“This is the time of fulfillment. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15).
With these words as recorded by Mark, Jesus begins his public ministry in time and space and we in 2021 begin the first week of Ordinary Time together. Whether we are in the season of Christmas, Easter, or Ordinary Time, each day is an opportunity to be thankful and celebrate our life for this continues to be “the time of fulfillment”. The Kingdom of God is still at hand because Jesus is still present with us.
We are not alone on our journey. The Son of God became human, as we just celebrated this Christmas season, and as we will celebrate in Easter, he died and rose again. This was no mere resuscitation like with Lazarus who rose and died again. Jesus conquered death and became the firstborn of the new creation. Ordinary Time is the season in which we not only study the life and teachings of Jesus but hopefully continue to be willing to be conformed to his Body and the will of his Father through the love of the Holy Spirit.
One of the things that may hold us back from embracing the gift of the Kingdom of God in our midst is that we have often chosen to place our focus on ourselves first before God and others. Jesus calls us to reorient our lives in urging us to repent, to turn away from the false reality that we are the center and author of our own lives, such that we come to realize the truth that God is our true author and director. To repent also means to open ourselves to his love, to place our trust in him, and to be assured that God accepts us as we are, right now at this very moment.
We do not repent so that God will love us. We do not have to do anything or act perfectly or say the right prayer for God to love us, we just need to “move the Lord out of the category of ‘polite company’ and into that of intimate friend to whom one can tell everything” (Barry 1987, 55). To repent means to turn back to the God whose arms are wide open ready to embrace us. It is we who have turned away from him. Let us turn back at this moment to our loving God and Father so that we can receive the forgiveness, mercy, and love that he offers us.
As we begin our journey into Ordinary Time together, let us recommit our lives to God by receiving his invitation to walk together side by side. Jesus encourages us to resist limiting God and the possibilities he places before us. Instead of attempting to bend his will to ours, may we allow the love of the Holy Spirit to expand our hearts and minds such that we will trust God more and be like a pencil in his hand.
Photo: accessed from https://www.pexels.com/@belle-co-99483
Barry, S.J, William A. God and You: Prayer as a Personal Relationship. NY: Paulist Press, 1987.
Today we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of the Lord and the ending of the Christmas Season. From the timeline of the synoptic Gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke, this is a significant step in the life of Jesus. After his baptism, he immediately goes into the desert for forty days and following then he will begin his public ministry.
It is good to occasionally reflect on our baptismal vows. Though we are not able to do so now because of the protective protocols in place because of the pandemic, each time we enter the church, we dip our fingers into the Holy Water. We then bless ourselves with the signing of the Cross. We participate in this act to affirm that we choose again to live by the baptismal vows made on our behalf by our parents and Godparents.
In reflecting in this way, we may see this feast as important to us as well. Jesus was not participating in baptism as an act of repentance, he was joining in solidarity with us in our fallen and sinful nature, while at the same time affirming that we are not destroyed by sin but only wounded. Jesus came to redeem us, to save us, to help to reconcile our fractured relationship with his Father.
We recall and celebrate this reality that the Son of God, non-being, Infinite Act of Existence, became a finite, human being and then even assumed our sinfulness, while remaining sinless himself. The pure, unblemished, Lamb of God began the process that would end in his death on the cross. He was willing to participate in John’s baptism, in his crucifixion because he loved his Father and was willing to follow his Father’s will all the way. He was willing to show unconditional love for us, by giving his life for us, not because we are perfect, but in our imperfection.
We have choices each and every day, each and every moment to make. We can turn our back on God our Father and listen to false promises, apparent goods, and give in to temptations and diversions that may satisfy for the moment but leave us empty over time. We can live a life for our self alone working toward an eternity of eternal separation from the one who loves us more than we can ever know. Or, we can choose to participate in the plan that God has for us and to follow Jesus in the way he has revealed. We can actualize our potential and experience the joy and meaning of a life of fulfillment that is working toward a life of eternity with God while at the same time helping others to do the same.
How come Jesus never sinned? Because he never said no to his Father, he always said yes. Jesus’ baptism made a difference for us not for him. He took upon our sin as he would do again on the Cross. Our Baptism, in which we were indelibly marked, eternally conformed to Jesus, made a difference. But our Baptism, our being born again, born from above, is just the beginning. God the Father has a part for us to play in bringing about his kingdom. It does not matter how small. We are called to be holy, we are called to be saints. Each and every one of us, each and every day, are invited to say yes to God’s will and commit to playing our part in salvation history.
We are not alone in this endeavor. The saints in a stained glassed window, with the light shining through, are not just there for adornment. They are examples and reminders of those, who sinners and imperfect like us, made a decision one day that their baptism mattered, that they were going to say yes to God, that day, and each day that followed. They allowed the light of Christ to shine through them to others. We can do the same, as the saints cheer us on. The Father and the Son have also sent the Comforter, the Holy Spirit to empower us through his love, to give us the guidance, the ears to hear, and the courage to act. All that needs to happen for us to begin and continue to live out our baptismal call is to say yes, today, tomorrow, and the next day, and in each moment to the will of our Loving God and Father.
Photo: Stained glass window of Jesus and the Apostles, taken at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles.
“So this joy of mine has been made complete. He must increase; I must decrease.”(Jn 3:29b-30).
How could John be feeling joy with decrease? This is counter to what many aspire to in our country. Aren’t we supposed to obtain more, be more popular, and not rest on our laurels if we are to be happy? If our end goal is, fame or honor, wealth, power, and/or pleasure, then yes that would be true. But John is giving us an insight here about what brings us real joy.
True joy comes from within when we have found our meaning and purpose in life, our mission. John was clear about his mission. John came to prepare the way of the Lord. He experienced this from the time when he leaped in the womb when Mary first arrived to see Elizabeth. From that moment, he was preparing the way for Jesus and continued to do so into his adult life. He was not distracted by how many people he was or was not baptizing, but he was focused on preparing people to be ready for the coming of the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (Jn 1:29).
John is not threatened by Jesus as was Herod, he is overjoyed that the time of fulfillment had come. What John had been called to do by God he had been doing. The reality that Jesus increased and John decreased brought John joy because this was the fulfillment of his mission. How many of us get to experience the fruits of our labor?
If we want to be happy, experience joy, and be fulfilled in our life, then following the lead of John the Baptist is a pretty good way to start. I do not ne essarily mean selling off everything and living in the wilderness. The important point is that John cultivated a relationship with God. He came to know his voice, was open to his direction, acted on God’s leading, found confirmation, and became clear of the part he was to play in salvation history.
Each and every one of us has a specific role to play in God’s plan. We come to understand our mission by slowing down and becoming consciously aware of the relationship God is inviting us to participate in. As we do so we also experience the Holy Spirit who “impels us to open the doors and go forth to proclaim and bear witness to the good news of the Gospel, to communicate the joy of faith, the encounter with Christ. The Holy Spirit is the soul of mission” (Francis 2014, 48).
Even in the midst of this pandemic over the past year, with many adjustments and common weariness, I still enjoy teaching. Through interactions with my colleagues and students, I encounter Jesus each day and bear witness through the love that I experience. Teaching has been and continues to be a significant part of the mission the Holy Spirit has called me to participate in. I am also glad that I am able to do so through these reflections online as well. There have been many evenings in which my body was ready to head for the land of dreams but I have found joy in putting together one more reflection on the Gospel of the day to share.
When we make the time to listen, we will hear and begin to recognize the voice of Jesus in the silence of our hearts, we will better discern where we are placing our time and energy, as well as better examine how God is inviting us through his creation, our experiences, and relationships. As we step out and risk, following the lead of the Holy Spirit, decrease and allow Jesus to increase within us, he will not only confirm for us but provide us with the means to accomplish our mission.
Photo: My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready. I will sing, I will sing your praise. Awake my soul, awake lyre and harp. With joy I will awake the dawn (cf Psalm 57).
Pope Francis. The Church of Mercy: A Vision for the Church. Chicago: Loyola Press, 2014.
The man in today’s Gospel scene takes a tremendous risk by approaching Jesus. He is a leper and so considered unclean. The appropriate response when someone was coming into his general vicinity was to give as wide a berth as possible, if not remove themselves from view, or to make themselves known to be unclean to any passerby.
This state of uncleanness was not a mere sense of hygiene. This was considered ritual impurity. So anyone touching or being touched by a leper would be considered unclean. For this reason, lepers were ostracized from family, friends, and the larger community socially as well as being forbidden to worship. This is a horrific state to find oneself in, for as human beings we are social beings who want to belong, to be a part of, and to be loved.
The leper cast aside all social norms and fell prostrate before Jesus and said, “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean” (Lk 5:12). Jesus knew full well the social norms, and it is very telling that not only did Jesus heal the man, but he did so by placing his hand on the man. He could have easily said, “I do will it. Be made clean” (Lk 5:13), without touching him and the man would have been healed. There are Gospel accounts of Jesus doing just that.
Jesus says more in his willingness to touch the leper than he does even with his words of healing. He does not keep the man at a distance but instead places himself on the same level as the man. Neither does Jesus become unclean, but the man becomes clean. The tremendous stigma of him having to be separated from something as simple, yet as significant, as a human embrace is removed. With that simple touch, Jesus comes close and in doing so, the man will no longer be kept at arm’s length but restored to his community and the opportunity for fellowship.
This is what the Son of God has come to do. He has come close to all of us. He has become human so we can see the face of God. We can experience the tenderness of his touch, and being understood when no one else can or is willing to do so. Jesus has come close so that we know that we are not alone, that we are loved more than we can ever imagine, more than we can ever mess up, more than our worst mistakes, or sins. Jesus has come close so we can experience how it feels to belong, to be loved and cared for as we are. Having received this wonderful gift, we are then to come close to those who for too long we have kept at arm’s length so we can love them as Jesus has loved us.
One way forward from our present distrust and division is to sit with and experience one another, even while running the risk that we will be offended or offend, but all the while, being committed to staying the course and developing relationships. When we are willing to see each other as human again, to come close, to hold each other accountable, and to respect each other even when we disagree, then we might begin to see healing and hope for reconciliation, love, and unity.
Photo: Logo from the Leprosy Mission in Australia
He said to them, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21).
Jesus, who had just sat down, spoke these words to his hometown congregation in Nazareth who had just heard him read the passage from the writings of the prophet Isaiah. Jesus proclaimed that he was the one to whom Isaiah was talking about. Luke chose to place this event as the starting point of Jesus’ public ministry, of bringing glad tidings to the poor, proclaiming liberty to the captives, recovering sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, and proclaiming a year acceptable to the Lord (Lk 4:18-19).
This message of universal healing for all of humanity, restoration, and reconciliation for all people would be the mission of Jesus. He presents to his hometown folk the message that he would be the vehicle to bring the love and redemptive work of his Father to all the nations, to invite all people to be aware of the reality present to them: that God his Father is inviting all into communion and relationship. The poor mentioned were not just in reference to those experiencing material poverty, but also to those finding themselves on the margins of society, the outcasts, those on the peripheries. The captives were not only those imprisoned for debts or crimes but those bound in the chains of their own sin and addiction. The blind were not only those who could not physically see but those who experienced the spiritual blindness of pride and arrogance. The oppressed were not just those under the iron fist of totalitarian and dictatorial regimes, but those pressed down through their own self imposed anxieties and fears.
In what ways are we in need of Jesus’ teaching, healing, and restorative power? What is keeping us on the peripheries, apart from communion and fellowship? What sins and addiction keep us bound, what fears and anxieties keep us oppressed? What is keeping us blind to the reality that God is in our midst and seeking a deeper relationship with us? Today we hear or read again Jesus’ words proclaimed in the Gospel. Jesus invites us to be healed and to align ourselves with his will and ministry of loving service to others.
The events of the storming of the Capitol show that we still need to hear the same words that Jesus spoke to the people of his own hometown. Are we willing to listen? Will we hold on to our biases and prejudices, to our tribe, our nation, our political party at the cost of losing our integrity, reason, and dignity? Or can this be an opportunity to see our darkness on full display? Will these events help us to be more open to the gift of our uniqueness as individuals, the richness of our human diversity while at the same time recognizing that we truly are all interconnected? Have we had enough division and polarization?
The Psalmist stated that, “From fraud and violence he will redeem them” (Psalm 72:14) and John wrote, “whoever does not love a brother [or sister] whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). With these words from today’s readings we can begin again. We can examine our consciences, turn to God with a contrite, sorrowful heart for what we have done and what we have failed to do.
As we do so may we experience the healing hands of Jesus on our bowed heads and the warmth of his forgiveness and love pouring through us as we are purged from our sin and pride. Then, in recognition of how much suffering and pain is present in our country and world, we can open our hearts and minds to the guidance of the Holy Spirit to participate with him in choosing love over hate, bringing the invitation of healing and reconciliation to others, and committing to bringing about an “acceptable year of the Lord” in 2021 (Lk 4:19).