On September 30, 2019, Pope Francis declared that the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time would be celebrated as the annual Sunday of the Word of God. As the mysterious ways of God have unfolded, we have found that during the very period since we began highlighting the Word of God in this way, we have simultaneously been navigating through the pandemic. What could this mean? Pope Francis suggests in his Apostolic Letter (Aperuit Illis) that we should allow the Word of God himself to “open our minds” to the meaning of the Scriptures. In this spirit, let us allow today’s readings to shed light on our present situation.
Our first reading brings us to the time when the people of God had returned to Jerusalem from their Babylonian exile. They were slowly picking up the broken pieces of their lives and starting to rebuild their beloved city. God raised two leaders for this challenging task – Ezra, a religious reformer, the protagonist in today’s reading, and Nehemiah, a governor and man of action, after whom this Book of the Bible is named. And what a gargantuan task it was! In the chapters prior to today’s account, the returnees had to face one difficulty after another – the walls of Jerusalem were breached by their opponents, there were social and economic problems among the people, and there were evil plots against Nehemiah’s governance. There were many elements that sought to stall or disturb the great work of restoration that the people were called to accomplish. It is against this backdrop that Ezra opened the sacred book and read it to the people.
The experience of the Israelites should sound familiar to us. We are reeling from the havoc that the pandemic brought upon us, and we are slowly picking up the pieces. Healthcare systems were breached. There are many social and economic problems that need to be fixed. The competence of our leaders is in question. Confusion and paranoia abound. It is in this very situation that we must open the Book of God’s word and read from it, like Ezra did. We need to stand up for the word, and persist in doing so, “from daybreak till midday.” We need to place the word “higher up than any of the people” and showcase it for all to see, setting it up as a light for our path.
The reading describes a series of actions that the people perform in response to the gift of the word. When Ezra opens the book, the people rise. When he blesses the Lord, the people raise their hands high and answer, “Amen, amen!” Then they bow down, prostrate themselves and weep. Nehemiah and Ezra, however, instruct the people not to stop at sorrowful repentance, but rather to take the next step and rejoice, “for rejoicing in the LORD must be your strength!” What this tells us is that the word of God has power to move us deeply. It is not a mere recounting of ancient platitudes. While we are picking up the broken pieces of our sin-damaged lives, the word moves us to repentance and gives us new hope and joy, joy that is the spiritual strength to continue our mission. (Note: for further reflection on this passage from Nehemiah 8, cf. Aperuit Illis, 4.)
From Jerusalem in the first reading we are taken to Corinth in the second. St. Paul, the founder of the church community in Corinth, wrote a Letter to them in response to the news that the Corinthians were divided into hardened factions. In his fatherly concern for them, he addresses this disorder by teaching them that all the members of the Church are parts of the One Body of Christ. According to the analogy of the body, the Church is one whole person, made up of many different body parts. And each part serves a function that is specifically needed by the whole.
The disorders and fears stirred up by the pandemic have also led to divisions and hardened factions. Among nations, within countries, and even in the Church, opinions and positions have grown ever more divergent, even about what is considered reliable news. The word of God in Paul’s Letter instructs us who believe to work for genuine unity. It is a ‘unity in diversity,’ with many different body parts working together harmoniously. The gargantuan task of rebuilding from the devastation of the pandemic needs everyone’s cooperation. This is a time for setting aside superficial differences and for forging bonds of communion with our fellow believers, led by the word of God in the way of truth and love, the way of faith.
From Jerusalem and Corinth, the Gospel takes us to Nazareth, where Jesus grew up. He goes to the synagogue with his childhood neighbors and stands up to read from the Scriptures – much like Ezra did. But this time, it is the Word of God reading the word of God! In this action of Jesus, we see the unity of the Old and New Testaments. In the Person of Christ, Jewish and Christian Scriptures converge. Pope Francis similarly exhorts us to make this Sunday of the Word of God “a fitting part of that time of the year when we are encouraged to strengthen our bonds with the Jewish people and to pray for Christian unity” (Aperuit Illis, 3). We are brought back to the lesson we learned from Paul’s words to the divided Corinthians: the word of God ought to unite us.
Jesus receives the scroll of Isaiah and reads a passage that summarizes his whole mission. He has been anointed and sent to bring glad tidings to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, to give recovery of sight to the blind, to free the oppressed, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord. The Word has come to fulfill the word, to insert into the midst of these negative situations – poverty, captivity, blindness, and oppression – the grace of salvation. And the way that the word saves is first revealed when it is proclaimed.
We, pandemic survivors, are indeed saved. As we remember our loved ones who have succumbed to COVID-19, we ponder what may be God’s reasons for allowing us to go through all this and survive. We are drawn to the last element of the prophetic program of action which Jesus read: proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord. This is not the time to stir up doubt or to foster contempt towards others. We should not follow the example of the people of Nazareth who rejected Jesus as the fulfillment of the Scriptures. Rather, this is a time to be grateful and to acknowledge the deliverance that God has powerfully given us. This is the time to boldly share the word of God! And as we do so, we prepare others to be similarly moved, gathered in communion, to become God’s instruments of salvation.
How do I place the word of God higher up than anything else as a light to my path? What are some of the fears and disorders that I have experienced in this pandemic? How has my faith in God helped me overcome these fears? As a survivor of the pandemic, how am I boldly sharing the word of God that has spared me?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 18, no. 2. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.