In our first reading today, Ezra calls the people of Jerusalem intoassembly, and lays down the law. From sunrise to high noon, he reads tothem from the Pentateuch: the Hebrew Scriptures that we know as thefirst five books of the Old Testament.
This was the Law of Moses, which God had given to their ancestors,but which had been largely forgotten during the exile that had followedupon the destruction of Jerusalem many years before. Now, Jerusalemwas being rebuilt, and re-inhabited. And once again, the Pentateuch wasto be the law by which Israel lived.
The reaction of the people to Ezra’s proclamation is striking. They aregrief-stricken. The entire assembly begins to weep! Nehemiah and Ezraurge the people to stop weeping. Instead they are to rejoice and have agreat feast, for this day was holy to the Lord their God.
The people are dismayed, because the law that Ezra proclaims seemsharsh. To give just one example, men with foreign wives will be requiredto give them up. The command to rejoice is a rather heavy-handedattempt by the religious authorities to cheer up a crowd that is, in reality,little more than a mob.
But however understandable the crowd’s reaction, there is in factsomething profoundly important to celebrate. For by the proclamation ofthe law, what was until then an unruly mob becomes, once again, apeople. By means of the Law, a crowd of strangers gains an identity.The descendants of the chosen ones that Yahweh had once called out ofslavery in Egypt, now recover their heritage. They reclaim an identitythat will sustain and inspire them from this day forward. For Israel, God’swords are truly “spirit and life.”
If the identity of the people of Israel is rooted in the Law, weChristians find our identity in Christ. Whether American or Argentinian,service station attendant or soft wear specialist, we are one in Christ. And further, as St. Paul insists in our second reading, we are one body in Christ — the very body of Christ.
The New Testament describes the Church by means of severaldifferent images. The Church, we are taught, is like a flock. It is like thebranches of a vine. But when St. Paul speaks of the body of Christ, he issaying something different — something even more profound. We are notlike the body of Christ we are the body of Christ. In a real sense we arethe very different members of a single body, with Christ as our head.
Consider for a moment what a gift this is. Though I have never metmany of you, I am no stranger, but a part of you, as you are part of me.In a time marked by divisiveness and alienation, rootlessness anddislocation, we share an identity. We belong to one another, and toChrist. “If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if onemember is honored, all the members share its joy.” As a result, thesuffering of each of us is lessened, and our joy is increased.
An athlete can rejoice in the gift of his or her body — can takepleasure in its beauty, strength and grace. Similarly, we can celebrate thegreat body of Christ of which we are part. We can rejoice in theinnumerable gifts God has bestowed upon Christ’s body, and are evenjustified in having a certain wry affection for its characteristic weaknessesand failings — the same amused affection that a family might feel for afavorite uncle’s too ample waistline or a father’s funny feet.
But as St. Paul reminds us, there is also dissension in the body ofChrist, and dissension in a body can only be regarded as an illness thatmust be healed. It is an illness that concerns us in a special way on thisSunday with which the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity concludes. Because we are divided, we have reason to weep.
St. Paul asks, “If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand I donot belong to the body,’ would it then no longer belong to the body? Ifthe ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,’would it then no longer belong to the body.” St. Paul obviously thinksthese assertions are absurd.
In a moment of anger a father might say to his child, ‘you are noson of mine.’ A child might say to her parent, ‘I no longer regard you asmy mother.’ But apart from being tragic, these statements are simplynot true. These are relationships that are so profound that no amount ofinsistence — no amount of ill will — can wish them away. They simplycannot be denied.
So it is with the body of Christ. All Christians have been baptizedinto one body. We are indispensable to one another. None of us can restuntil that relationship is recognized and restored.
For as long as there is division, the action of the body is impaired.And as Jesus reminds us in our Gospel today, action is our reason forbeing. It is through us that Christ brings glad tidings to the poor. It isthrough us that he proclaims liberty to captives, restores sight to theblind, and freedom to prisoners. By our prayers for unity, and by thegrace of the Sacrament we will celebrate in our churches today, maythese words be fulfilled in our hearing.
Rev. Charles B. Gordon, C.S.C., is co-director of the Garaventa Center for Catholic Intellectual Life and American Culture at the University of Portland. He writes and records a regular blog called “Fractio Verbi.”