Tension brewing in the Synagogue

As we said last week, the gospel today narrates the second part of the scene of Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth. It is not difficult to feel the tension that built up last week, which continues today. It builds up so much that those in the synagogue decided to kill Jesus. There is a glitch in the text which is not helpful. How can the people in the synagogue speak highly of him and the gracious words that were coming out of his mouth? It is simply one of the most gross translation mistakes in the New Testament. People are annoyed, disappointed, upset with Jesus, and the feeling does not change through the whole interaction.

Why are they upset? I suggest three reasons. The first reason is the one we discussed last weekend. Jesus has chosen a passage in Isaiah that describes the Messiah. He has read a text that describes who he is and what his mission is going to be about. The people in the synagogue expect another kind of Messiah, one that would liberate the people of Israel from the yoke of the foreign enemy.

They are also upset because these people know perfectly well that Jesus has cut Isaiah’s citation one line short. Jesus has read about the “year of favor” from God, but has intentionally decided to omit the next line, which reads “and a day of vindication by our God.” Jesus’s God is not one of political vindication. Conversely, many churchpeople still may be more comfortable today with the God of vindication than with the God of favor.

Finally, and that’s the core of this Sunday’s gospel, the people who are quite annoyed already recriminate Jesus for having done miracles in other places and not in Nazareth. Jesus replies by giving them two examples of situations in the history of Israel when God showed favor to the foreign—in a religious system that called the foreigner “impure” and forbid any interaction with them.

Now that we have done “exegesis” (studying the meaning of the text for the intended audience) how do we apply the lesson of Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth to our lives? I suggest three applications. The first one is what we already preached last Sunday. We need to reflect whether or not as church, faith communities, families and individuals who call themselves “Christian” we are living faith according to Jesus’s mission statement: again, do we feel anointed? Do we bring good tidings to the poor with the actions we undertake inspired by our faith? Do we help to relieve captivity, in the many ways in which it presents itself in our lives?

Second, this reference to the “stranger” should make us reflect about the make-up of our faith communities. Do we welcome the stranger, the different? But I also believe it is an invitation to us to expand the limits of those we love and care for. Jesus may just be asking us to do with others (the stranger, even the enemy) what most of us do with members of our families and close friends.

Third and perhaps the most provocative: Jesus provokes conflict. He did not shy away from confronting the people in the synagogue. Our churches (the only “business” I feel a bit authorized to talk about) often become places where we simply pat people on the back. For instance, a pastor will be more popular if he preaches what people want to hear, instead of what people need to hear. If we want real growth, we have to embrace “constructive conflict.” Conflict makes us uncomfortable, but peace for the sake of peace is not conducive to real growth. If you have children, for instance, you know conflict is part of parenting. Never, for the sake of peace and safety, should we deny our convictions. It is the only path to growth.

Jesus in the Synagogue


Because He Has Anointed Me…

After reading the introduction to the Gospel of Luke (1:1-4), the Lectionary divides the scene of Jesus at the synagogue in Nazareth over two Sundays.

As we read last Sunday, Jesus is assigned to read the scripture for the day. He is handed Isaiah’s scroll but he has a choice on what passage to read. Familiar with scripture as he was, Jesus immediately finds the passage he wants to read. We have to understand his choice as Jesus giving us his “mission statement.”

A few years ago it was in fashion that all kinds of institutions, including churches, would draft their mission and vision statements. The idea was to summarize the identity and the scope of action of the institution. This is exactly what Jesus does in the synagogue in the town that saw him grow: he draws from the greatest of the prophets to proclaim what he sees his identity and mission to be:

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.”

The chosen passage prompts a series of questions to be asked of the Church, any faith community, and any individuals who consider themselves Christian: do we feel anointed, individuals and communities who see themselves as having been given a mission? Are we about bringing good news, especially to the poor? Do we work to end captivity, understood as the fight against the many things that become restrictions to our freedom today? Do we help people in the task of learning to see things the way Jesus would see them?

We often feel more annoyed than anointed; we do not live the good news, so how are we going to communicate it; we live a faith of rule and ritual that ignores the demands it should have towards our neighbors, especially the poor; our preaching may just help people to continue dwelling in complacency in the name of formal purity and observance; we focus on some captivities and ignore some blatant others; and we continue conveying the idea of a God of condemnation more than the merciful Father Jesus continuously spoke about.

A message like this will always provoke conflict, which is why the “eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him.” But Jesus just repeated, indeed, this is me. As we will read this Sunday, those gathered in a sacred place of faith try to kill him for the first time. It took Jesus all of four chapters to get in serious trouble.

Jesus in the Synagogue

Once Upon a Time There Was a Wedding…

The 2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time in any of the cycles in the Lectionary takes a passage from John’s gospel to help get re-acquainted with the adult Jesus, after the many images and stories of the child Jesus at Christmas. As we are presented with the passage of the wedding at Cana, we should first reflect about the personality of Jesus that comes to the surface. Jesus was at a wedding, celebrating with his mother and his disciples. Quite in contrast with the ascetic, neutral, even sad Jesus that has been portrayed in art throughout history, and quite in contrast with the image of Jesus that may have been conveyed to us from our pulpits and religious education classes.

In John’s gospel, Cana, some nine miles north of Nazareth, is the location of Jesus’ first sign, which is how John refers to Jesus’ miracles. A wedding at that time was a very big occasion that would take several days. Running out of wine was an embarrassment to the couple, and it would mean that the celebration would be over, probably placing some kind of negative omen as a shadow on their future married life.

As we have said before, if the point of the story would only be to convey the fact that Jesus was able to turn water into wine, the text could simply have stated that Jesus snapped his fingers and turned the water into wine. In any miracle that Jesus performs, there always seems to be a gesture, a word, an action that gives it a deeper meaning. For instance, he did not snap his fingers to give sight to the blind man, as he could have done. Rather, Jesus mixes soil with saliva and spreads the clay over the man’s eyes.

At Cana, what Jesus uses for the miracle is six stone jars that the text tells us were there for the “ceremonial washing” rituals. These were rituals of cleansing, in a religious system that had become highly concerned about issues of purity. Jesus then turns the water of cleansing into the wine of celebration, giving the miracle—especially being his first—a whole deeper meaning.

We, like any religious people of any time, could become overly concerned about sinfulness, ritual, rule and purity. With this miracle, Jesus emphasizes the joyfulness, the sense of happiness of those who have been invited to the feast. I believe something along these lines was in the Holy Father’s spirit when he instituted the Year of Mercy. We place the emphasis on experiencing and conveying God’s mercy to others, instead of focusing on rules and sinfulness.

The text also tells us that the servants—those who serve, like we are called to do—are the ones who get to know about the miracle, one that also teaches us about Jesus’ sense of abundance (he produced the equivalent of 1,000 modern bottles of wine!) We tend to associate service with obligation, burden, something that occupies a bit of our time and takes a small portion of our resources at best. Through this miracle Jesus tells us that we will experience—we will actually know—God’s happiness when we decide to serve and we do it abundantly.

clay jars

Baptism of the Lord: A Step Forward.

We have concluded the Season of Christmas with the celebration of the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. In my opinion, this is the third most important feast of the year after the Incarnation (Christmas) and the Resurrection (Easter.) The Baptism of Jesus becomes a new angle on the reflection of Jesus’ humanity.

John has been preaching a baptism of repentance, but there was no need for repentance for the one who is like us in everything but sin. So, why did Jesus need to be baptized? Fully human and fundamentally free in his decisions, through his baptism Jesus decides to embrace his identity as the Son of God and the mission that accompanies that identity.  Jesus could have stayed behind and been a good person living in Galilee. But he realizes he is called to more than that, he is called to a fuller mission, that he has the choice to accept.

As Pope Benedict wrote, and as captured so beautifully in the image that accompanies this post, Jesus’ passion begins today. Everything that Jesus will go through begins and it is based on the powerful experience of the baptism.

John explains that the baptism of Jesus will be of “Holy Spirit and fire.” As he steps out of the waters, the Holy Spirit—always spirit of Mission, as we are reminded in Confirmation—descends upon Jesus. The voice of God from heaven is heard saying, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased,” thus establishing what our own identity is: God’s beloved children.

This is then the first, most direct application of the meaning of the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord: We have to trust that God loves us. Once we are deeply rooted in that love, nothing can stop us. The way that nothing could stop Jesus, not even death.

There is another application that I want to propose to you. As explained above, Jesus’ baptism is a step forward in his life. The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord becomes then an invitation for us to take “a step forward” as well in our faith (and in our lives.) As a pastor, I worry that in our parishes we may not be offering clear “steps forward” for our people. We may have spoken for decades in very nebulous terms—mission, help the poor, serve… but how? We traditionally do a lot of nagging about serving on committees, fundraising, etc., but I am not sure we are really offering people the possibility of taking a step forward that would produce real growth. I am not naïve, and I know that many people are also content with simply “maintaining” the faith and fulfilling obligations… but the invitation to growth is so much more beautiful and engaging.

[Particularly, at Sacred Heart in Racine we are offering specific “steps forward” in the three areas we identified on the Feast of the Epiphany. Responding to the Gold (finances) we are going to start a biblically based financial seminar called Financial Peace. Responding to the Frankincense (prayer, relationship with God) we are going to launch again our FaithGroups. Responding to the Myrrh (suffering and death) we are going to start a Grief Support Group. Specific, practical opportunities to induce growth.]



Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.

As we reach the final days of the Season of Christmas we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany in this context does not mean what it means in normal parlance when we suddenly realize something. Epiphany is the manifestation of Christ to the nations. We just celebrated the Feast of Mary, Mother of God. We preached then that it was fitting to imitate the example of Mary as we begin a new year. A young woman who reflects, ponders, and discerns—which gave her the strength to say yes to the plan of God, not once but always.

The gospel of the Epiphany, from Matthew, is a great invitation to ponder, reflect, discern. As we all know, the Magi bring to the child Jesus three gifts: Gold, frankincense and myrrh. I believe these three gifts symbolize three great areas of human concern. Gold symbolizes our concern about money and material possessions; frankincense, always used in religious rituals, symbolizes our concern with our relationship with God and prayer; myrrh, which is an ointment used in antiquity to embalm the bodies of the death, and that was also used to treat injuries, symbolizes our preoccupation with physical pain, suffering, and ultimately our anxiety about our own mortality.

The Magi came one way—trying to find the baby Jesus among the powerful—but departed a different way—meaning that they were transformed upon encountering Jesus. We practice religion precisely to be transformed, to grow as human beings and as disciples of Jesus—the connection between life and faith we have mentioned so many times. There will be a lot of time during the rest of the year to listen to and learn about Jesus’ take on these areas, and act on them.

For now, I suggest that we begin a conversation with our loved ones—family, spouse, significant other, best friend. This conversation should revolve around these three areas of concern: money and material needs; prayer, literally and also including church life; and death and suffering, physical or otherwise. As important as these topics are, most of us do not stop and reflect about them. We do not have a strategy to go about them.

To assist in that conversation, ask yourselves what could constitute a step forward in all three areas. This conversation could be a foundation for a plan, because personal transformation and growth is difficult and requires a plan, a strategy, lest we stall. A good way to allow this manifestation of Christ to the nations to begin to take place also in our hearts.

This has been my personal epiphany of the weekend (epiphany in the secular sense, this time): If we improve our lives, we will be more able to improve the lives of others. A faith life lived fully not only improves my eternal life, and not only improves the lives of others (as we are invited to serve others) but also can improve my own life here on earth.

Blog pic, Epiphany


Sermons in a Paragraph

The blog has been dormant during this very hectic season of Christmas. I read in an excellent book on communication in church something my homily teacher used to tell us in seminary: a good homily should be one that can be summarized in one sentence. I may not be able to preach here a sermon in a sentence, but what about a sermon in a paragraph? I am offering one paragraph per homily since where we left it, in the Fourth Sunday of Advent.

On the fourth Sunday of Advent (the first part of the Visitation): Mary’s “yes” to God’s plan translates into a yes to an attitude of immediate service to others; a yes to an attitude of joy (which, as we have said so many times, is a choice); and a yes to a sense of haste, as we tend to be in haste for everything except in matters of faith and its implications.

As we started Christmas we have been saying once and again that we do not celebrate one day, but a season of Christmas, which is a journey with different stages in the different feasts we celebrate, as it follows.

For Christmas, we preached that the incarnation is God’s main act of communication with us. Unlike TV ads, Instagram and Facebook where everything feels staged and good-looking, God communicates to us from reality, as the gospel of the birth of Jesus describes a much messier situation than we tend to perceive.

Then we had the celebration of the Holy Family. Following their example we reflected that our families are called not to perfection, but to holiness, which in the gospels means to do everything we can to fulfill God’s plan—regardless of the messiness of our own families.

Then Mary, Mother of God, who has been the protagonist of so many gospels we have been reading these days. She could give her best “yes,” one that changed history, because as the gospel today tells us she “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” the same way she “pondered” at the Annunciation, or she reflected at Jesus’ answer when he is “lost” in the Temple. As we begin a new year, we are invited to embrace this resolution of becoming people who reflect, ponder, discern the way Mary did—thus not being just pushed by the winds and the currents, but people who follow a plan, a strategy on how to grow in faith and in life.

Finally, we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany, and that may merit a whole new post.

A blessed 2016 to all the followers of the blog.

Mary Joseph Jesus

The Gospel of the Marginalized

Read the gospel again. Can you imagine what it would be like to be a leper in the time of Jesus? Lepers were forbidden from entering towns and from interacting with other people. They had to identify themselves as lepers in the way they dressed, even ringing bells so people would know a leper was coming their way. Lepers were to abandon family and livelihood and live with other lepers in separated colonies. In a society in which the civil and religious spheres were intertwined, and as the text repeats several times today, a leper was declared “unclean.” There was the social understanding that such a cruel illness had to necessarily be God’s punishment for something the leper had done (very convenient!). The leper is an example not only of societal discrimination, but also of marginalization sanctioned by Law. Wasn’t it difficult to add “The Word of the Lord” after the first reading today?

It took courage for the leper to approach Jesus. He had to be apprehensive not only about what would be Jesus’ response, but also about the fact that approaching him was forbidden by law. For the healing to take place, Jesus had to break the law as well. What is interesting in this gospel is that the leper is the one who cannot enter the town at the beginning of the gospel. He is restored to society—as it happens in many of Jesus’ healing miracles, but it is Jesus who can’t openly enter the towns after the healing. Jesus has traded places with the leper—he is now the marginalized one, he has become the outcast. Jesus takes upon himself the leper’s marginalization. This is why Jesus asks the leper not to publicize the event: Jesus knows perfectly what will happen to him if the leper explains how he was healed.

The second reading today concludes with a call to be “imitators of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1.) For us to be imitators of Christ we need first to be able to be “moved by pity” like he was in seeing the dire situation of the leper. And “moved by pity” is a very soft translation. The verb used in the original Greek conveys the idea of compassion, being filled with tenderness, and a total internal discomfort in your gut.

For us to be imitators of Christ we have to be willing to establish the human connection. Did you notice that Jesus touches the leper? He is the Son of God. He could have snapped his fingers and said to the leper, “Be clean.” But he touches him, a gesture that symbolizes that we can’t really help someone unless there is some human connection. Jesus did not act from a safe distance, as the Holy Father has preached today, adding that “contact is the true language of communication.”

Allow me to give an example: In my faith community, the Advent Giving Tree is tremendously successful, and I am very proud of it. During Advent we hang cards on the tree asking for specific gifts for families and children in need. Parishioners can take one card and come back with their gift, which is stored in the church and shipped to those we help. I was very proud to see that we had to replenish the tree on the second weekend! But there was no real contact between the helper and the helped. The same happens when we help charities financially—which is very necessary and very good. But again, there is no contact between the donor and the individual or the group the charity serves.

Finally, in order to be imitators of Christ, we have to be open to “mess” our lives in helping others. Jesus risked his reputation, his own position in society to help someone. He did not have three strategic planning meetings with his disciples before he decided to help the leper. Helping people does not respond to an organized schedule. People are in need beyond Christmas, for instance, when we all feel strongly the need to help. The lives of those in need are often messy, and we have to have the courage to mess our own lives the way Jesus did in today’s gospel.

We cannot be afraid of helping others. We cannot hide ourselves behind laws and social conventions—for instance, think about those who dismiss the immigration issue by just saying that illegal immigrants “broke the law” and ignore the human tragedy. That is not enough, at least not enough for a disciple of Jesus.

This Sunday, the Holy Father has preached that ours is the “Gospel of the Marginalized” before the College of Cardinals. He urged them “to serve the Church in such a way that Christians – edified by our witness – will not be tempted to turn to Jesus without turning to the outcast … I urge you to serve Jesus crucified in every person who is marginalized, for whatever reason; to see the Lord in every excluded person who is hungry, thirsty, naked; to see the Lord present even in those who have lost their faith, or turned away from the practice of their faith; to see the Lord who is imprisoned, sick, unemployed, persecuted; to see the Lord in the leper – whether in body or soul – who encounters discrimination! We will not find the Lord unless we truly accept the marginalized! … Truly the Gospel of the marginalized is where our credibility is found and revealed!” (To get to Holy Father’s whole homily, click here.)

Blog pic, the leper