Room for One More!

25 squares in a grid, all but one are purpleHomily at Nazareth House for the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Sometimes, religion has exactly the wrong effect on us. Our First Reading told how Ezra the High Priest read the Book of God’s Law to the Jewish People. They wept!

Nehemiah the Governor and Ezra the Priest said “Do not weep today, rejoice!”

The psalm we have just heard proclaimed “The law of the Lord is perfect, it revives the soul.”

When God’s law seems heavy, it’s because we are not listening properly. We are broken people, wounded by the failings of others and our own sins, so we zero in on those parts of the law which tell us we are unworthy, we are sinners. We totally miss those parts which are about God wanting to bless and restore us. Yet what was the main work of a priest in ancient Israel? Performing rituals to make unclean people, clean!

Nehemiah the Governor and Ezra the Priest said “Do not weep today, rejoice!”

Throughout the Hebrew Bible, we see time and again this combination of a Governor and a Priest.

Abraham was the head of his tribe, but God sent the mysterious priest Melchizidek to receive his sacrifice.

Moses received the Law for Israel, but his brother Aaron was the ancestor of the priestly line.

Solomon built a Temple, but Zadok was its High Priest.

In the books of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, the governor Zerubbabel and high priest Joshua are called to rebuild Jerusalem together.

It is the task of a Governor to give us a Law for what to do and what to avoid.

It is the task of a High Priest to offer sacrifices when we have failed to keep the Law, because God wants us restored to a spiritual cleanliness we simply cannot achieve on our own.

Only in Jesus do the two roles come together. Jesus preached the Law of God with unusual authority. He gave his own body on the Cross to be the perfect sacrifice, at once High Priest and Victim.

Although every Catholic bishop and priest “stands in” for Jesus, it is very difficult for one person to embody both things. You will either be known for being demanding, or for being soft. In our age, the Catholic Church has a reputation for very high moral standards – and then the Press work hard to catch priests and bishops who have not lived out those high standards. Rightly so, for the Lord hated hypocriscy!

But because we are known for proposing the highest moral standards, it was crucial for Pope Francis to proclaim a “Year of Mercy”. Yes, the Church is against abortion – but we also have organisations that provide practical resources to women otherwise unable to keep their babies. Yes, we warn people against trying out fortune telling or “New Age healing” practices – but we also offer prayers for spiritual cleansing for people who’ve discovered that turning to these things can leave you spiritually messed up. Always, the Church wants to be seen as a loving mother ready to give a word of warning, and to kiss us better whenever we fall over.

When Jesus stood up in the synagogue at Nazareth, he proclaimed a “year of favour from the Lord”. Our task this year is to communicate a clear message: the Catholic Church is a field hospital for sinners. The church is, in fact, full of sinners and there is always room for one more!