Fr. Scott Lewis is an associate professor of New Testament at Regis College, a founding member of the Toronto School of Theology.

He is a past president of the Canadian Catholic Biblical Association.

Second Week in Ordinary Time (Year C) Jan. 20 (Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 96; 1 Corinthians 12:4-11; John 2:1-12)

What is in a name? More than we might think! The ancients believed that a person’s name was a reflection of their nature and the direction of their life. The Old Testament is filled with odd names and mid-life name changes that reflected changing relationships with God.

In baptism we are God's beloved children

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Baptism of the Lord (Year C) Jan. 13 (Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Psalm 104; Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7; Luke 3:15-16, 21-22)

A fear of change

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Epiphany of the Lord (Year C) Jan. 6 (Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72; Ephesians 3:2-3, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12)

In the family we learn our Father’s business

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Holy Family (Year C) Dec. 30 (1 Samuel 1:20-22, 24-28; Psalm 84; 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24; Luke 2:41-52)

God did not disappoint Hannah. Those who were childless were often thought to be cursed by God, but her faith was stronger than that. She had struggled for many years with the pain and disgrace of not having children but she was also confident that God would hear and grant her prayer. The previous year she had prayed at the shrine in Shiloh and promised that if she were granted the gift of a son he would be consecrated to the Lord. Hannah even had to endure the misogynist mockery of Eli the prophet as he accused her of public drunkenness but she was unwavering and clear in what she asked of God and what she promised in return. Having been blessed with a child, she was later willing to relinquish him for a higher purpose.

Now everything had come to pass and the child Samuel was taken to Eli for instruction and training. Samuel became a Spirit-filled prophet during the tumultuous reigns of Saul and David. He was to be a nazirite or one set aside for special service to God. This designation was accompanied by a strict spiritual and ascetical regimen. Barren women and special sons are a recurring theme in the Old Testament. This story provided the evangelist Luke with a literary pattern for the story of Zechariah, Elizabeth and John the Baptist. Zechariah and Elizabeth were advanced in years and childless but the angel that appeared to Zechariah in the temple assured him that Elizabeth would soon bear a son. As in the case of Samuel and so many others, John was to be set aside for a higher purpose — preparing the way for the coming of the Lord.

The twin themes of barrenness and special purpose illustrated two very important biblical themes that still need to be taken to heart. The first is the sovereignty of God’s will and providence, which is seldom the same as human will and desire. Great patience and openness to the Spirit are necessary. The second is the whole purpose of a human life. We might have grand plans for ourselves and parents often imagine a particular future for their children, but each soul comes into this world marked for God’s purpose. A successful life is not measured by worldly standards but in how it has served God and others.

In John’s theological language, humans are not born as children of God but become so by their faith in Jesus and their reception of the Spirit. While we would probably qualify that statement today, it is still true that living in Christ and encountering Him in a personal way transforms an individual to such a degree that it seems like a new birth. Love and faith are the catalysts for this transformation. A person thus transformed enjoys a personal relationship with God. For John, this is the difference between superficial religious observance and a transformative spirituality.

The worst nightmare for parents is that their children will disappear or be harmed. The Gospel reading from Luke is especially poignant as we mourn the loss of innocent children in Newtown, Conn. The dread and anxiety of Mary and Joseph must have been unbearable as they frantically searched for Jesus and all sorts of dark scenarios probably ran through their minds. We do them a disservice if out of a misplaced piety we attribute to them superhuman foreknowledge and self-control. Mary’s fear turned to irritation and anger when Jesus was found in the temple calmly engaged in theological discussion. She asked Him what they had done to deserve such treatment and to have been put through such an ordeal. His reply was not contrite nor was it what we might expect from a child. He asked them why they had bothered looking for Him — after all, His mission had already begun to lay hold of Him and He had to be about His Father’s business.

In the few years Jesus had been with Mary and Joseph they had taught Him much and they were instrumental in forming His human personality. Soon He would begin to listen to a much higher and more persistent call. Just as in the life of Jesus, the family is where our humanity should be nurtured and developed and where we learn to be about our Father’s business.

 

Greatness in the ordinary

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Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year C) Dec. 23 (Micah 5:2-5; Psalm 80; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45)

Human beings are usually attracted to the powerful, beautiful, talented and prestigious. God has a very different view — throughout the Bible God repeatedly chooses the youngest, smallest, weakest and most insignificant as His instruments.

Simple justice, compassion is what the Lord asks of us

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Third Sunday of Advent (Year C) Dec. 16 (Zephaniah 3:14-18; Isaiah 12; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18)

In harmony with God, life is wonderful

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Second Sunday of Advent (Year C) Dec. 9 (Baruch 5:1-9; Psalm 126; Philippians 1:3-6, 8-11; Luke 3:1-6)

Joy, gratitude and a generous heart

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First Sunday of Advent (Year C) Dec. (Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25; 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2; Luke 21:25-28, 34-36)

There are often seeds of hope in the midst of ruin and devastation. The prophetic ministry of Jeremiah was discouraging, doleful and doomed to failure and he knew it. Many times in his ministry he was tempted to walk away from it but something always pulled him back — the words of God burned within him.

In the preceding chapter, Jeremiah bought a field even as the Babylonians began their final siege of Jerusalem in the early sixth century BC. It was Jeremiah’s way of witnessing to his faith in God’s promises and his hope for the future of the nation and its people. The chaos, turmoil and destruction around him comprised only one act of the drama that was being played out — the subsequent acts and the grand finale were on the distant horizon.

The oracle in today’s reading (it may be a later addition to the book) is similar in nature. It envisioned a messianic age in the future ruled by a descendant of the beloved King David. Justice would be the norm and Judah would live in security. The name given to the city of the future — the Lord is our righteousness — carried a double significance. First of all, the glorious life of the future was certainly going to be the work of God. For an oppressed and conquered people only God is able to deliver saving justice. In addition to the work of God the response of humans was important: the justice of God would have to be the standard by which the nation guided its collective life. This vision and many similar ones provided the people of Israel with courage and hope during the destruction of Jerusalem and the long years of exile in Babylon. Prophecy is often thought to be just endless forecasts of doom, but warning is only one aspect of prophecy. Giving hope and courage is an even more important part of the mission, as well as assuring the people that God was still with them. In this latter sense we all have a call to prophecy in these difficult times, for hope and courage are all too often in short supply. Even today people of faith and spirit everywhere can begin living the world of God’s future in their hearts and minds.

Love is at the very heart of all genuine human community and is the necessary ingredient for a just society. No other gimmicks or shortcuts will do. Paul or one of his followers prayed fervently that the mutual love of the community would increase and abound for holiness absolutely depended on it. When our lives are characterized by love for others and our principal desire is to live in a way pleasing to God then we are truly blameless before the Lord.

For the people of the first century, life was so brutal and corrupt that only a cataclysmic end at the hand of God and new creation would set the world straight. The apocalyptic language and cosmic symbolism of the Gospel passage was standard fare for both Christians and Jews of that time. The first Christians expected that these events would take place within their own lifetimes, and yet the world marched on and continues to do so. Nations and empires have risen and fallen, wars and revolutions have ravaged millions and the Earth has been torn by countless natural disasters. Throughout all of this many have “fainted with fear” and yet the prophecy insists that this is the time to hold one’s head up high, for redemption is near.

Once again, there is hope even in chaos and misery. Even though we might not expect the imminent demise of our world — although it is certainly possible at the hands of humans — the spiritual message still rings true. Pay attention to what is most important: love, compassion, justice and our relationship both with God and other people. We may not be able to predict the future and we do not know how long we will be on Earth, but if we are anchored in these divine principles and continually striving towards God, the time of the Lord’s return or the end of the world do not matter. Live a life pleasing to God, and treat the day as if it were your last — with joy, gratitude and a generous heart.

Jesus connects us to the divine source

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Christ the King (Year B) Nov. 25 (Daniel 7:13-14; Psalm 93; Revelation 1:5-8; John 18:33-37)

Suffering, oppression and persecution form a fertile ground for dreams and visions. When hope begins to flicker out and faith starts to waver the Spirit often sends visions of deliverance and hope into the minds and hearts ofsensitive individuals. They usually should not be taken literally but as reinvigorating inspirations and messages of hope.

Written during the Maccabean revolt against the Syrian Greeks in the second century BC, the Book of Daniel spoke to the yearning of the hearts of Israel for a deliverer and saviour. The one “like a son of man” (human being) was to be given a universal and eternal dominion over all peoples, nations and languages — not a bad portfolio! In its original context it is unclear who this figure is — it could have described the archangel Michael, another unnamed figure or as many scholars believe, a collective symbol for Israel. To the suffering Jews of the time it meant only one thing: God had not forgotten them and would intervene to vindicate and save His people. The unjust exercise of power by the kings and rulers of the Earth was going to end as God asserted total control over the Earth.

Although no such heavenly deliverer arrived during that period Israel did shake off foreign control, at least for a brief period. Two centuries later the authors of the New Testament reinterpreted this passage and applied it to Jesus — Mark 13 and the second reading from Revelation are good examples. Apocalyptic literature such as Daniel and Revelation is easily misused and can often disappoint if we expect that they predict events in our own time. They were intended to give meaning to the life of the people during very difficult times and to exhort them to persevere in faith. Read as ringing affirmations of the majesty and sovereignty of God and the illusory and fleeting nature of evil these visions can continue to inspire us in our own difficult and uncertain times.

The Book of Revelation portrayed Jesus as a king over all the Earth and there was a fervent prayer that this glory and dominion last forever. Revelation looked forward to His return on the clouds when He would be clearly manifested and vindicated before all. This has not yet occurred, but there is no reason for disillusionment. The time that is expressed in this passage is divine rather than human time. God is the beginning and the end, the one who is and who was and who is to come — in other words, God and the Lord Jesus are always present. We need not feel that God is in the distant past or the far horizon for He is eternally present and active in our world.

As we saw in the first reading, it is best not to take labels such as “king” and “dominion” in the literal or ordinary human sense. Nowhere is this more evident than the trial of Jesus in John’s Gospel. A very nervous and fear-ruled Pilate questioned Jesus about His alleged kingship for that was the word on the streets of Jerusalem. Talk of kingship over Israel was dangerous in the volatile atmosphere of Jerusalem. Jesus turned the question back on Pilate and only accepted kingship if it was understood in a completely unique sense. By saying “not of this world” He does not mean “up there” somewhere but that the authority He exercised did not reflect earthly conceptions of power. He firmly rejected violence and force, for His authority consisted of unity and love. Pilate was unable to see or understand anything except through human and worldly concepts. He was not the likeable but weak character portrayed by the evangelists. Other sources portray him as a brutal, unscrupulous governor who was well-versed in Roman power politics and the use of brute force.

Jesus brushed aside Pilate’s focus on kingship and insisted that His only mission was to testify to the truth. The truth to which Jesus bore witness was a non-violent God in whom there is only light and love, manifested perfectly in Jesus Himself. In His witness Jesus challenged all earthy models of power and authority. Our violent and fearful world desperately needs to learn of the creative and healing power of this light and love when human hearts are open and in harmony with the divine source.

Only God will set the heavenly timetable

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33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Nov. 18 (Daniel 12:1-3; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10:11-14, 18; Mark 13:24-32)

People have always yearned for the intervention of a super-human hero to save them from the chaos and suffering that the world dishes out. When the Book of Daniel was written in the second century B.C., the people of Israel were fighting for their very existence. The mad Seleucid Greek leader, Antiochus Epiphanes, was working overtime to obliterate Jewish culture and religion. The Jews fought back under the able military leadership of the Maccabee family but much of the land was devastated and many lost their lives.

The Book of Daniel was intended to encourage the people and assure them that God was preparing to intervene in the struggle and rout their enemies. What greater superhero can one have than the archangel Michael? The message was clear: stand fast, be courageous and patient, and above all, remain true to your spiritual convictions. Those who do so and lead others on the same path will not be disgraced but exalted and honoured by God.

No angelic champion or heavenly army showed up to save the Jews during their struggle, nor will one bail us out of ours. They defeated their enemies and went on to flourish by faith, hard work, dedication, courage — in other words, blood, sweat and tears. This is a timeless message — there have been many “times of anguish” and we are in the midst of one now. We cannot look for easy solutions or shortcuts because there are none. As well as being an opportunity, a time of crisis, chaos and struggle is also a time of danger. There is the temptation to cease thinking in a reflective manner and turn over our freedom, conscience and minds to demagogues, political or religious ideologies and authority figures. Even the successors of the Maccabees were not up to the task and degenerated into bloody power struggles and corruption. Our “time of anguish” calls for a recommitment to spiritual ideals and a refusal to be sucked into the darkness or to succumb to cynicism, fear and despair.

The author of Hebrews believed that the sacrifice of Christ ushered in a new age of human history. Violence and bloodshed, especially when associated with God, was no longer necessary or desirable. Not only that, the victory over sin had been won because Christ had assumed a place of power and glory at the right hand of God. Christ was now directing our salvation personally.

We might ask why sin and violence still are so very much with us. A careful reading discloses that although the victory has been won there remains a lot to be done. The world is in a process of being subdued and returned to the rule of God and we participate in this process. The transformation or sanctification that Jesus imparts to us is only effective when we co-operate with the mind, heart and soul in the midst of our everyday lives. Again, there are no shortcuts.

The passage from Mark describes an all too familiar theme: danger, disaster and distress. It refers to the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem in 70 and its aftermath. In typically apocalyptic terms Mark’s Jesus described the heavenly and cosmic signs of the endtimes. The frightening scenario was but a prelude to the apocalyptic climax — the return of the Son of Man and the final judgment.

Jesus said something puzzling, especially to first-century Christians: all of the things described would take place before the death of that generation. The delay of Christ’s return was a major problem for the first Christians because it didn’t happen. Two millennia have passed and it has not occurred. In fact, Jesus insisted that God the Father is the only one who knows when it will occur. Humans, the angels, even the Son are simply not in the loop with regard to the heavenly timetable.

Attempts to second guess God have caused turmoil and violence over the centuries. Perhaps it would be more helpful to focus on the second part of Jesus’ pronouncement: even if the heaven and Earth should pass away, the words of Jesus will remain. As in the first reading, a recommitment to the words of Jesus today will do us and the world immeasurable good. In that sense, the day and hour of Jesus’ return does not really matter.

God seeks the improbable

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32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Nov. 11 (1 Kings 17:10-16; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44)

The widow of Zarephath was an unlikely candidate for a prophetic visitation. She was not an Israelite, and she was certainly not someone of stature or importance. The Old Testament is filled with accounts of God’s agents seeking out the improbable and questionable — that is how God works. God works with a very different agenda and value system than human beings.

Why did Elijah seek her out among so many in the land? He was likely searching for a generous and compassionate heart that was willing to do God’s will — never mind the external label. God is always at work in the world in places and ways that we cannot imagine. The request that Elijah made seemed unreasonable and a bit calloused at first — the land was gripped by famine and the widow and her family were on the verge of starvation. She didn’t refuse Elijah but informed him of her precarious situation. Elijah reassured her by telling her not to fear. This admonition is given often in the Bible from God’s representatives. Fear is a constricting sort of emotion that can stifle the spirit and stymie the many ways that God tries to help us. The prophet also made her a promise. If she would put aside this fear and hold back nothing, God would provide for the widow and her family even while the rest of the land was in famine. The widow’s generosity and trust enabled God’s miracle. We can ask ourselves how many miracles we would enable if we let go of fearful grasping and self-protection.

The author of Hebrews viewed the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as a turning point in the history of the world and the way in which humans relate to God. Christ in a sense transcended all religion as He entered into the very sanctuary of heaven rather than anything bearing the marks of human creation. In that sanctuary He continues to intercede on our behalf. His sacrifice was meant to be the culminating and final sacrifice — from that point on, humans should not associate blood and violence with the worship or nature of God. Unfortunately Christians have not appropriated this part of the message well as the past two millennia bear witness. God does not delight in the spilling of blood nor does God ask or condone violence on our part. As the prophets of Israel always insisted, only a humble, loving and just heart is an acceptable sacrifice, as well as the giving of self for the sake of others. As we shall see below, not everything that calls itself sacrifice is worthy of the name.

Exploiting the generosity and piety of widows and the poor is nothing exceptional or new. Shady and manipulative TV evangelists have been known to tell elderly or poor folks that God will bless them abundantly if they put their rent money or living expenses in the donation basket and there are instances of financial malfeasance in our own Church as well. There are always some who use religion for personal profit and ego enhancement. Human nature is our constant and rather dismaying companion. Jesus pointed out the widow who gave a very small amount to the temple as an example of true sacrifice, devotion and generosity. Again, a nameless woman without prestige, influence or status was singled out as a moral or spiritual example. She gave what she didn’t have and felt the bite and sting of the sacrifice but it was something she did with love and devotion.

People often give what they can afford to give without feeling the effects. This does not apply only to money but to time and energy too. Large donations often have strings attached and public recognition can be part of the payback. We can wonder how generous people would be if tax receipts were no longer issued or if their donation would require giving up something that they enjoy or cherish. The example of the two widows does not call us to be reckless or excessive in our generosity but to be willing to step out of our comfort zone, away from fear and into the abundance and joy of living in God and for others.