Our witness is to be witnesses to God's love

NYPD Detective Steven McDonald, who was paralyzed in the line of duty in 1986, is seen in 2011 during a remembrance ceremony at St. Francis of Assisi church for Franciscan Fr. Mychal Judge. (CNS/Octavio Duran)

As you're aware, I'm sure, this past week we celebrated the feast of the Baptism of Jesus and that was the official ending of what we call the Advent in Christmas season in our liturgical year. Today we return now to what we call Ordinary Time, the 34 weeks of the year in which there's no special liturgical season. But they are weeks in which we try with great diligence and giving all of our attention to find the way to follow this Jesus who has now been born into our midst.

The lessons of this morning guide us in a very powerful way about how we are to now celebrate the coming of God into our midst as one of us, celebrate it not just as a feast that happened, but as something that was meant to change the world, to transform our world. Our lessons today remind us that we are the ones called to bring about that transformation. As Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, he told them, "You are God's chosen ones, called to be holy."

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 49:3, 5-6
Psalm 40:2, 4, 7-8, 8-9, 10
1 Corinthians 1:1-3
John 1:29-34
Full text of the readings

Paul could say the same thing to us. We are God's chosen ones, called to be holy by spreading the word about Jesus. John the Baptist himself in the Gospel gave that very powerful testimony which really culminated everything he was preaching. John says, "I did not know Jesus as Messiah when I first saw him, but then God who sent me to baptize told me." And remember, John was baptizing in the river Jordan a baptism of repentance for sin.

But John had been told, "You will see the Spirit coming down and resting on the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, the one who gives new life to our human family, who calls all of us to be sons and daughters of God through the gift of the Spirit." With that gift of becoming sons and daughters of God, God's holy people, we're also given a ministry, a work to perform. Actually, it's stated so clearly in our first lesson, which was about that mysterious servant in the book of the prophet Isaiah, four poems or songs written about this Holy One, the servant of God.

In this passage, the servant receives a call that is our call. This servant had first been told, "Go and preach and call back the Chosen people who had fallen away." Then God says, "It's not enough that you be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob, to bring back the remnant of Israel. No, I will make you the light of the nations that my saving love will reach to the very ends of the earth." That's the call we have been given. We are the ones now who are to spread the message about God's saving love reaching to the very ends of the earth.

If we do this well, if we carry out the vocation that we're given, we will enter into the work of Jesus of transforming our world into the reign of God where there's peace and fullness of life for everyone. How do we do this? What is the message that we are to now proclaim? It's what Isaiah proclaimed that this servant was to carry the message of God's love to the very ends of the earth. So our task, our witness is to be witnesses to God's love.

Yesterday I celebrated a wedding; and every time I celebrate a wedding I'm always very much impressed and try to impress upon the couple: what is the vocation of married people? The most important vocation — we think of priesthood as an important vocation or religious life, but really, married people —this is where the message of God really can take root and begin to spread into a whole community because at a wedding we pray, "Oh God, you have made the bond of marriage a holy mystery, a symbol of the love of Jesus for his church." That's what marriage is; it's a sign of the love of Jesus for his church, for his people.

A love that was without limit, a love where Jesus himself said, "There's no greater love than this than to lay down your life for your friends and you are my friends," and he lays down his life. There is no greater love than that. When we celebrate the sacrament of marriage we pray, "Hear our prayers for (whoever the couple is). With faith in you and in each other, they pledge their love today. May their lives always bear witness to the reality of that love."

That love which is their love for one another, but which then is a symbol, a sign of the love of Jesus for the church, for the world, for all people. It's a love without limit; it's a love totally generous, a love unconditional. That's how Jesus' love was for the church and for us. When you begin to understand the sacrament of marriage in this way, you really begin, I'm sure, to get a sense of what a marvelous vocation it is, and how important it is that that love spreads out from a family to a community into our world to transform our world.

What we have to bring into our world is this gift of God's love. Most of you in this church are the ones given that responsibility, most of all, as married people, bearers of the mystery of the love of God, of Jesus for us. Sometimes we get examples of people who we would call ordinary people who truly live this kind of love. Just this past week (perhaps you saw it in the news, it probably didn't get a lot of attention), in New York City a police officer was buried.

He had died of a heart attack. But this police officer was someone very special. His name was Steven McDonald and over 30 years ago when he was still a young police officer, two years on the force, he had stopped in Central Park to talk to some teenagers because there had been some bicycle thefts. One of them pulled out a gun and shot him three times, severed his spinal cord. He was paralyzed from the neck down for the rest of his life.

Almost from the very beginning, he proclaimed, "I forgive you." During the rest of his life, over 30 years, paralyzed, having to move about in a very special kind of wheelchair and with a respirator that enabled him to breathe, he traveled around proclaiming the message of God's love. He would go into high schools and teach young people, by his very experience, the message of Jesus because from the very beginning, he forgave the young man who did it and prayed for him. In fact, he had kind of a mantra.

He used to say, "The only thing worse than taking a bullet would be to hold vengeance in your heart, hatred in your heart." He could see that would be worse than what happened to him, if he destroyed himself by hatred in his heart. Now there is an example of love that is amazing. This ordinary person fulfilling one of the most important service vocations in our society shows us the example of the love of God for us. He and his wife raised their son, who was born just a few months after officer McDonald was shot, to be also someone who could spread the love of God as a police officer. He was at the funeral, of course.

I offer this as an example of what it means. Now this is extraordinary and most of us aren't going to be called to that kind of almost impossible love, but when we look upon someone like that we can at least say, "I can do better in my everyday life as a married person loving my wife, my husband, loving my children, spreading the spirit of love in my family and then in my parish family, in my community, and wherever and as far as that love can reach." When all of us really come to understand that this is our call, like that servant in Isaiah, we will be carrying the message of God's love to the very ends of the earth. As we do this faithfully, then God's will for our world will be fulfilled. We will transform our world into the reign of God where there will be peace and fullness of life for every person.

During this Ordinary Time of the year, every Sunday now, we will be listening to ways of how to follow Jesus to bring his message, that important message of love into our life and into our world. If we're faithful to our call, God's reign will be breaking forth in our midst and we will be able to rid our world of the violence and the hatred that seems to be so much a part of it. I hope we hear this call and are faithful to it, and each week during this year listen deeply to God's Word and try to follow that message of Jesus.

[Homily given at St. Philomena, Detroit, Mich., Jan. 15, 2017. The transcripts of Bishop Thomas Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]

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