Sunday, January 23, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Is 8:23-9:3; 1 Cor 1:10-17; Mt 4:12-17

The first reading from Isaiah gives us a prophecy that the lands of Zebulon and Naphtali (northern tribes of Israel) were punished by their enslavement under the kingdom of Assyria. But later they have been delivered, "they have seen a great light," and God has smashed the yoke that burdened them. This seems to be a clear reference to some definite historical events. The Assyrian king, Tiglath-pileser III, overran the northern sections of Israel around 733BC and his control over them lasted until his death six years later. A power struggle then ensued within the Assyrian kingdom and in the lull that followed Isaiah probably spoke his prophecy. But the lull was brief and five years later the entire northern kingdom of Israel was overthrown and disappeared forever.

What is especially interesting for our reflection is how in today’s gospel the evangelist Matthew has taken that prophecy of Isaiah and turned it into a foretelling of Christ. When Matthew uses this passage to describe the ministry and preaching of Jesus, he is asserting that Jesus is a great light to all the nations. This serves as a marvelous example of how the Catholic tradition has seen a close connection between the Old and New Testaments. Within the Old Testament are all these hints and suggestions that only find their fulfillment and answer in the New Testament (DV #16) The great light that shone on Zebulon and Naphtali was a harbinger of the still greater light that shone forth in Jesus Christ.

For that light of Christ to shine forth in our own time it needs to do so through intermediary channels: preaching, personal example, multiple media and the word of the Bible. Many years ago St. Jerome wrote that "Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ." (Commentary on Isaiah, ##1-2) What an ironic situation we find ourselves in right now. In the 1960s the Second Vatican Council threw the doors wide open and encouraged all Catholics to become familiar with the Bible, to study it, to read it for spiritual nourishment, to let it truly become a beacon of Christ for them. Alas, what has happened in the last forty-five years? Let me read you a short passage from a recent op-ed page in Commonweal magazine. The author, a priest who has taught at a Catholic college for many years, first describes his own pre-Vatican II religious training. Back then no one read the Bible directly either at home or at school. But they did learn a lot of its content from the Bible History and Salvation History books they studied. They knew and could talk about the great events recounted in the Bible. Then he writes: "The college students I teach today are no less bright than we were, but they are largely ignorant of Scripture. At the beginning of a recent semester, a student told me there were five gospels, though he couldn’t name one of them. When I asked one of my classes what happened at Cana, only two of the twenty-four students had ever heard of the story—and even those two couldn’t say anything about it." (Jan. 14, 2011, p. 31) His conclusion laments that we have largely squandered a great opportunity to let the light of Christ shine forth.

The problem of scriptural ignorance on the part of Catholics today results from many issues. For one thing, it is not easy for the average person to read and understand the various books of the Bible. Last Thursday, as I was preparing for mass in the Health Care Center, several of the residents were sitting in the room early, waiting for mass to begin. They were talking about the Bible. One of the ladies said, "Thirty years ago someone gave me a Bible. I read a little of it, but couldn’t understand anything. So I put it away." Reading the bible is a skill that needs to be learned and nurtured.

This is not going to be an easy challenge for the Church to tackle, but it’s a necessary one. I would suggest that each of us might consider doing our part. Perhaps as a different kind of Lenten resolution this year, we might think about helping someone else come to a better appreciation of the Bible....and so let the light of Christ shine forth.

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