Powerful words of Christ

By | March 14, 2012

Prophecy is one of God’s gifts to the church and over time has taken various forms. The prophet in ancient Israel was recognized as one called by God to communicate a special message to the people. A prophet was either welcomed or feared because the people believed that his word had power. If the prophet threatened punishment, it happened. If the prophet spoke of God’s blessing, the people experienced benevolence.

Prophets communicated specifically to religious or political leaders, but also directly exhorted the people. Sometimes they admonished them about unacceptable behavior and threatened divine punishment. At other times, prophets, like Ezekiel or Isaiah, encouraged the people in times of famine or exile, reminding them of God’s love and abiding presence.

The reading from the Book of Chronicles describes Israel’s failure to heed the prophets’ words: God sent his “messengers,” and the leaders and priests mocked the prophets, despised their warnings, and scoffed at them. Therefore, God allowed the enemies of Israel to burn the Temple, and many were carried off into exile.

Psalm 137 is the responsorial psalm that follows the first reading. The psalmist describes the experience of that exile as the people sat and wept by the streams of Babylon: “On the aspens of that land, we hung up our harps.” There is a symbolic as well as a literal meaning here. The people in exile could not sing joyous songs about their homeland. But the “harp” was also the symbol of the prophetic voice. They “hung up their harps” because they felt the lack of God’s presence through the prophetic ministry during the time of exile.

The Gospel begins with Jesus, the prophet and spokesman for God, instructing Nicodemus. He used the imagery of the serpent “lifted in the desert” to prefigure his own death on the cross. During the 40 years in the desert, the Israelites often complained against God. Moses, their leader, and God’s prophet, tried to keep the relationship stable. During one time of bitter complaining, God sent serpents into the camp and many people died from their poisonous bite. When the people repented (a bit), Moses interceded, and at God’s direction, mounted the image of a serpent on a pole. Those who had been bitten and looked at the image were saved. In the same way, Jesus would be lifted up on the cross to be our salvation.

Within the liturgy, God speaks prophetic words. In the Scriptures, we sometimes hear an admonition or correction, sometimes a message that gives direction, and sometimes words of comfort and encouragement. In the institution narrative of the eucharistic prayer, the priest speaks the powerful words of Christ that change bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood and make present the saving reality of his death and resurrection. As we are sent forth, we hear the words of blessing and commission, exhorting us to be what we have received — the body of Christ.

Sr. Rehrauer is the diocesan director of Evangelization, Living Justice and Worship.

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