Readings (Year C):
Reflection: People of the Word
In today’s first reading from the book of Nehemiah, a crowd of Judeans has gathered to hear Ezra, a priest, read to them from the book of the law. This was not just any gathering, and this was not just any day. These Judeans had recently returned to their homeland, a land long ago promised to them by God. They had returned to Jerusalem, their beloved city. They had returned as survivors of a national trauma—survivors of exile to a foreign land, survivors of a social disbanding, survivors of a threat to their very identity as a people.
As Ezra read God’s law, the people “listened attentively” (Neh. 8:3). They could see the actual scroll as Ezra held it up high from his landing on a wooden platform. And in response, the people themselves stood up. They raised their hands in the air. They shouted “Amen!” And then they bowed down low before the Lord. Their faces touched the ground as they listened to the sacred Word. They wept.
This scene described in Nehemiah witnesses to the power of God’s Word to speak to, to unite, and to rally us as a people—a people who have experienced our own exile and loss. We are not these ancient people of God; we have not suffered what they suffered. But we’ve had our own experiences. Two years of pandemic have taken their toll on us. Our communities, our parishes, our families, and, in some cases, even our bodies have been traumatized—disruption, separation, loss, and worry. As a people and as individuals, we will never be the same.
Indeed, the crowd that gathered before Ezra may even be hard for us to imagine, given our current circumstances. We wonder how close to one another they were standing; we imagine them bumping into each other and calling out to Ezra with lusty shouts; we see them standing in jam-packed spaces for hours on end as the law was read. That robust picture of human community seems so far away from us now, and yet we look forward to the day when gathering is once again who we are and what we do.
And yet even now, however and wherever we live, work, and worship, we gather around the Word. And the Word gathers us—to listen attentively like this crowd of Judeans; to weep together as people of the Word; to stand up when the book is raised; to raise our hands in the air; to bow down low to the ground; to say, “Amen, amen! We will do it, we will be it!”
In the end, upon seeing the tears of the people, Ezra insisted it was time to celebrate. Eat and drink, he told them. Share what you have. “For today is holy to our Lord,” said Ezra. “Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength” (Neh. 8:10).