Lent and Easter Reflections

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

Surprised by the Spirit

“Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps” (Mark 7:29).

This remarkable encounter between Jesus and the pagan woman on the northern border of Galilee has many possible themes to explore. One is that Jesus’ understanding of the scope of his ministry was expanded by the clear evidence that great faith was already present outside of Israel.

The Holy Spirit guiding Jesus shows him this in the determination of the woman on behalf of her sick daughter. In the exchange of words, the woman wins the case for healing by answering Jesus’ seemingly rude comment about dogs with the plea that puppies under the table get the children’s scraps. It is a brilliant response and it convinces Jesus that the Spirit is speaking to him through the woman.

To accept this explanation is also to accept the idea that Jesus’ understanding of his mission was not given to him fully but had to develop from his experience. Jesus had to learn. The woman opens his mind and heart to the needs of all people, including the pagans and foreigners beyond the borders of the Chosen People, the Jews. This idea of the human development of Jesus is present in Mark, whereas the Jesus in John’s Gospel is a divine figure who always knows what to do and say.

Another theme is that women often teach Jesus something about himself.  The woman suffering from the blood issue draws healing power from Jesus without his control. She draws him beyond the legal and ritual understanding that to be touched by such a woman would contaminate Jesus, making him unclean.  The woman teaches Jesus that compassion and faith are more important than the law.

These themes are sources of insight for us now. A disciple is a lifelong learner, always ready to be surprised by the Spirit.

Purity of Heart

During Black History Month, we can learn much from recalling the words and thoughts of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, assassinated 50 years ago for his leadership role in the Civil Rights Movement,

Dr. King once addressed the experience so many African Americans had had of being put down, humiliated, abused and denied their rights. To those who felt beaten down and powerless, Dr. King reminded them that there is no shame in being the victim of oppression, because the burden was on the oppressors.  Being the victim of violence did not diminish their dignity, but it did diminish and dehumanize those who inflicted violence.

What happens to us is beyond our control, and therefore it cannot affect our moral standing. It is what we do to others that makes a difference in our character. Those who do evil are changed by evil, not those to whom evil is done. Victims retain their innocence and goodness. 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus makes a similar distinction when describing the effect of dietary laws. The Pharisees were insisting on ritual purity while ignoring purity of heart. It is not the food that goes into the body and passes through it that defines a person. But what comes out of that person’s heart, from their imagination and motivation is what characterizes them. Anything external cannot define us the way something flowing from us can, expressing our intentions and personal designs.

A heart filled with lust, anger, avarice, envy and pride changes a person. Someone who sees other people only as objects of acquisition and use, as things to control and gain from is corrupted by that attitude.

A heart filled with love, generosity, sympathy and concern for the welfare of the other is transformed by that attitude and the actions that flow from it. This is what human maturity looks like.  This is what it means to fulfill the image and likeness of God as our birthright and destiny.

 

The Risks of Love

“You nullify the word of God in favor of your traditions” (Mark 7:13).

Jesus takes on the Pharisees who complained that his disciples were not observing their ritual hand-washing and dish and cup purity laws. What were originally practices meant to protect the community from contagion or food-borne diseases had taken on symbolic value that enhanced the status of the clergy and religious. Their obsessive adherence to the traditions set them apart from the “unwashed” masses and those regarded as morally “unclean,” or public sinners. 

Jesus frequently challenged this approach to the law as a way to isolate ordinary people, label certain groups as “untouchable” or outcast. He did not hesitate to heal people on the Sabbath, even though that was technically a form of work, because to heal was an act of love, which always superceded lesser rules. Jesus ate with tax collectors and prostitutes, touched lepers and associated with pagans, including Romans and foreigners. He freely responded to human need and put other protocols second. 

Jesus pointed up the hypocrisy in the selective application of certain lesser laws while ignoring major obligations to support parents or, in general, to keep the commandment to love.

Perhaps we can catch a glimpse of the tendency to make ourselves superior and safe from people we don’t want to associate with. Ordinary caution about germs can excuse us from touching others at Mass, during the peace sign or in extending a greeting. Hand sanitizers come out immediately.  But we also avoid contact with others who are different, look different, live differently, and we justify this with the conviction that there is something wrong with them. 

Our health-conscious knowledge of illness can help us be prudent, but also reveals ways we isolate others for various reasons.

Love is less a set of rules than a challenge to discernment that urges us to respond with compassion and even to risk our own interests in the service of others, especially those who are disadvantaged and vulnerable to public prejudices and discrimination.  Discipleship requires courage. Jesus leads those who follow him into situations we can only negotiate once we are there.

The Crossing

“After making the crossing to the other side of the lake, Jesus and his disciples came to land…” (Mark 6:53).

 

The frequent mention of crossing the lake in the Gospels suggest that there is deeper meaning to this act than simply going from one place to another. It seems to be an exercise that held special importance for Jesus as he taught his disciples about his mission and their role in it.

It has something to do with the particular risks and challenges of crossing a body of water. We recall the Exodus, when Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt to freedom. We recall Joshua leading the people across the Jordan River when they entered the Promised Land. Each crossing marked an important transition.

For Jesus the central act of his redemptive mission was his death as the new exodus, the new crossing from the slavery of sin into the new creation. His disciples needed to understand that they too would pass through this redemptive transition, from death to new life.

With each crossing of the lake, the disciples had another lesson in trusting Jesus. They would endure storms and frightening night crossings. In some of the dangerous storms, Jesus would be asleep in the boat. In others they would encounter him walking on the water and think he was a ghost. In a special crossing, Peter would be invited out of the boat to walk on the water, testing his faith.

So it is possible to say that what Jesus and his disciples were doing when they crossed the lake was preparing for the Paschal Mystery, the essential act of Christian disciple, the sign of baptism, when they would be going down in death in order to rise with Jesus to new life.

We can see our own lives in the light of this symbol. How many crossings must we make to perfect our baptisms? How often we must have profound faith in times of crisis, when life’s storms threaten to sink our little boats? Have we even been challenged to step out of the security of the boat to walk on water when summoned by Jesus?

Today’s Word invites us to consider just how much discipleship asks of us in leaving behind the certainties of life on dry land, to follow Jesus when he calls us to accompany him through death to life.

Sunset, Sunrise

 

"Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come" (Mark 1:39).

Nursing home staffs report that in the evening, residents often become restless and anxious. The time of day is called “sunset syndrome” and seems to be connected to approaching night, when darkness and the shift in patterns of activity point to sleep, when all of us, and especially children and the elderly, surrender to sleep or have difficulty in falling asleep.

This sunset time is vividly captured in Mark’s account of the end of a very busy day for Jesus in Capernaum, the lakeside community where his ministry begins with the call of the first disciples, a dramatic encounter with a possessed man at the local synagogue, and the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law. As the sun goes down, the crowds are still bringing sick and possessed relatives to the house so Jesus can heal them.

The time of day is itself a signal that a new era has begun. As the Prophet Isaiah had foretold, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined” (Isa 9:2).

Jesus is that light that rolls back the power of Satan and his minions that have held the people in fear and disease, disorientation and division.  The reign of God has come, and the miracles Jesus works are a sign that the night is over and a new day has begun.

From Mark’s short description, we can’t imagine how such a day and its twilight of power and joy could have come to an end. People were filled with astonishment and wonder, as in a dream. Somehow Jesus slips away in the early hours to pray, perhaps feeling the same exhilaration that has flowed into the crowds, asking himself what all this meant and what came next. 

The disciples are up early to search for Jesus, for the crowds re back. “Everyone is looking for you.” Jesus tells them that his purpose is not to establish a healing station at Capernaum or to simply work miracles, but to preach the good news that God’s love was being poured out on the land, that mercy was available to everyone, including outcasts and sinners, that something new was happening. Creation itself was recovering its original beauty and wholeness, and people were being invited to change their hearts, be reconciled with one another and with God.

All of this has occurred in the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, and we know from reading on that very quickly the story will become complicated by opposition from official religion, theological quarrels over the healing on the Sabbath, the suspicions of the priests in Jerusalem, the powerful interests of the Roman authorities and the court of Herod. If Jesus was the arrival of light, the forces of darkness and fear were already roused and rolling his way.

The famous words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt are pertinent here when he addressed a trembling nation as the country headed deeper in a worldwide economic depression. He said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” 

Jesus, addressing the cosmic powers that had gripped the world with fear of death and the corruption of sin, declared: “The Kingdom of God is at hand.

The Word of God comes to us, not as history but as a living Voice. Do we believe that we are children of the light? Do we believe that the risen Jesus is in our midst, dispelling our fears and empowering us to spread the news that God is in charge? We gather in worship precisely to enter the story and to believe that its message is for us, coming true in our hearing.   

Present Yourself to the Lord

 “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him” (Luke 2:40)

The feast of the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the temple continues Luke’s major theme of showing the continuity between the old or first Covenant with Israel and the new Covenant represented by Jesus. Simeon and Anna, elderly witnesses in the temple, like the elderly Zechariah and Elizabeth, testify to the fulfillment of God’s promise to send the Messiah.  Like the canticle of Zechariah, Simeon delivers his own canticle, a deeply theological summary of God’s fidelity to Israel.

Simeon’s word to Mary about the suffering to come shows that he understands that Jesus will be a different kind of Messiah, not the triumphal vindicator many were expecting, but more a suffering servant. The child will grow up to be a sign of contradiction that lays bare the secrets of many hearts.  

Like the similar scene Luke presents 12 years later when Jesus remains in the temple after his bar Mitzvah, his parents hear what Simeon says without responding or indicating that they understand its implications. Mary says nothing, but can only absorb and ponder the event just she has been doing all along from the birth of the child, or even the message of the angel at his conception.

They are a poor couple, fulfilling the law by making an offering of two birds to “buy back” the first born son they have dedicated to the Lord. After encountering Simeon and Anna and hearing the wonderful (and terrible) predictions about his destiny, Joseph, Mary and the child Jesus escape back into anonymity for the next decade.  They will disappear into village life in Nazareth, where Jesus grows up. When his ministry begins at age 30, Jesus will still only be known as the “carpenter’s son.”

Perhaps we might celebrate this feast and these scriptural texts by finding a way to present ourselves once again to the Lord. How and where and when could we do this? What have others witnessed to us about who we are and what gifts we have for the community? What canticle could you compose that summarizes the promises God has fulfilled in your life? What challenges and sufferings have you been asked to face in order to live out the Gospel? 

Our Christian lives are likely to unfold naturally and gradually in the ordinary details of our personal narrative. Even if we seem to live anonymously and without dramatic achievements, God’s call is always present, inviting us to ponder and accept the graces and challenges we are given.

 

 

 

Called to be Evangelists

"Jesus summoned the Twelve and began to send them out two by two” (Mark 6:7).

One essential characteristic of the Gospel is that it was meant to be experienced communally. Jesus sent his disciples out in pairs to announce God’s gift of love. They could not give what they did not have, so before they arrived at the first village, they had to have already experienced the Good News in conversation with each other. This was a graced, liberating experience that filled them with the joy they were then eager to share with others.

The joy of the Gospel is to know that you are no longer alone. Sin isolates us, disconnects us from God and one another. Grace restores us to relationship. The first experience of this grace is to know that “I am not alone.” 

The pairs of disciples had already overcome their sense of human isolation in the shared knowledge that God was present with them. From this consciousness of being in God, they knew the joy of companionship, the comfort of being with another person who shared this awareness of the gift they were carrying to share with others.  They were evangelists of the new Creation made possible by Jesus, the new Adam.

The story of Creation contains the refrain, “God saw that it was good” until we come to the story of Adam. God then says, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Creation is incomplete until the first human beings are created as a pair, as companions.  This was original innocence, what it meant to be created in the image and likeness of God, for God was also a Community of Persons.

All this was disrupted by sin. Sin had the effect of alienating humanity not only from God, but also from within itself. Human intimacy was wounded by the shame and blame of betrayal and deception. Adam and Eve experienced a disruption of their original intimacy and partnership. They could no longer entrust themselves to one another, but now were competing for control. This rupture is tragically confirmed with the first murder of Abel by his brother, Cain. The history of humanity from that moment onward is one of conflict, competition, estrangement and loneliness.

The first evangelists, the pairs of disciples Jesus sent out ahead of him to announce that creation was being restored by God’s mercy, were able to do more than tell people that this had happened. They were able to model it for them in their relationship with one other. "This is what restored humanity looks like. See the love between us; this is what we are bringing to you, so you can share our joy. 

Because of their wholeness, the disciples were able to heal the sick, cast out unclean spirits and bring peace to every house that welcomed them.  People who opened their doors beheld the new humanity standing in the threshold, and by inviting the disciples into their houses to share at their tables, they experienced the message that God’s Kingdom was at hand.  It filled the house. They felt the joy of the Gospel as it liberated them and restored them to God and to one another.

We first know the joy of being an evangelist when we are able to share our faith with another.  There is a grace evident in this moment, and it moves us to want to widen the circle of sharing and joy that we experience. 

If Jesus sends you out today to share the good news, he will begin by sending you a companion. We should expect this, for this is the very nature and essence of the good news. Once we have experienced it, we will not be able to keep it to ourselves.  

Follow Me

“Jesus came to his own home town, accompanied by his disciples” (Mark 6:1).

The tendency for human beings to seek an outside cause for their troubles and an outside force to save them reveals how little we trust our own capacity for both trouble and its remedies.  We do not want to admit that we cause our own problems and we do not want to take responsibility for changing them.  

Shakespeare said it well: "Our fault is not in our stars but in ourselves.” Walt Kelly’s "Pogo" seconded it: "We have met the enemy, and it is us.”

When Jesus went to Nazareth to inaugurate his mission to bring good news to the poor and liberation to the oppressed, his own relatives and neighbors were offended by his powerful eloquence because, after all, he was just “one of us.” When he quoted a famous adage that “a prophet is not without honor except in his native place,” they proved it by throwing him out of the town.

People wanted someone to save them, to work miracles to fix their problems. But Jesus challenged them to conversion, to change their hearts. People wanted Jesus to punish sinners and defeat their enemies. He told them to love another, to forgive their enemies, to be reconciled within their own families. They wanted dramatic change, Jesus told them parables of natural growth and generous sharing.

People wanted the poor, the alien, the lepers, the widows and orphans to disappear. Jesus welcomed them and took his place among them, saying that to serve them was to serve him.

The Gospel is full of grace and overflowing with the Spirit, but it is still a do-it-yourself project in our own backyard. If change does not start there, in our own hearts and in the relationships closest to us, it is not likely to change the world.

When Jesus was at the height of his popularity, many flocked to follow him. But when he told them to simplify their lives, travel light, or to pick up their personal crosses daily in order to follow him, most of them fell away or moved on to the next big thing.

The next they heard of Jesus was that he was a heretic and troublemaker, a loser and an outcast, abandoned even by his closest followers. Only those disciples who had stayed with him through the ups and downs, the daily challenges of trusting his word and taking one step at a time to grow in his love knew the full story and shared the deeper secret of risen life.

If this is the Jesus you want and the life you seek, set out again today, step by step, filled with grace and the Holy Spirit. This is the Gospel that is saving the world.

Staying in Touch

“Do not be afraid; just have faith” (Mark5:39).

While Mark’s Gospel is often short and to the point, he pauses to lavish great detail on today’s account of the double miracles involving a woman suffering from a hemorrhage and a 12-year-old girl who dies.  Touch is important in both miracles. The woman in the crowd draws power from Jesus by touching his cloak. Jesus takes the dead girl’s hand and calls her back to life. In each case, ritual purity rules are pre-empted by an intimate exchange of faith and love.

In our celebrity-charged society, the desire to make contact with an important person, a film star or famous public figure, to shake their hand or touch their clothing, to have a souvenir of even a crowd encounter, is well understood.

On the negative side, we hear daily of examples of unwanted touch, forced and abusive touch that steals people’s dignity and wounds their innocence.  Touch can be life-giving and death-inflicting.

The Gospels invite us to find and be in touch with Jesus. We can do this spiritually through the scriptures, by letting our hearts enter the stories about his gentle touch and life-giving power to heal. These are real encounters.

The companions of Jesus and the crowds who witnessed his ministry had a rare privilege in being able to touch him physically. Yet we know that it was only after his death and resurrection that the faith communities came to understand the restorative and redemptive power that came from being part of his mystical body through baptism and in the Eucharist.

These sacramental and communal moments also offer us an intimacy that is as real and as effective as those found in the miracles recorded to inspire our faith in the presence of Jesus in the world today.  

As disciples, Jesus teaches us how to touch as he touched. His was a touch that did not take, but gave life. His availability to people and his empathy for their sufferings teaches us not to be afraid to let the needs of others impinge on our lives, pulling at our hearts and drawing power from us. Jesus was constantly stretching out his hands to touch even those regarded as untouchable, unworthy of care.   

Life flows both ways. Jesus makes us both a source and receiver of life by inviting us into the flow of the people around us. Surprising gifts and intimate exchanges will happen for those who accompany Jesus each day.   

Godfather

"They began to beg Jesus to leave their district" (Mark 5:18).

The film "The Godfather" has been described as a parable of how power corrupts. It is the story of the Italian-American Corleone family, but could be about any entity, even a nation, that evolves from positive goals of loyalty in defending and advancing the interests of the group. Ideals are compromised, violence is used to retaliate for violence, competition creates its own logic and the need to defeat enemies who threaten the family.  

The story has also been compared to, and even said to have been derived from, the biblical story of the rise of David. Like the young Michael Corleone, innocent until he is drawn into the family business to avenge an assassination attempt on his father, David emerges first as a hero, slaying Goliath and becoming a rival to King Saul. But as both men gain power, they must protect that power with greater and greater violence. Betrayal and compromise lead to a deepening spiritual darkness and the collapse of conscience until the evil they set in motion turns back on them to destroy everything they value. 

The story of David in 2 Samuel is a powerful tragedy. In the reading for today, David's son Absalom rebels and tries to kill his father. In the end, it is Absalom who will be killed by David's lietenants, sending the king into a spiral of grief that has echoes down through Shakespeare's great tragedies and to many historical disasters of family self-destruction. 

What makes these stories tragedies is not just their outcome but also the inexorable logic that drives events. Once evil overshadows even good intentions and violence is justified to protect the group, corruption sets in in all its forms: betrayal, deception, murder and hypocrisy.  

Mark's Gospel offers a counter parable to what can seem the inevitability of power leading to corruption. When Jesus arrives on the other side of the lake in a pagan district, he encounters a violent demoniac possessed by a "legion" of unclean spirits, who recognize Jesus' absolute authority, They beg to be expelled into a herd of swine, regarded as an unclean animal by Jews, and the herd rushes into the lake and is drowned. It is a tumultuous scene that spreads terror in the region, whose inhabitants beg Jesus to depart.

The struggle between good and evil, innocence and corruption, is at the heart of the Gospel and Jesus' mission to redeem the world. The faultline between light and darkness is not some large, abstract struggle, but something that runs through the heart of every one of us. We are constantly faced with the choice between holding our ideals and compromising them, between following our consciences and letting selfishiness enter by half mesaure into our lives until we no longer can distinguish what we believe or want. 

Jesus invites us each day to deepen our discipleship and to pray for insight and courage. Grace will always hold the field against sin if we listen and obey the Spirit dwelling within us.  This is the good news and the joy of discipleship. 

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