The following keynote address was delivered by Archbishop Peter A Comensoli at the opening of the 2023 Proclaim Gathering on 16 November.
Let me commence with some words from the Word.
[Jesus] came to Nazara, where he had been brought up, and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day as he usually did. He stood up to read, and they handed him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Unrolling the scroll he found the place where it is written:
The spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to captives, sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim a year of the Lord’s favour.
He then rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the assistant and sat down. And all eyes in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to speak to them, ‘This text is being fulfilled today even while you are listening.’ And he won the approval of all, and they were astonished by the words [of grace] that came from his lips (Luke 4:16–22).
You know these words quite well, I am sure. You will be familiar with when Jesus spoke them, at the very beginning of his public ministry, following his 40 days in the wilderness, driven there by the Spirit of his Father after his baptism. They are, in Luke’s account, the very first words preached by Jesus.
And they are words full of joy: anointed, good news, release, sight, freedom, fulfilment. As the listeners experienced it, Jesus spoke to them using ‘words of grace’. These words of joy, expressing the Lord’s favour, and experienced as grace, all share a common linguistic root: joy, favour and grace all come from the Greek word chara or charis.
It is a striking image to recognise that joy, favour and grace—such differing words in our English language—were intimately bound together in the earliest Christian language. They each share a root meaning; each is so closely related that they are nearly interchangeable. And each found their way into the first words spoken by Jesus.
What might we learn from this by way of what it means to meet Christ? (Note, I will not be using the word encounter, as this doesn’t actually occur in the Scriptures.) Well, perhaps the first thing to note is that it tells us something about how to recognise that it is Christ you are meeting, and not someone else. The way of Jesus—both in his words and actions—were invariably bound up with joy, even for someone like Simon of Cyrene, who first met Jesus on the road to Calvary. How can that be the case? Because that meeting led to Simon binding himself to Jesus.
To meet Jesus is to come to a share in his life, which is a joy even in suffering. We know this from his first words, where we learn what it means to come into a share in Jesus’ life: it is to come within his embrace that brings release, offers sight, creates freedom, finds fulfilment. To meet Christ is to know of the Lord’s favour for you.
But let’s now recall what happened immediately following Jesus’ first preaching, for it tells us more about what is involved in meeting Jesus. Luke goes on to tell us:
[The people] said, ‘Is not this the son of Joseph?’ But [Jesus] replied, ‘No doubt you will quote me the saying, “Physician, heal yourself.” Do here in your own country what we have heard has been happening in Capernaum …’ When they heard this everyone in the synagogue was enraged. They sprang to their feet and hustled him out of the town; they took him up to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, intending to throw him off the cliff, but he passed through the midst of them and walked away.
Everyone inside the synagogue that day was enraged, for he had not simply spoken the words from the prophet Isaiah, but he had taken them on as his own. But the people inside were looking for the benefits of this unfolding prophecy—‘give us the healing bits we’ve been hearing about.’ They had not come to meet Jesus, nor to receive his embrace. They had come to check out the stories, and to take the benefits for themselves. So they rejected him when they heard to whom his good news was directed, and expelled him from among them. There would be no sharing in his joy.
For Jesus was God’s anointed for the poor, the captive, the blind and the oppressed; his good news—his words of joy, favour and grace—were for those who needed his embrace and were willing to receive it as the gracious gift of Jesus himself. And they were precisely the ones who would have been outside—excluded from—the synagogue on that Sabbath day. How could Jesus pass through an enraged crowd and walk away, as Luke tells us happened? Because outside he became surrounded by those who themselves were on the outside, and had heard his words (perhaps through the un-glassed windows) as good news for them.
So to meet Jesus is to be met by him, while among a particular people—those in need of his offer of joy and grace. A meeting with Jesus is always firstly invitational. Those inside the synagogue did not receive his words as an invitation, but those outside did. We often enough speak of Jesus ‘calling’ his disciples, which is true enough. But this calling takes the form of a request. Jesus first invites, and to be able to receive this invitation means being receptive to it.
We see this in the way Jesus called his first disciples, as John records it in his gospel.
The next day … [as Jesus walked by], he turned around, and seeing [two of John’s disciples] following said, ‘What are you looking for?’ They answered, ‘Rabbi’—which means teacher—‘where are you staying.’ He said to them, ‘Come and see’; so they went and saw where he was staying, and stayed with him that day.
‘Come and see.’ It’s quite the invitation. Simple, yet gracious (grace-filled). There is nothing complicated about the way in which Jesus seeks to embrace and allow others to share in his life. There was no test to be passed, no task first to be done. The invitation was a free gift; it was grace. As the Catechism teaches rather succinctly, ‘The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life’ (CCC, §1999).
The invitation of grace comes first. Only then does it lead to a welcome. In the example we’ve just heard, the welcome of Jesus involved the staying with him for the day. First invitation. Then welcome. Think about that in what we do as disciples—or perhaps what we don’t do. Might we not all be tempted—I certainly am—to think we need to get our welcoming right, so that people might want to come to participate with us?
The way of Jesus, the graced way, is to do the inviting first: the going out, before the coming in. Only then can the welcome be experienced as the fruit of—the sign of—an invitation that is from a place of joy and grace. Jesus says, come into my life, and thereby be welcomed into it. The first shapes the second, and gives it its purpose of re-shaping, of re-creating the one who ‘comes and sees’. Here is why we are to be attentive to the quality of our liturgical life: not so that people feel welcomed (though I hope that they do), but that it is shaped in such a way that it becomes welcoming from the invitation received in joy and grace.
But back to the story of the calling of the first disciples. John goes on to tell us,
One of the disciples … who had followed him was Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah … and he took Simon to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon, son of John; you shall be called Cephas’—which means Rock.
There’s a lot of ‘seeing’ involved in meeting Jesus, and being met by him. First Andrew goes looking for Jesus. Jesus has a look at Andrew and says, come and see. Then Andrew goes looking for his brother, Simon. And Jesus, after looking at him, changes his name to Peter, thereby giving him his commission. There is something about seeing Jesus—I don’t mean just looking at him—that is significant. It is an attentiveness, a gazing, a looking that is intentional. People who saw Jesus in this way were changed.
What did they see? An adult man, obviously. But let me return to those three interrelated words—joy, favour, grace—to charis. Was this what was really being seen by people in Jesus? None of these rely on a physical sight to be seen. They are experienced in the ‘being with’. To be with Jesus in this charis way was to see a new life for oneself in coming to share in his life. As St Paul put it, ‘anyone who is in Christ is a new creation. The old things have passed away; see, they have become new’ (2 Corinthians 5:17).
But isn’t it the case that ‘we walk by faith, and not by sight?’ (2 Corinthians 5:7) This is true. Yet faith is itself an act of seeing by believing. ‘Happy are those who have not seen, and yet believe.’ So said the risen Jesus to Thomas, as he shoved his unbelieving fingers into his glorified wounds. We walk by faith, knowing that charis, joyful grace, is our way of experiencing the presence of Jesus, of seeing him and he seeing us.
The calling of Peter completes the circle of coming to life in Christ. First there was the invitation. Then there was the welcome. With Peter, we see that Jesus brings him to a new way of living, and sends him out a changed man. These are the three steps of discipleship in Christ: to invite, to welcome and to send. And to return to the first preaching of Jesus, his anointing was for all to receive who wanted to receive.
As Pope Francis shouted out on three separate occasions during the recent World Youth Day, todos, todos, todos: everyone, everyone, everyone is invited, and from there might come the welcoming and the sending. And allow me to note that this circle of life in Christ—to invite, to welcome, to send—harmonises quite beautifully with the three words adopted in our Archdiocesan discipleship strategy: encounter, engage, embark.
Let me draw these threads together by returning to where I started: charis, the joy-favour-grace word from which we might see the shape of our lives in Christ. Every letter St Paul wrote begins and ends with a greeting of grace and peace: charis and shalom—Paul went Greek for ‘grace’ and Hebrew for ‘peace’. (Right now, there’s a desperate need for a whole separate talk on the word peace! But not for tonight.) Grace was the invisible thread that bound together Paul’s proclamation of Jesus Christ.
Charis basically means ‘that which delights’. When Paul was writing to his beloved Christian communities, he was writing with a delight in his heart from Jesus, which, in turn, was the cause and companion of his joy in them, and the gift or favour he most wanted for them.
Charis is a blessing of joyful grace which brings forth gratitude in the one who receives it. It forms the basis of the Greek word used to translate what Jesus said at the Last Supper (and on many other occasions): to give thanks. We know this word well, as we use it even today as the privileged name given by the Church to that truly great Mystery of gratitude and healing on our journey through life and history, eu/charistéō: the Sacrament of thanks/giving.
As we sang in the Pange Lingua just a little while ago,
Down in adoration falling,
Lo, the sacred Host we hail…
Faith for all defects supplying,
When the feeble senses fail.
A final thought, if I may. Every time we pray the ‘Hail Mary’ we begin, ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.’ These are the words spoken by the Angel Gabriel to Mary at the annunciation. The actual scriptural quote is, ‘Greetings, favoured one, the Lord is with you.’ Mary is ‘full of grace’ in our prayer because she was the ‘highly favoured’ one of God.
This is worth noting because grace is something real given (the favour itself), and not just a feeling experienced (the joy received). That happy confluence of our English words of joy, favour and grace, found in the ancient word charis, is exemplified beautifully in the one life of our Blessed Mother, the ‘most highly favoured Lady’ as sung the 14th-century Basque carol.
In the end, grace acknowledges that all is from God, all is in God and all is under God. As St Ignatius of Loyola prayed,
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding, and my entire will;
all I have and call my own.
You have given all to me;
to you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours;
do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
That is enough for me.
VMCH11 December 2023
Melbourne Catholic08 December 2023