The beauty of God’s word Neh 8:2-4a, 5-6, 8-10; Ps 19:8, 9, 10, 15; 1 Cor 12:12-30; Lk 1:1-4; 4:14-21 Both the first reading from the Book of Nehemiah and the selection from Luke’s Gospel — each describing a dramatic beginning — remind us of the beauty and dynamic power of God’s word. The reading from Nehemiah describes a poignant scene that takes place shortly after the Israelites were freed from their long sixth-century exile in Babylon by the Persian Emperor Cyrus and allowed to return home. Two Jewish leaders, Ezra and Nehemiah, are credited with rallying the people in this difficult period. The city of Jerusalem and its temple were in shambles. The land of Judah had been reduced to a shadow of its former self and the people were struggling to adjust to this new and harsh reality. In dramatic fashion, Nehemiah describes a moment of exultation in the midst of the chaos and uncertainty. Somehow a copy of the Torah, the heart of the Jewish law, had been rediscovered. Ezra the priest brings the scroll before all the people and begins to read it out loud “from daybreak to midday.” He lifts up the scroll so everyone can see it and when he completes the reading, the people are overwhelmed. “Amen, Amen!” they cry, and bow down in awe, overcome with tears. God’s word of love and wisdom proclaimed through their Scriptures was available to them again — words of beauty they had almost forgotten. Ezra tells the people, “Do not be sad, and do not weep. … Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks!” This, he tells them, is a “day of rejoicing!” The Gospel reading combines two passages from the Gospel of Luke. The first portion is taken from the prologue where the Evangelist tells Theophilus that he has decided to add his written account of Jesus’ ministry to the testimonies of those who preceded him, the “eyewitnesses” and “ministers of the word.” Luke’s purpose is to help Theophilus (and the other readers who encounter this Gospel) to realize the certainty of the tradition handed on to him. In the pattern of Ezra and Nehemiah, the beauty and power of God’s word is being handed on to a new generation. Luke’s Gospel narrative makes available to Theophilus a vivid and credible portrait of Jesus. To these first verses the Lectionary adds another evocative scene from the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry that takes place in his hometown Nazareth. Luke, who is a gifted narrator, describes the event with swift, sure strokes. In the synagogue (which, Luke notes, Jesus frequented “according to his custom”), Jesus stands up to read and with deliberation “unrolled the scroll” and found the place he wanted, the 61st chapter of Isaiah. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor … to proclaim liberty to captives … recovery of sight to the blind … to let the oppressed go free.” When Jesus finishes reading and, as “the eyes of all in the synagogue look intently at him,” he gives the scroll back to the attendant and declares: “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke presents us with a dramatic overture to Jesus’ mission of healing and liberation. These readings remind us of the transforming power and beauty of God’s word — a word that comes to us in our Scriptures. The great American Catholic Dorothy Day loved to quote this phrase from Russian novelist Feodor Dostoevsky: “The world will be saved by beauty.” For us as Christians, one of the great sources of beauty available to us is our Scriptures. From them we learn that God is a God of unconditional love. We experience a word portrait of Jesus, whom Pope Francis describes as “the human face of the Father’s mercy.” Through the Scriptures we learn of our dignity as daughters and sons of God, promised an unending destiny with God. There are a lot of ugly realities that try to claim our attention today. We are reminded by this Sunday’s readings to feast instead on the beauty of God’s word to us.