God's Word on Sunday: Good news found in God's blessings

3rd Sunday of Advent, Dec. 17 (Year B) Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11; Luke 1:46-54; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

We would all welcome a bit of good news. This seems to be a very rare commodity these days, but it has probably almost always been the case.

The people in the first century lived in times as difficult and threatening as our own, although the stakes were probably not as high. The passage from Isaiah should sound familiar to us. In Luke’s Gospel, this is the “good news” Jesus read in the synagogue in his hometown.

He proclaimed that this prophecy was fulfilled in Him, a message that was not received with great enthusiasm. After all, the speaker in the prophecy claimed to be an emissary of God’s mercy and forgiveness.

We might ask how quoting an ancient prophecy given centuries before could speak to people in the first century or for that matter our own time. There are still so many people who suffer oppression, lack of freedom, grief and disease — so what about that promise?

The prophecy was originally given in the period after the exile, perhaps the fifth century BC. Things were not going well. The people suffered from poverty, oppression and loss of hope. It spoke to the Jewish people and was meant to reassure them that they were not being punished. God would visit them soon and, as a sign of God’s compassionate mercy, they would enjoy God’s special favour. The many burdens would be lifted from their shoulders and they would experience God’s nearness and loving kindness. It was never intended as a promise that all suffering would be eradicated from the Earth forever.

They were blessed by God in the period in which the prophecy was originally given and then again in the time of Jesus through the healing, comfort and salvation that the Lord brought. God has continued to bless, heal and give hope over the centuries, for that is the nature of God. In these blessings God’s true nature is revealed; divine violence and wrath are usually human projections.

Jesus continues the ministry that He proclaimed in the synagogue that day and invites — perhaps even commands — that we share in it. Giving hope to a dark and fear-filled world and easing the burdens of those who suffer or struggle is the holiest thing that we can do. The blessing continues; let us not be left behind — much depends on us.

How does one pray without ceasing? Many of the desert fathers of the early Church wrestled with Paul’s perplexing exhortation. Prayer is an inner state or disposition and need not — and most often does not — require words. At the core of unceasing prayer is gratitude, again a constant state of mind or disposition, as well as loving kindness.

Paul also advises us not to be afraid of the Spirit and certainly not to stifle it, either in ourselves or in others. Let it flow through us, taking us where we would rather not go and transforming us into what we never dared to imagine.

John the Baptist received quite an interrogation. The delegation from the Jerusalem authorities wanted to know his identity and by what authority he preached and baptized. As they went down their checklist, John replied in the negative to each one. He was not the Messiah nor Elijah or the prophet to come.

The perplexed and irritated interrogators wanted an answer to take back to their bosses. Who are you and why are you baptizing if you are not Elijah or one of the prophets? His answer was simple: His job was to bear witness to the one far greater than he and then to decrease and disappear.

Once again, God’s comfort and healing were being sent into the world, but this time it was coming in the form of the Spirit. Isaiah’s gift would be the indwelling Spirit of God that heals the brokenhearted, liberates hearts and minds, and gives hope and new life. With God’s Spirit within us, we can never say that we are alone, that God doesn’t care or that our lives don’t matter.

Regardless of what goes on around us in this world, God is in us and we are in God if our minds and hearts are open to it. And that is good news indeed. 

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Ian Hunter: Scraps have a place in God’s economy

The only miracle that Jesus performed recounted in all four Gospels is the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, more commonly called the feeding of the 5,000 (or 4,000 in Mark’s Gospel, but who was counting precisely?).  

At first blush, this seems odd. The miracle is less personal than restoring sight to a blind man (Mark 10:46-52) and certainly less dramatic than casting out demons (Matthew 8:28-34) or raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11:38-44). On reflection, though, perhaps the unanimity of the Gospels on this particular miracle is understandable.

When Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes to feed those who had stayed all day in what Mark calls “a deserted place” in order to hear Jesus teach, He was revealing something important about His mission, namely, that He was the new Moses. 

As Moses fed the children of Israel with manna from Heaven during their wanderings in the wilderness, so Jesus fed the crowds who had come out to listen to Him and now faced a journey home. So, here the new Moses feeds His people, an image of how, through the succeeding centuries of Christendom, Jesus will feed His people with His own body and blood by the holy Eucharist.

Mark tells us that when Jesus met the crowd in that “deserted place,” He had compassion for them because “they were like sheep without a shepherd.” This seems to me a very contemporary touch. Today Christians live in a world that is a deserted place.

In many places (e.g. many Muslim countries) Christians are actively persecuted. This is why there are more Christian martyrs in the last 100 years than in all the preceding centuries put together. In what used to be called the “Western world,” in North America and Europe, Christians are often reviled, mocked or simply ignored. Even in church, sad to say, Catholics may sometimes feel they are sheep without a shepherd.

So, what did Jesus do? First, we read that “He taught them many things” (Mark 6:34). Then He fed the people. In other words, Jesus took care first of their spiritual hunger, then their physical hunger. This should be the template for every Mass. 

I know that when I attend Mass and hear the priest bang on about global warming, or the plight of refugees, or that hydra-headed subject called “social justice,” I do not feel fed — I come away undernourished.

Part of me wants to rise up in the pew and shout: “Don’t tell us about climate change; we would see Jesus!” The formula is: Teach first, then feed. It seems to me the priest has a twofold responsibility as shepherd: nurture the flock in the Catholic faith, then care for their souls.

After Jesus had fed the 5,000, He told His disciples: “Gather up the fragments left over, that nothing may be lost” (John 6:12). Again, this seems puzzling. Why should the King of Kings, the Creator of the sun, the moon and the stars, care about leftovers? Jesus had demonstrated that He could multiply loaves and fishes; why concern Himself with scraps?  

I think the answer is that there is a place for scraps in God’s economy. The same God who marks the sparrow’s fall and has counted the hairs on your head, cares about leftovers. So the disciples gathered up, we are told, 12 baskets of fragments from the original five barley loaves and two small fishes.

I number myself among the fragments. I was gathered up late in life and received by grace into Christ’s Catholic Church. I was not born into a Catholic family, received no catechesis at my mother’s knee and attended no Catholic schools. The feast of my life was largely over when the Church doors swung open. 

Yet in God’s economy (as the parable of the generous vineyard owner makes clear in Matthew 20:1-16), and so in God’s Church, the fragment is received with no less ardour than the first course.

The mission of the Church is to hand on, in every deserted place and to every generation, the faith once delivered to the original 12 apostles.The Church strives always to insure that no fragment is lost.

(Hunter is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Law at Western University.)

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