“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.

This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 1:1–4; 4:14–21:

Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received.

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news of him spread throughout the whole region. He taught in their synagogues and was praised by all.

He came to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and went according to his custom into the synagogue on the sabbath day. He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me 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. Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”

What does it mean to be fulfilled? How do we as a culture define it, or even as individuals? Most people I know are goal-oriented — they want a particular career or a particular job within that career. For some, fulfillment means a certain level of material security rather than a certain position at work. Family, friends, community are all measures of fulfillment as well, and for some, even hobbies get thrown into the mix.

In fact, I owe my ability to write these reflections on the basis of the latter. Over twelve years ago, I had a solid career, job, family, and social structure, even if it did mean living through an Ice Age a few months out of the year. My path to that status had been one of drift more than goal-setting; as I will occasionally joke, no one dreams of becoming a call-center director in their childhood, but it still was an interesting and satisfying career. I didn’t feel totally fulfilled, but I knew I had it pretty good on all fronts. My lifelong desire to write had never gone away, and I occasionally found outlets for it — none of them fulfilling, so to speak. Not until blogging came along did I get that sense of fulfillment, and, well … nothing’s been the same ever since.

Still, as wonderful and blessed as my new career has been — and I wouldn’t give it up for any other — it still reminds me occasionally that it doesn’t bring complete fulfillment. The more experience I gain in life (or, to put it more bluntly, the older I get), the more I realize that complete fulfillment in this world is a form of perfection. Perfection is not a status to be gained, but a goal for which to strive, knowing all along that we will fall short … far short. Material wealth, busy careers, obsessive hobbies, and a large social network of family and friends can fill most of that yearning most of the time, and some of those are blessings in and of themselves for which we should be very grateful. But they still do not provide the complete fulfillment for which we are built.

Augustine wrote of this yearning, of our desire to move to complete fulfillment. “You have made us for yourself, O Lord,” he wrote in his Confessions, “and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Today’s readings remind us of Augustine’s wisdom, and why the Gospel at its essence is a message of good news from God that perfection can be attained through the grace of Jesus Christ.

Our first reading comes from Nehemiah, which speaks of the re-establishment of the law in Judah after the exile. Nehemiah rebuilds the walls of Jerusalem to successfully defend it from all comers, while Ezra re-establishes the law of Moses.

Ezra read plainly from the book of the law of God, interpreting it so that all could understand what was read. Then Nehemiah, that is, His Excellency, and Ezra the priest-scribe and the Levites who were instructing the people said to all the people: “Today is holy to the LORD your God. Do not be sad, and do not weep”— for all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the law. He said further: “Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, and allot portions to those who had nothing prepared; for today is holy to our LORD. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the LORD must be your strength!”

Judah and Israel had been crushed and their inhabitants taken into slavery, the outcome of their betrayal of the Lord. Ezra led a remnant back to Jerusalem and rededicated Judah to God. God stood ready to fulfill the covenant, even though Judah and Israel had betrayed it often, as long as His people would repent and return to Him. And yet, the people of Judah would fall back once again on their worldly impulses and alliances rather than trust in the Lord, and would once again fall under foreign domination.

Nearly at the apex of this domination comes Jesus of Nazareth. He has long prepared for His ministry by becoming human and experiencing the woes of a subject and poor people. Note well how his actions parallel Ezra’s at the end of the exile:

He came to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and went according to his custom into the synagogue on the sabbath day. He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me 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. Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus’ use of fulfillment can have more than one meaning. Obviously, the literal meaning is that He has come to complete the prophecy and lead Israel back to the Law. But fulfilled is also a promise — a promise that the Lord has not forgotten His people and their yearnings to find perfection, even if they have badly lost their way to it. Jesus comes as a beacon to lead everyone to put their restless hearts at ease in the Lord — first the Israelites, but then all of the nations on earth for which Israel was meant to be a beacon, a nation of priests to a world restless in sin but seeing no other way. He stands in the synagogue to declare that the Law of the Lord will guide everyone to salvation, much as Ezra did to the remnant in Jerusalem, as long as they remain true to the covenant.

How does Jesus offer that path to complete fulfillment? Paul explains his first epistle to the Corinthians that we can find it by becoming part of the body of Christ, while understanding that all of those who do so are equal with individual gifts. Even our weaknesses, such as they are, serves the Lord in the body of Christ:

Indeed, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary, and those parts of the body that we consider less honorable we surround with greater honor, and our less presentable parts are treated with greater propriety, whereas our more presentable parts do not need this. But God has so constructed the body as to give greater honor to a part that is without it, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another. If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.

Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it. Some people God has designated in the church to be, first, apostles; second, prophets; third, teachers; then, mighty deeds; then gifts of healing, assistance, administration, and varieties of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work mighty deeds? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? …

For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.

In order to partake of fulfillment, we must first realize that we cannot get to that perfection, that salvation, on our own. We need Christ, and we need each other. We must approach in a spirit of humility and of service, rather than arrogance and domination. All of our gifts, and all of our blessings, offer us a path to Christ if we so choose — including our jobs, our hobbies, our friends and families. Jesus Himself notes this in Luke 3, in which He teaches the multitudes that one can work in love of the Lord in their current circumstances. Jesus tells the tax collectors and soldiers — men who served the power structure dictated by Rome — not to quit their jobs, but to do them with honesty, justice, and mercy. It’s not the job that provides fulfillment, but the mercy of the Lord.

This day, no matter what gifts we bring to the body of Christ, let us follow the advice of Nehemiah, and remind ourselves that “rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength!” That is where our restless hearts can find fulfillment that surpasses all of the distant echoes of it in this world.

The front page image is the ruin of a 4th-century synagogue in Capernaum, built on the ruins of the 1st-century synagogue. From my personal collection.