New beginnings, social consensus, and immutable truth: Sunday reflection

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.”

Of late, I wonder whether I am prepared to live in the social consensus of the present day. I grew up in the 1970s and early 1980s, and it is impossible to deny that I am a product of those times in all ways — and I’m not just talking about my taste for ABBA and Jim Croce. My perspectives on social issues, politics, family life, culture, art, and more got formed decades ago. And while I believe I have been actively engaged in these areas, perhaps more so than most, at this point in life the context for all has changed so dramatically that it seems I am becoming a relic in my own time. Perhaps my grandchildren will be better prepared to live in the societal consensuses of today and tomorrow than I am, and will be.

When I consider this, though, I am reminded that this is the continual human experience. It might become more obvious in an age of mass communications, where those consensuses both become more firm in the moment and more malleable over a shorter period of time. Still, my grandparents certainly must have felt as out of place in the late 1970s as I do when my granddaughter is at a similar age as I was then. Their grandparents would have felt the same way, and so on until the Israelites’ grandchildren became the first to live in the Promised Land.

In those moments we feel dislocation, even perhaps a sense of abandonment. We lose our moorings in the world and wonder whether we can regain them. That leaves us with the question that Pontius Pilate asked of Jesus: “What is truth?” Is there one truth, or are all that matters are the ever-shifting, inconstant societal consensuses? Today’s readings address that question, as well as reminding us of the renewal that comes with embracing truth through the Word of God.

Both the Gospel and our first reading from Nehemiah offers us a combination of both eternal truth and new beginnings. In the first reading, Ezra prophesies after the second return of the Babylonian exile, offering a “reboot” to Judea. Zerubbabel had rebuilt the temple after the first return, and now Ezra teaches the Law to the Judeans by reading it aloud in full. This takes all day, but everyone stays there all day to hear it. Judea will be born anew, but with the eternal truth of the Law set in everyone’s hearts again.

Ezra and Nehemiah do this in order to remind Jerusalem why the Lord suffered the temple to be destroyed and the city sacked in the first place. As we know from the testimony of earlier prophets, Jeremiah in particular, Jerusalem had strayed far from the eternal truth to pursue worldly alliances and power separate from God.  The social consensuses of the day ignored those truths in service to willfulness of the Judeans. They viewed the temple almost as an idol, believing that they would not be conquered as long as the temple stood no matter what they did or believed. The Judeans loved the temple and discounted the Lord and the Law. The Babylonians came, wiping out the transitory social consensuses, leaving Jerusalem with nothing but the truth.

Similarly, Jesus comes to His ministry by reminding the Israelites of the Law and its place in salvation. We hear this testimony of a new beginning back to truth near a new beginning of its own, the Gospel of Luke. Jesus went to the synagogue in Nazareth and proclaimed that the prophecy of Isaiah had been fulfilled in His reading of it — that the Messiah had arrived.

Jesus would spend the next three years or so bringing the Lord’s truth to all who would listen, and even to those whose ears were closed to it. In this, the parallels to Ezra and Jeremiah are difficult to ignore. Like Ezra, Jesus proclaimed the fully revealed Law and Word to establish His eternal kingdom, restored from the collapse of original sin and the fall of Adam and Eve. And like Jeremiah, Jesus proclaimed that His own people would reject him and put Him to death, and that another calamity would befall the people who put their trust in the temple walls rather than the Lord.

The lessons from these events teach us that God’s truth is eternal, and that our own impulses lead us astray from it — even when we form social consensuses about “truth.” We see what we want to see, and we assume knowledge out of ignorance, in creating these consensuses. Even those of us who rebel at the ever-changing mores of society generally focus only on those aspects of the fallen world that most offend us without considering what else might offend the Lord. We keep to the technical aspects of the law without writing it on our hearts. That is how we form these social consensuses that stray so far from the truth, and lead us so far astray from the Lord.

Our solution to these sinful impulses can be found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Paul writes to remind the fractious Corinthians that we are to keep in mind that all are the children of God, not just those with whom we agree, and that none are more important than the other. “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ,” Paul teaches in our second reading. “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.”

Too often we forget this, and we assume that God’s love is conditional based on our own value systems. But the Lord does not have social consensuses — He has given us the Word and Christ, who sacrificed for all our sins. We are equal in unworthiness, just as we are equal in salvation if we freely choose it and follow Christ.

That is the truth in which we should be most concerned. We do not have to fit into the world — and as many of the prophets and Christ Himself taught, we shouldn’t make that our goal. Fitting into the world and the social consensuses of the time is what led the Israelites astray, leading to the destructions of the temples and the killing of Christ. We are called to be in the world, not of it, as the saying goes — living according to the Word and loving all as God calls us to do.

If we embrace the eternal over the temporal, then every day can be a new beginning, a new commitment to Christ. That raises us up from the context of our times and our formation and makes social consensuses nothing more than a fleeting folly, hardly worthy of our consideration let alone a cause for despair.

But I’d still be happy to talk at length about Jim Croce.

The front-page image is a detail from “Christ Preaching in the Synagogue at Nazareth,” a 14th-century fresco in the Visoki Decani Monastery in Kosovo.

“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.