Words on the Word
Isaiah 61:1-9: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for the Lord has anointed me.
Revelation 1:5-8: I am the Alpha and the Omega.
Luke 4:16-21: Today this word has been fulfilled.
The reading we have heard from Isaiah was clearly important to our Lord – that is obvious from today’s Gospel. Remember, the incident reported occurred right at the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry; indeed, the words read aloud from Isaiah are the first he utters publicly. He has just returned from forty days spent in the wilderness. This period provides the framework for our Lent. We think of it as a time of temptation, hunger, and thirst. This is not mistaken. But it is not all. Jesus went to face his trial ‘full of the Holy Spirit and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness’ (Lk 4.1). When he returned to Galilee, he did so ‘with the power of the Spirit’ (Lk 4.14).
Standing in the synagogue, carefully seeking out Isaiah’s text, then reading, ‘the Spirit of the Lord is upon me’, he expounds an experience that has been, and remains, intensely his own. The Spirit’s anointing has led him out into great depths. Life in the Spirit, he knows, is not incompatible with being led into temptation. What is temptation, as Scripture understands the word? To be tempted is to confront our potential to be unfaithful. The temptations Jesus undergoes are not marked by violent gestures. The tempter simply shows him the freedom he possesses to choose his own, human will, conditioned by circumstances and signs of the times, rather than the Father’s eternal will, unchangeable from the beginning.
People are hungry. Shouldn’t he then give them bread? They don’t see beyond this world’s glory. Shouldn’t he then adopt its order as his own? They have lost faith in the presence of God among them. Shouldn’t he then do something unexpected to make himself noticed?
These temptations are timeless. They assail us now, from every angle. Let us note carefully what Jesus, anointed with the Spirit, does. He is quite unaffected by the thought of immediate gain. Instead he points towards the inner logic of God’s word. To be tempted, he shows us, is something quite banal, part and parcel of the life of faith in a world that has turned its back on God. What we must guard against is tempting God in our turn (Lk 4.12).
Good news to the poor, liberty to captives, freedom to those who are downtrodden: these things are not opposed to God’s word from of old. Faithfulness to the word makes comfort possible and liberates joy. Later in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus proclaims: ‘Every kingdom divided against itself becomes a desert’ (Lk 11.17). The kingdom of God, revealed in the Gospel, (Lk 4.43) is not a kingdom at war with itself. It is unified, ‘built as a city bound firmly together’ like Solomon’s Jerusalem (Ps 122.3). Set on a hilltop, clearly visible (cf. Mt 5.14), it is the goal towards which we make our way, we who understand life here in this world as a pilgrimage, called to accompany each other on our journey home.
The image of Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, penetrated by the Spirit, carefully seeking a foundation for his message in Scripture there in Nazareth, surrounded by people in whose midst he had grown up, is wonderful and exalting. His mission, he proclaims, is about fulfilling Scripture. He is Scripture’s guarantor. The message he transmits as he starts his public ministry is confirmed when all is accomplished, later, after his resurrection from the dead. Preparing the disciples to receive ‘power from on high’, the Holy Spirit (Lk 24.49), he ‘opened their minds to understand the Scriptures’ (Lk 24.45).
There is not, cannot be, contradiction between the future inspiration of Christ’s Spirit and the Spirit’s promise in the past, for Christ, the truthful witness, is Alpha and Omega (Rev 1.8), the same today, yesterday, and always, as we solemnly declare at Easter.
We need to remind ourselves of this now. We live in a time that has lost faith in lasting truth. Our time distances itself from the very notion ‘truth’, doubts that anything can be ultimately true, is unprepared to accept that anyone can be Truth (cf. John 14.6). Ours is a time of dialectic and compromise. We fancy life as a field of tension made up of contradictions. We fancy society as an ever broadening field of diversity. The Gospel of Christ, meanwhile, stakes out a path towards reconciliation and simplification. The Church of Christ is a space within which ‘all nations, tribes, peoples and languages’ (Rev 7.9) find a place, but not merely to put up with each other while each waves its own banner. In the Church we are called to become one (John 17.1). The Church is not a spiritual trade union; it is a transformative element, a new dimension.
In this Mass we bless the oils that, through the Church, are expressions of the Spirit’s anointing. Before the Our Father the oil is blessed that brings healing to the sick ‘in body, in soul, and in spirit’. After the final prayer, the oil is blessed that gives our catechumens ‘wisdom and strength’, drives darkness away, orders chaos, and lets them grasp ‘the depths of Christ’s Gospel’. At the end the sacred chrism is consecrated. Our candidates for confirmation will be sealed with it. With chrism we, dear brothers in the priesthood, were sanctified for service that our lives, poured out in Jesus’s name, might effectively witness to and serve God’s unifying kingdom. With gratitude I now, at one with you, renew my priestly promises. May the Lord who has called us give us his joy and keep us faithful until death. Amen.
Photograph: Diocese of Hamilton.