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The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
February 12, 2023

Watch this homily! (Begins at 37:25)


     I must confess that I’m still on something of a ‘Holy Land High’ in the wake of our recent parish pilgrimage. This was not my first visit to the Holy Land but it was hands-down my best. We were a large – very large – group of pilgrims (113, to be exact!) and we came from many different places, but in one way or another, each of us found our faith coming alive in new and powerful ways during those blessed days in those holy places.

     We Catholics like to see and touch, don’t we? It’s in our DNA. Isn’t that what happens in each of the sacraments of the Church? Prayerful words are good, but not enough: we also need flowing water, bread and wine, blessed oil, the laying on of hands. And we need statues, stained-glass windows, the visual arts, music - not to mention candles, ashes, palms and processions. A Holy Land pilgrimage fits in with all of those and is yet one more example of our need to see and to touch.

     We did a lot of seeing and touching on our pilgrimage. Picture with me, will you, the first day of the pilgrimage when for the first time we saw the blue waters of the Sea of Galilee shimmering in the morning sun. It’s a sight never to forgotten. You can’t possibly take in that view without thinking to yourself: ‘Jesus saw this, and he loved what he saw!’ He did, of course, and – unlike other holy places we visited - very little in that scene has changed over two millennia. It’s still this vibrant Sea surrounded by mountains and white-washed villages and towns. This was definitely a place where we touched Jesus!

     And that was true as well of our boat trip on the lake - the lake where Jesus once walked across the waters and invited the impetuous Peter to join him; the lake where the terrified friends of Jesus awakened him from his comfortable, detached sleep, and where with a word he calmed the stormy waters; the lake where twice he told his disciples to put out their nets for a catch – in both cases getting a catch so great that they needed help to haul it ashore. We were surely touching Jesus as we made our way through those waters of the Sea of Galilee. Lucky for us, they were calm that day, like glass!

     And then, there was our visit to Nazareth where we recalled the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary and her generous yes to God - that holiest of moments when the Word of God took on our human flesh. A story for us up till then, a treasured story - but now an event that became very real! We touched Jesus there, as we did when we celebrated Mass near the place where he spent his growing-up years, learning the carpenter’s trade from Joseph.
Capernaum was another place where Jesus seemed very close. There were the ruins of the synagogue where he taught and healed, and there was Mass in a church built right over the house where Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, and where some persistent friends ripped off the roof tiles so they could lower their paralyzed friend to Jesus who healed him on the spot.

      Then there was the lovely hillside called the Mount of Beatitudes, the place that brings to mind Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount from which we’ve been reading these last few Sundays, including today. It’s a beautiful grassy knoll that spills down to the lakeshore. It was easy to see Jesus setting forth the New Law in that place – easy to see him, too, when we ascended Mount Tabor and found ourselves echoing the words of Peter, dazzled by the sight of the transfigured Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here!”  It was indeed good - so close did we come to touching the transfigured Lord on that mystical mountaintop.

      And, of course, we were touching the risen Lord when we celebrated Mass we in lovely Magdala on the Lake, home of Mary Magdalene who was more apostle than any of the Twelve: Mary, the first to encounter the risen Lord; the first one sent to announce to the Twelve and others the news of his resurrection.

      The order of our pilgrimage was not chronological. That’s owing to the geography of the Holy Land and the fact that it worked best for us to start up north in Galilee. Jesus started out in Bethlehem, of course, but we didn’t get to Bethlehem until the fourth day of the pilgrimage. It was worth waiting for. We celebrated Mass in one of the side chapels of the ancient Basilica of the Nativity, and then each of us descended the narrow stairway that leads to the place illuminated by hanging oil lamps where tradition says Jesus was born. We felt we were touching Jesus when we bent over to touch the place that the faith - and the kisses - of untold millions of pilgrims over the centuries have made even more sacred that it already was.

     Bethlehem is very close to Jerusalem, although to get there, you have to come face-to-face with the hated and highly controversial wall that to the Israeli government speaks of security, but to the Palestinians, speaks of racial segregation and apartheid. Ironically, the very name, ‘Jerusalem’ means ‘City of Peace.’ Would that it could live up to its name!
Jerusalem! Psalm 122 reminds us that you only get to Jerusalem by going up. “Let us go up with joy to the House of the Lord”- we sang as we made our ascent. Jerusalem is a sight never to be forgotten: a great outcropping of stone structures -steeples, domes, and minarets – places holy to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, a proud city and an ancient one with a past both glorious and brutal, and a present that is never far from eruptions of violence – as we witnessed first-hand during our stay. There were some anxious moments…! Jesus once wept over this city, and when we visited the church that commemorates that moment, it was easy to feel his presence as we looked out on the city that he loved but knew only too well, the city that persecuted the Prophets, the hilltop where he ultimately met his cruel death on the cross.

     Some of the highlights of Jerusalem – the places where it was especially easy to touch Jesus were the Garden of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives (we prayed and we waited in that place of shadows and betrayal); then, the Cenacle or Upper Room atop Mount Zion where tradition places the Last Supper as well as the day of Pentecost; and crowning them all is the great Church of the Holy Sepulcher – built by the emperor Constantine right over the rock that is Calvary. Nearby, and under the roof of the same ancient basilica is the tomb where Jesus was hastily buried and from which he was gloriously raised on Easter morning. To tell the truth, it’s almost too much to take in. It takes time, but when you stop and kneel and pray and ponder in those holiest of places, you know – without a doubt – that you have touched the very heart of our faith. And so you have.

      Friends, I took some license by departing from the readings of the day. I make no apology. The great St. Jerome who spent years of his life near the place of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, translating the Bible from its original languages into Latin, called the Holy Land “the fifth gospel.” And so it is!

      During our days in the Holy Land, 113 of your fellow parishioners were privileged to ‘read’ some of that “fifth gospel,” and you were with us as we read. At every Mass we offered in those holy places we prayed for you and your loved ones, prayed for our wonderful community of faith at St. James. And the day we stopped by the river Jordan, the traditional site of the baptism of Jesus, to renew the promises of our baptism, I became keenly aware – and I suspect others did, too – that it’s really all about baptism - all about being part of the Body of Christ, all about touching Christ in Word, Sacrament, and one another. And, my friends, you don’t need to travel across the world to experience that reality. You don’t. We experience it every time we celebrate the Eucharist. Including now!

Father Michael G. Ryan





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