May I have your attention please!
No, you may not. My phone is ringing or I just got a text. I have a deadline for school. My job just called me about an emergency. My children are fighting in the kitchen. I’m waiting for the results of my Covid test. I’ve been feeling unwell and am trying to call my doctor. My series on TV starts in two minutes; you’re not going to make me miss that, are you?
Of course you can’t have my attention. No one can have anyone’s attention these days, so distracted have we made our lives. Even some of the very solemn political speeches we’ve heard lately cannot really gain attention because, once they are done, a dozen important people start giving their opinion about it. Too forceful. Not forceful enough. It’s about time. It’s six months too late.
We ought to note, then, how the Scriptures are giving us a very different approach to the power of speech today. In the First reading, Ezra the priest is reading the book of the Law, probably what we call the book of Deuteronomy, to the people. This went on for five or six hours, from daybreak until midday, for all Israelites, including the children old enough to understand. They stand when Ezra reads, they bow down and prostrate themselves. “Amen, Amen,” they say.
What would make people do this, we who can barely sit still for ten minutes of Scripture reading during Mass? This is why: the Word of God was coming to fill a huge gap in their lives. Ezra and Nehemiah served the Jewish people when they were allowed to return to Israel after 70 years of exile in Babylon. The people stood there and listened because it was the way they were learning who they once were and who they should be in the future. They had no identity without the Word.
Jesus is in a very different situation. No podium, no large crowd, no reading for many hours. Jesus is visiting his home synagogue, where everyone knew him. He is doing something that probably was routine for him. The synagogue folks know him enough to invite him to read; they know him enough to give him a scroll that he knows very well. He reads Isaiah 61, probably a set of verses that everyone in that congregation knew by heart. Yet they cannot keep their eyes off him. He commands their total attention. At least for these few minutes.
Why was that? Luke infers that Jesus had begun to make a name for himself, that he was the local boy now doing very well. Perhaps it was curiosity; perhaps it was pride at what their town produced. Or perhaps it was the sheer power of what he read, how God’s liberating Spirit had anointed him to be an agent of a new time, a time of healing, liberation, and grace. Who would not want a time like that? But ultimately the reading was about Jesus, about his identify. “This passage is coming about even as you are listening to me,” Jesus says. Jesus is declaring his mission, his identity, to people who wanted to define him as their local celebrity.
Each Sunday we come to Mass with the Scriptures carefully chosen; we read a Gospel in sequence Sunday by Sunday so that Jesus’ identity can become clear to us. This year we read from Luke’s account. We also read from Jewish writings which seem to give a context for what Jesus is saying and doing. We read from the first followers of Jesus so that we know that the Word is to have an effect in our lives. In fact, the Liturgy of the Word takes up at least half our time on Sunday.
Does God have our attention? Does Jesus have our ears? Do we let the Word we proclaim challenge us, invite us, convert us? Is this part of the Mass a formality we go through or is it an essential part of our spiritual and Catholic lives? After all, if the Mass is not continuing to convert us, then in some way we are not giving it our attention.
We understand ourselves as a Eucharistic people because the Mass is central to our Catholic lives. But the Liturgy of the Word is an inherent part of the Mass. The Word is the way we know what the Eucharist is all about. It, too, is being fulfilled for everyone who, with opened ears, is eager to listen.
Reflection question: How do I give attention to God’s Word in my life?