How about that first reading? “Pretty good stuff, huh? Ready for a pop quiz? Any volunteers?” About this time everyone begins to look down in the hopes that if we don’t make eye contact I won’t call on them. The first reading was from the Book of Nehemiah – just the title tells you a lot – fills in the who, what, when and where of the reading we just heard. It is the people of Jerusalem, returned from Exile in Babylon some 40 years after the destruction of Jerusalem and its beloved Temple. The people are rebuilding as best they can. Life is hard. The neighbors are making it difficult. The complaints and grumbling are many. What began in joy is wilting in the hot sun of their reality. They are forgetting who they are and to whom they belong. And so they are all brought together in one place. The sequence of events that unfold are this:
- They blessed the Lord and prayed (hmm… sounds like the way we start our celebration of Mass);
- They read aloud the Word of God (hmm…);
- The reading was explained (I am seeing a pattern here…); and if the reading had included a few more verses…
- … “Then all the people began to eat and drink, to distribute portions, and to celebrate with great joy, for they understood the words that had been explained to them” (Neh 8:12)
It is their story. It is the written memory of who they are as a people. It begins at the beginning in the Garden, tells the stories of their ancestors in the faith: Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Joshua and more. Stories of people rebuilding lives among difficult neighbors, amidst complaints and grumbling, joy wilting in the hot sun of their reality – just like it has always been. Stories of people who preserved in faith for the God who was always there unseen, reminding them of who they are and to whom they belong.
Stories of the Word of God leading them through the desert as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night. Accounts of the Word of God coming to the prophets then being proclaimed to the people. Epic stories of slavery, miracles, escape recounted at the Passover. Quiet stories of the everyday heroes such as Ruth and Naomi. Stories of their faith and failures. Stories of local kings and foreign power that come and go with time. But there is always one constant in the stories: the Word of God. And all these stories of the Old Testament are part of a tapestry, a unified story that leads to Jesus.
“In the beginning was the Word,and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)
In today’s gospel we again hear the story of Jesus reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, chapter 61, reminding the people of the promise of God to restore Israel. “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” Isaiah 61 was the Word of God spoken to the people while they were still in exile in Babylon.
It is all connected. It is one story, an integrated narrative, all leading to Jesus
If the Bible were Downton Abbey folks would know the characters, their back stories, their relationships, the timeline and more. The same is true for Star Wars, the Marvel Comic Universe, Hunger Games, Twilight, Harry Potter, and a whole host of other narratives and series. All fun and all entertaining. But do they tell you who you are and to whom you belong?
The Bible is the one book that can answer that question and we should all have a greater literacy about its characters, their back stories, their relationships, their faith, the timelines, and so much more. It was the goal of Nehemiah and Era. It is what the two travelers to Emmaus experienced. As they travel home, downtrodden and discouraged because Jesus had just been crucified, they are joined by the Risen Jesus, who they don’t recognize. He explains to them “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the scriptures.” (Luke 24:27).
What’s next? A meal: while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight. Then they said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us? They only fully recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread.
And so we gather, bless the Lord and pray, listen to the Word, have it explained in part, and then celebrate with the Eucharistic meal. As it has always been.
This 3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time has been designated as “Sunday of the Word of God.” It is a day in which we are reminded we are “people of the book.” Not people who can drop random quotes out of context, but people that lean over the backyard fence to tell a story of God’s presence in the world, among people, how God’s promises are being fulfilled in your life. Stories with heroes, heroines, villains, war, peace, miracles, wisdom, danger and escape, … all leading to the person of Jesus and your personal encounter with the Word of God.
May you be people of the Bible. The greatest story ever told that you might fully recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread.