The Third Sunday in Ordinary Time [C]
Neh 8:2-4,5-6,8-10 + 1 Cor 12:12-30 + Lk 1:1-4; 4:14-21
January 24, 2016
Jesus “went according to His custom into the synagogue on the sabbath day.”
When you’re little, your imagination helps you fill in the gaps about all the things in the world that you don’t understand. When I was a boy, I did not think very much about becoming a priest. I never seriously thought about being a priest until my freshman year of college when I was at K-State. Maybe one reason that I didn’t think much about entering the seminary when I was little was because of what my imagination told me that the seminary must be like. For whatever reason, I thought that life in the seminary consisted chiefly of two things: kneeling on wooden kneelers for hours on end, and memorizing all the names of the popes. I think it was when I learned that there were over two hundred sixty popes that I gave up thinking about the seminary.
Why does our imagination want to fill in the gaps about things that we don’t understand? It’s pretty simple, really. No one likes to be ignorant. Everyone by nature desires to know. Imagine that you were given a bag of 500 jigsaw puzzle pieces, but were not given the box displaying the picture that the pieces make, and were told that the puzzle actually has 1000 pieces. You would probably be able to put many of those puzzle pieces together, and you’d be able to form an idea about what the overall picture looks like. You would use your imagination to fill in the gaps. Your imagination might be completely right, or completely wrong, or somewhat right. The point is that our imagination, our memory and our intelligence by nature fill out pictures that we only have partial pieces of.
All of this is true of our faith, and of our spiritual life. This shouldn’t be too surprising. After all, one of the key words of our Catholic Faith is the word “mystery”. Understanding our Catholic Faith, and living the spiritual life that flows from it, are filled with mysteries.
When I was a boy, I loved mysteries, but not the sort of mysteries that make up our Catholic Faith. I read lots of mystery stories when I was a boy. I read all the stories of the Bobbsey Twins, and then the Hardy Boys, and then I graduated to Sherlock Holmes. I devoured all fifty-six short stories and four novels about the world’s greatest detective. Every story presented a mystery that challenged the reader to discern the clues leading to the solution of the mystery.
The great thing about such stories is that there’s always a solution to the mystery. I as the reader may not be smart enough to figure out what that solution is, but the solution is there all the same. The mystery is just a veil that hides the solution from sight.
The mysteries of faith are different. If we go about reading God’s Word in the Bible—like Ezra in today’s First Reading, or Our Lord Jesus in the Gospel passage—and expect God’s mysteries to be solved by the end of the book, we’re likely to be disappointed. That’s not to say that the Bible makes no sense. In the First Reading, “Ezra read plainly from the book of the law of God, interpreting it so that all could understand”. Likewise, in his second letter to Timothy, St. Paul instructs us that the “sacred scriptures… are capable of giving you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness”.
While it’s true that the mysteries of our Faith are completely reasonable, that doesn’t mean that we can “solve” these mysteries. When it comes to God’s sacred mysteries, there’s a tension between what is reasonable and what can be grasped. This tension was captured by the layman St. Thomas More. About 1500 years after the New Testament was composed, St. Thomas More wrote that Holy Scripture is “so marvelously tempered, that a mouse may wade there…, and an elephant be drowned….” In our simplicity, we have a great deal to learn from God’s Word. But the more we learn, the more mysterious God’s mysteries become. It’s as if we were to peel the layers off an onion, and find that the more layers we peel, the more layers there are. That may not be a profound analogy, or even the most accurate one, but when you’re trying to understand an infinite mystery, we often find ourselves at a loss for words. Maybe that’s what St. John of the Cross was driving at when he quipped that “God’s native language is silence.”
Of course, God reveals His sacred mysteries not only in the Sacred Scriptures. In the Sacred Liturgy of the Church, God’s Word manifests His power in unique ways. This is what the priest is speaking about at the beginning of Holy Mass, when he says, “Brethren, let us acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries.” Of course, these “sacred mysteries” are not celebrated only in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, but within all the rituals and prayers that make up the Sacred Liturgy, including the other sacraments, and the Liturgy of the Hours. The Sacred Liturgy celebrates and manifests the “sacred mysteries” of the Faith not only through words, but also through ritual action. But never does any celebration of the Sacred Liturgy solve or unveil the “sacred mysteries”. They always remain more mysterious than we can fathom.
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Is that a good thing, or a bad thing, that God and His sacred mysteries always remain more mysterious than we can fathom? In the light of these sacred mysteries, how are we meant to live out our Catholic Faith? There are two opposite extremes that we need to avoid. The approach that the Church shows us to take falls somewhere between these two extremes.
At one end is the extreme that more people succumb to: namely, rejecting whatever is mysterious. Those who run to this extreme only deal with mysteries in order to solve them. Mystery as mystery has no value. One of the chief examples in our modern culture of such extremists are secular scientists: those who believe that the universe is made only of matter, only of what can be measured, only of what can be manipulated. Of course, this sort of scientist also has a counterpart in ordinary society today. This counterpart is skeptical of anything he cannot see and touch with his own senses, that he cannot judge and evaluate, that he cannot put in its place. This is where so many agnostics and atheists come from in our modern society: a place where faith and mystery have no place.
Unfortunately, this approach to life even infringes on the way that some members of the Church live their lives on this earth. Some members of the Church divide their lives into two areas: the things of the world, and the things of God; that is, the things I can control and determine, and the things that are beyond my control and my ability to figure out. This method of dealing with reality has many things wrong with it, but the most disastrous concerns God Himself, because God Himself is absolute Mystery, and if my approach in life is to leave to others what cannot be controlled, then I forfeit a relationship with God Himself.
Many Christians—and as a man, I will admit, many men—are not comfortable with talking about a relationship with God. Many men, for whatever reason, have difficulty with relationships. They prefer to live their lives according to the work that they accomplish, and the money that they earn. Those are not bad things, but they don’t go to the heart of a relationship.
A relationship, by definition, is a mystery. A relationship is a mystery because it involves an “other”: that is to say, an other person. Not a fact that I can memorize; not a problem to be solved; not a job to be accomplished; not a paycheck to be earned. In a relationship, I stand before an “other”, who is a mystery and whom I cannot control: because of this, a relationship is always open-ended, as opposed to the way in which I relate to fact and figures, and jobs and money.
This is part of what we see in today’s Gospel passage. The passage about Jesus in the synagogue follows immediately after Satan tempting Jesus in the desert, which in turn follows the narrative of Jesus’ baptism. In other words, this is the beginning of Jesus’ three years of public ministry. In the town “where He had grown up”, Jesus goes “according to His custom into the synagogue on the sabbath day”. In other words, He was in a place very familiar to Him, and He in turn was familiar to those in the synagogue that day. No mystery here! It was sort of like on Christmas and Easter when extended family members who grew up going to church at Clonmel return home, and you see them here at Mass. It’s all very comfortable.
But then something happens to break the sense of custom and familiarity. Jesus proclaims a passage from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, and after doing so He tells the others in the synagogue, “‘Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.’” That’s a striking thing to say, that a passage of the Old Testament has been fulfilled right here and now. This isn’t what the average Jewish person would have expected to hear when he went to the synagogue on the sabbath. After Jesus proclaims the passage from Isaiah and sits down, “the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at Him.” This was a mystery that they could not explain.
Still early on in this new Church year—today being just the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time—it’s good for us to focus on the fundamentals of our Catholic Faith. The whole of our Faith focuses on this divine Person, Jesus of Nazareth, who is true God and true man, who founded a church that He assured the gates of Hell would not prevail against, and who offered up on a cross His Body and Blood, soul and divinity: the same Person who becomes truly and substantially present on the altar in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and from there within the soul of the person who enters into relationship with Him, and worthily receives Him.
 2 Timothy 3:15-16.
 Thomas More, A Dialogue Concerning Heresies, I, 25.