April 10, 2014

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HOMILY for Thurs in Week 5 of Lent

Genesis 17:3-9; Psalm 104; John 8:51-59

God’s covenant with Abraham is the bedrock of our faith. For through the incident recounted in today’s First Reading, God takes the initiative to enter into a personal relationship with Mankind; he calls Abraham and his descendants into communion with him. And our faith is founded on this promise of “an everlasting covenant” (Gen 17:7). Thus, Abraham is called, in the Roman Canon, our “father in faith”. 

In the covenant, God promises: “I will make you exceedingly fruitful” (17:6), and makes the gift of “all the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession” (17:8).  What this means is that communion with God brings life and flourishing. It is a promise, then, of salvation. We need to bear in mind that the word ‘salvation’ comes from the Latin salus which means health, well-being, flourishing. So, in the Old Testament, God is seen to have established a special relationship with Abraham and his descendants, with Israel, that promises to them health, success, and flourishing in this life so long as they are faithful to God and obey his Law. This, it seems, is what salvation entailed. 

But Abraham’s faith shows its mettle when he’s asked to sacrifice his only son, his heir, Isaac. Thus the promise of physical health and material success is jeopardized. We need to wait until the Easter Vigil to hear this story recounted in the Liturgy but we want to keep it in mind today because what this incident shows is the depths of Abraham’s faith. He, our father in faith, shows us that faith encompasses the suffering, sacrifice and the endurance of all earthly sorrows and grief. And Abraham can do this because he believes above all that God is faithful and good, and so, will ultimately bring about life and flourishing. God will be faithful to his Word even in the face of death. 

Hence, Abraham grasped that salvation is not so much about success and power in this earthly life but something deeper and more lasting, transcending even death. The covenant is not just a treaty for worldly gain, then, but something more profound, of spiritual significance and with its promise of rescue beyond the grave. So, when the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac is read on Easter night, then we see that Jesus’ resurrection is God’s final and definitive answer to Abraham’s faith in the covenant. Here is the promised salvation, perfectly realized for all Abraham’s descendants. Because, by Christ’s Resurrection, Mankind is rescued from the privation of death, and shares in the everlasting life and health of God himself. Through Christ’s Resurrection the covenant with Abraham is perfected, and the salvation promised him is fully realized. We, who are Abraham’s descendants and heirs because we share his faith in Jesus’ Resurrection, are thus also inheritors of God’s covenant, the “new and eternal covenant” signed with Christ’s blood. 

It seems that Abraham already had a glimpse of all this. For all this is what his faith signifies and anticipates. Hence Jesus says: “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad” (Jn 8:56). For the day Abraham saw was the day of God’s salvation, and now, in Jesus Christ, in his saving Passion and Resurrection, that day shines out clearly. So, in the coming Holy Week we will see Abraham’s faith come to fruition so that with him, our father in faith, we can also rejoice and be glad.

December 17, 2013

HOMILY for 17 December

Gen 49:2-8. 10; Ps 71; Matt 1:1-17

On the 17th of December, the Liturgy of the Church shifts its focus from the advent of Christ both in our hearts and at the end of time to, more specifically, the first coming of Christ in Bethlehem of Judea. To prepare us, we hear the beginning of St Matthew’s Gospel which seems to give us Christ’s family tree. Except that when we get to the end, we realize that this isn’t Jesus’ lineage at all – not by blood, at any rate, although it is Jesus’ family line by law, through St Joseph’s marriage to Mary. So, St Matthew’s point is not to give a socio-historical account of Jesus’ ancestry but, rather, to make a theological point which tell us who the baby born of Mary is, and what he is born to do.

The main points, I think, are found in the very description of the child: “Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham”. If we consider the holy name, ‘Jesus’ or ‘Yeshua’ means ‘God saves’ or ‘God is salvation’. This is why the angel tells St Joseph: “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins”. Because the name ‘Jesus’ actually tells us what Jesus’ mission is – to be the Saviour. More specifically, it is “his people” that Jesus comes to save. This means the Jewish people. 

The title given to Jesus, ‘Christ’ makes this explicit. For Christos is the Greek word for the Jewish word mashiach, meaning ‘the anointed one’. In the Old Testament it is priests, prophets and kings who are anointed. More specifically, the prophets had spoken of a Messiah, a king, who would save the Jewish people, and who was born of David’s line. Thus, St Matthew calls Jesus “son of David”, and he is called Christ because he is anointed as a king from David’s royal line. 

Thus, St Matthew gives us Jesus’ royal ancestry from king David; he is the promised Jewish Messiah. 

However, at the end of the Gospel, Jesus tells his Church to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). So, Jesus doesn’t just come to save his people from their sins but, more widely, all people from all nations; Jesus is the universal Saviour of Mankind. Thus St Matthew calls Jesus “son of Abraham” because Abraham was the “father of many nations” (Gen 17:5). So, St Matthew gives us Jesus’ Abrahamic ancestry too to show that Jesus is born to save all nations; he is Saviour of the Gentiles as well as Jews. And to emphasize this, four women (besides the Virgin Mother herself) are named in the genealogy: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and the wife of Uriah, Bathsheba. For what unites these four women is that they are all Gentiles. Moreover, Abraham had carried out priestly and prophetic roles, which are perfectly accomplished in Jesus Christ who as priest intercedes for all humanity and offers sacrifice to God; and as prophet points to God’s reign among us and reveals the Father’s face to all peoples. 

Hence, St Matthew begins his Gospel with a genealogy that sets out the theological tone for the rest of his book. For he will show how Jesus is Saviour of both Jews and Gentiles, and that the Christ is anointed priest, prophet and king by the Holy Spirit so as to carry out this divine mission. Fortunately, the Gospel readings in this Liturgical Year, especially when Ordinary Time returns, is taken from St Matthew’s Gospel, so, if we’re attentive, we shall see just how this plays out.

March 4, 2012
“By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your descendants be named.’ He considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead; hence, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” – Hebrews 11:17-19.
Detail from a window by Edward Burne-Jones in Jesus College chapel, Cambridge.

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your descendants be named.’ He considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead; hence, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” – Hebrews 11:17-19.

Detail from a window by Edward Burne-Jones in Jesus College chapel, Cambridge.

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