“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. … Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”
The people listening to our Lord must have been shocked to hear Him say these words. St. Luke tells us that, “the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him.” At the beginning of His public ministry, kicked off last week with His first miracle at the wedding feast at Cana, He is making clear to them that He is not just another preacher and miracle worker – He is the one for whom they have been waiting for centuries, the one prophesied from of old, the Messiah.
Christ’s announcement captured the attention of the people in the synagogue but now-a-days, we could wonder what it has to do with us, how it affects our lives here and now. That’s why Holy Mother Church pairs this Gospel with the second reading that we heard from St. Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians. St. Paul tells us, “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ.” We would expect him to say that the Church is one body composed of many parts, but instead he says that Christ Himself is one body made of many parts.
The extraordinary thing about what St. Paul tells us here is not just that the different parts of the body (that is, the Church) have to work together (a lesson that I think we have all heard many, many times), but that he so closely identifies Christ and His body on earth, the Church. When we take seriously St. Paul’s teaching that the Church really is Christ’s body, and apply it to what Christ says in the Gospel today, we have an extraordinary affirmation: The Spirit of the Lord has anointed you and me to bring glad tidings to the poor.
There is a mistake that lots of people make in talking about the Church. We tend to talk about the Church in the third person. “The Church should do this or that,” or, “the Church should talk more about this or less about that,” or “the Church should serve this group of people better or that group of people better.” But we forget that when we talk about the Church we are not talking about someone else – we are talking about ourselves! The mission of the Church is not something for someone else – it is for you and me! That means that each of us are included in Christ’s announcement today: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” If the Church is the body of Christ and you are a member of the Church, then you are a member of Christ and His mission is your mission!
Who, though, are the “poor” to whom you are called to glad tidings? Of course, the Church has a calling to serve the needs of the least among us, looking out for those who find themselves in material poverty, and for centuries Catholics have considered it their obligation in charity to serve the material needs of those around us. But at the same time, the Church is not a social service agency, and there is a lot more to being poor than lacking material possessions.
Someone who knew a great deal about what it means to be poor was St. Theresa of Calcutta (more commonly known as Mother Theresa). She dedicated her life to serving the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, a city racked with terrible poverty the likeness of which none of us here likely have ever witnessed. Yet, Mother Theresa also founded convents to care for the poor in the United States and other Western countries. Why would she do that, when the poor of the United States would practically be considered wealthy in places like India?
She once explained to a Western journalist, “The spiritual poverty of the Western World is much greater than the physical poverty of our people. You, in the West, have millions of people who suffer such terrible loneliness and emptiness. They feel unloved and unwanted. These people are not hungry in the physical sense, but they are in another way. They know they need something more than money, yet they don’t know what it is. What they are missing, really, is a living relationship with God.”
How many of the people around us, with whom we interact every day, fit Mother Theresa’s definition of spiritual poverty, a poverty she claims is “much greater” than the physical poverty of the people of Calcutta? How many of us here today fit that definition as well, lonely, empty, and without a living relationship with the God who lovingly made us and holds us in being?
I don’t think that it would take much work to prove Mother Theresa right. Under a thin veil of material happiness, we know that we live in a world that is increasingly isolated, lonely, and empty. What would it take to alleviate that spiritual poverty within ourselves and within those around us? The answer to that question will tell us what are the glad tidings we are called to proclaim.
To alleviate our own spiritual poverty, we have to start by opening ourselves up to the One who is able to fill our poor hearts with the greatest spiritual treasure. That happens when we dedicate time to Him every day in prayer. Most importantly, it happens with two kinds of prayer: time spent with Christ in the Scriptures, and time spent with Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. He is really present among us when we read His holy word, and He is really, truly, substantially present in the Tabernacle, waiting for us to come and console His Sacred Heart by our adoring presence. This means prayer that is not focused on me and what I want, but rather prayer that is focused on Him, that gives Him time in silence to speak to our hearts and re-focus us on His will for our lives, which will bring us truer happiness than following our own will.
Alleviating our spiritual poverty also means repenting of our sins, the roadblocks that we put up in our lives to that living relationship with God that Mother Theresa describes as the cure for spiritual poverty. With hearts freed to love the Lord by the forgiveness of our sins, our recognition of our spiritual poverty becomes the doorway to God’s presence in our lives.
How, though, can we share in Christ’s mission and alleviate the spiritual poverty of those around us? As I said, we live in a world where people are increasingly isolated from one another. Ironically, they are isolated by the very things that should have worked to bring them together – technology – but instead, as has been well documented by social scientists, has increased feelings of loneliness, isolation, and separation from others. We live in a world where we have forgotten the authentic meaning of what it means to be human. Obsessed with making possible artificial intelligence and virtual reality, with improving men and women through science and technology, we have lost sight of the authentic joy of being truly human.
One of the most important tasks the Church faces in our own era is reclaiming an authentic sense of what it means to be human. Man is an essentially social animal – we were made to be in relation with others. Already as early as the 1700s, modern philosophy was teaching that man could choose whether or not to enter into society (John Locke’s social contract theory, which undergirds the United States Constitution, as we were all taught in high school government class), but this is simply not true. God saw that it was not good for Adam to be alone, and so He made Eve to be a helpmate to the mate. Human society has existed from the beginning, with the family at its base.
This means that the first step to bringing the good news to the spiritually poor in our midst is restoring an authentic sense of community and common brotherhood. It means breaking through the screen-barrier around us that chills our interactions with the outside world. It means starting at home by using technology in moderation (and modeling appropriate use for your children) and putting authentic human relationships first. It means resisting the temptation to entertain yourself with Netflix and Amazon Prime instead of spending time with others.
A great example of the effectiveness of this proclamation of the Gospel to the spiritually poor is happening on college campuses throughout the country thanks to an organization called FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students). They train “missionaries,” young, recent college graduates who have discovered the joy of a living relationship with God, to evangelize college campuses. Usually with very few leads or anything to build on, they transform the lives of the people who might seem least likely to be open to hearing the Gospel – college students at public universities – into fervent disciples of Christ.
What is the secret to their success? Relationships. They operate on an important principle: that young people are starving for authentic friendship, for authentic humanity, for understanding who they are in relation to others.. The discovery of authentic friendship, and thus, an authentic sense of what it means to be human, is transformative and opens them up to hearing about an even greater friendship, about the One with whom we were created to be in relation in the first place, Jesus Christ.
College students aren’t the only ones who are bad at authentically human relationships. Two years ago, an article in the Boston Globe drew nationwide attention with the headline, “The biggest threat facing middle-age men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness.” (The article is linked on my blog and I highly recommend that you read it.) Honestly, men are particularly bad at friendship, but I don’t think that the phenomenon is limited to us.
In a world starving for authentic friendship, the opportunities to join in Christ’s mission to bring the good news of who we really are and for Whom we are meant are endless. “Today,” Christ tells us, “this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” That today does not just refer to that one day two thousand years ago, but right here and now. As a member of Christ’s body, the Church, you too are sent to bring glad tidings to the spiritually poor. These glad tidings are that the loneliness and isolation experienced by modern men and women is not the only option, that we are meant to be in relation with others, that true friendship is possible, and that the greatest possible friendship is with Jesus Christ. This friendship is not just one-on-one, though – Jesus desires to meet us in the context of His body, the Church. That means that the truths taught by the Church do not limit us, but set us free for a transformative and joyful friendship with Christ. Far from containing and limiting the possibilities of human experience, life in Christ’s body, the Church, makes possible the deepest and most authentic experience of being human as it transforms us into His likeness day by day through the power of His grace.
With eyes fixed on Christ, just like those people who heard Him in the synagogue two thousand years ago, go and proclaim good tidings to the poor.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
III Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXIX
Regarding the impact of technology on young people (and the rest of us too): https://smile.amazon.com/iGen-Super-Connected-Rebellious-Happy-Adulthood/dp/1501152017/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=
Or a summary version of the same: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/
Boston Globe article on male friendship: https://www.bostonglobe.com/magazine/2017/03/09/the-biggest-threat-facing-middle-age-men-isn-smoking-obesity-loneliness/k6saC9FnnHQCUbf5mJ8okL/story.html