Jesus’ public ministry began when he was invited at the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth to select and preach on a text of his choice from the Jewish Bible (our Old Testament). He chose the opening verses of our First Reading from the prophet Isaiah (61:1-2A). When he finished reading it, he went on to say that the promise in it was beginning to be fulfilled by him starting at that very moment. (‘This text is being fulfilled today in your hearing’.)
The person who originally spoke these words – who lived some seven centuries before Jesus – declared that he had been chosen by God to become a new leader who would benefit people suffering affliction. This person would ‘bring good news to the poor, bind up hearts that are broken, proclaim liberty to captives, and freedom to those in prison …’
Many centuries later, people saw this text as a prophecy that had yet to be fulfilled and they expected that when the Messiah came he would fulfil it. When John the Baptist first appeared, his followers thought that he was the One to take on this mission. But, as we heard in the Gospel, John denied this and said that someone greater than he had been chosen for it. This person, John said, would offer people something far greater than he ever could. This person would fill them with the very Spirit of God, drawing them into the closest possible relationship with God.
That mission was undertaken by Jesus and subsequently handed on by him to his followers in the Church. Practically speaking, this means, therefore, that each of us in the Church, not just priests, deacons or religious, is called to make this mission our own – individually and collectively as Church communities – and to carry it out in Christ’s name. When we do we become Christ’s hands, reaching out in mercy to people who are afflicted, people in difficulty or weighed down by misfortune or injustice.
St Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) stated this Christian vocation more poetically:
Christ has no body now but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
In the small daily actions we undertake to help others, both for members of our families and for others, each one of us becomes part of the Christ’s body on earth. We each become a ‘Christ’. And we don’t have to be sinless to do this – we can help others in the name of Christ however dirty our hands or the soiled state of our souls.
So who are the people who are the ‘poor’, broken’ or ‘captive’ of our time? Surely, one group in this category are those who are socially isolated, especially those cut off from normal human contact during this pandemic. Their plight has been exacerbated in the past nine months of lockdown.
It is now universally acknowledged that loneliness and social isolation are as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (Holt-Lunstad, 2015). On the other hand, social networks and friendships not only have an impact on reducing the risk of mortality or developing certain diseases, but they also help individuals to recover when they fall ill (Marmot, 2010).
I recall coming upon an older woman living alone in a former parish who had been snowbound for a week and could not get to the shops for food. When I asked why she didn’t call on her neighbours for help, she replied: ‘But you don’t have neighbours anymore. You just have people who live around you.’ Perhaps one of the good effects of the lockdown has been to make us as neighbours more aware of each other and to befriend, even from a distance, those who live alone, even if this is just a drop in the ocean for what’s needed when isolated people can go days without seeing or speaking to someone.
So, perhaps, one way of sharing in Our Lord’s mission ‘to proclaim liberty to captives’ might be to re-dedicate ourselves to helping where we can an older person who is living alone, who may be – literally – a ‘captive’ in his or her own home. Although we are limited by the pandemic restrictions, might we be able to befriend such a person and relieve her/his isolation? Even if it’s just a telephone call, chatting over a wall or fence, dropping a Christmas card through the letterbox or some other way, this might help that person to feel valued.
Another way might be to offer wholehearted support to people who are ‘broken hearted’. Think of all those people this very day who are suffering from a broken relationship, going through a difficult divorce, grieving the loss of a loved one or watching a loved one suffer a terminal condition … is there a way, however small, we can reach out to someone we know who is suffering in this way?
As Christians we have to remind ourselves constantly that however small an act of kindness we offer another, Jesus says we are doing it as much for him as the person benefitting.
Holy Name, Jesmond
13 December 2020