Third Sunday in Ordinary Time - Fr. Joe Austin
January 21st, 2024 - 8:30 AM
A sense of urgency can be felt in the readings for this third Sunday of Ordinary Time. We’re now a few weeks removed from the Christmas season, and we’re still a few weeks away from the start of Lent — we’re almost right in the middle of the two seasons, at a place in the liturgical calendar that can make it tempting for us to want to take a breather, stay where we’re at, and wait for the upcoming lenten season to come and find us before we start to more seriously engage in personal spiritual matters once again. But today’s readings don’t allow for talk of rest, even though we find ourselves at this place in the liturgical calendar that seems like a fitting spot to take a spiritual breather and let the mind rest from its efforts for continuing growth and conversion.
I wonder, as Americans who grow up acknowledging the separation of church and state, how often do we take spiritual breathers throughout the week? How often do we stop thinking about God in order to focus on other matters? Or maybe a better way to put it: how often do we take secular breathers in order to focus on church and spirituality? It certainly seems to be the case that this idea of separating religion from government seems to have an effect on the microcosm that is man himself; this idea of a separation between religion and government becomes a temptation for the human person to then envision for themselves as having an interior state that separates one’s God-centered activities from what might be called one’s “secular” activities, whether these secular activities involve one’s work, or one’s play, or one’s relaxation.
God desires for us to come together every Sunday, in worship and contemplation of Him in this unique manner provided by the Mass. But, I wonder whether the Sunday obligation is viewed as a gift of unity that brings together the rest of our lives that occur throughout the week, or if maybe instead the Sunday obligation is seen as a kind of holy tax that we have to pay to God so that we can be free to enjoy the rest of our week as we see fit (within moral reason of course), a kind of tax that is paid so that we can be free of having much fear of potentially facing any divinely-imposed penalties. To see the Sunday obligation as a holy tax is in a way to continue to see it in this peculiarly American way that keeps the secular far away from the sacred. But do things have to be seen in this manner? Does the world have to be divided up between what is secular and what is holy, between what belongs to government and what belongs to church, between what belongs to man and what belongs to God?
What if holding such a framing up of the world, a world that’s split between what God demands and what man desires, what if this worldview doesn’t actually free us to pursue what is in our best interest? What if continuing to hold a separation between sacred activities and the more secular activities of work and play and relaxation, what if this separation is what’s forcing us to pay a holy tax every Sunday instead of allowing the Sunday obligation to gather up the rest of space and time that we encounter throughout our week and make it holy and pleasing to God, and to our great benefit?
The readings this week urge us, in this third Sunday of Ordinary Time that finds us situated right in between the Christmas and Lenten seasons, the readings this week urge us recognize that there’s no greater time than now to learn the ways of God. The temptation to wait a little while longer before we start trying to reinvigorate our spirituality only pushes further into the future the ordering of all time and space that God wants to see accomplished in our lives, an ordering of time and space that can be seen concretely in the Sunday obligation, so long as we have the eyes to see the Sunday obligation, not as a holy tax, but as the ordering principle of our lives for the rest of our week. Doing so helps us to escape from the false freedom that is put on offer by a God-centered Sunday that offers to pay the holy tax that then affords us the so-called freedom to make the rest of the week — our work, our play, our relaxation — free from Godly concern and therefore free for the endeavoring of self-concerned ends. But again, might there be a better way than to equate Sunday with being a payment of a holy tax, with being something we do as a transaction so that one doesn’t have to think about God for the rest of our week, so that one can continue to keep the sacred and the secular far apart?
The readings tell us, God Himself tells us in today’s Gospel that, “this is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand.” Might we, by the mysterious ways of God, actually benefit from refusing to pay the holy tax this Sunday? And, instead of choosing to pay the holy tax in order to pursue our self-interested goals, might we better benefit from allowing God to be the all in all throughout the whole of our lives this week, so that we might be with God, even as we work, and play, and have our rest?