Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
January 27, 2019Wanna know something about Nehemiah – more than is revealed in today’s First Reading, from the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time? It is this: Nehemiah built a wall around Jerusalem, and had another nation pay for that wall. No? Yes! It’s right there, Chapters 1 & 2 – King Artaxerxes of Persia, in whose court Nehemiah was serving during a time of exile from Jerusalem, allowed Nehemiah and the exiled people he had gathered together to take timber from the royal forest and begin to rebuild the walls of the holy city, the place where the Name of the Most High dwells. If that’s all he accomplished, it would have been enough. But that’s not all he did (you’ll see in the Book of Nehemiah that he is not a modest fellow). When the construction phase ended, Nehemiah had the wisdom and the judgment to stand aside and allow Ezra to do his vital part in the plan to make Jerusalem great again. What is happening in the First Reading has been called the first recorded celebration of a liturgy of the word (references available upon request). Ezra-Nehemiah is the flowering of an understanding that buds, blooms, and grows throughout the Old Testament, an understanding that continues to be foundational to our relationship with God: that it doesn’t matter where we are, rather, what matters is who we are. The joy the people feel at the recovery of the words and the laws of the covenant runs parallel with the joy that comes from their sense of accomplishment and their re-born hope for the future now that Jerusalem’s walls have been built. Read on, though, because it all comes apart again by Chapter 13, for the city anyway. Yet God’s word and God’s promise endures. Jesus himself says so, in today’s Gospel. “Your words, Lord, are Spirit and life” (Psalm 19) – today’s psalm response is something to keep in mind whenever one feels confounded or bored or upset with the Bible. It’s not that it’s beautifully written (though it is that) or that it’s richly informative and challenging (yes. yes.) or even that it never ceases to yield new insights with each encounter (check) – it’s that it is alive, God’s word is alive and can form us as if it were speaking directly to us (it does). If you’re exhausted by a world of 280 characters and are tempted by the false choice of tuning out the words and thereby tuning out the world, know that some words do endure, of Gods and men and women, and that they deserve to endure, and think ye on these things. You saw the reports and the footage from the confrontation a week ago Friday in Washington DC, in front of the Lincoln Memorial? O how I wish the people involved had gone inside that temple. Have you? I consider myself an educated person, I mean, I’m no Ezra, but I had a good Catholic and public school education and I went to a classy college – but the first time I ever read the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address was in that very building; the words are inscribed on the interior walls. Outside my brothers were standing their ground and posturing. By not going inside, by not going deeper, they missed receiving the wisdom of our ancestor Abraham, to wit: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” (from the Second Inaugural Address) And again: “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." (from the Gettysburg Address) The Gospel is simply this: Jesus knows, understands, and accepts his mission. And he has given us a model to follow. I don’t speak for others, I can’t tell anyone what to do (who would listen?), I know everyone has the freedom and the responsibility to discern what God is calling them to. But if actions are to bear fruit that will last, they have to be rooted not in boasts of being unmovable, but in the virtues exemplified by Jesus and cited by Abraham: charity, works of mercy, peace, and freedom. On holy ground such as this, field or forest, temple mount or monument, we can build a church and save a nation.