Sunday, January 21, 2007

Most Excellent Theophilus

(3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given on 21 January, 2007 at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; See Nehemiah 8:2-10 and Luke 1:1-4)

Have you ever been disconnected—physically—from the places and people that you feel closest to? I think many of us have had that experience; whether it be going away to college, or perhaps our profession takes us away from our home for long periods of time.

One of the opportunities I am most grateful for is to have studied four years in Rome in preparation for the priesthood. I consider it to be among the happiest years of my life. And yet, there were also many challenges that accompanied that experience, being so far away. While I was there, both my parents had emergency open-heart surgery. Thankfully they made out all right, but it was hard to be so far away, missing so many events—good and bad—and missing so many people.

I remember the first time I came back, on break, after about two years of being away. I stood on the back deck of our house, and looked out into my own back yard: I was looking at a lawn, trees and a home that I had grown up with. And I had this overwhelming sense of peace, this sense of joy. I was finally re-connected with the people and places that were most dear to me.

That is something like what we find in the first reading this morning, from the Book of Nehemiah. The people of Israel had just returned from Babylon. They had not been studying abroad and they weren’t there on business. They had been dragged off in exile, and they lived as slaves for over 50 years. Finally, when the Persians came and defeated the Babylonians, the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem; they went home to a land that was so familiar and so sacred to them.

But nothing in that place could signal their re-connection and their identity as a people more than the book of the law: The Torah, the writings of Moses, the prophets, the covenant and the promises God had made with them.

Nehemiah describes their reaction to that reading of the book of the law, how they became emotional. They began to weep. They recognized that they, and their fathers before them, had not listened to the word of God, they had not been faithful to the covenant. That is the reason they had been in exile.

But Nehemiah and Ezra the scribe intervene and say to the people: “Do not weep.” The time for sorrow and sadness is over. The period of exile is over. You were not faithful to the covenant of God . . .but He was! This word of God is meant for consolation. It is given to them to build them back up again, and reconnect them to God and to each other. And so, Nehemiah and Ezra say to the people:

Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength.
—Nehemiah 8:10

Our readings for this Third Sunday in Ordinary Time speak to us about the power of God’s own word in the midst of our everyday lives. Like the people of Israel, we, too, need to listen to God’s word and let it transform us and reconnect us to God and to each other. God’s word to us is every bit as personal and intimate as it was to the people of Nehemiah’s day. In the Scriptures, God speaks to us as children; He speaks to us as friends.

St. Luke, in the gospel this morning, begins his account of the life of Christ in the form of a personal letter. He writes:

Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us . . .

He is referring to the events of the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

. . . I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received.
—Luke 1:1-4

Theophilus. That is a strange name, isn’t it? Many scholars say that Theophilus is perhaps the name of the person who is sponsoring St. Luke as he writes his Gospel, the one financing the project. The name “Theophilus” means, literally, “friend of God” or “Lover of God.”

St. Ambrose is quick to point out that the Gospel of St. Luke can be understood as a personal letter to anyone who is the friend or lover of God. All of us are Theophilus, if we are open to and respond well to the word of God and His message of salvation.

I would suggest this morning three ways that we can do that, three ways we are called to be lovers of God by responding well to His personal word for us.

Firstly, we come here to Mass each week fully expecting God Himself to speak to us. Do we do that? Do we really expect God to speak to us in the readings, in the responsorial psalm, and in the Gospel? This word proclaimed has the power to change our lives. Do we come here expecting God to do exactly that?

Secondly, we set time apart each day to read and listen to the word of God. A friend of mine has a great expression he uses to describe this commitment to spending time with God’s word each day, in the morning and in the evening. He says:

No Bible, no breakfast. No Bible, no Bed.

Are we able to spend even a small amount of time each day, perhaps a couple of minutes, reading the word of God and opening ourselves up to what God is trying to say to us?

And finally, something very practical and even entertaining: Christian music. There are so many different Christian artists out these days. Many of them are Evangelical Christians. Several are Catholic, as well. But nearly all of them are entirely focused on the Scriptures. The songs are often renditions of the psalms, or some passage from the New Testament. We can listen to that message in the car on the way to work, or on our ipod when we exercise, or when we are simply sitting around the house.

Just like secular music, that often gets stuck in our heads and bounces around in there, instead of having the Beatles or the Red Hot Chile Peppers, we have the word of God echoing within us. It is another way of exposing ourselves to the transforming word of God, the word that has the power to change us and reconnect us to God and His people.

These are just three suggestions of how we can respond well to God’s word in our own daily lives. Might we continue to open ourselves up to Him and His personal word to each of us as we come to recognize, more and more, that we are “Theophilus,” the friend of God and the lover of God, whenever we hear and respond to that life-giving word.