In the first reading at Mass today, the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C (Nehemiah 8: 2-10), the scribe/priest Ezra addressed the Israelites after their return from exile. For hours he read to them the Law, the covenant God had made with them. Their reaction? Sadness. Discouragement. They realize they had not followed the covenant, the mutual love that would bring them peace and happiness.
But Ezra tells them: “Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength!” He tells them not to look back or dwell on the past. Look to the present moment when the people have gathered to express their desire to be faithful to the covenant. On this present moment, build your future. Be mindful of God’s faithfulness and have hope.
This hope was eventually fulfilled by Jesus who faithfully lived Israel’s covenant of love. In the gospel (Luke 4: 14-21), Jesus returns to his home town of Nazareth after being baptized in the Jordan and battling Satan in the desert. Over the years he was accustomed to reading in the synagogue there. Handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus looked for the passage (61: 1-2) where the prophet spoke of his mission.
After reading these words of hope and joy, Jesus did a shocking thing. He applied the words to himself. He declared that they were being fulfilled by him. He is the one of whom Isaiah wrote. The authority with which he speaks is backed up by the deeds that he will soon perform—physical and spiritual healings that reveal the freedom of which Isaiah spoke.
This gospel takes on greater meaning for us this year. This is “a year acceptable to the Lord.” This Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy is a year of favor. The Church is called to focus, as Ezra did, on the present time in which God will shower his mercy on the world if we but let him. Now is the time for us to experience God’s mercy in a deeper way and to share that mercy with the world through works of mercy.
But even more, now is the time for us to witness to mercy by our joy. More than works, joyful mercy is to be seen in who we are—people of joy in the midst of a world that appears so hopeless. The loving covenant God made with humanity can be fulfilled because of Jesus who shared our humanity and unites himself to us in one Body, the Church. As Jesus proclaimed a joyful message during a difficult time in human history—when Israel was occupied by the brutal Romans, when a Jewish puppet king named Herod colluded with the pagan occupiers, and when the Pharisees strove to live the Law perfectly but in a way that separated themselves from the suffering poor and sinners—so we are called to witness to joy and hope.
In his Apostolic Exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis challenged us as Ezra did. He wrote: “One of the more serious temptations which stifles boldness and zeal is a defeatism which turns us into disillusioned pessimists—‘sour-pusses’” (#85). Various commentators have said that this is probably the first papal document to contain that expression. But it is an accurate translation of the original Spanish, “con cara de vinagre”—with a face of vinegar. Our faces are to beam with the joy of knowing that we are forgiven and, like Jesus, are beloved sons and daughters of God the Father who loves us with an infinite love which nothing can take away. God’s love, like his mercy, is always offered to us. God never stops loving because God is Love. We, however, are the ones who reject God’s love or place obstacles to it in our lives. Realizing this we should not become saddened like the Israelites, but rather turn to God and receive mercy as the sins we bring to him and confess are removed.
Christians are joined to Christ who gives them the power to move away from sin and toward the freedom of the children of God. All of us, members of his Body, have an important role to play in the ongoing work of proclaiming and living the Gospel of Joy. We may be saddened by our failures, weaknesses, and sins. But Jesus tells us, as Ezra did, “Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength!”
St. Paul, in the second reading (1 Corinthians 12: 12-30), underscores the reason for our joy. No matter how small, weak, or insignificant we may feel, we are all part of the Body of Christ. We all have a role to play. Reading this passage, St. Therese of Lisieux, who enrolled in the Apostleship of Prayer when she was twelve, became discouraged. She did not see herself, a cloistered Carmelite nun, in Paul’s list of Body parts—apostles, teachers, those who do mighty deeds or have gifts of healing, those who offer assistance or are administrators or speak in a variety of tongues. Reading the next chapter of Paul’s letter, the great hymn to love that we will have in next week’s Sunday readings, St. Therese found consolation.
She wrote: “And the Apostle explains how all the most PERFECT gifts are nothing without LOVE. That Charity is the EXCELLENT WAY that leads most surely to God. I finally had rest. Considering the mystical body of the Church, I had not recognized myself in any of the members described by St. Paul, or rather I desired to see myself in them all. Charity gave me the key to my vocation. … I understood that the Church had a Heart and that this Heart was BURNING WITH LOVE. I understood it was Love alone that made the Church’s members act, that if Love ever became extinct, apostles would not preach the Gospel and martyrs would not shed their blood. I understood that LOVE COMPRISED ALL VOCATIONS, THAT LOVE WAS EVERYTHING, THAT IT EMBRACED ALL TIMES AND PLACES …. IN A WORD, THAT IT WAS ETERNAL! Then, in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: O Jesus, my Love …. my vocation, at last I have found it…. MY VOCATION IS LOVE! Yes, I have found my place in the Church and it is You, O my God, who have given me this place; in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I shall be Love. [Emphasis in original]
St. Therese shows us that no one is insignificant nor is any moment of life meaningless. We are filled with joy because we know that united to the Sacred Heart of Jesus burning with love, we too can be love in the heart of the Church and in the midst of the world. This love, the love with which Jesus offered himself on the cross for the salvation of all, will enter today’s world through us. It is the only power capable of overcoming the violence and darkness we see around us. It is, as Therese wrote, “EVERYTHING” and “ETERNAL.”