Saturday, January 23, 2016

OT III Neh 8: 2-4, 5-6, 8-10; Luke 1: 1-4; 4: 14-21

In today's Readings the Church reminds us of one extremely effective way to pour God's grace into our hearts: daily Bible reading. Both today’s first reading, taken from Nehemiah, and Luke’s Gospel, describe the public reading of Sacred Scripture which challenged the hearers to make a "fresh beginning" with a new outlook. 

After defeating Babylon, King Cyrus of Persia decreed that the exiled Jews, who had spent seven decades of exile in Babylon, could return home to Jerusalem.  The king appointed Nehamiah as the governor to rebuild the city of Jerusalem, which lay in ruins following the exile. The spirits of the people also needed rebuilding, so Ezra, the priest, dusts off the neglected scrolls of the law, and calls all the people together, even children who are old enough to understand. From morning till midday, Ezra reads to them the Law. Most had neglected its precepts for years. As they hear it read and explained by Ezra, they begin to weep tears of joy and of sorrow.
They came to realize the many ways in which they had failed to keep God’s Commandments. Hence, with tears of repentance in their eyes and joy in their hearts, the people responded with a great "Amen.

In the gospel we see Jesus goes into the synagogue and reads the scripture for others. The Jews had only one main Temple, located in Jerusalem, for offering sacrifices to God and for celebrating the major feasts.  Throughout the rest of the country, however, there were synagogues, one for every ten families or more, where the community, particularly the men, could offer Sabbath prayers and study the Scriptures.  It was customary for the men to sit in the central part of the synagogue, where the scrolls were kept.  The women and children sat in a separate area on the side of the synagogue.  It was the Jewish custom for the reader to stand while reading, and to sit down while teaching (Mt 13:54; Mk 6:1). The synagogue liturgy was based on seven readings. The first four were from the Law (the Torah or the Pentateuch) followed by explanations given by the rabbi, who was the teacher of the Law. The second set of readings, taken from the prophets, could be read and interpreted by any circumcised male over thirty years of age.  It was in this second capacity that Jesus read and preached on the passage from Isaiah (61: 1-2a).  Naturally, the people of his native place were curious to hear from this carpenter-turned-prophet who had grown up among them, and who, supposedly, had worked miracles throughout Galilee.  Luke reports that Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news of him spread throughout the whole region. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me," Jesus said, “because He has anointed me…” This “power of the Spirit" was absolutely essential in order for Jesus to complete his mission. Jesus’ mission would be to give liberation to everyone who would listen to his “Good News,” accept it and put it into practice.
The Word of God is called "sacramental,” in the sense that when it is spoken, read or heard, God becomes present in our midst. For that to happen to us, we must listen to the Word, accept it into our hearts, and then put it into practice as we live out our lives.
Christianity is not a religion of the book (as is often said) as Islam is, but of a person, the living person of Jesus who comes to us in word and in sacrament and also in the poor, the imprisoned, the hungry and the naked, the broken hearted and the lost. 

The Christian liturgy as made up of word and sacrament but it is really made up of three parts: word, sacrament and the ongoing Christian life of works of mercy which are to flow out of our worship and lead us back to it. Pope Benedict in his encyclical on Charity taught that Christianity can no more give up works of mercy than it can give up the sacraments or the Scriptures. None of the three are optional.
The Bible is a unique book, written by human authors but inspired by God himself. If we take time to read, study, and reflect on it each day, our souls will be filled with "Spirit and life," as today's Psalm reminds us. And in the digital age there is no excuse not to do this. It is so easy to get a hold of a Bible, and it is so easy to find study guides and other resources that can help us understand its message.
The Sanford Hotel in San Francisco reports that it never lost a single Bible in the 15 years it placed them at the bedside as a service to the guests. But, in one month after it started putting dictionaries in the rooms as well, 41 dictionaries disappeared. Now, I don't know whether we can draw a solid conclusion from that, but on the surface, it seems obvious that people apparently place a greater value on human words than they do the Word of God.

The Bible is God's love letter to each and every one of us. It is a flowing fountain of wisdom, comfort, guidance, and strength. As we continue with this Mass, let's renew our faith in the Word of God, and resolve to take at least a little drink from its fountain every single day.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

O T II [C]:  Is 62: 1-5; 1 Cor 12: 4-11, John 2: 1-11 (L-16)

This week we are at a wedding where Jesus reveals his Divine power by his first miracle. Pope St. John Paul II gave us a beautiful gift when he introduced the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary. The second mystery is the subject of today’s Gospel, the Wedding Feast at Cana where Jesus changed water into wine. The miracle at Cana is the first of seven “signs” in John’s Gospel.

Jesus, his mother and his disciples were guests at the wedding feast.  It is also possible that Mary was in some way related to the bride or groom and may have been serving as an assistant to the wedding director. Someone obviously slipped up on the supply of wine for the seven-day wedding celebration. And they ran short of wine.
At first Jesus seemed to refuse to do anything about the situation. But later he told the servants to fill six large stone jars with water and take some to the headwaiter. When they did so, the water had become wine, better wine than that which had run out.

As with all of the miracles and parables of Jesus, this story is rich in revelation and symbolism. The stone jars were meant for the ablutions that are customary among the Jews.  Stone jars were not used to store wine. Wine was stored in wine skins. Stone jars were used for keeping water for washing their hands and for other purification purposes.
The six stone water jars, each holding 20-30 gallons equals 120-180 gallons of wine! That's a lot of wine. An abundance of wine was an OT eschatological symbol. The abundance of God's grace is a theme that can flow out of these huge jars.
These jars were empty. The servants had to fill them with water before the miracle occurs. Jesus is not transforming the purification water that was in the jars into the wine; but he is transforming new water that has been placed in the old containers. O'Day suggests: "New wine is created in the 'old' vessels of the Jewish purification rites, symbolizing that the old forms are given new content."
C.S. Lewis said, what Jesus did at Cana (as in many of his miracles) was really no more than a speeded-up version of what he does every year on a thousand hillsides as vines silently turn water into wine. Millions of people enjoy that wine every year without for a moment recognizing the divine origin of it all.

The six stone jars filled with water are representative of the Old or Mosaic Covenant.  St. John even links them explicitly to this covenant by mentioning they were “for Jewish ceremonial washings,” i.e. for the rituals necessary to fulfill the principles of ritual purity spelled out in Leviticus and Numbers.  There are six of them, and six is almost always a symbol of limitation or defect in the Old Testament, a failure to reach seven, the number of covenant and perfection.  Furthermore, the jars are “stone,” reminding us of the covenant written on stone rather than upon the human heart (2 Cor 3:3; cf. Ezek 26:26).  They are filled with “water,” like Moses provided in the desert (Exod 17:6): water keeps you alive, but brings no joy.  Wine brings joy: (Zech 10:7, Ps 104:15). The time for ritual cleansing had passed; the time for celebration had begun.  So the contrast of jars of water with jars of wine is the contrast between Moses and Jesus, between the Old Covenant and the New: “the Law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).

The symbolism here is that, Jesus reveals himself here as the “ultimate Bridegroom.”  The responsibility of the bridegroom at these ancient weddings was to provide the wine.  We can see that in the text, because when the MC tastes the wine, he immediately calls the bridegroom, assuming that he was the one who procured the vintage. 
Jesus is the Bridegroom who is both Son of God and the Son of David simultaneously, fulfilling the subtle nuances of the prophecies of Isaiah and of the other prophets who spoke of the renewal of God’s nuptial love for Israel in the future.
The Bible begins with one wedding, that of Adam and Eve in the garden (Genesis 2:23-24), and ends with another, the marriage supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9, 21:9, 22:17). Throughout the Bible, marriage is the symbol of the Covenant relationship between God and His chosen people. God is the Groom and humanity is His beloved bride. We see this beautifully reflected in today’s first reading, where Isaiah uses the metaphor of spousal love to describe God’s love for Israel. God’s fidelity to his people is compared to a husband’s fidelity to his wife. The prophet reminds his people that their God rejoices in them as a Bridegroom rejoices in His Bride and that He will rebuild Israel, if they will be reconciled to Him and repair their strained relationship with Him. By our Baptism, each of us has been betrothed to Christ as a bride to her Groom (II Cor. 11:2).  Baptism is the nuptial bath, the Eucharist is the Wedding Feast, where we receive the Body of our Bridegroom and unite his body with ours. 
Our faith is one of intense intimacy.  God loves us like a bride.  He “rejoices” in us, takes delight in us, each one of us individually. 

Nothing is more personal or intimate than communing with Jesus in his very Body and Blood in the Eucharist. 
But on a practical level, our reception of Jesus in the Eucharist cannot be the only aspect of our “spousal” relationship, anymore than a once-a-week embrace would suffice to make a marriage work.  The reception of Jesus our Bridegroom in the Eucharist should be part of a lifestyle characterized by daily conversation with him through prayer and the reading of His word.  
Meditating on Scripture and mental prayer make up the daily conversation of the believer with his or her Spouse, the Bridegroom Jesus.  Let’s resolve to deepen that Spousal relationship with Our Lord not only on Sunday but every day of the week, by our prayer and meditation.