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.

The faith-filled understand that life has purpose, meaning

Second Sunday of Lent (Year C) Feb. 24 (Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 9:28-36)

The Lord won’t let you down

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First Sunday of Lent (Year C) Feb. 17 (Deuteronomy 26:4-10; Psalm 91; Romans 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13)

The person you are is from God’s grace

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Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) Feb. 10 (Isaiah 6:1-2, 3-8; Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11)

The shame and fear felt by Adam and Eve in the Eden story is still with us. The sense of separation and unworthiness led them to hide from God’s presence. Most people still respond in similar ways — we would be aghast if we knew that we were about to be in God’s presence even if it didn’t involve death.

Isaiah found himself — in an inner vision rather than a physical journey — in the heavenly court. The experience was overwhelming and terrifying. There was a long tradition that no one could see God and live so Isaiah was sure that he was done for. The seraphs chanted “Holy, holy, holy” in adoration and praise, which is the source of the Sanctus in the liturgy. To say something was holy, however, meant that it was set apart from the arena of normal human activity and of the utmost purity. In ancient Israel the holy was approached with a fair amount of awe and dread. Wide and deep indeed was the gulf between God and human. Isaiah was unwilling to speak, especially in a prophetic manner, for he was convinced of his own sinfulness — the words themselves would be affected. The action of the seraph symbolized what God does with those whom God calls — the purifying hot coal was “touched” to Isaiah’s lips in order to cleanse him of sin and unworthiness. It was nothing that Isaiah did; in fact, there was nothing that he could have done on his own. The grip of fear and shame fell away and he was able to respond to God’s mission with a hearty “Here I am Lord, send me!”

The fear and guilt we feel before God is of our own making — we fear judgment and punishment. God is not interested in that but wants to transform, heal and empower all who are willing to respond. We come to God as we are and surrender; God does the rest. Praising God with the seraphs takes our mind off the self and focuses it where it belongs: on God.

Paul reminded the Corinthian community of the message in which they had first believed and begged them not to stray from it. These few verses represent the earliest Christian “creed.” The message was stark and simple. Jesus died for our sins, was buried, rose again in fulfilment of the Scriptures and appeared to many of His followers. There was no complicated theology, just the joyous proclamation that Jesus was alive again and that His life and death had momentous consequences for undeserving humanity. It was this gracious kindness that enabled Paul to rise above his own pain and regret over his years as persecutor-in-chief of the Christian movement and become its greatest apostle. Paul acknowledged that the good that he had done and the person he had become was purely God’s grace. The only fitting response for Paul — and us — is gratitude and passing it forward.

Jesus did so many things well, but what did He know about fishing? This question might have been on the minds of Peter and his friends as Jesus told them to put down their nets again. They tried again, this time with divine guidance rather than their own, and not only did they catch fish, but it was a huge haul. Peter was overcome and fell at the feet of Jesus, begging Him to just go away. Peter was made acutely aware of his flaws and sinfulness and felt unworthy to be in Jesus’ presence. Jesus would not hear of it — with the oft-repeated admonition to let go of fear, He raised him up and gave him a new mission. He was to be a fisher of people — far more difficult!

Fishing was a biblical apocalyptic end-time symbol, so its use here signaled that with the coming of Jesus the ingathering of souls for God had begun. Patience is essential. One cannot be discouraged at an empty net or hook but be willing to try over and over again at God’s direction.

The Lord invites us to continue this holy work of reconciling souls to God. We are to rely on the power and compassion of God rather than allowing our insecurity, preconceptions and weaknesses to paralyse us.

 

All is possible with God by our side

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Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) Feb. 3 (Jeremiah 1:4-5, 17-19; Psalm 71; 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13; Luke 4:21-30)

A just world puts us in the Lord’s favour

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Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) Jan. 27 (Nehemiah 8:2-4, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-30; Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21)

Conversion is not always easy or joyful — in fact; it can sometimes be a very painful experience. The reviewing of one’s life with all of the “should haves” and “could haves” can bring grief and shame.
Nehemiah recounted the story of the returning exiles and their conversion and renewal. They had spent a couple of generations in Babylonian exile and their way of life prior to the disaster of 586 B.C. was but a dim memory. Only a small group of prophets, priests and scribes had kept the traditions alive. Now that they were back in the land of Israel they had to put the collective life of the nation back together. Jerusalem and the temple lay in ruins and the land had been devastated.

During the exile, there had been much soul-searching and reflection. Why had God permitted this disaster? How could they prevent such a thing from happening again? They did not blame God but themselves. In their own eyes, they had not been obedient to the covenant and the Law. They had been guilty of injustice and idolatry. Only a firm recommitment to the Law would save them and put them on the right path again. In the scene described in our reading, the Law has just been read in its entirety before the assembled people. They were devastated and grief-stricken, for it was very clear to them how far they had fallen from the ideal. Nehemiah and Ezra gave the people excellent advice. Guilt, self-condemnation and sorrow are all useless. A conversion or repentance should be a joyful time. Move resolutely forward and don’t look back unless it is to learn from one’s mistakes. They were told even to celebrate and have a good time — the joy of being in harmonious relationship with God would provide them with the strength they needed. It is never too late to make positive and even radical changes in one’s life or in the collective life of a group.

Paul’s mini-essay on the body of Christ and the community was deflating news for many in Corinth. They had been engaging in the age-old practice of competition and one-upmanship to the detriment of the community’s unity. The bad news from Paul to the Corinthian community is that in God’s kingdom no one is more important than another — all are different but equal in worth and dignity. Every part of the body has an important role to play and injury to any part affects the whole. The body is a symbol of interdependence and harmony rather than hierarchy, domination or exclusion. We still have so far to go in understanding and appropriating this lesson.

Jesus returned from His testing in the desert filled with the Spirit of God and on fire for His mission. He made a favourable impression on most of those who heard Him. Luke lets us in on his debut in the synagogue of his hometown. Isaiah’s words that were read aloud cut deeply for they revealed the gap between ideal and reality. In the passage from Luke, Jesus read from Isaiah 61 and proclaimed that its promises were fulfilled in Him. The words were meant to be joyful and to give hope — how could such wonderful promises do otherwise! But they also carried a challenge that became evident in the part of this story not included in the lectionary. There would indeed be sight for the blind, liberty for captives, hope for the oppressed and good news for the poor. These marvelous acts were seen as signs of the divine presence and would go hand in hand with a more expansive and universal view of God. We might ask if the promises have in fact been fulfilled since we still have a world full of captives, oppressed and poor.

The arrival of Jesus signaled a sign of compassion and favour on the part of God for suffering humanity. They described perfectly the earthly ministry of Jesus and what He did for those whom He met. As we return to the long journey through human history, these promises serve as ideals and goals for us to implement with the aid and guidance of Jesus. Building a just, compassionate and peaceful world is the way we continually proclaim a year of the Lord’s favour.

 

Jesus heralds the dawning of a new age

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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)