Repentance of the People, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794–1872); via New Digital Museum

Fr Neil’s homily for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, 23 January 2022

This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.¹

These word from Ezra and Nehemiah come in the context of Israel renewing its relationship with God after their return from exile.

The re-establishing of the covenant and hearing the law and scripture proclaimed anew brought tears to the eyes of the hearers. Their long wait to return to the promised land was finally over and the law which they and their ancestors had abandoned, leading to their exile, was once again renewed.

The rise of the synagogue, so that hearing from the law and the prophets would be established not just in the home but as a community together, would bear fruit over all Israel.

This community activity of gathering together was to help the people remain faithful to God and never again fall into idolatry and abandon the covenant with God.

In the gospel reading, Christ is seen doing what all good Jews would do and, “he went to the synagogue, as was his custom, on the sabbath day.” It is in the synagogue, with its custom of reading the law and prophets and giving “the sense, so that the people understood the reading” that Christ is handed the scroll of the prophet of Isaiah. Here Christ reads and reveals the meaning of this passage from Isaiah². Isaiah speaks of a year of jubilee that will be ushered in by the messiah. It will be a time of liberation from all that oppresses God’s People.

Christ provides the simplest, profound and provocative homily in history. “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”³

This epiphany of Christ reveals his self-identity as the Messiah, the one to lead the people into “the acceptable year of the Lord.” This provoked a dialogue in which Christ accuses his hearers as being as stubborn and as hard of heart as their ancestors who rejected and killed the prophets and were led into exile.

The reaction was for the men to rise up against him and seek to do away with him there and then. It is worth noting that those who prove to be our greatest enemies and do us most harm are — more often that not — not the outsider, the pagan, atheist or agnostic but those from within the Church: those who are meant to be our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is Christ’s own town that rejects him, and Judas his disciple who will betray him.

That enmity within the people of God is what Paul consistently seeks to address in his letter to the Corinthians. Very simply in this week’s Epistle⁴ he speaks of the Church being a single body made up of many parts. All are needed and “the parts of the body which seem weaker are indispensable.” This sense of the value of all parts of the Church is fundamental and we face dark days if we chastise and victimise certain parts of the body of Christ. “If one member suffers, all suffer together.”

The great sense of the time of jubilee and liberation that Christ brings is a freedom from the slavery to sin and death. That freedom is seen at its most immanent when the body of Christ is working together as one for the worship and glory of God.

It is the unrecognised or unowned cooperation with sin and the seduction of power that leads to a mis-ordered hierarchy of that which is good. Priorities shift, and subtly the worship and honour due to God is shifted from the first and highest good and replaced by things like weaponised compassion. For example, “the Christian thing to do is stop all public masses to protect the vulnerable and if you don’t we will punish you.” Or “you shouldn’t spend that money on enhancing the beauty of worship, but you should spend it on the poor.” Of course we need to protect the vulnerable and look after the poor. Yet sacrificing our worship of God or denuding it of beauty is to betray our fundamental and first response to God. It tears the body apart.

Whenever we gather — and the first order and priority is to attend to mass and offer our worship to God — then “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And despite the trials faced we must rejoice that “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.”

¹ Nehemiah 8:9
² Isaiah 61:1–2a
³ Luke 4:21
⁴ 1 Corinthians 12:12–30