Today’s Liturgy of the Word is kind of a homily about the Liturgy of the Word. We hear in the readings about how powerful the Word of God is, and what an important part of our lives hearing those words is for those who believe. Our first reading and our gospel reading both show moments where the word is proclaimed.
In the first reading, the people are returning from a disastrous exile in Babylon. Because they had not previously acted on God’s word, the Babylonians overtook them, and the cream of their population was carted off to exile. The religious and political leaders, the learned teachers, the strong soldiers, all of these were taken from their midst. So today’s reading finds them on the other side of that event: they are returning and beginning to think about the daunting task of rebuilding their society and its infrastructure. They pause at the beginning of that to remind themselves of the words of Scripture that had been so important to them.
The gospel reading finds the Israelites at a much later time, obviously, a time where the Temple had been destroyed. In order to preserve their religion, the practice of meeting in synagogues had come about. There, the words of Scripture would be read, and someone would give an interpretation of those words. This time the proclaimer and interpreter is Jesus himself.
What is common in these two readings is that each of them shows us three Scriptural moments. In the first moment, the Word is proclaimed. Second, that Word has an effect on its hearers. Finally, the Word is fulfilled. So first, the Word is proclaimed. 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. This went on most of the day, I might add, so don’t complain if my homily is more than nine minutes! 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, and remembered that not following those commandments is what cast them into exile. Ezra 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. The words of Scripture than made the Israelite’s weep in Nehemiah and Ezra’s day are fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ and continue to be fulfilled in our own day. 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.
The Word of God, we are told, is a living and active thing. The Word leads us to a certain way of life, a belief that God is among us, and that he gifts us overwhelmingly every single day of our lives. This time each year, we pause to be reminded particularly of the gift of life. Perhaps we might find ourselves of the same mind as the Israelites who wept when they considered how far they had been from keeping God’s law. The same could be said of our own society, which seems to value life less and less all the time. Against this, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being.” (CCC, 2258)
This past Friday was the 37th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that in effect legalized abortion in the United States. The Church teaches us that abortion is a violation of the fifth commandment, which states: “Thou shall not kill.” Participation in an abortion – which includes having one, paying for one, encouraging one, performing one, and helping in the performance of one – is a mortal sin. Because we oppose abortion, we as a Church are committed to making alternatives to abortion more available, including adoption, financial assistance to parents and especially mothers in need, and education about the sanctity of life.
Since 1973, when Roe v. Wade was decided, our society has tumbled down the slippery slope of devaluing life and we are seeing the rotten fruits of it all over. War, violence, hatred, lack of concern for the poor and needy, lack of respect for the elderly and terminally ill, all of these things are symptoms of the culture of death that surrounds us. Far from liberating women and giving them choice over the use of their bodies, the legalization of abortion has driven many women to have an abortion simply because they thought that was their only option or because it was more convenient for family or the father.
But respecting life goes beyond merely opposing abortion. Our Church teaches us that we cannot claim to be Pro Life if we are in fact only anti-abortion. Our claim to righteousness has to be based on more than never having had the disastrous occasion of having to choose to participate in an abortion, or it’s not really righteousness at all. If we pray to end abortion and then do not attend to our obligation to the poor, or if we choose to support the death penalty, or if we engage in racial bigotry, then we are not in fact Pro Life. Every life, every life, every life is sacred, no matter what we may think of it. It’s sacred because God created that life after his very own image and likeness.
And I say all this not because I don’t think that abortion is anything short of a disaster: it most certainly is. Abortion ends the life of a child, it ruins the lives of everyone involved, it damages society in ways we may never fully know. I say this because it’s way too easy for us to oppose abortion and then call ourselves Pro Life and then go out and violate life in some other circumstance. We must be very careful of doing that, because not being completely Pro Life weakens our witness to the sanctity of life. The world is watching us closely. And we absolutely cannot be at all weak in our witness for life: our society needs our strength and passion for life so that there can be conversion and change and unity and peace.
The Word of God continues to be proclaimed, to have an effect on us who hear it, and to be fulfilled in our hearing. Our witness for life is an important way that the Word is fulfilled in our own day. The Scriptures tell us that the culture of death doesn’t get the last word – God does, life does. And for that, as Ezra exhorted the Israelites, we should rejoice.