A young girl was bent purposefully over her copybook, her pencil poised in a clear declaration of intent. When her mother asked what she was doing, she said she was drawing a picture. ”Of what?” the mother asked. “Of God,” was the answer. “But you can’t draw a picture of God,” her mother declared. “No one knows what God looks like.” “Well they will, when I have finished drawing,” replied the girl, nodding her head.
In a sense we could say that Jesus drew for us a picture of what God is like. The Jews in the synagogue were angry when Jesus reminded them of God’s mercy towards a Gentile widow and the Gentile leper Naaman. Jesus made it clear that God is the God of all peoples; he belongs to all classes; no one is excluded from his love; he is not subject to our caprice or prejudice. Eckhart Tolle wrote of how prejudice can degrade another human person: “Prejudice of any kind implies that you are identified only with the thinking mind. It means you don’t see the other human being anymore, but only your own concept of that human being. To reduce the aliveness of another human being to a concept is already a form of violence.” In effect, Jesus declared that God has no favourites, that there are no privilege cardholders to receiving love and compassion, that all are equal shareholders of God’s love no matter who we are, where we come from and whatever our socio-economic status. We don’t earn divine favour by the titles we hold, but receive it freely from the unconditional love of God for us.
The challenge for us is to draw, in our own lives, a picture of God that is in line with what Jesus gave us. When we have finished drawing our picture, will God recognises himself in it?
Today’s gospel reading is often described as Jesus’ inaugural address, his mission statement. He is saying very clearly what he is going to stand for and it is summarised so simply. He ends the quote from Isaiah with the proclamation of a year of favour from the Lord. Jesus omits the words which follow in Isaiah 61:2 : “and the day of our God’s vengeance”. Jesus does not quote these words because he has not come to proclaim judgment. His message is different. It’s not a message of retribution or retributive justice. This is a classic text for what we call restorative justice. God’s justice is fulfilled by lovingly and patiently remaking us into His image and likeness. Jesus announced that he has come to replace the old Jewish love of law with a new law of love.
What we hear depends greatly on what we bring to our listening. Poverty might be about money or material needs such as food, clothing, or housing. It might also be poverty of love, hope, or meaning. The captive might be a prisoner, an addicted person, or one overcome by anger and resentment. Blindness is not only physical but can also be emotional or spiritual. Oppression happens in hundreds of ways from physical or emotional violence, to racism, to fear, to profound sorrow. Today Jesus brings us good news of healing and freedom. With one foot in the past and one in the future we straddle and completely miss the present. We become captive to what was, oppressed by what might be, and blind to what is. To the extent we are unable to hear Jesus’ words we are either stuck in the past or living in a future we do not yet have.
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Hearing is about more than sound. It is about our presence, openness, and receptivity. We must be willing to take into ourselves the reality and truth of what is spoken. We must also be willing to take into ourselves the life and presence of the one who is speaking. Jesus is not just speaking words. He is speaking new life. In his speaking and our hearing his life and our life become one life. And it is happening today.
Once again we are favoured by Cathy York who writes these thoughtful reflections for us. Thanks Cathy.
The literal interpretation of Scripture is the least helpful. The symbolic level is the level filled with meaning that changes our lives. John’s writing is full of symbolic language. We would miss much if we were to see here only a ‘miracle’ by which Jesus helps a young bridegroom who finds himself in an embarrassing position on his wedding day. We don’t know if the events in today’s Gospel really happened in this way, but there are a lot of give-aways that there is a deeper message here.
One of these is the focus on the six stone jars that were used for purification rites, for ceremonial washing. Much of the history of religion is about ceremonial washing where the emphasis is on purification because we are not perfect enough. The jars in today’s Gospel are empty. Jesus filled the jars to the brim with wine. This is not just a miracle story. It is a transformational story about what Jesus is bringing about in the history of religion. We thought that religion was about a list of requirements which we have to fulfil so that God will love us.
As in so many Scripture passages, matrimonial imagery is used in today’s Gospel to tell us that what God wants with humanity is a love affair, a marriage. We find it difficult to accept that God would want such an intimate relationship with us, so we keep going back to the six empty jars of purifying water, to fulfilling the law. But laws don’t teach us how to love. In today’s Gospel, Jesus changes the focus of religion from a religion of legalism to a religion of love, filled to the brim with joy and celebration. And this is his ‘first sign’.
Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.
Every time we listen with great attentiveness to the voice that calls us the Beloved, we will discover within ourselves a desire to hear that voice longer and more deeply. It is like discovering a well in the desert. Once you have touched wet ground, you want to dig deeper. The word ‘digging’ might not be the best word since it suggests hard and painful work that finally leads us to the place where we can quench our thirst. Perhaps all we need to do is remove the dry sand that covers the well. There may be quite a pile of dry sand in our lives, but the One who so desires to quench our thirst will help us to remove it.
When we claim and constantly reclaim the truth of being the chosen ones, we soon discover within ourselves a deep desire to reveal to others their own chosenness. Instead of making us feel that we are better, more precious or valuable than others, our awareness of being chosen opens our eyes to the chosenness of others. That is the great joy of being chosen: the discovery that others are chosen as well. Once we deeply trust that we ourselves are precious in God’s eyes, we are able to recognise the preciousness of others.
We don’t need to do anything to earn God’s love. The point is to surrender to it, to fully allow it to become the deepest meaning, purpose and direction of our lives. This is the Baptism of the Holy Spirit and Fire. It is the moment of conscious awareness, of conscious choice, of saying, “This is how I want to live my life.”
Another great piece selected and adapted by Cathy York.
How many of us see our lives as a search for God? The Magi set out on a journey that would change them forever. They trusted their deep intuitions symbolised by the star and followed it outside of their comfort zone into a new territory and there they humbly bowed down before mystery. Each of us is challenged to do the same.
If you could see the journey whole you might never undertake it; might never dare the first step that propels you from the place you have known toward the place you know not.
Call it one of the mercies of the road: that we see it only by stages as it opens before us, as it comes into our keeping step by single step.
There is nothing for it but to go and by our going take the vows the pilgrim takes: to be faithful to the next step; to rely on more than the map; to heed the signposts of intuition and dream; to follow the star that only you will recognise; to keep an open eye for the wonders that attend the path; to press on beyond distractions, beyond fatigue beyond what would tempt you from the way.
There are vows that only you will know; the secret promises for your particular path and the new ones you will need to make when the road is revealed by turns you could not have foreseen.
Keep them, break them, make them again: each promise becomes part of the path; each choice creates the road that will take you to the place where at last you will kneel before mystery to offer the gift most needed – the gift that only you can give – before turning to go home by another way.
“What should we do?” The question in today’s gospel strikes at the very core of our being. It comes to us in many different ways. Regardless of how it comes about, that question brings us to a crossroads. It is a place of discernment and decision and ultimately a place of metanoia (i.e. change of mind and heart). We must begin looking for a new direction for our life.
Many years ago a dear friend and mentor pointed out to me some hard truths about my life. I remember asking him, “So what should I do now?” He looked at me and simply said, “Go do the next right thing.” That was not an answer that I either understood or wanted. As our discussion continued I realised he was not telling me to go fix my life all at once. He was only asking me to take the first step in a new direction. “What should I do after that,” I asked him. His answer was the same. “Go do the next right thing. And after that go do the next right thing.” He set me on a path of metanoia. These small and simple, though not necessarily easy steps would become life changing behaviour.
That is exactly what John the Baptist tells those who ask him, “What should we do?” It is asked three times – by the crowds, the tax collectors, and the soldiers. He told them to go and do the next right thing. John did not tell any of them to go and be something different. Instead he called them to be who they are but in a different way. He did not tell the tax collectors to go find an honest living. He asked of them honest tax collecting. He did not tell the soldiers to stop being soldiers but to be soldiers who respected others and understood the danger of power. He called the crowds to remember that their life is bound up in their neighbour’s life and there is no room for indifference, complacency, or miserly giving.
Metanoia is not just about us. It is connected to and happens in relationship with God and our neighbour. It always restores, enhances, and gives life. It is not about escaping the circumstances of our life but about engaging those circumstances in a new and different way – God’s way. Metanoia opens us to see ourselves and each other as we really are in God.
Time in the wilderness, it seems, is the norm for God’s people. After the Israelites left Egypt they went to the wilderness. It was their preparation for the promised land. After Jesus was baptised he went to the wilderness. It was his preparation for his public ministry. And in today’s gospel “the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah in the desert.” The word of God and the wilderness always go together. That was true for John the Baptist and it is true for us. Name any wilderness of your life and there will be a corresponding word of God.
In the wilderness of exile the word of God speaks of coming home.
In the wilderness of broken relationships the word of God speaks reconciliation.
In the wilderness of self-doubt the word of God speaks of your being beloved.
In the wilderness of scarcity the word of God speaks generosity and abundance.
In the wilderness of sin and guilt the word of God speaks mercy and forgiveness.
In the wilderness of loss and sorrow the word of God speaks healing and joy.
In the wilderness of emptiness and barrenness the word of God speaks fullness and fruitfulness.
In the wilderness of death the word of God speaks resurrection.
There’s something about the wilderness. It’s the place where our lives can be transformed, the place we are most open to changing and being changed. Hidden within every wilderness is the beauty of divine presence. Every year at this time the season of Advent invites us to listen to the word of God in our wilderness, to experience the divine presence that sustains us in and carries us through the wilderness. It is not the final word but the first word, the creative word, the word that calls us to examine our lives, to turn around, to change our way of being, to see the world, one another, and ourselves in a new way. This is the repentance (change of heart) to which John the Baptist calls us. Ultimately, it is the call to love and be loved.