It can be hard to keep track of how many initiatives are promoted, especially this time of year, for people to engage in some form of self-improvement.  No doubt it’s an outgrowth of people’s making “New Years Resolutions,” January has become a time where you can’t avoid stories, magazines, commercials that all seem to be promoting good habits, better lifestyles for people.  Whether it’s encouraging people to get a better handle on their fiscal matters, quitting smoking, eating healthier, taking up exercise, you can’t avoid encountering these messages.

Thanks so much for stopping by to read my homily for the FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME -January 30, 2022, for sharing it on your social media posts and your feedback and comments…  I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE.  May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing Sincerely in Christ – Father Jim

One of these is pretty unique in that it’s not asking you to buy, subscribe or join anything, is called “Dry January.”  It started about a decade ago in the United Kingdom, when one woman, named Emily Robinson gave up alcohol for a month to prepare for running in a half-marathon in February.  She recognized she lost weight, and how much better she slept, and generally felt…   and just by talking about it with friends and co-workers, it sparked more conversations about alcohol in general.  This somewhat grassroots effort morphed into a group of people wondering if they could promote this challenge of giving up drinking for a month on an even greater level with the hopes that people might think about their drinking habits.  They wondered if some might be able to identify from giving it up for 31 days that they had become dependent on alcohol?  Or would individuals drink less after a month of fasting from it, simply because they felt better?   They hired researchers to conduct a study and found that six months after the first campaign ended 70% of people drank less riskily than before. And almost 25% of people who were drinking at “harmful” levels before had moved into the low-risk category.  So “Dry January” has now gone around the globe.

It’s an interesting campaign trying to take the stigma out of talking about Alcohol in a mature, and pun intended, sober way.   Many people suffer from alcoholism, as do the families and friends of those suffering from that disease.  But even those who consider themselves social or casual drinkers know that alcohol has profound effects on a person, not just in the short-term, but long term as well.  So it’s a good idea from time to time to make sure that it is something that is enjoyed in moderation and not leading into some destructive path.

This is why I was taken aback when about a week ago, a columnist for the New York Post published almost a full page rant attacking it.  The headline certainly caught my attention when it said “Sober truth: Dry January isn’t virtuous.  As bars struggle to move past COVID, it’s just selfish.”  The writer attempted to use stories about businesses and bartenders dealing with the economic difficulties (which in case he missed it seem to be affecting great numbers of people in all kinds of fields and walks of life) as his reason for attacking this.  I started to read it thinking “this can’t be real.”  Or imagining that the writer was trying to be provocative to hook the reader in to think it was an attack on people doing something healthy like refraining from alcohol for a month, but would come around to support it.   But it wasn’t.  It was a straight out attack on it. And whatever concern he claims for bars and bartenders he was trying to hide behind with this hit piece, the snark and sarcasm kind of undermined right out of the gate, when he starts by saying:  “Dry January?  You’ve gotta be kidding me.  The annual month of self-righteous sobriety – in which mostly young people go cold turkey on booze for four weeks and lord it over their non-sober pals only to immediately hop off the wagon on Feb 1 – is mildly annoying in a normal year.  But this year, it’s a wholly selfish endeavor that’s a slap in the face to the struggling bars and restaurants.”

          People choosing to refrain from alcohol for a month is being openly argued as a “wholly selfish endeavor.”  I’ve been saying to people for some time now, the devil isn’t even trying to be subtle anymore.  Well, when the word “selfish” is being applied to people engaging in abstinence from alcohol – for whatever their personal reasons maybe – that seems to be just one minor example of evil twisting and manipulating terms, words, and definitions – of which there are countless examples of which these days.  Of all the things to get fired up about and attempting to shame people over, this seemed way over the top.

But in some ways shouldn’t be too surprising.  Human nature is broken.  We are prone to sinfulness, and every one of us knows how hard it is to choose virtue over vice, to make good choices over evil.  That’s just the reality of everyday living.  If we were perfect, sin-free – we wouldn’t have needed Jesus as a savior in the first place, we wouldn’t need to go to confession on a regular basis (myself very much included).

But that’s the point.  Ultimately we get to that fork in the road and have to decide do we want to choose virtue over vice?  Do we want to choose good over evil?  Do we want to reject sin?  Do we want to acknowledge in a world that loves to confuse those things and live in a fog of grayness that indeed there are black and whites – right and wrong things that people need to be clear about and make choices over?  Because unfortunately, as broken, sinful human beings, we might intellectually know and believe those things.  But when we’re confronted by it. When people point out, how we can make better choices, how some things need to change that unsettles people to sometimes wanting to lash out, including shooting the messenger.  Whether it’s pointing out the physical dangers that alcohol can present, or even more personally, intimately when important realities affecting our souls is the focus.

That’s precisely what’s happening in the Gospel today.  We pick up where we left off last week.  Jesus has returned to his hometown.  The buzz has been great – local boy made good – which for a town like Nazareth, where the people were often mocked and dismissed just from being from that town was welcome news for sure.    Amazing things are being said about one of their own, Jesus.  You could hear the excitement where townspeople were saying things like “I heard He was at John the Baptist’s preaching and baptism on repentance and the sky’s broke open, a voice from the heavens said ‘this is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased!’” “Did you hear about that wedding in Cana where they ran out of wine and he turned 6 stone jars into 180 gallons of amazing wine?”  Word like that travels fast.  So last week we heard that when He arrives there and He reads from the Prophet Isaiah and announces that He is the fulfillment of all the prophets of the one who was to come to set all things right, they were excited.  These were people who had suffered, had waited, had longed for these bad things to end and God’s promises of fulfillment to be ushered in.

As Jesus announces that this day is at hand, things start off pretty good.  The Gospel says “all spoke highly of Him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from His mouth.”           So what changed from that verse to practically the very next?  It’s one thing to say nice words that are inspiring and moving… We like a Jesus who turns water into wine, yeah anyone would be willing to welcome Him into their homes.  But the minute He starts challenging thoughts of what the Messiah was going to do, conceptions of what indeed is meant to “set things right” – the moment it went from looking at everyone else that needed to change and instead of casting light that shines on people, calling them to look within and imagining they themselves needed to change as well.  The moment it wasn’t talking about the Romans occupying their homeland needing to be overthrown, that they weren’t hearing about conquering a foreign adversary that had contributed to their people’s long history of suffering  – but instead the pride the evil that had infected each of their hearts that viewed members of God’s creation as adversaries, as enemies, as “other.”  The moment it became clear that Jesus was telling them that the real work needed to begin not outside somewhere else, but right there and in that very place where God had revealed the fulfillment of all they ever hoped for – this crowd turned on Him.  You could’ve gotten whip lash from how quickly the crown turned against Him.

Jesus doesn’t for a second back down, water down what He says.  He is the Messiah.  He is the Son of God.  And yes He has come to save humanity, save his townspeople from sin and death, and save us as well.  But that’s only going to come from following Him, not trying to make Him fit into our broken world, our sinful lives where we can continue doing, living exactly the same without reflecting on what areas, what things need to change.

This wasn’t just an important, impactful day in this Synagogue in Nazareth over 2,000 years ago.  The same is true here and now.  We’ve just had a good 5-6 weeks between Christmas and the start of the New Year, where God’s lavish love for each and everyone of us has been the focus of our attention.   The beauty of the birth of Jesus, how He reveals Himself as the one who is to come.  How out of His amazing love for humanity He humbly comes in poverty, makes Himself relatable and accessible.  Solely because Jesus wants us to have an abundant life here and now and even more importantly: for all eternity.    That’s part 1 of this Good News of Great Joy for all Human history.

But it’s amazing how often we can find ourselves reacting like that author mocking people for opting for sobriety for a month, like this crowd ready to throw Jesus off the hill.  How defensive we can become when we start to hear part II.  When we have to consider how well are we following Jesus, when we become defensive about how we’re doing in our walk with the Lord.   It’s amazing when I hear a college student will tell me they rejected an invitation to a Bible Study because they went to Catholic School so they got it all…  Or they went on a mission trip once, so they somehow never need to do it again.   When anyone argues that “I’ve got it” when it comes to their faith – treating it as a one-and-done thing I shudder.  Either they’re really amazing students or I’m really dumb, because it’s an ongoing thing where the Lord continues to reveal Himself to us, challenge us and invites us into deeper relationship with Him – every single one of us.   Baptism, Communion and Confirmation weren’t initiation and graduation rites.  They claimed us as Christ’s.  They said we are meant to align ourselves and shape our lives around Him, not the other way around.

That’s why that second reading from Paul to the Corinthians is so urgent. We’ve probably heard those words at a majority of every wedding we’ve attended – seen bumper stickers and all kinds of displays boasting those words:  Love is patient, love is kind…  But it’s amazing how we can have blinders on or put ourselves into some fantasy world where we don’t hear the rest as an examination of conscience: it is not jealous, it is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude….  Paul was writing to fellow Catholic Christians and was quite perturbed because he was hearing how they were in fact not loving, but engaging in very unloving behaviors like those things… as he reminded them, and reminds us that Love – does not seek its own interest, it is not quick tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth.

          Rejoices in the truth… More than just a call to a healthier lifestyle, better habits, choosing virtue over vice, following Jesus Christ, has far deeper and has broader impacts on each and every one of us.  It will cause family tension when instead of joining in on gossiping and isolating that black sheep, we try to reach out.  It will mean friends will be unnerved when you say “no, I don’t want to do drugs, I don’t want to drink, yeah I do go to Mass and being Catholic is important so maybe cut out on the blasphemous jokes” and may turn on you.  It will mean relationships will end when you say “I don’t believe in having sex before marriage.”   But this passage closes with Jesus not capitulating to the crowds, listening to justifications or loopholes from people.  He is the truth, speaks the truth and eventually passes through the midst of them and went away.  Which was painful to Him for sure.  He wants everyone to follow Him.  He will work with everyone, grace and bless them and strengthen if they do.  But that is a choice.  It is a choice I not only have to make, but renew over and over again.  A choice that impacts my life here and now and for all eternity.