‘Start as you mean to go on’ is a very good proverb and Jesus certainly does this in our Gospel reading today. He stands up in the synagogue of Nazareth and issues a manifesto; he proclaims a statement of intent for the rest of his public ministry.
And this manifesto is not something made up by himself; it consists of the words of one of the most revered of all the prophets, Isaiah.
These are words every member of the synagogue would have been familiar with. They are words attributed to the Messiah who was so long expected. And now they are words proclaimed from the lips of Jesus who thereby makes them his own. No wonder all eyes in the synagogue were fixed on him especially when he went on to say, “This text is being fulfilled today, even as you listen.”
In the most explicit way Jesus identifies himself with the Messiah even though, as we will hear next Sunday, it infuriates his listeners who regard his statement as little short of blasphemy. And yet as it turns out Jesus really should be taken at his word for he does indeed prove himself to be the Messiah. And every phrase of that prophecy of Isaiah he makes his own.
We should not blame the people of Nazareth for getting angry with Jesus as he made this solemn proclamation. They were not scripture scholars or teachers of the law who ought to have known better. They were just ordinary townsfolk who were probably barely literate and who simply could not believe that one of their own would dare to adopt this text and state that he was its living fulfilment.
This just goes to show that quite often when we are surrounded by what might appear to us as quite banal and ordinary we might actually be in the presence of something that is truly extraordinary.
We need to develop eyes to see and observe the things of God. We need to train ourselves to notice his hand at work in our world. We need to acquire a certain sensitivity to the things of the spirit. And if we do so we might discover that we are surrounded on all sides by the things of heaven.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning put it well when she wrote, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God; but only he who sees, takes off his shoes, the rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.” In other words only people who have acquired the necessary insight to see the hand of God in all that is around them act reverently, the rest simply pick blackberries or in other words just do what they would do anyway.
It is important that we are not fooled by just looking at the world as it presents itself to us and then believing that is all there is. Catholics have long understood that there is another world which is hidden from us as if by a gossamer veil; this is the world of the spiritual, this is the world of all things godly.
This spiritual world is invisible but there are clues to it all around us. In this spiritual world live the angels and the saints as well as all the faithful departed. And it is through this spiritual world that Christ exercises his influence over the earthly realm.
The first reading today also includes a reading from the scriptures. In it we hear how the Prophet Ezra read from the law and gave explanations for half a day. The reaction of the people was quite different to those of Nazareth. On that day the people raised their hands and responded with the words, “Amen! Amen!” and then prostrated themselves on the ground in reverence.
The people in the time of Ezra were eager to hear the Law read and explained to them; they heard it with tears in their eyes and after hearing it they feasted with great joy in their hearts.
This tells us something important, that the Word of God literally is Good News and needs to be received as such. Sometimes though when we hear the scriptures or the teaching of the Church especially on a difficult point we listen to it with critical ears. We might say to ourselves that while we believe in most of the scriptures and the greater part of what the Church teaches we can’t go along with one or other specific bit of teaching.
When this happens what we have to do is to say to ourselves, “This is supposed to be Good News.” Then we need to look for the Good News in it. Some people, for example, disregard the teaching on artificial contraception. But the correct way to deal with what we might regard as difficult teaching is not to reject it but to look for the Good News in it.
In this case that might mean an acknowledgement of the bodily cycles which God created and the wish to harness these in the service of regulating birth. More than this, we might also start to appreciate how this particular teaching needs each party to a marriage to have an ever deeper respect for the feelings of the other and not to look upon our sexuality as a means of recreation but rather as the means to profoundly worship our partner.
What we need to learn to do therefore is to more and more get in touch with that spiritual world from which we are separated by that gossamer veil. We need to see beyond the purely material and come to an appreciation that creation also includes this spiritual world.
If we are also to sensitise ourselves in this way we will be more profoundly aware that God’s creation is indeed immense. Immense not just in the extent of the material universe, but immense too in its spiritual and other-worldly aspect.
This is the fundamental problem that atheists have, that they simply cannot see this other world of which we Catholics are so conscious. They believe that what we see is illusory and ought to be stamped out. But we know that acknowledging the spiritual world is only coming to a true appreciation of the full extent of God’s creation.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket