Third Sunday: We Need the Gospel

In this Sunday’s Gospel, Luke gives his version of how Jesus began his preaching: “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.”

To bring glad tidings to the poor.  I’m going to be harsh: everyone I talk to, even people vowed to poverty, seems to think the poor are someone else’s vocation.  Jesus’s way is not for us.

Everyone I see seems to say of their own vocation, “The Spirit of the WORLD is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the RICH.  Maybe Jesus went to the poor, but He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the powerful and self-importance to those with worldly abilities, to absolve oppressors of responsibility, and to proclaim a year acceptable to . . . the world.”

(Brad Wilcox of the University of Virginia, the top sociologist of marriage today, pointed out this week that, for example, though every college has a campus ministry, the Church has zero outreach to the 60% of American young people who do not go to college.  No wonder the poor have trouble with marriage.  Please let me know if you know of any ministries to those without degrees!)


The Lectionary gives us a strange Gospel this week.  We finally begin in earnest our Year of Luke.  Luke spends a couple chapters showing that Jesus was born poor, so the beginning of Jesus’s preaching isn’t until Chapter 4.  But Luke has a prologue about his Gospel, so this week we read Luke 1:1-4 (theprologue) and then 4:14-21 (the first preaching).  It sounds a little odd because it is odd.

But Luke’s prologue is important.  What he says is that others have written Gospels before him, but now Luke wants to give sort of a more scholarly account.  He is not an “eyewitness” (like Matthew and John, and Peter, who maybe helped Mark) but he is talking to them, “investigating everything accurately anew.”  And his goal is “to write it down in an orderly sequence . . . so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received,” or “that you may have a solid grasp on the words that are being thrown around.”

In some ways, Luke’s is the most sophisticated Gospel.  Whereas Matthew (the accountant) just gives a straightforward accounting of what Jesus said and did, and Peter’s Mark makes sure we see that nothing makes sense apart from the Cross, Luke, friend of St. Paul, doctor, and most distant from the actual events, wants to get the theology clear. 

And Luke makes sure we start with the poor Jesus preaching the Gospel to the poor. 

Worldly wisdom tells us to start with the rich.  It’s not such a crazy idea tosay we should start at the Ivy Leagues, and the media centers, and lawyers and businessmen.  (Living in the outskirts of New York City, I call it the “Midtown strategy.”)  What’s crazy is that Jesus went to his equivalent of the Bronx.  What’s crazy is that St. Lawrence—and every other saint—called the poor the true riches of the Church.

Why?  Because grace can do what man cannot.  And Jesus teaches us to live by grace, not by human power.  To live by earthly power is to renounce the Gospel—even if you pretend to preach the Gospel, while chasing worldly standing. 


St. Jerome

Our reading from Nehemiah is thrilling, if you know the context.  The Israelites have returned from exile in Babylon.  Nehemiah and Ezra have rediscovered the book of the Law—the Bible.  And now, for the first time in a long time, they are actually reading it, aloud, in public.  The people weep, recognizing how far they have strayed from God’s ways.  But Ezra tells them to rejoice.

The accent is important here.  The last words are not “REJOICING in the Lord must be your strength”: the point is not that joy is our strength.  The point is, “rejoicing IN THE LORD must be your strength.”  Don’t weep: God’s words shows us the way, and that’s Good News.  God gives us the strength to live in his way: that’s good news.  And the way leads to God: good news. 

When Christ calls us to renounce our worldly ways, to go to the poor instead of seeking worldly power, he’s not telling us our life should be miserable.  He’s showing us the path to joy—but joy is only in him.


And joy is in his body, the Church.  Our second reading, from First Corinthians 12, spends a lot of time on the body metaphor.  But let us not miss the conclusion: “Those parts of the body that we consider less honorable we surround with greater honor, and our less presentable parts are treated with greater propriety, whereas our more presentable parts do not need this. . . . If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.” 

Now, no one in the Church is really a “little toe,” or a back of the knee, or whatever part of our natural body we think is unglamorous.  But the point is that even the unglamorous parts of the Church—even the poor and the disabled, even the crazy—are just as essential to the Church as the media stars, cultural icons, and Masters of the Universe that the world fawns over, and that even we in the Church tend to give so much of our attention.

To love Christ, to find ourselves in his body, is to love all those he has redeemed, not just the ones we would fawn over even if he we didn’t love Christ.  Christ’s “preferential option for the poor” is precisely a recognition that it’s in our treatment of those whom the world ignores that we signal our belief in the Gospel.

Thank you, Luke, for making sure we hear the message.  We need it.  We need to listen more carefully to Christ’s way, and less to the world’s.

Where do you find yourself practicing a preferential option for the rich and powerful?  Where is Jesus calling you to love him in his poverty?

Second Sunday of Ordinary Time: Fix me, Jesus

There are two reasons I’m only now writing last Sunday’s post.  The first is because the plumber made us replace all the cabinets in our tenant’s apartment.  It’s been a hassle, though kinda fun, and I hope it’s been good for me.

The other reason is that when I did sit down to write last week, I was overwhelmed by the readings.  John’s Gospel is ridiculously deep, too many things to say: it’s overwhelming in that way. 

But first I was overwhelmed by the reading from the end of Isaiah: “For Zion’s sake I will not be silent . . . . As a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you.”  It too is rich just as a text.  For example, who is speaking?  These words are the Prophet Isaiah’s, but they are also Christ’s—and they should be ours, too.  We should be unable to keep silent (and my silence here is a sign of my inability to live up to that call). 

Mystic Marriage.jpg

Richest of all, though, is the promise, the Lord’s love for us.  I’ve been sinking into the depression of this time in the Church.  As a seminary professor, I see and hear too much.  I can believe that “people call you ‘Forsaken’ or your land ‘Desolate.’”  But my heart breaks at the claim that “you shall be called ‘My Delight,’ and your land ‘Espoused.’”  It is too much to believe that “the Lord delights in you” so that “nations shall behold your vindication, and all the kings your glory,” that “You shall be a glorious crown in the hand of the Lord.”

That, in fact, is the real reason for the textual richness of John and Isaiah.  The Bible and the liturgy over-abound with richness, because the God of Jesus Christ loves us, and offers us so much more than we can imagine.  He takes our water and turns it to wine. 

Seeing that promise on the page of Scripture the other day, I just closed my computer and gave up.  Given all my sins and weaknesses, given all the sin and weakness I see around me, can these promises be true?  That is the absurdity of the Gospel.

Yet our reading from First Corinthians claims the Spirit is at work, giving each of us the gifts the Church needs, so that all together, if we do not withdraw, do not give up, Jesus can work his miracles of rebirth through us.


“There was a wedding at Cana in Galilee. . . .”

I offer just two thoughts.

File:Duccio di Buoninsegna - Wedding at Cana (detail) - WGA06776.jpg

First, look at the jars.  “Six stone water jars there for Jewish ceremonial washings, each holding twenty to thirty gallons.”  Literally “six stony water things”—and big ones.  In the Gospel, stone is the cheerless stuff that the Father will not give us when we ask for bread, and the way he describes ground where seed cannot grow. 

But there is also a chosen stone, which the builders rejected, a corner stone.  And that One who entered into our stony world changes our stony hearts.  Those stony water jars signify our world, which seems so unchangeable and set in its ways—and which Jesus can fill with wine.

The water is “for Jewish ceremonial washings.”  But the Jewish ceremonies, like the Baptism of John, cannot take away our sin—not even the blood of bulls and goats, which is only a shadow of the good things to come (Hebrew 10).  It could only tell us there is a problem.  Without Christ, our natural perspectives, and even the Law, can only show us what a disaster this world is, how badly we need to be changed.

But there are six jugs.  That is the number of creation, of nature, and of natural law: complete in itself, yet waiting for the newness of the seventh day, when God’s love will come down.

File:Suleiman in Veronese The Wedding at Cana 1563.jpg

We need to step beyond this stony natural world.  And when we do, the water of John’s Baptism becomes the wine of the Eucharist, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, of the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. 

Wine is inebriating and celebratory, it is disorienting, both bitter and sweet, and unveils the joys of the wedding feast.  “For the creation waits with eager longing for the unveiling of the sons of God.  For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8). 

Come Lord Jesus!


One more thought: “The mother of Jesus was there.  Jesus and his disciples were also invited [no, ‘called’] to the wedding.” 

Mary shares in our flesh, and above all in our weakness.  She can do nothing.  And yet in his union with Mary, Jesus comes down into our dryness, to our weddings without wine.  All she can do is open her heart to him, show him the agony of this longing world, and trust that if we do whatever he tells us, all will be made new.

In union with Mary, let us adopt that heart.  Come Lord Jesus!

What problems are you trying to fix without Jesus?

Becoming Flesh at Christmas

I’ve been away from this site for awhile, since I half-completed my post for the fourth Sunday of Christmas, December 23.

I have written in the past about the irony I find singing “Silent Night” at church on Christmas Eve—with a baby crying and kids jumping up and down in the pew.  Christmas is rarely a silent night for families.

But this year I’m thinking about how that affects the whole season. 

As I have said before, my main audience in these reflections is myself: writing these things is a good spiritual discipline, a good way for me to contemplate the face of Christ and try to say something positive, amidst all the negative thoughts that often fill my mind.

But during Christmas, I haven’t been able to do this spiritual discipline, or many others.  I go to daily Mass most of the year; I pray morning prayer more days than not, in the midst of my sloppiness, and my family often prays evening prayer; but Christmas week, my favorite liturgical week of the year, there’s hardly time for all that.  Instead, this year as many years, we were travelling to see family—and the next week we had family visit us.  The week after that, we had a huge plumbing mess to deal with, and some work deadlines. 

I’d like to say I’m the kind of spiritual superman who stays on top of my spiritual life through all of that—and I do try to pray, at least my rosary—but this time of year is often a mess.


One of the things I hoped to post here during the Christmas season was TS Eliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi.”  The Wise Man in the poem says of their journey, “I had seen birth and death, but had thought they were different; this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death,” because the Birth of Christ calls them to conversion, turns their worlds upside down and inside out.

Christmas is like that. 


I’ve been trying to meditate this last month on how all these family events, some of them my choices (like visiting relatives, mostly), some of them imposed on me (like the plumbing), draw me to Christ. 

Follow me!

At the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells Peter, “when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.”  When I was young, I could go to Mass and take prayer times whenever I wanted.  It’s a lot harder now, with six kids, and a wife, and a job, and a tired old house. 

Of course that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to pray.  Prayer is our source, where we discover the meaning of all those things.  And prayer is our summit, where they all come to fruition.

But there is something rich in those challenges themselves.  I had been thinking already about how much easier it is for me (at least as an intellectual, and a theologian) to feel like a great Christian when I’m praying than when I’m dealing with other people.  I had a lovely retreat in November—and then I came back and discovered that loving the people around me, actually being drawn out of my selfishness, is a lot harder.  It’s the measure of true prayer: if prayer is easy and service is hard, the Bible reminds us a thousand different ways, it’s because our prayer isn’t as real as we think it is.


This Christmas I’ve been realizing that this is the truth of Christmas, too.  God becomes man.  In fact, long before Peter is an old man, it is the baby Jesus who stretches out his hands, and another dresses him, and carries him where he might not want to go.  At Christmas he takes the form of a slave for us.  God can do anything—the only thing he gains from becoming man is the ability to suffer, the ability to not be able, the ability to be weak and bound and frustrated.  Like me.

For the Christian, that is the path.  In fact, even real prayer is more about being captured and bound and turned from selfishness to service, from ego to love.  But the measure of that prayer is whether we are servants outside of prayer, whether our love can take on suffering flesh, as Christ’s love does.

I haven’t done a very good job of that this Christmas season.  But I hope that somehow, amidst all the time with family, and plumbing and deadlines, the Lord is not hiding from me, but calling me to himself.

What’s the hardest part of your Christian life?