I played a “men over 50” basketball game in a NYC athletic club during the Christmas holidays. Believe it or not, we didn’t have to jump for the ball. The referee simply put the ball on the floor and whoever could bend over and pick it up first got possession. Now that's my kind of game.
The Word of God today gives us Isaiah, Paul and Jesus. They lived purpose-driven lives, to use the title of Rick Warren’s best seller. Pope John Paul II captured the crux of that book more precisely in this paraphrase: it is no accident that we are here.
Each and every human person has been created in the “image and likeness” of God. We have within us the capacities for wisdom and virtue. With these gifts, and with God's grace, we can build a civilization worthy of the human person. That's a powerful statement about purpose.
In their hearts, people want to live for something greater than themselves that can give ultimate meaning to their lives. This quest takes different forms in different people: perhaps a commitment to family, health care, education, human rights, a cleaner environment, freedom and safety, to name but a few causes. When a person finds something that gives transcendent meaning to his/her life, it awakens new energies in them. They become true believers, so to speak.
Isaiah, Paul and Jesus had faith in an all-good sovereign God; they heard God's call and responded with a wholehearted yes. They knew who they were, their mission in life. They realized God committed some work to them. They asked: If I don't do it, who will? If I don't do it now, when shall I do it? Their lives couldn't be a failure because they found meaning beyond this transitory world. To quote the letter of John (1John 5: 4): “This is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith.”
Today's Word takes us back in our imaginations to the 8th century before Jesus, to a man named Isaiah. Ancient Assyria is on the march against the northern kingdom of Israel. In the midst of this, Isaiah speaks about the future: a great light, a king, will illuminate the darkness that now envelops the anxious Hebrews; this king will trust completely in God, not in fickle alliances with foreign powers. And he will free the Hebrews from their oppressors.
Isaiah challenges us to trust always in God’s unconditional love for us despite the problems and disappointments we may face. God is always close to us. God won't give us more than we can handle.
Paul, in his letter to the Christian community at Corinth in Greece, deplores the divisions that seem to be tearing the community apart.
Paul begs for unity in the community in light of their common bond: they are God's adopted sons and daughters. They are all one family.
Today of course it doesn’t seem as though we are one family. Everywhere we find dysfunctional relationships. Paul probably would advise us to keep our temper; share the blame; make the best of the situation since most things in life seldom work out perfectly. Good advice for all of us.
In the Gospel according to Matthew, the author proclaims that Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecies of Isaiah. He is the anointed one, the Christos, who will bring light into our darkness by proclaiming the good news: God has become one of us in Jesus of Nazareth so that we can become like God. Therefore, Jesus exhorts us, orient your life to God and the things of God! The kingdom of heaven is at hand! And then Jesus begins to call some highly unlikely people to discipleship, ordinary fishermen.
We are in the middle of the week of prayer for Christian Unity. Why? Because Jesus prayed at the last supper that his disciples “may all be one as you, Father, are in me and I in you.”
But are the 2.2 billion Christians one? We in fact are a divided Christianity. This year we remember the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's clarion call for reform in the Church. Luther initially argued for reform, not division. But his call spread like a contagion across Europe and launched Protestant Christianity.
Today we have about 1.2 billion Catholics; 800 million Protestants; and 260 million Orthodox. And until Angelo Roncalli was elected Pope John XXIII in 1958, Catholics and Protestants generally emphasized what divided them.
Pope John XXIII created a transformation, especially in Catholic-Protestant relations. He moved Christians from diatribe to dialog with his affable, friendly and lovable personality and his sense of humor. For example, a reporter asked the Pope: how many people work in the Vatican? “About half,” he replied.
Good Pope John realized that before people can discuss what divides them, they have to get to know one another. This search for unity reached a milestone among Catholics with the 1964 promulgation of the “Decree on Ecumenism” which encourages conversations with our separated brothers and sisters about what unites and what divides us and how we can cooperate, especially in humanitarian projects.
Catholics are linked with mainstream Christian churches in many ways: through a common creed, baptism, the bible and many justice and peace issues. But we're still divided on key issues, e. g., the authority of the Pope. But together we have to find ways beyond what divides us to what unites us.
And so we pray this week that we might all be one: open to conversations with other Christian traditions and at the same time faithful to our Catholic tradition.
Pope Francis wants us to be a church that welcomes people, saints as well as sinners. He wants us to be a compassionate church, always reformable, serving one another, especially the poor and vulnerable, open to dialogue with people of faith and people of no faith.
We are a worldwide community of believers, multinational, multicolored, that remembers Jesus, a community of disciples that hears God speak to us in the liturgy of the Word and in the liturgy of the Eucharist presences the Risen Christ sacramentally and mystically in the bread and wine. The Risen Christ is really and truly among us.
And yes, we are a community that takes a stand on peace and justice. The worldwide Catholic Community sponsors and staffs shelters, hospices, soup kitchens, literacy programs, day-care centers, hospitals and schools throughout the world. And hundreds of Catholic Relief and Refugee agencies attempt to meet the basic needs of the poor.
But alas we are also a community of believers with tensions. Why is that so? Because we are human, saints as well as sinners. Some people are “messy” and make a “mess” out of things and so, like many other things in life, we have to live with some messiness and muddle through as best we can.
As we pray this week for Christian unity, let us give thanks to God for the faith community to which we belong: a community that calls us to a life with God here and to an indescribable heavenly life where we shall be like God, and see God as God really is. Amen.