A reflection on the Sunday Readings for January 22, 2023 — the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
I am in India as I write this homily. I am in the state of Kerala, which is the center of the Eastern Rite Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. The Syro-Malabar Church traces its origins all the way back to the Apostle Thomas. Currently, there is huge controversy in the Syro-Malabar Church which mirrors a similar controversy in the Roman Church – ad orientem – the direction the priest faces as he offers Mass. Only here in Kerala, the controversy has spilled into the streets. Priests have taken to public protests, picketing in front of churches, and making public statements against the local leadership which proposes having one posture for priests across all the dioceses of the Syro-Malabar Church. A similar controversy is also at play in the Roman Church in the West. The division between the pro and anti-Vatican II factions of the Church have become so intense that Pope Francis had to issue a motu proprio, Traditionis Custodes, to regulate the celebration of the Latin Mass. The main reason was that the Latin Mass was being used to stoke further division in the Church.
This homily does not allow me to debate the pros and cons of the ad orientem or Traditionis Custodes. My homily is more concerned about the division that exists in the Catholic Church which, I believe, is on the brink of a schism. In this context, today’s second reading is relevant on multiple levels. Paul writes to the Corinthian community, “that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose” (1 Cor 1:10).
The concern for unity in the church is not a new one. The threat and possibility of strife and division has plagued the Christian community from its very origins. Jesus himself was concerned about it and included it in his prayer before his passion and death. He prayed for his disciples saying, “that may they be one as you and I are one” (Jn 17:21). As we read in today’s second reading, the Corinthian community was also torn by strife and factionalism. For that matter, every one of Paul’s communities witnessed division in one form or another.
In light of the reality of division, may I offer three points for reflection.
Coming to Terms with Division
Politically, socially, economically, and religiously, we are a very divided world. While we wish that religion and church would be above such divisions and that the love of Christ would unite us, we have allowed politics and ideologies to infiltrate our faith and tear apart the Body of Christ.
If we wish to address the divisions that exist in the nation and church, the first thing is to recognize and acknowledge that we are divided. Often these divisions raise their heads at our family gatherings, at our workplace, and even when we come for worship. Thus, anymore we have to be present in our families, our work, and our church, prepared for divisions can raise its ugly head. We have to be prepared to be confronted by strife and factions. We also have to develop ways in we do not embroil ourselves in endless and hurtful arguments, but deal with it maturely, kindly, and wisely. This is the key – that we acknowledge the reality and deal with it maturely, kindly, and wisely.
Responding to Divisions
Coming to terms with divisions in one thing but responding to it appropriately is quite another. I believe that as Christians we have a very specific way of responding to divisions.
Paul ends today’s section on factionalism in the Corinthian community saying, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with the wisdom of human eloquence, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning.” Paul’s approach to dealing with division was the Cross of Christ. When we encounter strife and division in our families, at work, or in places of worship, we must act as ambassadors of the cross of Christ. Paul is inviting us to act in ways that we do not empty the cross of its meaning.
The cross stands for something. It stands for love. It stands for peace. It stands for unity. It stands for goodness. It stands for selflessness. It stands for forgiveness. It stands for healing. This means that we stand for everything that the cross of Christ stands for and reject everything the evils that the cross of Christ overcame.
In this very divided world, we must eschew hate, violence, factionalism, badness, selfishness, and unforgiveness. We must stand for love, peace, unity, goodness, selflessness, forgiveness, and healing. Today, in our divided world and church, this is the meaning of not emptying the cross of its meaning.
The Gospel: Our Common Ground
There are many things that divide us, and it is often possible that our focus is on our divisions. But there is something that unites us – the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As Christians, the Gospel of Christ is our common ground.
On the one hand, by the Gospel we mean the life of Christ as recorded in the four gospels. It contains Jesus’ teachings— that the poor and poor in Spirit, the meek, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers, those who mourn with those who mourn, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are the ones that inherit the kingdom of God. It teaches us how Jesus did not return evil for evil, hate for hate, but that he ended the cycle of violence on the cross. It teaches us to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us, to bless those who curse us, and to pray for those who persecute us. It teaches us that Jesus washed his disciple’s feet before the Last Supper and gave us the Eucharist as a Sacrament of unity, peace, and his enduring presence. When we encounter division and strife, these teachings of Jesus help us to find common ground.
On the other hand, the Gospel is Jesus himself. He is our model. He is our example. He is our life. It is Him we imitate. It is Him we emulate. He is our common ground.
Finding our common ground in the gospel, may we be a people not of division, but a people of unity, peace, and goodwill.
The Eucharist is a Sacrament of Unity. It unites people of the world, of every nation, race, language, culture, and peoples. Today, this same Eucharist will be offered the world over. As we participate in the Eucharist this weekend, let is commit ourselves to overcoming the division around us and ourselves becoming sacrament of unity and peace. Amen.
Image: Worshippers at St. Antony’s Syro-Malabar Catholic Forane Church in Ollur, Thrissur city in Kerala, India. By Mamichaelraj – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=94436979
Fr. Satish Joseph was ordained in India in 1994 and incardinated into the archdiocese of Cincinnati in 2008. He has a Masters in Communication and Doctorate in Theology from the University of Dayton. He is presently Pastor at Immaculate Conception and St. Helen parishes in Dayton, OH. He is also the founder Ite Missa Est ministries (www.itemissaest.org) and uses social media extensively for evangelization. He is also the founder of MercyPets (www.mercypets.org) — a charitable fund that invites pet-owners to donate a percent of their pet expenses to alleviate child hunger. MercyPets is active in four countries since its founding in December 2017. Apart from serving at the two parishes, he facilitates retreats, seminars and parish missions.