From the sublime to the Ordinary

Father Joseph Brando, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Gatlinburg

Father Joseph Brando, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Gatlinburg

The Liturgy of the Word for January is a fine tapestry woven into an intricate collage. One end, starting the Octave Day of Christmas, features the Book of Numbers where God tells Moses to teach Aaron how to bless the Israelites. It depicts the ideal living out of the Old Covenant between God and Moses in which the people live under a constant blessing. On the other end, January finishes with Matthew’s vision of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.

Surrounded with his disciples, Jesus goes around Galilee teaching, curing and proclaiming the Gospel. It is the idyllic picture of the New Covenant between Christ and us. The sublime thoughts of Christmas blessings are connected with the ordinary living out of the Gospel. The gap between Christmas and February is bridged.

There are three major elements that are intertwined to connect both ends of that bridge. The first element is light. It is the light that shined over the shepherds at Bethlehem. It is the holy light that guided the Magi. Eventually, this light comes to us and transforms us into a holy people. The second element is discipleship. We find ourselves a holy people, united in Christ and following him faithfully. The third element is the issue of baptism of the gentiles. This was the apostolic church’s first major problem. Its solution resulted in the formation of the Church much as it has come to us today.

Let us start analyzing the scriptures of this month by looking in the exact middle of the 15 passages we have to contemplate this month. The middle reading of the third of January’s five liturgies is from the tenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. Right there in the center of our tapestry is the story of the baptism of Cornelius. Peter comments on all that has happened to reach the point where pagans can experience the Holy Spirit and can come directly to the waters of baptism to enter the life of Christ without first having to become Jewish.

The three themes are all connected at this one scene. The light the shepherds and the Magi saw led them to Christ. That light was the visible manifestation of God’s grace. It brought the centurion, Cornelius, to Christ. It does so for us. In fact, it transforms us into disciples. As disciples, we follow Christ and lead others to him as well. After we show them Christ, they will come to need and ask for baptism.

And so, we have all three of this month’s themes coming together in this one central scene. Let’s look at how each of these three themes is developed throughout the month. Of the 15 readings, we already have highlighted three of them: the first, the last and the middle. Even though most of the remaining 12 readings contain elements of more than one theme, for the sake of clarity let’s designate five readings predominately about light, four mostly about discipleship, and three emphasizing baptism.

All of the Sundays of January use passages from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah as their first reading and all of them have to do with light. On the Epiphany we read, “Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem, your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you…Nations shall walk by your light.” He goes on, “You shall be radiant by what you see.” We can discern a number of concepts contained in the word ‘light.’ Light is more than what stars give off. It is a person. He is called ‘Lord.’ And this light can come to us and change us. Isaiah is talking about God. God is with us and that presence changes us to become a reflection of divine light.

On the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Isaiah proclaims, “I formed you…a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind to bring out … those who live in darkness.” The light that Israel is (including us, the new Israel) gives us a function and a focus. We must turn toward those in darkness spiritually and shine our light on them. We can begin to see the themes of discipleship and light complementing each other.

On the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time we read Isaiah, chapter 49. “It is too little for you to be my servant … I will make you a light to the nations … that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” Here we actually have all three themes blending together in one sentence. The light, which has been identified as divine, is now the entire people of Israel. They are more than God’s servants. They share in God’s light in that when people see them, they can begin to see God in action. Beyond that, they are a means for others to gain salvation. Light is, indeed, a profound concept the depth of which we must explore to understand our own vocation.

On the last Sunday of the month we read another famous quote from Isaiah, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shown. You have brought them abundant joy…” There is more than communicating a concept or knowledge at work here. Yes, our light can bring them to God; but it also brings them joy. That is to say there is a sense of fulfillment that brings true joy. And where there’s joy there is peace. The stakes for letting our light shine are getting higher and higher. We have a mandate from God that can solve the problems of the world.

The only New Testament reading that specifically has light as its main point is, appropriately, the Gospel reading for the feast of Epiphany. It is the story of the Magi. They discovered the star of the newborn king of the Jews, followed it, and eventually found Jesus. The Magi’s adventure was symbolic of Isaiah’s prophesies. A star led them to the light which was Judaism. They, in turn, led them to the place where the Son of God was. Then, they saw for themselves. Afterwards, they also received, by means of a dream, a direct revelation as to how to return. They began as stargazers and ended up true visionaries. Such is what light can do for us.

There are three scripture passages from January’s readings that emphasize the theme of discipleship. All of them are from the Epistles of Paul. The second reading on the Octave of Christmas is from Galatians. There, Paul writes, “God sent his Son…to ransom those under the law so that we may receive adoption as sons…So, you are no longer a slave but a son, and, if a son then also an heir, through God.” Here, Paul adds deeper meaning to the term, ‘disciple.’ I am sure that a strong case can be made that Paul is not referring only to biological males. Women (who would not inherit much in Paul’s world) are to be included as children of God with full rights of inheritance. We all inherit heaven and the things of heaven here and now. We need to discover which of those gifts have been bestowed on us and use them for the sake of the kingdom of God.

The gospel for the first Sunday of the month presents two great examples of being a disciple. The first and foremost is Mary, the mother of Jesus. She reflected on all that happened regarding the events of Jesus’ birth. If we want to be a disciple, perhaps we should follow her lead and meditate on the events of Jesus’ life. The other example would be that of the shepherds who spent their discipleship “glorifying and praising God for all they had seen and heard.”

On Jan. 19 and Jan. 26 we observe the Second and Third Sundays in Ordinary Time. Both take their second readings from the first chapter of I Corinthians. On the Second Sunday, Paul calls himself an apostle and he addresses the Christians of Corinth as “church” and “holy.” To be holy is to be set aside by God to be special or to do something special. And Paul specifically adds that the Corinthians “call Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.” To be able to call the Lord by name gives them privileged access to God. That is an awesome power to have. It is the power of a disciple.

On the next Sunday Paul gets to the point of his letter. He urges the Corinthians to be unified. That is one of the most important aspects of being a disciple. We must “be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” There is one Christ, as Paul says later in the letter, and we, as disciples, need to be united with Christ. So, we all find our unity in the one Christ. In that way our light will shine brilliantly and help others to find Christ and eventually be baptized.

That leads us to the last theme, baptism. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, which is the second reading on Epiphany Sunday, writes about the biggest issue of the day for Christians, namely the baptism of non-Jews. As he writes that Gentiles can be baptized, Paul states that baptism makes us all “members of the same body, and co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel. So we find the reason why we must be of one mind in the Church. We become the body of Christ and sharers of the same vision. This gives us joy and to those outside a clear presentation of the Christian message.

On the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, the Gospel is from Matthew’s description of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River by John. And on the following Sunday, we read about the same event as it comes to us in John’s Gospel. This event is not to be confused with the sacrament of baptism, which unites us to the risen Christ. John’s was a sign of renewal of one’s own life. What happened at the Jordan River informs us about Trinity. Thus, we can learn about our baptism that since we become one with Christ, we also enter into the life of the blessed Trinity. Remember that, when they were looking for a replacement for Judas, the 11 disciples set as one criterion that the candidate had to be present at Jesus’ baptism by John. He had to be a visionary and witness to the presence of the Holy Spirit and the voice of the Father. We need to be aware of our baptismal relationship in the Trinity if we are to function as a complete Christian.

Looking back on the readings for the month of January 2014, we begin and end with idealistic pictures of the Old and New Covenants functioning at their very best. In the middle, we have the incident that solved the thorny problem of whether all Christians need to be circumcised before baptism. What makes the overall tableau beautiful is that through the divine light of grace, transforming people into faithful disciples, the Church has formed and is continuing to shed God’s light on those who will be added to the Church by baptism.

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