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New Eras

Two men open scrolls of parchment. Each reads his to his people. In both cases, these proclamations signal a beginning of a vast new era. One man is Ezra the scribe, and the other is Jesus of Nazareth. Four centuries separate their readings.

Let’s look.  

We find Ezra in the First Reading. He is in Jerusalem after the return of the Jewish exiles from captivity in Babylon. What is the “captivity in Babylon,” you ask? Perhaps it will help to have more of the story.

Ancient Israel was captured by the Babylonian empire 586 years before Christ. The Babylonians took Jerusalem itself, and demolished the great temple built by Solomon centuries before. They deported all productive citizens to Babylon, leaving peasants to run the holy city—if they could.

His mission is to rebuild their hearts as well as their city, to return them to God, who is their real home.
After fifty years or so of their captivity, Cyrus the Great, king of Persia (now Iran), came into possession of Babylon and he let the captives go. Many had switched their faith by this time in favor of foreign gods and customs, but the remainder, perhaps 5,000, made ready to return home. A lot of them had never even seen Jerusalem.

Thus there were great caravans. Ezra—priest, scribe and teacher—led one of them on the four-month desert journey.

They arrived to find Jerusalem a ruined city with widespread moral decay.

Reconstruction of an urban center is immensely difficult, as we know from our own day. Ezra worked long and hard to bring back the civil and churchly fiber of Jerusalem and of the nation.

At last a new temple was finished in 516 BC. The ruined city walls had been rebuilt.

Ezra stood up on a high wooden platform made for the occasion so that he could be heard and seen. He “read plainly” from the scroll that held “the book of the law.” He started at daybreak and continuing until midday!

Now the Jews had their city again, and also they had heard the Word of God again. Finally there was once more a temple where they could worship. The new era had begun!

Four centuries later we find Jesus of Nazareth making a similar return. He goes back to Galilee, the region where he grew up (Gospel). He had been baptized and has spent time in the desert. His trip is “in the power of the Spirit,” Luke says, and it brings him to his home town of Nazareth. Like Ezra, he takes up a scroll, this one containing the book of Isaiah—much of which, coincidentally, had been written during the previous Jewish exile.

He reads a passage which says that the Spirit of the Lord has sent him to “bring glad tidings to the poor,  …  to let the oppressed go free,” to proclaim a time of favor from the Lord (Is 61: 1-2). This is what Ezra had proclaimed in the First Reading. But Jesus’ mission is much, much more. A great new era had begun.

He sits, at the same level as the people. He says almost casually, “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”

His mission is to rebuild their hearts as well as their city, to return them to God, who is their real home. Would they accept this startling new epoch?

Will we?

Stay tuned for more next Sunday.
John Foley, SJ

Father Foley can be reached at:
Fr. John Foley, SJ

Fr. John Foley, SJ, is a composer and scholar at Saint Louis University.
Art by Martin (Steve) Erspamer, OSB
from Religious Clip Art for the Liturgical Year (A, B, and C). This art may be reproduced only by parishes who purchase the collection in book or CD-ROM form. For more information go http://www.ltp.org