Homily for the 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time

& the Feast of the Presentation

February 1, 2004

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

(Based on Malachi 3:14-; Psalm 24:7-10; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40)

Last Sunday we heard Jesus' opening campaign speech as he began his public ministry. Let's listen to it again. We can never hear it enough.

The spirit of the Lord is upon me; therefore he has anointed me.

He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor,

to proclaim liberty to captives,

Recovery of sight to the blind

and release of prisoners.

To announce a year of favor from the Lord.

Tomorrow is the feast of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. The church breaks the chronological sequence of the Gospel of Luke and takes us back to a significant memory of a foundational event in his story. It's as if the church is saying, "Oh, by the way, as you listen to the account of his mission, don't forget his first presence in the Temple. It all began there."

The author of Hebrews tells us "He had to be come like his brothers and sisters in every way -- that he might be a merciful, a compassionate high priest." Scholars tell us that the Old Testament never attaches the quality of compassion to the person of any high priest. And his compassion is rooted in the fact that he has been tested just as we are, by suffering.

He proclaims good news to the poor because he came to the Temple as one of the poor. The offering his parents make, of turtle doves or pigeons, was the offering prescribed for the poor, for those who couldn't afford to give gold or silver coins or jewels.

It brings us back directly to his mission: "the Spirit of the Lord is upon me . . ." The Spirit is at work all throughout this whole story. Simeon is described as a man of the Spirit. He receives the promise of the Spirit. And he is there in the Temple to receive Jesus that day because of the inspiration of the Spirit.

And we hear that the coming of Jesus will bring about a moment of decision: will people accept or reject him?

Simeon is led by the Spirit to get it right: this child will be a sign of contradiction and opposition. For some he will be their downfall. For others their resurrection.

This is not a romantic, saccharine scene, Hallmark spirituality. Hearts are going to be exposed, laud bare. People will find out who they are when they are confronted with his message.

And indeed, what was the outcome of his proclamation in that synagogue in Nazareth?

Let's listen to what Paul Harvey might call "the rest of the story."

After he had finished speaking and saying, "Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,"

all who were present spoke favorably of him; they marveled at the appealing discourse which came from his lips. They also asked, "Is not this Joseph's son?"

He said to them, "You will doubtless quote me the proverb, 'Physician, heal yourself,' and say, 'Do here the things we have heard you have done in Capernaum.' But in fact," he went on, "no prophet gains acceptance in his native place. Indeed, let me remind you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah when the heavens remained closed for three and a half years and a great famine spread over the land. It was to none of these that Elijah was sent, but to a widow of Zrephath near Sidon. Recall, too, the many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; yet not one was cured except Naaman the Syrian."

At these words the whole audience in the synagogue was filled with indignation. They rose up and expelled him from the town, leading him to the brow of the hill on which it was built and intending to hurl him over the edge. But he went straight through their midst and walked away.

There has been anticipation, excitement. They were "on tiptoes to hear him. and there was admiration at first over his words. And it all turns to bitterness and anger. And even physical violence.

What happened? Why this dramatic change?

Why? Because they wanted him to become their miracle worker, to co-opt him. Do for us what you've done for those people over in Capernaum. What have you done for us lately?

It is our eternal temptation, our endless seduction: to turn God into a thing for us, an object we can manipulate, our answer-machine, the way out of facing our responsibility for this world. We will judge God on how he performs for us. And when God doesn't performs and live up to our expectations and we have to confront our responsibility, we become violent.

In reality, as Malachi tells us, the Messiah comes to refine, to purify, to transform all that is not of God in us. To turn it to the gold and silver the Lord wants us to be.

Jesus had to learn compassion from suffering. As we do. If we follow his message, his program, we will find ourselves out of step, out of sync with the powers of this world, with the movers and shakers and power brokers who determine who gets listened to and who gets shut out.

We will be called to make hard choices. To stand with the poor, the prisoner, the addict, the gay and lesbian, the disenfranchised.

We are called to become compassionate the he became compassionate, through struggle and the pain of decision and choice. Through refining and stripping away our complacency in the face of what's wrong in our world.

It can be a painful process, this transforming work of our God. We must keep our eyes fixed on the goal, what his work is about. We must cry out: Lord, transform us! Make us into gold and silver! We know that Jesus goes before us showing us the way.