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Deep Conversion

Posted on 01 February 2016 by patmarrin

“Go home to your family and announce to them all that the Lord in his pity has done for you” (Mark 5:19).

The story of the Gerasene demoniac is loaded with imagery that suggests a story behind the story. It is a description of Jesus’ power over not just a single possessed man or over the religious control of the local synagogues and Temple establishment in Jerusalem, but also over the entire Greco-Roman and pagan culture that had been imposed upon the world by the Empire.

Jesus crosses the lake to the pagan region of the Decapolis (10 cities) and there encounters a fearsome, violent demoniac raging in the burial grounds among the dead. He is inhabited by 2,000 spirits, who recognize Jesus and beg to be cast into the swine. Their name is legion, the equivalent of an entire division of soldiers.

The Romans controlled the region, extracting its wealth and stamping its own economic system and beliefs in the form of markets and temples. The huge herd of swine, an animal considered unclean by Jews, indicates the pervasive control the Romans had over everything from social taboos to diet. The so-called Pax Romana was a co-optative and distorted blend of conquest and capitalism that inflicted spiritual death on its subjects.

Jesus’ power to drive out the demons is evidence that the Kingdom of God is more powerful than any other kind of rule, even imperial power claiming to be divine. Mark is telling us how Jesus is exercising spiritual supremacy over all the powers of this world. He is breaking the spells these powers have cast over people, awakening and liberating them to take back their dignity and destiny.

The Gospel begins in us when we experience this deep liberation and can take charge of our lives from the deadening influence and lifeless patterns of consumption and escapism the dominant culture uses to keep us passive and obedient. We barely know we are being controlled until we break the spell of mindless routine and compulsive obedience to every appetite and whim that summons us and promises to satisfy us. The voices we carry are legion, whispering instructions deep within our consciousness until we cannot imagine any other reality than this half-life of shallow sensations.

We are approaching the season of Lent, a time to stop feeding the beast and start listening to the Spirit. This is the path to freedom and self possession. Discipleship is possible only when we regain control, and God's grace is always there to help set us free.

Winning by Losing

Posted on 30 January 2016 by patmarrin

“No prophet is accepted in his native place” (Luke 4:25).

The launch of a political campaign is always carefully planned to show off a candidate’s values and goals. An event is organized in the candidate’s hometown, in front of the high school where he graduated or in view of the humble family home. The stage is set with a backdrop of patriotic symbols. Television cameras and lights are in position, news media have been invited to magnify the moment to a national audience. The candidate delivers a speech crafted to please every audience, touching on issues the polls have identified as important to voters, saying enough but not too much, inspiring confidence without promising specifics.

By any obvious measure, Jesus’ inaugural event turns into a disaster. He gets up in front of the elders in the synagogue and attributes to himself a famous messianic passage from the prophet Isaiah, he refuses to work any miracles, then quotes an adage about prophets being welcome anywhere but their native places. To rub it in, he cites two examples from the scriptures about miracles done for foreigners instead of the chosen people.

The home crowd is taken aback by the audacity of this local carpenter claiming to be a prophet, and they run him out of town, even threatening to throw him over a cliff. Jesus’ campaign is off to a rough start, but it would seem that he achieved the results that would in fact characterize his controversial ministry all the way to Jerusalem, where he will be condemned by the Sanhedrin and executed by the Romans. It will take his followers several generations to understand his strategy of success by failure. After his death and resurrection, they will come to understand that Jesus was the suffering servant messiah who spoke truth to power and who turned the world’s image of success upside down.

We are left to try and understand, then practice this same upside down strategy in our lives. If we want to overcome our enemies, we must befriend them. If we want to change society, we must stand with the poor, shame the oppressor, suffer expulsion from the centers of influence to work for justice at the margins, live the Beatitudes and practice the Corporal Works of Mercy even if it costs us our status and our lives.

This radical program is the goal of discipleship. We are all beginners, and only the Spirit can teach us how to live it in our ordinary lives. As we gather in community at Eucharist, we must ask God to help us become what we celebrate in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup.

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Small Wonder

Posted on 29 January 2016 by patmarrin

"To what shall we compare the Kingdom of God?" (Mark 4:30).

Leo Tolstoy wove into his great novel, War and Peace, his own theory of how history works. For him, history was not determined by the actions of powerful leaders like Napoleon, but by small incidents like the loss of a wagon wheel that threw off the timing of the French invasion of Russia. When the larger story is examined after the fact, any number of small actions could be shown to have influenced the outcome.

In his parables, Jesus seems to say the same thing. A farmer plants his crop, but then the mystery of growth takes over. He goes to bed, gets up, watches over his field day after day, but the land of its own accord yields the harvest. Or another farmer sows mustard seed into the wind. It is the smallest seed of all, barely visible in the hand, but it produces a plant large enough to shelter the birds.

The will of God, Jesus says, enters our lives mysteriously, almost hidden among the many forces that shape our personal stories, including our own choices, successes and failures. We imagine we are in full control, but circumstance, chance, opportunity and adversity play a role in the outcome. We come to the end of our lives, look back to see how God has been present in both our joys and sorrows, gains and losses. Our lives have been a total gift, and God's mercy has accompanied us, protected and guided us every step of the way.

This should fill us with gratitude. It should also relieve us from the anxiety and burden of thinking we alone can control everything. It should remind us to be alert to the graces and natural wonders that surround us, the small seeds of possibility that yield great harvests of love.

Seeing, Hearing and Measuring

Posted on 28 January 2016 by patmarrin

"The measure with which you measure will be measured out to you" (Mark 4:24).

I am at the stage of life when both my hearing and eyesight are diminishing. I understand well the added effort it takes to to stay tuned in to conversations, to stay alert to what is going around me. I don't want to miss the enormous amount of information that flows to me through all five senses.

Jesus tells his disciples to stay open and alert at several levels. Sensory input is different than perception. Someone can hear but not listen, see but not understand what they are seeing. At an even deeper level is spiritual attentiveness. A disciple perceives the meaning of events and relationships in the light of God's presence. A disciple listens for the Word of God in a situation, pays attention to the whispering voice of the Spirit, who directs us to see and interpret things rightly, to distinguish between what is important and what is not.

Jesus uses the image of light to invite his disciples to live transparently, bringing light to those around them. To always tell the truth can be difficult in a world of secrets, half-truths and information spin. The truth is a bright light among the shadows and distortions that often hide agendas. A disciples tells the truth.

Jesus tells his disciples to be careful what they hear. Discernment is essential to keeping our priorities in order. The world is full of noise.

Jesus tells his disciples to be open to grace and generous in sharing what they receive. It their measure is small, they will be limited in both what comes to them and what they have to offer others.

These are small parables for us today. Let those who have eyes and ears, use them well.

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Turning Point

Posted on 27 January 2016 by patmarrin

"Jesus taught them at length in parables" (Mark 4:3).

Jesus is described as a teacher in the Gospels, and his primary method is to tell little stories that present questions or decisions his hearers must engage for themselves. Parables present an actual thing or event that must then be interpreted in a deeper way.

The parable of the sower is an interesting story about a farmer casting seed onto different kinds of soil, but it is really about receptivity to the Word of God. A common device in story telling is a "turning point" in the action when the direction of the story changes. Three times the farmer sows seeds that bear no fruit, but then he succeeds by finding good soil, and three times the increase is measured as thirtyfold, sixtyfold and a hundredfold.

This turning point is quite dramatic, because for Jesus' audience the fate of the sower and the seed was the difference between famine and abundance. So the turning point represents a crucial change or decision on their part. Receptivity to the God's Word, the deeper meaning of the parable, is the difference between life and death. Another one of Jesus' parables has such a turning point, when the prodigal son realizes he is destitute and dying in a foreign land, and he decides to return home to his father.

Both parables invite us to apply the scene to ourselves in our receptivity to God. Are we at a turning point? Is the direction of our lives and our investment of ourselves producing vitality and love or are we coming up empty after repeated attempts to grow and find abundant life?

The Word of God is coming to us today to invite us to turn toward God, to come home to ourselves, to deepen our attentiveness to the voice of God in our daily experiences. We may be at a turning point, and now is the time to respond with all our heart.

Faith Family

Posted on 26 January 2016 by patmarrin

“Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35).

The growth of the early church must have meant deep divisions in many families. Jewish converts to Christianity would leave behind their parents and relatives as they formed new communities of believers in Jesus. This would have disrupted tribal loyalties in a culture where an individual was totally defined by his or her ancestral group.

Mark shows this radical shift in loyalties occurring in the life of Jesus. His family came to claim him in the midst of his new ministry. He is already controversial figure for his battles with the scribes and Pharisees over the interpretation of the Law. Jesus is attracting many followers, but they are from the fringes of respectable religion.

Jesus' mother and family have come down from Nazareth to see for themselves, but they cannot get through the crowds surrounding the place where he is teaching. So they send a message saying, "Your own mother, your brothers and sisters are here to see you." He sends back word that his mother, brothers and sisters are no longer by blood but in the spirit. His family is now anyone who hears the Word and does the will of God.

It is a shattering response, unless we realize that Jesus' mother is surely described in this new criteria. Mary not only heard the Word and obeyed God, she gave flesh to the Word in her womb and brought God into the world at the birth of her son.

Today's Gospel invites all of us to ask just where our deepest loyalties lie. What cultural or familial forces shape who we are? How do we introduce ourselves to others? Jesus calls for radical identification with himself and his message of unconditional love. Wherever we began our journey, it has led us to him. He is not one of many options. Jesus is the Way, the Truth and Life.

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Called to Glory

Posted on 25 January 2016 by patmarrin

“Now get up and go into the city and you will be told what you must do” (Acts 9:6).

The conversion of Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus is clearly one of the most important events recorded in the New Testament, second only to the Christ event itself. For it is St. Paul who brokers the mystery of Jesus to the larger world beyond Judaism. Paul’s letters, which predate the written Gospels, contain the first recorded reflections on the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus as the pattern of transformation all the baptized must undergo to be incorporated into his crucified and risen body, the church.

There are three separate accounts of the conversion of St. Paul in the Acts of the Apostles. Each one validates his credentials as the "Apostle to the Gentiles" for Jewish and gentile (Roman) audiences. But it is Paul’s own account in his letter to the Galatians that gives us a glimpse of his own understanding of how God chose him and called him to witness to the Good News of Jesus. Paul writes that “God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles” (Gal 1:16).

His destiny as an apostle was decided from the womb. His call was pure gift, God’s pleasure to reveal the divine Son in him. The Christ in Paul reveals his true self. His life’s purpose was therefore to preach Jesus to the gentile world. He was to spend the rest of his life and all his skill and energy trying to explain the full meaning of Jesus the Christ, not just to the Jews, but for the whole world and for all human history, and even the cosmos itself.

Paul is the first theologian to show how the free gift of faith in Jesus replaces observance of the Mosaic Law as how we become righteous. Paul teaches and models in his own experience how we can unite our sufferings to those of Jesus to share in his redemption of the world on the cross, and thus enter with him into the glory of his resurrection. This “Paschal mystery” completes our baptismal identity as the body of Christ celebrated in the Eucharist. We no longer live, but Christ lives in us.

Paul’s writings on the unity of all Christians in the body of Christ (1 Cor 12) make the feast of his conversion the perfect way to celebrate the conclusion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (Jan 18-25). Unity in Christ as one body, one Spirit and one faith makes every difference of history or language or doctrinal formula a challenge worth resolving so that the great work of evangelization can go forward.

Inauguration Day

Posted on 23 January 2016 by patmarrin

"Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:21).

A year from now, the next president of the United States will be sworn in on the steps of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. The new president will then deliver his or her inaugural address, a general outline of what they hope to accomplish in their administration during the next four years. If the campaign rhetoric to date has us anxious over what the future could hold, we are getting a history lesson in just how uncertain and unpredictable is the process that produces our national leadership. And also how our own participation is the most decisive factor in the direction our country will take.

When Jesus stood at the reader's lectern in the synagogue in Nazareth, he chose a particular passage from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah to describe his mission. His inaugural address was the messianic vision of what God wanted the world to become. Good news for the poor, liberty for captives, sight to the blind, freedom for all from oppression, and a year of grace and forgiveness over the land.

No doubt his hearers were familiar with this vision, but always thought of it as the fulfillment of history in the future. What Jesus then said was a daring and surprising thing: "Today this passage is fulfilled in your hearing." Jesus had been anointed by the Spirit of the Lord to proclaim Isaiah's vision.

So began what would prove to be first a revolution of the heart, a movement already leaning into the future, advancing here and now values that would become true in the living out of them. Then it would become a revolution in the world itself. Only over time would people understand how the principles of this new world were releasing new energy that was changing the direction of history, not by violent overthrow or force but like leaven in the mass, salt bringing new flavor and vitality to life. Within a few generations, the Christian "way" would be guiding the world into a new era.

The crucial words in Jesus' prediction in Nazareth that day were "in your hearing." God's promises have inherent power, but the direction that power takes and how it happens also depends on our openness to listen and act. If we do nothing or if we resist the vision, the graces God is offering may work around us but not with us. The future will fall upon us blindly rather than meet our own freedom to move forward. History will make us rather than we make history as co-creators with God. Jesus' inauguration was an invitation that asks us to respond.

As we gather in our eucharistic communities this weekend, we pray that Jesus's description of his own calling will also describe us. The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, anointing us. If we hear these words, deeply and decisively, they will come true.

Play Ball!

Posted on 22 January 2016 by patmarrin

"Jesus summoned those he wanted" (Mark 3:13).

Among other factors, poor eyesight kept me out of childhood sports requiring depth perception. I wanted to play baseball and actually got to be on an intramural grade school team, assigned to left field when we were way ahead. I remember the yellow caps we wore and my one time at bat, when I hit the ball to the center fielder for an out. "You got piece of that, Marrin," the coach said.

I was never noteworthy, but from this and other neighborhood games I understood the importance of being picked to be on a team, an affirmation all of us need at least once.

Jesus spends the night in prayer on the mountain, then summons those he wants to be his disciples. They all seem more rough potential than finished talent. It is as though Jesus picks them for their flaws, to demonstrate that their success will come from the Spirit. Each disciple will undergo failure and conversion before they can share the ministry of mercy. Their unique strengths and weaknesses will come into balance to make them believable witnesses to the power of God to transform sinners into saints.

We mill about at the edge of the crowd on the playground. Everyone wants to play. Some kids have gloves and the right shoes, some don't. Some of us wonder if we are invisible, assigned to anonymous lives of low expectation and routine ordinariness. On our own, perhaps. But if we could be on a team, things might be different. Then we hear our name called. We are being chosen. We will be part of the team, and even our inadequacies will be absorbed by the chemistry of cooperation that makes everyone do their best. Someone has seen our potential, barely visible to ourselves, but there, waiting to be cultivated, tested, brought to the fore.

Jesus has seen us, decided to choose each of us to be part of the team. We feel the weight of his expectations and the challenges that lie ahead. But we also know his affirmation contains everything we need to succeed.

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The Divine Touch

Posted on 21 January 2016 by patmarrin

"Jesus told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, so that they would not crush him" (Mark 3:10).

Politicians talk of "pressing the flesh" to describe real campaigning. Crowds want to get close to important people, to touch them and have their pictures taken with them. Security personnel need to see that a candidate is not grabbed or pulled into the crowd. Even the pope's guardians can be seen swatting hands away as the pope moves through the throngs of people who want to make contact with him.

Jesus is immersed in the crowds who not only want to see him, but who have also heard that his touch can heal. In another account, "power goes out of him" at the touch of a woman in the crowd. Jesus is pressed in by people with diseases, the "untouchables" of his day, the poor and desperate who sense that something miraculous is happening and they want to be a part of it.

A boat stands ready to rescue Jesus if needed, lest he be crushed. He will in fact be consumed like bread broken for a hungry world, but for now he has other towns to visit, a long pilgrimage to make to Jerusalem, where his immersion in controversy will cost him his life.

This is the reality of the Incarnation. God comes among us in the flesh, intimate to our human experiences and troubles. There is no divine immunity, no proscribed distance or limit to God’s desire to be close to us, or our desire to be close to God, to touch and be touched by God’s presence. Our very existence is a sign of God’s immediacy. If God did not know us, loves and support us in every moment, we would cease to exist.

Jesus announces a Kingdom that is among us, within us, immersed in our lives, its graces at work in our daily issues, problems and efforts. Whatever we care about or need, God is right there with us, encouraging and helping us. This is the joy of the Gospel.