Spirituality of the Readings
Two New Eras
Two men unroll parchment scrolls. Each reads his to his people. In each case, their proclamations signal the beginning of a vast new era. One man is Ezra the scribe, and the other is Jesus of Nazareth. Four centuries separate their readings.
We find Ezra in the First Reading. He is in Jerusalem after the return of the Jewish exiles from captivity in Babylon. What is the “captivity in Babylon,” you ask? Perhaps it will help to have more of the story.
Ancient Israel was captured by the Babylonian empire 586 years before Christ. The Babylonians took Jerusalem itself. They demolished the great temple built by Solomon himself many centuries before and they deported all productive citizens to Babylon, leaving peasants to run the holy city—if they could.
After fifty years or so of their captivity, Persia (now Iran) came into possession of Babylon. Cyrus the Great was then king, and he let the captives in Babylon go!
Many had switched their faith by this time, in favor of foreign gods and customs, but the remainder, perhaps 5000 or so, made ready to return home. By this time a lot of them had never even seen Jerusalem. Great caravans took place. Ezra—priest, scribe and teacher—led one of them on the four-month journey across the desert.
They arrived to find Jerusalem a ruined city with widespread moral decay.
Reconstruction of an urban center is immensely difficult, as we know from our own day. Ezra worked long and hard to bring back the ecclesiastical and civil fiber of Jerusalem and the nation. At last a new temple was finished in 516 BC, and the ruined city walls had been rebuilt.
At this point Ezra stood up on a high wooden platform built for the occasion—so he could be heard and seen—and he “read plainly” from the scroll that held “the book of the law.” He started reading at daybreak and continued until midday!
Not only did they have their city again, but also they had heard the Word of God again, and finally there was again a temple where they could worship. Their new era had begun!
Four centuries later we find Jesus of Nazareth making a similar return. He is going back to Galilee, the region where he grew up (Gospel). He has been baptized and has spent time in the desert. His trip is now “in the power of the Spirit,” Luke says, and it takes him to his home town of Nazareth. Like Ezra, he takes up a scroll, this one containing the book of Isaiah—much of which, coincidentally, had been written during the “Jewish exile.”
He reads the passage, which says that the Spirit of the Lord has sent him to “bring glad tidings to the poor, … to let the oppressed go free,” to proclaim a time of favor from the Lord (Is 61: 1-2). This is what Ezra had done in the First Reading, but Jesus' mission is much, much more. A far greater new era has begun.
He sits down now, at the same level as the people. He says almost casually, “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”
His mission is to rebuild their hearts, not just their city, to return them to God, their real home. Would they accept this startling new epoch?
Stay tuned for more next Sunday.
John Foley, SJ
Fr. John Foley, SJ is a composer and scholar at Saint Louis University.
**From Saint Louis University