What do you do when you discover you haven’t been doing what God wants you to do, though for years you thought you were? Nehemiah and Ezra provide us with one course to take. “Do not be sad, and do not weep . . . . Go eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, and allot portions to those who had nothing prepared; for today is holy to Yahweh. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in Yahweh must be your strength!”
That’s not the answer some of us would have expected. Accustomed to depicting God as a vindictive judge, we’d have anticipated a few recriminations from the Levites’ lips. After all, according to the covenant the Israelites originally entered into with Yahweh on Mt. Sinai, this situation should never have happened.
A central element in all ancient treaties and covenants was a stipulation that everyone involved should take part in regularly scheduled readings of the agreement, precisely to prevent the situation described in our Nehemiah passage. No one could ever employ the “But I didn’t know that!” defense. (Deuteronomy 27 describes such an event.) Since the 50 year Babylonian Exile put a halt to these readings, many in this particular Jerusalem crowd are hearing things and discovering obligations they knew nothing about.
During my lifetime Catholics experienced something similar. We also emerged from a century’s long quasi-Babylonian Exile during which some of our scriptural obligations were either commonly unknown or rarely emphasized.
We all remember from our childhood catechism classes the point at which a venial sin for arriving late for Sunday Mass morphed into a mortal sin. If the chalice was “uncovered” when you came through the door, you just committed the big “M.” If it was still covered, it was only venial. The priest back then took the veil off the chalice at the start of the preparation of gifts (the old “Offertory,”) immediately after the Liturgy of the Word. Such liturgical morality implied that even if we missed the proclamation of God’s biblical word and its homiletical application for an entire lifetime it would not be seriously sinful!
That means we were under only a “light” obligation to learn about our responsibility to form ourselves into the Body of Christ, Paul’s pivotal insight into the risen Jesus among us. Though at an early age I was taught in great detail about the hierarchical structure of our church and its implications in my daily life, I only heard rumors about a recently published “Mystical” Body of Christ papal encyclical. Before the Second Vatican Council mandated reforms of 1970, we Catholics never even heard today’s second reading proclaimed during a weekend Eucharist.
It was the same for Jesus’ synagogue words in our gospel pericope. Yet Luke thought they were essential to understand how Jesus conceived of his earthly ministry. That’s why he places them at the beginning of his narrative. Jesus comes not to establish a formal church institution, but to “proclaim liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free . . . .” The historical Jesus primarily works to make our life on earth a more pleasant experience than it would be without his presence.
Knowing Jesus and his intentions, it’s no wonder Paul developed his Body of Christ theology. Without having a Spirit-inspired unity among us, everyday life isn’t much fun.
Perhaps we could take a page from the Dead Sea Scrolls community. Their Qumran settlement had a room in which Scripture was read out loud 24/7. With many parishes today practicing perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, I can only guess what waves of the Spirit might flow from a parish which would dare practice perpetual Scripture reading.