I want to begin this morning by reminding you of what we just heard in the first reading from Nehemiah:
He read out of the book from daybreak till midday,
in the presence of the men, the women,
and those children old enough to understand;
and all the people listened attentively to the book of the law.
Did you hear that? He read from the Scriptures from daybreak until midday! So if Mass goes a little long today, there better not be any complaining!
Today’s Liturgy of the Word speaks of the Scriptures themselves. This is a time to re-assess what the Word means in our lives. There’s a little story that I often tell about the importance of knowing and living as people of the Word. It goes that a certain person was having some personal problems, and while she had never been particularly religious, she thought she ought to start praying. Not knowing how to do this, she reached for the dusty old Bible on the shelf. She figured that if she could get inspiration anywhere, it was in the Bible. She didn’t know where to start, so she opened the Bible at random, closed her eyes, pointed to a verse, opened her eyes and read: “Judas went out and hanged himself.” She didn’t think that was very good advice, so she decided to try again. This time, opening her eyes, she read: “go thou and do likewise!” She decided to try just one more time, and this time when she opened her eyes, she read, “Friend, whatever you do, do it quickly!”
So many people seem to want to save the Scriptures just for a rainy day, and are surprised when they find that they can’t find the answers to their problems in the first five minutes they have the book in their hands. We are all called to be people of the Word, but that can only happen if we take some time regularly to immerse ourselves in Scripture or even learn more about it. I had a teacher in the seminary who used to tell us to make sure we let the Scriptures “wash over our lives” every day of our life. He always said that if we were in bed and realized we had not opened the Bible that day, we should get out of bed, read a few verses, and then go to sleep. “When you close your eyes in death”, he used to tell us, “you will be able to open them in the kingdom of heaven and know exactly where you are because you will have regularly read all about it.” The Scriptures are our roadmap to a life with God, and yes they will show us the way, but not if we just look in the Bible randomly whenever we’re troubled. We have to be people who read the Scriptures every day.
I would say that even I don’t read as much of the Scriptures as I’d like. Our lives too easily get in the way, and it can’t be that way for us. Vatican II tells us that the Mass is the “source and summit” of our lives. And the Liturgy of the Word, the Scriptures are a huge part of that. Along with the Eucharist itself, the Word is that Source of which Vatican II speaks. It’s in the Eucharist and in the proclaimed Word that we get strength and guidance for our living and that all-important roadmap to a life with God.
There are three Scriptural moments in today’s Liturgy of the Word. First, the Word is proclaimed. Second, that Word has an effect on its hearers. Finally, the Word is fulfilled. So first, the Word is proclaimed. We see that twice. First, in the first reading, Ezra the priest reads from the scroll from daybreak to midday, in the presence of the men, the women, and those children old enough to understand. It was quite the proclamation, and also included a kind of homily, apparently, since the reading tells us that Ezra provided an interpretation. The second time we see this is in the Gospel reading. Jesus takes the scroll of the law, and finds a particular passage from the prophet Isaiah and proclaims it. He too provides an interpretation, in the form of his very life
The second Scriptural moment is the Word’s effect on its hearers. For Ezra, the Word produced a very emotional response. The people bowed down in the presence of the Word, and began to weep. The weeping is presumably because, hearing the Word, they realized how far they were from keeping its commandments. Nehemiah then instructs them not to weep, but instead to rejoice and celebrate, because the proclamation of the Word on this holy day was an occasion for great joy. We don’t get any idea of how the rest of the congregation at the synagogue reacted to Jesus’ proclamation of Isaiah, but one would think that it would have been a pretty tame reaction until he announced that he was the fulfillment of the prophecy. Then we can imagine they had a lot to say and a perhaps indignant reaction.
Finally, the Word is fulfilled. Jesus’ instruction in the Gospel that the words of Isaiah have been fulfilled in the synagogue-goers hearing tells us that Word is never intended to be a static thing. We do not just passively sit through the proclamation of the Word, nod our heads, and move on to the Eucharist. The Word is a living thing and it is intended to have an effect on its hearers. Indeed, the Word is always intended to be fulfilled, and that fulfillment began with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In his person, all of the promises of the Old Testament are brought into being, and the real hope of the world begins.
We continue to celebrate the Word in those three moments. We come now come to this holy place to hear the Word proclaimed, and have it interpreted in the homily. Our Liturgy of the Word, then, goes back to ancient times, and looks much the way Ezra proclaimed the Scriptures. Except, of course, it’s a lot shorter now! We continue to be affected by the Word’s proclamation. Of the stories we hear, we have our favorites, and there are stories that move us within, emotionally and spiritually. We too may be moved to tears as we hear of God’s goodness, and think of the way we have fallen short. We too need to hear Nehemiah proclaim that the preaching of the Word is a time for great joy. Finally, the Word continues to be fulfilled among us. Having sent his Holy Spirit, Jesus continues to be the fulfillment of Scripture, every time someone hears the Word and acts on it.
I want to try a bit of an object lesson. Jesus, quoting from Isaiah, said that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him. That is true too for all of us who have been Confirmed. So I would ask all of you who have received the sacrament of Confirmation to please stand. Please hear these words from Isaiah spoken not just to Jesus, but also to all of us:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon you,
because he has anointed you
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent you 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.
You may find yourself ill-equipped to break people out of prison. But I know that some of you go to visit the imprisoned. And for those who don’t, I know that you know at least one person who is in some kind of prison. Maybe they are imprisoned by illness or old age. Maybe they are imprisoned by fear of acting to better their lives. These people need you to journey with them and be present to them, thereby setting these captives free. You may not be too sure about how you can proclaim recovery of sight to the blind. Maybe you don’t even know anyone who is physically blind. But you probably know somebody who is blind to the fact that they are in an unhealthy or abusive relationship. Or maybe you know somebody who is blind to the fact that they are suffering from an addiction of some sort. Maybe you know somebody who is blind to the fact that someone they are close to needs them in a special way. You can be present to these who are blind and to gently but firmly lead them to recovery of sight. You probably have no idea how to let the oppressed go free. But you may have an hour or two to serve a hot meal to those oppressed by homelessness at Hesed House. You may be able to spend some time occasionally with those who are oppressed by not knowing how to read. By giving of yourself, you can let these oppressed go free.
Those of you standing in this Church have been anointed with the Holy Spirit in order to bring glad tidings to the poor. By acting selflessly, can turn things around in your own corner of the world. By hearing and acting on the Word, you can proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord. May the Words of this Holy Book be fulfilled today – and every day – in your hearing.