Sunday, January 24, 2016

Homily for 3d Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
3d Sunday of Ordinary Time
Jan. 24, 2016
Luke 1: 1-4
Holy Cross, Fairfield, Conn.

“Many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us” (Luke 1: 1-2).

Back on the 1st Sunday of Advent—the last Sunday of November—we began a new church year.  This year we’re using what is called Cycle C of the Sunday readings, and most of our gospels will be taken from St. Luke.  After hearing about John the Baptist during Advent, and of course about Christ’s birth during Christmas, and Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan 2 weeks ago, we now turn back to Luke’s prolog.  Then, leaping over what we’ve already heard, we come to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, which we’ll follow with Luke until next November.
St. Luke by Guido Reni
Luke addresses his gospel to an individual named Theophilus.  We know nothing about him, but since Luke calls him “most excellent,” or in some translations, “Your Excellency” (v. 3), he may have been a public official.  Perhaps he was a recent convert, for he has already “received the teachings” (v. 4).

Theophilus is a Greek name, meaning Lover of God.  We could therefore say that Luke is addressing each of us individually.  You’re here today, despite the weather, because you love God.  Thru what he’s about to narrate, he wishes to demonstrate the reliability of the instruction we have received.  Reliable for what?  For our salvation.

When we read Luke, or any of the gospels, we don’t find complete biographies of Jesus, much as we’d like to.  Wouldn’t we love to have the complete story of his life, from birth thru his hidden years, to his ascension!  Dumas Malone’s biography of Thomas Jefferson is 6 vols.  Luke’s gospel is about 45 pages in a standard Bible.  Luke has set out “to compile a narrative” about what Jesus said and did.  But his interest is those things important for our salvation.  His Gospel is an ongoing instruction in what God had done for us in Jesus Christ from which we can draw again and again for our knowledge of God, our prayer, and our moral guidance.

Luke didn’t know Jesus personally during his earthly life.  He wasn’t an eyewitness like the apostles and many others.  He was a 2d-generation or even a 3d-generation Christian; we know he was a companion of St. Paul on some of the Apostle’s later missionary journeys.  There were many Jesus stories in circulation among Christians, of course, and some had already been written down.  E.g., we’re pretty sure that an account of Jesus’ passion and death was written down quite early.  Luke had decided to try to write a unified, orderly account of the whole sequence of events from the beginning, using those earlier stories and writings, which came from the apostles and other “eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word.”

Note that Luke uses explicit words like “narrative” and “events.” (For Luke and his readers “events” would also include “teachings.”)  He’s not making things up but telling us what actually happened in Galilee and Judea between approximately 6 B.C. (a likely date for the birth of Jesus) and 29 or 30 A.D. (a likely date for the crucifixion).  Our faith rests on real people, real events, real actions of God within human history.

That faith and all that Luke will tell us depends on its having been “handed down” from the original witnesses to each generation of new believers.  Until the letters of Paul were written in the 50s and 60s—2 Corinthians, from which we read today, is dated around 57—this handing down was done almost entirely by word of mouth—by preaching, by catechism classes, by storytelling.  Before printing and the mass production of books, people’s oral memories were generally much better than ours.  Which is a good thing, considering how most of our memories work, huh?  Consider that Homer’s Iliad was transmitted orally for hundreds of years!  People’s memories then had to be powerful because they couldn’t just go to their libraries or the Internet to look something up.  This whole process we call “oral tradition.”

As Luke suggests, others began to compile collections of what Jesus taught and did.  So he drew from the oral tradition and the 1st attempts to put parts of the tradition to papyrus or parchment.  Luke used Mark’s Gospel as one source, and he had some kind of a collection of the sayings and short teachings of Jesus that Matthew, independently, also used in composing his Gospel.  We don’t know where Luke got his unique material, like the stories of the birth of Jesus and his marvelous parables, e.g., the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.

What’s important is that Luke draws from the Christian tradition.  Tradition—what is handed on from teacher to pupil, parent to child, as you do in your own families about some of your family history or your holiday customs—is a critical element of Christianity.   In writing his narrative Luke could draw only from the tradition, either oral or written.

Likewise today, when they instruct us on what is essential for our salvation, the Pope and bishops can draw only on tradition.  They can’t create a new gospel out of whole cloth but must return ever and again to the sacred Scriptures and other teachings handed down since the 1st century, from Jesus and those who were his eyewitnesses.  On the subject of changing the Gospel, St. Paul writes to the Galatians, “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed” (1:9).  So Pope Benedict repeatedly insisted that the 2d Vatican Council was in continuity with tradition even as it brought forth new perspectives of our faith.  And the recent Synod of Bishops, looking at married life and family issues, was ever mindful of what has been handed down to us in Scripture and the Church’s practice.

Sometimes the tradition, the teaching, consoles us.  Jesus claims to be filled with the Spirit of God for the liberation of the poor and oppressed; he claims to bring us God’s favor.  We heard him make that announcement in the other part of today’s gospel.  We also know that he sent the Holy Spirit upon the Church and sent the Church into the whole world to continue that mission of liberation and the restoration of divine favor thru forgiveness and healing.

Sometimes the tradition isn’t exactly what we want to hear.  Sometimes we get really nervous when the Pope talks about liberating people who aren’t us—like migrants and those taken advantage of by economic injustice.  It’s crystal clear what we must forgive our enemies; that divorce is forbidden; that thieves, liars, adulterers, practicing homosexuals, fornicators, and murderers shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.  2 days ago was the anniversary of Roe v. Wade; let me note that abortion takes an innocent human life.  You know that Christians are often accused of being anti-science.  Well, the science of embryology and fetal development is incontrovertible that what is in the womb is a human being.  We don’t kill a human being without moral justification.

The Gospel arose in the specific culture of 1st-century Palestine.  When the Church tries to adapt the Gospel to new cultures—urban, Western culture of the 21st century (Connecticut!), or Oriental culture, or the culture of a tribe in the Amazon jungle—or when it faces new issues like those raised by modern warfare and biotechnology—it must, like Luke, always begin with the tradition it has received; and like Luke, try to adapt it reliably for today’s Theophili, lovers of God.  What does the Gospel and the Christian tradition say to us today?

St. Paul tells us today we are the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27).  A body changes over the years as it matures and then declines.  Think of what you were like when you were 12!  But it remains the same body, the same person—you’re the same person you were when you were 12—because of an interior principle or identity, which we call the soul.  For the Church, tradition could be regarded as that principle of identity and continuity. So you and I, Christ’s members, must respect our Christian tradition, our self-identity, while at the same time maturing in our prayer life, our practice of virtue, our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and in all things that are vital for our salvation.

No comments: