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JANUARY 14, 2007: Second Sunday of the Year

Readings: 

Isaiah 62:1-4
I Corinthians 12: 4-11
John 2:1-12

Ever wonder where in the Bible we find those seven gifts of the Holy Spirit we memorized for Confirmation? Unbelievably, they’re not in the Christian Scriptures! Six of the seven are listed in Isaiah 11. (Piety was added to make a “perfect Semitic seven.”) They’re the specific gifts the prophet expects Yahweh to give the ideal Jewish king. They have almost nothing to do with the unique Christian concept of the Holy Spirit and the gifts Paul believes the Spirit showers on those who imitate Jesus’ dying and rising.

Notice the gifts Paul clicks off in today’s I Corinthians periscope: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, mighty deeds, prophecy, discernment of Spirits, tongues, and interpretation of tongues. Paul’s nine are far more “concrete” than Isaiah’s six. Maybe that’s why our catechisms traditionally go back to the Hebrew Scriptures to teach us about the Spirit’s effect in our lives instead of turning to Paul and other Christian biblical authors. Gifts like wisdom and fear of the Lord create no problems in a community. On the other hand, how do we distinguish real prophets from fake prophets, when and where can we pray in tongues, or how do we heal without risking a lawsuit?

Paul’s convinced everyone in the community has at least one of these gifts, and that we possess them for the common good. Yet he also realizes the problems which arise when imperfect people dare use those gifts. That’s why he spends three chapters trying to smooth out the Spirit’s rough edges.

Those who accept and use the Spirit’s gifts are committing themselves to live in tension, the strain that comes from living in a world of imperfection with a piece of God’s perfection within us. We can never be content with the status quo once we know God has instilled something better in us and the world around us.

Both Third-Isaiah and John the evangelist presume and appreciate such stress. When, for instance, the prophet calls Jerusalem “a glorious crown in the hand of Yahweh,” and describes the city as God’s spouse, we often forget he’s looking at a heap of ruins. Jerusalem and its temple have yet to be rebuilt after Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction almost 90 years before. If the prophet only reminds his people of how bad the devastation is, there’d be no tension. But once he shares his vision of what could be, he creates a tremendous strain. No longer can those who’ve recently returned from exile just sit back and accept the status quo. They’re now challenged to take a step beyond their comfort zone and help concretize the prophet’s vision.

A similar thing happens in our gospel periscope. Scholars warn us not to read our later “Mariology” into John’s text. Jesus’ mother has not yet become the person she’ll eventually become after centuries of Christian reflection.

She appears only twice in the fourth gospel: here and at Golgatha. Those who critically study John point out the contrast between the two passages. At Cana she asks her son to do a favor for some friends; a request Jesus initially brushes aside with, “My hour has not yet come.” At Golgatha, after Jesus commits his mother and his beloved disciple to one another, the evangelist mentions, “From that hour the disciples took her . . . .”

In John, Jesus’ hour always has something to do with his dying and rising. In the 17 chapters between Cana and Golgatha, the gospel writer implies Mary experienced a conversion. She changed from looking at her son as just a local miracle worker to appreciating what it means for him (and her) to experience a life-giving death. One can only imagine her tension-filled 17 chapters.

Life certainly would be easier without such stress. So it’s no wonder we don’t appreciate or even reflect on the real role of the Spirit in our communities. Yet our sacred authors presume such Spirit-inspired tension is an essential part of our faith environment, at the heart of our imitating Jesus’ dying and rising.