Monday, December 27, 2021

When the Word of God Is Proclaimed


Can we feel the awesome power of the Word that is enough to crush our pride and literally wrestle our bodies down to prostrate to the ground?

The Liturgy of the Word is an important way that the Holy Mother Church uses to feed her lambs (cf. Jn 21:15).  The spiritual food that the Church faithful are served this Sunday is particularly nutritious. She gives us two distinctive scriptural narratives on the proclamation of the word of God: one by Ezra, a prominent postexilic leader from a scribe and priestly background; the other one by Jesus himself. Both are events of high drama, highlighting liturgical solemnity and structure in the order of worship that bear great resemblance to present day Catholic practice.

The first narrative takes place in an ancient setting that is filled with theatrics. Ezra, the scribe-priest, reads the Book of the Law to the remnant of Jews who have survived the Babylonian exile and captivity. Standing on a raised, wooden platform at one end of the open place before the Water Gate, he reads “from daybreak till midday”, and they listen attentively (Neh 8:3). What follows is a sequence of electrifying moments fitting for a Hollywood movie: Ezra “opened the scroll…all the people rose…[he] blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, amen!’…then they bowed down and prostrated themselves before the Lord, their faces to the ground…all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the law” (Neh 8:5-9).

More than just an account of how ancient Israel renewed its Covenant with the Lord by proclaiming the sacred scriptures, the deliberate descriptions in the first reading give us a glimpse of Israel’s liturgical practice both in the temple and the synagogue (note 1). The solemnity is striking, and the reverence of the people in worship downright awe-inspiring. So many years later, this ancient narrative is still a great teaching tool that really shows us how to worship.

The second narrative, selected from the Gospel of Luke, contains a similar event that unfolds with no less drama in the synagogue of Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown, on the Sabbath. His disciples and hometown people, who know him well and watched him grow up, are all in attendance (cf. Mk 6:3). Enters Jesus, the Scribe-Priest by whom the whole Scripture was written, about whom all the prophets spoke, and in whom all the priestly sacrifices were offered and are still being offered. Known for his mastery of the Greek language and literary skills, Luke’s penchant for theatrics is a talent often overlooked by the scriptural scholars (note 2). His description of the drama that follows can easily dwarf the work of any Oscar winner of the best screenplay! 

Let’s revisit Luke’s words. Notice how in a matter of a few short verses, his depiction of a quick succession of hasty actions is enough to make any listener gasp for air. It’s as though a great mystery is unraveling before our very eyes: Jesus stands up to read. He is given a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolls the scroll, reads Isaiah’s prophecy on the Messiah’s mission which is “to bring glad tidings to the poor…liberty to captives…recovery of sight to the blind…let the oppressed go free…[and] proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord” (Lk 4:18-19). He then rolls up the scroll, hands it back to the attendant, and sits down. The eyes of all in the synagogue are looking intently at him (4:20-21).

In ancient Jewish tradition, when a rabbi “sits down” after reading the Scriptures, it means he is about to give a homily (note 3). Thus, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus “went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him [and] he began to teach them” (Mt 5:1-2).  It’s not hard to picture how electrifying the atmosphere is when Jesus sits down in the synagogue. Anticipation is keeping everyone wait. With a little Hollywood hyperbole, we can almost see them huffing and panting under the weight of suspense. The silence is deafening; one can hear a pin drop. But deep in the hearts of those watching closely Jesus’ every move, speculations and murmurs are rising like a tidal wave: Isn’t this the carpenter, the son of Joseph and Mary? Don’t we know his brothers and sisters very well (cf. Lk 6:22, Mk 6:3)? What is he going to say? 

What he says next, according to Luke, is a very brief statement: “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 6:21).  Need he say any more? Here he is, finally, the Messiah promised by Isaiah’s oracle! He has been anointed to bring glad tidings to those living in poverty, which is everyone spiritually speaking; and to perform healing and miracles, which in a very real sense is another way to see Messiahship. As if to prove his words, he leaves his hometown and performs many miracles soon after the synagogue incident (Lk 4:31ff, 5:12-26).

We are the remnant of Jews listening to Ezra’s proclamation of the word of God. This world is our Babylon, our exile. The same word of God is proclaimed to us at every Mass. Do we have the reverence to listen attentively? Are we moved by the Spirit to say in one accord “Amen, amen!” in response to the proclamation? Can we feel the awesome power of the Word that is enough to crush our pride and literally wrestle our bodies down to prostrate to the ground? Do we see Ezra in our Mass celebrant who speaks from a higher ground and makes us mourn and weep? 


1. See Foundations in Faith, Year C, p.112.

2. New Jerome Biblical Commentary 43:4.

3. Dr. John Bergma, Everlasting Jubilee, Franciscan University of Steubenville Summer Conference, 2018.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

A Sword Will Pierce Your Own Soul (Luke 2:35)


Piercing indeed is the pain of not understanding your own child. But that was only one of many piercing pains Mary had to suffer in order to help Jesus accomplish the Father’s plan of salvation.

Conveniently located near the Galleria Termini, the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, built in the 5th C to commemorate the Council of Ephesus’ (431 AD) proclamation of Mary as the Mother of God, sat gracefully like an affable old lady, greeting every pilgrim who came east from Vatican City to admire her ancient and imperial Roman architecture, magnificent art works and mosaics, and rich collection of ancient burials (source: 

Visiting this largest Marian church in Rome was one of the highlights of our family’s pilgrimage to Rome in 2007. A bitter chill greeted us as we got off the bus at the Termini. Armed with Mediterranean humidity and swirling winds, the Roman winter had its way of eating into your bones to cause you great discomfort. Snow was falling - an unusual sight at this time of the year - but accumulation was negligible. Christmas was in the air everywhere we turned. After a short and brisk walk in the cold, our family arrived at the Basilica to celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family. 

Fourteen years had passed us by since our family’s visit at Saint Mary Major. In between, we managed to return to Rome together as a family for one more visit in 2012, on the last leg of a cruise trip. Celebrating the Feast of the Holy Family this Sunday brings to mind once again our first experience of the “Eternal City”, especially our trip to Saint Mary Major as a family.

As parents, we owe it to our children to guide them to become the best persons that they can be. For the parents’ guidance to be effective in achieving its lofty goal, the children also owe it to their parents to respect and obey their instructions and orders. This reciprocal filial relationship, built on love, mutual understanding and trust, is crucial for establishing a loving and happy family. On this Feast of the Holy Family, the gospel reading might have left some people wondering if this foundational filial relationship was lacking in the Holy Family.

It’s hard to believe that people would doubt even the Holy Family! But their doubt is not without reason. They are puzzled by the behavior of the adolescent Jesus, which might be fitting for a self-seeking, freedom-craving teenage rebel, but not quite for the Son of God, who in his own teaching demands righteousness and perfection from all children of God because “your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). 

Obviously, this cannot be the case. If this accusation against the adolescent Jesus had been true, then he would have violated his own divine commandment, i.e., honor your father and your mother. What really happened is that Mary tells her son he should have stayed close to his father, Joseph; to which Jesus replies: “I must be in my Father’s house” (Luke 2:49). What Jesus is saying to his mother is that his Father is not Joseph. Like all fathers on earth, Joseph’s fatherhood is only a pointer, pointing us to God, our Heavenly Father.  It is even more so for Jesus, who is God the Father’s only Son. Also, the Temple is the Father’s house, which is where Jesus has been the whole time when his parents went looking for him. In other words, what seems like Jesus’ filial disobedience is in fact his expression of a higher filial obedience to the Father. 

The main message that Jesus wants us to learn from this story is that ultimately the human family is only a transient pointer, pointing us to the Family of God, which already is present in the Church. This is why the church faithful must love each other as brothers and sisters. Like all the good things in this world that God gives us, our family is important and necessary for our good, both physically and spiritually. But we must not allow ourselves to become attached to it, and make the mistake of seeing it as the be-all and end-all. Such a mistake will cause us to overlook the real reason why family exists in the first place, which is to point and bring us to the Family of God. This is why Jesus says, “For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother…Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10:35-37).

Let’s conclude this reflection with a few more words on Jesus’ mother, the person in the story who took the blunt of Jesus’ seemingly offensive behavior. From this story, we see one more reason why we should love the Blessed Virgin Mary and honor her as the model and exemplar - her strong faith. Imagine living with God day-in-and-day-out, doing what you can as His mother to help Him accomplish His divine plan, which you don’t really understand! Not only does it take a strong faith, the experience also can be very painful, as has become evident in this childhood story of Jesus. Now we can understand better the words of Simeon who, moved by the Spirit, told Mary “a sword will pierce your own soul” (Luke 2:35). Piercing indeed is the pain of not understanding your own child. But that was only one of many piercing pains she had to suffer in order to help him accomplish the Father’s plan of salvation.