Third Sunday of the Year – January 23, 1972 – CNR
The passage from Matthew’s Gospel that we have heard today describes the opening of Jesus’ public ministry. Matthew has already described the infancy of Jesus, the preaching of the Baptist, Jesus’ own Baptism and temptation. Now, after the imprisonment of John, Jesus undertakes his own mission of preaching and curing, both of these activities being the essential content of his words, “Reform your lives; the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
You cannot be unaware that modern New Testament scholarship has transformed the way in which we read the accounts in the Gospels of the words and deeds of Jesus. The evangelists were neither stenographers nor chroniclers; they were believers writing for believers; they pretended to no “objectivity,” convinced as they were that faith in Jesus as Messiah and Lord was the only true objectivity in his regard. Their Gospels are carefully structured accounts, whose guiding principles are not the dictates of modern historians but the needs of faith and practice in their own churches. We have in these four books, then, first and foremost a record of the faith of the early Church; only secondarily and indirectly are they records of the actual words of Jesus.
We are, I think, frequently disappointed by this observation. Some of this feeling arises out of distress that first-century authors were not as dispassionate as we twentieth-century readers might wish. More serious is a desire of believers to have a more immediate contact with the words the Lord himself spoke, “the words of eternal life.” It is perhaps not out of place to remark that the works we have are the works the Spirit would have us have; and we must be grateful for the gift of his inspiration. We have no right, after all, to suggest how the Spirit ought to inspire. But still, we ask for the Lord. And if there is one place where we approach directly the Lord’s own preaching, it is in the simple summary of his announcement: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
What did Jesus mean by the “kingdom?” The word has been variously interpreted in the history of Christianity. After the establishment of Christianity under Constantine, the kingdom tended to be identified with Christendom, in process of formation in the ancient world, come to some sort of triumph in the Middle Ages. The collapse of the medieval unity in the modern world led, on the one hand, to an identification of the kingdom with the Church (“the kingdom of God on earth”) and, on the other, with an ethical union of right-minded liberals (reaching a height [or depth] with the entry in the index of a book on the Social Gospel: Kingdom of God: see “Democracy”). One may hope that the American way of life was not what Jesus announced was at hand.
If those views miss the mark, we must go back to the age of the New Testament itself to discover the central meaning of the Kingdom about to come. And the first thing to note is that it is not man’s kingdom that comes, but God’s. It is not the result of human effort, of human works; it is something God effects, by his power and his grace. The essential message is that God is about to exercise his kingship in a new way: the kingdom comes because God reigns. It is an act of God that Jesus announces.
Such a final act had long been awaited in Israel. For some it would be the restoration of the political fortunes of the Jewish people; for others it would be the supreme act of God’s victorious power, punishment for the wicked, vindication for the just. The first seems to have been completely foreign to Jesus’ teaching, while the second fits only as transformed by the character of the ministry and message of Jesus. His preaching carries a sense of the crisis that impends on all who hear him (we are familiar with the many parables of the Kingdom’s imminent coming). But, if judgement is coming upon the wicked in the activity of Jesus, it is because grace comes in that activity. So Jesus sits down to eat and drink with sinners (to welcome them), and the supposedly “just” grumble and complain. So Jesus heals on the sabbath, and the day is felt to be more important than the deed. The errant, younger son is welcomed home, and the older son complains of injustice. Jesus did come for judgement and discrimination, but the light that reveals the secrets of men’s hearts, is the reconciling love embodied in Jesus’ words and deeds.
That is the reign that is announced, the kingdom that is coming. It defies men’s expectations: what kind of power is this? And that dismantling of man’s ideas of God continues right to the end, to the cross where finally the nature of God’s royal power is revealed in the weakness of a dying man.
One wonders at times whether the power and novelty of Jesus’ original preaching of the Kingdom can be regained. Perhaps some of it can be, if we begin with its chief symbol, the cross on which he began his reign. For that cross must divide men, and essentially along the same lines as in ancient Corinth, as either stupidity and weakness or as strength and wisdom. And the division will make all the difference for one’s life, just as Jesus intended it to cause crisis. For the cross is not a symbol to be observed and then forgotten; it is to be observed and then carried by us. For if God’s kingdom still comes, if he still reigns, it is in the same fashion: in the transcendence of men’s hopes, plans, and dreams, in the power of forgiveness, in the “weakness” and “stupidity” of lives patterned after Jesus’s life. In our stupid weakness, the wise and powerful God reigns and accomplishes his holy kingdom. And if that is a hard saying for us, perhaps we now understand why Jesus prefaced the announcement of the coming Kingdom with a call to repentance.
THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR – JANUARY 21, 1996 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
With today’s Gospel we begin the reading of Matthew’s Gospel which we will follow all through the ordinary Sundays of this year. And we begin at the beginning: with the first preaching of Jesus. His essential message is summarized for us: “Reform your lives! The kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
But the Evangelist has already placed this in a larger context: Jesus has gone into “heathen Galilee,” that is, the “Galilee of the Gentiles,” and a prophecy is being fulfilled: “A people living in darkness has seen a great light; upon those who live in the land and shadow of death, light has arisen.” Here Matthew again states one of the great themes of this Gospel: that the message is to go out beyond the boundaries of Judaism to all the peoples of the world. And we today, here gathered, are the most recent ones to whom it is addressed.
What strikes one is the simplicity of the prophetic language fulfilled in the coming and the preaching of Jesus: a people in darkness see light; light dawns on those shadowed by death. This is ancient and perhaps universal symbolism, and something in us can respond immediately. I say “can respond” because it is also possible for the whole Christian business to become so familiar that it loses its drama. In high school I read a medieval poet who imagined the terror the first night caused in the hearts of Adam and Eve, ignorant that a dawn would follow. For us darkness has little drama, and as a consequence neither does light. Something has been lost when dawn is not a surprise.
To restore the power of the symbolism, we might ask what our lives would be without Christ’s light. What areas of our lives would be dark? In what realms would we stumble about blindly? Are there any? The answers may frighten us: suppose we find no such areas, no such realms, discover that there really is nothing that we would be doing differently if we did not believe in Christ: nothing personal, nothing social, nothing professional, nothing cultural. Then we have no experience of existential darkness, nothing that Christ illumines. Other sources of light illumine our lives. If that is so, the symbolism of today’s Gospel has nothing but rhetorical power.
But, for some of us the truth of the symbolism is a matter of personal experience. They can remember darkness, blind groping, and are grateful that one day dawn began to break: it was a former slave-trader who wrote the words of the great hymn: “I once was blind but now I see.” Such people have a keen sense of what a great gift it is to be able to walk in Christ’s light.
Perhaps most of us are somewhere in the middle: we are just too used to walking in the light of faith; we take Christ for granted as much as we do the dawn and the light of the sun. If this is so, then this Gospel can urge us to be grateful for light: for the knowledge that the Kingdom has dawned, that life can be transformed, has been transformed, by its light, for the hope it can engender in this life and the next, for the love it reveals as God’s gift and our task.
We begin today with the beginning, and this beginning evokes the beginning of all things when the word was spoken: “Let there be light!” This light is now revealed to be Christ, in whose life and words the symbolism will recur many times. He will give sight to the blind. He will unfold mysteries. He will challenge those who do not know that they are blind. He will call himself the light of the world. He will tell his disciples not to hide their light under a basket. If darkness will descend again as he dies on the cross, the transfiguring light of the resurrection will gloriously dawn, the final realization of the originating word: “Let there be light!” And once again there is a poet to catch the full glory of the symbolism: Gerard Manley Hopkins, meditating on a dark tragedy, captures its faith and hope: “Let him Easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted dawn.”
THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR – JANUARY 27, 2002 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
As we listen to the sequential reading of the First Epistle to the Corinthians as the second reading of the ordinary Sundays of the year, we may be struck by the similarities between that nascent Church, founded by St. Paul only a few years earlier, and the Church as we see it today, almost two thousand years later. For all that St. Paul called the Corinthians “saints” and exulted with them over the many spiritual gifts that had sanctified them unto God, there were problems in Corinth that Paul had to address as he wrote to them, and the first one of these was a problem of disunity.
The scholars are not sure what lay behind certain divisions that were threatening the Church in Corinth, but clearly they were ignoring their communion in Christ by putting themselves under other names: “I belong to Apollos,” a fellow-preacher with Paul; “I belong to Cephas,” probably referring to St. Peter who had visited the Church; “I belong to Christ,” a group that perhaps claimed a special relationship to Christ, not shared by others; and “I belong to Paul,” perhaps a group that tried to remain faithful to the apostle’s teaching and example. The result, Paul said, was that Christ was being divided, “Christ” here meaning the community he would later in this Epistle call Christ’s Body, his members, members of one another in the Body of Christ. And Paul puts all the other alleged leaders in their proper place when he asks them rhetorically about himself: “Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?”
Those exclamations have their pertinence today, because the problem of disunity among Christians is again (still?) a problem. I am not referring simply to divisions among Christian Churches and denominations; I mean also divisions within denominations and Churches, including our own Church. If they do not always put themselves under some leader’s name, still they have a tendency to identify themselves more by their movement–whether it is charismatic, or Marian, or traditionalist, or one of the newer groups, Opus Dei, Focolare, Communion and Liberation, etc.–than by their participation in the common blessings of Catholicism; and they suffer the temptation to think of their particular brand of Catholicism as the only authentic one. Observers have noted that Catholics are often ruder, fiercer, in their criticism of their fellow-Catholics than they are of other Christians, Jews, Muslims–almost anyone–perhaps it is that family-feuds tend to be fierce.
I have often said that what we need in our Church now is an ecumenical movement for Catholics, a willingness to listen and to take seriously what others say and to offer courteous explanations of our own position. Above all, we need to use the method that Pope John XXIII introduced into conversations between Catholics and Protestants–to start off the conversation, not with what we disagree about, but with the things we hold in common. Acknowledging them and appreciating them and thankful for them, we can then go on to discuss points of disagreement. It has worked very well for ecumenical dialogues and conversations since Vatican II. Perhaps it is time to try it in conversations among ourselves.
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time – January 23, 2005 – Blessed Sacrament
The First Epistle to the Corinthians was written by St. Paul perhaps four or five years after he had founded the Church in Corinth by his preaching. Word had been brought to him about problems that had arisen in that Church, and the letter is almost totally devoted to dealing with them.
The problem he chooses to deal with first is the emergence of factions within the tiny community–how many members did it have? 200? 100? 50? People were aligning in the name of various preachers. Some said they belonged to Paul himself; others to Apollos, an Alexandrian apostle, perhaps inclined to a more philosophical brand of Christianity; others to Cephas, another name for Peter, representing a group of early Christians who had some difficulty letting go of the Jewish law; and some to Christ, perhaps an ultra-spiritualist group inclined to forego all those other figures and go straight to Christ.
The divisions had apparently become severe enough that Paul felt that they had lost their unity of mind and purpose. Their particular allegiances had become more important than their unity in Christ. They were dividing Christ himself. Paul vigorously repudiates the effort to make him a substitute for Christ: “Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Christ?” He brings them back to the center, to the foundation, who is Jesus Christ, the mystery of whose death and resurrection he will once again set out and defend in the remainder of the letter.
I suppose it is some comfort to know that there were divisions as early in the history of Christianity as this letter, written perhaps only twenty-five years after the death and resurrection of Christ. In fact, the subsequent history of Christianity has been one of tensions and eventual divisions and even separations among various groups within the Church. The great divisions, of course, were the one that took place in the eleventh century when western Catholicism and eastern Orthodoxy excommunicated one another and the ones that took place in the sixteenth century with the Protestant Reformation. We still live with the consequences, and the effectiveness of Christian witness and action in the world is gravely affected by these internal divisions within Christianity.
But within the Catholic Church itself there is no lack of tensions and divisions today. The Second Vatican Council has become a kind of field of battle, with some (most, I think) Catholics quite favorable to the changes and reforms it authorized, and others of the view that it represented a disaster in the history of the Church and is responsible for many of the sorrier aspects of contemporary Catholicism. To some degree these differences reflect the differences that constituted the drama of the Council as an event, and these in turn could be said to have echoed differences that have marked Catholicism throughout the modern period.
Differences, of course, need not mean divisions. But that happens all too often, when what Catholics have in common is neglected and emphasis is placed on what distinguishes them. A kind of informal excommunication takes place: one side accuses the other of heresy; the other retaliates by calling their accusers fundamentalists. Neither side reads the journals or newspapers or books that are published by the other side. No one is given the benefit of the doubt, and Catholics have no compunction about dealing with other Catholics with a discourtesy that they would rightly criticize if it were directed at somebody outside the Church. The Church is polarized.
It was to face this problem that the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin established the Catholic Common Ground Initiative which has been working ever since to overcome this alienation within the Church. The group holds national, regional and local meetings at which Catholics of different orientations meet and talk, pray and worship together. They are attempting a kind of ecumenism within the Church, based on the principle that has inspired and directed the modern effort at reunion among the divided Christian Churches: emphasizing what they have in common, and after a grateful acknowledgment of that, moving on to discuss the things that divide them.
It represents the sort of thing that St. Paul was attempting at the beginning of this letter to the Corinthian Church: reminding them that it was Christ was died on account of their sins, and Christ who was raised for their justification, and that this common acknowledgment of their need for God’s grace and of their having been blessed with it in common should count for far more than what Apollos or Cephas or Paul did for them or represents for them. This is not “least common denominator” Catholicism, as some have mistakenly accused it of being. It is instead basic Christianity, centered Christianity.
I have taken part in several national meetings of the Common Ground Initiative, and one of the most impressive things about the three- or four-day meetings is the common prayer. Morning and evening prayer are said together, by all participants, and there is a daily Mass. I think it helps enormously that all the participants, despite all their differences, however warmly addressed, find themselves side-by-side in prayer and worship and song and communion. I think this experience may do more than all the discussions to help people keep their differences in perspective, and not allow them to make people forget all that they have received in common, no one more worthy of it than anyone else, simply by the grace of God. If we can find ourselves brothers and sisters in the need of grace and in the experience of grace, then these other differences can be handled with love and respect, and Christ will not be divided.
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time – January 23, 2011 – St. John’s
During these first Sundays in Ordinary Time, as they are called, our second biblical reading will be taken from the first Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians. We heard the first verses of this letter last week when the Apostle spoke of the believers in Corinth as having already been sanctified, that is, made holy, and at the same time as “called to be holy.”
It may help us, as we listen to these snippets from this rather lengthy letter, to keep a couple of things in mind. First, when Paul refers to the Church there, he was referring to a rather small group, surely no more than five hundred all told, perhaps even fewer, which met, not in special buildings, but in private houses, so that any particular gathering of believers was almost certainly not as large as this one here this morning.
Second, as today’s reading already illustrates, this little community, founded perhaps four years earlier by Paul’s preaching, had many problems. If Paul could refer to them as “saints,” that is, as “holy ones,” he didn’t mean that they walked around with haloes over their heads, eyes piously turned toward Heaven. These were flesh-and-blood people, and Paul had to address various problems in their midst: divisions, a case of incest and other kinds of sexual immorality, taking legal problems to external courts, disagreements about what it was licit to eat, divisions between rich and poor affecting how they celebrated the eucharist, the place of women, rivalries about charismatic gifts, denial of the resurrection of the body. Quite a list! If you’re ever worried about the state of the Church today, keep in mind that it’s not the first time that we’ve been in difficulty.
The problem St. Paul addressed in today’s passage is one that we Catholics know today: divisions in the Church. The believers in Corinth were dividing up, some after Paul, some Apollos, some Cephas (Peter), some, perhaps tiring of it all, saying simply that they belong to Christ! We don’t know the precise grounds for these group-differences. In today’s Church, we hear of progressive Catholics and of traditionalist Catholics, of those who are all for the old liturgy and those for the new, those who appeal to Rome and the Pope, others who want a more American Church, those who follow one of the newer movements, others who are content with the old devotions. Some of these differences are relatively minor, and tolerable within a large-hearted Church, but sometimes they can be emphasized so much that it’s almost as if we were talking about different Churches, and we find Catholics speaking of other Catholics in rude and dismissive terms that they would never use if they were talking about third-parties. Sometimes it seems like we need an ecumenical movement among Catholics!
St. Paul’s response was to call the Corinthians back to basics by his rhetorical questions: “Has Christ been divided into parts? Was it Paul who was crucified for you? Was it in Paul’s name that you were baptized?” In other words, all of them had been baptized in Christ’s name, in the name of the one who had been crucified for them, so that they could not set themselves up in groups named after someone else. It was absurd that that little group of believers in Corinth should be divided when the whole reason for their being gathered as a community, as a Church, was because of what the one God had done for them all in Christ. Their unity in God’s love, in grace, in faith, should count for more than any other allegiance.
We Catholics today could take a lesson from the way in which the ecumenical movement has started to overcome some of the obstacles to Christian reunion. The first great step was to start the conversation with what we have in common with other Christians–the Orthodox, Anglicans, Protestants–and then, within a common acknowledgment of what unites us, to go on to discuss what divides us. Could we not try to do something similar with our fellow Catholics? The late Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago proposed something like that in the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, which had some success although it seems to have petered out of late. We should not let any other allegiance make us forget that Christ died for every one of us, and that makes everyone of us as worthy of love as those we agree with.
The Church, both in Paul’s time and in ours, has no unity except the unity of our faith, hope, and love–there is no Church apart from this unity. The eucharist is called the sacrament of unity, and at each Mass we ought to remind ourselves that everyone in the actual assembly needs, no less and no more than others, to be challenged and comforted by the same word of God, that no one of us is any more, nor any less, worthy of God’s love than any one else, that we have all been brought from the death of sin into the life of grace. A very early Christian hymn put in simply: as grains of wheat were gathered from the hillsides to make a single loaf of bread, so the Church is gathered from all of us and made one body in Christ. This is what we ought to be aware can happen at every Mass and does happen if we open our minds and hearts and let God bring it about.