Today we begin our orderly reading, on Sundays in Ordinary Time, through the Gospel of St. Luke. We omit for now the infancy narrative found in Luke’s first two Chapters. We heard it all very recently during the Advent and Christmas Seasons. We omit also now Luke’s Chapter 3, which recounts the ministry of St. John the Baptist, and the Baptism of Jesus, followed by his temptation for 40 days in the wilderness. So today, after hearing the opening dedication to Theophilus, with Luke’s statement of intent, we pass immediately to the scene in the synagogue of Nazareth. It is here that St. Luke chooses to begin his account of the public ministry of Jesus.
The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me... for he has sent me to preach the good news to the poor.
We have been reminded, in no uncertain terms, by Pope Francis, that among all the Evangelists, St. Luke is the one above all who chooses to highlight the Mercy of Jesus. St. Luke’s is the Gospel too, which more than the others, gives a privileged place to the poor, and the outcast, and sinners. The Gospel of St. Luke is the Gospel, beyond all others, of the gentleness and compassion of Jesus; it’s also the Gospel of the Holy Spirit, of prayer, of joy, and of the mission to the gentiles. Like St. Paul, whose companion and disciple he was, Luke was not a personal eyewitness of the life of Jesus. But he knew plenty of people who were, and his faith was one with theirs: the faith of the Catholic Church.
Theophilus, to whom Luke’s Gospel is dedicated, already had that faith. Luke’s stated purpose in writing is not so much to convert him, as to demonstrate how securely based is this faith Theophilus has professed. There is nothing uncertain, or delusive, or erroneous, or impermanent about it (ἀ-σφαλης). But St. Luke doesn’t just assert that, as a second hand car salesman might. He wants Theophilus - he wants us - to go carefully through the evidence, with him, and come to that conclusion for ourselves. So he will tell the story of Jesus. He will invite us to fix our attention on Jesus, as the congregation at Nazareth did; listening to his words; watching his actions; hearing also those who bear witness to him, and those who oppose him. We will follow Jesus from the beginning, through his miraculous birth, his obscure childhood, to his public ministry, with his teaching and parables, his acts of healing power, and his conflicts with the authorities. Most importantly we will hear the account of his passion, death, resurrection and ascension. Then in St. Luke’s second volume we will follow the story through, with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and the wonderful birth and early drama of the Church.
Being part of our holy scriptures, we believe that St. Luke’s Gospel is inspired by the Holy Spirit; the very Spirit who filled Jesus, and who also anointed us at our baptism. As we read, then, we can presume the presence and help of the Holy Spirit, to strengthen, underscore, deepen our faith. We should ask the Holy Spirit to help us encounter Jesus ourselves directly in the text: that we may know again his fascination, his attraction, his beauty, his goodness, his holiness, his humility, his power. Please God our reading of St. Luke’s Gospel this year will renew us in faith and hope and love, and will confirm us in our resolution to live as disciples of Jesus, and to be ready, if necessary, to die for him.
In his opening dedication, St. Luke asserts that the account he proposes to write will be “orderly”. I recently read a suggestion that I found helpful, about Luke’s understanding of what “orderly” might mean here. It is very much connected with the certainty, or security, or conviction of the faith to which Luke wants to bear witness. Of crucial importance to that certainty is that God is faithful to his word, to his promises, to his revelation. The “order” of Luke’s account is therefore God’s own order: that the message came first to the Jews, and then to the gentiles. We find this same emphasis in St. Paul, the Apostle of the gentiles. In Romans Chapter 9 we read: It was the Israelites who were adopted as children; the glory was theirs and the covenants; to them was given the Law, and the worship of God, and the promises. To them belong the fathers, and out of them, so far as physical descent is concerned, came Christ who is above all, God blessed for ever, Amen (9:4-5).
So old Symeon sang that Jesus came as a light to enlighten the gentiles, but also he is the glory of his people Israel (2:32). So Luke the gentile, who wrote above all for gentile readers, insists everywhere on quoting the scriptures of the Old Testament. He wants to show in this way that the events he describes were foretold, that they truly fulfil God’s word, that God has been faithful to his promise, in Jesus Christ our Lord.
So today, we hear an Old Testament prophecy in the mouth of Jesus, and we see it being fulfilled even as we listen. The Spirit has anointed me, says Jesus. In other words, I am the Messiah, the Christ. I have come to bring good news, in accordance with God’s ancient promise. Watch how I literally fulfil the words of Isaiah when I heal the sick, give sight to the blind, set the downtrodden free. But see and understand how these great acts point to a deeper, more radical healing. For I have come to liberate those in captivity to sin, and to death. I have come to open people’s eyes to the love and goodness of my Father, and to overcome their separation from him and from one another. What the ancient Year of Jubilee symbolised has become in me a present reality. For everything written about me in the Law of Moses, in the Prophets and in the Psalms is destined to be fulfilled (24:44).
May we all, then, who listen to these words today believe in the Gospel. May we receive the Mercy of the Lord which is freely offered to us, with special insistence in this Jubilee Year; and so may we rejoice forever in his salvation.