Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21
With this passage Luke introduces his two-volume work—Gospel and Acts of the Apostles. Luke’s work continues the narrative of God’s liberation of humanity from the mess it had gotten itself into, alienated from its creator and alienated within itself. It is a narrative of the creative, divine action of the Spirit beginning with Israel, continued through Jesus, and now through the Church.
After linking the birth of Jesus to the fulfillment of God’s promise of blessing for all nations given to Abraham and to Israel, Luke tells us that Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit. He teaches in the synagogues to the acclaim of all. Then Jesus goes to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and as was his custom goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath. He stands to read the scroll from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor ….” Rolling up the scroll, Jesus hands it back to the attendant and sits down. The eyes of all in the synagogue look intently at him. He says to them: “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Writing during the fifth decade of the Church’s life, Luke wants us to understand that the same Spirit that was upon Jesus also came upon the Church at Pentecost. Peter said in his Pentecost speech: “Exalted at the right hand of God, he received the promise of the holy Spirit from the Father and poured it forth, as you see and hear” (Acts 2:33). All that Jesus began to do through the power of the Spirit during his earthly life he continues to do now as Risen Lord in the Church. It is through the power of the Spirit of Jesus that the Church brings glad tidings of liberation and new life to all the peoples of the world.
Today’s gospel passage begins this liturgical year’s cycle of readings taken principally from Luke’s gospel. I would suggest a reading of Luke’s gospel and the Acts of the Apostles comparing how Jesus acted through the power of the Spirit during his earthly life and how he is acting now through the Spirit in our own lives and in the life of the Church. Gerard Manley Hopkins provides a word of encouragement with his observation: “To hear of him and dwell on the thought of him will do us good.”
There is an immediate life-implication of today’s passage that is easy to overlook. The Spirit of the Lord comes upon Jesus and comes upon the Church in order to bring glad tidings. The presence of the Spirit means joy. In the 21st century we’re OK with entertainment and pleasure, but are suspicious of joy because it might be a pie-in-the-sky illusion. How can we talk about joy, or even allow ourselves to experience joy, when there is so much false hope, so much suffering, so much serious work to be done?
Luke and other writers of the New Testament, certainly as aware of suffering as much as we are, did talk about glad tidings and joy. When the holy Spirit came upon her at the Annunciation, Mary sang “My spirit rejoices in God my savior. For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness” (Luke 1:47-48). Repeatedly Luke tells us that Jesus was filled with the Spirit. He reports this reaction when Jesus recognized that though many people were rejecting him, Satan would finally be defeated: “At that very moment he rejoiced in the holy Spirit and said, ‘I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike’’’ (Luke 10:21). At the Last Supper when his own suffering was at hand, Jesus spoke of returning to his Father and sending their Spirit: “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete” (John 15:11).
The supreme paradox of Christian faith is the cross of Jesus. The cross symbolizes the pain and sorrow that Jesus and we know so well. At the same time, the cross of Jesus is the symbol of joy because it is the ultimate revelation of the love of his sacred heart for us. “For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12: 2). The joy that lay before him was not only that God would wipe away his every tear, but that through his self-giving love, his joy might be in us and our joy might be complete.
At our Eucharist today we pray for the gift of anointing in fullest measure by the Spirit so that even in this valley of tears we might share the joy of Jesus’ heart. We pray too that as individual Christians and as Church, through the power of the Spirit, we will have the courage to bring glad tidings of great joy to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed.
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.