Third Sunday of Ordinary Time – Year C
[Nehemiah 8:2-4a, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1Corinthians 12:12-30; Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21]
Today, we hear from Saint Luke the familiar narrative of Jesus reading and teaching in the synagogue of his hometown, Nazareth. As the people gathered there watched, they saw something that, to them, would have attracted little notice but, to us, would be highly unusual. In order that he might read to the assembly, Jesus was handed a scroll. We are accustomed to reading from books. In ancient times, written texts took the form of rolled parchment.
In another sense, however, use of the scroll is not at all unusual today. In our times, though, scroll is not only a noun; it is also, and more commonly, a verb. On our devices, we scroll through digital text; on our televisions, we scroll through channel guides or streaming options; or in some restaurants we can even scroll through menus presented on an iPad. We can scroll up, down, or across. On this particular Sunday, the Church invites us to scroll through our lives in every direction, and read them in the light of God’s Word.
This Third Sunday in Ordinary Time is designated by the Holy Father as Word of God Sunday. By establishing this observance, Pope Francis invites us all to adopt God’s Holy Word, enshrined in Sacred Scripture, as that by which we understand and direct our lives. For the believer this is obvious. The attentiveness of the Jewish people of old to the Word of God proclaimed by Ezra has long served to exemplify the obedience we owe to the divine revelation given in Sacred Scripture. However, when we consider the multiplicity of other “words” that today seek to shape our mindset and move us away from fidelity to Christ, it is vitally important that we recall to mind the need to keep God’s Word central and foundational to our every thought and action. Whether we scroll down through our past, across present situations, or upward in planning our future, the divine Word is to be our guide.
With this in mind, let us return to the Gospel passage. When he opens the scroll and reads from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus is scrolling down through salvation history to recall to the people God’s promise to raise up the Messiah, the one anointed in the fullness of the Holy Spirit to announce and bring about the goods news of salvation. When he proclaims that he himself is the fulfillment of that promise, he scrolls across the present to make known God’s saving love at work in the here and now, precisely in him. Implicit in his teaching is a scrolling upward into the future, because by his death and resurrection he would free humanity from the captivity of sin and become the Way that leads to eternal life. Flowing through all of this is the wondrous truth proclaimed in the liturgies of the Christmas season recently celebrated, namely, that the Word of God, to which we must be obedient as our guiding principle, has become flesh in Jesus Christ. He is, himself, the divine Word that scrolls through and shapes all of human history, and enlightens the entirety of our lives.
What this means for us now, concretely, is this: just as Jesus was handed the scroll in the synagogue to read and interpret its contents, our call as disciples is to hand over to him the scroll of our lives, invite him to unroll before his gaze and ours the events that mark us, and ask him to interpret our past, present and future in the light of God’s saving purpose. We can be confident that Jesus would love to do this for us. If we ask him to scroll down through our personal histories, he will show us how he has always been with us, to guide, protect, heal and forgive, moving through all the events of our past, particularly our mistakes and failings, to turn it all to our good. By inviting him to scroll across our present, we shall learn from him how to discern right from wrong as we navigate a very complex moral landscape, and what options among the vast array life places before us will be in accord with his Gospel. When he scrolls upward into our future, his message to us will be simply: “Don’t be afraid. The future is in my hands. Trust me, and follow wherever I lead you.”
This week, we are aware of another concrete application of today’s Gospel passage incumbent upon the entire Church. We are in the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an important moment when all Christians are called to implore Almighty God to heal the fractured Church of His Son and lead us back to full unity. The imperative to unity emerges clearly in the second reading. In that text, St. Paul scrolls back to the origins of the Church and lays bare its essence as a communion: “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,” he says. Jesus Christ gave his life on the Cross, and as Risen Lord sent the Holy Spirit, to make all believers one, a unity in him. Yet, a scroll through ecclesial history shows the many sad events by which we allowed that original unity to fracture. Scrolling through the present reveals that, yes, many challenges to unity remain, and multiple centrifugal forces still act upon the Church, but also that there are many reasons for hope in the dedicated men and women of all denominations who work and pray that we all be one again. This inspires us to scroll upward in hope, confident that the Spirit, in whom we are all already united, will in God’s time bring us back to corporate ecclesial unity around the one table of the Lord.
Gathered at the Eucharistic table, then, on this Word of God Sunday, let us pray for unity. May our prayer embrace the need for unity not only in the Church, but also in the world, our nation, our homes, and within our own hearts. As we invite the Lord to scroll through all directions of our lives, individually and communally, may we once again embrace Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, as the Way to unity, peace, and hope, and follow where he leads in trusting obedience.
Most Reverend Richard W. Smith
St. Joseph’s Basilica
January 23rd, 2022