Tuesday, February 20, 2024

The Roman Rite Mass and Language of Ritual Part Three

In a conversation about the Liturgy with someone recently, they expressed some surprise and not just a little annoyance when a fairly young priest said to her: “The Mass is a sacrifice. That talk about a meal and the altar as a table is just some Protestant idea that is totally wrong.” I wondered to myself at the time why it was an either-or matter in his mind. Then I began to wonder if that priest had paid any attention to the narrative of the Last Supper. I don’t think we call it the “Last Sacrifice.” The more I thought about it I wondered if that young man had any knowledge of Covenant which happens to be what was instituted and sealed at that meal in an upper room. Every Covenant in the whole history of salvation as recorded in the Scriptures involves a sacrifice and a meal. They always ate. They always consumed something in accepting and entering into a Covenant. The Old Covenant was sealed by the sacrifice of a lamb, and then the act of consuming what has been sacrificed binds one into the Covenant.

It is entirely possible that one or the other of these realities: sacrifice or meal might gain more importance or receive more attention from time to time, but it’s not a good idea to exclude either one. Doing so distorts everything and interferes with the action of God. Both sacrifice and meal contribute to the things we say and do in our ritual response to God’s action and Word. Let’s sort that out tonight.

The Paschal Sacrifice of Christ cannot be understood at all without understanding the Passover Sacrifice. The whole new Covenant springs out of the fulfillment of the Old Covenant. It isn’t by chance that Matthew carefully casts Jesus in the image of Moses. It is entirely possible that Jesus saw Moses as his role model. Both what he says and what he does leaves little doubt about the influence of Moses and the Torah on Jesus himself. His life in the synagogue, his participation in the Feasts at the Temple root him firmly in Israel’s tradition.

There are some questions that can lead deeply into the profound meaning of what we say, what we do, and why. The first question is, “What does God ask of us?” The answer to that question is found in the Book of Exodus when Moses, at God’s insistence approaches Pharaoh petitioning for the freedom of the Israelites. In Chapter 8 it says: “Go to Pharaoh and say to him: ‘Let my people go so that they may worship me.” Right there you have the answer of what God asks of us. Worship. The whole point of saving people is for worship. We know how that story unfolds as Moses goes back and forth between plagues. Finally, near the end Pharaoh tells Moses it’s OK to go and take some stuff, sheep, and goats with them. Moses says, “No.” We need to take everything because we do not know what the Lord will ask of us.  With the last plague, as we know, Pharaoh has had enough, and the Israelites take everything and head out into the desert. The first place they go is to Mount Saini. They don’t know how to worship. They have been slaves. At this point in the history of salvation, they are not really a people, but there they find out. They discover that the heart of religion is worship, and the heart of worship is sacrifice. What we give to God is sacrifice.

Let me remind you what they are instructed to do. They are to take a year-old lamb, and the first thing they are told to do is to take it into their home. Now, remember when we were little and would come home with a stray cat or dog and want to keep it? I’m not sure about your home, but I can tell, Ruth and Ted always said no, and that was the end of it. As an adult, I have begun to understand why it was “no”. They did not want us to become attached to it especially if the owner would show up and take it back breaking our hearts. Well, there are two reasons why God required that the little lamb be taken into the home: to keep it safe and unblemished, and to let a relationship of love grow. 

Then, the instructions continue. When it was time for the Passover, the lamb was to be carried to the temple, carried, again to keep it unblemished. Once at the Temple, it was lifted up in a place with a high wall where someone opened its throat catching the blood in a bowl. By that lifting up, the lamb was presented. It was not offered. There is a difference. That bowl was then taken into the holy place and the blood was poured out onto the altar. At that moment, it was offered to the Father. It was an “oblation.” That somewhat technical word means it was offered to God, offered in such a way that there was nothing left. God was given it all. That’s an oblation. There can be all sorts of sacrifices for all sorts of reason. An athlete makes sacrifices in training to become better. That’s not an oblation. Notice and hear the language we use in the Liturgy. After the Oblation takes place, the dead lamb was taken home to be roasted and a feast was held to which others were invited who might not be able to afford a lamb. The story of the Passover was told again beginning with the youngest person present asking a question: “What does this mean?” The point of worship, the whole point of sacrifice is that you give up something you love. You give it all.

The question still stands for us: How has God asked us to worship him? In the Old Covenant, Take a lamb and slaughter it. In the New Covenant, how does he ask for worship? Do this in memory of me. That’s how God wants us to worship: Do This. At the moment in the Liturgy when the Words of Institution are spoken, that is the presentation. That is when the lamb is lifted up to the wall. When those sacred elements are held up in the hand. At that moment, we are confronted with the Mystery of Faith. It is presenting. It is not worship.

Worship is offered when the priest takes the body and blood of Christ and lifts it high with these extraordinary words that say it all: Through Him, With Him, and In Him, God, Almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirt, all glory and honor is yours forever and ever. That is the moment of fulfillment. That is the moment of true worship. It is the moment when the Father is glorified. And what do we say at that moment? Amen. The instructions call it “The Great Amen.” In my experience as priest it is more like the “Lame” Amen. It is just a signal to get off our knees. If there is ever a time for bell ringing and incense smoking, it is right here, at this moment, not at the presentation moment. The whole purpose of the presentation is the oblation. The whole purpose of the consecration is the offering of Christ’s Body to the Father. Through Him. With Him. In Him. Do you remember what is said after that? (All Glory and Honor) Isn’t that exactly what you said you were going to do after the gifts were placed on the altar?

Let’s review that just for the sake of emphasis. Just before the Eucharistic Prayer’s Preface begins, the priest says to the assembly: Let us pray that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the Almighty Father. Then, what does the assembly say? “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his holy church.”

My friends with those words those present are exercising the priesthood into which we were all called and anointed at our Baptism. You cannot waste your priesthood by watching. You have to get into the worship giving glory and praise to God. People may not sit in a pew and watch as though they were watching the Super B owl. In fact, when I think about it, those watching the game are probably on their feet shouting and excited way more excited than most people taking up space in a church on Sunday. The Father asks us to worship and give glory. The Father is glorified and the world is saved only if we stop watching and start worshipping. 

We are not re-enacting the last supper. For me, the prefix “re” suggests doing something again. We are not doing something over again. We have to be careful with that word, “remember.” We are not repeating something that happened in history. In the experience of the liturgy, there is no past. We are in a sense, in the future. This is why I think having a clock in the Church is a bad idea. The moment we step across the threshold of worship in the liturgy, we are outside of time. There is no time in the presence of God. We are actualizing the same gracious deeds God accomplished for us and for our salvation. In the liturgy, the notion of time is one in which a saving act that occurred once and for all at a time and place in saving history is experienced still, here and now, in a new experience until it is fulfilled at God’s saving initiative and in God’s good time at the end of time. 

There are three final ritual gestures important to understand and reflect upon: the fraction rite, the greeting of peace, the reception of Holy Communion with the conclusion of the Sacred Liturgy, and what we begin to see with these final actions is something that is not too surprising. The longer something is done, the more we have to say about it. Just like it is in our lives, the longer we live, the more stuff we accumulate. The oldest of prayers are always shortest until someone decides to revise them and then they get longer: more words! If you just look at the Eucharistic Prayers in the Latin Rite, you can see it. Eucharistic Prayers Two and Three which have their origins in the 4th and 5th century, they are much shorter than the Roman Canon that comes from the 16th century. Longer still is Eucharistic Prayer Four which was adapted from a Swiss Canon composed in the 20th century.

In the very early days as Christian communities were forming and multiplying, it became increasingly possible for the one responsible for teaching, leading, and sanctifying to be present at each assembly. There developed the custom of distributing a portion of the Body of Christ consecrated at the Principal celebration to the outlying communities as a sign of their unity all together. Someone designated would take a small portion of the Consecrated Bread to other places where it would be mixed in or added to what was on the altar in the outlying place. It was either dropped into the Chalice or mixed into the Consecrated Bread already on the altar. Obviously uniting them in a visible and powerful way to the Leader, (Bishop) and the principal church or “Mother Church” as it was sometimes referred to. As an aside, we accomplish today with the Holy Oils. After the Chrism Mass, every community takes some of the Oil Blessed or Consecrated by the Bishop back home to the local church. It provides for us the same sign that was made with this ancient “Fraction rite.” 

As that custom of sending out a small portion of the Consecrated Bread to each of the communities became increasingly difficult to maintain, an allegorical meaning was attached to the action. The church has always seemed to have a problem recognizing practical things as simply that. For instance, in some Byzantine Rites, there is a ritual gesture of adding hot water to the consecrated wine just before Communion. The water sits over a candle warming all through the liturgy. The purpose of adding the water is to thaw, or soften, the wine which has become somewhat congealed during the long liturgy in frigid cold climate and church.  It’s simply a practical matter introduced to solve a problem. Once the liturgy was celebrated in a warm climate and once churches had some heat, the purpose has to be repurposed to make sense. Water gets added to the wine for us in the Latin Rite simply because the wine used early on tasted terrible. It was a crude drink always on the edge of being spoiled because there was no refrigeration. To make it palatable, they diluted it. The elegant blends of fine wines had not yet been considered. They used what they had. Historians tell us that no one today would drink that stuff. 

It’s the same thing with the washing of hands in the Latin Rite. Early in the formation of the Eucharistic Liturgy, the gifts brought to the altar were many, messy, and varied. After receiving and handling all of that stuff, hand washing was appropriate. When the custom of bringing something out of everything you had had passed away, the hand washing continued now with a prayer to shift the action from practicality to piety. The result is now reflected in the prayer the priest says as water is poured over his hands. It comes from a Psalm, “Wash me, O Lord, from my iniquity and cleanse me from all my sins.” A practical custom of cleaning up has become a prayer for forgiveness and purity.

The same thing has happened with the fraction rite. First of all, the bread had to be broken up into serving sized pieces. There was also that old custom of adding a portion from the Bishop’s Liturgy that had been brought there. Suddenly, or perhaps gradually, when the practical matter no longer was necessary, an allegorical reason gets added in the form of a prayer which completely changes the meaning of the ritual action.

With the typical efficiency of the Western, Latin, Roman rite, the priest says these words which you rarely hear because a Litany is being sung (Lamb of God). As he breaks off a small piece of the larger portion, (think of the original action) he drops it into the chalice with these words: “May the mingling of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ bring eternal life to us who receive it.”

The Eastern Churches which, by culture, are far more inspired by allegorical ideas, have an even greater and more spiritual dimension to this breaking and mixing. In the Maronite Rite with which I am more familiar, the assembly begins to sing, and the priest, with the large consecrated host in his right hand breaks it over the chalice in two parts; then he breaks a piece from the edge of the half remaining in his left hand saying: “We have believed and have approached and now we seal and break this oblation, the heavenly bread, the Body of the Lord, who is the living God.” Then he dips the small piece into the chalice in the form of a cross saying: “We sign this chalice of salvation and thanksgiving with the forgiving ember which glows with heavenly mysteries.” Then he dips the Body of Christ into the Blood three times saying: “In the name of the Father, the Living One, for the living; and of the only Son, the Holy One, begotten of him, and like him, the Living One , for the living; and of the Holy Spirit, the beginning, the end, and the perfection of all that was and will be in heaven and on earth; the one, true and blessed God without division from whom comes life forever.” Then, he sprinkles the Body three times, using the small piece that has been dipped into the Blood saying: “The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ is sprinkled on his holy Body, In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  Then, he drops the small piece into the Blood of Christ and says: “You have united, O Lord, your divinity with our humanity and our humanity with your divinity, your life with our mortality and our mortality with your life. You have assumed what is ours and you have given us what is yours for the life and salvation of our souls. To you be glory forever.” The priest then presents the consecrated host and the chalice to the people who together say: “O Lord, you are the pleasing Oblation, who offered yourself for us. You are the forgiving Sacrifice, who offered yourself to your Father. You are the High Priest, who offered yourself as the Lamb. Through your mercy, may our prayer rise like incense which we offer to you Father through you. To you be glory forever.”

This is the Eastern Church’s way of worship – the giving of Glory and Praise to God. It is that elevation of the Sacrament with the words Through, With, and In – To you be glory forever.  That is worship! 

What does the action mean we could ask as the child asks at the Passover Meal. That lifting up and those words mean that God is worshiped, praised, and glorified by God’s Son Jesus and by all of us through, with, and in him. This cannot be observed or watched. The fraction rite does not mean that the sacrifice of Christ was the breaking of his body. The Body of Christ must be broken, yes; but that Body is the ekklesia, the church. We have to be broken in service, and when we are, we are one with Christ. If we are doing nothing, if we’re sitting there watching, there is no worship.

Before we can get to the moment of union, we have to deal with something that is very real and somewhat contradictory. We have to deal with, acknowledge and ritually address our sinful brokenness. Just before the distribution of Communion, the Liturgy, or is it God, invites us to exchange a sign of peace with our brothers and sisters in faith many of whose names we do not even know. The peace that Christians offer each other is a divine gift, never simply the fruit of personal sentiments or feelings. The person with whom I exchange peace is a symbol of the person whom I most need to forgive and the person from whom I hope to receive forgiveness. This is a profound and sacred act. It is not time to be looking around for your friends. You don’t need to be reconciled, forgive, or be forgiven by your friends. Likewise, introducing yourself to someone behind or in front of you is not for this time. You should have already done that when you arrived. This is a time for husbands and wives to simply say, “I’m sorry” and mean it. It is a time for children to look up to their parents and feel the same sorrow, or to look at one another to forgive and find forgiveness for their fights and lies, and meanness. This is about seeking and giving pardon because, we are about to approach the altar of forgiveness, and we had better be at peace, for there might be consequences if we are not. To say to one another, Peace be with you,” means to recognize in each other the need for and the gift of forgiveness. We began the Liturgy by accepting the Lord’s forgiveness. Near the end, give what we have received. 

In the logic of the Liturgy, the two or three people standing near me with whom I exchange peace become in that moment a sign of the real person with whom I recently reconciled or with whom I hope to reconcile soon. In that gesture of peace, I express my openness to peace and reconciliation, received from God. I receive, so to speak, a mandate that I am called to make a part of my daily living. I receive the gift of peace that I am also called to give. The truth of the sign of peace is made manifest by the respect and seriousness with which I give it. If I exchange peace in a superficial and thoughtless way, I run the risk of banalizing so great a gift. It might mean that I have lived this peace in a superficial and thoughtless way as well. If I exchange peace with all, in reality I give it to no one, in the rite and in life. This is personal. It is immediate. It is real.

With peace and forgiveness established, we may now approach the God of mercy and love to be fed, and to become what we eat. There is a procession, seeing it and joining it pulls us deeper into the church. We are a people on a journey toward the Kingdom of God. The procession is an image of all humanity on the way toward God, each of us in our own circumstances and states of life. All go toward the altar. Each of us just as we are with our burdens, our misery, our labors because we are hungry for the bread of mercy, the bread of eternal life that only God can give. In some ways, it is a vision of things to come. 

A French writer named: Christian Bobin describes the Communion Procession of the Faithful on Easter morning. Close your eyes and imagine:

At the moment of Communion, at the Easter Mass, the people got up in silence, walked down the side aisles to the back of the church, then turned one by one up the central aisle, advancing to the front. Where they received the host from a bearded priest with silver-rimmed glasses, helped by two women with faces hardened by the importance of their role, the kind of ageless women who change the flowers on the altar before they wilt and take care of God like he was a tired old husband. Seated at the back of the church, waiting my turn to join the procession, I looked at the people, their postures, their back, their necks, the profiles of their faces. For a second my view opened and I saw all of humanity, its millions of individuals, included in this slow and silent flow; old and adolescent, rich and poor, adulterous women and earnest girls, crazies, killers and geniuses, all scraping their shoes on the cold, rough stone tiles of the church floor, like the dead who will rise patiently from their darkness to go receive the light. Then I understood what the resurrection will be like and the stunning call that will precede it. 

There is not much more to say after that except to remind you that there is one final intense gesture, raising our arms and opening our hands to receive the Body of Christ. Open hands like people about to receive a gift. It is a gesture that must reveal an interior attitude. It is an act of the Spirit. To open one’s hands is the purest human gesture one can make to represent openness to receiving a gift. The posture of one who is standing, with arms out and hands open, signifies not only openness to receive but also total vulnerability and inability to harm. Open hands are confident hands. One who wants to take something from someone, to take possession, does not open their hands but tightens them. We do not grab. We do not take. We receive from someone else. What we receive is salvation in the Eucharistic Bread, a sacrament freely given by the Father. 

Liturgy then, is heaven on earth and at the same time also the threshold of heaven. It is the most sacred thing we do, because through and in it, we humans touch God and are embraced by God. Liturgy is the breaking into our world of all that is of God and of the kingdom of heaven.  What we have in the Liturgy, my friends, is a dynamic school of prayer in which the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit teach us, the believer, how to pray with three important elements: Hearing, Interiorization, and Interpretation. Teaching someone to pray also is teaching someone to believe, and in learning to pray, we learn to believe. I can’t think of a better way to conclude this day than by taking the concluding prayer from the Divine Liturgy of the Maronite Rite. “I leave you in peace, O holy Altar, and I hope to return to you in peace. May the offering I have received from you be for the forgiveness of my faults and the remission of my sins, that I may stand without shame or fear before the throne of Christ. I do not know if I shall be able to return to you again to offer another sacrifice. I leave you in peace. “

Night 2 of 3 St Finbarr Naples, FL

Monday, February 19, 2024

The Roman Rite Mass and Language of Ritual Part Two

Saint Ambrose, in writing “On the Sacraments” tells us that the Eucharistic celebration is a mystery of forgiveness and reconciliation. The entire celebration is filled with gesture and words about reconciliation and forgiveness. From what is properly called: “The Penitential Act” with its “Lord, Have Mercy” litany to those words spoken over the chalice: “Poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins, to the Rite of Peace, to the Lord’s Prayer, to the Lamb of God, it’s all about forgiveness. 

There are four elements in what we could call the Introductory Rite: a greeting, the penitential act, the doxology, and the prayer. These are not separate actions. Think of them like ascending steps. The purpose is for us to enter into the presence of the Lord. The first authentic act the assembly is called to carry out is to approach God’s presence. There is a reciprocal presence here. Psalm 24 was composed for a liturgical entry into the Jerusalem Temple. It goes like this: “Who shall ascend the mountain of the Lord? And who shall stand in His holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts.” In the Scriptures, the “pure and just one” is not the one who is without sin but the one who recognizes their sin. When you remember this, those words: “Let us remember or call to mind our sins” become the first act of the assembly. Only the just one shall stand before the Lord, and who is the just one? It is the sinner who knows their own sinfulness. Our Confiteor Prayer then recognizes our sin. With that comes the great “doxology”. 

Doxos is a Greek word meaning “Glory.” Having been made pure by the mercy of God, the assembly expresses its intention to carry out an act of worship. In the Bible there are five cultic verbs: Praise, Bless, Adore, Glorify, and Thank. Do you recognize these verbs in the great hymn that is part of the Introductory Rite? As the hymn goes on, a simple Creed expresses the Holy Trinity. You alone are the Holy One. You alone are the Lord. You alone are the most high-Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit in the Glory of God the Father. After that, the Introductory Rite ends with a prayer that affirms how we pray and why we pray: through Christ our Lord.

So, with that fresh in our minds, we must ask and wonder what it means spiritually. The answer, to put it briefly, is that we are both a holy people and a sinful people: holy by reason of the one who is in our midst and sinful by reason of what we have done and what we have failed to do. Humanity’s misery stands face to face with God’s mercy here. It’s like that woman caught in adultery. There she is standing before the Lord of mercy. The work of the Liturgy to come is to resolve that conflict. In our usual way of thinking everything is about us, the thought has developed that Liturgy or “Liturgia” in Greek refers to the words we say or what we do in ritual worship.  Maybe we need to get over ourselves because, it also refers to the work of God and what God is doing. Instead of being all concerned about what we do and how well we do it, we might shift our thought to what God is doing which is far more important. Thinking of Liturgy as the work of God among us, as Benedict says in his rule, changes our whole perspective and perhaps our attitude about and our presence in the Liturgy. As I said at the beginning, God is doing something here. Pay attention.

An element in the Penitential Act that is more often ignored than observed is silence. It is essential. It must be austere, intense, and severe. It ought to last long enough to make us feel uncomfortable. Not uncomfortable because we want to get things moving, but uncomfortable because we are in shame. When I am presiding, I take this moment seriously. Why not take it seriously? I want God to take me seriously. I take God seriously. I once overheard of the servers at the last parish I served say to another one: “He must have a lot of sins to remember!” When that silence does conclude with the Confiteor or a litany of God’s merciful qualities, there comes a blessing prayer in which the attributes of mercy, compassion and holiness are expressed by invoking the name of the Lord. This is not absolution.

At this point then, it is necessary to resolve a confusion that often arises over this Penitential Act and the Rite of Reconciliation. We cannot reduce to a simple recited formula the powerful work of God moving a person to conversion and repentance. The Sacrament of Penance expects a period of conversion and penance. The naming of the sin, the recognition and the claiming of the consequences of specific sin, is the journey we might call Reconciliation.

It took me a long time to see it, so I’ll bet that most of you have never noticed that the only time Jesus reads the Scriptures is in the context of the Liturgy. He’s in the synagogue and he takes up the scroll. In the synagogue during the prayer it happens. In Luke’s Gospel, the ministry of Jesus begins with that scene, an act of worship. His first public act is liturgical in the synagogue not in the Temple. What happens in that synagogue is the institution of the Liturgy of the Word. What happens in an upper room is the institution of the Eucharistic Liturgy. Both moments of Institution happen in the same way and with the same words. “He took in his hands.” First, he took the scroll of the Prophet in his hands. Then he takes the bread and cup in his hands.

The Second Vatican Council proclaimed that it is Christ who speaks when the Scriptures are read in the church. For me, that is one of the most important and profound messages of the Council. When we read the Scriptures in the assembly, it is Christ proclaiming the Good News once again. If we really believed that, how could we sit back and not be on the edge of our seats with eyes and ears wide open. Jesus Christ is speaking to us right then and there. This is not some “back in the day” moment when we are recalling something Jesus said once long ago. It is now. Jesus Christ is speaking to us right now in this place. This is the living Word of God, not some old diary or journal entry made 2,000 years or so ago. Think for a moment what effect this reality should have on the reader both in terms of their appearance, their preparation, and the sound of their voice.

We must notice another detail in Luke’s Gospel. He writes: “And Jesus went to the synagogue on the Sabbath.” He did not go into an empty room. He went into the midst of a people gathered together. This is not just describing a physical action like walking into a room. It means convening together with the believers in the same place in order to be a member of the gathering. For a Christian to enter a church, for every believer to enter his place of worship, means entering into and becoming part of a people’s entire history of faith. It means choosing to be a member of the historical body, present and past, of the community of believers. See how this anticipates and foretells the Mystery of Faith. God’s plan is to gather all people together through, with, and in Jesus Christ. It becomes a kind of sign of what is to come. So, the assembly gathered in worship is a sign of what is to come. Look around and use that gift we call, “imagination.” To summarize this simply, the assembly is the place where God continues to speak to us and Jesus proclaims the Good News. And so, when we hear the Gospel proclaimed, some event in the past is not being recalled as though it was history. The work of God through Jesus Christ is made present now. The assembly is essential. I came to this realization when I learned some time ago that to this day, in every synagogue of the world, the scroll of the Law may not be removed from the Arc unless there are ten adult men present. It is not enough for the book of the Law to be present and read. It is absolutely necessary that there be people present to hear it. Here is the difference between a Scripture Study class and the proclamation of the Word of God in the Liturgy.

This reality has implications regarding the assembly. They are there to listen not to read. It is about hearing, not about reading. It means that they ought to be able to hear which says something about a sound system and about the one who speaks. There are details in Luke’s Gospel that give us even more to attend to. The attendant hands the scroll to Jesus who is the lector. The scroll is not his property. In fact, to make the point more clearly, Luke tells us that when he finished, he handed the scroll back to the attendant. That scroll belongs to the community on whose behalf the attendant acts. The community is the care taker. So, in the Christian assembly, the lector receives from the church the Sacred Text to read. They do not bring their own. The book is on the ambo because it belongs to the church. When finished, the lector leaves it there because it is in the keeping of the assembly just as the Eucharist is in the care of the church. One other thing to note from Luke’s Gospel. When Jesus received the scroll, he read from the passage assigned for the day it tells us. He did not just pick out something he wanted to preach on or read. It is the same for the Lector in the Liturgy. They read the passage assigned by the church for the day. In reference to the lector, Saint Benedict had this to say, and I sometimes wonder how we could have ignored it: “No one shall presume to read or sing unless he is able to benefit the hearers; let this be done with humility seriousness, and reverence, and at the abbot’s bidding.”Watch this, remember, and think about this the next time you are at Mass. Those Sacred Scriptures are ours. God has given us his word. Think of that the next time you hear the words: “and the Word was made flesh.”

In the First Testament Book of Nehemiah another important element is passed on to us, the visibility of the Book of the Law of the Lord. In the 8th chapter it says: “Ezra brought the law before the assembly. The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose. Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen. Amen.” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.”

What is important here is the book must be seen before it is heard. The people express their faith because to be before the book of the law is to be before the Lord. It is a ritual action manifesting the presence of God in the midst of the people. Even today in a synagogue this ritual gesture is repeated. Before it is read, the scroll is held up open for the people to see, and then it is carried through the assembly as the people venerate it and sing. We declare by this gesture that the book belongs to all who have free access to the word of salvation. And so, when the reading is finished, the book stays where it is, where it belongs where all the people have access to it.

When it comes to the Book of the Gospels, the Good News, even more attention and more ritual behavior is evident. The Book itself is beautiful. It is always to be treated with great reverence. It is not tucked under the arm to carry around. It is held high, brought through the assembly, and it is enthroned on the altar which is free of any other object at this point.  It has the same dignity as the Eucharistic gifts. It is not just an object used it in worship. It is an object of worship. Again, the Second Vatican Council put it this way: “The Christian is nourished by the Bread of Life …from the one table of the Word of God and the Body of Christ.” That is why the Gospel Book is on the altar – it will feed us. “Not on bread alone does one live, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” In the Eastern churches, the Book of the Gospels is enthroned on the altar even outside the liturgical celebrations. It is always there just as the Eucharistic consecrated elements are always in the tabernacle. 

When it is time to feed the people with the Good News, the book is taken from the altar just as the Body and Blood of Christ are taken from the altar when it is time to feed the people. Remember these words from John 6, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.” But just verses before that he says: “Anyone who hears my word has eternal life.” We cannot overlook that the Gospel is lifted up from the altar. Ultimately every Gospel leads to the proclamation of the Passion. The Gospel and the Cross cannot be separated, and for that reason, we sign ourselves at the time of the Gospel’s proclamation because this is the book of the crucified.

Tying all of this together I want to point out an interesting little part of this ritual that is too often ignored or just passed over without any question when we should be asking the question a child asks at the Passover: “What does this mean?” Just before communion begins, there is a little one-line verse often ignored. Why is it there and what does it mean? At the heart of the Eucharistic celebration, at the moment we receive the body and blood of the Lord, the Liturgy reminds us of the intimate relationship between the Book of the Gospels and the altar, between the Word and Eucharist. That’s where something called, “The Communion Antiphon” comes in, and what it does. It is a moment, just as communion is about to begin which is why it is called an “Antiphon” meaning that it comes “before.” 

In the 13th century, the reception of communion by the faithful disappeared. With it disappeared the Communion Chant. Only the antiphon remained. A fragment of what it once was, it still reminds us that there is a connection between being fed and nourished by the Word and being fed and nourished by the Bread of Life. That little fragment is spoken or sung over, so to speak, the Eucharistic bread and chalice so that the broken bread and the broken word form a single reality in the sacrament. Hearing a verse from the Gospel of the day just proclaimed reinforces the unity of the table of Christ and the Bread of Life. That verse becomes an invitation to enter into deeper communion with God. But even more so, it says that the Gospel is fully realized only through the communion in the body and blood of Christ. Think of it this way: Pope Gregory the Great commented on the Emmaus story saying, “They…recognized in the breaking of the bread the God they did not know as he explained the Sacred Scriptures.”

Let’s turn our attention now to the gifts. There is here an unmistakable ritual act There is a definite ethical dimension to this act. If you want to really get to the roots of this, the 26th Chapter of Deuteronomy will take you there. It calls into question the right to possess. It is an act of Thanksgiving that acknowledges both the obligations of those gifted and their responsibility for those who are without. This action of the Liturgy is not just a way to get the dishes to the altar. In Deuteronomy, all of the demands about tithing are there to make certain that the poor do not have to beg. 

Saint Augustine insists that when we make an offering, we are offering ourselves. This rite of presentation directly involves the faithful who are present even though only two or three may actually bring the gifts to the altar. This is in obedience to the Law of Moses (Deuteronomy 16) “No believer may come before the altar with empty hands, because the vocation of every person is to offer the world to God by her own hands.” When you realize that this is the law of Moses, you might begin to question how that law can be dismissed while Murder, Stealing, Lying, and Adultery get to be such big things. Who makes the priorities? This presentation of the gifts is a priestly act that demonstrates the priestly character of all the Baptized. These gifts represent us. It is we who are placed on that altar, it is we who are sanctified by and through these gifts which, by the power of the Holy Spirit will soon become the Body of Christ.

Let’s think about what is offered: bread, wine, and water, but let’s do so because these are the elements Christ took into his hands. The prayer said by the priest is remarkable. “Blessed are you, Lord”. That is an acclamation and an affirmation of faith in the Blessedness of God. We are not “blessing something”. It is not the Bread and Wine that are blessed, but the God of the Universe, the God of all creation. When you stop to think about it, bread is extraordinary. Every culture has some form of bread as its staple. It is the most basic of foods, and everywhere it is a metaphor for food. To lack bread means to lack food to lack that on which we depend to live and without it we die.

Unlike bread, there is the wine which is not a principle of sustenance. We can live without wine. Yet, wine adds an element of gratuity and suggests a feast. It is a drink of joy and pleasure. It is call to community and festivity and it promotes a spirit of joy and fellowship. So, these two elements, bread and wine are the signs of human life, signs of work and signs of play, fatigue and joy, need and excess. I bake bread every week. I never buy bread in the store. When I started, I noticed that my bread would last about four days before mold begins to grow. I also noticed that bread from the store might last two weeks leaving me to wonder what chemical is in that long-lasting bread. So, out of some caution and some doubt that my life would be prolonged by that chemical, I have been baking a loaf about every five days. In doing so, I have begun to reflect and pray as I do so. It strikes me very powerfully, that the dough in my hands is alive. It rises, it eats the sugars in the grain and produces gasses that lift up the dough making what at first is heavy light and fragrant. Then I bake it, and it dies. Then I eat what has died and I live. It is a spiritual revelation worth turning you into domestic bakers. Try it.

Now for the Eucharist. There are other gifts to relieve the suffering of the poor. To me, this makes the Eucharist a source of social transformation, and the source and power for that transformation is here in this ritual of sharing, out of duty and gratitude. It adds another dimension to the Eucharist that makes it the food of charity. If it is the Bread of Life, then it is also the Bread of Love. There is a connection between sacramental practice and the practice of justice. What is not shared is wasted. Our Sacred Liturgy offers a challenge to the church in the world. In a society dominated by the strongest among us, the Eucharist is a real threat. In a society where individualism triumphs, the Eucharist reminds us of the common destiny of all humanity. In a society where waste prevails, the Eucharist is a call to share. The Eucharist forges a theology of charity, for charity is a mystery that is both sacramental and prophetic. The Eucharist is just as social as theological. It is where the ethic of service is rooted. The truth is, there can be no communion with God without sharing with our brothers and sisters. To receive communion is to be a communion. 

Maybe at this point we should think about this communion to which we belong. How the church prays determines what the church is. Consider this, there are three successive movements that make up the dynamic of a liturgical assembly – which is the Church. 

God calls his people together. God speaks to his people. God enters into a covenant with this people. The origin of every Liturgy is the call of God and response of the people. The first liturgical action is the response and gathering of the people.

John Chrysostom has some fascinating and enlightening comments about the Greek word: ekklesia. I get side tracked sometimes by words, especially nouns and verbs. Ekklesia is a noun composed of the preposition ek, which means from and the verb, “kaleo” which means call. Therefore, ekklesia is “the convocation”, the “call forth from” that leads us to understand ekklesia as those called together.

Now, back to Chrysostom. He says that the ekklesia is not the bishop’s house but the house of God’s people. With that he instructs in this way, “The Bishop is not to greet those who gather there like the head of a house might greet guests. Christians who gather in assembly are not the guests of the one who presides. Rather, they are gathered in their own house because the Church is the common home of all.”

The one who presides is also a member of the assembly. He too comes in response to the call of God to gather. He too confesses his sins, hears the Word of God proclaimed, offers thanksgiving and is nourished by the body and blood of the Lord in order to become, with the members of the community he serves, one body in Christ. What I think is important to point out here is that the Liturgy does not begin with the opening song or the sign of the cross. It begins with God calling together the people and the people responding to this call by gathering in assembly.

What makes an assembly an ekklesia is the Word of God. Hearing the Word of God is what made Israel “the people of God.” This is why God says through the Prophet, Jeremiah, (7,23) “This command I gave them, obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people.” It is the proclamation of the Word of God that gives birth to the church. This means that the assembly is the home of the Word. For that reason, the Ambo is the special place of the Scriptures. Observe this. The book is not held in the hands of the lector, because it does not belong to the lector. It is placed on the ambo and it remains there even when the assembly disperses. We are saying something by this behavior. Is anyone listening we might wonder?

At the same time what makes an assembly an ekklesia is also at the same time what makes an ekklesia is an assembly. That’s not doubletalk. This begins to unfold for us in the Epistle to the Hebrews chapter 10,” Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me.” This is not simply a reference to the historical body of Jesus but the body that is the church, the people God has gathered through him. Since the day of Pentecost, the work of the Holy Spirit has been to continue the mission of Christ, the gathering of the dispersed children of God giving the people a new covenant. The close connection between the Holy Spirit and the Eucharist cannot be ignored. The end purpose to which Christians are called in assembly is the body of Christ. The transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ by the action of the Holy Spirit is not, in fact, an end in itself; rather, the gifts are transformed so that those who eat them may become what they receive.

The church cannot be satisfied with having the Eucharist. It is not something to be possessed. The Eucharist serves no purpose if it remains simply an object to be possessed and adored. The church, however, is called to become the Eucharistic body of the Lord. To receive communion is to be a communion. When we understand that the purpose of the Eucharist is to make us one body, a communion of brothers and sisters in faith, we will no longer view our participation in the Sunday assembly as a matter of obligation but rather as the expression of our identity. Being there is what makes us Catholic or Christian. If you’re not there, you can’t claim that identity. This is why we take great care to see that those who are too sick to be present must receive Holy Communion. Through no fault on their own are they absent. To make certain that they stay in communion, we reach out to them through the ministry of Extraordinary Ministers uniting them to the liturgy and to Christ and the Church. It is most important that this happen when the assembly is gathered together. Their sending forth is a powerful sign to all of us that some are missing, and as Jesus sought out the sick who, often because of their illness had been banned from Synagogue, we too as the Body of Christ still seek those who are missing to strengthen the bond we have through communion.

Night 1 on Sunday, February 13, 2024

Night 1 of 3 at St Finbarr in Naples, FL

The Roman Rite Mass and Language of Ritual Part One

I don’t know what drove us to this point, but I know we’ve been here before. The Liturgy, the Worship of the Church, has become a lightning rod, an explosive source of controversy and tension that is always a threat to the very unity of the Church which it should be strengthening. In July 2022, our Holy Father, exposed the reality of this fact by a firm and decisive document about the importance of the reforms for the Roman Rite decreed by the Ecumenical Council. His predecessors, fearful of breaking up the church over the refusal of some to accept the Decree of the Council allowed for some use of the old, Pre-Council Liturgy, with the hope that gradually, the church would come together. It did not work. The furor that erupted in reaction to the decision of Pope Francis should be all we need as evidence that as a church we are already broken. The Liturgy itself may not actually have been the only issue, since we are living again through days and years both politically, socially, religiously, and personally that could not be expressed any more clearly than Frank Sinatra did with his a wildly popular song: “I did it my way.” When I asked a priest a year or so ago why he wanted to celebrate Mass in Latin using the old form, his response was: “Because I can.” That was the end of our conversation. I should have come back with a response that I thought of later, but you know how it is: you think of things after it’s too late. I should have said, “Excuse me, I don’t like the possessive pronoun It’s not your liturgy, nor is that parish your church. It’s God’s and you can’t do what you want with it, even if you can. You can’t kill someone even if you can. You can’t stand on one leg to give out Holy Communion even if you can.” (Story about Mom at her parish.)

What I hope you will take from the time we spend together these next two nights is a greater and deeper respect and reverence for what we do knowing why we do it. It is my opinion that those who long for the old Mass often are heard to say that it has more mystery and more reverence. That comment always gets this old red-head a bit fired up. I resent the suggestion that what I do at the altar is in any way lacking in reverence. I feel the same way defensive of the people who gather with me. Quite honestly, the reformed Liturgy as we now have it could very well stand some serious attention when it comes to respect and a spiritual sense of what we we’re doing. I hope that’s why you’ve come here tonight. Many of us can easily remember the 12-minute Latin Mass of our childhood. That was hardly spiritual, reverent, or mysterious. It was fast and efficient. I firmly believe that when we begin to take the sacred Liturgy seriously, pay attention to what we are doing, and become more attentive to what God is doing, the real tradition will be recognized and embraced because what has been restored and emphasized by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council is more traditional than what we did before 1968.

I have no illusions that our time together will change anything that is noticeable or maybe that even matters. Yet, I have thought my way into these talks because the Sacred Liturgy of the Church, and that means all of the sacraments must be for us the ultimate school of prayer. The Liturgy of the Church is our source of life. My own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that after the reforms of the Council in the 1960s all we did was change the language, move the furniture around, and learn a few new songs of dubious quality. In other words, we have spent a long time tinkering with the superficial things. Some insist that the Council broke the traditions of the Church. That is a superficial and silly idea of “tradition” which betrays a confusion of tradition and custom. It takes some thought to determine what is a “tradition” and what is a custom. They are not the same. Bread and Wine is the tradition. Gold, wooden, or clay cups is a custom. In war, there is never a winner, and any illusion that we have to “win” is a perfect sign that a disaster is coming. If we are going to survive the cultural wars that have found a place within the Body of Christ, we are must finally dig into the Spiritual meaning, and pay attention to the gestures, and words we use to respond to the Covenant God has offered us. It might be about time to stop being so preoccupied by what we do and open ourselves to what God is doing in the Liturgy. To people in RCIA who are approaching their first celebration of Reconciliation I have often said: “Stop being anxious about what you are going to say and do, and spend at least as much time on what you hope God will say and do for you.” And so, I ask you the question, “When is the last time you approached this parish Sunday assembly wondering and thinking about what God may be planning to do and say?” 

Every now and then I hear someone complaining that it’s so noisy in church before Mass they can’t pray. When I hear that, I know that someone is quite confused and does not seem to know what they are doing or why they have come to church. Last Wednesday, we heard a very clear instruction about prayer that should not be confined to Lent. “Go to your room and shut the door” is what we heard. Prayer is an experience of intimacy with God. It is unique to each of us. It is private. It can be intense or casual. We all need to get something clear in our minds. We come to church to worship – that is not the same experience as prayer. By its very nature, worship is noisy. It is a gathering of God’s people at God’s command, and that gathering is noisy from words of greetings, to crying babies, to the banging of kneelers to the shuffling of feet or the scraping of walkers moving in a steady procession down the aisle toward the source of life. 

In some ways, worship as liturgy is a refined taste. That’s different from prayer, and by prayer, I’m not talking about reciting memorized words. I mean a real heart to heart talk with God, with the risen Lord, or why not with his mother? It can mean complaining, whining, or laughing in gratitude. It can also mean just being quiet. After all, if it’s a conversation, you better shut up and take a breath so the other can say something in response.

There is a very important moment in the Sacred Liturgy that expresses exactly why we get together in the church. I’ll bet you have forgotten all about it, and I’m here to remind you of what you say. The priest says to you: Let’ us pray that my sacrifice and yours will be acceptable to God our almighty Father. And what do you say? “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, four our good and the good of all his holy Church”. Why are you there? For the praise and the glory of God’s name. We do not come into the Church to get something. Every weekend I see people who don’t get it. They come to get, not to give. They come to “get communion.” As soon as they do, they’re out the door. The purpose of worship, the work of the liturgy, is give glory to God, to praise God, to thank God. We don’t come to “get” communion. We are present in order to enter into communion, and we don’t do that by racing out the door. We are not there to get points, to avoid sin, or think for one minute that we can stand before God and claim a place in the Kingdom of Heaven by saying, “I never missed Mass.” To that God will say what the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel tell us: “When I was hungry did you give me anything to eat?” We are not going to bargain or bribe our way into the Reign of God.

Liturgy is a learned set of behaviors and actions, not all of which are immediately obvious and not all of which can ever be totally explained. That is because liturgy is ritual. The rituals of our Sacred Liturgy, all say something that we need to understand, and that also means that we must understand that language. There is a consistency about ritual that allows us to be free of worry about what to do next or if we’re going to do it right. It frees us to pay more attention to what God is doing. If something breaks that consistency, if something happens that is not part of the ritual, it’s over. 

The order of the liturgy is set, the scripture readings change from day to day. Some argue today that there is too much flexibility and that we should return to “one Roman Rite.” The idea that there was and should be “one” way of doing the Roman Rite is contrary to our history. That’s not true. At the risk of overgeneralizing, this means that from as early as the fourth century the liturgy as celebrated at Rome had the same structure, but there were differences between the papal liturgy and the liturgy celebrated in parishes. “One size fits all” has never been the case when it comes to the Roman or Western Latin Rite. For one thing, the rites have to fit the space. What works in a Gothic church of France would be silly in East Naples at Saint Finbarr. Rites have to be celebrated within a culture as well as a building, and that might mean different garments, different instruments, different movements. 

At the same time, it can be said that “one structure fits all” in the sense that the eucharistic liturgy always has the same basic outline: Gathering, Introductory Rites, Liturgy of the Word, Presentation of Gifts, Eucharistic prayer, Communion, and Dismissal. For me, liturgy is never understandable or comprehensible. In fact, the liturgy always articulates and enacts what is incomprehensible, astounding, and even fascinating. Rituals are part of our lives. We use them all the time because rituals are our way of expressing something when words are inadequate. I see it all the time, I do it all the time. I just saw it Saturday at the airport. An older man got out of car, and boy who may have been about 6 or 7 got out with what I assumed were his parents. The little guy ran up to the old man and threw his arms around the old man with tears in his eyes, and the old man bent down, ruffled that child’s hair and kissed him on the top of his head. That was a ritual. It was an action that expressed something that words could not express. Contrary to what some young people might say, rituals are not boring. Boredom is a condition of the brain. It is the consequence of a failed imagination. I am never bored. I have suffered through the longest most ridiculous inconsequential meetings that you could ever imagine, and I’ve never been bored. I have rearranged the furniture in the room, changed the pictures on the wall and counted the ceiling tiles because I have imagination. It takes imagination to enter into Liturgy and Worship. It takes imagination to pray too. It’s not that God is a figment of one’s imagination meaning that we make it up. It’s that we have to imagine the God that Jesus has revealed to us, the God he called, Abba.

Liturgical rites are comprised of a number of things, and should engage all of our senses. They are not simply speaking the right words over the right elements to produce predetermined results. Liturgy is always an astounding and complex collection of ideas, images, sights, sounds, silences, people, ministers, building, and much more all of which contribute to a multisensory and multidimensional experience. A good liturgy ought to wear you out. It ought to be an almost over-load of experience. Understanding what occurs is always secondary to experiencing what occurs in and through the liturgy. Every liturgy is a unique and particular experience. When we gather every Sunday, it’s always different because things have happened to us during the week. We’re different than we were the week before unless you live in some kind of bubble frozen in time. While in every act of liturgy we use what we have used before: texts, rites, gestures, music, and so forth, no act of liturgy is ever repeated or the same if for no other reason that we are never the same. 

The purpose of Liturgy is the sanctification of people and through the holiness of life one gives glory to God. It is odd to me that for nearly a generation, we have been ready to draw nourishment for our spiritual lives from the Sacred Scriptures. We have not been taught in a similar way to draw that nourishment from the Sacred Liturgy. God speaks and acts through the Liturgy just as much as God speaks and acts through the Scriptures. 

Saint Benedict never uses the word Liturgy in his rule that has guided so many praying and worshiping communities for so long. The wisdom of his rule is not just for monks and nuns. The wisdom of his rule if learned, practiced and followed in families would transform life in this world. The very first word that begins the Holy Rule is, ‘Listen.” What do you think it would like in your home if everyone followed that rule? As I said, Benedict never uses the word “Liturgy” in his rule when encouraging and instructing on prayer. In its place, he refers to the “Opus Dei”, the “Work of God.” It is not by chance that the Eastern Churches refer to the Sacred Liturgy as, “The Divine Liturgy.” Isn’t that saying a lot more than calling our worship, “Mass?” If you go to “The Divine Liturgy”, you know immediately who’s in charge and who is doing something. Our Liturgy is not what we do. It is the work of God, that accomplishes what it signifies. Saint Paul writes in almost every Epistle about the “mystery” of God. For Paul the “mystery” is God’s plan to gather up all things in Christ. Start thinking about that, ponder it, pull it apart the next time you hear a priest rise from his knee and say: “The Mystery of Faith.” It does not mean it’s a secret, because the secret has been revealed, God’s plan. It is Jesus Christ who reveals the mystery of God. That’s the mystery of faith: Jesus Christ! 

The Greeks believed mystery was something that remained hidden, could not be spoken of, and was beyond comprehension. This is exactly the opposite of the Judeo-Christian understanding of mystery. How I wish Sister Mary Everlasting would have known and understood that. Instead, what many of us grew up with was that firm and authoritative announcement: “It’s a mystery” every time we asked a question about what something meant or why we did something in church. Because of Jesus Christ, the secret, the mystery has been revealed. We do know what God is doing. Nothing reveals the mystery of God more than the words and actions of Jesus. Think about that scene on Easter evening with those disappointed and discouraged disciples going to Emmaus. They were going the wrong way! Jesus opened their minds to understand the Scriptures and revealed the mystery at table with bread and wine. With that, knowing the plan of God, they turned around and went the right way – back to the company of the other believers in Jerusalem. 

The link between the Scriptures and the Liturgy is absolutely essential, and we do something that makes it obvious. At the beginning of the Liturgy, the Gospel is to be carried solemnly, in the grand gesture of being held high before the entire assembly until reaching the altar, the heart of the assembly. It is then enthroned on the altar becoming a kind of Epiphany. The very Word of God passes through the people of God. It is a kind of Incarnation. The Word is within us. The Word of God takes flesh and remains in the flesh of God’s people. We put that Word on the altar, the place of sacrifice. It is the place of offering, because Jesus Christ offers himself. In Christ, the word of God becomes not just a body but a body offered, a total gift of self. The epiphany, the revelation, is there in the gesture of putting the Gospel on the altar. We cannot just walk up there and put the book down like a picture book on your coffee table. That act is the beginning of the celebration. It is like an icon that manifests the unity that exists between the Scripture and the mystery of the altar, the Eucharist.

Those of you familiar with the Passover ritual might remember that a child asks a question at the beginning. “What does this mean?” With that, the Passover rite begins. I think we need to keep asking that question every time we assemble for the Liturgy. “What does this mean?” I always think that those who participate in the Liturgy without knowing the mystery are like a dancer who dances without knowing the music or rhythm. We must never quit pondering the mystery narrated by the Scriptures and celebrated in the Liturgy. The Liturgy is like a dance that moves, interprets and anticipates the story of our salvation as told in the Sacred Scriptures.

“Back in the day, I love to say that now that I’m retired, the seminary I attended required a half semester workshop with the drama teacher. At first some of us scoffed at the idea until the very first week, when Father Gavin spoke to us about Liturgy as Drama. In that class we learned about “blocking” which is what happens at an early stage of preparation for a play. Where people stand, how they move, what they do with their hands, where they look, and how they walk is all part of that. I remember the day in that class when he had us watch a video of a marching band out on a football field going through their drill for a half-time show. The precision of it to the day amazes. Every member of the band knows where they must stand and how to move from place to place without bumping into others. He spoke to us about space and how to move from one place to another. (Tell the story about Communion Ministers at Saint Peter and Saint William).

So, my friends, for the next two nights, I want to explore with you the mystery of faith. My hope is that in doing so, you may begin to gather for the liturgy with some excitement and some wonder about what God has in store, would like to say, and might do with you rather than coming because you have to, just because you always have, or because you’re afraid that as Sister Mary Everlasting told you that you would burn in hell if you didn’t go. 

Just as I explained what we are doing with and why that great book is carried through the assembly and enthroned, not put down, but enthroned on the altar, I will tease out the movements that make up the sign language we use in rituals. I need your imaginations to wake up. I need for you to wonder why and begin to connect your head and your heart. I hope that you will begin to find a new motive and a new experience in prayer as you explore the rite and rituals that speak about something too profound to real and to divine to speak of. If you want to do that, God willing, I’ll be right here tomorrow night. If you have time, you might take a few minutes to prepare and read very slowly and carefully thinking about each word in Eucharistic Prayer Two or Three. You can find them on line, in a Missal, or Hymnal. It is a very different experience to read or say those words yourself rather than just hear some priest proclaiming them.


Three Parts: 

1 The Ministry in and around Galilee (1:14 to 8:26) Pages 1 to 7

2 The Journey to Jerusalem (11 to 13) Pages 7 to 14

3 The Passion (14 to 15) Pages 15 to 21

With Chapter 14, the passion narrative begins. In some ways, it is the beginning of the end. In Mark’s usual way of inserting stories within stories, the priests and scribes seek to kill Jesus, a woman anoints his body for burial, Judas seeks to betray him. This last part of the Gospel gathers up the major themes of the Gospel into a great drama that grows with intensity. There are frequent time notices given, the days preceding Passover, the watches of the night in which Jesus is betrayed, the hours of the day he died. Time is marked in smaller units and events reported in great detail as the drama builds in intensity and significance.

This is then, a continuous narrative with a coherent chronological sequence. This movement is linear. It goes from the upper room to the garden to the betrayal, on to Jewish trial and Peter’s denial to the Roman trial and condemnation, to crucifixion, death and burial. Along the way, Jesus is betrayed by Judas, let down by the inner three in the garden, abandoned by all the disciples, and on the cross seemingly abandoned by God. Three times he is mocked: at the Jewish trail, at the Roman trial, and on the cross. Only the women stand by him throughout, though at a distance. They witness his death “from afar”. They see the place where he is buried, and go to anoint him when the sabbath has past.

Until now, the Gospel has been made up almost entirely of small independent pieces loosely strung together. It will be different now. Jesus has almost always been in the company of his disciples. Now he is isolated and goes to his death alone. The fact that Jesus is without his companions, goes to his death alone, dramatically establishes the uniqueness of his way to the cross, and demonstrates that the disciple is never above or equal to his master but can only follow him in “cross bearing” at a distance. The structure is basically the same in all four Gospels with much less adaptation than the earlier parts of Mark’s Gospel. What is unique in the Gospel is that Mark does not dwell on the personal suffering or the wounds of Jesus. Instead, these two chapters emphasize interpretations of this death and its implication for being a follower in the world dominated by the brutal power of the Roman-Jerusalem alliance of elite men. Even though we can be fairly sure that there was some earlier record of the events from which they all wrote their Passion accounts, we must keep in mind that this is not biographical, and it is not history. The motive here was to uphold the innocence of Jesus and that his death was, contrary to all appearances, according to the will of God. 

As I said, many themes come together here: the rejection of Jesus by his enemies, the failure of his friends, and the unfolding revelation of his true identity and mission. His 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. Remember that the word, “ransom” does not mean a tradeoff. 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. Throughout Jesus is still the teacher. He teaches that his inevitable death means suffering for his followers in the difficult times until his return in power. The direction of this drama moves to a climax and seems to be complete, with a stone rolled against the door of a tomb to mark the end. The burial, however, is not the end; it is just a void form which bursts a new beginning.

It’s as though there is silence at that point, but by Chapter 16, the first eight verses break the silence. The resurrection reverses the tragedy, vindicates the suffering Son of Man as Christ and Son of God, and makes the story become “Good News” (Gospel). At this point, the original Gospel ends to be completed in the lives of its readers. Some early readers, we suspect, knowing how the story came out in the mission of the apostolic church, felt compelled to round off the abrupt end. Two different endings were written, the longer of which appears and verse 9 through 20. With that summary, let’s look at these last chapters which are really not an end, but a beginning for us.

In the first verses, we get an example of how Mark inserts stories within stories. As the chapter opens, Mark reports the conspiracy in just 2 verses, then he tells of the anointing at Bethany for 9 verses, finally he returns to the conspiracy. This time it is Judas. What we get is two parts of a conspiracy, one from authorities and the other from within the disciples, Judas. While their opposition is different, Mark uses the same language as they are both “looking for a way.” There is great concern with this conspiracy. There is fear of a riot because the town is full of pilgrims and Jesus is popular.  The feast itself carried a subversive narrative concerning freedom for a subjugated people from a dominant ruling power. The leaders, in league with the Romans gambled on being able to contain the people power that the festival recalled. The Romans had no problem showing their military power intimidating locals and bolstering the morale of the elite. The time reference in the first verse adds to the suspense all building now toward the crucifixion. For Mark this adds a theological dimension by relating the death of Jesus to the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened bread.

In Mark’s usual way, we get a story within a story. The narration of the capture gets interrupted by another story. We should note that in Mark’s telling of the anointing, the woman is not identified nor is she called, “sinful.” She is simply, “a woman.” As Mark unfolds his account, the shame of it all is upon the men. The praiseworthy character is a woman. Her “alabaster jar of nard” was a globular vase made of alabaster and containing an oil extracted from the nard plant native to India. It very aromatic and very costly. The value Mark assigns to this ointment is equivalent to the annual wage of a day laborer. There is a very clear contrast here that carries through to the end. Men murder, women comfort. Hatred is contrasted to love. Judas receives money for a betrayal. She spends money for his anointing. They are at Bethany which is at the foot of the Mount of Olives. Ironically, the Mount of Olives is to be the place Zechariah announced would be the site for the return of the Son of Man. The setting is the home of a leper! In that culture, men ate alone. She breaks the taboo by crashing the party, so to speak!

There is an interesting contrast here between this woman and the person in the next episode, Judas. This unnamed woman gives up money for Jesus and enters the house to honor him. A man with a name, Judas gives up Jesus for money and leaves the house to betray him. Mark has us move from one meal to another; from the house of Simon in Bethany to another meal in Jerusalem. This section begins with another “time stamp.” It is the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and preparations for the Feast make up the first of three elements here. The second is the prediction of betrayal while at the supper. The third is the covenant meal itself.

With this “time stamp” it is almost as though we have a countdown. Mark follows the Passover events from Exodus rather than Leviticus or Numbers which also record the events of Passover, but slightly differently. Mark, following Exodus calls this the day they sacrificed the lamb (14 Nisan) “The First Day of Unleavened Bread.” The point of indicating the time is to draw attention to the fact that Jesus died during the Jewish feast of liberation. The Passover was a celebration of Liberation much like the Fourth of July marks our independence or freedom from England. Mark insists that the last meal Jesus ate was Passover, the commemoration of God’s deliverance from bondage. The whole description in Mark affirms the Jewish heritage of Jesus and his followers. They were doing it right.

Finding a place for the supper is significant. It is possible that Jesus had made these arrangements ahead of time, but far more likely, this is Mark’s way of showing that God orders this event. With morning preparations complete, there is a shift in time and place. Mark tells us that it is now evening (Thursday = Nisan 15), so Passover has begun, and they are at supper. The focus now sifts to the “the Twelve”, and there are two incidents at the supper. The first has to do with the betrayer. The second focuses on Jesus and his relationship to the disciples, and by his action and words Jesus interprets his impending death and points to the coming of the Kingdom. The verse, “I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” We cannot miss the verbs: took, blessed, broke, gave. Already by Mark’s time, these words were shaping the action of the Eucharist. The word, “Cup” is used by Mark, not “wine” with symbolic significance. This use shows up three times in the Gospel. 1) when James and John seek first places, 2) at Gethsemane, and 3) here at the supper. In all three texts, God gives the cup which is the cup of death related to the blood of the covenant. When at table Jesus speaks of MY blood, he is establishing a new covenant. There is here, an interruption of the normal ritual of this meal. When Jesus speaks these words, they are not the “right” words, and this departure from the tradition surely got the attention of the disciples. There is something new happening here. 

They leave the Passover singing – usually Psalm 118 which begins: “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good,”  and at the end comes these words: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” So, they go much as they came in, but with a note of victory and the glory to come.

They leave Jerusalem for the Mount of Olives where three events occur. 1) The prediction of abandonment, 2) Peter’s denial, 3) the arrest. The drama narrows to the three leading disciples on the one hand and Jesus on the other. Peter makes his brave promise to share in the death of Jesus. Clearly, he has not listened nor understood what is to come.  The repeated warnings to be watchful and awake have fallen on deaf ears. He falls asleep. It is interesting to note that when Jesus rebukes Peter, he does not use his new name, Peter. He calls him by the name of his old life, “Simon.”  The three Jesus has taken with him, Peter, James and John, were there for the raising of a dead girl, the transfiguration, and teaching on the Mount of Olives. Jesus instructs them to stay awake, using the same verb as in the parable of the absent and unexpectedly returning master. Three appears three times. Being awake, or watchful or vigilant, will be a key quality for followers in the absence of Jesus. They fail.

As Mark tells the story, Jesus has no martyr complex. It is a contest between human will and the will of the Father. It is the will of Jesus that the cup pass. He does not want to be put to the test. He wants some other way to fulfill God’s purpose for him. This is a dramatic and powerful struggle. With great distress and anxiety, Mark tells us that Jesus “Threw himself on the ground.” This is a terrifying scene. Jesus is utterly alone. Yet, he refuses to abandon the will of the God, and the die is cast, and he says: “Enough.” It is over.

Several key terms give this passage some power. WATCH, HOUR, CUP, PRAY. All of these terms get deeper and more powerful significance than they have on the surface. Then, “Suddenly,” Mark says the betrayer is at hand, and the action shifts from a lonely struggle to a mob scene which includes a crowd sent by the religious authorities, Judas, Jesus, the whole group of disciples, and mysterious young man. For Mark Jesus behaves with fearless human dignity. His courage and words are in stark contrast with the behavior of others in the scene. He stands as a model for the church when under persecution.

The kiss from Judas is more than a common greeting. He calls Jesus, “Rabbi” thereby indicating that he is a disciple. No disciple would ever kiss the Rabbi. It is an insulting break of tradition. There is no respectful friendship here. There is a break in their relationship. Insult is followed by violence. A disciple standing by strikes off the ear of the high priest’s slave with a sword. Mark does not name Peter as the disciple. Only John’s Gospel does so. In this Gospel, Mark shows us how useless and ineffective violence is. What’s really important is that the disciples fled the scene. The anonymous “young man” darts into the action long enough to leave his clothes behind and run off naked. Who is this? Why is this reported? Since the earliest times and the oldest commentators, there have been every sort of guess imaginable. The answer is: We don’t know. 

Mark’s style and his way of telling a story with another story inside is at its best here. The trial scene is set within the account of Peter’s denial so that each story interrupts the other. It is a mistake to call this a “trial,” at least with our ideas of justice.  This is misleading. Imperial dynamics do not permit a “fair trial.”  Jesus is a Galilean peasant in their eyes, aman of low status against the local powers. What happens before the highest council of Judaism, the Sanhedrin is not a “trial”. There is a presumption of guilt.  The procedure is strictly followed as set by the book of Numbers and Deuteronomy. This why there must be two witnesses. Of course, the whole thing is irregular because the verdict is predetermined and the evidence is false. However, in their eyes, he is guilty. He did speak blasphemy, and he did mix politics with religion which is treason. There are two charges against Jesus: He claimed he would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days; and he claimed to be the Christ, the Son of God. 

At no point in this Gospel does Jesus claim that he would destroy the Temple, or that in three days he would build another. In spite of this, those mocking Jesus on the cross refer to this false claim. The silence of Jesus to this first charge increases the tension in which the high priest puts the second crucial question: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Even though Peter and demons have said it was so, Jesus has never claimed either title for himself. Now, with the drama of the Passion underway with no longer any possibility for the crowd to misunderstand the meaning of his claim, Jesus answers: “I am.” At this point in the drama, there should be a thunder clap or a roll of the drums. He said; “I AM.” This is what Moses heard at the burning bush. This is a claim to the Divine Identity, and it seals his fate. It is a moment of courage, something said at the cost of his condemnation. This is blasphemous. What’s more, the whole expectation for a Messiah is thrown into question now. How could this Galilean possibly be a Messiah? This is not what they expected, and they refused the plan of God. He and his idea are condemned. They will not have it or have him.

Immediately Mark switches the story to Peter and his denial. By doing so, he contrasts the behavior of Jesus when accused and that of Peter. Jesus shows courage. Peter shows cowardice. Jesus is upstairs questioned by the High Priest. Peter is downstairs questioned by a servant of the High Priest. Jesus confesses his identity and future role that will bring down the status quo. Peter denies knowing Jesus. For the persecuted community to whom Mark is first writing, there is a message. Jesus loses his life through steadfast witness ultimately saving his life. Peter tries to save his life but loses it by avoiding the way of the cross and being ashamed of Jesus. None the less, he wept. Is it over an opportunity lost, or is it the beginning of repentance leading to a hope reborn? 

Another Chapter and another “trial” begins. The power of the Chief Priests, Elders, and Scribes, those, so-called-authorities is really not power at all, so they turn to Roman and Pilate. Mark tells us that they “handed him over” to Pilate using the same words Jesus used in his prediction of what would happen. What is revealed 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. It is misleading to see Pilate as a weak and spineless character who is the victim of Jewish pressure and forced against his will to crucify Jesus whom he thinks is “innocent.” Rome did not appoint weak and spineless governors. He is wise and astute here balancing several factors. He knows that if his allies see Jesus as a threat he must also be a threat to Pilate. Yet, he can’t give in to their demands instantly or he looks weak. Instead, he conducts a poll manipulating the crowd making them beg for crucifixion. He makes them dependent upon him elevating his power. 

The same pattern is used before Pilate: interrogation, condemnation, mockery. By setting up both trials, the rejection of Jesus is complete, both by religious authorities and now by civil authorities. To these two, Marks adds a third; the crowd, because Mark is interested in drawing the Civil Authorities into complicity so that both Jews and Gentiles are implicated. Now it is the fourth watch of the night, Mark tells us. Evening, midnight, cockcrow, and morning marks the passing of time in watches.  

The question asked by Pilate, “Are you the King of the Jews?” is identical in all four Gospels. This is a shift from the question of the High Priest who asks if he is the Messiah. Pilate wants to know if this is a political or civil threat. The response of Jesus: “You say so” leaves Pilate shaking his head. From that moment on, Jesus is silent and it amazes Pilate. A sub plot emerges with this trial over Barabbas. Only in Mark does the crowd take the initiative to ask for Barabbas. There is no historical evidence for this practice of releasing a prisoner at Passover. However, with this story, Mark depicts this miscarriage of justice in a way which, ironically, reveals the supreme truth about Jesus. Though sinless, he dies that sinners may live. 

Roman governors needed one skill above all others: the ability to keep crowds quiet or under control. Pilate is good at it. When he asks if the crowd wants the King of the Jews released, he tricks the crowd into being the judge, and he looks like their benefactor when he says, “Release FOR you.” It’s also a referendum on their loyalty to Rome. If they said otherwise, they would be in big trouble. Pilate stacked the deck. So, the phrase comes again: “They led him away.” The Roman custom of whipping the condemned is fulfilled which also the prediction of Jesus and the fulfillment of what is said in 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 buffets and spitting.” To tie all these things together, Mark once again says: “They handed him over.” The second mockery occurs – now it’s the Gentile Roman Soldiers. A third is yet to come. Jesus goes to death as the King of the Jews. 

There is something wild about this scene showing rival authorities fighting for power. The chief priest, elders and scribes have religious authority which they can exercise only by manipulating a Roman Governor and an excitable crowd. Pilate possess all the real authority. The crowd is manipulated by the chief priest, elders, and the scribes. In the middle of this stands one quiet figure who claims no authority but shows it with quiet dignity. We, like Mark, are left to see the real king and real authority. The fundamental issue here is 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 do, but Jesus exercises authority by service, through love, thereby revealing in revolutionary terms the way the ultimate Power of the universe works.

The regal image of the King is developed very carefully in the details Mark gives us. Historical records of victorious kings returning from battle confirm the theological theme at this point in the Passion. Soldiers are present. The reference to the Praetorium or “Governor’s” headquarters evokes the Praetorian guard in triumphal processions. Jesus wears a purple robe. Historian Josephus reports that Vespasian and his son Titus were clothed in purple, and that color was worn by people of high status. Jesus wears a crown. Jesus receives derisive honor from the soldiers who hail him as the King of the Jews, and they kneel before Him. 

Everything in Marks Gospel builds toward one event told in only 21 verses, and the crucifixion in only four words without dwelling on the bodily suffering and violence of this crucifixion. A condemned person was ordinarily forced to carry one’s own cross-beam. Jesus was either not able to carry it after the whipping or refused to carry it in defiance of “customary expectations.” It was not out of the ordinary for the soldiers to requisition someone to do their work. So, Simon of Cyrene is pressed into service, perhaps unwillingly. Again, the details are few but full of meaning. Crucifixions were carried out in public areas. It was a billboard announcing Rome’s dominance. Jesus refuses “wine mixed with myrrh” offered to him. Perhaps this is a pain dulling mixture, but may also be in fidelity to his declaration that he will not drink wine until he drinks it new in the Kingdom of God. 

All through this scene, there are treads of Psalm 22, a Psalm of Lament. These Psalms typically involve three groups of characters. The first party, the psalmist, seeks to be faithful to God’s purposes in difficult circumstances through which he suffers and cries out to God for help. Then, there is a second group made up of enemies who oppose this faithful person and cause considerable suffering though hostility and unjust actions. The third character is God. From the outset, the psalmist laments or complains that God is inactive and powerless, even absent, in the midst of suffering. Then toward the end of the psalm the psalmist experiences God’s deliverance and praises God. In Psalm 22 the suffering involves physical injury, social hostility, life is in danger, bones are out of joint, dry mouth, and clothing taken and divided by lots. He complains that God has forsaken him, is distant, and does not respond to his cries. I think it is important here to remember that this is not an historical report, but a theological interpretation of the death of Christ. 

The inscription put on the cross is a reminder to anyone passing by that threats to Roman power will not end well. He is crucified with two others who threatened the Roman order. “Bandit” can also mean “rebel.” “Insurrectionist” means a terrorist. This scene of Jesus crucified with rebels on his left and right recalls the previous conversation between Jesus and John and James. They sought places of honor at the right and left of Jesus. In response to them, Jesus challenged them about sharing in his death. Ironically, they are absent. The drama is excited by time notices again. It was the third hour (9:00am). Then there was darkness from the sixth hour (Noon) until the ninth hour (3:00pm). The three hours of darkness at midday is not just a dramatic pause, but an allusion from the prophet Amos (8:9). Mark gives this whole scene a strong Roman slant stressing the fact that Gentiles finally kill him, yet a Gentile is the first after his death to recognize and proclaim a Son of God.

Themes from Mark’s whole Gospel come together here: the hostility of the religious authorities, the failure of his disciples through misunderstanding, betrayal, denial, and flight. Not a single disciple is present. Mark’s principal theme comes into focus now: Jesus Christ is King. Tried and mocked as King of the Jews, mocked as King of Israel, Jesus in Mark’s Gospel is the Messiah, King and Son of God. Women are looking on from afar doing what disciples should do, but do not.

The death of Jesus is an important mark in order to make the Resurrection so powerful. Darkness at the death of an important person was a common literary motif for mourning. Two other signs have attracted a great deal of discussion: a torn Temple Veil and a centurion’s declaration at the cross, “Truly this man was God’s Son.” 

There were two curtains in the Temple; an inner curtain separated the holy of holies from the rest of the Temple and tan outer curtain separating the Temple from the forecourt. It is not clear which one is referred to, and it probably does not matter. Some might like to interpret this as a judgement on the Temple or as the opening of access to God. The verb is in the passive “was torn” in the sense that God did the tearing. That passive voice verb was used at the Baptism of Jesus as God revealed the identity of His Son. The second sign of the centurion’s confession is the first time a human has said this. Before it was only the demons. Yet, perhaps this is a sarcastic yet ironic sneer about the crucified Jesus. Its tone is derisive. It is impossible to decide which this is. Both interpretations have value. Regardless of what the centurion meant, believers know. Rome is now given a secondary importance.

There is no avoiding or missing the point that Jesus dies abandoned by men. Mark provides a dramatic reversal by suddenly telling us that a group of women followers were present, looking on from a distance. Three are named, but it is a sizeable group. Their loyalty or their courageous presence is tempered by Mark who shows us that they “followed at a distance”. This is the same word Mark used to describe Peter’s following “at a distance.” The text suggests that these women kept vigil at the cross all day from the time of crucifixion at nine o’clock in the morning, through the noon-time darkness and his death around three in the afternoon and on to the evening removal of Jesus from the cross and his entombment which is guided by a man named, Joseph. The timing on the evening of day of Preparation before the Sabbath is noted. Joseph is introduced by his place of origin, Arimathea in Samaria. This suggests a family tomb close to Jerusalem, a family of some means. There is a sense of haste about this scene. The body is not washed or anointed, tasks women normally performed for the dead. 

Mark would have us understand very clearly: Jesus died. If he died, then he was buried. He was buried in a certain place on a certain day by a certain person or persons. It was the Preparation Day at sun down, Friday. “A respected member of the council who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God” is named “Joseph of Arimathea.” He is not called a disciple. They are gone. Joseph does what they should do, looking for and waiting. He is not passive in this wait however, he took courage and went to Pilate asking for the body. To verify that Jesus really died, there is the conversation between Pilate and the Centurion. The primary detail for Mark is the sealing of the tomb with a large stone. This is important as controversies arise before the end of the first century lasting into the fourth century. He died. He identified with us in our death. His incarnation was so real that he was buried. There is no part of us that he has not assumed for by the grace of God he tasted death for everyone. (Hebrews 2:9)

Often times, an ending is not the end, and that’s the case with the Gospel. In Mark 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 use of the passive voice is important. It suggests divine action has intervened to raise Jesus. 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. The silence Jesus has imposed all through the Gospel of Mark is now reversed. Yet, the response is silence.

It is totally reasonable to ask and wonder why the Gospel could end like this. All through this Gospel Mark has portrayed misunderstanding, fear, failure and flight on the part of chosen disciples. Everything he has reported overturns all human ways of thinking. Now, with the last verse, Mark has finally brought us right into the center of the story. Now we are face to face with the announcement of victory over death leaving us to decide how we must respond. 

The longer ending accepted as inspired by the Holy Spirit did not appear until the late second century. The author seems to have been familiar with all four Gospels drawing from Matthew, Luke, and John. What is consistent in the story is that the Lord takes the initiative in appearing to people. They do not just “find” him. Significantly the first person to whom he appears is a woman out of whom he had driven seven demons, someone who might seem the least reliable. Furthermore, His risen body is such that he is not recognized until he makes himself known. As always before, Jesus reprimands the disciples when he finally appears to them, but that does not invalidate their commission. Slow to believe they are to proclaim the gospel to every creature. No longer just the chosen people, but all the world. Belief is not enough however, an action is required, being Baptized, an action of God by which a believer is united with Jesus in his death and resurrection and incorporated into the church. 

Mark knows that we are well aware of how the story unfolds and goes on. Peter and the disciples see the risen Lord, and their encounter with him becomes the bedrock of the apostolic proclamation of the Gospel that spread throughout the Roman Empire. This is not because the women succeeded in following their commission, but by the power of God who is able to overcome every human failure. We are living with Mark’s Gospel in times that call for a new Evangelization bringing this Good News not only to mission lands but to the secularized post-Christian cultures all around us.  We must allow ourselves to be filled with the same enthusiasm, joy, hope, and courage that followed Pentecost. Mark shows us that every word of Jesus is reliable, and we are all invited to accept in faith the testimony of his resurrection. The story has no end because it continues in the life of every disciple of Jesus for all time.

Unlike Mark’s Gospel that seems to have no ending, this talk does. I leave it with you now 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 so 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.


Three Parts: 

1 The Ministry in and around Galilee (1:14 to 8:26) Pages 1 to 7

2 The Journey to Jerusalem (8:26 to 13) Pages 8 to 14

3 The Passion (14 to 15) Pages 15-21

The ministry of Jesus has, up to this point, taken place in Galilee. He has shown his authority over demons, illness, the sea, and over sin. Until now no one had a clue as to his identity except the demons. Now the disciples, through the confession of Peter, have a recognition of who Jesus is. Everyone else is without understanding. This is a breakthrough, a burst of light symbolized by that healing of a blind man. Yet, as we shall see, this is just the beginning. Knowing that Jesus is the Messiah is not the same as knowing what it means to be a Messiah. Pharisees and Scribes have started controversy over cleanliness, which really means a lifestyle. His family and friends at home are shaking their heads over his behavior and the things he says. There is a constant frantic pace back and forth across the sea. The crowds are chasing him all over the place even when he withdraws to pray. 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. This is a turning point in Mark’s Gospel, and he makes it obvious with a geographical turn. Until now, Jesus has been in Galilee. Now he turns toward Jerusalem. This is the end of what can be called: “The Bread Section” to “The Journey Section” or “The Way.” The first of three predictions of the Passion are given to them. Peter objects making it clear that he has no idea what a Messiah is to be. In Mark’s plan, each prediction of the Passion is the occasion for another “teaching” moment. I think it is important at this point to remember that these “predictions” are not a manifestation of Divine Power, or some Divine insight in the future. 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 his followers. So, the Teacher summons the crowd because his invitation to discipleship is extended to all. He teaches them about the cost of discipleship.

The opening event of this second part has Jesus taking those three who have become the “inner circle” up a high mountain by themselves. His Baptism, the moment when he understood his own identity, was a private affair. Now another event happens with others. On a “high mountain,” the place nearest heaven the Transfiguration takes place. 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 Jesus. He says nothing and he does nothing. The presence of Elijah and Moses for Mark make Jesus the eschatological, final prophet who was destined to be taken up into heaven and return at the end of time. 

The journey must continue, so they come down this mountain headed for another, Golgotha. There have now been three confessions about the identity of Jesus. The first came from demons. The second from Peter. The third came from God himself. With the command to keep silent as they are coming down the mountain, we see that there is no way to understand who Jesus is until one has seen him suffer, die, and rise again. Of course, they don’t understand, and honestly, how could they understand what it means for someone to rise from the dead? This is not a common occurrence!

After this time on the high mountain, Mark resumes his sense of urgency with all this frantic crowd action. The crowd is in turmoil over something, we don’t know what it is, but they are arguing with the Scribes. It is likely over the inability of the disciples to heal a boy who is possessed. Jesus steps in, and the demon is cast out, but not without a comment on the requirement of faith. The disciples tried to cure this boy. Mark tells us they tried everything without success. Then the father of the boy shows no faith in his approach to Jesus when he says, “If you can…”. Nonetheless, Jesus responds, and the boy is healed giving occasion for the saying: “all things are possible.”  For Mark, this an occasion to reveal a truth about the nature of faith meaning not that the person with faith can achieve anything he desires, but rather that God’s power is limitless with those who have the courage to expect the best from God. The father’s cry “help my unbelief” is a reminder that faith is not something one has forever, but is always a gift that needs to be renewed and refreshed. 

With that, Jesus moves on through Galilee now teaching only his disciples. Then comes the second prediction of the Passion, death, and resurrection. Of course, they do not understand. To make matters worse, while Jesus is teaching them about what is to come, they are arguing about who among them is most important, about who is first.

In his response to this Jesus expounds on three deeply rooted tendencies of fallen human nature: a craving for Power, Pleasure, and Possessions. He shows how these must be countered with a lifestyle of humble service, fidelity in marriage and family, and detachment from earthly goods. Mark tells us that this all happens “in the house” making it clear that this teaching is for disciples, not the crowd. Mark tells us that Jesus sat down. Is he assuming the posture of the teacher/rabbi, or is he just tired of trying to get through to the disciples? He tells them what he thinks will become of him, and they are arguing about who will be first. I think he sat down because he was tired of trying to get through to them. But, the moment becomes tender as Mark tells us that there in that house, 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 — and what we likely have here is a peek into an internal problem troubling the early Church who first received this gospel. 

He then crosses the Jordan moving into Judea and the crowds are back as well as the Pharisees who pose a silly question about marriage and divorce. This is a “test question” nothing new is being proposed or offered. The issue here is whether or not Jesus will uphold the law or not. This has nothing to do with divorce or remarriage. To make it so and start quoting these verses to support one side of the issue or the other distorts the text and misses the point. Those who ask the question are always 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. In the end, Jesus does not prohibit divorce nearly as much as he elevates marriage. 

Mark has Jesus elaborate on his response to the disciples by going back into the house. In this instruction, probably intended directly to the Church that receives the Gospel, the Jewish customs that allowing no rights for women gets upended. 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.  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. 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. It is the first time that Jerusalem is identified as the place for this to happen. This is the third and last time he will speak of his Passion prompting one more instruction on discipleship. The setting itself sends a message as Mark tells us that Jesus was walking “ahead of them.” There is now a sense of urgency almost as though Jesus is impatient to fulfill his mission. We are not sure who “them” refers to, but surely the disciples are included since they are about to be pulled aside once more. Nonetheless, Mark tells us that they were all moving ahead “amazed and afraid.” A sense of terror is now surely settling over them all, but Jesus moves ahead with confidence.

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. There is some thought among the scholars that this is a later addition in an attempt to settle some controversy among the leadership of the Church. However, the response of Jesus: “to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant” is thought to be an authentic statement from Jesus without redaction. There is a pattern being followed here that Mark has used before: a prediction of the passion followed by a dispute of some kind among the confused disciples concluded by an instruction. This provides Mark with a way of repeating for the sake of emphasis his dominant theme: the lack of understanding among disciples in the face of the truth that God’s way of suffering and sacrifice for Jesus is identical with God’s way of suffering and sacrifice for his disciples. 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.” There can be further doubt about what Jesus thought was his mission, and what would be required of those who would be his disciples.

            A word comes up in this instruction that is a challenge for scholars and even for us: “Ransom.” It has a variety of meanings including money paid in compensation for a crime, or to rescue or redeem a life that might be lost, or a fee handed over to the next of kin to set free a relative, or the fee paid to replace the sacrifice of a newborn. All have specific examples in the Old Testament. The verb and the noun both have their roots in the same Greek word for redemption. When Jesus says: “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” there is the possibility of thinking that this means some are left out which is incorrect. He’s not talking about the majority as opposed to the minority. The word “for” may simply mean “for the sake of” or “on behalf 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. 

By now, they have made it to Jericho where the last healing story is told, and it sums up the goal of Mark’s Gospel as the blind man begins to follow Jesus along the way. A blind man seems to understand the message of Jesus better than the disciples. This is real discipleship, following Jesus along the way. The story begins with Jesus asking the same question he just asked James and John: “What do you want?” 

Can you imagine being asked that question by Christ some day? We should have noticed that healing stories have been few and far between in this section of Mark’s Gospel. The only other one was the healing of the epileptic boy in the ninth chapter. So, we can assume that this one is an important transition. 

This story in tradition has always been associated with leaving Jericho. So, in order to get Jesus there, Mark begins verse 46 by saying: “And they came to Jericho” and then immediately says: “and as he was leaving Jericho…” Now, this is the first time the title, “Son of David” is applied to Jesus. Jesus calls, and the blind man jumps up. He throws aside his cloak which would have been his livelihood since donations would have been dropped into it, he does what the rich young man could not do. This one is a real disciple, and he does not ask for place of honor. He simply asks to see.

This is a transition moment in the Gospel from a section on Discipleship to what becomes an entire section of confrontations with the religious authorities in Jerusalem. Those words: “on the way” conclude the instruction on discipleship. With that, the ministry at Jerusalem begins. Since Peter’s declaration about the identity of Jesus, discipleship has been the focus of Mark’s Gospel. Now begins the ministry of Jesus. 

About 500 years before Christ, a prophet we call Zechariah was actively preaching a message of reform and conversion promising that the Lord would return to his people if they would return to him. He wrote to encourage the rebuilding of the Temple and the return of more exiles. This is the shortest work among what scholars call, The Minor Prophets.” The first eight of the fourteen chapters are attributed to Zechariah, but at least two others added the rest of the chapters. In the last chapter, the prophet describes a messianic vision of the coming of the Prince of Peace. The verses describe the triumphant appearance of the humble king who would appear on the Mount of Olives, and that is where Mark opens the scene of entry into Jerusalem. The scene has more than a few hints of an enthronement procession, the first of which is the colt that the disciples are sent to bring back to Jesus. There is always some curiosity about this scene raising some questions. Did Jesus have some supernatural power that allowed him to know where and how to get the colt? Then, how is it that the disciples are instructed to tell the owner that the “Lord” needs it. The consistent reading of this episode is that Mark intended to suggest that the colt is needed for a sacred purpose. This idea is reinforced by the detail that no one had ridden on this colt – further suggesting that something sacred was about to happen. Again, Zechariah’s prophetic vision has the messianic king riding a colt.

Again, I remind you that this is not history nor a biography of Jesus. Mark’s Gospel would give the impression that Jesus made only one visit to Jerusalem. That is not what we can learn from the other Gospels. This is simply the way Mark arranges his theological focus on the mission of Jesus somewhat artificially into three separate days. Mark says he taught there day after day, yet some of the teachings especially those in chapter 14 could have had their origins in the Gapernaum ministry.

If we only had Mark’s Gospel, we would be led to think of Jerusalem as a terrible, evil place. But, Mark is writing to Gentiles. Luke and Matthew on the other hand have a partially Jewish community for their message, and Jerusalem is not, for them, such a dark and evil place. Mark’s report of the entry into Jerusalem is much more muted than we find in the other Gospels. In the others the whole “Messianic” ministry is much more pronounced. Not so here.  The acclamation of the people is another detail suggesting that Mark sees this is an enthronement act in the style of the Old Testament rituals with the Arc. Spreading garments on a colt and the road are a coronation custom. The acclamation by the people is both a quotation from Psalm 118 which is sung by pilgrims approaching the Temple and taken from 1 Maccabees describing the arrival of Simon Maccabeus entering the city after their successful revolt. So, is this history or is it Theology?  Unique to Mark’s Gospel, the crowd does not call Jesus either “King” or “Son of David.” It is also important to notice that the people who make up this crowd are the ones who are already with him. No one comes out of the city to greet him. 

This entry is triumphal only for the followers of Jesus who still do not understand his destiny. In fact, the crowd is expressing their hope for a Messiah yet to come which they feel is near. There is here, once again, a contrast between their expected Messiah and what they get in Jesus. For Jesus, it is a pilgrim’s entry, and he is silent. The irony of this rag-tag procession is that its enthusiastic participants are wrong in their expectation that a Messiah will immediately restore the fortunes of Jerusalem. He enters as the lowly one, a hero only to the crowd who have followed him there. Ironically, he is more of a King than they think. For Mark, this is a religious procession not a political rally. The term, “Hosanna” is a religious term acclaiming salvation. It has nothing to do with power or politics. 

The focus in Mark is on the sovereign authority with which Jesus acts here. His command is at once obeyed, and things turn out exactly as he says. The notion that Jesus has pre-arranged with someone to have that colt available does not fit in with Mark’s style and purpose. For Mark, Jesus is the one with the knowledge and the power to make things happen. 

This year, when the Gospel of Mark is proclaimed at the start of the Holy Week Liturgy, it is difficult to keep the spirit of Mark’s lowly one with all the fuss and pomp with which we usually begin the Palm Sunday Liturgy. Nonetheless, come Palm Sunday, listen carefully with what you now understand is Mark’s intention. 

Unlike Matthew and Luke, Jesus does not immediately drive the merchants and money changers from the Temple. He does go straight to the Temple, but there he only looks around then goes back to Bethany with the Twelve for the night. We should note that the Temple was in many ways both a Holy Place for Sacrifice and the primary economic engine of its time somewhat like “Wall Street.” Consequently, as we shall see, any threat or talk of its destruction is a serious matter much the way we might think of terrorists targeting the centers of our commerce. The Temple has become a market place, a noisy hubbub of business. Instead of the Temple sanctifying the city, the city was profaning the Temple. We know the story, but in Mark’s version Mark has Jesus quote Isaiah: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.” Only Mark add, “for all people” a phrase that would have special meaning for his mostly Gentile readers. It puts me in mind of Pope Francis speaking to the Youth in Lisbon this summer: “The Church is for everyone!” 

A favorite technique of Mark shows up here. It is the insertion of a story within a story. In other words, one story is like bookends with a story in the middle. In this case, the Fig Tree story has the cleansing of the Temple in the middle of it. The two stories interpret each other and help illuminate the message. Many scholars suspect that the fig tree story is a later insertion since it is the only negative and destructive miracle of Jesus and is totally out of character for Mark’s Gospel. The truth is, it’s irrational. Why would a tree be cursed for not producing fruit when it is not the season for fruit bearing? Only when seen together with the story within the story (the Temple cleansing) does it make any sense at all. From the view point of the early Church, the fig tree is a symbol for Israel embodied in the Temple and its leaders. That symbol has roots in the Old Testament. Both Temple and Fig Tree appear to be thriving, but neither is bearing the desired fruit; both are condemned by Jesus. 

The scene was in the outermost court of the Temple, the Court of the Gentiles. By the colonnades around it the Scribes were fond of teaching their pupils, and on the pavement the traders conducted their business of selling wine, salt, oil, and sacrificial animals, and at certain seasons the money-changers exchanged the Greek or Roman money of pilgrims into the Jewish or Tyrian currency that was required for payment of the Temple Tax. In Mark’s understanding, just as with the cursing of the fig tree, this action is a picture of God’s judgement on hard-hearted Israel, so the expulsion of the merchants is a sign of the divine judgement on the Temple in particular. For his adversaries, there is no escaping the implications here. The leaders are not bearing fruit, and the Temple is not what it should be. That early Church surely saw this as a symbol of God’s final judgement on faithless Israel. Then later it gets re-interpreted for his disciples. So, here comes a time to teach about Faith, Prayer, and Forgiveness.

When it comes to history, the cleansing of the Temple seems to be an actual historical event. Each of the Evangelists reports this incident, and each one in a different way with a different focus. What seems most likely is that this is a relatively minor incident in one corner of the Temple court magnified by tradition and developed along the theological lines of the Evangelist reporting. Here, Jesus cites Jeremiah 7: 11 acting as the prophet who came to purify and restore Israel to its holiness. There is a curious statement inserted saying: “And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the Temple.” In other words, the Temple was not a “short cut” to get from one place to another. It was a sacred space. Scholars think that this phrase was inserted by the early Church to tone down the opposition of Jesus to the Temple. 

The very next verse says: “He taught them.” How in the world he could shift from the disturbance he caused to a teaching moment is curious, and it serves as one more example that Mark’s Jesus is a Teacher with full authority who greatly disturbs the Jewish authorities. With the words: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations” Jesus calls an end to the exceptionalism and the exclusive privilege enjoyed by Israel. These words and this action is for Jesus, in all the synoptic Gospels, the culmination of his ministry. This act sets up the final conflict. The Fig Tree story resumes, and it has withered.

There now unfolds a series of five controversies between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders. These begin with a question put to Jesus by his adversaries. The fig tree story introduces the whole series. 

(1) A question about authority. 

(2) A question about loyalty over what coin should be used. 

(3) A question about the Resurrection 

(4) A question about the greatest commandment. 

(5) A question about the Messiah as the Son of David.

This all begins with that fig tree story focusing on the failed authority of the adversaries. This gives rise to the question about the authority of Jesus. The leaders of the people see Jesus as a challenge to their authority. In this confrontation, Mark shows the authority of Jesus as he demands that these chief priests, scribes and elders of the people answer him. Jesus has walked boldly into the Temple, and they come up with their question that amounts to: “Who do you think you are?” It’s the right question for Mark, but it is asked with the wrong intention, to trap him. Instead, he traps them with a question about John the Baptist. They are afraid of the crowds who still admire John the Baptist. If they admit that John was a true prophet they are guilty for refusing to listen to him. So, they back down and say they don’t know. Jesus tells them that if by now they do not recognize by what authority he teaches, they never will. With that, it’s over for the time being.

 Jesus then tells a parable about Tenants who seize the land after killing the son. They can’t have liked that story. When Mark tells the story, it is a strong reminder to the authorities of the early Church to which he writes to be careful not to claim some exclusive privilege within the Church. 

Next, they send some Pharisees and Herodians in an attempt to trap Jesus with that question about which coin to use for paying the taxes. These two groups would not be friendly toward each other. The Pharisees would have been against even handling the Roman coins much less paying a tax to Caesar. The Herodians, on the other hand,

depended upon the Romans for their livelihood. It was a real trap because it was a burning issue at the time. He forces his questioners to answer for themselves, but not before embarrassing them by asking for the coin which they have in their possession inside the Temple precincts. “Busted!”.

With the next question, there is an answer: “You are wrong,” he says to the Sadducees who come with a question that is really meant as an insult. They are scoffing at the whole idea with an absurd and silly example of how many times a widow should be married in order to raise up descendants for the first husband. He disarms them by asking a question: ‘Have you not read in the book of Moses?” Suggesting that these aristocratic people who only accept the first five books of the Scriptures as authoritative is demeaning to them. Insult for insult is what Mark has us see here.

A Scribe has been listening, and he steps forward with the next question about which is the greatest commandment. This Scribe, whose question seems more sincere than hostile, finds the response of Jesus encouraging, and he hears Jesus say to him: “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” After which Mark says: “And no one dared to ask him any more questions.” 

Now Jesus takes the initiative and poses the question about who he is. In a sense, he is on the attack now, and he goes right to the heart of the matter, namely, the kind of Messiah they are expecting. They thought the Messiah would be from the blood line of David and be a King like David. Jesus maintains that being a blood descendant of David is not the important part, and that the Messiah would be greater than David. In fact, he would be so great that he could be called by the title reserved for God. Since he is greater than David, his reign can be greater than David’s. He quotes Psalm 110 to make his point, and the crowd loves this, and to them, he denounces the Scribes for seeking high places and showing off their piety, and “devouring” the houses of widows.

The final chapter of this section, thirteen, has Jesus observe the widow’s offering in the Temple. After this, he predicts the destruction of the Temple and the coming persecution switching into the Apocalyptic style of writing to describe the coming of the Son of Man, and the need for watchfulness. This section of Mark’s Gospel is probably the most difficult passage for anyone to appreciate. This writing style is simply foreign to us. It is a combination of poetry, science fiction, preaching, exhortation, and prediction. Mark does not use this style often, so when he finally does, it is easy to mess it up when it comes to understanding and interpreting.

There are two themes, two perspectives going on usually at the same time. One concerns the coming destruction of Jerusalem; the other deals with the second coming of Jesus under the title of the Son of Man. These two are interwoven: in one verse Mark may refer to the destruction of Jerusalem and in the very next verse switch to the Son of Man idea. Sometimes he puts to the two together. In both instances, Jesus is urging vigilance and readiness for both events.

This is thirty-seven verses in length and the longest speech of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel. This is his farewell speech to the disciples and it describes what Jesus means to the world as the Son of Man. The opening comment by a disciple about the size of the Temple gets it started. Jesus predicts its destruction, and it was not even finished at the time historically. It was completed seven years before the Romans destroyed it in about 70 A.D. The first disciples called are the only ones present for this: Peter, James, John, and Andrew. This would indicated that this a very special moment.

This writing style always contains descriptions of distress – wars, earthquakes, famines, and floods. The point is not a prediction, but rather that disciples should not lose faith in the face of distress because God’s plan is working itself out. Disciples are reminded that they are not alone, that the Holy Spirit will be with them. The coming destruction of the Temple is then presented along with the predicted desecration of having a foreign army inside the Temple. Jesus tells the disciples not to defend the city, but to flee because God’s plan is unfolding and they must not lose faith.

Mark then switches to the coming of the Son of Man in glory. The images are taken entirely from the Old Testament. The actual time is left open. The message is that the Son of Man will bring calm after the chaos acting as a judge claiming his kingdom. The mention of the sun darkening and stars falling is not to be taken literally. The point is that the distress of this world, the forces of evil at work in the world will eventually be conquered regardless of how powerful they seem. It ends with an exhortation to be alert and ready. What it all comes down to is that there will be evil and destruction, but there is also a promise that the forces of good will be stronger. These two themes of destruction and promise have been in the background of this Gospel since the opening prologue. This section is simply the interweaving of these two themes. With these words, the Passion is about to begin: “And what I say to you, I say to all, Watch.” Now the scene is set for the Passion which begins with Chapter 14 as the conspiracy against Jesus takes shape with Passover two days away.

          1 The Ministry in and around Galilee (1:14 to 8:26)2 The Journey to Jerusalem (11 to 13)3 The Passion (14 to 15)


Three Parts: 

1 The Ministry in and around Galilee (1:14 to 8:26) Pages 1 to 7

2 The Journey to Jerusalem (8:26 to 13) Pages 8 to 14

3 The Passion (14 to 15) Pages 15 to 21

As we pick the Gospel of Mark as we did the First Sunday in Advent, we absolutely must keep in mind that this is not history. This is theology. We must avoid the temptation to wonder if Jesus really said this or that, if something really happened or if he really did something. For that matter, it is silly and waste of time to wonder how it did something. That is serious distraction that will rob us of the wonder and truth of what is being revealed. All of the Gospels owe their existence to the fact that the eyewitnesses were dying, and those who actually saw and heard Jesus speak were fast disappearing. Different from Matthew and Luke, Mark’s Gospel does not have time for Christmas. He is not writing a heart-warming story. In fact, you could say that he doesn’t have time for that sort of thing. It is a Gospel written in almost desperate haste, and you get that feeling right away. 

Mark is giving us a testimony to the church in crisis, and for me, this Gospel is as timely and important as it ever was. We may not be suffering great violent persecutions here, but there is plenty of it elsewhere. Yet, in my opinion, we are suffering persecution of a new sort. It is not violent, but it can be just as painful and distressing. Our persecution takes a different form. It is a subtle kind of emotional invalidation. There is little respect for what we believe and value most. Disregarded and blatantly ignored, we are sometimes simply dismissed as pious fools over looked and dismissed. It is a crisis if we care to take it seriously, and Mark’s Gospel speaks to that now just as he did to that early church in its suffering.

Rome, the center of Gentile civilization is the ultimate and final destination of Peter and Paul. Probably there, as a companion of Paul and a disciple of Peter, a man tradition has called, “Mark” set about the task of putting into writing what he could gather from Peter and any others who had actually heard Jesus speak. There is every reason to believe that Mark had some earlier writings now lost to us that would have recorded things Jesus said and things Jesus did. But for the most part, this is a one-source Gospel and the preaching of Peter is the source. 

As a piece of literature, it is short, blunt, and somewhat clipped in style. In some instances, the details vary from the other Gospels when describing the same incident. At first it seems to be a chronological report of the Lord’s life, but in the end, it is almost chaotic as it seems to dart abruptly from one location to another. Considering the source, what we have are the memories of the aging Peter. Mark, careful to leave nothing out, gives us Peter with no addition or subtraction. As a piece of literature then, it is a simple and direct record of what was remembered from what Jesus said and did. This is not to imply that somehow Mark’s Gospel is inferior to Matthew and Luke. On the contrary, he was actually a pioneer and preserved for us material that might have been lost had it not been for his writing. He selected, adapted, and presented traditional material, and he arranged it with great care. He wrote for a community with a firm Christian tradition knowing what he was about with great theological sophistication. 

This Gospel is written more as a sermon that serves to motivate. So, by telling the story of Jesus, Mark challenges readers to faithful discipleship. He wants to reveal God’s plan of salvation, and he presents that in and through the life of Jesus Christ. It is through human life that God saves the world. Ultimately it is a call to action that is most clearly heard at the conclusion as a call to action and conversion. His focus is on one’s personal choice to act.

When he wrote, a decision to become a follower of Jesus was very radical. It could mean disapproval and outright rejection from friends and family. It could require close fellowship with people previously shunned, slaves, Roman soldiers, Jewish nationalists, and public sinners. For the educated it could mean being laughed at for the absurdity of following a carpenter from a backwater village who was executed as a criminal. For some it could also mean imprisonment, torture, and death by the brutal Romans. Mark himself is one of these people whose life has been changed. He is excited about it, full of joy, and anxious to share his “good news”. 

He was writing for a mixed community with Gentile and Jewish backgrounds. Where they are is only a guess. Mark is not preoccupied with geographical precision. However, they are somewhere in the Roman Empire, probably Syria, which would be close to the events of the Jewish War. Because he is aware of the Gentile converts he takes great care to translate Jewish expressions, customs, and Aramaic expressions for those living in Rome. He wants to knit these two peoples closer together with Jesus as the bond of that union. Most believe it was written soon after or immediately after the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70. This traumatic event raised a problem for Mark’s community which he had to face. Some believed that the destruction of the Temple would be followed immediately by the end of the world, and that did not happen. This makes Mark very conscious of living “between the times.” Victory is the destiny of the faithful, but life in the here and now is real, and it can be grim. 

Of special concern for Mark is the power of Imperial Rome as he stresses over and over again the deeds, the strength, and the determination of Jesus to overcome evil forces. Conflict is constant in Mark’s Gospel, and Jesus is the cause of it. He is in conflict with the authorities both religious and political. There is conflict with the disciples who are overwhelmed by Jesus and his demands. They are hard of heart and full of fear. They constantly misunderstand. In the end, they fail him.  As with Matthew, Luke, and John, the ultimate focus and the motive for writing is the Passion, which may have been written first with the other chapters, written later, leading and pointing toward the Passion. One third of this Gospel is devoted to the last week of Jesus’s life. 

“Who is this?” is the question that drives Mark’s Gospel 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 one final moment at the death of Jesus. One of the most striking elements in this Gospel is the reluctance of Jesus to reveal himself as Messiah. He only refers to himself as the “Son of Man”. Jesus calls disciples to faith that requires suffering, and so until they pass through the suffering, there is to be no talk or mention of who he is. This is what gives rise to what students of Mark’s Gospel call “The Messianic Secret.” Yet, we know the secret and so do the first readers of Mark’s Gospel. What unfolds in this Gospel by watching the characters who do not know what we know is an unfolding of what Jesus must undergo and what that means for those who follow him. 

Mark is a storyteller with an eye for detail especially in the miracle stories. Details are abundant and given in a vivid style, and one incident follows on another in an almost breathless narrative. He also shows himself to be a rare and fine theologian.

More than any other Gospel, Mark emphasizes the miracles, healings, and exorcisms of Jesus. There are 678 verses in Mark, and 1/3 (198) recount miracles. If you like numbers and statistics, there are 18 miracles stories. Thirteen of these are healing stories. The rest are exorcisms. In our day, these raise some questions: Did those events really occur by supernatural intervention? “Do demons really exist?” “Do miracles happen today?” In Mark’s day, these were not questions. Demons existed and troubled people, and there were miracles everywhere. So, Mark never addresses those questions. Supernatural intervention, while extraordinary, was common to the time, and attributing certain illnesses to demons was equally common. We cannot go further with this without my reminder, something I have said time and time again in these talks about the Gospels. “This is not history! This is theology.” It is ridiculous to ask “What really happened?”. That is simply a distraction from what matters, and why we have the Gospel. There is no way to answer that question. What matters is, “What did this happening really mean?” 

With that, let us step into the Gospel of Mark.

The opening verse provides the title: “The Good News,” and for Mark, Jesus is himself the Good News that God has sent his Son to rescue humanity by serving and sacrificing his life. There is no infancy narrative. Mark has no interest in what happened before the Baptism of Jesus. For Matthew and Luke, the identity of Jesus is the point of their Nativity stories. They want to introduce Jesus through a location, his family, and the witnesses (Shepherds in Luke, Magi in Matthew). Mark accomplishes that with John the Baptist.

This story of Jesus begins in the wilderness of Judea. We have no idea where that is on the map, but the location has profound theological significance. The Baptist appears like Elijah to prepare the way. At the ninth verse, Jesus is introduced, to be baptized, and to be tempted. This is Mark’s way of establishing the identity and the authority of Jesus with a hint about what is to come as Jesus moves into Galilee.

The ministry in Galilee is dominated by one question: “Who is this?”. A series of remarkable events and words of Jesus raise the question. Jesus never declares his identity. Demons know, but they are silenced by Jesus who simply offers himself and his teaching for individual decisions and commitment. “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

The ministry in Galilee has three parts, and the transition from one part to the next is marked by a response to Jesus. The first part concludes at chapter 3 verse 6: “The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” The second part concludes at chapter 6 verse 3: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us? And they took offense at him.” Again, he moves on after recognizing their rejection. Part three concludes the Ministry in Galilee and leads up to the climactic moment when Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah. With that, everything changes, the pace picks up, and Jesus heads toward Jerusalem. That’s the end of the ministry in Galilee.

With that outline understood, it only takes Mark 9 verses to establish the identity of Jesus. It happens at the Baptism which, in Mark, is not a public affair. The whole event is simple and direct, it is the Epiphany moment in this Gospel establishing the identity and authority of Jesus of Nazareth. It occurs by a vision and a voice. A verb in the passive voice is used by Mark here: “The heavens were torn open.” It is the same verb used when the Temple Veil is “torn” from top to bottom. In both cases, what has been closed is now open. The mention of the Spirit descending suggests that Jesus is greater than John, and that Jesus will Baptize with the Spirit. Both the vision and the voice are intended for Jesus alone. There is no mention that anyone else was present or heard the voice. This is a secret epiphany. Jesus knows who he is by means of an experience that is not available to the public. They must discover his identity by listening to what Jesus says and by watching what he does. The centurion who watches Jesus die will confess publicly what is here revealed privately: Jesus is the Son of God. The entire story that follows is the story of Jesus and of what God did through him. We ought to think about this in terms of our own Baptism. It establishes our identity.

That Spirit descending upon him immediately drives him out into the wilderness. Mark says nothing about fasting, and there are no details about temptations. There is nothing said about the outcome of the struggle either. What matters here is the number 40 as a reminder of Israel’s forty days in the wilderness and the forty days Moses spent on Sinai. The wilderness is a place where the forces hostile to God are found. Yet, God is present there too. The Greek word translated as “tempt” can also mean “test”. It is not likely that Mark would suggest that Jesus was “tempted” to sin. On the contrary, since conflict is so much a part of Mark’s Gospel, it would be much clearer to say that Jesus was “put to the test” which is a very different experience.

Then, almost as though Jesus waits for the Baptist to finish his work, Mark simply says that Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God. For Mark, it’s all about proclaiming which includes preaching and teaching. In the first verse of Chapter One, it is the “good news of Jesus Christ.” Now in verse 14 it is the “good news of God”. Mark tells us about Jesus. Jesus tells us about God.

Announcing that “the time is fulfilled” has several dimensions of meaning. At that time and in that place, God stepped into human history in a decisive way. The time is fulfilled. Ours is an invaded planet.  Mark links the time of John’s arrest with the time when Jesus starts preaching the gospel. The time of the prophet is over. Now it’s the time of Jesus. Finally, when the good news of God is preached, it is decision time: The time is fulfilled. The other Gospels have Jesus speak of a Kingdom that is present, already here. The Jesus of Mark’s Gospel speaks of a Kingdom that is about to appear. So, it’s decision time, repent and believe. “Time is up!” 

It is hard not to answer a ringing phone, and that is a good way to enter into this first incident in the public ministry of Jesus. He calls. The memory of this among the earliest Christians was a treasure. This story must have been used in the earliest preaching of the Church. With it, the second major concern of this Gospel after Jesus himself is introduced: this group of fishermen. It is told with sharp details making it easy to visualize. It’s all vivid and fresh: five personal names, the Sea of Galilee, the nets, the boats, hired servants, casting, and mending. This is their first encounter with Jesus making their quick response so remarkable. The only words are from Jesus. He calls. They follow. We don’t know anything about them, about their work or how they got along. Mark is interested in only one thing: the authority of Jesus and the response of disciples. In other words: What does Jesus say, and how will they respond.

It can be said that one purpose of Mark’s Gospel is to allow us to participate with the first disciples of Jesus in the gradual and growing recognition of who he is until we reach the conclusion to which the demoniac points in the first of the conflicts. It happens in a synagogue. Jesus first confronts and defeats the power of evil in the place of worship of the people of God. The scribes belong there. The unclean spirit does not. The presence of Jesus is a confrontation with both the Scribes, who have no authority compared to Jesus, and the unclean spirit. What is affirmed here is the amazing authority of Jesus which shows itself in teaching and a special kind of healing that shows itself as power over forces hostile to God. 

There is a lot going on in Capernaum. First an exorcism in the synagogue, and then later that day at the home of Simon and Andrew there is a healing in Peter’s home. One involves a man and the other involves a woman. Then there are more healings in the evening that leads to the closing sentence: “He would not permit the demons to speak because they knew him. This is the first report of what is often called: “The Messianic secret.” With that day at an end, Jesus goes off to pray. The disciples track him down and want him to return to the crowds for more healing. Jesus insists that the goal of his ministry in Galilee is to preach. “That is why I came” he says.

Having established why he came and confirming his authority, a preaching tour begins, and with the first healing on this tour, the roll of faith is introduced. Mark gives us a glimpse into the motivation of Jesus who was “moved with pity” at the sight of a leper. However, more is being revealed in this episode. The words of Jesus, “I will” affirm that God wills healing, and that Jesus comes as the great physician. Then comes the stern command not to tell anyone because he wants to be known as more than a miracle worker. The crowds gathering are a hindrance to his mission.

With the first event in Chapter Two, the term, “Son of Man” is introduced, a connection between sickness and sin is raised, and the first rumblings of a conflict are heard as the scribes appear. The setting is important. Mark tells us that Jesus is “at home.”  Something different from other healing stories happens here. There is no touching and no request as a paralytic is lowered through the roof.  Jesus recognizes faith and says, “My son, your sins are forgiven.” With that the authority of Jesus is revealed and the fuse of controversy is lit. As proof Jesus then says, “Take up your mat and walk.” What we have here is a revelation of God’s forgiveness and the authority of Jesus. There is no evidence that the man had faith, but it is clear that the friends did. Their faith plays an important role.

As this first part of the Gospel continues, Levi is called, and Mark tells of growing controversy over eating with sinners and fasting. We know nothing about Levi, and he is never listed among the apostles. All we know is that Jesus calls him even though he is an outcast and therefore a sinner. Jesus eats with him. The episode provides us with a pronouncement: “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” A controversy over fasting follows and provides another pronouncement: “Fresh skins for new wine.” We can only imagine how encouraging these pronouncements were to the early Church in its struggle between Gentile converts and faithful Hebrew converts hanging on to their old ways. It suggests something we know to be true but may need a reminder: Relationships are healed when people eat together. Then comes a sabbath healing of a man with a withered hand adding to the controversy. Growing opposition from religious leaders leads Jesus and his disciples to withdraw from danger. The crowd follows and Mark gives us a sense of that crowd by listing the places from which they come. It becomes a sort of “State of the Ministry” report, but the crowds have no idea who Jesus is. The unclean spirits do.

After removing Jesus from the crowd, Mark uses a verb that is translated in various ways: made, ordained, appointed, named, or chosen. The object of this verb is simply “twelve.” This is a tricky spot in the Gospel because the persons named are both disciples and apostles, “the twelve” in Mark means something more than “the disciples” but something less than the “apostles.” Mark gives their names, but three of them get surnames. They become an inner circle among the twelve. With that, this section ends as Mark writes: “Then Jesus went home.”

In Chapter Three, the Kingship of Jesus becomes the focus. What we see is that Jesus leaves his identity up to the crowds, the religious leaders, the disciples, and his own family. So, it begins in a “home.” The religious leaders accuse him of working with Satan. His family accuse him of being out of his mind. Two important pronouncements emerge from this episode: one comes from the family confrontation when Jesus says: “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” The second pronouncement concerns the “unpardonable sin.” That sin is to recognize a supernatural power at work in Jesus and yet to call that power unclean or evil. It is unforgiveable because it rejects the very agent of God’s healing and forgiveness. Mark uses the imperfect tense of the verb here, and that is significant, “Because they were saying he has an unclean spirit” suggests that this is a habitual action, a fixed attitude, a firm decision not just skepticism. It is deliberate, and that’s what is so sinful. It is the obstinate rejection of God’s Holy Spirit alone that is unforgiveable. Only those who set themselves against forgiveness are excluded from it.

Now he moves to the lake where he begins to teach in parables. There are three of these: two about seeds and one about light. Mark wants us to understand that there is a large crowd, and Jesus is presented as a “Teacher.” This is the first and longest of the teaching moments, and the location suggests that Jesus is “fishing” throwing his net broadly. 

The word parable in Greek is used more broadly than in English. We make a difference between “parable,” “allegory,” and “saying.” In the New Testament,” parable” refers to all sorts of comparisons, proverbs and riddles. After the first parable about seeds being thrown all around, there is an explanation. It is not likely that this is really Jesus explaining the parable. More likely, it is Mark interpreting the parable for the church. For insiders, parables serve as revelation. As he, probably Mark, interprets the parable, the purpose is exhortation – getting the listener to ask: “What kind of soil am I?” Consistently throughout this section there is expressed the need to “hear.” “Listening” is what Jesus teaches. Parables reveal the Kingdom of God, but reveal it as a mystery. They do this by drawing attention to the mystery and miracle in everyday activities and events like sowing seeds. It is an invitation to see and to hear God in daily life and in familiar texts like this one, to sit still and contemplate quietly until the commonplace wakes our minds and hearts to wonder.

Now remember where Jesus has been for this time of teaching: “The Lake.” As evening comes, a weary Jesus takes to a boat to escape the crowd, and a storm comes. Jesus is sleeping. Disciples are fearful. There is a pattern to the miracle stories in Mark’s Gospel: 1) a problem, 2) a solution, 3) evidence that a miracle has occurred, 4) a response of wonder. This calming of the storm fits that pattern. The command of Jesus is very strong. Many translations in English do not carry that sense. “Quiet Down!” or “Stop It!” would be closer to Mark’s Greek, and then he raises a question that is important at this point, the question of Faith.

Having crossed to the other side where the longest and most detailed exorcisms take place, the demon addresses Jesus as the “Son of God” giving us the main point of this event, that Jesus can heal because he is the Son of God. By his authority he sends the demons back to their place, the depths. This is Gentile territory, and we should not miss the message of the location. In this alien place, the authority and power of Jesus is just as great as in a synagogue and even more amazing. We might also notice that no one asks Jesus to do anything here. He operates on his own authority, and he will confront evil or sickness wherever and whenever he can. The people who witness this are afraid. Who wouldn’t be? The man who had been wild and confused now sits calmly and serene in the presence of Jesus. In the midst of a disorderly violent world, Jesus brings order and peace.

So, we’ve seen so far that Jesus can handle storms in nature and demons. Now we shall see that he can also care about more human woes. Mark employs a technique that creates suspense for us. Now back across the lake, he is headed to the home of a Synagogue leader named, “Jairus” whose daughter is dying. The trip is interrupted by an unclean woman who is bleeding. Suspense! Will he get to the home of Jairus in time? As we find out, he does not. She dies. But that is no problem for Jesus. Now he confronts death itself. What he says about her sleeping should not be understood to suggest that she only appears to be dead. The text affirms that in the presence of Jesus, death itself, real death, is but a sleep. With his command that they give her something to eat, a warm and human Jesus is affirmed. As often happens, the episode concludes with a warning to tell no one.

Jesus then goes home. Remember that his family have already tried to stop him, so what happens at home should come as no surprise. He goes to the synagogue and takes his turn at teaching, and it does not go over well, providing us with one more of his pronouncements: “No prophet is acceptable in his village.” Overfamiliarity is a hindrance to healing, so he can do very little there and leaves. It is not that Jesus cannot heal when there is no faith, but it has a restrictive, dampening effect on his work. Mark tells us that he left to continue teaching. This is his work and ministry: teaching. There is a message here buried 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.

Mark now shifts to the apostles. It began with just four, then he named some of them disciples. Now, he sends the Twelve to extend the work of Jesus. These followers do not understand him. They do not share his way of obedience to the will of God. They are always, up to the end, never fully understanding. They vow to follow him, but they fail, and 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. This is the first and only time the word “apostle” (one sent) is used. Notice that it is a communal mission. They go two by two, not one by one.

Before they come back, there is an interruption. Suspense again? John the Baptist is killed, and Mark uses this to foreshadow what will happen to Jesus as well as those who assume his mission. When the Twelve return, Jesus takes them off to a deserted place, but the crowd chases after them setting the scene for the “Feeding” miracle, which is the only miracle of Jesus that is reported in all four Gospels. Mark has two feeding miracles. It all happens with five loaves of bread and two fish. Mark gives us a shepherd’s image as Jesus has the people to sit down on green grass telling the disciples that they should give the people something to eat. We ought not to miss how Mark widens the ministry of Jesus beyond healing miracles. Jesus is attentive to every human need. He feeds people. When it comes to the Church and its members doing what Jesus did, there is a message here. Even though Mark uses eucharistic language having Jesus look up to heaven, bless, break and give, this ought not be spiritualized. He is feeding hungry people.

Typical of Mark’s gospel so often reflecting a rush, he says that “Immediately” Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and head to the other side while he dismissed the crowd before going up on the mountain to pray. The pattern of rushing and then praying is already clear in this Gospel. Then comes a storm, and it’s almost hard to tell what frightens the disciples more, the storm or the “ghost” they see.

This is a classic Epiphany moment, a manifestation of Divine presence. The words: “It is I” confirm this, and the verb, “pass by” is another biblical way of describing a divine, saving presence. Not calmed by these words, Jesus gets in the boat with them. While the wind and sea are calmed, there is no hint that the fears of the disciples were calmed, and Mark makes it clear that they do not understand anything. In contrast to them, the people on the shore where they land recognized him immediately.

Into that scene comes Pharisees and some Scribes. Mark says that they come from Jerusalem, and that detail is like a storm cloud on the horizon beginning the final conflict with adversaries in Galilee. The controversy is over what is clean and what is unclean and the interpretation of the law governing this. The disciples had not washed their hands, but the question is really about lifestyle, and the formal rigid lifestyle proposed by the Pharisees allows the neglect of parents, and Jesus exposes this hypocrisy. Suddenly, a Greek woman, a Gentile is on the scene, and the question about clean and unclean moves from things to people. Even though Jesus refuses her at first, her attitude and faith open the mission to the Gentiles. This is followed by the curing of a deaf-mute, and it is the last of a string of miracle stories concerned with the question of Jesus’ identity. It concludes with another order not to tell anyone, but the crowd says: “He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”

With that, chapter eight begins in this way: “In those days when there again was a great crowd without anything to eat.” The dialogue between Jesus and the disciples reveals their lack of understanding. How in the world could they ask the same question: “Where can anyone get enough bread to satisfy this crowd?” How dull are they? Did they learn nothing from the previous feeding story? Another feeding story is told. There might be two reasons. The first would be for the sake of emphasis lest we think that Jesus is just teaching and talking all the time. The second reason is that it introduces an interesting noticeable diminishing of power as the eighth chapter unfolds. Here he feeds fewer people with greater resources, and there is less left over. Do not miss the subtle image connection here between Jesus and Moses as people in the desert are adequately fed. We see him avoiding a verbal challenge from his rivals, the Pharisees. The crowd is still not comprehending no matter what he does. It takes two attempts to heal a blind man, and there is an inadequate confession from a follower. We begin to see some vulnerability as he faces his upcoming death. Then it’s back to the boat. The destination is unclear. Mark says Dalmanutha. There is no such place identified in history. Now we are in Gentile territory affirming the mission to the Gentiles.

Moving on, the Pharisees show up and totally exasperate Jesus with a request for a sign. Back to the boat, and in that boat, Jesus teaches them about the sign of the feeding and the bread, and Mark records their lack of understanding in the words of Jesus: “Do you still not understand?” I suspect that the rest of the trip was made in silence. With verse 27 of chapter 8, the Disciples and Jesus set out for the villages of Caesarea Philippi. Along the way he asks the big question: “Who do people say that I am?”  After their report, the really big question is asked: “Who do you say that I am?”   Drum rolls, trumpet blasts, and flashing lights should sound at this point in Mark’s Gospel. It is the turning point as Peter says: “You are the Messiah.” Now mind you, this comes from someone who does not understand. He has no idea what the Messiah must really be like and what the Messiah must do. The next part of Mark’s Gospel will begin to explore that with the first prediction of the Passion followed by the Transfiguration. We will take up the second part of this Gospel when we return to Ordinary Time. With this much, you should be ready to listen to the beginning of Mark’s Gospel during this season.

Listening to Matthew 2022 + 2023

Part Three, The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ

(Begin with singing Bach’s “O Sacred Head”)

As we begin, it should go without saying by now, but I’ll say it again: This is not History. What we are given is rooted in certain basic facts, but the intention of all the Gospel writers is to interpret history, not report it. In other words what is important is what it means, not how it happened. There are here powerful theological motives for writing. Frequently important texts from the Old Testament will weave in and out shaping the way the story is told to assure us that what happened to Jesus was always God’s plan. It was not some accident or the result of some terrible mistake or the triumph of evil over good. This is God’s plan. 

It all begins as each section of Matthew’s Gospel has begun with that formula: “When Jesus had finished these things….” This time another word is slipped into the signal phrase: “When Jesus had finished all these sayings…” Now there is nothing more to say.

Matthew’s desire to show the fulfillment of all the prophets moves Jesus toward his death, and so the Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel, knowing the prophets, knows everything that is to take place. This is not because he has some Divine foreknowledge, but because he knows the prophets. That is important to understand. If his Divine Nature interferes with his human nature, something is wrong. What we shall see in Matthew’s Passion is the great dignity of Jesus as Son of Man, Son of God, Messiah, and King. This is Matthew’s statement about who this is, about the identity of Jesus. Around this Matthew clusters some other themes: the responsibility of the people of Israel for the blood of innocent Jesus, the founding of the church by the crucified and risen Jesus, the weakness of Peter and others in contrast to the strength of Jesus. Remember, Matthew is writing this Gospel to encourage and strengthen a church that is troubled by persecution, division, and betrayal. The failure of Peter, the fate of Judas, the failure of Jewish leaders all warn and challenge the Christians to whom he writes.

And so, it begins with Chapter 26. The fourth and final prediction of the Passion begins this section as an introduction. In the Greek, there is a change in verb tense that somehow did not get carried over into most English Translations, but I think it is worth noting. In the three previous predictions of the Passion Matthew uses the future tense. Now it is in the present tense saying: “The Son of Man is being handed over.” There is also great significance to the use of the passive verb “is being”. This is Matthew’s skill in making it clear that this is God’s doing. God is in control. God’s will or plan is being completed. In Matthew’s brilliant construction of this Gospel (Remember I pointed out earlier that some scholars refer to him as an “architect”) there is a “flash back” scene when he tells us that the chief priests and elders of the people gathered together conspiring to kill Jesus. That’s the same gathering with an earlier plot to kill Jesus in the infancy narrative. The Gospels do not agree on dates – another indication that this is not a history report. In Matthew, Jesus dies on Passover, the 13th day of Nisan which fell on a Friday that year creating a theological connection between the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb and the prediction of his death by Jesus. Those leaders want to avoid arresting Jesus during the Passover fearing a riot because at this point the people are on the side of Jesus, and it was believed that the Messiah would appear at Passover. But, since God is in charge, their plan to avoid the Passover arrest does not work out as they planned.

The whole narrative for Matthew is like a great drama. So, after a scene with the gathering of the chief priests and elders, there comes another scene in which a woman with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment pours it over the head of Jesus. The clueless disciples don’t get it, but Jesus declares this as one more indication of what is to come, the anointing of his body for burial. But there is even more to this anointing since the Messiah was to be “The Anointed” one. Matthew affirms the role of Jesus at this point as the Messiah. It’s an affirmation that will be needed as Israel’s expectation of what the Messiah will be crumbles as the passion unfolds. All through Matthew’s Passion we ought to take notice that the women come off much better than the men. This is the first example of that, and there will be more. The women are more loyal and unselfish and certainly braver. The contrast is shocking. In this scene, the men quibble over the legitimacy of a generous act of love, while the woman manifests the true spirit of discipleship. Then the contrast gets sharper between the woman, who cannot qualify as a member of the Twelve because of her gender, and Judas who appears in the next scene bargaining away his teacher for a paltry thirty pieces of silver. She has just lavished her money on a gift for her master. This happens at the home of Simon the Leper, and we know nothing about him. In Matthew, this woman is unnamed. Jesus interprets her action for us as an anointing for his burial. In Matthew’s Gospel, there will be no report of women coming to the tomb to anoint the body, and there is no Nicodemus with spices for the anointing. It happens here.

This flows very naturally into the next scene which in contrast has Judas going into action. The amount of money is only mentioned in Matthew because it is a prophecy fulfillment (Zechariah 11:12). It is a demeaning sum. In the Book of Zechariah, a slave is gored by an ox, this is the amount in reparation to the master of the slave. In other words, he’s only a slave and not worth much. Matthew offers no motive for the treachery of Judas. While some may want to make greed the motive, the little sum of money makes that improbable. Some want to propose that Judas wanted to force Jesus to become the Messiah they wanted to compel some miraculous event. Matthew is simply not interested in that guessing game. I think Matthew is content to let the mystery of evil stand on its own. Sometimes bad things happen. Sometimes good people do bad things. There doesn’t need to be some other motive. The Jewish leaders who had wanted to delay the arrest of Jesus lose control with the offer Judas makes to them. Now their plan to wait will not work.  Judas is in control of the timing and arrest. This along with the knowledge that Jesus has been showing all along affirms that this is the plan of God unfolding just as God designed not the work of some enemies. 

At this point, Matthew has the cast of characters on stage: Jesus, his disciples, his opponents, and the machinery of betrayal and death begins to turn. It is now the eve of the Passover, and with almost majestic solemnity Jesus, preparing for his last Passover gives precise directions to disciples on how and where the Passover will be celebrated. Following the instructions of Jesus, the Passover celebration begins, and the mood is filled with sadness and exaltation. It is also amusing to me that translations into English (like the popular New American Bible) from Matthew’s Greek mention a “table.” One commentary suggests that the translators were influenced by Leonardo da Vinci’s painting. There is no mention of a table in the original Greek. They were lying on cushions as the custom would have suggested. In that culture, any meal is a sacred moment at which a powerful bond of friendship is celebrated. Eating with someone means something beautiful, powerful, and sacred. When Jesus says: “He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me is my betrayer” there is a disturbance not because this exposes one of them, but because they have all done that. In that circumstance, they all ate out of a common dish. So, when Jesus predicts that someone will violate that sacred bond of friendship, there is a disturbance that raises a question that can find an echo in every human heart: “Is it I, Lord?” As we shall see, they all betrayed him, not just Judas. Here is an example of a technique in Matthew I mentioned earlier. We know something the characters do not know. For us, the betrayer is revealed as each of the disciples uses the word, “Lord”. When Judas asks his question, he says, “Rabbi.” If they thought Judas was a betrayer, they never would have let him leave the room. In Mark’s Gospel, it is unbelievers who address Jesus by that title. Judas seems to fascinate Matthew, and there is more about Judas here than in the other Gospels.

Matthew assumes that his readers know how a Passover meal is celebrated, so there are little details until Jesus says something out of the ordinary. Imagine how surprised those disciples were when Jesus took the bread as was the custom but makes no mention of the ancient exodus as would normally happen. Instead, he says: “This is my body” leading Matthew’s readers to realize that a new exodus will occur. In the ritual, the second cup was filled with red wine symbolic of the blood of the Passover, the blood of lambs, sprinkled on the doorposts of Israelite homes so that the avenging angel would pass over. Again, the words of Jesus are a surprise. He makes no mention of the past, but speaks of the new covenant and the future. Here is that shift always in the shadow of Matthew’s Gospel. There is a new Israel, a new chosen people, a new covenant, and that people will be established by doing this in his memory. With a promise that they shall all drink the fruit of the vine in the Kingdom, they sing a hymn and depart. With that promise of a great reunion in the Kingdom of Heaven, the meal ends on a very hopeful note. They sing the traditional song that concludes the meal, the Hallel which is Psalms 113 through 118. These are psalms of praise. Taken as a whole, they are songs of deliverance.  They are joyful and grateful.

On the way Jesus speaks of their faith being shaken, and Peter speaks up with great bravado. Again, we know something he doesn’t know his promise to never deny Jesus will be broken, and then Peter sleeps. Matthew takes great care to affirm the humanity of Jesus with the Gethsemane scene. Jesus is free to rebel against God’s will, but he learns through prayer to say not my will but yours just as he taught us about prayer. The same three disciples who were with Jesus at the transfiguration are with him now. Then they fell on their faces. Now Jesus falls on his face and they sleep. With terrible irony, Judas is awake and leading a crowd to the garden. On the surface, it would seem that Judas has taken the initiative here and is in charge, but the way Matthew presents this scene, it is Jesus who is in control What happens Jesus could easily have prevented, but he chooses not to do so. Judas calls Jesus “Rabbi” again, and Jesus calls him “friend.” The kiss is really an insult because a student/disciple would and could never be that intimate with their Rabbi/Teacher unless invited to do so. With this detail, Matthew would lead us to see that Judas is repudiating the authority of Jesus. Violence erupts, a sword is drawn, and the disciples flee, and Jesus insists that violence is not the answer nor the greatest power. It is love.

Now begins the second part of Matthew’s passion, the condemnation to death. The charge is a threat to destroy the Temple, and that is serious not because it was God’s dwelling place but because it provided the priestly caste of their livelihood and status. For them, that is most serious. This threat to destroy the Temple was a threat to national identity, self-understanding, and national pride. It was sacrilegious and treasonous. In the end however, the charge is Blasphemy. At this point in Matthew’s Passion narrative, we run right into the fact that this is not history. There are all kinds of details here that are simply in conflict with history. For instance, the Jewish high court would not have convened at night, in a private home on the eve of a major festival. Add to that fact a law which said a capital trial could not be held at night. The only way to reconcile these events is to suppose that there was a quickly assembled inquiry at night with a formal verdict being passed in the morning. It could be argued that this conflict could be explained by the fact that this was extraordinary and required secrecy and haste hence the night trial. However, St Luke has doubts about this because he sets the trial before “the council of the elders of the people” on Friday morning at its regular meeting place. John’s Gospel has no trial of Jesus before a Jewish court. So much for trying to make history out of this. 

Matthew wants us to see more than a rather odd and clumsy effort to make Jesus look guilty and set the conditions for Pilate’s verdict. The focus and purpose of this scene is to provide Jesus with the opportunity to declare the purpose of his mission. This helpless victim is gradually revealed as the builder of the New Temple, the Son of God, the Messiah who sits at the right hand of God. The judges become the judged! The whole scene is framed by the report of Peter’s denial in the courtyard. As the cock crows and he remembers what Jesus had said, he recognizes that in spite of his denial he is loved and he weeps. Caiaphas, frustrated at the silence of Jesus asks a question, and we know the answer. “Are you the Messiah, the Son of God?” Caiaphas ends up doing what Peter cannot do. Yet we could hear what Caiaphas says as bitter sarcasm: “Are you the Messiah”. It’s like saying: “Is this all we get?” The silence of Jesus up to this point is one more example of a refusal to stop what his happening. But he cannot remain silent. So, when the High Priest’s question touches on the truth about Jesus as Messiah, Jesus simply says: “You have said it so.” With that, by assenting to the title Son of God, they have all they need. It’s Blasphemy, and that required the death penalty. Leaving the scene, Matthew switches back to Peter.

When it does come to Peter’s denial, I find it quite interesting that Matthew never mentions his name again. The very prediction of Peter’s denial affirms once again that Jesus is Prophet just as the soldiers mock and taunt him calling him “prophet”. After Peter’s denial, there is another scene in which Jesus is transferred to the Roman Governor. Then it’s back to Judas who, like Peter is overwhelmed with regret and attempts to return the thirty pieces of silver to the leaders confessing that he has betrayed innocent blood. The two betrayers stand in contrast. One repents and weeps. The other does not have repentance because that leads to a change in life. He only has regrets, despairs and then he dies. 

Since only the Roman Governor could pass a death sentence, the “authorities” had to find a way to get what they wanted. Blasphemy would mean nothing to the Roman Governor. So, they switch tactics, and with the Roman Governor the charge is changed to suggest treason as Jesus is presented as King. Dreams which have an important part at the opening of Matthew’s Gospel are suddenly again used as the wife of Pilate intervenes because of a dream. She is only mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel. This whole scene is theological in that it carries the message that the death sentence handed down by Pilate is really the responsibility of the leaders of the people who assume full responsibility resulting in what is stated in verse 43 of chapter 21: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.” There is no real historical evidence that there really was a custom of releasing a prisoner at Passover time. Luke’s Gospel never mentions this at all. That does not mean it didn’t happen, but the question pushes us to ask what it means. Pilate calls him “famous” The adjective Matthew uses, different from Mark’s is not so dark and threatening. Mark calls him a murderer. Matthew simply says he is famous which makes the choice of the people more interesting to all Christians still tempted to choose someone famous over Christ. Our present-day hero worship of celebrities is the point.

As I said, this whole scene is Matthew’s way of affirming the guilt of the Leaders. This is not something Pilate does, but he does recognize that Jesus could be used as a figurehead by a revolutionary movement. It is important when reflecting upon this and the words: “His blood be upon us and our children” as a theological conviction that Israel as a whole has rejected its Messiah in a final and definitive way and therefore deserves to be deselected as God’s special people. Matthew describes the crowds at this point, and it is important to recall that throughout the Gospel, “the crowds” were always on the brink of acknowledging Jesus as God’s son, but they have not been won over to faith in Jesus. They followed, they marveled, and they praised, but their highest praise, that Jesus is the son of David is inadequate. The crowds never called Jesus “Lord” or “Son of God”, but the disciples do. When thought of this way, as Matthew intended, this is less an attack on Jews as an explanation for the Gentile mission and for the church in which Gentiles are not predominate. This is about rejection not about murder. In a very real way, Israel (the Jewish leaders) hand Jesus over to the Gentiles (the Romans) in an ironic but clearly understood theological statement.

The abuse of Jesus as Matthew presents it leads to the crucifixion. These “soldiers” are not Roman legionaries. They would have been “auxiliaries” not Jewish inhabitants of the area. “Mercenaries” is what we would call them today. They had no love for the Jews, so having an opportunity to abuse the “King of the Jews” was all they needed. They mock the “king”. He gets a scepter (a reed). He gets a crown (of thorns). He gets the royal robe (a soldier’s red cape). 

When presenting the crucifixion, Matthew gives us very little by way of details. There is nothing said about nails or pounding. He simply says: “having crucified”. The details given are not about the victim but about the spectators in this Gospel. First there is Simon the Cyrenian. No details come from Matthew. We are not informed that Jesus is too weak. Simon is simply a silent spectator. There are the soldiers who fulfill a prophesy by offering sour wine to Jesus as they split up his clothing. The two thieves, like the soldiers are negative observers. They say nothing in Matthew’s Gospel. Just their placement on the right and left ironically suggests a royal setting. Since these observers have no lines, there are others who do speak, and that gives them some prominence. These are the people passing by who mockingly quote Jesus about the temple coming down and his messianic claim. For Matthew, this is a refrain from the temptation in the desert during which Satan tempts Jesus to draw on supernatural power and save himself. The leaders of the people are there too speaking about and actually quoting what Jesus has said and done. The message from Matthew through this scene is that those who became Christians had to face a challenge from family, friends, and acquaintances. Matthew’s crucifixion scene speaks to this by showing that the indignities Jesus suffered as Messiah were all in accordance with the prophecies. Israel had expected an all-powerful Messiah, but God had sent one who would renounce the use of force against his enemies and submit instead to suffering and death for “the Son of man came not be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The moment of crucifixion is an enthronement: Jesus, crowned, is surrounded by an improbable retinue of two others who die in the same way. The entire crucifixion story as Matthew tells it is one Old Testament Prophecy fulfillment after another. Nearly every detail has an Old Testament reference. The detail of the soldiers casting lots over the clothing of Jesus is just one obvious example. The first readers of Matthew’s Gospel would have understood and connected all these references, images, and details. Of the traditional “Seven Last Words”, Matthew gives us only one: “My God, My God, Why Have You Abandoned Me.” Men and women of faith at that time did not consider it inappropriate to argue with God. Scenes from “Fiddler on the Roof”, if you remember, should confirm that fact. It is not unfaith, but faith that permits Job to call God’s justice into question. What most scholars accept for this moment is that Jesus is praying Psalm 22 which begins by complaining to God. The faith of Jesus is seen by the possessive pronoun, MY. Did Jesus feel abandoned by God? Probably so, why not? Matthew may have wanted to make this point. Separation from God is the price or the consequence of sin. Jesus is paying that price on behalf of others is the point. The offering of the sour wine is refused. It was probably a cruel way of prolonging the agony, and Jesus will have none of that.

Matthew records three events at the moment of the death, an earthquake, splitting of the rocks, and the Temple veil being torn from top to bottom. These are all biblical signs of the end of the world. In a very true sense, the death of Jesus did mark the end of a world without hope and the beginning of new age of God’s Spirit. The tearing of the Temple veil is followed by a Gentile (Roman soldier) confessing faith in Jesus. We can assume that Matthew, is still addressing that community struggling with Gentile inclusion. He sees the torn veil as sign of universal access by all to Jesus. Unique to Matthew’s Gospel is the addition of the men who are with that centurion. They all say those words: “Truly this was the Son of God.” These are Gentiles, not Jews. With this detail, Matthew affirms the place and the faith of Gentiles among the newly chosen People of God. Women are also present leading to the scenes of the burial and the resurrection.

Matthew, as with all the other Gospels describes the burial of Jesus for one reason, to confirm the reality of the death. Remember, in Mark, there is a Centurion dispatched to pierce the side of Jesus to confirm that Jesus is dead. We do not find that in Matthew. He goes straight to the story of Joseph of Arimathea. His action of providing a family tomb is extravagant. Romans threw the bodies of the crucified on the ground as food for scavengers. Jewish law forbids this, but a criminal’s body was not allowed in the family tomb, so there was a common grave. We know from Matthew that Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin who probably opposed this death. If he had his own tomb, he was a rich man, and with that detail, another Old Testament prophesy is fulfilled. (Isaiah 53,9 “They made his grave with a rich man.”). The Gospel accounts make it clear that there is something special here, and the clean linen cloth emphasizes that. 

Matthew’s concern is not whether or not Jesus is dead, he wants to confront the rumor that the body was stolen. For the leaders, an empty tomb would be an incontestable fact. If it were not empty, the leaders could easily refute any preaching about the resurrection by displaying a corpse. This is a dilemma. So, they come up with that rumor as a way to explain an empty tomb. The placing of the guard is only found in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s one more effort to refute the rumor that the body was stolen. The fact that this rumor existed is in itself an indication that the tomb was empty! Matthew shows the rumor to be false because it is based on the laughable testimony of witnesses who admit to sleeping through the whole event. Now the women come into the scene. There are only two of them this time. There is no way to guess or figure out why two and where the third woman was. Matthew is the only Gospel writer who tells us that the tomb was guarded. There is something ironic here when the Jewish leaders want Pilate to have the tomb guarded. It would seem that they put more stock in a prediction by Jesus that after three days he would rise from the dead. Meanwhile, his disciples seem to have forgotten all about that. Suddenly, these leaders want to join forces with the power of Rome to prevent the resurrection as best they can with a sealed stone and posted sentries. This is all part of Matthew’s effort to confront the rumor of the time that the body was stolen not brought back to life. These guards at the tomb, unlike the ones at the cross do not confess belief. Unbelieving, they became as “dead men.” Yet, like the magi at the beginning of this Gospel, they leave with the same great joy that filled the magi who came to see the new born king. In his appearance to these women, he sends them to his “brothers”. He does not say “disciples” because all is forgiven. 

As Matthew draws this to an end, there is nothing about the resurrection itself. All we get is the effects with two points of view: an empty tomb and the disciples meeting the risen Lord. Again, there is an earthquake. It’s the second one. The first one at the moment of his death when Matthew says, “The tombs were opened and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.” This second earthquake announces another opening. The women went “to see the tomb”. What is important to Matthew is not what they were coming to do, but what happened to them. An angel comes for the first time since the opening of this Gospel. Notice that the angel rolls the stone for them. There is no suggestion that the opening of the tomb is necessary to allow the risen Christ to come out. He has already risen when the angel rolls the stone. The women do not come to see him rising, but to see that he has already risen. The invitation to see the place where he lay is addressed to the same persons who watched the body being placed there, so there is no mistake. It’s not the wrong grave, and the stone was still in place when they got there. Then comes the instructions: to tell and go to Galilee, and with that note, Matthew, once more, emphasis the importance of Galilee making it the place where the story ends because that’s where the ministry of Jesus began.

The presence of Jesus after the resurrection is quite different in each of the Gospels. Yet, it is likely that a common story of the commissioning of the Twelve is shared by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. However, each of them relates this event from the perspective of their own theology. The location says something. Mark has it happen in Jerusalem, Luke and John have it happening in Galilee. Matthew, who is the focus for us right now places the appearance where?  On a mountain! Several times in Matthew, important events occur on the mountain: the final temptation, the transfiguration, and then there is THE mountain of the Beatitudes. These final verses are unique to Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus comes as the Son of Man to found and commission his church. While he sent his apostles only to the land and people of Israel during his public ministry, he now sends the eleven to all nations, with baptism, not circumcision as the initiation rite, and with his commands, not the Mosaic Law, as the final norm of morality. Here for the only time in this Gospel the address is to “the eleven”, a sad reminder that Judas is lost. What they saw there on that mountain is not given to us. Matthew is more concerned with what is said. All through chapters 24 to 26 “Son of Man” is the title Matthew uses for Jesus. Then he changes in Chapter 27 to “Son of God.” Finally, in this last chapter, the title, “Jesus” is the only one Matthew uses to make certain that there is a connection between the risen Lord and the earthly Jesus. Matthew tells us that when they saw him they worshipped him but some doubted. The word, “doubt” here means hesitation. Jesus approaches them Matthew tells us. He speaks first of himself, then to them with the words of commission, and finally the most comforting and reassuring words in all of the Gospel: “I am with you always to the end of the age.”

Our scientific age and our need for scientific proof for something to be real or true crashes when it comes to the Resurrection and that Empty Tomb. So, we like to soften the reality that we cannot explain by suggesting that the disciples felt that Jesus was still with them in spirit. Add to this the fact that the details presented by all four Evangelists have huge discrepancies: who first discovered that the tomb was empty?  When did they do so? How and when was the stone rolled away? Was there one angel or two? Or was there any angel at all? Early Christians were not very concerned about detail accuracy. This is a faith story intended for believers. Non-believers will never be convinced of anything about an empty tomb. This is not so much about Jesus as it is about God.  To believers, there is no doubt at all that God could raise Jesus from the grave. The purpose is to ask a question: “What is this story telling us about God?”

The cry of Jesus on the cross is answered. At the same time, we must avoid thinking that the resurrection was just automatic because after all, Jesus was divine. That thinking deprives Good Friday of its significance. If the resurrection was because Jesus was divine, then the whole business of the cross was just an act a charade. Matthew insists that this is God’s act. To make that as clear as possible, Matthew uses the passive voice of the verb: “He has been raised.” The empty tomb is not proof of anything. It is a sign of the resurrection. The resurrection is not a carefully constructed myth but an inexplicable event. The story is only believable because God is believable. 

Part Two, The Mission and the Message

It is a peculiar fact that in age and at a time in human history when more people are literate that the Word of God has become more difficult to read. People born before the rational scientific revolution of the last few hundred years knew how to read sacred literature. They knew and they understood images, not photographs or paintings, but the kind of images found in time-tested mythology. They knew that the truth was passed on through symbols and stories. It is not that the stories were made up and therefore not true, but that the stories, the characters, their challenges, their failures, were told to reveal or convey the truth. What is peculiar, and very unfortunate is that we modern or post-modern people, however we want to call ourselves, have been infected with something more troubling that a virus. That something is best called “the scientific method.” Because of that, we have forgotten how to read sacred literature. We read the words all right, and there are countless Bible study programs to give evidence that people do read the Sacred Scriptures. The very fact that the Bible is still to this day is the most purchased book on the market.

Because we’ve been infected, we look for what we might call “empirical truth”. By that I mean, evidence, research, and reason. If there is no evidence, if there has been no research, and if it is unreasonable, it isn’t the truth. That kind of thinking will not allow the message, the truth, the revelation of our Sacred Writings to come through to us. The fact is, our ancient scriptures are full of mythical, symbolic images, and in order to understand our Scriptures, we must will willing to look for the symbols, to treat the sacred stories as powerful, truth-bearing stories, not historical reporting.

This bothers a lot of people, and that’s too bad because too often those who are shocked or upset about this fact are too afraid to move beyond the comfortable, and I’ll say, “lazy” way of just thinking that reading the Bible, especially the Gospels is like reading someone’s diary. Here’s an example. In Matthew 24 it starts with “Jesus left the Temple.” We think the Temple is a big building in Jerusalem, but not for Matthew. The Temple represents the entire system of life, faith, and economy. The entire verse says this: “Jesus left the Temple, and as he was going away his disciples came up to draw his attention to the Temple buildings”. The disciples are always doing things like that. It’s the end of the Gospel, the 24th chapter out of 28, and they have not gotten the point! He’s leaving the Temple, and they are admiring the building. The disciples are stuck in the system the Temple represents, marveling at the structure, and the reply of Jesus is: “You see these stones? In truth I tell you, not a single stone will be left on another. It’s all going to fall apart. Stop putting your trust in it.” Jesus is talking about the end of the world, not about a building. He is talking about the end world as we have known it. And I’ll bet your sitting here thinking I’m talking about the apocalypse or the destruction of the universe or creation. No. I’m talking about the end of the world as we live it. Because when Jesus comes, when the Messiah comes, when the Kingdom of God breaks into our lives, the world as we knew it, saw it, and served it is all over. We cannot welcome the presence of Christ, the full coming of Christ until we have let go of the old. Too many live under the illusion that it is possible to worship this world order and at the same time say: “Thy Kingdom Come.” Yet, we can’t say, “Thy Kingdom Come” until we say, “My Kingdom go.”

Here’s the point in our discovery of Matthew’s Gospel and all scriptures for that matter. The story is always true, and sometimes it really happened. That’s the nature of all sacred scriptures. This is what I wanted you to understand in the first of these talks before Christmas, and you have to hang on to that as we go forward. Did three kings from somewhere in the east to Bethlehem? I don’t believe that really happened, and you don’t have to. But you do have to believe the truth that the story contains. Every nation on earth will come to adore the King. So, what does the virus of our age do to us, people spend hours and waist all kinds of time trying to prove by science and the study astronomy to see if there was some kind of special star. Those folks are done for when it comes to their ability to read the images and find the truth in the stories that may or may not be true.

So, let’s wade into the middle section of Matthew’s so well-structured Gospel. There is a signal phrase in this Gospel that signals a change. It’s like the “ding” in an elevator that tells you another floor has been reached. When Matthew writes this: When Jesus had finished these sayings…. it is the signal that one of the five divisions or books is finished. Sometimes these divisions are called, “discourses”. The sequence of events in Matthew matches Mark’s Gospel with groups of sayings inserted. An example is what we call “Sermon on the Mount.” Those sayings in Mark and Luke’s Gospels are scattered throughout but Matthew groups them together. So, Mark gives Matthew the structure, or sequence of events. 600 of the 661 verse of Mark are found in Matthew. Events from Mark have sayings added by Matthew. Then, unique to Matthew is great attention to the Old Testament. Remember that yesterday I spoke of Matthew’s audience being made up of primarily Jewish converts to the “Way”. Matthew wants them to feel OK about that conversion. Also unique to Matthew is his interest in Church affairs. This is the only Gospel that makes a direct mention of the “Church”. Much of it is directed toward situations that the Church of the first century was facing. With that said, let’s take up the five Books noticing that there is a progression that shows Jesus moving from his homeland in Galilee, to his rejection in Jerusalem, and then triumphantly back again to Galilee at the end.

The First Discourse: Chapters 3 to 7:28 concerns The Ethics of the Kingdom

Details tell us a lot. Jesus sits, the disciple’s approach, he opens his mouth and teaches. Those first two verbs suggest to us that Matthew wants us to see a king on his throne, and his disciples come like subjects in a royal court. Notice that the disciples are the ones he addresses. The crowd is just there listening in. This is not something private for an exclusive group. They can hear and potentially become disciples. Here is the Teacher addressing the learners.

In many English translations, the word Blessed is used which does not always carry into English the complex meaning of the word Matthew chooses in Greek. Congratulations would really be more accurate.

Congratulations to the poor in spirit. We should not miss the point that both Matthew and Luke open the Good News for the poor. Matthew adds “the spirit” leading us away from thinking about an economic condition. This is about the need for God.

Congratulations to those who mourn. This is not about the loss of a loved one. This is about sharing God’s sadness over sin and evil, war and injustice. It’s a longing for God to act and make things right. 

Congratulations to the meek refers not to those who are powerless, but to those who use power and strength for the right reasons. This is a description of Jesus who is humble. In Greek, the term Matthew uses refers to taming a wild animal. 

Congratulations to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. These people hunger and thirst for the right things – their deepest longings are for fellowship with God. They will know a comfort only God can provide.

Congratulations to the merciful. This is not about feelings. It is about action that leads toward helping another. These are people who have experienced God’s mercy and know it was given to be shared.

Congratulations to the pure of heart. This is about the very center of a person’s innermost being, the place where decisions are made. The condition of one’s heart determines one’s actions. The issue here is moral purity. It assumes that communion with God depends on purity of heart, not purity of cups.

Congratulations to the Peace Makers. These are the ones who leave the altar to make peace with another. 

Congratulations to those persecuted for the sake of righteousness. The “righteous one” is Jesus in the mind of disciples. He is also the “Just one” leading the disciples to see that there is a price to pay for justice in an unjust world.

Congratulations to you when people revile you and utter all kinds of evil on my account. 

There is a switch here from the third person to the second person that few people ever notice, but it is important. Matthew is now addressing the Christian community. They are congratulated because they share the same fate as the prophets.

We are all so familiar with the Beatitudes, that we often tend to think that the first thirteen verses of chapter five is the sermon. Wrong! The Beatitudes are simply the opening for this Sermon which really gets down to business as Jesus begins to clarify, describe, or define the vocation of a disciple in the world. Immediately Jesus makes it clear that faith and discipleship are not private matters. Thinking or saying that “My faith is a matter between God and me” is the opposite of what Jesus says. The salt and light instruction ought to make that perfectly clear. Why should we do this? To win rewards or acceptance? Jesus is not telling disciples that by doing good works, they would earn salvation. Those good works are to give glory to God.

Then comes a clarification about the Law. It is not abolished. It is fulfilled which means complete, and in this sermon, disciples are instructed to complete or perfect the law in six areas: Murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, revenge and love of enemies. Each of these are introduced by a lead-in phrase: “You have heard it said, you shall not commit murder. “You have heard is said, you shall not commit adultery, and so on. With this instruction for us disciples, comes the practice of almsgiving, fasting, and prayer. When Matthew has Jesus get to this final instruction, he provides the model prayer. As this first discourse draws to a close, Jesus tells disciples about what kind of treasures matter, reminds them that they cannot serve two masters, that they are not to judge, remember that God provides, so disciples must ask trusting that God provides what they need, and finally, the discourse ends with the news that those who do the will of the Father will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. This discipleship is about doing something. A disciple cannot just be a “hearer” of the Word. There must be action. With the last verse of this discourse, Matthew tells us that the crowds were astonished at his teaching because he taught with authority, not like the scribes. With Matthew, as I said earlier, it is not miracles that bring the people to amazement. It is the Word Spoken.

Second Discourse: Chapters 8:1 to 11:1 Concerns the Mission

The second discourse begins with the usual Matthean bridge saying: “Now, when Jesus had finished saying these things……. It is a reflection on the authority of Jesus and the need for disciples to submit to that power and authority. Now the authority that raised such amazement is confirmed with a series of miracle stories that lead disciples to understand the Mission of the Kingdom. Divine power goes on display through Jesus, and it’s all about healing. There are three sets of stories that concern the fact that each person has been excluded from participation in the life of Israel. There is pattern of triads in Matthew’s Gospel. You will see it again and again. 

The first is the cure of a leper, the second is a gentile centurion and his son, the third is Peter’s mother-in-law who has not be able to serve. We can see immediately Matthew’ all-inclusive vision of the Kingdom of God with a look at the Church for which he is writing. That Church must have been very comforted with a story about a gentile being included as well as a woman. After the cure of Peter’s mother-in-law, we see one of Matthew’s principal characteristics, connecting this to the Old Testament prophets – “This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “he took our infirmities and bore our diseases.” Jesus has the power to restore and heal what is broken. It’s not just about diseases. It’s about the consequence of the disease, alienation from the life of the community.

The second set of three now show another kind of authority. Jesus gets into a boat, and the disciples follow him. Matthew says that Jesus wanted to go to “the other side”. That is a detail worth noting. It does not simply mean the opposite shore. It literally means the other side. It’s like a Democrat going to the Republicans. So, in those days, what is “the other side”? It is the Gadarene country. This was a pagan place, one of the ten Greek cities. That Jesus would head over there through a storm should raise an eyebrow or two. It’s not only a pagan place, there are swine there, but that does not stop Jesus. Then, another sign of his authority is given as he cures a paralytic and forgives his sins. The people were filled with awe not because he cured the paralytic, but because he forgives sins. It is what he says, not what he does that Matthew goes after, and he tells us that they glorified God who had given such authority to human beings. Matthew’s use of the plural reminds readers that this authority to forgive sins did not leave earth when he, the Christ, was exalted in to heaven. So, Jesus has authority over fear (the consequence of a storm at sea), over evil forces, and over sin. There is the triad again. Disciples of Jesus shall inherit that authority.

As a bridge to the third set, the story of Matthew’s invitation is told and Jesus goes to dinner with sinners providing the occasion for an instruction – a discourse that is summed up simply by saying it is mercy God desires, not sacrifice, and Jesus (and therefore his disciples) came to call sinners so he comes as a doctor to the sick.

The third set of miracles begins with a dead girl being raised to life and then a woman with a hemorrhage is cured. What unites these stories is faith. In the first, it is the faith of the father who asks Jesus to restore his daughter. Then comes a woman who just wants to touch Jesus.  Again, it’s about faith as Jesus asks two blind men: “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” Finally, there comes the healing of a death-mute. It takes four verses, but it is important because, for the first time it introduces conflict. The Pharisees say: “By the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons.” The section ends with the final selection of the Twelve and their sending out to proclaim the good news: to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers and cast out demons. They are to go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. There is no universal outreach yet. Then, we get what must by now be familiar words: “Now, when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.” You know what that means: Discourse Three.

The Third Discourse: Chapters 11:2 to 13:53 Ministry in Galilee & the Nature of the Kingdom 

Up this point, Jesus has been the sole missionary. Now he makes partners for preaching the gospel and healing. There is a somber mood to this Discourse as it unfolds in Matthew’s Gospel. Refusal to accept the gospel will be the rule, not the exception which leads to parables about judgement at the end of this third discourse. The negative response we first saw at the end of Discourse two will grow. This is a serious reminder that the gospel is not the story of a religious hero but of a dying savior, the final discourses lead us to the passion narrative.

This section begins with John’s disciples coming to Jesus to ask if Jesus is “the one who is to come.” True to form, Matthew links all of this to the Old Testament as Jesus declares that John is “Elijah who is to come.” Elijah’s task in the Old Testament was to prepare the people for the coming of God. It didn’t go well then, and that is what is happening now. After a thanksgiving prayer to his Father that reveals his relationship with the Father, he issues the Great Invitation: “Come to me all you who are weary and I will give you rest.” There is something very important being promised her, and it isn’t a vacation. The burden that Jesus wants to lift is the burden of the law being imposed too heavily. So, the next two episodes concern the Sabbath, and a conflict arises because disciples of Jesus pluck some grain while walking on the Sabbath, and Jesus cures a man with a withered hand in a synagogue on the Sabbath day. Remember, Jesus did not come to abolish the law. Yet, the law must yield to a higher principle: Mercy. More conflict is the result. So, Matthew says: When Jesus became aware that the Pharisees were conspiring against him seeking a way to destroy him, Jesus departed. 

This third discourse continues with a demand for a sign. Until this point, the Pharisees have been the source of conflict. At this point Matthew introduces the Scribes into the conflict. They are the ones who interpret the law. They are the professionals, so to speak. The Pharisees, are lay people who teach the law and show how it is to be observed like Catechists in our day. The opposition is growing. Finally, the focus of this discourse emerges with a series of parables about the Kingdom.

In the Greek language, the word “parable” comes from a verb that means “set side by side”, that is “to compare”. In Hebrew, there is slight change as “parable” begins to mean something hidden. Matthew is using the word “parable” with its Hebrew nuance which is why he speaks about “things that are hidden”. Jesus now uses parables to respond to the rejection he experiences. They all begin with the same phrase: “The Kingdom of heaven is like…” These parables do not describe the future or what the Kingdom will be like. They are concerned with the present

Finally, there comes three parables about sowing: (1) seed thrown everywhere, (2) someone sews weeds among the wheat, (3) Mustard Seed and Yeast. Deeply distressed about the mixed state of the Church, Matthew uses these parables to remind one group that just because they are church members is no guarantee of salvation. They need to change and bring a harvest from what God has planted everywhere. The general message is that those who receive the word of the kingdom and understand it not just intellectually but with commitment at the depth of their being, will be able to withstand temptation and tribulation. Those are the ones who will produce a bountiful harvest in terms of the good fruits of obedience to God’s will.

This discourse reveals that the Kingdom of Heaven is not a thing that can be acquired as a permanent possession. It is a life-style, a gracious gift of participation in God’s life. With that, Matthew writes: “When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place, came to his home town and began to teach the people in their own synagogue….”

The Fourth Discourse: Chapters 13:54 to 19:1Opposition & The Governance of the Kingdom

Jesus is now at home. When he takes his turn in the hometown synagogue there is amazement, wonder, and suspicion. At this point, Matthew tells us about the death of John the Baptist as one more reminder about the hostility disciples of Jesus will find in this world. He then reports the only miracle reported in all four Gospels which suggests that this is of unusual importance. This is the feeding of the multitude. There are two feeding stories in Matthew. Being the people that we are, infected with the “virus” of science, the question always lingers: “Did this really happen?” My response is as always: “This is not history. It is theology.” It does not make any difference. We have to ask what it means, not did it happen. Details give us a lead. Bread and Fish are the basic ingredients of a peasant’s meal in Galilee. Jesus provides no cooked dishes, luxurious fruit, and there is no wine. These simple details tell us that God can provide what is necessary for life. While not the “Banquet” we might expect in the Kingdom of God, what we see is that the Messiah is the host who supplies what his people need out of compassion. Matthew reminds the Church that they are to give, to share, to feed, and to serve with the further reminder that God uses what we bring.

Then something happens that again raises a question. Jesus walks on water. “Did that really happen? How did he do that?” Some might think of this as evidence of divinity confirming that Jesus is God since he can walk on water. But, Peter does the same thing which means this is something that comes from God. It is not God walking on water. This is not some kind of “show off” stunt. Details make that clear. The boat is far from land. The boat is in trouble. This is a story about Jesus coming to the aid of his threatened disciples. This is about a rescue not about the nature of Jesus. It is worth noting that Matthew refers here to “those in the boat” not to the Twelve or the Apostles. It’s about all of us dependent upon the savior. While the other Gospel writers tell the story of Jesus on the water, only Matthew includes the part about Peter exploring what it means to be caught midway between faith and doubt. Peter represents all who dare to believe that Jesus is Savior, taking their first steps in confidence that Jesus will sustain them. I have always found it very important to remember that in John’s Gospel, faith or believing is always a verb, never a noun. It is not a thing or a possession. It is an activity.

Suddenly, once on land, Pharisees come from Jerusalem. This is an ominous statement. Jesus only goes to Jerusalem to die. This presence of the Pharisees coming from Jerusalem is a like a dark cloud on the horizon. They come to start trouble, and it’s over the washing of hands and what is clean and what is unclean. Jesus never suggests that the law and the customs around the law should be done away with. He simply wants to remind his listeners of the reason for the law so that the law will be observed because of faith not obligation or fear. It would seem that he is also writing about these things to support the Jewish converts who are a minority in his predominantly Gentile Church. He seems to be protecting them from ridicule for wanting to preserve their life-style. We would do well to remember that in today’s multi-cultural and multi-generational church. Matthew is revealing that there are disputes in his church over life-style.

To affirm the presence of Gentiles among believers, there comes the story of the Canaanite Woman who begs for help. The response of Jesus seems harsh to our ears when he refuses at first and makes that comment about taking children’s food and throwing it to the dogs. The word Matthew uses for dog means “a household pet”. That’s not as harsh sounding as “DOG” in English. The whole scene is a test of her faith, and by responding positively to her, Jesus signals that the Kingdom is going to be wide open. It is this emphasis on faith that makes Matthew’s version of this story slightly different from Mark’s. Matthew takes care to show us believing Gentiles in contrast to the unbelieving Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem. Jews reject Jesus. Gentiles come to him.

After this scene there comes a second feeding story. There is with this one a mass healing as well as a mass feeding, and importantly it happens on a mountain. This is theology not geography. This is about God’s people being gathered on the mountain of the Lord as Isaiah describes the end of time. What happens to them there is a theological expression of salvation: healing and feeding in abundance. Why two feeding stories? Two different messages. The first is about God providing what we need using what we have. The second includes details that have no connection to Israel. Instead of twelve baskets leading us think of the Twelve Tribes, this time there are seven baskets. At that time people counted seventy nations on earth. Then trouble comes again as the Pharisees return wanting a sign from heaven. Jesus is having none of this since he’s been working signs and wonders all along and they can’t see what’s right in front of them because what he says threatens their life-style and security, and they want none of that. In effect, what Jesus says to them is “No. You can’t see what’s going on here.” So, he takes to the boat and heads to the district of Caesarea Philippi. There, with one of the greatest cities the Romans had built high on an out-cropping of rock above them, he asks a question: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” He uses his favorite title, “Son of Man” which comes right out of the Old Testament (Daniel 7) meaning an exalted human like figure. In other words, the “Son of Man” is perfect humanity. At that moment, Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah, and at that point of Matthew’s Gospel, things change, the mood changes, and the whole energy increases.

The Fifth Discourse: Chapters 19:2 to 26:1 Jesus and the Future of the Kingdom

As always, the next discourse begins: “And when Jesus finished these sayings.” Now Jesus departs from Galilee and comes into “the region of Judea beyond the Jordan” well on his way to Jerusalem. Since Peter’s declaration, Jesus now teaches the Twelve even though the crowds follow him. The Pharisees are back now with their evil intent. They start with a mocking question about marriage and divorce. The response of Jesus makes even more obvious Matthew’s respect and concern for the law. While the Pharisees may be trying to trap Jesus into disregarding the law, Matthew’s Jesus interprets the law using other scriptural verses to back up his argument, and it works. They are humiliated before the crowd, and that makes them all the angrier.

As the journey continues there are three short scenes which reveal what it takes to become a child of the Kingdom. The first is the story is about children with which Jesus embraces and makes it clear that children have a special importance. Of course, in that culture, children were not valued, but in the mind of Jesus, a child is the perfect example of what it means to be helplessly dependent on the Father in heaven. It is not unreasonable to suspect that Matthew is also urging his church to include children in every aspect of the communities’ life. The second of the three scenes is about a young rich man who thinks perfection comes from doing things. The perfection Jesus expects is undivided devotion. He can’t do that. He has too many things. He’s rich. Then comes a parable that reveals a God of compassion rather than a God of justice. In that parable a vineyard owner pays workers the same wage regardless of how long they have worked. The climax of this parable is: “am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” Matthew is challenging some seniority claims among the early disciples as former pagans begin to assume roles in the community. The old-timers don’t like it.

Having arrived in Jerusalem, Jesus goes to the Temple. As Matthew tells the story of the “cleansing”, there is some refinement as judgement is tempered by grace. Because we often blend all of the Gospel events together, we can often miss some details that are unique to one or the other of the Evangelists, or we think that they all say the same thing. Not so. This story is a perfect example. It is unlikely that Jesus stopped the commerce of the Temple even for a short time one day. He would have been arrested on the spot. More than anything, this event is symbolic. Since it is told in all four Gospels there is probably some historical fact to this. With the other three Gospels, there is a mood of judgement. In Matthew, right in the middle of this Jesus responds to the blind and the lame who came to him in the temple. He cured them. Matthew does not give us some wild angry judge. There is a moment of compassion in the middle of it. The scene ends with conflict between Jesus, the Chief priests, and the scribes. Jesus then heads out to Bethany to spend the night.

In the morning he is hungry, and with the story of that cursed Fig Tree. It’s really not about the fig three however. It’s about faith and prayer. It is a symbolic gesture (remember, this is theology not history) with which Matthew uses the judgement on the tree as a symbol of what happens to people without faith or prayer. When Jesus gets to the Temple, they are waiting for him with more trouble. At this point, Matthew uses parables to further give focus to the Father Jesus has come to reveal. First there is the parable of the two sons, one who says no and then does what is asked, and one who says yes and does nothing. The second parable tells of an owner who sends people to collect his portion and the tenants kill them. The theological focus of this parable comes not from the cheating tenant farmers but their violent treatment of those the owner sends. Matthew includes this parable here to show the rejection of the Messiah – because of it, Israel is now decommissioned. It’s elect status as “light to the Gentiles” is taken over by the church. Now comes the third parable about the wedding Feast in which the defiant refusal to participate in the wedding feast matches the refusal of the tenant farmers to share the fruit.

Jesus then leaves the Temple, and the final address concludes as Jesus speaks of the Temple’s destruction which was not some divine fore-knowledge. Anyone with any sense would have known that given the corruption, the lack of faith, the internal conflicts within Israel itself, there would be big trouble ahead that would probably end with the destruction of the Temple. Israel as it was then was destroying itself by refusing to listen to Jesus. Matthew now switches into a different style of writing here called: Apocalyptic describing the signs of the end of the ages. It must not be forgotten that this is not a prediction of the future. It is an interpretation of things already happening that mark not the end of the world, but the end of age. The last discourse closes with talk of the last things, the Judgement. The final parable concerned the coming of the Son of Man who is easily recognized as the “bridegroom”. The waiting maidens the are easily identified with “disciples.” But the condemnation of the foolish maidens raises the question as to who does belong to the group of “disciples.” The criterion for knowing who belong and those who do not belong is what people do or do not do. What one is to do is not the issue here. What matters is that something is done before it’s too late. Whatever is done must be done because of mercy and compassion, for no other reason. Because this is what the perfect human being (Son of Man) does. Then we hear the familiar words: “When Jesus had finished saying all these things….” 

Part One, The Infancy Narrative

Tradition has always called this great work, “The Gospel of Matthew”. As I said this morning, this man was educated well and uses Greek as though it may have been his first language. It is a much more polished Greek than what is found in his sources.  His language style suggests he may well have been in Antioch or Syria. Some call him a verbal architect because the work is actually “built” in a constructive and balanced way.

This the mission of Jesus, the whole idea of salvation in the mind of people gets brought into agreement with the mind of God. The earliest idea that springs from the Exodus and then the Old Testament Prophets is that the Israelites are the people of God and no one else. The public ministry of Jesus is restricted to the land and people of Israel, but they refuse him and his revolutionary ideas about God deciding to keep things just as they are. Then the great turning point comes with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What happens in this Gospel is that Church, not Judaism becomes true people of God because it is the people formed by God’s Son, Jesus Christ, the fulfiller of the Law and the prophets. For those early Jewish converts, this is a stunning new development. Their privilege place, and the authority they felt because they were Jews suddenly means nothing. They wonder if they have made a mistake, so Matthew carefully and consistently reassures them over and over again by helping see that the Old Testament was leading up to this time and that it was God’s plan all along. 

Some like to think of Matthew as an Architect, and it’s not hard to see how or why. A “blueprint” of the Gospel shows us that there are five pillars that hold it all together. These are five discourses or Sermons with the same arrangement. First there is a narrative that is followed by a discourse or sermon. Each of them is very distinct, and they all end with the same words: “When Jesus finished these words.”  What we end up with is five books all bound together. The five can be counted and named this way.

  1. The Sermon on the Mount
  2. The Sermon on Mission
  3. The Sermon on Parables
  4. The Sermon on Church Order
  5. The Sermon on Things to Come.

But that is for tomorrow, and Tuesday we will take up the Passion.

We must always remember that this is not history! This is theology. It is a revelation. It is set in time and in place, but the where and the when do not matter nearly as much as the fact that the Gospel is a living expression, an ongoing revelation by God as a way of speaking to us, calling to us, and embracing us. There is one purpose here, and it is not historical. It is to communicate a faith to us either to strengthen the faith that we already have or to awaken readers a new kind of faith. What we can discover is the faith that Matthew held and led him to write. This faith is so important to him that he will take no risk of being misunderstood since this faith addresses the meaning of existence. So, to avoid misunderstanding, there is a pattern to his writing that will become more obvious. He states what he wants to say, and then he states what he does not mean to say. It removes all ambiguity and leaves us with: position and opposition. 

Of all four Gospels, this is probably the most familiar and maybe the most popular. It gives us the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Golden Rule. For older Catholics, it was Matthew’s Gospel that dominated the Sunday Gospel Readings before the reform of the Second Vatican Council. It was practically the only Gospel we heard with the exception of Luke’s Christmas story details and John’s Passion. This Gospel gives us a fusion of ethics, faith and morality. This writer sets himself in strong opposition against those who claim that accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior is all that is required of them. His great concern is to convince followers of Christ that genuine faith must be demonstrated in daily obedience to the way of life he proclaimed. Faith and Ethics. These are two sides of the same coin.

As I just said, the structure with its five pillars or five books comes out of Matthew’s intense fidelity to his Jewish roots and his knowledge of the community or church for which he writes. It is often proposed that his intention was to compose something new modeled on the Five Books of Moses in which narrative and legal material alternate. However, reducing this Gospel to that purpose misses the point that this, like all the other Gospels is first and foremost a Passion Narrative. Most scholars believe that the Passion of Christ was written first, and then what comes before was simply a way of explaining why it happened and how. Perhaps, a way of avoiding or giving too much attention to the structure with its five books is to more simply see that this Gospel has three parts:

  1. Who is this Jesus the Messiah?
  2. What did he have to say?
  3. What does he do?

The first part centers on the Infancy, the Baptism, and the Temptation.

The second part is preparation for the passion.

The third part is ultimately what it’s all about, the Passion, Death, and Resurrection.

The Genealogy

With all that said, let’s take up that first part and think about who Jesus is for Matthew. It all begins with what is best called, the “Royal Genealogy.” Matthew makes and takes a great effort to answer the question: “Who is Jesus Christ?” No other Gospel writer found it helpful to start this way. He digs into the family background just as we might do. Members of my family along with me have done some serious research into our origins, our family history, identity, and movements. It’s been fun and has been full of surprises. Here Matthew reveals his convictions about Jesus: his origins lie in the old people of God (Abraham), and Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s history. Unlike Luke who traces the ancestry of Jesus back to Adam, the father of the human race, Matthew traces it only to Abraham, the father of the Jews. This is what would have been important and of interest to the Jewish/Christians who were to receive this Gospel.

For Matthew, Jesus is a Messianic King, so his line must come through David and the kings of Judah. Again, I insist, this is a theological statement, not history or a biological report! To get an idea of how clever it is and how Matthew uses this genealogical tool to express faith in Christ Jesus, you could take notice of how he changes the verb in the genealogy. Various translations will be different, but the change is there nonetheless. It is an active verb like “begot” or so and so “became”. When it comes to the last, with the incarnation Matthew switches to the passive voice verb form saying simply: “of her (Mary) was born Jesus, who is called the Messiah.” 

This last statement announces the story of Jesus’ birth contrasting the ordinary conceptions of David and Joseph with the extraordinary conception of Jesus. The whole list of people can only raise questions. The inclusion of women in what ought to be a male genealogy should raise an eyebrow or two. Among them are two foreign prostitutes: Tamar and Rehab. Then there is Ruth, a Gentile and Bathsheba with whom David committed adultery.  It’s almost as though he can’t bring himself to say her name, so he calls her “the wife of Uriah”. This is clearly not real. There is a theological statement here perhaps slightly prophetic about what is coming. Including these women reminded the Jewish and Gentile readers that God’s plan of salvation included Gentiles, even unrighteous Gentiles. What happens through this genealogy is an affirmation that Jesus is an authentic King, a descendant of King David. He is not usurper, but a legitimate ruler of God’s people.

Jesus then is an authentic Jew. This is important for Gentile Christians to understand, and Matthew wants to make the point.  One final point that can escape us easily is that in the introduction, the very first line of the Gospel Matthew says: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ.” He calls it a “book”, and with a subtle way that escapes us in English, there is a reference to the first book of the Bible, “Genesis”.  In Greek, genesis can mean “genealogy”, and it has other meanings, “birth” being one of them. Matthew’s choice of “genesis” as the key noun in the opening lines is worth some thought because he might have been promoting some association with the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is likely that he wants to remind readers that in Jesus Christ, God had made a new beginning. Thus, the first Gospel could be called: “Genesis II, the Sequel.”

The Conception and Naming of Jesus

Joseph, in the genealogy, has already been brought forward into this Gospel, and as this narrative of the Nativity unfolds, he remains very much front and center. In Luke’s Gospel, Mary is the dominant figure. Luke emphasizes the essential passivity of the human response to God’s action: “Let it be done to me….” On the other hand, as we see here, with Joseph as the leading figure, the active component in the human response is important for Matthew. Three times Joseph is instructed by an angel in a dream, and three times he must DO something. This is consistent with Matthew’s understanding of Christian faith. It’s about action. Matthew makes that powerfully clear at the end of the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus says: “Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom of Heaven, but he who DOES the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

When the angel calls Joseph “Son of David”, it becomes clear that it is Joseph’s continuity with King David that gives Jesus that royal identity. That is Joseph’s role here: to give legitimacy as a Son of David to Jesus. Matthew gives us a Joseph visited by an angel more than once. For his first readers, Jewish Christians, a Joseph who dreams is a familiar scene. Remember the Joseph with the colorful coat who dreams Egypt through famine? When Joseph takes Mary into his home, it is more theological than respectful kindness. By doing this, he provides Davidic paternity on her child inserting her child into his proper place in salvation history. His key role next is to give the child a name, a name God has already chosen, and it is a name that does not show up in Joseph’s lineage or genealogy. It is a common name that originally meant “God helps”. But by the first century the popular explanation of the name was “God Saves”, and this is confirmed by the Angel who says: “You are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 

The Visitors

In 1857 John Henry Hopkins was the rector at Christ Episcopal Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. He wrote a carol for a Christmas pageant in New York City, We Three King of Orient Are and with that, the first twelve verses of Matthew’s Chapter Two begin to lose every bit of revelation and meaning. In my opinion, he may have given us a catchy tune and sweet lyrics, but he sure did obscure Matthew’s intention with these verses. With his frequently used: “BEHOLD”, Matthew signals a new divine intervention, and that’s what we get here. The story as it goes in the second chapter has the “Holy Family” entirely passive. Joseph is not even mentioned. Mary is seen but no heard, and the child does nothing. The primary figures are nameless strangers from the east and Herod the King. In the original Greek as Matthew wrote it, he calls them “magoi”. It is a word with several meanings: magician, the Persian priestly caste, or a Zoroastrian. Scholars these days seem to prefer this last meaning, Zoroastrian or astrologers. It’s the best guess since a star has their attention.

They speak of “The King of the Jews”, and it’s worth remembering that this phrase will not be used again by Matthew until the Passion. He wants to plant that idea in our minds early on. Herod calls together the chief priests and the scribes, the very ones who will so violently oppose Jesus, and in stunning irony, they know exactly where the Messiah will come from, and they do not go! Only these Gentiles go to Bethlehem!

Matthew loves contrasts, and we get one of them in these verses as we see Herod “troubled” and the Magi “joyful.” And what’s Herod’s problem? He’s just been told that there is a “new-born king.” In other words, a king who is king by birthright. Herod is not. He is a usurper and a tyrant. He has no right to the throne and the title he got by murder. His trouble is really fear, and the contrast between joy and fear is going to show up again and again. The political and religious authority of these Scribes, Chief Priests, and Herod is now threatened, and they will go after the threat. You have to wonder, “What is the difference between the Gentile visitors and these local people Matthew puts into this story?” How is it that these Gentiles are on the move and the locals, who know as much as the Gentiles, do nothing? It’s the star. One group follows the light, the others stay in the darkness. For the first readers of Matthew’s Gospel, the image of the Israelites following the pillar of fire by night, light, the message speaks. Gentiles now get to see the light, and it leads them to something new.

So, these magoi show up with three gifts that Matthew mentions. The gifts have led us to think that there were just three of them which makes no sense because long distance travel would have required a lot of helpers. I blame John Hopkins for igniting imaginations, but there is nothing in all of the Scriptures that gives them names or indicates their country of origins. Such details and embellishments may help us enter into the Christmas Spirit, but they lead us far from the text, and the text is what matters. There have been all kinds of nice and pious meanings attached to the gifts, but the simple truth is: gold, frankincense and myrrh were nothing more than gifts fit for a king, and that is what Matthew is affirming. There is a King here, a king in the line of David. 

What’s with the star? All attempts to come up with some natural phenomenon are nothing but distractions from Matthew’s intent. He wants to report a supernatural phenomenon because something supernatural is going on. And then there is Herod. I’ll talk about him in a few minutes. Matthew is revealing a conflict that will continue in this Gospel. It’s like a preview. Gentile strangers (the Magi) accept Jesus. In contrast, there is the violent rejection of him by the Jewish ruler. It’s a hint about things to come.

From Bethlehem to Nazareth via Egypt

In the second and final half of this Chapter, Joseph is back, and in the mind of Matthew and his first readers there are always two Josephs. We need to have that in mind as well. If you are not really familiar with the story of Joseph in the Old Testament, you need to be if you want to listen to the first two Chapters of Matthew. Not only does Joseph act as a link to the Hebrew Scriptures, so does the story about leaving hastily in the night. This is a Passover story that reveals how God saves. In Matthew, God is saving the “New Israel”, Jesus.  This time, it is in reverse almost as though he was playing it back in order to play again with a different ending. Instead of going out of Egypt, Matthew has the New Israel (Jesus) going into Egypt. The killing of children by a tyrant takes place in Judea this time rather than in Egypt. Had he stayed in Judea, he would be dead. There is in this story the first hint of how important Moses is in Matthew’s Gospel, and how closely Matthew will identify Jesus with Moses. It almost begins to feel as though Moses was the ideal hero of Jesus. Remember how Moses ended up floating in a basket placed there by his mother when the very real threat of a massacre was happening?  That’s how Moses got to Egypt. He was spared the massacre of infants just as Jesus was spared the Massacre of infants. Joseph is informed that he can return with Jesus to his people because “those who sought the child’s life are dead,” just as Moses is instructed in Exodus 4, 10, “Go back to Egypt; for all the men who were seeking your life are dead.” Matthew uses the plural pronoun “those”. He does not say, Herod. Here is a perfect example suggesting strongly that the Exodus event is being repeated once again.

The whole purpose of writing this for Matthew is the identity of Jesus – now Jesus is identified as Israel, a “new” Israel. This whole sense of something new is developed by Matthew as he reverses the biblical themes. In this way he reveals his own faith conviction. Jesus is the son of David. Jesus is King. Jesus is Messiah. Jesus is the fulfillment of all the prophets and writings. One last piece of this identity is yet to be manifest, and it comes at the end of this chapter. Jesus needs to be designated as “Son of God” and this must happen outside of Judea so as to remove any hint that his authority might be based on power. His authority comes from being called out of Egypt, and the verb is the clue that leads us to understand what Matthew is revealing. Jesus is “called”. He has a vocation. His vocation is to be Emmanuel. That is to say, his vocation is to be the holy presence of God among us. This is why those Gentile visitors bow down before him. They are not bowing to an earthly king. They are in adoration of the divine presence.

Here is where Matthew presents his view of authority and how it applies to Jesus. Divine authority is not like human authority. It is not imposed from above by force, threat, or fear. That’s the kind of authority Matthew shows us in Herod. When God acts, it shows itself as an opportunity, something that happens in the normal course of human events. When God acts, there is then a call, a vocation by which humans accept or submit in order to carry out or complete God’s intervention. Matthew says to us, “Something new has happened. There is a new kind of authority that has taken flesh in this holy one. Joy is the result of finding this holy one. That is the response of those visitors, Joy.  Jesus is not to be found in places of power like Jerusalem or in the courts of the powerful like Herod. Confirming this, Jesus is called a Nazarene. Placing him outside of Judea because, the plan of God to save a New Israel has a new, wider, and more inclusive sense.

So, there is a final shift of geography from Bethlehem of Judea, because of its place in the prophecies, to Nazareth where everyone knew Jesus grew up and was at home. I have always found it strange that Matthew would think Jesus is safer in Galilee than in Judea because Galilee is ruled by Herod Antipas who murdered John the Baptist. This is quite different from Luke who has Mary and Joseph coming from Nazareth to Bethlehem where Jesus is born. Luke needs no reason for a return to Nazareth. That’s their home. For Matthew, Bethlehem was the home town of Jesus, and Nazareth in Galilee is a place of exile. It is there, in Galilean exile that Jesus will exercise his ministry. He will come home to Judea only to die.

One more time I must repeat the mantra of these sessions: This is not History. This is Theology. They are not the same.

So, what’s the Theology we get so far?

Were there three magi in history? It does not make any difference. It is irrelevant.

Matthew speaks of only three gifts, the traditional gifts for someone of royal birth. 

It’s not about Three Kings of Orient. It is about the birth of a King. 

Did the Holy Family really flee to Egypt in the night? It does not make any difference. 

What matters is that, like Moses, Jesus has a vocation and he was spared a massacre in order to fulfill it. 

To live this Gospel and listen to Matthew, we have to keep digging into the identity of Jesus and keep asking, “Who is this?” That’s what he is exploring with these stories. The truth about Jesus Christ. 

So far, in these first two chapters, we have this much Theology:

Jesus is the “Son of David”. Thank you, Joseph.

Jesus is the “King of the Jews”. Thank you, magi.

Jesus is the “Messiah.” Thank you, Herod’s scribes and chief priests.

Jesus is “Emmanuel”. Thank you, prophets.

Jesus is “Son of God”.  Thank you, John the Baptist and God the Father. (words heard at the Baptism of Jesus)

We shall also see

Jesus as A Teacher, “Rabbi”, and his disciples are learners. In Matthew, the teaching of Jesus is more important than miracles.

Jesus as A Story Teller (Parables)

Distinctive features in Matthew’s Gospel

Matthew’s Gospel is concerned with:

What followers of Jesus could hope for.

How followers of Jesus should behave in community

How the commandments of Moses and of Jesus relate (Is Jesus a Law Maker or a Law Breaker)

Matthew elevates the disciples who in Mark are dull and uncomprehending. Peter plays an especially important role in Matthew. (Peter walks on the water, he asks how many times to forgive, and only in Matthew is he the Rock.

Matthew makes villains out of the Pharisees who were really the spiritual leaders at the time. also (in)famously vilifies the leaders of the Jewish people, particularly the Pharisees. Some scholars have taken this harsh polemic as evidence that Matthew’s community had been expelled from the synagogue. Though the specific situation is difficult to know with absolute certainty, we can see clearly that there was serious tension between Matthew’s community of Christ-followers and the Jewish leaders with whom they interacted.

From John to Jesus

Now it is an interesting fact that only two Gospels begin with stories about the birth of Jesus, but all four begin his time of ministry with John the Baptist. That fact tells us that this is more important than angels, shepherds, and magi. Unique in Matthew’s Gospel is a conversation between Jesus and John. In fact, it is at his encounter with John that Jesus speaks for the first time in this Gospel. In this dialogue, Matthew sets matters straight over a dispute that arose between the followers of John and followers of Jesus. John’s followers think that if Jesus came to John for Baptism, Jesus was inferior to John; and if Jesus was Baptized, he must be a sinner. With this dialogue, that matter of priority is settled. It is thought by many scholars that the decision of Jesus to be Baptized was an act that gives him solidarity with sinners just as his death gives him solidarity with the dying, and his dining with sinners gives him solidarity with tax collectors and sinners. There is always this matter of “identity” going on beneath the surface in Matthew’s Gospel. In Luke’s Baptismal scene, John is preaching to “the crowds.” That is not the case with Matthew. Remember, as I said at the beginning, Matthew is addressing a growing crisis. He does not want the leaders of the Church to turn into a “brood of vipers” smug and secure in their privileged powerful position. He even makes his point more strongly by having the Pharisees, who are pious lay-people and the Sadducees who are the priestly nobility come together when in fact, at the time, they were in strong opposition to one another. Matthew believes that the leaders and the people of the Church he is writing to must not act like these Pharisees and Scribes who ultimately reject Jesus because they resist God’s plan for the church. “Do not act like those Pharisees” he says to lay people in his church. “Do not act like those Sadducees” he says to the priestly authorities in his church. “Look what they did!” he says.

The Baptism itself is passed over with one word making it clear that something more important is happening here than just someone coming forward in response to John’s call. It isn’t Baptism. If this scene were recorded for us as a musical or an opera, at the verse where Jesus comes up out of the water, trumpets would blast, lights would flash, and the whole chorus would sing out: “Behold in six-part harmony!” This is the event Matthew wants to be remembered. It is what we call, “a theophany” which is defined as the temporal and spatial manifestation of God in some tangible way. Another Gospel comparison tells us something more. In Mark’s baptismal scene, only Jesus hears the voice which says: “You are my beloved Son.” In Matthew, that fact has already been established. So, everyone hears the voice (not just Jesus) which says: “This is my beloved Son.” With that, we can say: “Thank you, God.” The identity of Jesus is complete. Yet, one more thing must happen to confirm his identity before Jesus begins his ministry. That is the temptation.

Both the location and the time are a direct link on the part of Matthew between the temptation of Jesus (the New Israel) and the temptation of the Hebrew people (the Old Israel) The location is the desert or the “wilderness” while time corresponds to 40 days and nights for the New Israel and 40 years for the old Israel.  We know who remains faithful this time around. We can easily be distracted by the details and the whole mood of this story. But for Matthew, the story is less concerned with the vanquishing of Satan than with the meaning of Jesus’ Divine Sonship. So, we have to get down into what Matthew is doing here. This is a “meditation” on what is implied by that heavenly declaration: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” The fact that the first two temptations begin with Satan saying: “If you are the Son of God” helps us get the point. The English translation of the Greek word, ei is misleading because it does not really mean “if”. A more accurate word in the translation could be “since” because Satan is not trying to prove something. The other option in translation would then be: “Since you are the Son of God.” Satan is trying to convince Jesus that being God’s Son is a matter of powerfully working wonders rather than understanding and doing God’s will as found in the Scripture and fulfilling that will in trust and obedience.

In summary then, Moses and the Hebrew people in the desert are always in the shadows for Matthew’s story. The three temptations in the Gospel match in sequence the same three temptations faced by the Hebrew people: hunger, trust, and idolatry. When we sit with this story for a while, it is easy to begin to wonder what this has to do with the temptations we face today. I leave you with this. The basic, underlying temptation that Jesus shared with us is the temptation to treat God as less than God. We are hardly tempted to turn stones into scones but we are much more likely to turn corn into fuel to drive our luxury cars rather than using that corn to feed the hungry. We are constantly tempted to mistrust and doubt God’s readiness to give us what we need to face our trials. None of us are likely to test God by jumping off a cliff, but we frequently question God’s helpfulness when things go wrong forgetting the promise, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (II Corinthians 12, 9) Pagan idolatry is no more a temptation for us than it was for Jesus, but compromise with the ways of the world is a never-ending seduction, and the gods of money, the gods of power are always lurking in the shadows. In all of these things, we would do well to be continually grateful that we have a great high priest who, tempted as we are, was able to resist all such temptation by laying hold of Scripture and firmly acknowledging that only God is God, and that God isn’t us. 

Earlier in this series I was exploring Luke’s Passion Narrative as if it were a drama. It’s an easy way to work through the narrative, and Luke’s style is very dramatic. To review and refresh out memories, there are Four Acts

Act One had two scenes:

  1. Prayer 
  2. Arrest

Act Two begins the Trials. The First is the religious trial before the Sanhedrin.

Act Three takes up the Civil Trial before Pilate who finds no guilt, sends Jesus to Herod after hearing about some Galilee connection. Herod does not pass judgement and sends Jesus back to Pilate. It probably is a little diplomatic game between the two rulers who are really at odds with each other but dancing around to keep the peace.

Act Four has two scenes:

  1. The Crucifixion and Death of Jesus which now brings us to
  2. The Burial.

This scene which we begin to night gives us two unique features for Luke. 

  1. There is no mention of Pilate being surprised at the early death of Jesus. Luke feared that this would cast doubt on the reality of Jesus’ death which might give some credence to the late 1st century denial of the resurrection that was developing among those opposed to the believers.
  2. The role of the Galilean women and the reference to the spices and myrrh allows Luke to not only portray them as pious Jews but helps Gentile readers to understand why they waited a day to take care of the body.

Luke’s account of the Burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea has two significant variations from the story on Matthew and Mark giving us some clues about what matters to Luke. He tells us that Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the Sanhedrin who “had not consented to their proposal and deed.” In other words, he thought Jesus was innocent which is a theme heard all through Luke’s trial scenes. Pilate said it twice, Herod said it, a crucified thief said it, a centurion said it, and now Joseph of Arimathea is the final human witness to the innocence of Jesus. The second variation concerns the women (no surprise there since Luke has always been attentive and recorded stories of the women’s role in the ministry of Jesus). Luke indicates that some women saw where Jesus was buried but also specifies that they had come up with Jesus from Galilee and that they saw how the body was laid. Luke, as I said before is very concerned to establish that there was a dead body and that it was buried. This give credence to what is to come with the Resurrection and the Ascension. He wants to clearly establish a link between the church’s Lord and the one who dies in Jerusalem and the one who worked in Galilee by having Galileans present as witnesses to the Jerusalem events. Theologically, this means that the one who empowered is the one who died. The is real. It was through the suffering that the obedience of Jesus was perfected. It was only on the other side of these things that the one empowered entered into glory. To put it more simply: “There ain’t no glory without that cross.” Or, There’s no way to the Father except by obedience to the will of the Father.

We are now at Chapter 24 which concludes the first part of Luke’s work, Acts of the Apostles being the second part. This is really the most interesting part of our study and reflection on Luke’s Gospel because with one exception the material here is not found anywhere in the other Gospels. Luke began his Gospel with the Infancy Narrative that was uniquely his own, and he concludes with a narrative of the Resurrection that is also uniquely his own. Let us start by reading chapter 24 so it’s fresh in your mind without any interference from the other Gospel traditions. Try to blank out details we have all absorbed from Matthew, Mark, and John. Just concentrate on what is here. READ CHAPTER 24 1-12.

This much of the Chapter clearly draws on Mark 16: 1-8. Another version is found in Matthew with John’s being quite different. What present research suggests is that scribes who copied the manuscripts quite early permitted, consciously or unconsciously, the resurrection stories of the other Gospels to influence what they were writing. In some cases, they probably were remembering Mark or John while writing Luke; in others they may have intentionally been harmonizing. This does not mean that there was an attempt to deceive or to reduce the faith in any way. On the contrary, the general tendency was to enlarge the story. This “cross-fertilization” of texts is to be taken as evidence that the early church treated the resurrection stories as one story, and the blending occurred as it does with us, two, three, or four accounts of one event, even though each has its own accent and purpose, tend to become one account in the church’s memory. READ THE REMAINING VERSES (Point out the 5 events).

There are five major events: two empty tomb episodes; two major appearances; and the departure of Jesus. This is all located in Jerusalem or nearby, and it all happens in one long day. This exclusive focus on Jerusalem is distinct to Luke. Matthew and Mark have things happening in Galilee over a longer period of time. So much for the idea that Jesus hung around for 40 days before the Ascension! Once more, you see, this is Theology. It is not history. Details do not have to match.

Let’s just deal with the theology. Luke is passing on to us the early Christian understanding of the resurrection as a prototype of Christian existence. In earliest Christianity the resurrection of Jesus encompassed three different realties:

  1. The Victory of Jesus over death.
  2. The removal of Jesus from human time and space into another dimension (God)
  3. The new function of Jesus as cosmic Lord.

Luke takes these realities and makes three separate events on a chronological time line. In other words, he takes this theological idea of what happened and he puts that idea into events that happen in sequence: the Resurrection, the Ascension; the Exaltation. By taking the three different pieces of a whole individually, he can focus on the meaning of each without distraction. What this means is that in Luke, the resurrection of Jesus refers only to his victory over death. The thinking of Luke is that what happens to Jesus is what his disciples may expect for themselves. 

Stick with me. This is complicated, but not impossible. The first empty tomb tradition which is the women at the empty tomb and the second appearance story which is the one after the Emmaus story when Jesus appears among the apostles affirm the reality that there is a body that has risen. There is no dead body in the tomb even though they saw it put there. An empty tomb means one thing. The body is not there. That’s all. If Christians are going to proclaim Christ has risen, there needs to be experiences of that Christ who was dead and is now risen. So, there is a body that eats something. More importantly this body has the wounds that were on the body they buried. This faith is based upon witnesses who saw and experienced something real. It is not based on how they felt or what they wished. Whatever the nature of this victory over death was, it involved the absence of that body from the tomb. 

Luke wants to give some real authority to this, so he mentions names and these are the same women of Galilee who saw the body being put in that tomb. They knew where it was Luke told us in the previous chapter. Then Luke tells us that when the women came to the apostles and the others, Peter got up and ran to the tomb. (There is no John in a foot race with Peter in Luke’s narrative.) Luke wants the witness of Peter so that there are two sets of witnesses. Peter’s witness is important to Jewish people at the time because women didn’t count. In order to be persuasive at the time, there had to be a male witness.  The detail of finding the linen clothes by themselves is Luke’s way of stopping the rumor that the body had been stolen. They would not have taken the body without it being wrapped. This is Luke’s way of celebrating the victory over death.

After the two empty tomb episodes, we come to the first of two appearances: a story unique to Luke and a story that really highlights his writing skills. It is what we have come to call, “The Emmaus Story.”  Luke now clarifies the nature of the Eucharist, and he uses the Emmaus story to do so at least for the Lukan community. The two are abandoning the Christian journey to God. In Luke’s wonderful story telling style, we get to know who the person is that joins them, and in an ironic way, we get to hear them talk about the death of Jesus to Jesus himself! We should notice (because Luke wants us to) that there are three units to the whole story: the narrative discussion, the meal and the journey back as a Mission of Proclamation. 

The meal is really what holds this together. It is the Eucharist as we know it.

It begins with an act of hospitality, an invitation to a stranger by those who prepared the table. It is the presence of Christ at a table opened to a stranger which transforms an ordinary supper into the sacrament. Christ is in a sense the guest, and yet he is the host who breaks the bread, blesses God and shares with those at table. It is in this act that that the disciples recognize the stranger as Christ. 

It begins then with the Scriptures as Jesus goes over the writings and the prophets. The one who is named in this episode, Cleopas provides us with a glimpse into the earliest preaching. It is Luke’s concise statements about Jesus, his mighty works, suffering, death, and resurrection. This is the content of Christian preaching. The description of Jesus reviewing the Prophets with these two is a kind of reprimand for their unbelief on the grounds that the suffering death, and resurrection of Jesus is set forth in the Scriptures that they should have known. All through Luke’s Gospel there is insistence that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Scriptures. They pointed to the very acts of his ministry, so his suffering, and his death. For Luke, the gospel of Jesus Christs continues and brings to fulfillment the law, the prophets, and the writings.

The Eucharistic ritual continues: after the Word comes the Sacrament, and then Mission. The time of day is significant because the evening is the time when the Christians would gather together for prayer and the eucharist. As the story goes, Jesus becomes the host, which confirms that Luke is describing a Eucharistic Meal connected to the Paschal Meal in the upper room. Luke tells us that Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them. This is ritual language that Luke has used before when he fed the multitudes, and when he sat in an upper room. On those occasions, they did not “recognize him”, but now, the risen one is recognized. When Luke says that their eyes were opened, it describes conversion. This story serves as a bridge between the meals the earthly Jesus had with his disciples and the later church’s Eucharist. It also says that at such meals the presence of the risen Lord was known. Jesus is alive and one place of his recognition is in the breaking of bread. The importance of knowing and experiencing the living Christ in word and sacrament cannot be overemphasized. 

There is a third part to this story that we must not overlook: the return of these two to Jerusalem where they want to spread the Good News. It is the perfect match or parallel to the Eucharist as the Church has known it: Word, Sacrament, Mission (Mass). Without the third part, the “Missa” something important is missing.

Now to the appearance of Jesus to the Eleven in Jerusalem. This also reinforces the theology that what rose was a living body.  They thought they were seeing a ghost. He shows them hands and feet with the wounds, and then he wants to eat something. They fed him and he ate in front of them. Angels and Ghosts don’t eat. Only humans eat. For Luke, the risen Lord is no less than the Jesus before he died. He eats and can be seen and touched. These two stories say the same thing about the nature of Jesus’ victory over death: it is not to be understood as an escape from the perishable body, but a transformation of it. That transformation is not into a spiritual being because Jesus remained flesh and blood though immortal and not limited by time and space. This is not the immortality of the soul while the body decays. It is something totally new. 

For Luke, there is here what we could call “Table Fellowship”. What was interrupted by the death of Jesus is resumed at the initiative of Jesus. From now on the disciples will continue to do this in remembrance of him. These incidents when Jesus eats with them serves as a bridge between the meals the earthly Jesus had with his disciples and the later church’s Eucharist, it says that at such meals the presence of the risen Lord was known. Jesus is alive and one place of his recognition is at the breaking of the bread.

At this point I think it is important to dig into what it means to “remember”. I believe that this issue is at the root of a great problem among believers when it comes to what we believe about the Body and Blood of Christ. There is no room for anything but a firm belief that what looks like bread is the very real Body of Christ and what looks like wine is the very real Blood of Christ. These are not symbols or signs. They are real. The root of this error probably comes from a failure to understand “remembering”. In this use and context, it does not mean to “recall”.  There are three times in which to know an event: in rehearsal, at the time of the event, and in remembrance. In rehearsal, understanding is hindered by an inability to believe that the event will really occur or that it will be important. At the time of the event, understanding is hindered by the clutter and confusion of so much so fast. But in remembrance, the nonseriousness of rehearsal and the busyness of the event by way to recognition, realization, and understanding. 

To understand this, we have to take the word apart: RE-Member. It means to put together, to join. Think of it this way. God’s response to sin which broke and still breaks the relationship we have with God was a gathering in. The formation of a People that today we call the “Church”. It’s a joining together what had been broken apart. In the Eucharist God joins us with one another and with God’s self in the Body and Blood of Christ. Jesus gathered a people. He reached out and looked for those who were alone by sickness or sin, and he re-membered them to himself and to all the people who had been scattered by sin, self-centered, selfish, and alone. For a deeper understanding, we start with the Bible. 

John 6 is the place to start. First, we hear of the magnetic power of the presence of Jesus. Large crowds followed him everywhere. In that chapter, Jesus goes up the mountain – which is the place where one can get close to God. Once there, Jesus sits, the posture of a teacher there on that holy mountain. This is what happens in the first part of our Mass. Jesus teaches us. There he feeds that crowd by taking the little bit that we have (think of the gifts we bring to that altar). With that little bit, he can multiply it for the feeding of the world. We know how much is left over: twelve! There is the Mass.

Then he goes to Capernaum and the people follow him. He begins to teach again. He says don’t hunger for these passing loaves of bread but for the food that lasts for eternal life. “I am the bread of life those who come to me will never be hungry, those who believe in me will never be thirsty. I AM THE LIVING BREAD come down from heaven. If you eat this bread, you will live forever. The bread that I will give you is my flesh for the life of the world.”  The crowd balked at this. A first century Jew would be repulsed by the eating of flesh with blood. That’s forbidden to them. Given therefore every opportunity to soften his teaching or propose a symbolic meaning, he goes on to say, “Amen, Amen, I say to you. Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood. You have no life in you, for my Flesh is real food. My Blood is real drink.”  Now, the verb Jesus uses here is not the usual word for eating. He uses the verb (trogain) which means gnaw on. 

Something real strange is going on here. While the scriptures are full of symbolic thought and symbolic images, but when Jesus puts this out so clearly, many of his followers turn away and would not go with him anymore. So, he asks the twelve if they would like to leave. This teaching is a watershed, a point of division. It’s either you are against me or with me moment. If this was just symbol talk, why would anyone be upset. But Jesus does not compromise, soften it, or give in. This is the ground for the Catholic insistence that this is the real Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

Ignatius of Antioch in letter to Smyrna. (35 AD) “They abstain from the Eucharist and Prayer because they do not admit that this is flesh of the Son of Man. Justin Martyr (165 AD) For not as common bread or common drink do we receive, but we receive the real body and blood of Christ.” Origin of Alexandria (early 3rd century) says: speaks about reverence and almost obsessive care for crumbs that fall from the sacred gifts.  St John Chrysostom says: “What is the bread but the body of Christ. What do they become who partake of it, the body of Christ? Not many bodies, but one body. This is the way we are Christified. Our bodies are Christified. We are prepared for heaven by bringing our body in contact with the body of Christ.  The early church never wavers from this.

In the 11th century a Bishop in Tours proposes the symbol/sign language. He teaches that something is added to the Bread, some spiritual, but it is still bread with an added something. A great debate occurs that ends with a Council. That council insists that this is wrong, and that what is on the altar after the consecration is the Flesh and Blood of Christ. His opponent says that there is something more going on in the Eucharist than is going on in the other sacraments. This is not a spiritual addition to bread. In the other sacraments, oil is still oil and water is still water. In the Eucharist, something is different.

Aquinas in the 13th century – a vivid personal relationship. He wept at Mass, and would often rest his head against the tabernacle begging for inspiration. At the end of his life after completing his masterpiece, he places the text about the eucharist at the foot of the cross, and it said that a voice came from the cross saying: “Thomas, you’ve written well of me. What would you have as a reward: I will have nothing except you Lord.” His great work has three parts: 1) About God and Creation 2) About human being and our moral life 3) About incarnation, Christ and the Sacraments. The last part he wrote is about the Eucharist. Baptism is the generation of Life. Confirmation is the augmentation of life. Communion is food of the life. Eucharist has three names in time 1 Past: Sacrifice 

2 Present: Communion with Christ 

3 future Viaticum the great name is Eucharistia. Thanks giving which is what we will do in heaven. 

Transubstantiation comes from Thomas. Substance is the deepest and core reality of something. When I speak of substance, I mean the deepest reality what something is. What stands under. What does it stand under? Accidents Appearance or Species

like spectacle. What you see. 

In the act of Consecration, the substance of bread and wine change into the Body and Blood of Jesus even as the appearances (species) of Bread and Wine remain. This is how we bring John 6 forward.  The senses perceive bread and wine. The change comes at the level of substance not appearances. The disciples on their way to Emmaus see everything, but they don’t get it. They do not understand. If all we understand is what we see, we are lost. 

There was a great 16th century Protestant/Catholic debate. Luther did not like Thomas Aquinas. Luther saw an addition to the bread. To speak in a general way, Protestants do not believe in transubstantion. The Council at Trent addressed the issue in response. 11 canons (summaries) Canon One: If anyone were to deny that the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity is contained truly and really substantially as a symbol – let them be condemned. We are to say that the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity is contained real, true and substantially not in sign or figure.

How does Christ become really present? Trent says, By the power of the Word. The words do not just describe reality. Language can also be active and transformative. Not just expressive or descriptive. A Baseball word changes reality: “You’re out”. Sometimes someone says something to us that changes your whole life. That’s creative and transformative. Or something the other way around something hurtful changes us for years. Our little words can change reality – think of God’s word! How does God make the world? By the power of a Word Speech! God’s word is not descriptive it is creative.

God speaks the world into being. In the beginning there was the Word – the Word became flesh, and What God says IS. Lazars come out! Pick up your mat and walk.  What God says IS. The night before he dies he took bread and said THIS IS MY BODY. Notice at Mass how the language changes.  This stuns me every time I pick up that host. The priest begins in the third person: “He Took Bread, said the Blessing, broke it and gave to them saying…”  Then it changes into the First person. We speak in persona Christi. With this final wandering away from Luke into John, we can see how closely the theology of the Gospels weave together the core of our faith resting upon the revelation given to us by each of the evangelists. Let me conclude by repeating what our Holy Father Francis has been saying over and over again as he allows the Holy Spirit to reshape this church of ours. Evangelization is what we do and evangelists is what we are by the command of Jesus and will of the Father. What Francis is reminding us over and over again is the evangelization is not a matter of words, or saying the right thing, or convincing someone by argument. Evangelization is a quality of life. People are won over to Jesus Christ not by arguments from history or propositions from a Catechism, but by actions of believing people. People came to Jesus because of what he did before they heard him say anything. People still today will be won over by the heart before the brain. Our study of the Sacred Scriptures, our study and knowledge of St Luke’s Gospel is to open our hearts so that we might live this gospel not preach it, because people will see what we do long before they hear what we say, and in the end what we say must come from the heart.