Lent and Easter Reflections

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

Authority

The people were astonished at his teaching” (Mark 1:21).

The Book of Proverbs has this ominous line: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

National purpose and cultural coherency rest on some kind of common identity, and in times when people are divided or consumed by fear, the common good is endangered and everyone goes their own way.

Social conflict and perceived scarcity devastate communities by destroying cooperation.  Political corruption and lies erode trust in government. There is no legitimate authority in the land, and the people perish.

Mark’s Gospel begins with Jesus establishing his authority. He is God’s Son, and his presence in the world reasserts control over all the forms of false authority and what Mark calls “unclean spirits,” social forces authorized by Satan that have distorted people’s hopes and sown fear.

Jesus’ arrival in the synagogue, the local focus of legal and spiritual authority, begins with conflict over healing on the Sabbath. In today’s Gospel, a possessed man erupts in recognition that Jesus is God’s Holy One. The power of evil, so long in control of human society, is over.

Jesus orders the unclean spirit to release its victim.  In a dramatic show of the struggle going on between Jesus and Satan, the man is convulsed and the spirit departs.

The people are astonished. Mark uses a Greek word for this amazement that suggests that a theophany has occurred.  The crowd is not just impressed with Jesus’ show of authority, they are moved to the depths, almost to the point of fear and awe.

Something new is here. Jesus is a teacher who tells the truth with power. The crowd is astonished because they have not found this kind of authority in their own leaders and teachers, who only parrot the words of the law. 

The word authority is derived from the idea of authentic, or author. What the people hear resonating in the voice of Jesus is the Source of truth. His command over disease unclean spirits and physical forces is grounded in God, the author of creation. Jesus has come to heal creation and to restore the image and likeness of God to the world.

Our worshiping communities are meant to be places where we find realignment in the authority of God.  Who has not felt scattered and uneasy at times in our modern society, with so many competing ideas and values pulling at us like a centrifugal storm that consumes and distorts our spirits? Who has not wondered about our national direction these days as our leaders seem paralyzed and unable to govern, or as money corruption and the rhetoric of fear and division challenge basic values of decency and compassion for the most vulnerable among us?

The Word of God comes to us as we again center our lives on the mystery of Jesus, who gathers us at the table of his own self-sacrificing love. In his love we find the authority of Communion with one another. We are filled with the Holy Spirit and sent to be ambassadors of reconciliation and healing. 

We are a people with vision, and we will flourish and not perish.

Parables Everywhere

‘Without parables he did not speak to them” (Mark 4:33).

Jesus used parables to invite his audience to engage something that could not be described directly. He used imagery people could understand to get them to imagine a process they had to enter freely and personally. The Kingdom of God was a new way of being in relationship with God and with one another.

Jesus talked like a farmer to people who lived on the land and knew about planting and harvesting. He spoke to shepherds about the care of sheep, to housewives about making bread and sweeping to find a lost coin, and to fishermen about dragnets and sorting out a catch. He talked about wedding feasts and business deals, building houses, storing wine and patching garments.

With each story, Jesus drew people into ways to see God’s presence in every aspect of ordinary life. Every day held opportunities to find abundance, hope reconciliation, beauty and mystery.

Growing in this awareness of God was both natural and organic. If one was open to it, God would come the way crops grew from seeds sown in the earth. We don’t have to explain it or understand it; it just happens, like a tiny mustard seed carried by the wind, taking root and producing a tall plant.

The Kingdom of God was about life and gratitude, trust and joy, freedom from fear or competition, an invitation to come together to celebrate God’s goodness poured out on everyone.  It was about families sharing food with neighbors, about children returning home, the beauty of the fields and the sky, the peace that reigns in a village when old wounds are healed and grudges resolved.

Before we expect the Gospels to give us miracles, we should first welcome what is already there naturally, the simple empathy that reminds us how much alike we are and how everyone needs the same love and attention. To respond to one another is to find the webs of gifts and wants that fit together in a community, everyone giving what they have and receiving what they need.

We are living parables to one another. May our stories bless us and enrich us and reveal God hiding in our midst.

Conversion of St. Paul

“Who are you, sir?” (Acts 22:8)

The conversion of St. Paul is important not only for our understanding of Paul but also for our own understanding of Christian discipleship. Paul’s encounter with the crucified and risen Jesus defined his life from that moment on. The purpose of his existence and the key to his human maturity and divine destiny was to be united to both the dying and rising of the Christ.

Paul called this experience of union with Jesus the “Paschal Mystery,” his share in the new Passover, or Exodus, from sin and death to new life accomplished by Jesus. By living in Christ and for Christ, Paul was being transformed, dying to himself in order to rise as a new creation in Christ.

By baptism every Christian takes up this same pattern of dying to self in order to live with Christ. By sharing in the Eucharist, we nourish this new life as members of the body of Christ. What Jesus accomplished once and for all by his death and resurrection, is now extended in time and space as the redemptive reclaiming of the world, humanity and all of creation.

Paul’s ministry was to share this mystery by his preaching and the establishment of faith communities across Asia Minor, with a special appeal to the gentiles. What was prefigured by the Exodus and the first covenant under the Law for the Jews was now a grace offered universally. Membership in Christ and transformation through the Paschal Mystery are the ultimate goal of history.

We celebrate the conversion of St. Paul to remind ourselves that life in Christ is meant to be the conscious heart of our lives. The goal of our discipleship is to be open to Paul’s prayer, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20).

Enter the Parable

"Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear" (Mark 4:10),

Among my winter reading has been a collection of the "best" mystery stories of 2017. One of the requirements of such stories is an opening sentence that grabs the reader by the throat. Another ought to be some substance, but that is another blog entry.  

The parables of Jesus exhibit some great opening lines. Who can turn away from "A sower went out to sow," or "A man had two sons." The drama inherent in just those two examples is universal. For Jesus' audience, the image of a sower going out to sow was critical to the survival of the community, for bad weather or crop failure meant famine. The sower carried the welfare of the whole village in his precious sack of seed corn, carefully held back from last year's harvest. The audience wanted to know how the story came out. 

The same was true of a story about a man with two sons. In Jesus' time, one of the sons, the elder, would inherit the estate and the other would have to seek his own fortune by joining the diaspora. Or by going to work for his older brother.  In any case, here was a story about families that was universal. 

The parable of the sower is presented in the Gospels as the first one Jesus told, because it was really a parable about how to understand a parable. Audiences receive and respond to God's word in different ways and at different depths. The Word is being broadcast in the world, an ever faithful and effective guide to life, but not everyone will grasp its meaning at the same time. When the Word finds "good soil" and "ears that hear," it multiplies and enriches those who welcome it. 

Active listening means entering the story, letting its imagery and drama interrogate us. What kind of soil am I? What seeds have proved fruitful in my life? Have I sown generously or stingily? Have others sown love and promise in my life? Do I reserve my attention and investment only for those who show some sign of return? Have I ever sown extravagantly without hope of return? What harvest do I pray for? For whom? 

The Word of God is always coming to us, seeking root in our lives, flowering and bearing fruit, showing us how to multiply God's gifts to us one hundredfold, sixtyfold, thirtyfold. Enter story, become the story. It is all about us. 

 

All in the Family

“Who is my mother and my brother?” (Mark3:33).

Individuality is a fairly modern idea. For most of history and still in many cultures, people live out their lives as members of a group, either a tribe, a region, an ethnic or racial circle. Family names still reflect parental, place or professional identifiers:  Son of John (Johnson), Cartwright or Goldsmith, William of Orleans. High mobility and blended families make even genealogical searches more complex, and contemporary notions that we can invent ourselves without regard for past influences are common.

 Group identity was was particularly evident in the Bible, even for Jesus, son of Joseph, the carpenter’s son, Jesus of Nazareth, or Jesus of Galilee. 

It is part of theological tension within the Gospels that Jesus had a hidden identity that transcended his human status. He was a particular person in time and place, culture and context, but he was also the divine Word, the visible icon of the invisible God, a full human being with a divine identity.

The evangelists revealed this in various ways. The infancy narratives tell of his unique conception. Luke tells us that the boy Jesus stayed in Jerusalem after his bar Mitzvah because he belonged in his “Father’s” house rather than with Joseph and Mary in Nazareth.  In today’s passage from Mark, Jesus seems to separate himself from his blood family, including his mother, by invoking a higher identity: “Who is my mother or my brother?  The one who does the will of God…”

We have to put ourselves back in Jesus’s world to understand how radical this separation must have seemed. Family defined loyalty. Someone who stood apart from family was giving up their identity, becoming nobody, and they could be regarded as insane, exactly why Jesus’s family had come to fetch him home, fearing that he was “out of his mind.”

What can this Gospel mean for us except that discipleship calls us to a deeper identity than any other way of defining ourselves? We never leave behind our family bonds or racial roots, yet we must accept a radical process of transformation that makes every other loyalty secondary to our commitment to Christ.

This challenge may be clearer than it seems in today’s world, when groups are withdrawing into tribal enclaves or class differences, nationalist illusions about racial superiority or the fear-based definition of who is in or out, safe or dangerous.  Openness to others is openness to the mystery of Christ, the icon of universal human dignity and the future of humanity before God. 

What Jesus faced in his own time was the narrowing power of exclusivity based on family, religion, ethnicity and blood to close doors and limit God’s gift of grace to the in group.  One criteria and one alone defined identity with Jesus, and that was openness to the will of God, an ever-widening circle of inclusion and compassion.

Stand or Fall?

“A nation divided against itself cannot stand” (Mark 3:24).

Today’s readings offer examples of the principle that a house divided will not stand. King Saul is defeated in battle and is slain, ending a long struggle between himself and David, who then is anointed king of Israel, uniting the divided country. 

In the Gospel, Jesus is accused by his critics of colluding with Satan to produce his miracles and exorcisms.  Jesus scoffs at the logic of this charge that he is defeating Satan with the help of Satan.

The use of these readings in today’s liturgy will prompt many commentaries on the state of the nation. Congress is deadlocked over budget politics and the desire to assign blame for shutting down government funding.  The battle lines are drawn and the rhetoric us ugly, with no hope of resolution.

Jan 22 is also the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, and decades-long divisions over how to resolve the many questions regarding the protection of unborn life, medical privacy and policies that address the complex economic and social causes for unwanted pregnancies will mark the day in the streets and in the national discourse.

On issues as basic as the common good, protection of life at every stage, and on other life issues regarding immigrants and refugees, the challenge is obvious.  Can a nation that is divided on fundamental values survive for long?

We are invited to make this a day of prayer and fasting, focused not just on these and other issues, but on whether we will hold together as a nation. 

Called

“They abandoned their nets and followed him” (Mark 1:16).

 Any study of the scriptures quickly reveals how rich and multi-layered the Word is when we engage it with openness and faith. A seemingly simple narrative unfolds in greater detail as we let our imagination enter the story. Unlike other kinds of reading, God’s Word draws us into an encounter with a living Voice, inviting us to make Jesus real in our lives.

Today’s short account of the call of the first disciples is a good example. Mark has set the stage at the start of his Gospel, so we know that Jesus has begun his public ministry announcing that the “Kingdom of God” is at hand. The phrase must have had an electric impact on his audiences. How daring of this ordinary Jewish layman, a carpenter from the hill country village of Nazareth, to talk openly about a new kingdom backed by God. The people must have wondered what King Herod and the Roman occupation thought about all of this. There is tension in the air.

Jesus’ reputation is spreading quickly in the lake country because he was a compelling story teller and was also performing miracles of healing and exorcisms. Jesus was demonstrating real power. The fishermen in Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee had heard of him, and the suddenness of their response to his call suggests that Peter and Andrew, James and John, had already been influenced by Jesus.

These men are fishermen, two sets of brothers who are part of family businesses, with boats and nets, hardworking, intelligent but probably not educated, family men. They are likely young, in their 20s, not the grey-bearded figures in Christian art. Jesus is only 30.

What did Jesus see in these men that moved him to choose them to be Apostles who would one day be sent out to share the message and witness of Jesus?  Their work as fishermen meant that that they lived with uncertainty, often all night out on the lake hoping to make a catch. Their skills included an ability to read the sky, weather conditions, water temperature, and to discern what was invisible beneath the surface of the lake. When the nets came alive with thrashing fish, they had to jump to the task of hauling them on board and bringing them to shore. 

Here was a perfect parable for what Jesus would ask them to do as Apostles. They were to “catch” people to the Gospel message, drawing them into the boat of the church and into communities of faith. What better helpers could Jesus have than these brothers with rough, rope-scarred hands and enough patience and skill to go where the catch was and endurance to bring it into the kingdom of God?

The scriptures we read are like those small flavor-packed bouillon cubes used to make soup. Everything is there except for the hot water that, when added, will reconstitute the full broth and bring to life its aroma and taste. God provides the Word, but we have to add the hot water. It is our imagination and faith that give body to the story, for it is not just about Peter and Andrew, James and John. Today’s living Word is addressed to us and about us. Jesus is calling us to be with him in the work of sharing the Kingdom of God.  This is the joy of the Gospel.

Chosen

“Jesus went up the mountain and summoned those whom he wanted and they came to him” (Mark 3:13).

One measure of a leader is the group of advisors and associates he or she selects to help fulfill the mission. If the team is poorly chosen without discernment and coordination, the mission suffers.

Mark tells us that Jesus made his selection of apostles after going up on a mountain, a sign that he conferred with God even as Moses had on Mount Sinai before making major decisions.

This hardly explains how, then, some of the chosen apostles were fallible and even unreliable picks. Peter was proud and stubborn and proved a failure when tested. James and John had anger issues. Thomas had doubts. Matthew was a hated Roman collaborator and tax collector. Judas betrayed Jesus.

Was Jesus mistaken in selecting them, or were their very flaws important to the story?  

The answer from the Gospel seems to be that Jesus knew exactly why he chose each apostle. Each one possessed qualities that would emerge under trial. Each one would undergo a process of conversion that made them good apostles. They experienced what they were sent to share with others. They were weak and unworthy, yet by God’s mercy they were called to glory. This was the Gospel they preached.

This should encourage us. We certainly know our weaknesses, and the notion that we might be called to be apostles seems far from possible. Yet Mark has brought the possibility to each of us by telling us that the real apostles were just like us, yet Jesus chose them anyway. In fact, Jesus chose them because they were flawed, in order to show what grace could make of them, and of us.

Do we believe this? It may be the first and most important act of faith required of us. God is eager to make each one of us a witness to the power of mercy to transform the world. If it can happen to us, it can happen to anyone.

For All

“Hearing what Jesus was doing, a large number of people came to him …” (Mark 3:8).

Mark stresses early in his Gospel that Jesus had a universal mission. He came in a special way as the promised messiah to the Jews, but his message of salvation was for everyone who responded to him in faith.

In today’s Gospel passage, Mark identifies all the groups and regions beyond Judea and Galilee that flocked to Jesus when they heard of his healings. Tyre and Sidon were on the northern border of Galilee, and Idumea was on the far side of the Sea of Galilee. Both areas were primarily populated by pagans.

The crowds were so great that Jesus had a boat ready so he could preach from the water when the press of people that gathered was so eager to touch him that they threatened to crush him. These scenes were early in his public ministry, and Jesus was quite popular. 

The presence of officials from Jerusalem meant that the official religious establishment was concerned about this theologically uneducated hill country preacher. They had seen other popular figures arise who had gathered large followings and had challenged Roman authority, bringing down a quick and violent response.

We know from the Gospels that this period of popularity quickly shifted to a time of suspicion and controversy as it became clear that Jesus was challenging the temple establishment and calling for deep reform and repentance from everyone.

Long haul conversion is the hard part of every journey of change. Even only several weeks into the New Year, how many resolutions have been forgotten as old habits reappear? True spiritual change might begin with a burst of fervor, but sustaining it requires deeper and deeper reflection and motivation.

If we hold to one resolution for our spiritual growth in this new season, it should be for perseverance until new habits and regular discipline in prayer and practice can take hold.  Jesus calls his circle of disciples in the very first chapter of Mark, but it is in the next 15 chapters that they will prove how deeply his call has gone in their lives.

Stretch

"Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath?" (Mark 3:4).

Today's Gospel focuses our attention on the word "stretch."  A man with a withered hand has been deliberately placed in the synagogue on the sabbath to test whether Jesus will heal him despite the legal restriction about doing any "work" on the sabbath. Jesus will succeed in "stretching" the man's withered hand back into wholeness, but he will be unable to "stretch" either the narrow interpretation of the law being used or the hearts of the Pharisees who have set this trap in order to discredit Jesus.  

Jesus contronts their legalism and their bad faith. These scholars know that the sabbath law does not prevent anyone from doing an act of healing or rescuing an animal on the sabbath. Why this hardness of heart?  Why would they not rejoice that a crippled man could be restored to health, instead of only using him for bait?  Their true intentions are revealed when they fail in their scheme, for these Pharisees leave the house of prayer to consipiire with their social enemies, the Herodians, to kill Jesus. So much for either life or the sabbath. 

Paralysis is a terribile thing when it afflicts our consciences or withers our hearts. The only remedy is a lifetime of stretching and openness. When compassion is blocked by fear, judgmentalism or habit, we are in danger of real spiritual atrophy and loss of discernment. Only exercising our hearts and going beyond our narrow views and prejudices can we grow as disicples.  Jesus leads the way in stretching out his hands to us, and teaching us to stretch out our hands to others. 

Pages