Thomas O’Loughlin has given us a book that is helpful for the priest who prepares the Sunday liturgy (perhaps with a group) with a full participation of the people in mind. Rich in helpful comments and suggestions, it integrates the homily within the context of the total celebration of the liturgy
pp. 332. The Columba Press. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie
The Sequence of Gospel Readings in Year A
The Sequence of Second Readings in Year A
Lectionary Unit I
The Baptism of our Lord, Year C
(First Sunday of Ordinary Time)
Second Sunday of Ordinary Time
Lectionary Unit II
Third Sunday of Ordinary Time
Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time
Sacred Vessels: What they say to us
Eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Lectionary Unit III
Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time
Twelfth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Lectionary Unit IV
Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Some ‘Defects’ in Eucharistic Celebrations
Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Lectionary Unit V
Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time
An Alternative to Preaching
Twenty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time
Twenty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time
Liturgy and Accountability
Twenty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time
Twenty-fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Lectionary Unit VI
Twenty-fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Twenty-sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Twenty-seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time
Twenty-eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Twenty-ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Thirty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time
Thirty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time
Thirty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time
Lectionary Unit VII
The Feast of Christ the King
Celebrating the liturgy well is a far more complex task than providing good preaching; yet, right or wrong, preaching is used by many people as their thermometer of what they think about either a particular celebration or president. This may be a symptom of a more profound malaise that ‘the rest’ of the liturgy is just a fixed formula and it is simply a matter of getting through it as fast and efficiently as possible. However, given that attitude that one can ‘judge a priest’ by his preaching, I find it very interesting to ask groups of people what do they consider the qualities of ‘a good sermon’ (most people do not respond to the word ‘homily’). The results are predictable. In most discussions three groups emerge. The first I call the ‘Penny Catechism lobby’ who want instruction and information, often qualified by such adjectives a ‘clear’ and ‘straight forward’. The second group I call the ‘Thought for the Day brigade’ who want to be inspired and provided with a weekly fill of spiritual insights, while being given a new sense of pleasure/ beauty/ happiness. The third group are ‘the Advocates of Youthful Relevance’: they are not concerned for themselves (being beyond the stage of needing to hear any preaching for their own benefit) but for ‘the young people’. These young people, they argue, will listen only if the homily is interesting, relevant, and amusing. And on this note they usually get some support from the other two groups. It is a rather sad picture as one suspects that only half-a-dozen people in the whole history of the church would fit the bill – and that would not include Augustine, Gregory the Great, nor Thomas Aquinas!
Turning from groups of listeners to writers on communications theory, one finds yet another set of demands: in a media-savvy age of politicians more famous for their media skills than their grasp of the implications of policy, the preacher who has only his / her voice and an audience that is only listening to them as part of a larger event is doomed. Anyone who offers skills-training for ‘communication events’ when faced with the conditions of a Sunday homily is apt to throw up her/his hands and declare that ‘it is a no-go’ in the media-saturated world we live in.
Turning to writers on liturgy, and formal church pronouncements in particular, one finds yet another set of demands. The homily – and they are clear it is a homily not a sermon – is to be linked to the readings (but it is to be more than ‘simply’ biblical exegesis), linked to the liturgical event being celebrated, and linked to the liturgical year.
And, if all that was not enough, there is then the thorny question of time. Most people ‘in the pews’ believe that preaching ‘goes on’ far too long (ten minutes seems the ideal for most preachers; much less for most audiences); and in this perception they find support from teachers and communications experts who can demonstrate that the average attention span on any one topic is much less than ten minutes – a fact we witness in their love of getting politicians to use ‘sound bites’. The preacher is now someone who is set up to fail: she / he must inform, instruct, inspire, interpret, interest, influence, and even, amuse in about five minutes! Good luck! So why tell you all this at the beginning of a book of liturgical resources: with morale so battered, is there any purpose in even trying?
The good news is that the above analysis is fundamentally flawed. It assumes that the activity of the preacher can be understood by analogy (or even, in the opinion of many communications’ specialists, by direct comparison) with that of the salesperson / marketer selling widgets, services, or ideas. This confuses the action of preaching for a few minutes with the action of a commercial (or ‘infomercial’), a party political broadcast, or a sales-pitch. In these cases there is a product and an end-result: acceptance or absorbance of what is being ‘pushed’. But while there may be occasions when Christianity has to engage in such sales pitches or in ‘getting its ideas heard’, that is not the activity of the homily and should never be compared with it. Propagating religious ideas may have a place in the work-load of the pastor, but not at the Sunday Eucharist. Indeed, going back over the examples of our Sunday preaching from the very beginning (and we have extant Sunday homilies that are older than our written gospels), selling religious ideas has never (at least, in Catholic and Orthodox preaching) been a major component. Our fundamental assumption is that the community is gathering already formed by the Spirit and animated by the Christ so that it can rejoice and offer praise, thanksgiving, and petition to the Father. It, most decidedly, is not some amorphous throng to be bombarded with ideas they do not yet possess.
So how should we perceive preaching? First, and foremost, it is just one moment in the whole act of memory that is the community’s gathering. Just as we remember who we are in the opening rites (our identity or place in the year or our sinfulness), in the readings (our common basic memories that make us the group we are), in the eucharistic rite (when we engage in anamnesis of the paschal work of the Christ) or in eating and drinking as one body, so also, during the preaching, we remember in some viva voce thoughts who we are and what we are up to as Christians. Just as at any celebration there is need for ‘a few words’ to actualise what it is that the gathering is about, so also there is that need at the Eucharist. Which, incidentally, is why ‘the few words’ must link up with what we are doing, what we have read, and with the time of year. But the key point is that the homily must be just one element in the preparation and good execution of the whole liturgy that involves many ministries in the community apart from that of the preacher. The homily is but an element in what must be a richly prepared whole.
The fact that the homily is neither a lecture nor a sales pitch does not mean that we should ignore the work of communications experts. One can learn many speaking and communicating skills, and one should do so. One should not be boring if one can help it; and if anyone has a talent to amuse then that is one more gift that should be placed at the service of God’s people. But, in a media saturated age, we must not forget our primary task. The homily is a spontaneous narration of where we as the community, a unified body made one with Christ in baptism, have come from; a narration of who we are; a narration of where we are going; and a questioning aloud of how we are performing as a pilgrim people. This narration looks backwards (where have we come from, which involves the whole mystery of faith and not just the readings), it looks forward to the vision of the kingdom and the end times, and it looks at today: our identity as the church in the world, and at our performance of our discipleship.
It is to provide ideas in this work of narration, not just for the homily but the whole of the Eucharistic celebration, that these pages have been written.
Lectionary Unit I
An overarching Theme
The Year of Matthew is envisaged by the Lectionary as comprising seven units ranging in length from one Sunday (Unit VII) to nine Sundays (Unit VI) (see Lectionary, vol I, pp xlviii-xlix).
The core of the year is the five great ‘sermons’ that go to make up Matthew’s gospel, and these form Units II, III, IV, V, and VI; preceded by Unit I on the figure of Jesus the Christ; and concluded by the last Sunday of the year focusing on the fulfilment of God’s kingdom (Unit VII).
In this year each Unit is made up of two types of text: some narrative (over one or more Sundays), then some discourse (always over more than one Sunday).
The five sermons are:
The Sermon on the Mount (Sundays 4-9);
The Mission Sermon (Sundays 11-13);
The Parable Sermon (Sundays 15-17);
The Community Sermon (Sundays 23-24); and
The Final Sermon (Sundays 32-33).
As with schematic divisions of the gospels, it is neater to look at in the abstract than in terms of actual lections chosen. However, it is worth bearing in mind the lectionary’s desire to respect, in so far as it can, the five-sermon structure of Matthew, as it often helps us to appreciate the rationale behind making the junctions occur where they do, and the choice of accompanying first reading, which often functions as a lens highlighting a particular aspect of the gospel on a particular Sunday.
The First Unit
This consists of just two Sundays and focuses on The Figure of Jesus the Messiah.
The question, who is the Christ, is then explored with the story of Jesus’s baptism (Sunday 1) and the witness of John the Baptist (Sunday 2).
THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD
This feast’s history really begins in 1970 when it was chosen as the last moment of the Christmas cycle. It has no conceptual link with Christmas except, it could be argued, that in the eastern rites it is part of Epiphany and so could be seen as an extension of Epiphany (and it is so linked in the current western Liturgy of the Hours). However, that is not how it is presented in the eucharistic liturgy where it is celebrated as a distinct ‘event’ in the life of Jesus. So how should we approach this feast?
First, it is now approaching mid-January and for everyone in the congregation, the president included, Christmas is long in the past, people have been back at work for weeks, schools have re-opened, people are already thinking of a ‘Spring Break’, and even chatter about the New Year seems a little dated. So looking back to Christmas or referring to this as the close of Christmas is just adding noise to the communication.
Second, this is about the baptism of the Christ by John, it is not a celebration of baptism as a sacrament or even the concept of baptism within the Paschal Mystery. Such thoughts belong to Easter, and the Easter Vigil in particular, not to this day. So this is not a day for having a baptism during the Eucharist. Such a celebration just confuses the understanding of what is being recalled and fills the understanding with muddle. Indeed, if it is the community’s practice to celebrate the baptism of new members of the gathering during the Eucharist, then this is one of those Sundays which should not be used for baptisms.
Third, when we look at the position of the baptism of Jesus within the gospel kerygma we note that it is the public announcement of the beginning of the work of the Messiah. It marks a beginning of a period, not a conclusion. The basic structure can be seen in Mark (after the opening of the gospel comes the work of John which comes to its conclusion in his baptism of Jesus and the glorious theophany of approbation): ‘Thou art my beloved Son: with thee I am well pleased’ (Mk 1:1-11). The other synoptics maintain this structure except that they add the prelude of the Infancy Narratives, while in Jn 1:29-34 the testimony of John the Baptist is concluded by his reference to the theophany of the Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove. In all the gospels, this ‘event’ is then followed by the messianic ministry (what we often refer to as the ‘public life’). So the baptism of the Lord by John had a distinct place in the preaching of the church, it marked the ‘visible’ anointing by the Father in the Spirit for his work. It is the great beginning.
Fourth, the baptism of Jesus now has a definite place in the liturgy of the church, it is now a moment in our common memory and celebration of the Lord. So it would be appropriate to look on it as the beginning of Ordinary Time and, in particular, a celebration of Jesus as ‘the Messiah’, ‘the Anointed One’, ‘the Christ’. So the tone of these notes is that of beginnings, not of conclusions.
Introduction to the Celebration
Today we celebrate our faith in Jesus: he is the Beloved of the Father, the Anointed One, and the one on whom the Spirit rests. During the coming months we will be recalling each Sunday his works and preaching as the Chosen One of the Father, but Christians have always begun the retelling of the gospel of Jesus by reminding ourselves who Jesus is. The gospels tell us this by recalling that he was baptised by John the Baptist in the Jordan and at that moment the Father’s voice was heard and the Spirit appeared in the form of a dove.
Let us pause and reflect that we are here because we believe that Jesus is ‘the Anointed One’, ‘the Christ’, ‘the Messiah’, ‘the One who does the Father’s will’.
Use Option A (the Rite of Blessing and Sprinkling Holy Water)and then the first form of the opening prayer; if you choose Option B (a rite of penance) then these kyrie-verses pick up the words of the gospel:
Headings for Readings
The Lord’s Anointed is the servant who does the will of the Father; he is the Chosen One, the one in whom God’s soul delights.
Today we celebrate the beginning of Jesus’s work as ‘the Messiah’, which means he is ‘the Anointed One’, ‘the Christ’. In this reading we hear that Jesus is the one who is anointed, marked out, with the Holy Spirit. He is the one who brings healing to all who are suffering under the power of evil.
Jesus is identified as the Christ by earth and heaven: John testified he is the One whom Israel awaited; the Father’s voice testified that he is the beloved Son.
Prayer of the Faithful
Friends, the work of the Messiah was to gather scattered individuals and make them a single people, a people of God, and a priestly people able to stand in the presence of the Father interceding for ourselves and all humanity. So now let us stand and, as a priestly people united with the Christ, ask the Father for our needs.
Father, you anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with power as our Saviour. Hear our prayers to you and grant what we ask through your beloved Son, our Lord. Amen.
Preface of the Baptism of the Lord (P7), (Missal, p 410). Use either Eucharistic Prayer 2 or 3 which mention the working of the Spirit in the mission of the Christ.
Invitation to the Our Father
The beloved Son was acclaimed from heaven when the Father’s voice was heard; now let us raise our voices to our Father in heaven:
Sign of Peace
When the Lord set out from the Jordan to preach, he announced a message of peace and called men and women to form the new people of God. Let us celebrate this new relationship he proclaimed by offering each other a sign of peace.
Invitation to Communion
Behold the Lamb of God, behold him upon whom the Spirit descended like a dove, blessed are we who are called to have a share in his supper.
The hymn given in the Breviary, ‘When Jesus comes to be baptised’ (vol 1, p 371), for Evening Prayer I of this feast is appropriate as a reflection today.
Solemn Blessing 3 for the Beginning of the New Year (Missal, p 368) is still appropriate – we should within our eucharistic assembly formally ask God’s blessings on the coming year – and we have been celebrating one of the great beginning moments of the church’s kerygma.
First Reading: Isa 42: 1-4. 6-7
This is taken from the first of the four Songs of the Suffering Servant found in Deutero-Isaiah. Its significance within the text of Isaiah is not relevant to this liturgical use, where it functions to identify in prophecy several of the themes heard in the ‘voice from heaven’ in the gospel. The servant is the Lord’s, i.e. the Father’s, ‘chosen one’, ‘the one who delights the Father’s soul’, and ‘upon whom he has put’ his ‘spirit’.
Second Reading: Acts 10:34-38
This is one of the great set-piece speeches in Acts in which Luke presents his view of the fundamental kerygma of the church by expressing it in perfectly formed homilies. This speech is set immediately after the crucial encounter with Cornelius when the difficulties in bringing the gospel to the nations is, for Luke’s readers, finally settled. This is the ideal second reading for today for it is the only reference outside the gospels to the relationship between the work of John the Baptist and the beginning of the work of Jesus, in effect, the mystery we celebrate today.
It is clear from the gospels that the baptism by John the Baptist was one of the key fixed points in telling the story of Jesus. Indeed it appears to have been the defining point in the narrative. Here we see that narrative retold in summary form and the ‘baptism event’ retains that marker position at the start of the messianic work. Luke takes the trinitarian format of his account in Lk 3:22, refashions it without the narrative form, and presents it as an interpretation of the name ‘Jesus Christ’ or ‘Jesus the Christ’. Jesus is ‘the anointed one’, ‘the christ’, but what does that mean. God (the Father, not mentioned in the Lk 3 but only heard) anoints Jesus with the Spirit. But this now means that Jesus acts in a unique way in the Spirit: that God has set upon him the Spirit and power in a way that is not found among all the others – the Christians – who have received the Spirit. In summary we could say that Luke’s preaching here is ‘God gets Jesus to act in the Spirit’ and that phrase is equivalent to saying ‘Jesus is the Christ’.
First Reading > Gospel Links
The link between Isa 40 and the gospel is one of prophecy and fulfillment. The passage in Isaiah is read as text from the past pointing to a particular moment in the future (time of service ended, the work of the one who prepares) which has now come with John the Baptist and Jesus, and indeed that moment is now the past and the background of the church.
Gospel: Mt 3:13-17
The simplest form of the baptism event is that found in Mk 1:9- 11 and the almost identical Lk 3:21-22. Matthew makes two changes. First, he adds vv 14-15 stressing John the Baptist’s hesitancy over baptising Jesus — this insertion may be his caution lest it be unclear that Jesus was not in need of baptism by John. The second significant difference is that here the heavenly voice – which the hearer is expected to identify as that of the Father – does not address Jesus as in Mark and Luke, but the assembly: ‘This is my beloved Son…’
However, the key to the scene is not in its details but in its overall impact: the human and divine worlds, heaven and earth, the history of Israel and the eternity of God’s inner life, all come together in an unforgettable image. This is a mighty event that is fitting to act as the marker of the commencement of the work of the Christ. And so, it is one of the most explicitly theological scenes in the gospel narrative: the Father identifies Jesus as his Son and the Spirit is seen. Here lies the whole of later christology presented not as propositions but as something that the imagination can work with, while still not giving the false notion of ‘seeing’ God. We see the Christ, the Son acclaimed as such by the voice from heaven which is heard and not seen, while the Spirit is seen ‘descending like (hosei) a dove.’
Scenes such as this have become victims of two types of exegetical confusion during the twentieth century. The first was the product of a materialist notion of truth. It began with the materialist question: ‘If I were there that day what would my TV camera have recorded?’ Then when the exegete said ‘nothing’, it seemed as if the scene was false and so the whole thing was a concoction to be avoided. We have to realise that this scene is sacramental and placed within a narrative precisely so our human imaginations can handle the mystery: to ask the ‘TV camera’ question is not to get at the Truth but to commit the blasphemy of Wisdom 15 and imply ‘god’ as referring to another object, a thing, in our universe. The second confusion is that of assuming that ‘theology’ is an obscurity overlaid on the ‘simple message of Jesus’. The confusion runs like this: Jesus was a loving guy who spoke about God and captured hearts; then came the boffins who made everything complicated with notions of the incarnation, the trinity, and what not, but you can by-pass this and get to the ‘heart of the matter’. It’s a lovely picture and one that still wins adherents, but there is no evidence for such a ‘simple time’. By the time that Mark began preaching his gospel – in the sixties – we see in the baptism-event a fully developed Christian doctrine of God, and it is this that we read again today in the liturgy.
1. This is a good opportunity to give a simple catechetical homily whose aim is to impart some simple linguistic clarity in order to help people reflect on the gospel’s image more fruitfully.
2. We use the words ‘Jesus Christ’ over and over again. Indeed, we use these two words so often side-by-side that we forget that they have any meaning. Sometimes, we almost think that the word ‘Christ’ is just a surname tacked on as if one needed to distinguish several people called ‘Jesus’. Most Christians use the words interchangeably. I have seen history books with the index entry: ‘Christ, J.’ followed by page numbers. When I asked a student what was the significance that her essay kept varying between using ‘Jesus said’ and ‘Christ said’, her answer was that she changed the usage simply to make it sound less repetitive. So this is a phrase whose significance we cannot take for granted.
3. But our confession of faith is that ‘Jesus is the Christ.’ The word christos means the marked one, the one who has been smeared with oil. But why use this as a description of Jesus? The people of Israel looked forward to the new David, the new king who would institute the Day of the Lord and his victory. David had been marked out as the chosen one of the Lord: ‘Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward’ (1 Sam 16:13). ‘To be marked out with oil’ is the same as ‘being the anointed one’ or, if one uses Hebrew, ‘the messiah’ or, if one uses Greek, ‘the Christ’ or to say ‘He is the chosen one of the Father.’
4. Jesus was not literally anointed with oil to mark him out as ‘the anointed one’, but in the gospels he is shown as being marked out by the Father’s voice and by the descent of the Spirit upon him. To say ‘Jesus is the Christ’ is to say he is the one who is uniquely the Son of the Father, and uniquely the bearer of the Spirit.
5. To say ‘Jesus is the Christ’ is to utter a basic creed which only makes sense when we imagine that statement within the scene we have just read in the gospel. To say ‘You, O Jesus are the Christ’ is to offer praise through the beloved Son to the Father in the Holy Spirit.
SECOND SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
Introduction to the Celebration
We gather here each Sunday to encounter one another and to encounter the Chosen One of the Father. We are, as St Paul tells us, ‘the holy people of Jesus Christ, who are called to take their place among all the saints everywhere who pray to our Lord Jesus Christ’. So let us reflect on who we are as a group and on how we have become this holy people through our baptism.
Rite of Penance
Given the baptismal story in today’s gospel, this is a day when the Asperges option is particularly appropriate.
Headings for Readings
The prophet speaks of the Servant of the Lord who will gather a scattered people and bring God’s light to all people right out to the ends of the earth. We see in Jesus the fulfillment of this act of obedience to the Father’s loving plan for all humanity.
Note: Announce the lection as: ‘The Beginning of the first letter of St Paul to the Corinthians.’
This is the opening greeting of Paul to one of the churches he founded. He calls the members of the church’the saints’ because they have been made holy through becoming one body in Christ through sharing the one loaf and the one cup at the eucharistic meal.
Jesus our Lord is the Lamb of God, the bearer of the Spirit, the Chosen One of the Father: him we praise and him we witness.
Prayer of the Faithful
The Spirit comes down and rests upon us when we gather in the Lord’s Anointed for this holy meal; now empowered by the Spirit as a priestly people, let us intercede with the Father.
Father, you sent your Son among us to take away the sin of the world and to show us the path to you, listen to us and the needs we place before you for ourselves and our sisters and brothers, for we place these prayers before you in union with your Chosen One, who lives with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Given that today’s gospel is John’s presentation of the baptism event, the Preface of the Baptism of the Lord (P7), (Missal, p 410) is again suitable for today. Use either Eucharistic Prayer 2 or 3, which mention the working of the Spirit in the mission of the Christ.
Invitation to the Our Father
The Spirit gathers us in the Chosen One and makes us his people, so now in the Spirit’s power let us pray to the Father:
Sign of Peace
The Lamb of God has taken away sin and division and offered us the possibility of a new life of peace; let us express our willingness to begin that new life with one another.
Invitation to Communion
Today we recalled John the Baptist’s announcement ‘Look, there is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’; today we too can behold in this meal the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Over the Christmas period the liturgy has been very full in terms of words: hymns, prayers, announcements, carols. Now is a good time to create a structured silence. Begin this with an opening such as: ‘We shall now reflect in silence for a few moments on being the Body of Christ because we have shared in the one loaf and the one cup.’ Then measure the passing of two minutes and conclude the silence by standing and saying: ‘Let us pray.’
Solemn Blessing 10: Ordinary Time I (Missal, p 372).
1. Since last Sunday we read Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus for that feast, getting John’s account today seems like too much of a good thing. There are differences between the synoptic accounts and John’s of the baptism, but they are not such that an average congregation can appreciate these differences when the two readings are a week apart. Equally, the baptism event at the beginning of all four gospels is itself a significant pointer to its place in the early church’s understanding of Jesus, and so it is good that we read all four versions of the story; but again, the average congregation are not likely to note this when read on separate Sundays. So, in effect, we have entered into Ordinary Time and the Year of Matthew, yet today we have readings that are more suited to the explicit theme of last Sunday. This means that the liturgy today is either a continuation of last Sunday, if the focus is on the First Reading – Gospel; or else one concentrates on the Second Reading.
2. The pneumatology of today’s gospel, the Spirit descends upon the Son of God and remains on him, is that which is reflected in the Nicene Creed. This is therefore not a Sunday to use the (so-called) Apostle’s Creed option.
First Reading: Isa 49: 3, 5-6
This lection is made up of three verses of the section of Deutero-Isaiah that is the commissioning of the Servant-Prophet who will comfort Zion. The whole section is 49:1-7. As edited here only the divine voice is heard, not the servant’s reply, and this enables the text to be read as the Father addressing the Christ. This particular christological reading of Isaiah has been in use in the church since the earliest times. We see verses 5-6 echoed in the Song of Simeon (Lk 2:32).
Psalm: 39 (40)
The liturgy today interprets the speaker as the Servant of the Lord and then invites us to identify this with Jesus who delights in the Law of God and does the Father’s will.
Second Reading: 1 Cor 1:1-3
This is the opening greeting of the letter and as such it introduces a text that will be read, in bits, over seven Sundays. Since the next Pauline greeting will be heard on the Twenty-ninth Sunday, it is worth examining the theology that is inherent in Paul’s greeting.
In most religious views of the universe there is an assumption that sinfulness, impurity, and pollution are contagious: hence dietary laws, laws forbidding contact with the impure, and the widespread notion that people, objects and places become defiled. On the other hand, holiness is that which is found in limited amounts and has to be carefully guarded. It is as if holiness and purity are fragile and always threatened unless they are defended by high walls – often literally high walls as those built around enclosed convents – and legal safeguards. In this vision, sinfulness is the norm and holiness the exception. And, indeed, unless checked that worldliness will contaminate and spread everywhere until holiness has been corrupted and is expunged. This has been noticed by anthropologists of religion in religions far and wide. It is true of most Christians as well and can be seen to operate in Christian theology since the fourth century, with the rise of specific holy places (as distinct from the rest of the world: the ordinary places, the places that are not of any particular sacred worth) and in the rise of sacred persons. For instance, the regulations of the Council of Elvira, AD 306, that any presbyter who had sexual intercourse with his wife could not preside at the Eucharist on the following day. In this case, the earthiness of sexuality was threatening the holy and so could not come into contact with it; the converse notion that the marriage bed of the presbyter and his wife was sanctified by their contact with the Body of the Lord in the Eucharist was not even considered. This alternative might seem far-fetched, but this same notion of holiness by contact can be found in Paul (see 1 Cor 7:14).
In stark contrast to such notions we have the early Christian notion of holiness which lies behind this greeting. Here the basic notion is that in the Father sending his Son into the world, it is holiness that has become contagious and is communicated from the Christ to every one and every situation he comes in contact with, and then it is communicated further – until it spreads right across the earth – by his people, his holy body. This notion that it is holiness that is spreading, and that is threatening the darkness and has the darkness retreat before it can be found right through early Christian literature: here in Paul, in the synoptics (e.g. Mt 23), in Acts (e.g. 10:13), and in John (e.g. 1:5). Let us examine it here, and then see some of its wider implications.
The church of Corinth is ‘the holy people of Jesus Christ.’ They have become holy through entering into his life and adhering to him. It is not that they have individually become saintly people, but by being joined with Jesus they have received, shared in, absorbed his holiness. They are now, because of Jesus, the daughters and sons of God. This holiness that they have caught is transforming them and so they stand not as a little group of devotees, like the coltish group of some guru, but as part of the whole company of the saints: they are part of the new movement of holiness that is spreading over the world from the Son of the heavenly Father. This new people knows no bounds, and are not dependent on the law to keep holiness safe and wickedness at bay, for that church in Corinth, in union with all the other groups, are calling on Jesus as Lord.
Holiness is spreading over the earth and is expansive and contagious, and each little church is the means of this spread. The arrival of holiness makes the earth holy, every bit of it. In the older vision the Temple was holy, and within it was the Holy of Holies, and then as one moved outwards the level of holiness kept decreasing. Finally, one came to the edge of the land of Israel – a notion Christians later re-invented as the notion of the Holy Land – beyond which there was just land, raw matter untouched by holiness, far from the sacred, a sort of hinterland threatening the holy region. This is the notion that the earth is just there to be exploited as if it does not matter. This is the attitude that has contributed to the global ecological crisis, and then wonders why Christianity has so little to say about the matter! The reality of the Son coming among us is that holiness now belongs in the world, not in the temple. His entry is changing everything through us who have come into contact with him. The earth is not raw material to be used, abused and discarded, but the place into which holiness, and goodness, and beauty
must spread. Paul’s greeting is deceptively simple, yet it is a glimpse into a forgotten theology. However, if that theology is ever to be dusted off and brought back into service, it will mean dumping such an amount of our notions of sacred people, places and things that many will find the nostalgia and inertia more attractive than that of Jesus being the communication of the Father’s holiness to the creation.
First Reading > Gospel Links
While at first glance this might appear a relationship of promise and fulfilment (the promise that there will be a servant, then the Father acknowledging the coming of Jesus); that is not how the liturgy presents it. The first reading is God, whom we are to identify as the Father, speaking to his servant who will re-gather the scattered flock, and bring light and salvation to the nations (and this is confirmed in the Son’s response in the psalm). Then in the gospel the Father looks upon his servant and had John the Baptist witness to him as the Chosen One. Thus the relationship is one of the continuity of the two testaments: what the Father was saying in Isaiah, he is still saying in the gospel.
Gospel: Jn 1:29-34
This is the Johannine account of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist; and the following points are worth bearing in mind.
1. The 1981 English lectionary uses the Jerusalem Version which has in verse 30 ‘he is the Chosen One of God’. This is a variant found only in a minority of the manuscripts and it is a symptom of how the JB reflected some of the idiosyncratic notions of the 1960s that it opted for this reading. The Greek text, as edited in Nestle-Aland 27 and following the majority of the manuscripts, reads ho huios too theou; and this has been followed by the Neo-Vulgate with hic est Filius Dei and the NRSV with ‘this is the Son of God.’ This reading brings out John’s christology even more clearly, but one can make a case for just leaving it as it is in that it introduces the hearers to yet one more genuine christological title (cf Lk 23:35).
2. In the synoptics we all see the Spirit descend and are all hearers of the divine voice speaking of the Son. In John, no one except John the Baptist sees the Spirit or hears the Father’s voice. We do not live by sight for John the Evangelist but by faith in accepting the witness of John the Baptist. He hears the Father, he oll bears witness to him, and through him we come to know the true and full identity of Jesus.
3. In the synoptics the Spirit descends on Jesus, but in John he descends and remains on him. The Spirit dwells in the Son and gives him life. This is the relationship of the Spirit to the Son we confess in the Nicaeo-constantinopolitan Creed. The Son sets out on his work of words and signs with the Spirit remaining upon him.
4. ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ is a phrase which originates in John, here and at 1:36, and this lamb takes away ‘the sin of the world’ (i.e. that which sets the creation and the Creator at odds). Since the notion of atonement is not a significant theme in John, this taking away the sin of the world was probably intended as being the establishment of the reign of peace through the coming of the Son of God into the world. Read in this way, there is an overlap, by accident, with the second reading: both John and Paul see holiness spreading out over the earth as a result of the Son of God’s coming among us.
1. Every day we hear of further research into global warming and of new symptoms of the ecological crisis of the planet. This often provokes a cry that religion has little to offer on this problem or that it is a matter that little interests the churches. It is as well to acknowledge this criticism in that there has been a tradition of exploitation of the planet in the industry-driven west – the slash and burn mentality – that has taken Gen 1:28 (‘fill the earth and subdue it’) literally. Equally, many traditions of Christianity have been so centered on the spiritual life of the human being that they have neglected the creation, the environment, and even our bodily material natures. There are plenty of examples of dualist spiritualities that saw humans as souls trapped and held down by matter. And, there are indeed many forms of Evangelical Christianity that sees the message of Jesus so restrictedly in terms of the salvation of individuals or the rescuing of an elect prior to an apocalyptic crunch that they think care for the planet is a waste of time. This produced a certain kind of mechanistic providence: if God wants us to survive, we’ll survive!
2. However, a healthy theology of the incarnation and a healthy ecology should go hand in hand. If God is the creator of all that is, seen and unseen, and has entered the creation as a creature, the man Jesus of Nazareth, then his love for the creation can know no bounds and should set the standard for our properly ordered interaction with all creatures: visible and invisible, rational or non-rational, animate or inanimate. But the challenge is to have both a healthy christology and a healthy ecology, and have the two interfacing one another.
3. In the second reading and gospel today — and it is worth pointing out that such occasional overlaps are accidental —we have a theology of incarnation which presents the holiness of God entering the creation and then being contagious, spreading out to all nations, out to the very ends of the earth. We tend to think of the earth as just there, raw earth, and then there are distinct special holy places and holy people. But to those who believe in Jesus as the Son of God who comes from the Father and upon whom the Spirit remains, such limited notions of holiness are now inadequate. Jesus challenges us to a have a whole new way of looking at the world: holiness is now contagious, and everywhere can be a sacred place and everyone can be a saint. We have encountered the Christ, and this challenges us to transform all our relationships. Everyone who is in Christ is a holy person and can spread holiness, everywhere can be a place where we can encounter the presence of God.
4. We must respect each other and the environment as a gift from God and react appropriately to its God-given nature. We cannot see it as just something that we can selfishly hijack as if it were just there. We tend to live in dualist universes: there is the sacred and the secular; the spiritual and the material; the holy and the unholy; the pure and the impure; the saints and the sinners. The love and holiness of God that became part of the creation in Jesus overcame all these dualisms and division. Holiness is contagious, goodness is diffusive, and care for the planet, care for the poor and oppressed, and care for self cannot be separated.
5. John the Baptist had the task of bearing witness to the incarnate Son among humanity; we have the task of bearing witness to its implications for how we treat the environment.