed by a string of practical interpretations: a call to love our enemies, to lend without expecting repayment, to forgive people who have hurt us, to cease all condemnation of others, to be as merciful as God.
These beatitudes and teachings spotlight the characteristics of the citizens of the kingdom. If we’re brave enough to listen to them with the ears of our hearts, these teachings will pose an existential challenge to us because these life principles are in total opposition to our most natural inclinations. But they can liberate us from the prison we call the world. They’re the keys to the kingdom of God.
This last portion of the teaching that we read today, takes on a different energy. The gentle principles of the beatitudes suddenly rise up clad in armor ready to do battle with the world along two fronts: our every-day, secular life and our personal, interior life.
The first battle. “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall in to a pit?” How many wars do we have to fight, and how many millions have to suffer and die, before we realize that no one wins a war? It seems, at times, that we want to make sure that the poor are always with us. What will it take for us to feel responsibility for each others welfare? The world is filled with blind guides who convince us that they have all the answers. When will we take off our blindfolds and begin to walk by the guiding light of the kingdom?
The second battle. “No disciple is superior to the teacher.” Insight and understanding are an eternal quest. Never stop questioning. Never stop learning. Never stop changing.
The third battle. “Remove the wooden beam from your own eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.” The world possesses each of us. We’ve come to call this our original sin. It convinces us that the problems we have, and the suffering we experience, are caused by other people, other nations, other ideologies. To free ourselves from this cycle of scapegoating and suffering, each of us must fight a battle for liberation within ourselves. Only to the extent we battle our own demons will we be able to celebrate the freedom of the kingdom of God with others.
A final litmus test. “A good tree does not bear rotten fruit.” This calls for an honest assessment of ourselves, first of all, then of the guides we’ve chosen to follow, and finally, the society we live in. This will be a painful exercise if we do it honestly. The world has taught us to scapegoat. The world has taught us to accept our blindness. Seeing the light of truth can be painful, like walking out of a dark tunnel into the brilliant light of day. It may take a while for the eyes of our hearts to adjust, but when they do, we’ll get the first glimpse of the kingdom of God. We’ll be able to begin nourishing ourselves with the wisdom of the beatitudes.
Recently, I was given a copy of the first and second seasons of the TV series, The Chosen. It is a series dramatizing the life and teachings of Jesus. It can be streamed on YouTube. It’s absolutely wonderful. I’m sure many of you have seen it. The person portraying Jesus was mesmerizing. He presented Jesus as a real person, laughing, crying, loving, angry, sometimes tired, or even exhausted by the work he was doing. He only spoke a few words at the end of the first episode but they gripped my heart. I listened to the words he spoke, words I’ve read so many times. Somehow, they touched me in a way they never have before. I teared up with emotion. I’ve spoken with others who have had the same reaction.
This experience made me realize something. I’ve studied the teachings of Jesus. I know them, and I teach them. But somehow, I’ve never really connected them to the living person of Jesus. There was something about Jesus that drew people to him, something that made a deep impression on them. They listened to his little stories and heard a
message that changed their lives. If I was moved to tears listening to an actor speak them, I would truly have been a basket case if I heard the teaching coming directly from his lips.
As I read the scripture passages for today I realized that the entire gospel passage consisted of quotes, short teachings of Jesus’ that were meant to root the beatitudes in the lives of the everyday people he was addressing. His teachings are concise and easily remembered.
I made the decision that, today, I wasn’t going to deliver a traditional homily to shed MY light on the gospel passage. Since the entire gospel passage consists of one short teaching after another, I thought I would get out of the way and simply read the teaching. There’s nothing I could possibly add to make his teaching more profound.
So, I’m going to invite the congregation to close their eyes and imagine the face of Jesus. Bring him down to earth through this visualization. Look at his face and listen while he speaks. I believe that God will reveal the face that each one needs to see.
Then slowly, and with utmost respect, I’m going to read his teachings. I’m going to ask the congregation to try not to be distracted by my voice, a voice that they’re all too familiar with. I’m going to ask them to try to look at the face of Jesus and to listen to HIM share a teaching with each one of us.
WE’LL BEGIN WITH A PRAYER:
Jesus, my Lord and my God, I close my eyes and gaze on your face, an infant face with closed eyes and moist lips. I see your face wide with teenage laughter. I see your face dripping sweat as you dance at a wedding in Cana. I see your face reflecting candlelight as you divide the loaf of bread. I see your face wet with pain. I see your face ablaze with resurrection light. Lord Jesus, open my eyes that I might see your lips as you speak your message to me.
To you who hear, I say…
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic.
(pause – look at the face of Jesus and listen)
Give to everyone who asks of you, and from the one who takes what is yours do
not demand it back.
(pause – look – listen)
Do to others as you would have them do to you. For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same.
(pause – look – listen)
If you lend money to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, and get back the same amount. But rather, love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back; then your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful as your Father is merciful.
(pause – look – listen)
Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.
(pause – look – listen)
Give, and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.
And so it is. Amen. Thank you Lord.
Let’s begin with Luke’s chronology leading up to the sermon on the mount, the focus of our reflection today. Jesus had left his group of close disciples and retired to an isolated area atop a high hill where he spent the night in prayer. In the morning he returned only to find that his group of disciples had been joined by many more. In addition, inquisitive Jews from Judaea and Jerusalem joined them along with Gentiles from the coastal areas of Tyre and Sidon, today’s Lebanon. Many came to him seeking healing. Some believed that if they could only touch him, they would be cured by the power that came out of him. But before he addressed the crowd, he chose twelve men out of this large group. He called them apostles.
It might be helpful to clarify the difference between a disciple and an apostle. A disciple is a student who has been invited by a rabbi to join his group of students. An apostle, apostolos in Greek, is an envoy or ambassador, one who is sent on a mission to a foreign country. Jesus was beginning to assign roles among this new community of followers.
“Raising his eyes toward his disciples,” Jesus began his most important teaching. The beatitudes, and the woes that follow, laid out the fundamental principles of the
new society that Jesus envisioned. He called it the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. What he envisioned was a total reversal of the world as we know it.
For your reflection, I’m going to match each beatitude with its woeful counterpart. That will give us the black and white of his teaching. I’ll follow that with a related teaching from the Gospel, and a question or two that might assist your reflection. Here is a suggested guide for your reflection.
The first teaching:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.” “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”
“No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” (Luke 16:13)
The first reflection. Do you think you’re poor? Do you think you’re rich? How does your gut react to this teaching?
The second teaching:
“Blessed are you who are now hungry,
for you will be satisfied.” “But woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry.”
“Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life and what you will eat, or about your body and what you will wear. For life is more than food and the body more than clothing. (Luke 12:22-23)
The second reflection: Have you ever been in a situation when you didn’t know where your next meal was coming from? What was it like when things changed? If you haven’t been in that position think about what it might be like for the millions who face this situation every day. What are the feelings that arise from this beatitude?
The third teaching:
“Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh.” “Woe to you who laugh now, for you will grieve and weep.”
Teaching three. “Now there was a sinful woman in the city who learned that he was at table in the house of a Pharisee. Bringing an alabaster flask of ointment, she stood behind him at his feet and began to bathe his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment.” (Luke 7:36-38)
The third reflection. Are you weeping? What are you weeping about? Are you laughing? What’s the source of your joy? How do you share in the sorrows and joys of others?
The fourth teaching:
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you and insult you,
and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold, your reward will be great in heaven. For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way.” “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in the same way.”
“They will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name. It will lead to your giving testimony.” (Luke 21:12-13)
The fourth reflection. Have you ever suffered because you’re a disciple of Jesus? Has it ever been painful for you to give testimony to the Truth?
The beatitudes and their corresponding woes are Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom of God. He taught that it was already here in germinal form, slowly manifesting itself on earth through sacrificial love. He modeled that love in his life, and his death on the cross.
Jesus didn’t give us an easy path to follow. He was serious when he taught us: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke:9 23)
The cross we wear around our neck isn’t just a pretty talisman. It’s a reminder to the one who wears it, and the people who look at it, that the kingdom of God is near. It challenges us to manifest the kingdom by loving as Jesus loved – sacrificially.
The story of the call of Simon and the miraculous catch of fish is the subject of our reflection today. Here’s how we get to this account. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus is just beginning his ministry. He announced himself as the Messiah in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. The people rejected him and even tried to kill him. He left Nazareth and went to Capernaum. The people in that synagogue accepted his teaching. While he was there he liberated a man possessed by an unclean spirit who cried out, “I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” From that moment on, the word about Jesus began to spread like wildfire. He left the synagogue and went to Simon’s house and cured his mother-in-law who was very ill with a fever. He continued his travels through Judea. He cured many people along the way. Demons often witnessed to him as he exorcised them by crying out, “You are the Son of God!”
He began preaching along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, a large body of water, thirteen miles long and eight miles wide and very deep, six hundred and eighty feet deep at its lowest point. Many fishing towns surrounded the lake.
As the crowd listening to Jesus began to grow, he looked around and saw two boats along the shore. They belonged to Simon and his partners, Zebedee and his sons, James and John. He asked
Zebedee and his sons, James and John. He asked to use one of the boats as a stage so that the people might hear him better.
When he had finished teaching he told Simon to take the boat out to deeper water and to cast his nets. Fishing was often done at night and Simon was just coming off a very unsuccessful night. He had caught nothing. Reluctantly, Simon obeyed the request. To everyone’s surprise, there was such a tremendous catch that Simon had to call his partners to bring their boats over to assist him. The catch filled both boats!
The event threw Simon and the others for a loop. Simon fell to his knees overwhelmed by an intense sense of sinfulness. The others stood there, struck with astonishment. Jesus reassured them telling them, “Do not be afraid.” He then said something they probably didn’t quite understand at the time, “From now on you will be catching men.” But the event, and Jesus’ words, were so powerful that “when they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him.”
Why did Jesus tell these fishermen not to be afraid? It seems a bit strange, doesn’t it? After a bit of research, I discovered that the phrase is used 365 times in the New Testament. What’s so frightening? Jesus cured people, and liberated people from demonic possession. His message was one of love and compassion, of forgiveness and inclusion. This account can throw some light on the question.
In the account of the great catch of fish, Jesus called Simon and Andrew, and James and John, to follow him. They didn’t know what that would entail. They were awestruck by the miracle. The invitation seemed like a privilege; the teacher was calling THEM. But they would discover that following him for the next three years wasn’t going to be a piece of cake. It would take them from their families. They would have no place to call home. They would survive on hand outs or little jobs they got along the way. They would be hated by some just as Jesus was. They would suffer persecution and be expelled from the synagogues. Eventually, eleven of the twelve apostles would suffer martyrdom. Meeting Jesus was wonderful, but saying yes to his invitation was going to be the greatest challenge of their lives.
Pope John Paul II, addressing the massive crowds that attended his Masses and gatherings around the world, often quoted Jesus’ words, “Do not be afraid.” Pope Francis repeats those same words. They’re directed to every person who hears in his or her heart, the invitation, “Follow me.” It’s the greatest moment in a person’s life, but it’s the scariest, too. Where will the path lead?
In his call to follow fearlessly Jesus was asking the apostles, and us, to trust in God – to trust totally and completely. The catch of fish was a prophetic act. It was teaching us that by placing ourselves in God’s hands, and allowing ourselves to be guided by God, we would see tremendous and unheard-of things. Through our faith, God would gather humankind in an embrace of divine love.
Three weeks ago, we listened to the account of the wedding feast in Cana where Jesus turned water into wine. That was the first day of his public ministry according to the Gospel of John. Today we’re going to reflect on the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Luke. The two are very different. John structured his gospel around the manifestation of seven signs, miracles, that proclaimed the arrival kingdom of God. Changing water into wine was the first of those signs. John ends the passage by writing, “and his disciples began to believe in him.” The phenomenon of the kingdom had begun.
Luke brings us to Nazareth to witness one of the first days of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus had been baptized by John in the Jordan River and immediately retreated into the Judean desert for forty days where he prepared for his ministry and battled with the powers of darkness. “Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit. He taught in their synagogues and was praised by all.” Then, he came to his hometown synagogue.
He was asked to read the scripture and was handed a scroll of the Prophet Isaiah. “He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”
This is a very well-known and important passage from the prophet. It’s the description of the Messiah. Jesus’ initial commentary was very simple. “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, he told them that he was the Messiah.
The congregation reacted in a variety of ways. Everyone spoke highly of him, but some wondered how Jesus had gotten the wisdom he exhibited. He hadn’t gone to rabbinical school; he was a craftsman. Jesus addressed their skepticism and lack of faith in him by pointing out two examples of God favoring Gentiles over Jews because they had more faith.
There was a terrible drought and food was very short. The prophet Elijah responded to the generosity of a widow in Gentile Zarephath who gave him the last
bit of food she had for herself and her son with no hope of replenishing it. Miraculously, her little jar of oil and her bowl of flour never emptied until the drought passed.
A Syrian general, Naaman, a Gentile, had leprosy. His Jewish slave told him about the power of the prophet Elisha. He believed what his slave told him and traveled to Judea. He had faith that the God of Elisha could cure him, and so he was cured.
These two examples of Gentiles with faith infuriated the people in the synagogue. Jesus was telling them that these two Gentiles had more faith than they had. Naaman and the widow weren’t members of the chosen people, but their faith was greater than the faith of the people of Nazareth. The hometown boy had the gall to call them on their faith. They couldn’t accept his teaching that he was the Messiah. He was common. He was one of them. They became blind with rage and attempted to kill him.
What kind of message can be gleaned from this moment in Jesus’ life? I believe that God is constantly reaching out to us but, more times than not, we don’t stretch out our arms to connect. Sometimes we’re so consumed by our daily tasks that we miss the subtle ways God is present. Sometimes we’re so self-reliant that we don’t accept God’s help. Sometimes God is standing right in front of us but we don’t see.
Look for God. Look everywhere. Look in the faces of children. Look into the eyes of a homeless person. Look up to the sky. Look at the shapes of the clouds. Look at the brightness of the moon on a clear night. Look at the people you love, really look at them, see their hearts. God’s everywhere. We just have to have the faith to see.
We have an interesting Gospel selection today. It consists of a one sentence introduction to the Gospel of Luke, and the account of Jesus’ first day of ministry. I’ll write about that momentous day when we read the conclusion of the account next Sunday. This week I’m going to focus on that first sentence of Luke’s Gospel. Let’s begin with a bit of background.
Luke wrote his Gospel account of the life of Jesus between 61 – 63 AD while he was staying with Paul who was under house arrest in Rome. He wrote the Gospel for a gentile convert, Theophilus. We know nothing about him other than Luke referred to him a second time in his introduction to the Acts of the Apostles, his history of the early Church. Here’s how he begins that history.
“In the first book, Theophilus, I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught until the day he was taken up, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them by many proofs after he had suffered, appearing to them for forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While he was with them he enjoined them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for ‘the promise of the Father about which you have heard me speak; for John baptized with water but in a few days, you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’”
Isn’t it interesting that Luke quotes Jesus to Theophilus. It implies a wonderful intimacy with the material he is about to present. He’s not just reporting; he’s giving witness.
In the introduction to his Gospel that we’ve read today that same witness comes through loud and strong. “Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eye witnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word handed down in to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received.”
Sometimes we forget that the Gospels are much more than narratives about the life of Jesus. They do give us some information about Jesus. They tell us that he was a missionary who traveled around for three years teaching about the kingdom of God. They record many of his parables which were his primary teaching tool. But most importantly, we have to remember that the gospels were written to specific communities: John’s Gospel for Greek converts. Matthew’s for a community of Jewish Christians and Luke’s for a Greek convert, Theophilus. The Good News is packaged in a way most understandable for each community. AND, the faith of each evangelist gives his unique view and experience of the Jesus event. Sometimes their details differ because the writer is making a different point using the same material as the others. For instance, in John’s Gospel Jesus died on the day before Passover. The other three say he died ON Passover. John does so because the day before the Passover was when the Passover lambs were slaughtered. He wants to teach that Jesus is THE Passover lamb whose once and for all sacrifice has forever redeemed the world.
Where do we go with this bit of information about the writing of the Gospels? First of all, we need to understand the Gospels as more than narratives about the life of Jesus and his teachings. Secondly, we need to speak the Gospel message as our personal testimony of faith just as the evangelists wrote their Gospels to enrich and guide the communities they were addressing.
Understanding this, we need to follow their example. We know the Jesus story, but we need to internalize it, to make its Good News the life-core of our lives. Our personal, faith-filled, retelling of the story to our friends, our children and grandchildren, passes on, not only what historical facts we know but, more importantly, the experience of the Lord we have had deep in our hearts.
We’re beginning the season of Ordinary Time with a wonderful and mystical passage from the second chapter of John’s gospel. The setting is a wedding feast in Cana, a town in Galilee.
A source of joy and celebration in every time and culture, a wedding was an especially important symbol in Jewish tradition. It represented the unique wedded relationship of God and the chosen people. To this day, orthodox Jews wind their phylacteries down the left arm, wrapping the strap around the wedding finger. When a Jew prays, he does so while remembering his special wedded relationship with God.
In this passage, Jesus had joined a wedding reception, but there was something amiss. The wine had run out. It had lasted a long time, but now there was none left. Symbolically, Israel’s wedded relationship had gone as far as it could. It needed rejuvenation. It needed more wine, new wine.
There, in the corner of the room stood the remnant of Israel’s past, six empty water jars. They were used for ceremonial washing. But the wedding, Israel’s relationship with God, didn’t need water for washing. It needed more wine! Jesus brought the wedding back to life. He changed the water into wine, and not just any wine – the best wine – the new wine of the kingdom.
The account of the wedding at Cana is meant to inspire us with a dynamic vision of the kingdom that Jesus inaugurated. His kingdom is still manifesting itself. It isn’t complete yet. It’s fermenting in our hearts. The baptismal water of our rebirth is slowly changing into wine, and we’re gradually being transformed into new wineskins, tabernacles of the Spirit and citizens of the kingdom of God.
Holy Spirit of God, I open my heart to you.
Pour into my heart the new wine of the kingdom.
Bestow upon me the gifts that can build up the kingdom we all so fervently desire.
I see the kingdom only dimly, now.
With joy in my heart, I await the day when I can drink the new wine of the kingdom here on earth. Amen.
John the Baptist was urging everyone to ritually cleanse themselves in preparation for the arrival of the long -awaited Christ. By washing away their past, they would be ready for a new life in a new time.
Jesus entered the Jordan River along with everyone else that day. They washed away their sins. He was anointed for his mission. The heavens opened above him, and the Father pronounced words of consecration while the Spirit descended upon him. He was ready to preach the Good News. The first light of the Kingdom of God was here.
Jesus would teach the people that the Kingdom of God was within them. He taught them to nurture it, to let it grow, to free it, to purify the entire world with the fire with God’s love.
Today, we begin the season called Ordinary Time. We celebrate Jesus’ anointing for his mission and recall that we, too, have been anointed by the same Spirit, and consecrated by the Father of us all, to continue the mission Christ inaugurated at his baptism.
As in the time of John the Baptist, our world is longing to hear the Good News. So many countries are in political upheaval, including our own. Climate change is challenging every government and every person. The global pandemic has challenged the security of everyone, rich and poor alike. Now, more than ever, the world needs to listen to the voice of the Kingdom speaking in the body of Christ, the anointed disciples of Christ. The world needs to free the Kingdom of God that’s dormant in each us. The world needs to listen to the god-voice of the indigenous peoples. The world needs to listen to the saints who plead, “war never again.” The world needs to hear the poor weeping the tears of the hopeless. The world needs to listen to the voice of the divine speaking in every atom of creation.
Today, our mission, as anointed disciples of Christ, is to open the ears of the deaf. The Spirit will continue to anoint us, and the Father will continue to consecrate us. It’s time for the world to hear the Good News again.
On Christmas day we reflected on the meaning of Luke’s account of the birth of the Messiah. Today, we reflect on Matthew’s account. Though we tend to mix the two accounts together telling them as one story, it’s best to keep them separate so that we can enjoy each author’s unique insight.
Matthew wrote his Gospel for Christians of Jewish origin, so he drew a great deal of his imagery from Jewish religious memory. A simple sentence introduces his narrative. “When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” This isn’t merely an introduction; it actually tells most of the story.
The narrative begins AFTER Jesus is born. There’s no census. There’s no stable. There aren’t any shepherds, nor are there angels. Matthew begins by simply noting that Jesus was born in Bethlehem during the reign of King Herod.
David, Israel’s greatest king, was a descendent of Judah, one of Jacob’s twelve sons who was born in Bethlehem, a small town in the province of Judea. Jesus, a descendent of David, was born in the same town “in the days of king Herod.”
Any hope of an independent Israel ended when Rome installed Herod as king of Judea. Herod was half Jewish. His father was a Jewish convert. His mother was a non-Jew of Arab descent. As king, he straddled a difficult political fence. He had to appease the Jewish population while retaining unquestionable loyalty to the Roman state. To win the loyalty of the Jews he built their Temple in Jerusalem. To flatter Rome, he constructed temples to various Roman emperors. He kept kosher but served only expensive imported Gentile wines at his receptions.
He was quite paranoid. He executed his wife, mother-in-law, brother-in-law and his two of his sons for treason. He built several fortresses throughout the province that could serve as places of refuge should there ever be an uprising. Masada, near the Dead Sea, is one of them. Herod’s paranoia plays an important role later on in Matthew’s narrative. His response to the Magi’s question about the
new-born king of the Jews is quick and determined; locate the child and destroy him!
The introduction of “magi from the east,” would catch the attention of every Jew who read this narrative. This is a story of the birth of the Jewish Messiah. It was ironic that only gentiles recognized the Jewish king. Even the prophecy of the star was voiced by a pagan soothsayer, Balaam. “I see him, though not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall advance from Jacob, and a staff shall rise from Israel.” (Numbers 24:17) These magi from Persia saw the star and followed it.
In Matthew’s gospel, the star reflected two realities. It announced the birth of the king referred to in the prophecy of Balaam, and it also proclaimed that his birth was not only a worldly event – it was cosmic. Heaven and earth took notice of this “newborn king of the Jews.”
The magi came with symbolic gifts for the new-born king, myrrh, frankincense and gold. They were meant as theological commentaries on this cosmic event. This child was a king, and so was given the royal gift of gold. This child was divine, so frankincense was offered to him. This king would suffer. The gift of Myrrh, referred to as “gall” in Matthew’s account of the crucifixion, represented suffering, affliction and healing. This refers to Isaiah’s prophesy of a “suffering servant,” a messiah whose suffering and death would bring salvation and healing to the world.
There’s a sadness in Matthew’s account of the birth of the messiah. The magi weren’t Jews, yet, they saw the cosmic light and recognized the “King of the Jews.” Even the soldiers who beat Jesus during his arrest called him, in mockery, King of the Jews. And Pilate’s decree of execution read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Years later, the evangelist John felt this same sadness. He quite bluntly wrote in the prologue to his gospel, “He came to his own, but his own people did not accept him.” Luke put it this way in his gospel: “There was no room for them in the inn.”
The accounts of the birth of Jesus Christ are spiritual commentaries that are meant to engage our spiritual imaginations. They invite us to ask ourselves the same questions the evangelists asked of themselves when they wrote their accounts of his birth. Who is this King of the Jews? What do I believe about him? How does he impact my life and the life of the world I live in?
If we’re people of faith, like the magi, we never stop searching for him; we’re never content where with our present understanding of him. We always look beyond our small worlds for that star that continually leads us to the cosmic Christ – the Christ beyond religious structures and cultural limitations – the Christ who assured us, “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of time.” (Matthew 28:20b)