27 January 2019

The power of words and
‘the power of the Spirit’ on
Holocaust Memorial Day

‘He went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom’ (Luke 4: 16) … inside the Spanish Synagogue in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 27 January 2019

The Third Sunday after the Epiphany

11.30 a.m: Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick, the Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), with Sunday School.

Readings: Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; I Corinthians 12: 12-31a; Luke 4: 14-21 [22-30].

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

We are still in Epiphany time, and today is the Third Sunday after the Epiphany. Many churches are also joining in marking Holocaust Memorial Day, which is today [27 January 2019].

This morning’s Gospel reading bridges the time in the Church Calendar between the Christmas and Epiphany stories and the beginning of Christ’s Galilean ministry. But it is also an interesting story to hear on Holocaust Memorial Day.

Christ is seen in this reading as king, prophet, and priest: King, in the majestic way in which he proclaims the Jubilee Year on behalf of God who is the Sovereign Lord; priest in the way he becomes the mediator between God and his people, in a liturgical context, opening up the way to salvation; and prophet in bringing to their true completion the promises of the prophets of old.

The Spirit that descended on him at his baptism is manifest that Saturday morning as he declares: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me’ (verse 18). That Epiphany moment at the Jordan is not a once-off experience of the Spirit; the Spirit remains with Christ, and he continues to act throughout his ministry in a Trinitarian way.

The miracle at Cana was a foretaste of the heavenly banquet and, as a consequence, the disciples believed. In this reading, we see that God’s promises are not just fanciful, they are to be fulfilled. And as a consequence of what Jesus said, ‘all spoke well of him and were amazed …’ (verse 22).

Of course, rejection follows, and that rejection is the subject of the optional second part of the longer version of this morning’s Gospel reading (Luke 4: 22-30).

Saint Luke’s Gospel places the rejection of Christ by the people of Nazareth at the beginning of his ministry,

Christ begins his ministry in a very slow, thoughtful, considerate way. We hear at the beginning of this reading that it was a habit of Jesus to attend the synagogue on Saturdays, and that he taught in the synagogues regularly (verse 15).

The synagogue was controlled by a board of elders, the equivalent of a select vestry in parishes today, and by the chazzan or attendant. On Saturdays, the sabbath service began with the shema, ‘Hear O Israel …’, a simple declaration of faith (see Deuteronomy 6: 4-9), and included prayers, fixed readings from the Torah or the first five books of the Bible, a reading from the Prophets, a sermon, and a blessing.

The two readings were in Hebrew, with a running translation into the vernacular, that was normally Aramaic but might have been Greek in some places.

It would have been normal for literate adult male Jews to be called in turn to read the Scriptures in the synagogue: first those who were of priestly descent, the cohanim, then the Levites, and then the other Israelites. So, on this particular Saturday, Jesus may have been the third person called on to read, or he may even have been further down the list.

The scroll of Isaiah was given to Christ by the chazzan or attendant, who combined the functions that we might associate with a sexton, verger, churchwarden and Sunday school teacher. And it is to him that Christ returns the scroll when he is finished reading from it (verse 20).

The portion Christ reads from (verse 18-19) is actually three verses, and they do not come in sequence: Isaiah 61: 1, part only of verse 2, and a portion of Isaiah 58: 6. So, even if Christ had been handed a pre-selected portion of Scripture to read, he makes a deliberate choice to roll back the scroll and to insert a portion of an extra verse, Isaiah 58: 6.

Having read while standing, Christ then sits down, the normal posture at the time for someone who is about to teach. When he sits down, all eyes are on him (verse 20), so it is he and he alone who is expected to preach and teach that morning.

Like the story of Ezra and Nehemiah in our Old Testament reading this morning (Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10), the reading may need explaining and interpretation before the people who hear it realise they have just heard good news.

Christ tells the people in the synagogue that the Scripture is fulfilled in their hearing. Scripture has not been read that morning just to comply with part of the ritual; it actually has immediate meaning, significance and relevance that day. Christ is not merely reading the words, he is promising to see them put into action, to transform hope into reality.

One commentator says this event is like Christ’s inaugural address. He sets out his agenda, his priorities, his hopes, his expectations, even if people of faith are reluctant at times to hear this and to support him.

If we see who Christ is, then we must journey with him towards Calvary and Good Friday and the Resurrection and Easter Morning. And on the way, we take up the challenge from last Sunday at Cana, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’

Christ tells those who hear him what is at the heart of everything he does and everything he asks us to do:

● to bring good news to the poor
● to proclaim release to the captives
● to proclaim recovery of sight to the blind
● to let the oppressed go free
● to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

This morning’s Gospel reading is good news, and not just to the poor and oppressed in Nazareth in the past. Who are the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed among us today? And are we happy with them knowing that compassion for them is at the heart of Christ’s ministry, message and mission?

Sadly, this good news was resisted by some people that Saturday morning. They saw it as a threat, and they drove Jesus out of the synagogue, plotting to throw him off the side of a cliff and to murder him.

And the longer version of this reading was one of the Gospel passages used in the past by anti-semitic writers to bolster their prejudices and to excuse putting those prejudices into action.

It is a story of rejection that is then transferred to all Jews in anti-semitic writings from Martin Luther in the 16th century to the Nazis and the supposed Christians who supported them in the 20th century.

One of the more tolerant cities in Europe had once been Prague, where the Emperor Joseph II abolished all legalised discrimination against Jews at the end of the 18th century. Special clothing was no longer required, access to higher education and the professions was provided, Jews were no longer confined to the ghetto, and the Jewish community in Prague prospered.

But all that came to a sudden end when Nazi Germany invaded what we now call the Czech Republic in 1939. The majority of Jews in the Czech lands were deported in mass numbers to places such Terizin, and then sent on to death camps such as Auschwitz.

Almost 80,000 Jews from the Czech lands were murdered in the Holocaust. By 1945, only 14,000 Jews remained alive in the Czech lands.

In the Pinkas Synagogue in the centre of the Old Jewish Town of Prague, the walls are covered with the names of 77,727 people. So many are the names that they are painted in tiny figures so all can be squeezed into the lettering that covers these walls.

So many small letters to tell of the enormity that is the Holocaust. It is over-whelming, over-powering to look at these names.

They should never be forgotten. Yet the World Jewish Congress has been pointing out all last week that two-thirds of millennials have never heard of the Holocaust.

If we allow the generations that follow us to forget or to be silent, we will repeat the genocides not only of Prague and Terezin, Auschwitz and Dachau, but also in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur … and on, and on.

The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day this year is ‘The Power of Words.’

We must guard against those who open the Scriptures but then use the power of words to speak with hatred rather than love … love of God and love of others.

For Christ was sent ‘to bring good news to the poor … to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’ (Luke 4: 18-19).

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Some of the names of Holocaust victims written on the walls of the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Luke 4: 14-21 [22-30] (NRSVA):

14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

[22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ 23 He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum”.’ 24 And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.]

Reading from the scrolls in the synagogue … ‘Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur,’ Maurycy Gottlieb (1856-1879), Vienna, 1878, Tel Aviv Museum of Art

Liturgical Colour: White

The Penitential Kyries:

God be merciful to us and bless us,
and make his face to shine on us.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

May your ways be known on earth,
your saving power to all nations.

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

You, Lord, have made known your salvation,
and reveal your justice in the sight of the nations.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect:

Almighty God,
whose Son revealed in signs and miracles
the wonder of your saving presence:
Renew your people with your heavenly grace,
and in all our weakness
sustain us by your mighty power;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Introduction to the Peace:

Our Saviour Christ is the Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there shall be no end. (cf Isaiah 9: 6, 7)


For Jesus Christ our Lord
who in human likeness revealed your glory,
to bring us out of darkness
into the splendour of his light:

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Almighty Father,
your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ is the light of the world.
May your people,
illumined by your word and sacraments,
shine with the radiance of his glory,
that he may be known, worshipped,
and obeyed to the ends of the earth;
for he is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Blessing:

Christ the Son be manifest to you,
that your lives may be a light to the world:


381, God has spoken – by his prophets (CD 23)
218, And can it be (CD 14)
494, Beauty for brokenness (CD 29)

Hope against adversity … a fading rose on the fence at Auschwitz-Birkenau; behind is one of the concentration camp watchtowers and a train wagon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

‘So they read from the book, from the law of God’ (Nehemiah 8: 8) … Torah scrolls in the Jewish Museum in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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