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Homily - Third Sunday in Ordinary Time - Bishop McKeown

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Sunday, 23 January 2022

Today, we encounter the first acts and words of Jesus in his public ministry. Just before this, he has been baptised by John in the Jordan and then been tempted to offer a populist form of faith. But today, he come back to his hometown and offers an uncompromising description of his ministry. What might we learn about the mission of the Church in our day?

Firstly, just like the prophet Nehemiah in the first reading, Jesus speaks into a context. Nehemiah the prophet is speaking to the Jewish people after they return from exile in Babylon. Jerusalem and the Temple are being rebuilt – and that renewal is based on a recommitment to the Law of God. Worship without morality is empty. Jesus is also speaking not a context. John the Baptist has prepared people for the coming of the Christ. There was a high level of expectation in the people. And Jesus does not disappoint in proclaiming who he is and what he is coming to do.

We live in our own time of new beginnings. The pandemic has been a jolt for the whole of society. In our church we are facing many challenges. The actions of some have given Christ's people a bad name. There are also those forces who want to chase faith from the public forum – and who paint a consistently negative picture of everything that was and is Catholic. Part of that narrative is that Catholicism is ultimately to blame for everything that is wrong in society. It is allegedly responsible for everything from a divided society to murderous misogyny – and must thus be removed from any significant role in society. And all of this has to happen so that a shiny bright new consumerist dogma can dominate all that we say and do. We need to take Jesus' words on board if we are to speak Christ and not merely our own fears into the world in which we find ourselves.

Secondly, Jesus says that the words of Isaiah the prophet are being fulfilled in him, there and now. Jesus does not come to wreck anything. He speaks in the town where everybody knew him. Extraordinary things can spring up in very ordinary places. He comes to build on, and to fulfil what went before. In his ministry he repeats the hopes of the past - but does not shrink from pointing out the mistakes of the past. He tells his listeners that hope is not stupid, and that idealism is not a waste of time. Indeed, without idealism, people make excuses for not expecting much and become crushed by mediocrity. Young hearts that want to hope are told to drown their dreams in self-indulgence. So-called 'affluenza' is a highly infectious disease that attacks our hunger for meaning and healing – and tells us that trinkets and thrills are the best we can expect. In the mess of then and now, Jesus calls us to generosity and concern for the weak – and speaks of the Holy Spirit as the driving force for those who want to rebel against any idea of helplessness in the face of poverty and marginalisation. Today's Gospel is a call to young idealists of all ages.

Thirdly, Jesus is not just talking to people in the middle telling them to look after those on the margins. That risks being paternalism. In all his own ministry Jesus is in solidarity with the poor and needy. He touches the leper and is crucified with the criminals. He eats with tax collectors and sinners and praises the faith of gentiles. He does not just do things for those in need. He includes those who feel excluded. When he welcomes sinners, he does not condone what they have done. But he offers them hope of a fresh beginning. Because he proclaims forgiveness of sin, he frees people from the burden of the past and the destructive power of a bad reputation. He offers good news, liberty, and new sight to those who feel trapped.

This challenges us in our day. At a time when Church is being criticised for all that is stands for, here is a temptation to become defensive and to retreat behind high walls of certainty. That is how the Pharisees reacted. Over 20 years ago, Pope John Paul II warned against falling prey to a kind of ecclesial introversion[1] . But Jesus goes out, at enormous cost to himself. He combines a radical life of intense prayer with a costly level of self-giving for others. That self-sacrifice will culminate on Calvary. That self-giving to the Father and to others is what we celebrate here each weekend. In today's Mass we hear what Jesus says he will do – and we celebrate what he has done. We are fed with his body broken for us and his blood shed for us. The Church will be renewed when we can take on board God's focus on bringing resurrection to those who feel crushed, not on how we make ourselves strong again. The weak can be in solidarity with the needy. When we are strong, we risk becoming blind to how needy we are.

This weekend Pope Francis has asked us to reflect on what he has called 'the unruly freedom of the Word of God'. Next week we will hear how today's words cause his neighbours to turn against him. Can we learn from today's Gospel how to speak the truth in love rather than in self-righteous anger? In this week of Prayer for Christian Unity, can we learn to focus on our shared Christ-centred mission rather than wasting energy on difference? And as we faced the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, can we also how Jesus might want us to deal with the pain of the past? And in facing these questions, St Paul give us a powerful image in the second reading. In the Body of Christ there are many gifts and talents, all given for the purpose of bringing Good News to the poor. Together, as a prayerful people, we believe that we can be led by the one Spirit, if only we are open to divine inspiration and not frozen by a desire self-preservation. Today's Gospel calls young disciples to face the future with confidence – for in every generation, Jesus says, this text is being fulfilled today even as you listen. And that often unwelcome way of looking at the world lie at the heart of what we try to offer in our schools. This Catholic Schools Week we pray that our schools can remain faithful to that mission.

+ Donal McKeown


[1] Quoted in Pope Francis Evangelii Gaudium 27


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