Tenth in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Third Sunday of Ordinary Time
Readings: Nehemiah 8:2-4a, 5-6, 8-10; 1 Corinthians 12:12-30; Luke 1:1-4, 4;14-21
I must say: I’ve been looking forward to writing this one. This one, Good Friday (in March), and All Saints’ Day (in November) are the ones I’m looking forward to sharing the most. And may God grant me the grace to communicate these messages effectively, because they get right to the core of what this Church thing is all about.
This is the week we talk about the Body of Christ, Saint Paul’s brilliant and timeless metaphor of the Church as a body with many parts that take direction from the head and act in service to the welfare of the whole. In fact, that’s what the word “catholic,” one of the oldest adjectives used to describe the Church, means: not simply “universal” as it’s popularly defined, but “in accordance with the whole” (Greek, katholikos). It develops from what Paul began to write to the Corinthians in the readings last week concerning spiritual gifts, how there are many different kinds of gifts that are all given by the same Spirit. Because of this distribution of God-given abilities, the Church is able to function in the same way that a human body does. A body isn’t just eyes or ears or arms or legs or even the head. As he says, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?”
This understanding of the Church that was given to Saint Paul, and that He passed on to all of us through this letter to the Corinthian Christians, serves to illustrate the really and truly bottomless depths of mercy that are the ongoing implications of the Incarnation mystery. God’s coming into the flesh meant that the opportunity for salvation, for relationship with God, widened to become open to everyone – every single human being in every place and time. The metaphor of the Body gives an idea of how that relationship works in a “big picture” sense. Each of us is uniquely created by God with certain abilities for a certain purpose (and we often don’t know what). Of all creation, in its infinite array and splendor, there is no other thing in it that is you, just like in a body there is no other part that is the ears, or the eyes, or the arms, or the legs – or going further, the stomach, the heart, the liver, or even our “less presentable parts” as Paul calls them. And just as each part of the body has a relationship with the head (read: brain, mind or what-have-you), each of us human beings is called to relationship with God the Father through the Son Jesus Who, as the God-Man, is the Head of the Body that is the Church.
A startling conclusion emerges: none of us is unnecessary. In fact, as Paul says, “the parts that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary,” and “those parts…we consider less honorable we surround with greater honor.” That’s an especially poignant message for this past week which featured the gatherings for the March for Life. This is why being a Christian – being human! being creation! – must mean a commitment to the radical idea that not only shouldn’t we kill any human being but we should ensure every human being has every opportunity to have as full a life as possible. That means taking a stand against abortion, and the death penalty, and euthanasia. That means taking a stand for family-based and family-centered relationships, and streamlined adoption processes, and charitable works, and affordable accessible healthcare, and sometimes just plain getting in people’s way so they can’t harm themselves or anyone else. That means recognizing everyone – everyone! – as necessary, no matter how unlikeable or inconvenient or what-have-you, and acting as that recognition implies. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I do not need you.’” Even our Head Himself will not deem any of us unnecessary, because if that were true we not even have been conceived. So much less do we have the right to make the same judgment of our different parts!
This concept illuminates both our other readings today. In fact, both readings tell the same story in a different way, and both speak to the ultimate importance of even what seems weakest and most unnecessary. In the First Reading we see the Jewish people, returned to their land after the exile but subject to the governance of the Persian Empire, who have toiled in body and spirit to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. And now they stand together – “the men, the women, and those children old enough to understand,” the whole of the community except those who were, as yet, untaught – as Ezra the scribe reads aloud the Law for them to hear and understand. So taken were the people by the words of the Law that they wept as they heard it. And when the scribe was finished Nehemiah the governor told all the people to rejoice and be glad in God, and to find their strength together in that. he also told them to go eat and drink, and to “allot portions to those who had nothing prepared,” so that all would be united in strength and joy. The different parts of the Body need each other, and they need the strength of the Head to be strong enough to function. As Saint Paul would write 500 years later, “God so constructed the body…that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another.”
Similarly, in the Gospel Jesus, still in the early part of His public ministry, stands to read in the synagogue in His hometown of Nazareth on the sabbath. And when He was finished all in the synagogue were so taken with the way in which He spoke that they couldn’t take their eyes off Him even as He sat down. He had just read what must have been a very personal passage for Him – indeed, Luke gives us the impression that He searched through the scroll to find it – echoing not just His mission as He understood it but also the recent events of His baptism: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor…and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” And what does He say to His brethren as they look at Him with anticipation? “Today, this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” Even this old prophecy, written in the tradition of Isaiah, He cannot fulfill without people as His ears: it is of no use to announce the Good News if there is no one to hear it. “The body is not a single part, but many.” Even the Head cannot function without the rest of the Body, and all its parts.
“God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended. If they were all one part, where would the body be?” Remember that being “merciful like the Father” means to show no partiality. Remember that we are all working together. Remember that everything is connected. And remember that Wisdom is trying to speak to you.