Sunday Evening – Introduction
I am living through a crisis of faith. Not so much my own as it is more of a crisis in the church we serve. Some Bishops seem to believe that the issue is a crisis over the Eucharist. Consequently, we are having a Eucharistic renewal. It seems to me that there are two things that have awakened us to this crisis, and there may well be more that I have failed to recognize. The first is a fact we have all witnessed. Empty pews and an aging population. I hear this all time. Mothers and Fathers are agonizing, feel guilty, and are sad because their children do not practice their faith. The second fact may or may not have been prompted by the first, but it was that “Pew Report” that presented some statistics that shook up those who had ignored the first fact. It suggested that a large proportion of Catholics do not believe in Transubstantiation. Now, that came as no surprise to me because I was already aware of the first fact, and even among those who do attend Mass, there is strong evidence that something is missing in the faith of those who do attend Mass when you see at least one out of ten take the Body of Christ on their way out the door. I choose the verb “take” because that is the accurate description of what is happening. They grab and run. At the parish I where I serve in Naples, there is a noticeable exodus at Communion time. For me and for the other priests whose company I enjoy, this is troubling. Some like to say we should be glad those people were there at all and get over it. At eighty-one years of age, I’m not getting over it.
Nonetheless, in retirement, with no meetings to attend, and no need to worry if the roof leaks, if the air-conditioning is working, if the Sunday collection is down, or worry about the protection of the vulnerable, I have time to reflect on these things, and what is emerging from my prayerful reflection is some of what has shaped this retreat and a new thought that the crises we are living through is not really about the Eucharist. It is about the Incarnation.
Now, my name is Thomas, and I have grown up living with that Gospel story of Thomas’ great moment after the resurrection when he had what I think is a similar crisis. Thomas had to decide to go one way or the other. He had to accept and believe way more than the resurrection. He had to accept and believe the Incarnation which led him to speak that earliest and first Creed: My Lord and My God. That is about the Incarnation as much as it is about the Resurrection. Not only does he believe that the friend he thought was dead was standing before him alive, he moved on to believe that his friend was his Lord and God. Loving to brag a bit about my patron, this is even greater than Peter’s profession of faith at Caesarea Philippi. Peter didn’t really know what he was saying because the Passion had not yet tested his faith.
One other thing that turned my thinking toward these few days we are spending together is an article recently published by Father Kevin Irwin a professor of Systematic Theology and Liturgical Studies at Catholic University. In that very insightful article, he addressed the language too often used with regard to the Holy Eucharist. The language we use to express our faith is important. What he called into question was a too frequent reference to the Holy Body and Blood of Christ as “Jesus.” Failure to understand and make a distinction between Jesus and the Christ is another symptom of this Incarnational crises we are beginning to feel. I recently overheard a Catechist at one of the parishes where I assist preparing the children for First Communion tell them that they were going to receive Jesus into their soul. Excuse me, I thought. Is she paying attention to what I say when I hold up a host and say: “The Body of Christ?” This is not a trivial matter of semantics. To describe the Eucharist as the “body of Jesus” or “the real presence of Jesus” is too limiting to the historical body and earthly reality of the Word made flesh and the incarnate Son of God. The “Body of Christ” refers to the entire mystery of the total Christ: his whole earthly ministry, his suffering, his death, resurrection and ascension to the Father where he intercedes for us.
I have a serious problem with some of the music we hear in our churches. The hyper-romanticized texts promoting or suggesting intimate feelings about Jesus might be fine for Christian Radio, but we seem to be forgetting that the text of what we sing is very formative for our faith. It is my opinion that a diet of this shallow romantic stuff has shaped the faith of those people who grab the host and run off to be first out of the parking lot. If we have need for a Eucharistic revival, we might want to pay attention to how we got here.
A recent and personal experience awakened me to this even more. Last November, I was in Arlington, Virginia to witness the wedding of the youngest child from a family I hold very dear. This is a family of 8 children, four boys and four girls whose parents are powerfully and personally touched by the Holy Spirit and deeply rooted in their Catholic Faith. After I was met at the airport, about two hours before the rehearsal, we went straight to their parish church where we met the Bride, Groom and their friends. We met at the church because the bride and groom called everyone to join them in a “Holy Hour” before the beginning of our ritual surrounding this sacrament. The rehearsal is part of the Ritual in our culture that includes a meal, by the way. As with every covenant, there is always a meal. This Holy Hour included the lighting of candles in the small daily Mass chapel, a search for the monstrance, the tabernacle key, and a humeral veil. In other words, exposition and benediction seemed to be necessary. Meanwhile, in the big church for the whole time, a lady named, Joan was sitting in the last pew of a dimly lit church quietly alone. Both Joan and the young people were in a Holy Hour. They were not MAKING a Holy Hour. They were IN one. Words are important. After the rehearsal dinner, I was walking with the parents of the bride to their car, and we walked past a man lying on the concrete. We now refer to that man as “the unhoused” which I suppose is some new way of distancing ourselves from these people, these children of God. I was very disturbed later that evening during my Night Prayer by the fact that we did not even break our conversation at that sight. We didn’t break our pace, and to the best of my knowledge we did not even look in his direction. To me, this is evidence again that we are living during a crisis of faith in the Incarnation. This is the issue Thomas the Apostle faced in that upper room. This is a matter of needing see in order to believe. Remember how Jesus responded to Thomas? Blessed are those who have not seen. Brothers, we have to count ourselves among those Blessed ones. What troubled me that November night was that we had just been gazing at the Blessed Sacrament because there seems to be some need to see something. Yet we did not seem to see what was lying on that cold concrete. Then I remembered Joan sitting in that church not seeing anything, and she reminded me that a Holy Hour is more about who you are with more than about where you are.
That “who” is the focus of what I wish to reflect upon for the next days with you. Since we have just moved into the B Cycle of our Liturgical readings, I thought that Mark’s Gospel would be our guide. In fact, let’s let Mark give this retreat. His Gospel is driven by one question, “Who is this?” From the moment Jesus brings calm to the sea up to the moment when Peter finally speaks up and expresses the faith of the apostles, and on to the final moment at the death of Jesus. That question is always there, and it still is for you and me.
To refresh your memory about this Gospel, what we have are the memories of the aging Peter, and it is written more as a sermon that serves to motivate than anything else. Mark is writing for a community with a firm Christian tradition. That’s us. He is writing for a community after the destruction of the Temple, and that community believed that this would be followed immediately by the end of the world. It didn’t happen. This makes Mark very conscious of living “between the times.” Again, that’s us. Victory is the destiny of the faithful, but life in the here and now is real, and sometimes it can be grim.
If you want to know where we are going this week, the plan is all there in Mark’s Gospel which has three parts: The Ministry, The Journey, the Passion. If you allow your imagination to work with the text, it could easily be our story. A call to ministry, the Journey of our ministry, and then the climax of it all with Mark’s Passion. Before you sleep tonight, open your minds and your hearts to the first three chapters of Mark’s Gospel. We will start with them tomorrow afternoon. In the morning I want to lay some ground work for our prayerful reflections. I hope you will read this Gospel slowly in the style of Lectio Prayer. Let the Gospel speak to you. My hope for this week is to lead you deeper into this Gospel with which we shall and preach through this year.
There are various schools of Spirituality that have roots in our Catholic tradition. Those would include a Benedictine spiritualty that give us Lectio Divina. There is certainly a Jesuit Spiritualty that has its roots in the Sacred Scriptures. Dominican Spirituality is strongly rooted in Mariology, and of course the Franciscans have enriched us with a Spirituality of Poverty and Relatedness that comes from Saint Francis. The Carmelites too have a unique Spirituality. When you look at all this, it begins to seem as though we have been left out, but I don’t think so.
There was a time when we were referred to as “Secular Priests”, and honestly, years ago, I didn’t like the sound of that, but over the years, I have grown more comfortable with that adjective and it does fit us. There is a new Benedictine revival happening in Europe with a Community called: “The Monastic Fraternity of Jerusalem.” It was founded in 1975 and its home is the Church of Sainte Gervais in Paris. They have houses in Warsaw, Montréal, Strasbourg, Cologne, Florence, and Rome. The term Jerusalem has nothing to do with a geographical location. It is used to suggest the City of God, and the idea behind the rule is shifts the monastic life from a distant place away from people into the heart of a city. The vision of the founder and the members is that their life in the middle of a city blesses or consecrates a city. Instead of going out, they seek to go in. Their life speaks to me about our lives as Secular priests. We live with and among the people of God. Our community is the men and women of a parish. We live like them, we live among them. We shop. We drive around. We play among God’s people, and when we have a sense of that, we can bring the presence of Christ into their ordinary lives, neighborhoods, and work.
In my mind, our rule is not Canon Law or the Catechism. It is the Gospel. While we promise to pray for the Church using the Liturgy of Hours, the celebration of Mass and the proclamation of the Word is the heart of our Spirituality. For years, I have prepared a homily every day whether or not I preach it, is irrelevant. The work, the prayer, the reflection, the study that goes into that preparation shapes our soul and our ministry. That moment when we were called to the Order of Deacon, and the Gospel Book was handed on to us ought not be eclipsed or forgotten because later Chalice and Paten were handed to us. We have them both.
It is that personal conviction that led me to shape our time together this week. I hope that the Holy Spirit will open and reveal to us through these days spent with Mark’s Gospel will make your preaching this year the best it’s ever been, and make your life as a priest ever more solidly rooted in the call to preach and teach as does Jesus chapter after chapter in Mark’s Gospel. We’ll get started tomorrow afternoon. In the morning I’d like to reflect on the priesthood to which we have been called.
Monday Morning – Identity: Priest, Prophet, King
Locations, like Bethlehem and Nazareth, witnesses like Shepherds and Magi establish the identity of Jesus for Luke and Matthew. Mark accomplishes that through John the Baptist. He has no time nor interest in what happened before the Baptism of Jesus. The story Mark tells begins in the wilderness where an Elijah like figure appears. If the identity of Jesus is established at his Baptism, so it is for us, and this might be a good day to rediscover that identity. In doing so, there is a good chance we can restore some priorities in our lives that so easily get twisted around as we are pulled in one direction and the next.
Give some thought today about what you say for the Church and for Christ as you baptize those who come forward asking for faith and for salvation. What we are begins there. Someone spoke those words over us at some point in our lifetime, and we were claimed for Christ our Savior by the sign of the cross traced on our foreheads. We were anointed with the Chrism of Salvation as Priest, Prophet and King which is then, exactly what we are.
The early church had little use for “Priest” as they knew it from Judaism. Those were the guys who dressed up, with their widened Phylacteries taking the offerings of the poor and widows while neglecting their own parents as they enforced without mercy rules they established wanting everyone to think that it was God’s rule and keeping it perfectly was the only way to salvation. They were in control of everything along with the Pharisees, and that was, in the long run, a bad plan because it nudged God out the picture.
If we want to get in touch with real priesthood, then Mark’s Gospel is the way. It is the Priesthood of Jesus Christ to which we have been called, and that has nothing to do with that priesthood the early church abandoned. Jesus Christ preached about the Kingdom of God and once he is recognized by Peter and his companions, he sets his face toward Jerusalem and leads us there.
One third of Mark’s Gospel concerns the last week of Jesus’ life, and it all happens in Jerusalem. But “Jerusalem “is not really a geographical location for us. It is an experience. It is the place of death. In Mark’s Gospel as you we see this week, conflict is everywhere, and it starts early. There is conflict over what a Messiah does, and what that title means, and Jesus will not allow any talk of Messiah until they all experience the chaos, the tragedy of Christ’s death. For Jesus, this death is the final ultimate conflict of control and power against chaos and death. He surrenders, but not easily as we will see in the Passion account of Mark. Yet in that experience with all of his life’s work and dreams in a shamble, he meets the Father of which he dreamed, imagined, preached and loved. I don’t think it’s any different for us. We never really meet the Father until our lives fall apart and we surrender control. Until then, until we are really beaten down and helpless, we have been hanging on to theological ideas that are far from a real person. Listen to any of your brothers who have really suffered, and they can tell you what the Father is like.
When I look at and listen to the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel, I see a quality of priesthood that this world still needs. Those crowds chased Jesus all over the place because he enchanted them. He got them to imagine something, a life style, that was free; free of sickness and evil. That is what we become as priests today, enchanters. We must awaken others to God’s presence and God’s work and will. So, those of us who are pushed and pulled into some role of professional administrator guarding the truth (as though it was something they could possess) or keeping the church out of the civil courts, are far from what we were called to be in Baptism. I think of the men who so powerfully influenced my life. They were enchanters weaving a kind of spell over me awakening my imagination by their own images and dreams and hopes. We must resist letting the priestly identity be defined in structural terms. It is far more than that, and we know it deep in our souls. That is why we get so discouraged, worn out, and confused. Watch what Jesus does again and again when things get confused and he gets pushed and pulled away from what he knows is his mission.
We are called to enable persons to perceive the revealing presence of God in their ordinary lives. Watch how that works in these opening chapters of Mark’s Gospel. That is what people need from us priests, and ultimately, it is that second identity from our baptism, the prophet. We need to be able to point to the hand of God in the midst of some chaotic moment. To do that we have to get beyond job descriptions, evaluations, and information data. We lead people to Jerusalem. It’s a pilgrimage into chaos which is where and how God creates. We must enchant them and I think this requires certain priestly arts. They are not complicated. The first is “Singleness of Mind”. Jesus called it “Purity of Heart.” It just means there is one agenda item. It is simple and honest. It will not tolerate ambition.
The second of the priestly arts is the ability to live in the present. It’s all about the fact that God is present to us now in all things and at every moment. It’s all very fine to know about the past, but that’s not where we live. For a leader, it is important to know where you have been, just in case you go by again. Then you’ll know you’re lost. Getting all caught up in the past is a way of avoiding the present, and that’s where we need to be. It’s hard to live in the present. The past is a lot easier because we know how it ends.
The third of the priestly arts is the art of enchanting. We function with powerful authentic symbols and incantations that can change bread and wine into mystical food and the presence of God. We can use water and oil to bring healing and redemption by lifting up human hopes and touch them to divine expectations. We too can become one of those symbols. We probably all have had experiences when somehow the arrival of “the priest” brings some calm and some hope. Yet we must really be careful not to think that it is about us. There is only one priest.
The fourth of these priestly arts is what I like to call “Presence” which is part of what I just touched on. This is really a quality of being. We are not what we do. Our value, our success, our accomplishment, our accountability is not measured by things done. A full calendar is not necessarily a good priest and we know that, because when we’ve worn ourselves out and collapse at the end of the day from dealing with personnel, management, finances, builders, plumbing and complaints, we don’t feel good.
Discernment is the next art on my list. It is a quality of judgement. It is an ability to make a decision that encourages unity among diversity. It could be called: “Prudence” as long as that means being able to measure the consequences of one’s decisions. Unintended consequences matter, and there is no excuse for not thinking about that ahead of time. Decisions made by discernment are not decisions made by the brain. They are made by the heart, which is why I call this an “art” not a “skill.”
Empowerment is a priestly art and a quality of leadership. It is something a Prophet knows about. It has roots in humility. It is the wisdom to know that you can’t do everything and you don’t know everything. It’s the common sense that tells you that you can’t and shouldn’t do anything alone. Watch how Jesus sends out those disciples two by two. It’s a reminder that alone we can do nothing.
Finally, the last art of a priest is “Transformation.” It is also that quality of a prophet. This is the ability to be concerned about causes, not symptoms. We run ourselves ragged dabbing at symptoms when we lose this perspective. In Mark’s Gospel, sickness is a symptom of sin. While Jesus cures the illness, he also goes after what that culture and time calls sin. The prophet in us address the causes of evil, pain, injustice, and sorrow, and that takes courage. We are called to transform the present into the future. That’s what led to the finest priest I’ve ever known to be murdered in Guatemala. Stanley Rother. I want to talk about him later this week. The symbol of this transformation is the Eucharist. What we are called and empowered to change is not just bread and wine, but all the ordinary things of life into the extra ordinary and unmistakable signs of God’s immediate presence in and through the world. The Incarnation is not a theological principal, it is a day in and day out experience of God’s creative, life-giving presence in all things and especially all people. Whatever dims the ability to perceive that presence and honor it must go, and that takes courage. “The poor you will have always with you” is no excuse for ignoring the cause of their poverty. Losing sight of the causes of people’s hunger while we run food banks and soup kitchens will not do.
That’s our identity as priest and prophet. We’ll get to that King part, when we get to the Passion later in the week. This afternoon let’s open our minds and hearts to the Good News, as Mark calls it. As it begins, clearly, the Good News is Jesus Christ.
Monday Homily Mark 5: 1-20
Jesus has just crossed the lake with his disciples, and that storm blew up. The disciples were terrified. It’s chaos with wave breaking over the boat. Jesus is sleeping. When they awaken him, things calm down, and they continue their journey to the other side, and that’s where this episode takes place. Jesus has shown his power and authority over the wind and the sea. His presence there, in that boat, calms things down.
Now he shows his power and authority over unclean spirits. When this man from the tombs shows up, there is chaos. He is out of control. Not one person and no chains can hold him. There must have been shrieking from those demons over the presence of Jesus. Mark is such a good story teller. It is not hard to imagine that scene of chaos just like the one before in the boat. Yet, once again, the presence of Jesus brings peaceful calm.
I think we should notice that no one asks Jesus to do anything here. He just sees a problem and deals with it. In fact, the demons would rather be left alone, but there is something evil here, and no matter, Jesus faces it head on. It does not matter where it is either. He is now deep into Gentile territory. There are swine there – no Jews.
This story that Mark tells us today is not about the pigs. It is about what happens when Jesus is present. No matter what it is or who it is causing chaos and fear, in the presence of Jesus Christ, there will be calm. It fascinates me to think about that detail Mark provides about the swine diving off the cliff into the sea. Jesus is sending these demons back where they belong, in the depths.
To the Church and to all of us disciples, one strong message comes from Mark today. There will be calm in the presence of Jesus, and perhaps when storms come up and evil is threatening, we need to remember what the presence of Christ Jesus can do. I think that during that storm while the disciples were busy keeping the boat afloat they forgot who was there with them. I’m not sure it was only Jesus who woke up. I think they woke up to his presence just as we should do when we feel overwhelmed and threatened or when chaos is more than we can take.
Monday Afternoon – Chapters 1 & 2
The Beginning of the Good News is the way Mark begins, and the very use of that word, Beginning, should rustle some memory of the way the First Book of the Pentateuch beings. It’s all about Beginnings. This is a Genesis moment. Recreation has begun. In John’s Gospel, it is the Word that is made flesh. No infancy narrative there. John, like Mark has no interest in what happened before the Baptism. Luke and Matthew establish the identity of Jesus by places like Nazareth and Bethlehem, by visitors like shepherd or magi. For Mark it is John the Baptist. And, as I said this morning it is the same for us. Our identity begins at Baptism.
As Mark shapes this scene, we should notice that there is no one there. This is a private revelation for Jesus. He is only one who hears the voice that calls him Son, and he is the only one who has the vision of the Holy Spirit. Jesus comes from Galilee, and that’s the first place he will go, to his own people. There is a little piece of grammar that is important in this story – a passive voice verb. “As he came up out of the water, he saw the heavens tornapart.” The exact same verb in the passive voice will appear as Jesus dies or perhaps is rising into new life. Mark says that at that moment “The Temple veil was torn into from top to bottom.” The direction is important, from up to down. Now what was closed has been opened from above.
Immediately, Mark says, the Spirit drove him into the wilderness. In just a couple of weeks, we will open the Season of Lent with this Gospel passage. Notice the verb. It is important: drove. It will be perfect occasion to reflect upon just what is driving us these days: ambition? Power? Pride? Unlike Luke and Matthew, there is no talking. There is no Satan, no stones, and no temple parapet. I don’t like translations that say he was “tempted” there. It is about testing – which is a more accurate word to translate what Mark originally said. There is no point in suggesting that Jesus was tempted to sin. That’s ridiculous. However, he was tested, and that’s a very different thing if you stop to think about it. We test our strength now and then which is not about pass or fail. It’s about measuring and maybe knowing our limits. In that wilderness after his baptism, his strength and his relationship with the Father is tested or measured. He is alone there, and like his Baptism, he is alone. It’s a private affair. For Mark, the number 40 is the detail that matters, and we know what that recalls. Exodus 34. “Moses stayed there with the Lord for 40 days and 40 nights. Moses did not eat any food or drink any water. And he wrote the words of the covenant on the two stone tablets.” You might acquaint yourselves with that chapter of Exodus, because Mark will come back to it a little later.
From the wilderness, he’s off to Galilee as the big question looms over everything: “Who is this?” He calls, and as you read and reflect on this event, notice the lack of dialogue. He calls. They follow. At the time of Jesus, it was customary for people to choose their own rabbi, become a disciple, and learn the law. Disciples did the choosing. Something is very different here. Jesus does the choosing. They do not choose him. We ought to pay attention to this. We have all been asked many times how and when we decided to become priests as though it was our choice. I think this episode of Mark’s Gospel calls that into question, and we might think about that this evening. (Tell a story about Marriage Preparation.) The issue is why did God choose us? Brothers, we are here because God found us. We cannot afford to forget that.
In John’s Gospel the first act of Jesus is at a wedding. Here with Mark, the first act of Jesus is in a place of prayer, and there is astonishment, not from conflict with an unclean spirit. We should notice that this astonishment is there before the conflict with the unclean spirit. This is something new. For Jesus, authority is not bossing people around and telling them what to do. The word itself, “Author” invites us to think about the one who is the author of life – the source of life – the source of love. The authority of Jesus comes from love and shows itself in selfless service. Brothers, that’s the only kind of authority we ought to want and want to use. What amazed people with Jesus and made his authority different from the Scribes and Pharisees was just that. They told people what to do. He loved them and served them. That is the kind of authority we need to cultivate. I have experienced this kind of astonishment with Pope Francis. He shows us a new kind of Papal Authority that leaves me amazed. I understand those people.
In that Synagogue, the evil one shouts out a question that I think we ought to be asking: “What do you want of us?” People chosen by God ought to ask that question again and again. Mark then takes us from Synagogue to home. It’s Simon and Andrew’s and the mother-in-law is unable to serve. Jesus took her hand and lifted her up. Pay attention to that verb “lifted.” Things get busy that night and the crowd is closing in with many who are sick and possessed. Come morning, it’s time for prayer. It is dark in a deserted place. Simon and Andrew find him, and Jesus speaks up and announces why he is there. It is to proclaim the message. At this point, we ought to clarify our thinking about why we are here, now at Cedarbreak – this our dark and deserted place. It won’t be long before some text message or email begins to make its way into our consciousness. We are not here in this Diocese to go to meetings, balance a budget, fill out forms, or, for that matter, watch football games. We are here to proclaim a message. Along the way a demon or two may be cast out, but we cannot forget why we are here. And, we ought not to let the crowds get in the way by trying to please them all the time. Watch how Jesus has to negotiate that crowds.
Three miracles occur in rapid succession. This first in the synagogue. I find it interesting that Mark gets Jesus started in a house of prayer. Then Jesus heads over to Peter’s house where a woman, the mother-in-law is healed and springs into action. The preaching tour begins and then a leper comes to him giving us a glimpse into the motive that drives Jesus. It is pity. This very human man has compassion. He suffers with that man because he touches him. They trade places or, they trade conditions. The clean one becomes unclean so that the unclean leper can be clean. That leper doesn’t know a thing about Jesus, because his identity at this point is only known to the demons. He cries out “If you can help me.” There is no demonstration of faith in the power of Jesus. It just says: “IF,” and we are reminded that God’s mercy and care for us is not limited to those with faith. The man is healed.
Things are frantic for Jesus by the second chapter, and we learn from him the wisdom of getting some rest now and then as he goes home. We also see that, like many of us, the rest doesn’t last long. The crowd is back, the house if full, and then a paralyzed man is lowered down through the roof. Several details are worth our reflection. That crowd is blocking the door. Mark makes a point of saying that, and we are left to wonder why they will not get out of the way, and how it is that some people would keep people from Jesus. I have always been concerned that I should not become one of them. The real point of the story however is the affirmation of the faith of this man’s friends. There is no indication that the paralyzed man has any faith at all except faith in his friend’s ability to keep him from falling. Over and above this affirmation of faith there is something more serious coming that concerns the identity of Jesus. Remembering that this culture believed that infirmities and sickness were the result of sin, Jesus says: “Your sins are forgiven.” That’s all those scribes needed, and they start pressing their opposition. The man walks out, and the consequence of all this is the crowd glorifying God.
Back to the Lake for some teaching, and he passes a tax booth and calls the collector that Mark calls, “Levi.” We know nothing about Levi except that he is an outcast judged a sinner by others. This is really a powerful moment of reconciliation. It reminds us that many troubled relationships get healed when people eat together. Spiritualizing this with the image of the Eucharist is all very fine, but that is not what is happening in Mark’s Gospel, and it is a reminder for all of us about the power of a meal shared together even with people we might want to avoid.
We have plenty to reflect on with these two chapters especially with the developing identity of Jesus which always shapes our identity as priests. The identity of Jesus Christ comes from what he does as much as from what he says. We ought to think about that because I don’t believe our identity really comes from ordination or what we wear nearly as much as it comes from what we do. Nonetheless, in all things, it isn’t about us at all. In the end, it’s about the identity of Jesus Christ being revealed through you and me, and as John the Baptist says so humbly in the third chapter of John’s Gospel, “I must become less and less. He must become more and more.”
Tuesday Morning – Chapters 3, 4, 5
As chapter three begins, Jesus is at home, and we are back in his home Synagogue. There we get a very powerful scene in which Jesus becomes angry. As Mark tells us about this strong emotion, we get a look at a very human Jesus. It is important for us to see this anger in Jesus as a virtue rather than a sin so often confessed to us. Jesus never has anger about anything done to him. There is never a desire for revenge. When Jesus becomes angry it is over injustice or something done to another never to him. He is angry in defense of that man the Pharisees would leave in his suffering rather that do the right thing on the Sabbath. This is anger that is righteous – but not self-righteous. He teaches us, his disciples, about how to face injustice and do something about it. The Pharisees want to destroy him, and Mark records this incident to remind us that there is a price to pay for taking a stand for justice. If you have never faced the wrath or an attack from someone because you raised issues of Justice, you have failed to be the prophet you were called to be. The message suggests that we do it anyway. (Tell the Catholic Charities story from St William Parish.)
There is always this rapid shifting of locations typical of Mark, and it gives us that sense of urgency with which he writes. So, from the Synagogue to the lake Jesus goes again as he often does in Mark’s Gospel, and Mark would have us realize that the crowd is huge and that they come from all over the place. He lists the places. In the crowd are those troubled by demons, and they keep shouting out his identity. No one else gets it. To get away from it all, he heads up a mountain and calls out of the crowd Twelve, and for the first time, the word Apostle is used. He will soon send them first to proclaim the message and then to cast out demons setting people free.
Now, He goes home again and the crowds are overwhelming. There is not even time to eat further raising his family’s concern for him. I don’t think it is accurate or fair to suggest that his family is disapproving. I think they are worried about his safety and well-being.
Something happens at this point that ought to make us sigh with disappointment and frustration, disappointment as we realize how long this behavior has been going on, and frustration because it continues and we sometimes get caught up in it which is not helping this world find any peace. The scribes accuse him of working with Satan. They demonize him. This tears at the fabric of unity. It is a behavior that borders on the unforgivable and is a sin against the Holy Spirit. The Scribes have come all the way from Jerusalem, and they are demonizing Jesus. This whole business of demonizing someone who does not think, act, or say things we like still goes on, and we need to be on guard against it.
Psychologists believe that when demonization happens, there is “cognitive impairment” meaning simply that people stop thinking and with that they stop talking, and that’s a problem. Jesus is bringing something new. He acts and responds to old problems in a new way, and there is refusal to be open to someone and something new. That unforgiveable sin against the Holy Spirit, is in evidence here. It is the refusal to be open to new revelation. Assuming the role of God those scribes declared that Jesus could not possibly be revealing the divine because, in spite of the life-giving works he performed, he did not fit their categories or follow their interpretation of the law or agree with their ideology which had long before stopped being theology. Their blasphemy was that they had divinize their ideology. There is a huge difference between an ideology and theology. Too many do not make or allow that distinction. Our Holy Father has brought that to our attention several times. As long as they maintained that position, they kept themselves safe from any disturbance by the Holy Spirit and possibility of change and forgiveness. We have to watch out for this way of thinking.
In response to this, Jesus speaks of an unpardonable or “eternal sin”. This is the obstinate and deliberate refusal of the Holy Spirit and forgiveness. In other words, those who set themselves against forgiveness are excluded from it. If you don’t give it, you don’t get it. With that he is told that his mother and his brothers were standing outside calling to him. We get a pronouncement: “Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Back to the lake with a crowd so large he gets pushed into a boat. From there, he speaks to us using two parables about seeds and one about light. The first thing he says is, “Listen.” Every time I read this verse, I am back in the seminary at Saint Meinrad, and standing the Monastic Chapter room. The windows in that magical space are extraordinary. With simple but unmistakable images almost like emojis, the rule of Benedict comes to life. The entry itself is stunning. A wood carving of two eight-foot-tall monks stand on either side of the door slightly bent and across their shoulders making the lintel of the door is a golden beam with the word: Regula carved into it. The first window on the right as you step in has a large human ear in the center of it with one word: “Listen” written beside it. It is what Jesus asks of us. It is the best pastoral skill we could ever learn. I can’t think of any time in my 56 years as a priest when anyone was offended when I listened, but I am ashamed to say that is not the case when I talked.
The first parable about someone sewing seed just as they always did at that time has two possible points for Jesus. It is either an invitation to imitate the way God distributes gifts everywhere to everyone, or a subtler invitation to recognize that God can work in the ordinary ways we go about doing our job. That method of sewing might seem odd to us, but that’s the way they did it. The seed was thrown all over the place (no machines and no rows plowed open). They covered the seed with soil by raking it around. Mark or some later copier does something different change the focus. Perhaps because some of those Mark is writing to may not be familiar with this agrarian image, he interprets this parable shifting the focus from the point and purpose off the way Jesus told it. No longer about the sower and how he works, it’s now about the soil. It would be way out of the ordinary for Jesus to interpret his own parable. Most of the time parables call for a reflective comparison with the focus on the Father. This is not about dirt, good soil or rocky soil. It is about the Father either way you look at it. There is always mystery and miracle in everyday activities and events like sowing seeds. It is an invitation to see God at work in the commonplace awakening our minds and hearts to wonder. Listen carefully to the parable when it comes up for preaching in the Lectionary.
Next, a parable about light leads us to wonder about how much better we see even ourselves in the light – and for us the only light is Christ Jesus. With this parable, another pronouncement comes that ought to stop us in our tracks. “The measure you give will be the measure you get. For those who have, more will be given and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” The scene ends with the third parable reminding us that it is God who makes the seed grow – we simply need to sow, and even just little, because God works with us, can become a something greater than we could imagine. What an important reminder to those of us who like to see results. We sew – we only get to reap what someone else ahead of us planted.
With the teaching finished, he leaves the crowd behind and they set out to cross the lake. Back to the boat and a storm. A weary Jesus takes a nap. What happens next fits a pattern to miracle stories as Mark tells them. 1) A problem, 2) A Solution, 3) Evidence that a miracle has occurred, 4) A response of wonder. This event makes that pattern very clear to us. Now, storms don’t bother Jesus, and they shouldn’t bother us either. However, they do bother those in the boat with him because they don’t really know who he is. There’s the problem. They wake him up. There is the solution. He shouts, “Stop it” or maybe, “Quiet down.” Most English translation do not carry the strength of the Greek word Mark chooses. It’s hard to tell whether Jesus is shouting at the wind and the waves or at the frightened men in the boat. Both quiet down in the presence of Jesus. Fear is not acceptable, only faith. There is the evidence, and then Mark says: “They were filled with great awe. Even the wind and sea obey him.” Response of wonder!
They make it through the storm to the other side. It’s foreign territory, and the scene is chaotic. In fact, it is violent. A wild man comes roaring out of the caves. There has been howling and chains rattling from this man that no one can restrain. It is a long and complicated exorcism that involves naming. The demon calls Jesus “Son of the Most High God.” When Jesus gets the name, it’s all over. At that point, knowing the name, he has control. and sends the legions back where they belong, as I said in yesterday’s homily down into the depths. The locals are upset, and why not be upset? They lost their pigs and that wild man they chained up because they could not control him man was sitting there calmly. More important is the response of Jesus to this man who now wants to come with him. He is to go and tell his friends about mercy. First Jesus brings calm to the wind and sea. Now he brings calm to a disorderly and violent man, and what I think is worth noting, no one asked him to do anything there. He sees a problem, he sees evil, he sees someone troubled, and he acts. What does that say about us and our Pastoral Ministry? Do we really have to be asked to do something when there is a problem? Do we need permission?
Back to the boat, and once on shore Jairus, a synagogue leader shows up. He falls down at the feet of Jesus. It is a dramatic and tense moment made all the more so by a technique Mark uses to create suspense. In the middle of this scene as Jesus is on the way to the home of this man, there is an interruption. He gets stopped along the way by a woman who is bleeding. Suspense! All she wanted to do was touch his cloak. Caught in the act, she too falls at the feet of Jesus. If Mark repeats that action, it is something to look at and think about. But, there is still the suspense. Is he going to make it in time for Jairus? No. His daughter of dies. Jesus has confronted demons, leprosy, a withered hand, confrontation by scribes and Pharisees, a lame man, a bleeding woman, an accusation that he works with Satan, confused disciples, upset family members, and now Jesus confronts death itself. Is the girl asleep or not? That is the question, and Mark suggests that in the presence of Jesus death is nothing but sleep. Again, just as with Peter’s Mother-in-Law, he takes her by the hand and raises her up. A warm, human, gentle Jesus suggests giving her something to eat. And the woman who was bleeding? Her faith is affirmed, and she and Jesus trade places: because there has been touch, again he becomes unclean. Because there has been touch, she becomes clean.
The Incarnation is not an idea or theological principal my brothers. It is an ongoing event. God is always stepping into our lives. Awareness of that truth can change our lives, our ministry, and the prophetic stance that we have in the face of this world. It’s time to pause, to listen to the Word which reminds me to suggest that reading the Word of God involves only one of the senses. Hearing as you read gives you twice as much. Remember that all of this was spoken. My suggestion is that you read aloud while you are at prayer with these chapters and those to come. Go in peace.
Tuesday Homily Mark 5: 21-43
There is in this story a sense of anxiety with a lot of rushing around. In the midst of all that commotion stands the one who is calm and peaceful. We get two daughters today and a father who cares more about his daughter than his dignity. This is a man of power and influence. Yet, he falls on the ground in front of Jesus. We should not miss the intensity of his love in this story. He becomes for us an image of and a reminder of God who will go to any length for his children to be rescued from death even to the point of humbling himself to become human like us.
The Greek word that Mark uses for both of these healings has two meanings. It goes into Latin as “Salus” which also has two meanings: to cure and to save. Both of these women are saved and the wonder of it comes from the action of touch. Jesus enters that house with the parents and three of his disciples, and Mark tells us that he took the girl’s hand and she rose immediately. That older woman touches him, and immediately she become clean, while he becomes unclean having come into contact with this bleeding woman. He traded places with her! This bleeding woman called, “daughter” by Jesus Christ finds hope, healing and salvation because the one she touches will bleed for her. This work of healing and salvation is our work, my brothers. We too touch the one who bleeds out for us both for our salvation and for our healing.
There is a lot of falling down in this story today. First it is that official from the synagogue who falls at the feet of Jesus, and this woman falls at the feet of Jesus. Yet, we dare to stand at this altar full of hope and faith daring to touch the one who saves and heals us. Brothers, we remain a people broken and in need of that divine touch telling a story of hope because God’s saving grace is available to everyone from important officials who have names to little old people who go nameless into eternity and whose names are known to God alone. This is our hope today. It must be both the source of our joy and the source of our courage to reach out and touch.
Tuesday Afternoon – Chapters 6, 7, 8
Jesus is back in the home-town synagogue. His family have already tried to silence him and stop what they consider risky behavior that might well be dangerous. So, what happens at the synagogue is no surprise. It does not go well providing us with one more of those pronouncements: “No prophet is acceptable in his village.” There is a message here in the details that God does not always chose to work with the exotic or “professional” but sometimes in those we know very well, our neighbors, and sometimes those we don’t even like very well.
Attention then shifts to the apostles. It began with just four, Simon, Andrew, and those Sons of Thunder, James and John. Then he named some of them disciples. From that group he selected “The Twelve” giving them names, they are sent out to expand his work.
There are a couple pieces of this episode we ought not miss. They do not understand him nor share his way of obedience to the Father’s will. They vow to follow him, but they fail, and in the end, their failures are greater than their successes. Yet, Jesus does not wait. Flawed as they are, he sends them out, and we can hardly miss Mark’s message to a flawed and often failing church. Look at us! I know I fit in with that group.
They are to take nothing. It’s not a suggestion that they get only one carry-on. All they have, all they need, is their relationship with Jesus Christ, and that will not fit into a money bag or belt. And so, the messenger becomes the message. Again, look at us too often loaded down with books and articles, videos, and sometimes silly gimmicks. I don’t think people need that. They simply need us. They don’t need the latest pamphlet from LPi Publications or the latest video from Bishop Barron. We have to be the authentic living, breathing, witness and the presence of Jesus Christ. We might also notice that he sends them all, and his instruction that they go two by two says a lot to those who want to do their own thing, start to think it’s all up to them, or that they can do this better than anyone else. There is no room for the “Lone Ranger” among those sent. I think we all know that are better together.
Before they come back, there is an interruption. Perhaps it’s Mark way of building suspense or keeping our attention. At any rate, John the Baptist is killed, and Mark the great story teller gives us a very detailed description of the whole martyrdom. John, the one unafraid to tell the truth to the powerful ends up silenced leaving his disciples to do nothing but collect his body. Mark uses this to foreshadow what will happen to Jesus as well as anyone else who assumes his mission.
When the Twelve return, they slip off to a deserted place for a little “debriefing.” You can almost sense the excitement they have wanting to tell Jesus about all their success. He listens, perhaps for a bit and then says: “Guys, it’s time to rest. Get in the boat.” The crowd which is now beginning to be a real nuisance or hindrance for Jesus is growing larger. This time, instead of looking for some way to get away from them, Mark takes this moment to reveal a very human and very compassionate Jesus. We have seen this briefly earlier when Jesus was moved with Pity, and then again when he suggests giving the daughter of Jairus something to eat. The first feeding miracle is now recorded, and I find it interesting to note that this is the one miracle reported in all four Gospels. It all happens with five loaves and two fish. For the attentive who pay attention to details and numbers in the scriptures, five and two adds up to seven which tells us something right at the beginning. It will be enough. We should not miss the way Mark widens the ministry of Jesus beyond healing and preaching. Jesus is attentive to every human need. He feeds people! There is a message here to the Church and its members. If you want to do what Jesus does, feed people. Even though Mark uses eucharistic language having Jesus look up to heaven, bless, break, and give, we ought not spiritualize and then dismiss what’s happening here and what Jesus is doing. He feeds hungry people. He does not send them to Catholic Charities or to some self-help program. (Talk about Wade and Harkin here.)
This feeding scene is over quickly, and Jesus seems to stay and clean up the place after sending the disciples off by boat to “the other side.” Jesus goes off to pray. The pattern of rushing and then praying is clear by this time in Mark’s Gospel. This thought always leads me to suspect that Saint Benedict must have been a student of Jesus from Mark’s Gospel with his insistence on Ora et Labora. An observation from this old man is that these days it is beginning to look more like: Labora et Ludus: “Work and Play” or for some it is “Play and Pray.” That Ora part for Jesus was integrated into his resting. We have to work and pray. After that, and lots of it, we can play.
At any rate, we all know what happens. Another storm blows up, and the disciples are afraid again. You get the impression that these guys are not particularly brave. In fact, they never look really good in Mark’s Gospel. It’s almost hard to know what they are afraid of this time, the storm or what they see coming toward them. Is it a ghost? In the end, it is a classic Epiphany moment, a manifestation of Divine presence. They cry out and a voice says: “It is I.” In Mark’s Greek this is clearer. It says: Είμαι εγώ which Jerome translates ad Ego Sum. To me it’s a wonder they didn’t jump out of the boat. This is an authentic Epiphany. But, in the verse earlier, Mark says that “he intended to pass by.” That’s a clue about what will soon be said, because in Exodus 33 God is talking to Moses: “When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and will cover you with my hand while I pass by.” This time he does not pass by. He gets in the boat. But Mark tells us that they are overwhelmed by this and “their hearts are hardened.”
They just don’t get it, but the people on the far shore certainly do because they recognized him and ran all over place gathering up the sick. At this point in the Gospel, Mark introduces serious trouble. Pharisees and some Scribes come from Jerusalem! It is like a storm cloud on your western sky. It marks the beginning of the final conflict. It is an ugly and serious confrontation. On the surface it is about clean hands, but Jesus takes it inward and talks about a clean heart exposing the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and Scribes who’ve come out from that place where they have so much power. Another pronouncement comes from this: “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defiles.” This is not the way to make friends!
Probably to get away from this hostility, Jesus goes up to Tyre. Now, that would be quite a trip. The site of Tyre is now in modern Lebanon. It is easily more than 100 miles from where he has been. If this story has any historical element, it would have taken a long time to get there. What is probably more true is that Mark wants to situate this story well outside of Galilee because it is about a Syrophoenician woman. She’s really a foreigner. She has a possessed daughter, and for the polite and those who like to be politically correct these days, it sounds mean as Jesus suggests that she begging like dog. I found it interesting while studying this text that the word Mark uses for dog is not the word used for a stray on the street. It is actually the word used for a loved house-pet. Which explains how it all ends so nicely.
That odd journey continues down to Sidon also in present day Lebanon near the Sea of Galilee in the region of the Ten Cities which today is present day Jordan. I think Mark wants us to see that the mission of Jesus is spreading widely. There a deaf man with a speech impediment is cured, and a prophesy is fulfilled as the deaf hear and the mute speak.
Unsure of the location, a second feeding miracle takes place confirming the compassion of Jesus for the hungry crowds. You have to wonder about these disciples. This is the second time, and they ask, “How can we feed these people with bread in this desert?” Everyone wonders why Mark puts in a second feeding story when the other Evangelists only report one. It probably it introduces something that can only be noticed if you pay close attention to the details and a few things that follow. Mark now introduces a new kind of vulnerability in Jesus. There is a diminishment of his power as chapter eight unfolds. Here he feeds fewer people needing greater resources, and there is less left over. Soon a blind man will come to him, and it will take two attempts to cure him.
Jesus now begins to avoid a verbal challenge from his rivals, the Pharisees. The crowd is still not comprehending no matter what he does and neither do the disciples. Making another boat trip, the disciples are hungry. They failed to bring enough bread, and the discussion with Jesus shows his total frustration with them. “Do you still not understand? Do you have eyes and fail to see? Do you have ears and fail to hear? I suspect that the rest of that trip was made in silence.
They now head to Caesarea Philippi, and there are questions: “Who do people say that I am?” Then, the big question: “Who do you say that I am?” Drum rolls should be heard, trumpets ought to blast with flashing lights. This is the turning point in Mark’s Gospel. The Identity of Jesus is announced by Peter even though he has no idea what he’s saying.
Tomorrow morning, we are going to head to Jerusalem and cover that Journey. Friday we will reflect upon what he says to the crowds and the disciples as he reveals what expects to experience in Jerusalem. The Passion and Death will begin.
Wednesday Morning – Chapters 9, 10
Knowing that Jesus is the Messiah is not the same as knowing what it means to be a Messiah. With the identity of Jesus confirmed by Peter, Jesus begins to clarify and teach both what it means to be Messiah, and what the Messiah must do, and what it means to follow him. If we are going to lead people, we need to know how to follow. A leader who has never followed is hopeless.
Until now, Jesus has been in Galilee. Now he turns toward Jerusalem. It is worth noting that the first and second of three predictions of the Passion are in the future tense. The third passion prediction is in the present tense. The human Jesus knew very well what had happened to prophets before him. He knew of their rejection and their suffering. He had no reason to think it would be different for him. It is the same with regard to his prediction that after three days he would rise again. This is an expression of his confident hope that no matter what, his life would not be in vain and his mission would ultimately be victorious. It is a word of encouragement to us followers.
The opening event has Jesus taking those three who have become the “inner circle” up a high mountain by themselves. In prayer, we ought to imagine ourselves as one of them. His Baptism, the moment when he understood his own identity, was a private affair. Now another event happens in the presence of others. Everything about this, as Mark tells it, is directed toward “them,” the three disciples. (“transfigured before them, appeared to them, overshadowed them, they no longer saw anyone with them). This is not about or for the sake of Jesus. He says nothing and he does nothing. They have had a privileged experience and they are told to keep quiet about this because there is no way to understand who Jesus is until one has seen him suffer, die, and rise again. I think it is much the same for us. Until we suffer, until we die to ourselves, and rise up from mistakes, disasters, and sin, we don’t really have an identity anywhere close to Jesus Christ. It is suffering that really makes us noble and Christ-like.
After this there is a turmoil because the disciples have not been able to cure a boy possessed. Those guys have forgotten that Jesus is the one and only source of power. Nothing happens good without Him. We need to keep that in mind. So, the father appeals to Jesus with a curious request that reveals he has little or no faith in Jesus as he says, “If you can…” Of course, faith is not a ticket for God’s grace and the attention of Jesus. The boy is healed, and the father cries, “help my unbelief” as reminder that faith is not something one has forever, but is always a gift that needs to be renewed and refreshed. I say those words every night as I retire: “Lord, Have Mercy. Help my unbelief.”
On to Galilee now teaching only his disciples which gives this section special importance for us. They are arguing over who is most important, and with that, Mark has Jesus expound on three deeply rooted tendencies in fallen human nature: a craving for Power, Pleasure, and Possessions. What a challenge this is to all of us with plenty of material for a good soul searching. A lifestyle of humble service and detachment from earthly goods is what it takes. Then, Jesus takes a child “in his arms”. Only Mark’s Gospel puts it this way, and he compares the child to himself: “Whoever receives a child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.” It’s not about power, this Kingdom. It is about humble service. Then lest these disciples think they are special, someone comes along who is not part of their number doing good things in the name of Jesus. They object to this infringement on their privilege, and Jesus says, “Leave him alone.” It’s the old question about “them” and “us”, who’s on the inside and who’s on the outside.
Now across the Jordan, moving into Judea the crowds are back as well. The Pharisees pose a silly question about marriage and divorce. It is a “test question” that has nothing to do with marriage, remarriage or divorce. Anyone who makes it so completely distorts the Gospel and misses the point. Those who ask the question are looking for loopholes, and Jesus will have none of that. The way they pose the question reveals their search for a loophole: “Is it ever permissible, they ask. Jesus passes the test by asking them a question that reveals their effort to put their will before the will of God.
Then, the only time when Jesus becomes indignant occurs when the disciples, probably trying to protect Jesus or direct his attention to more important matters try to keep children away. It is an important scene that reveals how God feels about all his sons and daughters. Everyone gets God’s attention and deserves God’s attention. Rebuked will be anyone who sets up obstacles. There is a message here to those of us who are pastors! This Kingdom of Heaven is available and offered to all, especially those who have nothing to offer or count for nothing in the eyes of the world. Indirectly, this passage along with sections of Acts of the Apostles formed part of the ancient Church’s rationale for the practice of infant baptism.
His journey to Jerusalem resumes when a rich man comes up calling him, “Good Teacher” asking what he must do to inherit eternal life? This incident must have made a deep impression on the apostolic community because it is found in Matthew and Luke as well. The memories of each evangelist reveal different points. Matthew is impressed with his youthfulness. Luke calls him a “ruler” suggesting that his wealth is connected with power. For Mark, it is an opportunity to reveal a very human Jesus showing real sincere emotions as he looks at this man, and Mark tells us that he “loved him.” The words of Jesus starkly contradict Judaism’s belief at the time, a belief that somehow still prevails for some, that wealth and riches are a sign of God’s favor when in fact, they are a serious danger for anyone who wishes to inherit the Kingdom of God. Once more, Peter shows the lack of understanding among the disciples who are obviously wondering what they are going to get for following Jesus. They think that they can “earn” the Kingdom of God by doing something. I have to tell you, I understand Peter on this one as more than once I’ve stopped to wonder what I’m going to get out of this life. In response to their question, Jesus uses the humorous hyperbole of a camel passing through the eye of a needle, reinforcing his teaching that the Kingdom of God is a gift bestowed by God to anyone God might choose. Putting what we can do before what God can give is simply wrong. Throughout this section, Mark’s message focuses on discipleship as a gift that comes not from abandoning things, but rather, from God’s call and God’s gift alone. Openness to receive this creates a true disciple putting God before all else.
With that said, Mark provides the Third Prediction of the Passion with greater details as the journey to Jerusalem continues. Now it is the present tense. The setting itself sends a message as Mark tells us that Jesus was walking “ahead of them.” For me, that’s exactly where Jesus belongs. Remember that verse in chapter 8 where Jesus tells Peter to get behind him? That’s where we all belong, but we all know how easy it is to start thinking we’re the ones in front. When that happens, we are set up for a rebuke or a bad fall.
Mark just can’t let up on these disciples. No sooner has Jesus detailed the future he will experience, then James and John come up and ask if they can have places of honor by sitting at his right and left. It’s interesting to note that when Matthew retells this story, he is a little easier on these two. He has their mother come up and ask this question. Either way, it makes no difference. They do not understand what is going to happen to Jesus and what it means, nor do they understand what it suggests for their future as well. They are spiritually blind, and Mark has something say about that. Whatever, rank and precedence are about to be eradicated. Ambition and power, prestige and privilege have no place among us. Disciples of the real Messiah go about his work looking for the lost, the marginalized, the forgotten, the avoided. The instruction period over serving rather than being served concludes with a firm statement of identity: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
A word comes up in this instruction that is a challenge for scholars and even for us: “Ransom.” It has a variety of meanings. As used here by Mark it does not mean that there is a trade-off. It is not suggesting that Jesus does something so that we will not have to. With that word, “for, there is another meaning. The word “for” may simply mean “for the sake of” rather than “instead of.” In other words, this is not a trade-off. Jesus is not doing something so that we don’t have to. He does this for the sake of us (to show us how) not to excuse us. That’s important.
Finally, in Jericho, right outside Jerusalem, Jesus asks a question. In the Gospel it is directed to a blind beggar. But every single time we hear this question, it is addressed to each of us giving a good reason to stop now and ponder how we might answer that question Jesus may ask of us, “What can I do for you? There is plenty to reflect on here until this afternoon when we will explore what happens in Jerusalem.
Wednesday Homily Mark 6: 1-6
Jesus is at home as Chapter Six begins, and there is a problem. I like to think that the problem is not limited to that place and time. For lack of a better term, I call the problem, “Limited Religious Imagination.” In other words, Jesus was not acting right. He was just too ordinary for them. He was simply a young man who grew up there, worked with his father, became restless and left town to discover himself like so many others had done before him. They just could not believe that out of an ordinary life anything extra ordinary could possibly happen. The whole idea that God might come and be revealed in the flesh and blood of someone who is just an ordinary and familiar neighbor was too much for them. They could not imagine this. Jesus would not fit into the religious imagination.
Nothing new here for us, and I am not suggesting that our people might have a problem believing that God could work through us. That’s a given. I am suggesting that we might have a hard time imagining that God could work through them in spite of us. It is easy to have faith in a God who is distant and silent, a God who sits behind a veil in the Temple or for us, a God locked in a Tabernacle. But, why can’t that God speak and be revealed to us through that member of the parish who drives us crazy and criticizes everything we do.
Every now and then I hear people and priests express displeasure about Pope Francis and the things he says and does. Why is that? Because he does not fit their mold, their model of what the Bishop of Rome, the Successor of St Peter should act like? They remind me of the people of Nazareth. It’s not that they are bad, but they run the risk of missing something powerful and merciful because their imaginations are so limited.
There is warning here in Mark’s Gospel. The all-powerful God can be limited by human unbelief. We can learn from those people in Nazareth. The message of God’s nearness comes packaged in what looks very familiar. When that familiarity frightens or challenges us, calls into question the racism, ageism, or sexism of our age, we might take a careful look at and awaken our imaginations because God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s voice may sound very familiar.
Wednesday Afternoon – Chapters 11, 12, 13
Jesus has entered Jerusalem very simply. Mark’s report is quite a contrast to Matthew and Luke which so influence our Palm Sunday Liturgy. Keep this in mind when you begin Holy Week this year. Mark has a very different intention, For Jesus this is a pilgrim’s entry. He has the people singing Psalm 118 which was sung by pilgrims approaching the Temple. The crowd does not call Jesus “King” or “Son of David”. The people there are the ones with him already. No one from the city comes out to greet him. He enters as the lowly one. This is a religious procession not a political rally.
He goes to the Temple but only look around and then heads to Bethany for the night. Then he’s back at the Temple and we know what happens. Instead of the Temple sanctifying the city, the city was profaning the temple. Mark gives us a quotation that must have inspired the Holy Father in Portugal last year: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations.” Remember how he said over and over again “Totus. Totus.” The challenge of this and the demand of this hospitality is personal, not just institutional.
At this point, the story of a fig tree raises a question about bearing fruit. We can’t afford to sit back and read this story as though it’s about those Scribes and Pharisees. For all practical purposes, we are Scribes and Pharisees. In the context of this Gospel, the leaders are not bearing fruit, and the Temple is not what it should be. If this Gospel is alive and the Word is still speaking, there is a question about bearing fruit. I’m not sure a lot of us have figured out what bearing fruit might look like. But, at some point in our lives we probably ought to have focused some thought and shaped our behavior in such a way that there is something to show for our presence. I’ve seen a lot of guys who leave a parish community and all they have to show for it is that the place is out of debt, or there is a new gym or renovated church, and I wonder, really? Is that the best we can do? In the confrontation with the authorities at this point, there is a squabble over authorities, and if their question to Jesus was translated into plain language, they are asking, “Who do you think you are?” It’s a question we might also ask ourselves especially because we do have some authority.
From early in this Gospel, the question of authority is raised, and Mark tells us several times that the people were amazed at the authority of Jesus. I don’t think they were amazed because of power. With Jesus, authority comes from service not from power. I think what amazed those people was that he cared for the sick and the poor enough to do something about their plight. We ought to remember that the word “Author” is the root of our word “Authority”. So, the only real authority comes from the author of all things, and it reveals the one author, creator, God. We have to decide what kind of authority we exercise whether it is authority in the style of the Pharisees who just tell people what to do, or the authority of the Father through the Son that addresses the needs and concerns of people. We sometimes like our authority, but sadly, it is often the wrong kind.
Chapter 13 is 37 verses in length, and it is the longest speech of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel. It is a farewell speech to the disciples describing what Jesus means to the world as the “Son of Man.” It has descriptions of distress: wars, earthquakes, famines, and floods. This is not a prediction of things to come nearly as much as it is an opportunity to encourage us not to lose faith when things get crazy and seem out of control. It is a reminder that God’s plan is working itself out. Peter, James, Andrew, and John are the ones present for this instruction. They are the inner circle like us. They are the chosen ones closest to the Christ, and like us they are the ones who must stand firm and resolute when everything seems to be coming apart. We must remember that God has a plan never doubting that it is unfolding.
Near the end of this farewell the coming of the Son of Man in glory is promised not to frighten, but to offer us hope. What is this hope except the conviction that God is at work in our lives and in our world. It is not optimism based on good odds and our own resources. Hope for a disciple, is the certainty that God can transform any situation into an occasion of grace. Jesus went to the cross believing that God would make something out of his death that would finish and fulfill the Will of the Father. Jesus believed that God would raise him up “on the third day” which meant in God’s good time. Jesus preached about an apocalypse to invite his disciples to share his hope, to believe that God continues to be at work even and especially when we do not perceive it. Gentlemen, that’s our mission, inviting people to hope when there seems to be no reason to do so.
Of the three great virtues: Faith, Hope, and Charity, hope is the greatest challenge. Faith is no great surprise. Creation is so magnificent, it is easy to believe in a creator greater than ourselves. Charity is no surprise either. Unless you have a heart of stone, suffering people always move us to gentle and kind charity. But hope is another thing altogether. It is always a surprise and a marvel of grace to stand in the midst of turmoil, danger, or fear and hope that God will do something in God’s own time. ( Murrah Bombing story).
Learning and growing into hope requires that we abandon our desire to duck and cover or to hide from the suffering of this world. We cannot anesthetize ourselves in the face of suffering. All that does is make us blind to what is happening both the evil and the hidden good. The more we are challenged by these terrible realities, the more apocalyptic literature offers us hope. That hope comes from the truth that we are willing to reclaim our faith in spite of mockery and to stand in mourning with those victims of injustice. When we are willing and ready to face the fear, to share another’s suffering, recognize and condemn the evil of injustice all around us, we will be ready to perceive the Son of Man appearing among us not as an angry fearsome judge, but rather the Son of Man that Mark gives us, a man of forgiveness, compassion, and mercy. In the midst of this angry and violent world, that takes hope. The message in these 37 verses is that the Son of Man will bring calm after the chaos acting like a judge claiming his kingdom. Using images of the sun darkening and falling stars Jesus promises that no matter how powerful the forces of evil may seem, they will not last. We stand in need of hearing that promise all the time. There is no suggestion in this farewell speech that there will be no opposition or that everything will be easy and fine. What it all comes down to is a promise that the forces of good are stronger than the forces of evil. We are urged by Christ to stay alert and awake, and with these words, the Passion is about to begin” And what I say to you, I say to all, Watch.”
Watch we shall as we take up the Passion narrative tomorrow.
Thursday Morning – Chapters 14
The Passion Narrative begins with Chapter 14, and in some ways, I think of it as the beginning of the end. There is no way to avoid noticing the details of time. The counting of days, watches of the night, hours of the day even in small units all building the intensity. There is a linear movement from an upper room to the garden and a betrayal, to a Jewish trial and Peter’s denial, to the Roman trial, to crucifixion, death and burial. There is so much here to sit with, listen to, and imagine. When I say “listen to”, I’m reminding you that hearing the Passion is important. It is a proclamation, and quite honestly, I think it puts us who preach this Gospel in touch with the people who basically we be hearing it proclaimed.
The betrayal of Judas is not the only focus of disorder. The three in the garden, who are the same three present at the Transfiguration, let Jesus down. He is abandoned by all the disciples, and on the cross, it seems he feels abandoned by God. Three times he is mocked: at the Jewish trial, at the Roman trial, and on the cross. We men ought not ignore the fact that only the women stand by him throughout even if from a distance. They are still there. They witness his death. They see the place where he is buried, and go to anoint him when sabbath has past.
This section of Mark is different. Before there were small independent pieces strung together. Before, Jesus was almost always in the company of his disciples. Now he is isolated, and he goes to his death alone. Mark does not dwell on the personal suffering or the wounds of Jesus. Instead, Mark wants to concentrate on what it means with no distraction by the violent and brutal details. The motive is to uphold the innocence of Jesus, and that his death, contrary to all appearances, was according to the will of God.
The Passion in Mark’s Gospel draws together many themes we’ve seen before. Its like threads drawn into a tapestry. The rejection of Jesus by his enemies, the failure of his friends, the unfolding revelation of his true identity and his mission. Prophecies are fulfilled: He is rejected, mocked and killed by the authorities, betrayed by Judas, and denied by Peter. As Son of Man, he gives his life as a “ransom” for many remembering that this is not a trade-off doing something so we don’t have to. He does this to show how not to excuse us. In this Gospel, Jesus is always the teacher. He teaches us that suffering is inevitable. I see this part of the Gospel as a great drama moving to a climax that seems to be complete as the curtain falls at the end of a play. In Mark, rather than a curtain, a stone is rolled against the door to mark the end. Yet, as we know, the burial is not the end. I think of it as a void from which bursts a new beginning!
With that in mind, we may spend this day listening once again. Familiar as it is, this is the “Living Word” of God that can and should speak to us always new. It begins with a typical narrative technique Mark uses several times: a story within a story. As the Passion account begins, he uses only two verses to report the conspiracy at work, and then switches to an anointing in Bethany before going back to the conspiracy. What we get is two parts of a conspiracy, one from authorities, and the other from within the disciples. While their opposition is different, Mark uses the exact same language saying that they are both “looking for a way.”
Sit with the story a bit, and it may be a challenge to listen to it as Mark tells it. Details from other Gospel reports of this event can dilute what Mark is saying. In this gospel, the woman is not identified nor is she called “sinful.” She is simply “a woman.” As Mark unfolds this incident, the shame of it all is upon the men. The contrasts here can’t be ignored. Men murder, women comfort. Hatred is contrasted to love. She with no name enters a house to honor him spending a lot of money for this anointing A man with a name gives up Jesus for money, and he leaves the house to betray him.
As you listen to the planning for the destruction of Jesus, notice what anxious care these authorities have and what they are willing to do to keep the people on their side. The city is crowded with people celebrating what is really their liberation from the Egyptians. There is danger here that this could get out of control since they are longing for another liberation from the Romans, So, these authorities have a lot to lose. They are afraid of the people, fearful of an uprising, fearful of losing control, and fearful of the Romans. They are possessed by fear, and that fear drives their decisions. They stand before us as a potent reminder of how fear in leaders and in authorities can wreak havoc. Again, today, with God’s Word, might be a good time to look at the fears that haunt our lives and sometimes, and how we sometimes may be manipulating people as these authorities do without any doubts. Change is what they fear most, it seems to me, determined to secure their position, privilege, and authority, they will do anything to resist. Deeply insecure and far from considering the Will of the God they pretend to serve, something ugly and violent unfolds.
The details of days and time are a theological effort on Marks part to relate the death of Jesus to the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened bread. Mark follows the time line of Exodus rather than Leviticus or Numbers which also record the events of the Passover a little differently. Mark’s aim is to draw attention to the fact that Jesus died during the Jewish feast of liberation. So, he sets the last meal Jesus ate as the Passover, the commemoration of God’s deliverance from bondage.
“Surely it is not I” we hear in that room, and we are left with the shame that too often it has been. Then he takes the bread, and suddenly things are not right. I like to imagine the surprise and even the mumbling that might have taken place when Jesus departs from the very consistent ritual words of the Passover. He is departing from the past and words of the past when he lifts the bread and then the cup and speaking of his blood. There is something new happening here. On the way out, another dire prediction of the Passion comes from Jesus, and poor Peter who never gets a break in Mark’s Gospel makes a promise he will not keep just like us who have made promises we have not always so perfectly kept. They leave the meal singing, and usually it is Psalm 118 which begins: “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good.” At the end of the psalm comes these words: Blessed is he comes in the name of the Lord.” So, they go out much as they came in, but now with a note of victory and the glory to come.
The scene shifts to the Mount of Olives. Only three disciples go along as Mark tells it, and in spite of the instruction to sit, they sleep. You may notice that when Peter is rebuked for sleeping, Jesus does not use his new name. He calls him by the name of his old life. The three who are there, Peter, James, and John were there for the raising of a dead girl, and for the Transfiguration. Three times Jesus comes to them with three requests: be awake, watchful, and vigilant. These are three qualities for followers in the absence of Jesus.
What unfolds in Mark’s report from this garden is a contest between human will and the will of the Father. It is the will of Jesus for the cup to pass. He does not want to be put to the test. He wants some other way to fulfill God’s purpose for him. It’s a dramatic and powerful struggle. With great distress and anxiety, Marks tells us that Jesus “Threw himself on the ground.” It is a terrifying scene. Jesus is utterly alone. When I think of this scene, I think of a time when I threw myself on the ground while people around me sang a litany. At that moment, we too are utterly alone and committing ourselves to the will of God. For Jesus, at that moment, the die is cast and he says: “Enough.” It is over.
As we break until this afternoon, there way more than enough to ponder here with Chapter 14. Several words give this chapter some power: Watch, Hour, Cup, and Pray. These words get deeper and more powerful significance than they have on the surface. Then, “Suddenly”, Mark says, the betrayer is at hand. Let us pray.
Thursday Homily Mark 6: 7-13
It’s the twelve he sends out, not that inner circle of Peter, Andrew, James, and John. It’s all of them and it still is. It’s all of us. Jesus had a lot of confidence in that rag-tag group called from their nets, tax tables, families, and everything familiar and comfortable. There is no evidence at all that they are capable of doing what he asks, in fact, there is some reason to suspect that they were not. He sends them anyway, and they go with the power to do what Jesus does. Two by two they go by his instruction lest anyone of them start to think it’s all about them or that somehow, one of them might think they deserve some glory. I notice that he sends them all, not some and not the best and the brightest. Every single one of them is sent. No one is left out of the mission. We might need to decide whether or not we are outside of this story looking in, or whether or not we too are sent.
If Mark’s purpose is served by including this incident in the Gospel, then he must be making a point for the church, for us. That being the case, attention to the details of this instruction are important. We are told to take nothing. After all, what we have to give is what we have received from Jesus Christ, and these things cannot be contained in a sack or a belt.
One of the tragic things about our times is that so many people perceive life as mindless and meaningless. For that reason, so many young people choose drugs, alcohol, and suicide. Nothing in the media, in school, or among most of their peers prepares them to seek life’s meaning. They see nothing worth dying for. If there is nothing to die for, then there is nothing to life for. As a result, too many people look at their future and think of how they are going to make a living rather than think about how they will live their life. It isn’t just young people trapped in that pit. Even those of us in the last half of our lives might reflect carefully on why, how, and for what reason we have been chosen to live this long.
I really believe we have been sent to provide our people with a meaning to life, with hope to a fragmented world, and to restore God’s creation which has been in such chaos to order and beauty and peace We are to go simply to present meaning to the life that Jesus proclaimed: conversion of heart and a radical reorientation so that life is not just a stumbling walk to death, but rather an intense loving service to others on behalf of God.
Thursday Afternoon – Chapter 14 continued
Throughout the whole scene in the Garden, Jesus stands with fearless human dignity in stark contrast with the others in the scene. I always think that this dignity and fearlessness in the face of adversity is a great grace, and is the only way for us to face all the petty little things that complicate and disappoint us in this life. There are some little details in the scene worth some notice.
- That kiss from Judas is troubling. While it is a common way of greeting someone, Judas calls Jesus, “Rabbi.” No disciple would ever approach his Rabbi in that familiar way. It is intended as an insult. There is no respected friendship here.
- Then, hard as Mark is on Peter throughout the Gospel, when it comes to this act of violence with a sword, Peter is not named here. Only John’s Gospel does that. Mark would have us see how useless and ineffective violence is. By leaving this person unnamed, it becomes a message to all of us who might resort to or approve of violence.
- Finally, do not waist one minute over that detail of a “young man” running off naked. Not one scholar of this Gospel agrees with another, and the reality is, we don’t know. I always find people who can’t live without knowing everything to be very troubled.
The trials begin, but it’s really not a trial. Jesus is a Galilean peasant in their eyes, a man of low status up against the local powers. There is a presumption of guilt. The Book of Numbers and Deuteronomy lay out the procedure, and they follow it precisely. There must be two witnesses. Of course, the whole thing is irregular because the verdict is predetermined and the evidence is false. He did speak blasphemy. He did mix politics with religion which is treason. There are two charges against him, the destruction of the Temple and his claim to be the Son of God. At no point did Jesus claim that he would destroy the Temple or rebuild it in three days. Jesus stands there silent. Frustrated no doubt by this, the High Priest asks the second crucial question: “Are you the Christs, the Son of the Blessed?” Even though Peter has said this and the demons have said, Jesus never claimed this title himself. Now, with no possibility that the crowds would misunderstand the meaning, Jesus says: “I am.” Of course, these words mean more to them than we can ever imagine, and it seals his fate. This is a claim to Divine Identity. It is a moment of courage, something said at the cost of his condemnation. It is blasphemous, and it throws the whole question and expectation of a Messiah into question. How could this Galilean possibly be a Messiah? This is not what they expected, and they refused the plan of God. They will not have it, and will not have him. Leaving us in suspense at this point, Mark switches to Peter. We go from courage to cowardice.
Jesus is upstairs questioned by the High Priest. Peter is downstairs questioned by a servant. Jesus confesses his identity. Peter denies his own identity. Now the identity is settled that began this Gospel – Who is this? That is the question that this Gospel seeks to answer. By this time, we might be asking ourselves who we are and how our identity shows itself. The issue is not what we are, but who, and sometime spent tonight reflecting on that might be fruitful.
A second trial then begins. What we see here is a very dangerous social alliance between the occupied and the occupiers. There is an alliance of power here determined to keep things as they are. There is to be no change especially if it costs them their power and privilege. Whenever I think of this, I get uncomfortable about our times, our church, and our state. It is beginning to feel as though the separation of church and state is a one-way deal. We want the state out of our business, but we want to tell the state what to do. Personally, I think we have forgotten about the age of Enlightenment and the French Revolution. That moment in human history was not just about the Monarchy. It was an effort to eradicate the church which had become so deeply tangled up with royal power. The Hierarchy had become a kind of Monarchy.
Then there is Pilate who is anything but a weak and spineless character, a victim of Jewish pressure forced to crucify Jesus whom he thinks is “innocent” Rome did not appoint weak and spineless governors especially in places that needed to be controlled tightly. He knows that if Jesus is a threat to his allies, then Jesus is a threat to him as well. Yet, he can’t give in to their demands instantly or he looks weak. Instead, he conducts a pole manipulating the crowd making them beg for crucifixion. He makes them dependent upon him.
Pilate does not care about a Messiah. His wants to know if there is a political threat, so he asks if Jesus is the King of the Jews. The response of Jesus: “You say so” must have left Pilate shaking his head. From then on Jesus says nothing more. Then, a sub plot emerges with this man, Barabbas. There is no historical evidence for the practice of releasing a prisoner at Passover. Mark uses this to reveal a supreme truth about Jesus. Though sinless, he dies so that sinners may live. A sinner goes free.
Roman governors needed one skill, the ability to keep crowds quiet or under control, and he’s good at it. He tricks the crowd into being the judge, and he ends up looking like the benefactor when he says: “Release FOR you.” A roman custom of whipping is fulfilled which also fulfills Isaiah 50:6 I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffest and spitting.” What see here is two rival authorities manipulating each other, and in the middle of them stands one quiet figure who claims no authority at all but shows it with quiet dignity. We are left to see the real King and real authority. It raises for us the true nature of authority. In contrast to authority imposed from above, this is authority that comes from obedience to the Will of God. The real authority we see is not someone bossing people around or telling them what to so. Jesus exercises authority by service, through love, thereby revealing in revolutionary terms the way the ultimate Power of the universe works.
Everything in this Gospel builds toward one event told in only 21 verses, and the crucifixion in only four words without dwelling on the suffering and violence of a crucifixion. Ordinarily, a condemned person carried his own cross-beam. Jesus was either not able to carry it after the whipping, or he refused to carry it in defiance of the “customary expectations.” There was nothing out of the ordinary for soldiers to requisition someone to do their work, So, Cimon of Cyrene is pressed into service, maybe unwillingly. But, when I’ve sat with this scene imagining it visually, that cross-beam begins to look a lot like a yoke, and we’ve heard Jesus speak about that yoke and that burden.
Brief as Mark makes it without a lot of details, the suffering of Jesus raises the question of suffering for us all, and on Palm Sunday in just a few weeks, we will stand before the assembly proclaiming parts of this chapter 14 and 15. So many of our people believe that suffering is a punishment from God, but nothing could be further from the truth. God saves. God does not punish. The only reason God allows suffering is that good can come from it. Our pain can, if we allow it, bring us closer to God. Comfort comes from knowing that Jesus Christ, innocent and without sin, has gone down the road of suffering before us all the way to the end. I the midst of it, he cared about others, the women of Jerusalem, the thieves hanging with him, and of course, his mother. There was nothing but love in him, a love that poured out with his blood.
Jesus did not die to save us from suffering. He died to teach us how to suffer. The road of suffering is unique for everyone who makes the journey, but no one can offer comfort better than someone who has also suffered and is no stranger to pain. Find your pain – don’t hide it. It is a really a gift to be shared. Suffering and pain can make us bitter, or it can purify and make us noble, great, and holy. The greatest people I have known are people who have suffered. They are people who have confronted their pain with hope. The truth is, pain and suffering are an indispensable part of becoming truly human, people of compassion and maturity. These are people who do not run from life, but how embrace it with love and with hope.
Details about the crucifixion are few but full of meaning. These executions are carried out in public areas like a billboard announcing Rome’s dominance. Mark writes that Jesus refuses “Wine missed with myrrh” offered to hi m Perhaps this is a pain dulling mixture, but may also be a detail recalling what Jesus had said at the supper that he would not drink wine until he drinks it new in the Kingdom of God.
I think it is fruitful to read Psalm 22, that great Psalm of Lament, when reflecting on this Passion event. In the Psalms of Lament, there are always three characters: The Psalmist seeking to be faithful, the enemies who cause suffering, and then, God. In these psalms, there is always a shift from complaint to praise.
Three threats to Roman power are executed that day to remind anyone passing by that threats to Rome will not end well. Beside Jesus, there is a “Bandit” which can also be translated as “rebel.” There is also an “insurrectionist” which also means a “terrorist.” The whole scene recalls that conversation Jesus has with John and James who were seeking places of honor at the right and left of Jesus. In that conversation, Jesus challenged them about sharing in his death.
The Prophet Amos lived in the last half of the 8th century in the kingdom of Judah but preached in the northern kingdom of Israel. His preaching reminded the Israel that the covenant did not exempt them from the judgement of God because of their idolatry and unjust ways. In the eighth chapter there are these words: “On that day, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight.” Then, the Temple veil is torn. The verb is in the Passive voice – exactly the same word and grammar as at the Baptism of Jesus when the sky is torn open giving the sense that God did the tearing. Immediately, a Roman Centurion says what previously had been said by demons: “Truly this man was God’s Son.”
There is no avoiding or missing the fact that Jesus dies abandoned by men. Mark makes a point of telling us that women were there at a distance. Three are named, but there is a suggestion that it was a sizable group, and Mark would leave us to think that they were there all day from 9 in the morning till 3 in the afternoon. This Gospel would have us understand very clearly that Jesus died. If he died, then he was buried. He was buried on a certain day in a certain place by certain persons. This Joseph of Arimathea must have been a wealthy man. He had his own tomb. He did what disciples should have done. They are gone. With courage he went to Pilate asking for the body. Normally, the bodies of criminals were left to rot or be thrown into a common pit. The primary detail for Mark is the sealing of the tomb with a large stone. Controversies had already begun when Mark was writing about whether or not Jesus was dead or just asleep, whether he actually rose from the tomb or his body was stolen. Mark affirms that Jesus died. This is a Christological issue. The Incarnation was so real that Jesus died and was buried. There is no part of us that he did not assume.
I don’t think we have even begun to grasp the reality and the truth of the Incarnation.
Friday Homily Luke 2: 22-40
Two elders step into the Gospel today by name with Jesus right in the midst of them. In a sense, this is another nativity story. First it was some shepherds and now it’s these two old folks. To me it seems like Luke is hammering home his idea that Jesus comes to us, not to the big, powerful, important people. Jesus is found where ever people are gathered together waiting, just like us waiting now to go home. This happens in that temple where people would gather not just for sacrifice, but for all the rest of things that it took to hold that society together.
I see these two as perfect models of evangelists. They pray and the give thanks like Simeon. They announce the presence of Jesus to everyone waiting for redemption, like Anna. Today they give us a light and a sword to ponder. For Luke, the light holds promise for the gentiles coming into the light of Christ. For us there comes to mind those words spoken at the time we came to life in Christ enlightened by the fire of an Easter Candle. This feast can remind us that we are now a light in this world too often left in the dark. We lead by that light to the eternal light of the risen Christ.
There comes too that sword, a thing that divides or cuts in two. It is a starling image for what Jesus will accomplish and what salvation will require of us. A sword in the heart calls for discernment of what God is doing in our lives and reminds us of the painful consequences that often come from our discernment and choices. A discerning person sees things others miss, and therefore does things other people refuse to do.
So, here at the end of our time together, we gather in the light and accept the sword returning to our people looking for things and others that have been missed, and ready to do things other people refuse to do.
Friday Morning – Summary and Closing
Often an ending is not the end, but rather a beginning. That is surely the case with Mark’s Gospel as well as with us this week. A dead man rises from the tomb, and the Gospel ends in the middle of a sentence. In Chapter 16 the women find the stone rolled away when they come to anoint the body. A young man dressed in white is sitting on the right side, a place of honor. He tells them not to be alarmed, that Jesus has been raised, and that they should go and tell Peter and the disciples that Jesus has gone ahead of them to Galilee where they will see him. The passive voice is important, “he was raised.” God did this. It is divine intervention. Then, with these words the Gospel of Mark ends: “So, they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.”
Through all of this Gospel Mark has been preparing us for the triumphant victory over death, just as Jesus was preparing his disciples. But there is a sense in which no one could be prepared for the resurrection. The resurrection is not the awakening of a corpse. It is God’s decisive intervention in time and history by which human existence is radically and forever transformed. The resurrection is the final stage in God’s mighty act of deliverance freeing humanity from sin and restoring communion with Him. At this point, we are face to face with the announcement of victory over death leaving us to decide how we must respond.
Late in the second century, another author that the church accepts as inspired by the Holy Spirit adds another ten verses. In those verses, it is the Lord who finds his disciples. They do not find him just as at the beginning, Jesus found them. They did not choose him. There is divine initiative at work here first to a woman, the least likely and reliable. Then to those disciples who are still slow to believe. What we see here is the power of God who is able to overcome every human failure. We live with Mark’s Gospel in our own time with a call for a new Evangelization bringing this Gospel not just to mission lands, but to the secularized post-Christian culture all around us. The fruitfulness of our labor will depend upon our enthusiasm, joy, hope, and courage. The Gospel has no end unlike this retreat because the Gospel continues in the life of every one of us disciples for all time. I leave you today with the Gospel of Mark with the hope that the Holy Spirit will bring this Good News to life within you first for your own renewal in faith and then for the continual renewal of our Church which sometimes seems too afraid of the future, so timid, so ashamed of its failures as was Peter. We cannot look backward and pretend that earlier days and ways were better. If we do, we are like those women who were so afraid of what it might mean to live with and in the presence and power of God.