Let us begin with a fascinating story as told to us today by St. Luke. As so often the case with Luke, the tale is rich in details and vivid in imagery. He renders a much more complete account of our Lord's visit than do either St. Mark or St. Matthew. The story is set in a synagogue.
I once visited a first-century synagogue in the region of Nazareth. To this day it is a plain space, with little ornamentation, simple wooden benches and a raised platform at one end. But, unlike today, the synagogues of first-century Palestine were not staffed by professionally trained rabbis. Thus, there was a strong custom at work that encouraged members of the congregation to both read the Scriptures, and as they were able, explain them or apply them to contemporary needs and issues. It was not at all uncommon to ask a visitor who seemed knowledgeable to take part. In this, the people could enjoy a new voice or new understanding.
Certainly, some of the religious leaders of Nazareth knew that Jesus had spent time with John the Baptist. They perhaps knew of his 40 days spent in the wilderness or they had heard of his wonder working in the area to the west in Capernaum. No doubt, they felt he could contribute something fresh and deeper to their understanding.
And, so, after the public confession, the Shema, followed by prayers, there came the reading from the Scriptures, that which is even today the central act of worship in the synagogue. He reads from the Prophets, not a continuous passage, but one carefully and pointedly woven from Isaiah. In both the reading and his few words at the end, he reveals his true identity and the mission of the Messiah. He says, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me," and "He has sent me to announce good news to the poor, to proclaim release for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind; to let broken victims go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And then he sits down and the story concludes.
At the center of the Isaiah reading and the story itself, there is this theme: liberation! Israel had been and was currently oppressed, and just as any people at any time in history, there was a deeply set passion, desire, to be free from any form of oppression, be it political oppression or that to which our Lord devotes his entire earthly ministry-spiritual liberation-liberation from the things within ourselves that cause us to act against the hope that God has for us each. Even more specifically, liberation from sin?from what Alexander Solzhenitsyn defines simply as "Humankind forgetting God."
Now what has this event in the life of our Lord and this theme of liberation have to say to each of us? I would suggest a great deal!
Some years ago I was most privileged to hear and be with a person I judge to be a great hero of the Christian faith, Terry Anderson. Think for a moment what he encountered in his six-and-a-half years spent as a hostage in war-torn Beirut. It was a life spent in a series of dark cells and basements, chained to walls or to other prisoners, days that began with beatings and physical abuse, days surrounded in unkind taunts, days separated from the outside world, days spent segregated from family and friends, including a daughter born just after his kidnapping.
How would we have contended? What would have been our reaction at the point of liberation after 2,455 days spent in those conditions? Rage, bitterness, vengeance, hate, deep resentment-any and all of these emotions would seem justified. But that was not the response of a man who had found his capacity to contend during each of those days in the liberating love of Jesus Christ. The day after his release at a news conference, these were his words:
I am free, thank God. I do not hate them. I am certainly not grateful to them for anything. I believe they are very, very wrong. They did great harm to me and my family, but I am a Christian and a Catholic. It is required of me that I forgive no matter how hard it may be and I am determined to do that.
He went on to say:
The other hostages all gave something to me, helped me. I hope I gave them something in return. I do not see these years as wasted or lost. I learned a great deal from them and hope to take what I have learned about life and its value into the rest of my life.
Now to the heart of the matter!
The Jesus Christ we behold so vividly in today's Gospel lesson is very much the Jesus Christ each of us needs to know in the ordering of our so often complex and challenging lives. The Jesus Christ who today begins his public ministry in a synagogue in rural Nazareth is neither what the people of Israel were expecting nor what we sometimes want intruding in our lives.
No, the God we worship this day in Jesus Christ comes to challenge, not to punish, not to condemn, not to do harm. He comes to bring to us glad tidings, to proclaim liberty, recovery of sight, release from all the things that torment and distract and dehumanize us each.
The God we worship in Jesus Christ comes to your life and mine with a message we need so desperately to hear and, yet, we can repulse. It is a message of grace, healing, reconciliation, humility, trust, tolerance, self-forgetfulness; and, in summary, it is a message of love.
It was most certainly a hard message for the Israel of the first century to comprehend, must less to apply. And no less is true for each of us. Nonetheless, our personal liberation from all the things-everything-that threatens to haunt or disfigure our very souls is to be found in the good news of the One who comes this day and every day to free us. Thanks be to God!
Let us pray.
Lord, make us instruments of thy peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, vision; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love, for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.