Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
In the first reading this Sunday we have what must be one of the longest sermons ever preached, while in the Gospel we have one of the shortest. Ezra the priest, Nehemiah tells us, read the whole book of the law of Moses and commented on it ‘from early morning until midday’. Jesus, on the other hand, quoted a short passage from Isaiah and preached just one sentence: ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’. But the one word which connects the Old Testament reading and the Gospel is the word ‘today’.
“Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “Today is holy to the Lord your God”. In the Gospel, after Jesus has read from the Prophet, he returns the book to the attendant, sits down and ‘with the eyes of all in the synagogue fixed on him, he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Ezra’s reading is described in impressive and dramatic terms: the people have just returned from captivity to a ruined temple and city; most of all they have returned from a famine of the Word of God. When they hear Ezra reading the Bible, they weep and throw themselves on the ground, because they have just heard what they had not been taught. Yet they are encouraged to rejoice, to keep holy day, to eat and drink, because they have understood the words that were declared to them’ – ‘they had understood the words that were declared to them’.
This contrasts with the reaction that ‘today’ causes those listening in the synagogue.
This is obscured by the lectionary, we will not get the response to Jesus until next Sunday, but if we read on St Luke says: “When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and put him out of the city, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong”.
In front of all those who knew him well Jesus proclaims something even more wonderful than Ezra’s sermon on the law of Moses:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord."
Jesus steps out of the obscurity of his youth into the light, into his role as the Messiah. But the people respond not with joy or tears but with rage..
The problem is familiarity breeds contempt. They think they know all about Jesus. They know his parents, his family. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” This may well be our problem as well. We hear the Gospels as if they were merely biographies of Jesus and fail to recognize that they are also about the unfolding of faith in our own lives. We come to Mass with low expectations. We hear the Scripture readings often enough just as some old bit we have all heard before or maybe something that applies not us but to someone else. We fail to, or are afraid to, accept that these words of scripture are being fulfilled now and in us.
Weep, rejoice, be angry, as you like. Just do not expect to be unchanged by what happens at Mass. Ezra and Jesus and every preacher worth listening to says “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Not thousands of years ago, not somewhere else, in some other circumstances far removed from our circumstances but “Today”.
St. Thomas Aquinas wrote a wonderful prayer of preparation for Mass, which of course emphasizes preparation for the reception of the Blessed Sacrament, but it is also a good preparation for what we receive at the table of the Word:
I come as one sick unto the Physician of life,
As one unclean to the fountain of thy loving-kindness,.
As one blind to the light of eternal brightness,
As one poor and needy to the Lord of heaven and earth.
Heal my sickness,
Wash my uncleanness,
Enlighten my blindness,
Enrich my poverty,
Clothe my nakedness.
That certainly describes the crowd of liberated captives listening to Ezra. It describes all of us.
When will good news be preached to the poor, when will release be proclaimed to captives, when will the blind be given sight, when will the captives be released, and the recovery of sight to the blind, when will the acceptable year of the Lord be proclaimed? “Today” Jesus says.
This is the disposition we must all have not only rightly to receive the Body and Blood of Christ but also to receive his Word. When? Today.