I’d like to approach today’s readings in a roundabout way.
A family was hosting some friends to a meal. The mother asked her teenage son to go to the kitchen to bring something for the table. He said, ‘I don’t feel like that doing that.’ His mother looked at him, and said, ‘Hamish, it’s not about you.’ Yes, there is more to life than our particular emotional take on it at any given moment.
On the first page of the Bible, we read that God created humanity, male and female, ‘in his image and likeness.’ We cannot think about that too much. What might it mean? It means it’s not just about us. We are created to reflect, to carry the image of Someone else. We’re created to be more than we are. Indeed, we’re really ourselves when this Someone is in us, with us, has possession of our heart and mind and motives. We’re ourselves, we fulfil our mission, when we give off Someone greater. We are made to represent, to radiate. This is why, in the social sphere, people wear uniforms or tattoo themselves or use perfume. It’s a way of being more than we are. In Christian and liturgical terms, we’re icons, sacraments.
There is a prayer of Bl. John Henry Newman, much loved by Mother Teresa of Calcutta as a prayer after receiving Holy Communion. It voices the idea beautifully: “Dear Jesus, help me to spread your fragrance wherever I go. Flood my soul with your spirit and life. Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly that my life may only be a radiance of yours. Shine through me and be so in me that every soul I come in contact with may feel your presence in my soul. Let them look up and see no longer me, but only Jesus! Stay with me and then I will begin to shine as you shine, so to shine as to be a light to others. The light, O Jesus, will be all from you; none of it will be mine. It will be you, shining on others through me.”
After Sin, after the Fall, God’s whole effort is to restore us to his image, to bring us back from the ‘dark image’, as the mystics call it, from unlikeness, back to the light of his Face.
So we have Jeremiah, called to be a prophet in a dark time. ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you came to birth I consecrated you; I have appointed you as prophet to the nations.’ A prophet is someone who carries the word of Another, of God, carries it and conveys it; a spokesperson; the singer of a song written by Someone else. It’s not just his or her message. And because, in Jeremiah’s case, the upshot will be rejection, he is strengthened: ‘I will make you into a fortified city, a pillar of iron and a wall of bronze…They will fight against you but shall not overcome you, for I am with you to deliver you.’ So there’s a word in him more than his own and a power in him more than his own. A man reflecting God, chosen by the Father, filled with the Word, strengthened by the Spirit.
So to the Gospel. Why does Jesus so astonish the people of Nazareth, his home town? ‘This is Joseph’s son, surely.’ All they can see in him is his family. And yet here are these gracious words, here are these reports of miracles. Suddenly there’s more to him than they thought. At the River Jordan, the Father has declared him his beloved Son and the Holy Spirit has come on him. He has now begun his mission as prophet and Messiah. He’s now the bearer of the Word of his Father. Indeed he is the Word in person. He is the original Image and Likeness. He is nothing but reflection. So he’ll say, ‘He who sees me sees the Father.’ He is the Icon and the Sacrament of the Father. And we are to be icons and sacraments of the Son.
So, finally, to the famous 2nd reading: St Paul’s hymn to Love, Charity and Agape. Here’s the heart of being in the image and likeness of God: God is love. St Paul personifies Love, presents it as a person. He gives it a capital ‘L’, as it were. He makes it the subject of the sentence. ‘Love is always patient’ etc. He gives it verbs; it’s an active power. This is the Love that has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. This is the Love that enabled Christ to lay down his life for us sinners. And this Love is to be in us. It can take all our natural capacities to love. It mobilises them. It stretches them. It takes us beyond ourselves, beyond our inability to forgive, for example, beyond our resentments. ‘It’s not about you.’ It has been pointed out that, in this chapter of St Paul, you can replace ‘Love’ with ‘Christ’. ‘Christ is always patient…is kind…rejoices at the truth’ and all the rest. So we come back to Newman’s prayer. We come back to Holy Communion, when we become what we receive, when this Someone else comes into our lives. And it’s about so much more than us.
‘Love is always patient. Love is kind’. Perhaps, it’s worth ending with those two qualities, these two reflections of God. This love is a humble, suffering love amid difficulties and trials; it’s patient. And it is kind. In Greek there is only a one-letter difference between the words for Christ – Christos – and for kind – chrestos. And in early Christianity, we read, what most shone out of the first Christians, what most struck their non-believing neighbours was their kindness. They didn’t abort their babies, didn’t expose their infants, didn’t sleep around, and they showed great kindness, practised the works of mercy. And so they dubbed them, not Christians / christianoi, but Chrestians / chrestianoi. Not a bad reputation to have, not a bad image to give off…