Isaiah 42, 1-4,6-7.Acts 10: 34-38, Mt 3:13-17.
At the time the events in today’s gospel occurred Palestine was under Roman occupation. The Jewish people were allowed to practise their religion but were burdened with heavy taxes for the support of the Roman armies employed in extending the Empire and what was called the Pax Romana, a euphemism for Roman Order at the expense of its subjects who disobeyed its commands at their peril. This resulted in severe suffering for the ordinary people but it meant misery for the poor, the prisoners, the widows,the sick, the disabled and those who couldn’t fend for themselves. This was the world that Jesus grew up in in Nazareth with his mother Mary and father Joseph. He probably worked at his father’s trade of carpentry but we know that he attended the synogogue for prayers and for study of the Hebrew scriptures. He would have been familiar with the prophesy of Isaiah in today’s first reading promising a saviour who would bring true justice to the people. While Jesus was growing up in Nazareth in the North,his cousin John was living an austere life in the desert of Judaea to the South. John was a member of the Essenes, a devout Jewish sect, which preached repentence for the forgiveness of sins. Crowds followed him into the desert to hear his powerful preaching and went through a ritual of cleansing by being immersed in the river Jordan.
Jesus too presented homself for this ritual of cleansing. Knowing how devout and upright Jesus was, John at first refused saying “No. It is I who need to be baptized by you” but when Jesus insisted he eventually consented. It was then that Jesus had a profound experience. He saw, as it were the Spirit of God coming down on him. He experienced himself to be the beloved Son of God.
When retelling this event to a Roman centurion some years later Peter in the second of today’s readings said, “God had anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and because God was with him, Jesus went about doing good and curing all who had fallen into the power of the devil”
This anointing by John in the Jordan is seen as the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry. After that he went back to Galilee where he began his preaching and where he also called his disciples. He went into the symnagogue in Nazareth where he read from the Hebrew scriptures:
”The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”.
Then he sat down and said to them “ Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Understanding this to mean a claim to be the One sent by God, the people, knowing him to be the son of Joseph, threatened to kill him. So he left Nazareth and went on his way preaching about what he called the Kingdom of God, a kingdom of love, justice, compassion and especially care for the weak. This was not the first time that a prophet had been rejected in his own country. John the Baptist too paid for his courageous preaching with his life.
Every age needs its prophets. Who are the prophetic people in our time? Is Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish girl who is challenging Religious and World leaders to wake up to the peril our planet is in before it is too late? Some people applaud her courage while others revile her, mocking her tender age and autistic condition and dismissing her warnings. That will always be the way with prophets.To discern between the true prophets and the false prophets is the work of the Holy Spirit. This Spirit has also been given to us at Baptism and Confirmation and indeed whenever we call for and seek wisdom and power. The Spirit speaks to us in silence and solitude as he spoke to John and Jesus in the desert. Perhaps this week we could allow ourselves some quiet time to listen to what the Spirit may be trying to say to us. It may even be that we are challenged to be prophets ourselves, to speak Truth to Power and to call out the false prophets who continue to try to tell us that we need more and more things in order to be happy. Try it and see.
Sr. Marian O’Sullivan OP