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Familiarity Blocks Faith

Posted on 04 February 2015 by patmarrin

"He was amazed at their lack of faith" (Mark 6:6).

Mark wastes no time in introducing the theme of rejection into his Gospel. After a spectacular start to his public ministry in nearby Capernaum, including miracles of healing, exorcism and even resurrection, Jesus and his band of disciples come to his hometown of Nazareth to teach in the synagogue.

The reaction to this hometown boy is both astonishment and resistance. "Who does he think he is?" some ask, for to them, Jesus is just a carpenter, familiar to family and neighbors since childhood. Where did he get all this wisdom and miraculous power? And they reject him.

Jesus quotes an adage: “Prophets are honored everywhere except in their own native place, families and countries.” This only adds to the town's disdain. Now this upstart is calling himself a prophet! Their skepticism about Jesus blocks his ability to work miracles, another theme in Mark -- that faith is essential to experience the power of the reign of God flowing through Jesus. He is amazed a their lack of faith.

How strange that the greatest obstacle to new ideas and promises is familiarity. We already know the answer, the source, the situation, the person. We doubt that anything new or surprising can happen, and so it doesn’t. Jesus’ message was not just new, but also challenging, calling for a change of heart, a leaving behind of old prejudices and limits. Even when they had seen and heard the powerful signs he offered, his own family and neighbors drew back in disbelief, not just in Jesus but in themselves. They were small town, ordinary people. “What good can come from Nazareth” was a common attitude and saying about the hill country people from Galilee.

To bring us Good News, Jesus must first break through our doubts and fears about change, newness and challenge. Imagine if our first thought at waking was this: “Something wonderful is about to happen today!” Faith prompts us to be confident that God’s love is always present and active, waiting only for our “yes” for grace to flow into our lives right now.

Just Have Faith

Posted on 03 February 2015 by patmarrin

“Daughter, your faith has saved you” (Mark 5:34).

Mark’s account of the healing of both the woman and the girl is one of masterpieces of his Gospel, a story within a story that shows Jesus’ power over life and death.
The woman who fights her way to the front of the crowd to touch Jesus’ cloak is both seriously ill and religiously “unclean” according to Levitical law. Her determination and faith in Jesus wins a miracle Jesus himself is unaware of until he feels power flowing out of him. Her faith has saved her and freed her from her affliction.

The father of the little girl, desperate to bring Jesus to his house, must also sustain his faith despite the crowds, including the professional mourners who mock Jesus when he arrives too late to save the girl. Jesus tells the father not to be afraid, “just have faith.” The story ends with Jesus taking the child by the hand and summoning her back from the sleep of death. He then tells her parents to give her something to eat.

We encounter this story in much the same way as its original characters. The invitation to us is to have faith, not to be afraid to seek to touch Jesus, to bring him home into our hearts, to pour out our deepest prayers. He tells us that it is our faith that brings healing and life. Do we really believe it? Today is our chance to exercise that faith and find out.


Faith Lived is Faith Made Real

Posted on 02 February 2015 by patmarrin

"The child's father and mother were amazed at what was said about him" (Luke 2:22).

Our beliefs grow thin if they remain just ideas or words. Only when we exercise the promises we profess do they come alive.

I was privileged to witness the full continuum of my faith this past weekend when I attended both a funeral and a baptism.

Joe died a week ago, the day after celebrating his 83rd birthday on his deathbed, surrounded by friends and family, including three beloved grandchildren who sat on the bed near him. He had lived a life filled with the full range of joy and sorrow, blessing and loss, every stage and challenge met within a seamless trust that God was central and present in every human experience. Joe lived the Beatitudes and the Corporal Works of Mercy, alert to others, especially newly arrived immigrants and anyone in need.

Hazel arrived less than 8 weeks ago, and at her baptism she wore the same baptismal gown her mother and grandmother had worn as she was welcomed into the church surrounded by family, friends and, crowding in around the font to see, the children of the parish. To ordinary eyes, the ritual was simple -- water poured on her forehead, the spoken formula of incorporation into the mystery of Christ, anointing with oil, a candle lit from the tall Easter candle, her white garment. But to eyes of faith, a defining moment was happening.

Words and gestures become important symbols -- enormous meaning layered in and resonating back through time to the same rite performed thousands of years before and since. You are a child of God; we claim you for Christ; we promise to form you in values that will define your human journey for the next 83 years and beyond; your life is a mystery and your destiny is eternal.

So it was for Joseph and Mary, a poor couple from the hill country of Galilee, who brought their child to the Temple in Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. The aging Simeon and Anna were eager to hold the child, to bless and be blessed by the future and fulfillment of their own lifelong faith.

Every child renews the hope in us and in our communities that God keeps every promise and so has entrusted new life to us. Every beloved member of the community released into the silence of death is celebrated as a completed journey, a promise made at baptism now fulfilled.

We rejoice to see it, and our own faith is strengthened and made real.

He Teaches Us with Authority

Posted on 31 January 2015 by patmarrin

“The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22).

A doctor working in a mental hospital once observed how patients watching TV would react negatively when commercials came on. They seemed to know intuitively that the words were totally disconnected from the speaker and therefore not true. His theory was confirmed during a political speech when the patients went wild with scorn.

Perhaps you have had the experience of sitting through a homily in which the preacher uses all the right words and gestures but it seems clear that the words are only coming from books or seminary notes but lack conviction. The speaker may be eloquent, but he has never experienced what he is talking about and so his words ring false and lack authority.

When people listened to Jesus they were struck by the authoritative depth of his teaching. How unlike their own scribes, religious scholars of the Law who seemed never to have encountered the God they purported to represent. Jesus, on the other hand, knew both God and the realities of ordinary life. Jesus seldom sounds like a theologian, but tells stories about farming, the weather, nature, family relationships, domestic life and household concerns, money and construction, storing wine and sewing patches on worn clothing. And all of these stories connect ordinary experience to the presence of God.

Mark begins the public ministry of Jesus with a dramatic confrontation in the synagogue in Capernaum. The authority of Jesus meets and drives out another kind of authority that possesses and controls a man who reacts violently to Jesus and cries out, “I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” The holiness of God was superior to every kind of distortion and falsehood that had come to dominate people. As Jesus leaves the synagogue, many other manifestations of his authority come as physical healing, exorcism and liberation from this pervasive control. Jesus will declare in John’s Gospel: “The truth has set you free.”

We often do not even know how constricted and distorted our lives have become until freedom is offered. A painful intervention by a friend, a moment of insight, a conflict that reveals us to ourselves as in a mirror, and we emerge from the shadows into the light of truth. A change of heart, an invitation to set aside fear or anger to receive love, and we suddenly see reality differently. We are reunited with friends, family, supportive community, and we begin to live again, free of old habits that have blinded us to God’s goodness within us and all around us.

Jesus will be in the synagogue this weekend, at our parish Masses or small Christian communities, wherever people of faith gather to read the scriptures, break bread, speak honestly and offer forgiveness to each other. Profound healings can occur in such settings or even privately in our hearts if we are open. The Holy One of God is with us, and his holiness is more powerful than any other spirit that might hold us back or distort our perceptions and motives. This is the joy of the Gospel, and it is meant for you and for me.


God's Secret Garden

Posted on 30 January 2015 by patmarrin

“This is how it is with the Kingdom of God?” (Mark 4:26).

In Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus announces that a “kingdom” is at hand, it would have stirred much anticipation on the part of the crowds and real concern for King Herod and the Roman occupation. But for Mark, the kind of kingdom Jesus will bring is much different than a revolutionary force led by a popular messiah.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus uses parables to deflate but deepen the crowd’s expectations of the kingdom he is announcing. “It is like this,” he says, then tells two stories about farmers sowing seeds. Once sown, the seeds sink roots, sprout and grow naturally to produce their harvest. The human agent does little once the sowing is accomplished. Yet, even the smallest seeds can produce a plant whose benefits keep multiplying, like the tiny mustard seed that becomes a tree capable of giving shade and a home for the birds.

These images confirm that the “kingdom” Jesus is announcing is coming naturally yet powerfully, having a pervasive and ongoing effect in those who trust, wait patiently and cooperate with the God's plan.

As disciples, we can face one of two crises: Either we lose confidence and give up because God works so gradually, or we panic because we think it is all up to us. The Kingdom of God is seldom advanced by discouraged Christians or by frantic proselyizers. We must do our part as sowers, but then only God can weave grace into our ordinary efforts, attitudes and activities.

We often only see after the fact just how deep and widespread are the effects of a single, faithful disciple. It may only be at the death of such a person that the community realizes just how deeply rooted that person was in faith and how far the branches of his or her life reached beyond them into an expanding network of relationships now bearing fruit in abundance and sowing seeds far into the future.

We rejoice to be part of such a Kingdom, God’s secret garden. As both sowers and reapers, we are witnesses to the miracle of God’s plan unfolding naturally in the world through us.

Come to the Source

Posted on 29 January 2015 by patmarrin

“To one who has, more will be given" (Mark 4:25).

A person with one eye loses depth perception; a person deaf in one ear loses the ability to locate sounds acoustically. Our five senses combine to give us an amazing capacity to navigate the world around us.

But human beings possess an even greater capacity if they develop their inner senses. We gain insight, we can hear and interpret emotions in someone's voice, we enter and touch the realms of the heart with discernment, we refine our taste for quality and can even smell trouble before it happens.

Jesus teaches his disciples to go to this deeper level with parables of light and sound. They can measure quantity, but can they sense quality; they can see and hear things, but can they recognize the truth as it enters their hearts? Those schooled in using their inner senses double their perceptions and open themselves to the world of the spirit.

In our media saturated culture, people have more and more gadgets and ways to receive sensory information and to stimulate their minds and emotions. The question is whether this leads to spiritual insight or just anxiety and boredom, or even addiction to virtual sources that numb and distort perception, lessen our ability to appreciate the simple beauty of life, real people, real human relationships.

Discipleship invites us to fast from what in the end does not really satisfy us, to explore our soul's capacity to know what is truly important. If we remain on the surface, we will exhaust ourselves with sensation but miss life’s deeper mysteries. The attempt to fill ourselves leads to a feeling of emptiness and disconnect.

Jesus teaches every disciple to see and hear, to open his or her heart to the power of silence, which is the vestibule to the divine presence. In that holy place we will be filled with true delight, harmony and joy, friendship with God.

Come to the Source and be satisfied.

Generous Sowers, Bountiful Harvests

Posted on 28 January 2015 by patmarrin

Hear this! A sower went out to sow” (Mark 4:1).

By any measure, one of the great Catholic “sowers” of God’s word was St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). This 13th century Dominican friar organized and presented Catholic doctrine in a transparent framework based on the methodical and systematic exposition of knowledge perfected by Aristotle for the sciences. His brilliant insights are evident in Catholic teaching today. A great sower produced a great harvest for teachers and preachers for centuries to come.

Aquinas is often regarded as a philosopher, but his deepest contributions were as theologian and scripture scholar. At the time when reason and revelation, authority and inspiration were often blurred as sources of knowledge, Aquinas distinguished them but also insisted that because there is only one reality there can be only one truth. His approach to that truth was summarized in the phrase: “Faith seeking understanding.”

Each of us is invited to seek a deeper understanding of the world we live in so we can contribute something to the beauty and order of the cosmos. We use reason to take us to the threshold of truths accessible through art and prayer. The goal is a wholistic view of creation open to the presence of the Creator, and the hope that comes from discerning God’s plan for us revealed in the Incarnation—God among us in the person of Jesus Christ.

We thank God for the gift of our minds and our imaginations, our emotional grasp of truths that hide from logic but reveal themselves within relationships and in our experience of love.

Family Resemblance

Posted on 27 January 2015 by patmarrin

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” (Mark 3:33).

If anyone needed to be convinced that families define us, a typical parish photo directory will make clear just how much our genes, diet, clothing and culture identify us with our parents and siblings. Less evident but revealing in many pictures are clues to why couples chose one another, the potential effects of birth order, parenting styles and economic status. That strong individuals emerge from family influences is a miracle of nature and nurture, opportunity and motivation.

In the ancient world, the idea that you were an individual apart from your tribe or family would have been far more unusual than it is today. For Jesus to put blood ties behind the shared vision and purpose of his mission is all the more striking. His mother and brothers come from Nazareth to see him. In Mark 3:20, just a few verses before today’s Gospel passage, we are told that “his relatives” had heard about his confrontations with the scribes and thought “he was out of his mind.” In Mark 6:1-4, Jesus will be rejected in his hometown by family and neighbors who were actually offended by his miracles and eloquence, as though this hometown carpenter was putting on airs.

Jesus measures the basis for relating to him by the willingness of his followers to put God’s will before all else. Whoever does this is “my brother and sister and mother.” The journey to independence from all other formative influences is a long and challenging road for most of us. Our need for family approval is deep. Our fear of societal rejection encourages us to conform to standards so pervasive they become invisible. Look at your high school year book photo if you don’t believe hairstyle dress code norms influenced you then.

The call to make God’s will the center of our identity comes to each one of us throughout our lives. Our response is a work in progress, but each step forward sets us free to be our true selves. Today is not too late, or soon enough, to say, “Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will” (Ps 40).

What's the Buzz?

Posted on 26 January 2015 by patmarrin

“The scribes who had come from Jerusalem said of Jesus, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul’ ” (Mark 3:22).

With sinister yet faulty logic, Jesus' critics accuse him of driving out Satan by the power of Satan. This ancient foe of God allowed to roam the world putting people to the test is identified with the name “Beelzebul,” which translates as “lord of the house,” or “lord of the flies,” which captures the onomatopoetic “buzzing” sound of the name. Composer Peter Gabriel conveyed this sense of pervasive swarming infiltration in the music he wrote for the 1989 film “The Last Temptation of Christ.” We might think of the persistent howling of the wind that was said to drive sodbuster families crazy on the American prairie.

Mark’s Jesus confronts the notion that that evil possesses the house of human existence, penetrating the unconscious lives of people to create a controlling evil that is especially evident in the man in the synagogue thought to be possessed by demons. Jesus demonstrates that the Kingdom of God has come and that he is now Lord of the House, binding up the strong man who once ruled human affairs through intimidation and temptation.

We struggle today with the evident forces of evil in our world. The young girl in the Philippines who wept when she asked Pope Francis why such terrible things had happened to good people and to innocent children was voicing a universal question about the power of God and religious faith. The pope spoke honestly of the mystery of evil we do not fully understand but can confront with deep prayer and the compassion that elicits real tears. Evil is multiplied in war, abetted by fear and selfishness, and in the predatory and profit-seeking actions of our global economy. It is spawned by the conditions of corruption in our divided cities, fueled by drug use and easy access to weapons. How can we counter such forces and the swath or tragedy they cut across the human family every day?

The Word of God comes to us today with the invitation to deepen our faith, open our hearts to tears of compassion, and to the will to do what we can in our small spheres of influence within family, school, work and community to respond with courage. The "Lord of the House" is with us, ready to bind up the forces of evil through our actions and prayers. Evil is a mystery, but its collective spell can be broken by the even more powerful spirit of unselfish love. Jesus calls us to confront and push back evil wherever we find it with confidence that his grace is always sufficient.

The Call Is For You

Posted on 24 January 2015 by patmarrin

“Jesus called them, and they left their father in the boat with the hired men and followed him” (Mark 1:20).

Mark provides enough detail in today’s Gospel to tell us how serious a decision Simon and his brother Andrew, and James and his brother John, made in answering Jesus’ call to discipleship.

First, they are already out on the water in the boat, so to respond to Jesus, they will need to leave the boat and swim ashore. This "baptismal" theme will be repeated in John 21 when Peter again jumps into the water to come to Jesus on the shore.

Second, these fishing boats were family businesses. When James and John leave their father they give up their inheritance of a business large enough to employ them and additional hired men. They are walking away from the most important loyalty there was in the ancient world -- father and family -- and, in doing so, financial security for themselves and their own children.

The call requires a leap of faith in the unknown, total commitment to an upstart preacher whose only credentials are that he is a carpenter from the small village of Nazareth in the hill country of Galilee. What kind of impression must Jesus have made on these simple fishermen to move them to take such a dramatic step in their lives?

One artful attempt to capture their motivation is found in the lyrics of a song American songwriter Harry Chapin wrote for the stage presentation of “Cotton Patch Gospels.” The disciples sing: Everybody wants to touch their dream just one time. I know I’ll never ever get this close again. Everybody wants to feel that feeling one time. That’s why I don’t want this day to come to an end.

Out of the random and routine events of our lives comes a distinctive call to go beyond the script, to risk everything to say yes to an adventure that will define the rest of our lives in larger terms than we could have ever imagined for ourselves. We are free to hesitate, even say no, but we will settle for the safe and more predictable course already laid out for us by family, culture and country.

Simon and Andrew and, later, James and John, must have seen something in Jesus that moved them to abandon their world of boats and fishing nets to follow him.

The first decision any of us will make is to be open to that same mystery, and so sensitive to our dreams that we will hear God’s call when it comes to each of us in our own unique circumstances: “Come follow me.” Let me be the focus of your life, the prize you keep your eyes on each step of the way. When the call comes, say yes. You may never ever get this close again.