The meaning of today’s liturgy is subtle and many-layered. We need background to understand what’s happening in today’s First Reading. 

Babylon having been defeated, King Cyrus of Persia decreed that the exiled Jews could return home to Jerusalem. They rebuilt their ruined temple (see Ezra 6:15-17), and under Nehemiah finished rebuilding the city walls (see Nehemiah 6:15). 

The stage was set for the renewal of the covenant and the re-establishment of the Law of Moses as the people’s rule of life. That’s what’s going on in today’s First Reading, as Ezra reads and interprets (see Nehemiah 8:8) the Law and the people respond with a great “Amen!” 

Israel, as we sing in today’s Psalm, is rededicating itself to God and his Law. The scene seems like the Isaiah prophecy that Jesus reads from in today’s Gospel. Read all of Isaiah 61

The “glad tidings” Isaiah brings include these promises: the liberation of prisoners (61:1); the rebuilding of Jerusalem, or Zion (61:3-4); see also Isaiah 60:10; the restoration of Israel as a kingdom of priests (61:6; Exodus 19:6); and the forging of an everlasting covenant (61:8; Isaiah 55:3). 

It sounds a lot like the First Reading. Jesus, in turn, declares that Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in him. The Gospel scene, too, recalls the First Reading. Like Ezra, Jesus stands before the people, is handed a scroll, unrolls it, then reads and interprets it (compare Luke 4:16-17, 21 and Nehemiah 8:2-6, 8-10). 

We witness in today’s liturgy the creation of a new people of God. Ezra started reading at dawn of the first day of the Jewish new year (see Leviticus 23:24). Jesus, too, proclaims a “sabbath,” a great year of Jubilee, a deliverance from slavery to sin, a release from the debts we owe to God (see Leviticus 25:10). 

The people greeted Ezra “as one man.” And, as today’s Epistle teaches, in the Spirit the new people of God — the Church — is made “one body” with him.

Scott Hahn is founder of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology,

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Nehemiah 8:2-6, 10 

Psalms 19:8-10, 15 

1 Corinthians 12:12-30

Luke 1:1-4, 4:14-21