Sunday, January 27, 2013

The power of the word

The “C” readings for the liturgy on this Third Sunday in Ordinary Time say less to us about events in the life of God and Jesus than they do about the power of the word of God, the word of Jesus.

Nehemiah contains this beautiful passage in which Ezra reads the book of the law to the Israelites. There is great detail provided in the description. Ezra stands on a wooden platform. The passage identifies who is standing next to him and on which side – six on the right and seven on the left. All the Levite priests who explain the law are named. What is really striking, however, is that the people are weeping. Why? Some commentators say it is because hearing the law reminds the Israelites of their sins and remorse sets in. That’s probably true but I also believe that reason should be scratched more and underneath we become aware that hearing God’s word read to us is a powerful action.

As Catholics we recognize the power of the word in the Eucharist, e.g., This is my Body. We recognize it in the sacrament of penance, e.g., I absolve you, etc. These are two very important examples, but not there are many others as well. Ezra’s admonition to the people is that they should not weep, they should rejoice. “Do not be saddened, for rejoicing in the Lord is your strength.” Nehemiah wants us to recognize our strength. Rejoicing in the Lord. The Lord is our strength.

Something similar – that is, a similar example the power the word has – occurs in the Gospel for today. Jesus enters the synagogue, is handed a scroll, unwraps it, reads from it, and then makes an announcement. He tells the Jews that what he has just read has been fulfilled. Jesus identifies himself with the words of Isaiah. He is the answer to the prophecy. He has been anointed by God to bring glad tidings to the poor, proclaim liberty to captives, return sight to the blind, give the oppressed their freedom and proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.

But just as the weeping of the people in the first reading remains the thing we remember, so in the Gospel we remember the silence and intensity of the looks of the Jews in the synagogue when Jesus finishes reading the prophecy. Both readings are testaments to the effect the word of God has on us. God’s powerful word makes us weep and then we rejoice in it. God’s powerful word gives us pause and we have to consider its ramifications.

There is a story, supposedly true, told about a Shakespearean actor invited to speak at a parish. He accepted but declined to do a reading unless the pastor also read. The actor read and received a thunderous standing ovation. He insisted the pastor read. The congregation wept. The actor stated, “I read the scene. Your pastor felt it.”

Does Scripture ever have that kind of effect on us? Does hearing the word go to the center of our being? Would we react as the Israelites did if we heard someone read the Scripture to us? How would we react if Jesus stood before us to tell us that he is the answer to everything. In the end, that is the point. Jesus is the answer to everything. Have we heard and understood?



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