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Homily - Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time C - Bishop McKeown

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Sunday, 30 January 2022

Last week, Jesus introduced his mission to the people of his hometown. Not surprisingly, there were various reactions to this statement. At the start of his ministry we see signs of the opposition that he will meet over the next three years. Today we hear how he continues and deals with the reaction to his words. What might we see in this story?

Firstly, he causes upset because he challenges the story that many Jewish communities told about their past. For them, they were the Chosen People. History, as they saw it, should confirm that conviction. But Jesus points out that he is not the first prophet to have met with opposition among his own people. Indeed, he quotes two instances in the lives of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. They ministered to non-Israelites. And they weren't just average foreigners. One of the people mentioned was a penniless foreign widow woman – and the other was a foreign leper. And Elijah was not just one of the many prophets. For example, at the Transfiguration, Moses appeared to represent the Law and Elijah to represent the prophets. That awkward truth from the Old Testament was guaranteed to upset any narrative about how superior the Chosen People were to everybody else.

We all have narratives about our communities and who we are. We know that from Northern Ireland. The story that we tell can be used to make us feel comfortable with who and where we are now. Jesus challenges us to look at how we use our history. It can be used to free or to serve powerful people. We had a story about Catholicism in Ireland that spoke only of the huge dedication that went into education and hospitals, missionaries and generosity abroad. And there are some who see that as a Golden Age to be returned to. But that story was blinkered to the dark pages and forgotten people. Self-praise can flatter us to not see our faults. Now there is a new narrative where the past was unfailingly awful because of Church – and the implication is that some sort of new utopia will appear as soon as people of faith are banned for playing any role in civic society. That silly story is equally fanciful. It may serve some ideological agenda but is blind to the reality of sin and the fragmentation of society. As regards Bloody Sunday, there is no doubt as to what we remember. But we can choose to mine the events of 1972 to seek healing or to promote anger. Jesus always challenges us all to tell a truer story – especially when it is uncomfortable. For only the truth will set us free and help us grow up.

Church has been at its strongest when it was not seduced by being too close to power and spoke uncomfortable truths to those who were happy to use religious faith for their own purposes. Great saints were prepared to risk the wrath of the strong, not merely by being critical but by pointing to how much better things could be.

by Bishop McKeown
Secondly, those who upset the strong and the comfortable will always meet opposition. Jesus will continue with his ministry to reach out to foreigners, touch lepers and say that the poor are blessed. Those who want to tone down that uncomfortable prophetic voice will always seek to tame the message of Jesus just as the devil did in the three temptations that Jesus endured. Church has been at its strongest when it was not seduced by being too close to power and spoke uncomfortable truths to those who were happy to use religious faith for their own purposes. Great saints were prepared to risk the wrath of the strong, not merely by being critical but by pointing to how much better things could be. The great saints of the poor and of education gave their all and witnessed to God by simplicity of life and generosity of heart. St Francis of Assisi and St Clare, Edmund Ignatius Rice and Catherine McAuley, Mother Teresa and Clare Crockett are remembered, not because they wanted to be famous but because, when it came to following Christ, it had to be all or nothing. The church in the 21st century will regain its credibility, not by becoming strong but by becoming outstanding for its courageous pursuit of the uncomfortable truth and Christ's mission of bringing good news to the poor.

Thirdly, St Paul repeats that same Gospel message in a slightly different way. This great passage on love is often read at weddings. And the love of husband and wife is meant to reflect Christ's faithful love for the church. But love is meant to be a characteristic of all Christ's followers. Those who know the overwhelming love of God for us, revealed in Christ, cannot help but let that seep into and colour all that they do and are. A community most reflects the love of God when it is moulded by the shared experience of divine love. A community that is riven with personal agendas and factions, a community where there is much anger and negativity – that sort of community may attract those who are shackled by hurt and fear. But it will do little to attract people who seek liberation through Christ's mercy. Today's Gospel challenges us to ask ourselves today who the Sidonian widow and the Syrian leper are, to whom God's grace reaches out. The love of God is most visible in those who know how to love and forgive, and much less visible in those who love to condemn and to exclude.

You might think that Jesus has gotten off to a bad start by annoying his neighbours and relations so much that they want to kill him. But he seems to be quite conscious throughout his ministry that he had come to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. And because that prophetic role is so difficult to maintain, Jesus invites us aside each week to help us hear these strong words together and to talk about that challenge. And then he feeds us with his body and blood, a teaching that so scandalised his listeners in the Gospel that many walked away. If we are to be a church that listens for how the Holy Spirit wants to make the church fit for mission, that will entail hearing the unsettling voice of Jesus who asks us whether we are prepared to take up our cross to follow him. After all, it was for that mission that the Lord formed each of us in the womb and consecrated us before we came to birth.

+ Donal McKeown


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