I was the lector today at Mass, and found myself facing a very long reading from Nehemiah, chapter 8.  (You can find it here.) While I usually don’t look forward to reading long passages that involve large names (like yesterday when I had to tackle Artaxerxes), I actually really enjoyed this reading.  I’m just afraid it was lost on a lot of people.

I imagine that most priests didn’t preach on Nehemiah today.  Most probably preached on St.Therese, this being her feast day. And some priests probably try to avoid addressing the Old Testament readings, especially when they involve a historical book like Nehemiah.

While I love St. Therese, I think people needed to hear a homily about the first reading.  Unless the richness of the reading is unpacked, it remains some weird story about people weeping and a lot of talk about the law.

So here’s the homily I would have preached. (heh heh heh)

Some background before the story opens:  The people of Israel have been exiled from their land by the Babylonians and the Persians.  After years of exile, we had yesterday’s reading, where we heard about Nehemiah getting permission to return to Jerusalem, which was lying in ruin.  In spite of opposition, Nehemiah rebuilt the walls and once again secured the city of Zion.

So the people are physically reunited with the land of their ancestors.  But they still remain in bondage.  Why?  Because the Jewish people’s identity hinged on more than just land.  In fact, God allowed the exile of the Jewish people– indeed, He sent them into exile (Jer 29:4)– to remind them of this.  He shook them from the apathy that comes from comfort. Living in the glories of Jerusalem, they were no longer appreciating the gift of the Law of Moses– while they worshiped with their lips, their hearts were distant (Is 29:13).

The slavery of the people was not just a result of physical exile.  They were a liturgical people, a people defined by worship and the law of God.  True Freedom = freedom to obey the law & freedom to worship.  (What was Moses’ request for the enslaved people in Egypt?  To be let go from their physical enslavement?  No. That they be free to worship.  The Exodus was a liturgical event more than a physical free-ing of slaves.  And this is important for understanding the people of Israel.)

In today’s first reading, we hear of that glorious moment when the people are reunited with the Law of Moses.  With their heritage.  With their identity.  The Law is read to the people, and what is their reaction?  They weep!  After years and years of being away from the Lord, of not hearing His Word, they cannot contain themselves as they stand and listen.  The priests remind them that this was a joyous day, a day of feasting — “Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, and allot portions to those who had nothing prepared; for today is holy to our LORD. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the LORD must be your strength!”

As I read this passage, a passage that may have seemed completely esoteric to the people sitting in front of me, I almost wept with the people of Israel.  The sadness the people must have felt for their deceased relatives who never had the joy of hearing the Word of God read, yet the joy of hearing it for the first time…

Picture this with me:  A man stands and reads from the “book of the law of Moses” (most scholars agree it was a reading of the Torah) while the people listen.  He then proceeds to interpret it for them in a sermon.

Sound familiar?  This joyful scene is the liturgy of the word, an important part of Jewish synagogue worship, as well as the Catholic Mass.

When was the last time you wept at the Liturgy of the Word?

Or were moved at hearing the law?  This brings me to an interesting segue into my next post.  What is modern man’s view of law?  Because I’d hazard a guess that none of us are moved with love and joy over the law.

But Israel had a different conception of law.  Hughes Oliphant Old, a Presbyterian theologian, writes, “The Torah was Israel’s greatest treasure.  It was a gift from God that Israel was to cherish.  [can I interject something here?  How many of us look to law as a gift?  yeah, I thought so.] Our text [Nehemiah 8] makes a specific point of this: ‘and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the Lord had given to Israel’ (Neh 8:1).  One of the essential functions of Israel, one of the functions that makes Israel what it is, is the hearing and understanding of the Law, Israel was called out from among the nations for this purpose, that she might hear the Law and live the Law.”

This is why the Psalm that followed the first reading (Ps 19) praises the precepts of the Lord, describing the law of the Lord not only as “perfect” but “refreshing” to the soul.  Refreshing? Is that how you’d describe law?  That wouldn’t be my first choice of words.  What about “purer than gold” or “sweeter than syrup”??

Do we understand what law is?

The poignant scene depicted in Nehemiah 8 depicts a liturgical act of worship by people set apart by God to be His chosen people.  Why isn’t this scene replicated in our time, when the people God has made His family through the covenant bond of Baptism worship Him at the liturgy, the source and summit of worship- the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?  When the Word of God is read and preached, and then is offered and made present on our altars?  Why aren’t we weeping?  Or why don’t our congregations “celebrate with great joy” ???

Is it because we’re comfortably apathetic?  And perhaps because we don’t understand the gift we have been given?