Lent and Easter Reflections

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

Love Over Law

“The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28).

Mark’s reference to the story of David and Abiathar and the bread of the covenant (from 1 Sam 22) to support Jesus’ authority to allow his disciples to eat grain they pick in the fields on the Sabbath adds rich perspective to this Gospel passage.

We recall that for Jews the primary source of authority came from Moses and the Law. But King David was another source that Jesus’ critics could not ignore.  In using the story, Jesus reminds them that though the ceremonial bread used in the temple was restricted to the priests, David and his men were hungry, like his own disciples. Human need overrides ritual protocol. The Sabbath serves people, not the other way around.

But there is more to the story. At the time David encounters the temple priest Abiathar, he is fleeing King Saul, who is jealous of David’s popularity and is trying to kill him. So David is in fact a fugitive from the king, and a rebel to his authority. He is outside the Law, but he is superior to the Law because God’s favor has already passed from Saul to David, who has already been anointed king to succeed Saul by the high priest, Samuel.

Mark applies this succession to Jesus, whose authority is greater than that of the Law. He is the new Moses, and his teaching proclaims a new covenant. He is the promised descendant of David, the Messiah.  The bread of the temple, or the manna Moses called down from heaven, is being replaced by the Bread of Life, revealed as Jesus’s own gift of himself to his disciples.

The Gospel gives us a new freedom by revealing something greater than rules and rituals. It is the law of Love, which is often much more difficult than a written code. Love requires engagement and discernment. When confronted by human need, love asks us to respond, even to “break” the rules. Compassion asks us to act first, and then sort out the details or ambiguities.  We may not be following Moses, but perhaps we are following David, the charismatic figure whose passionate approach to life and to the graces poured out on him  reminds us of Jesus.

Jesus fulfilled the entire Law by keeping the Law of Love, and we are called to do the same.

 

Faithful Stewards

“The word of God is living and effective” (Heb 4:12, Gospel antiphon)..  

The disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees were upset with Jesus for not telling his disciples to observe the custom of fasting each week. Jesus was not against fasting, had fasted himself in the desert and as part of the liturgical life of the community on the Day of Atonement and other penitential feasts.

What we sense in their criticism of Jesus was that they were unhappy with his easy manner and joyful message to sinners. He was relaxing the structures and rituals of the law and of religious practice that his critics relied on to distinguish themselves from ordinary people. They had special status because of their public piety and discipline,

What Jesus was challenging was the inability of these religious groups to grasp that God had done something new and wonderful. The Good News was an outpouring of unconditional love on everyone, even sinners. It was a time of joy to be celebrated. Jesus himself was the sign of this newness. He uses the image of a wedding feast. People were dispensed from the need to fast during a wedding.  Jesus was like a bridegroom, and his disciples were dispensed from fasting because he was with them.  

The time would come when his disciples would fast. The church would show its wisdom in developing both a strong tradition and an openness to change.  We need to both preserve what is of value and to be ready to adapt to what is new.

Jesus shows his familiarity with ordinary household practices of storing wine and mending clothing. His homey examples of the need to adapt hit home with us 2,000 years later.  Don’t put new, or fermenting, wine into an old container that has lost its ability to expand. The new wine will explode the old skins.  Do not use a piece of unshrunken cloth to patch an old garment. When you wash the garment, the patch will shrink, pulling away from the older cloth, ruining the garment. 

The examples work both ways. If something new is happening in your life, don’t force it into old expectations or patterns that will resist it. Be open. And if you have traditions that need to be preserved, don’t add totally new practices that are incompatible or untested, lest the fabric of your life be disrupted. 

The steward of the household is wise to distinguish what is needed and when, both old and new.

Come and See

“They went and saw where Jesus was staying, and they stayed with him that day” (John 1:41).

The prologue of the fourth Gospel presents Jesus as light.  Light is what enables us to see, and this theme of seeing, not just physically but with eyes of faith, runs throughout the Gospel. The author uses the word “see” in both senses, and conveys in this and in a number of other ways that there is a depth to the process of coming to know Jesus.

The first disciples are drawn to Jesus, and when they follow him, he turns and asks them what they are looking for. They reply, “Where do you live?” or “Where are you staying?” The question implies not just a physical location but the sense of Jesus’ whole identity and the source of his teaching. They are asking him, “Who are you?”

Jesus replies, “Come and see.”  By following him, the disciples are asking not just to see where he lives but to be inculcated with his understanding. They call him “teacher” and what they are looking for is to be formed by him.

Finally, the Gospel tells us that they “stayed” with him the rest of that day.  Again, this is about more than time and place. They have found what they were looking for, and they decide to commit to Jesus as disciples. From that point on, they will “remain” with Jesus, even in times of challenge and difficulty.

The actual time, “about four in the afternoon,” is given, implying that they probably shared a meal with Jesus. A meal will be the setting for being taught, and this is another rich theme that will continue through the Gospel.  

This passage about becoming a disciple at the beginning of the fourth Gospel was meant to call other disciples long after the original events took place. So it is with us. A light has come into the world. It enters our hearts and enables us to see that Jesus is the one we are looking for. So we begin to seek him, in prayer, in our reading of scripture, in our desire within a faith community to share the formation evident in others.

Jesus responds to our seeking. He draws us to himself by turning and looking at us, asking us to explain what we want. We want to be with him. We want him to teach and form us. He invites us to come and see, more and more deeply as we develop our relationship with him. We will share meals with him. The Eucharist, where the Word and the Bread are broken open to nourish us, will transform us. We will become what we hear and consume.  If we stay with him, we will complete the journey of discipleship we have begun. This is the Christian life.

This passage of scripture, like so many of the stories and sayings we will hear and reflect on in our reading and in the liturgy, is a Gospel in miniature. Everything is here, everything we need to know as a disciple, to deepen our understanding and commitment.

The gift of faith is a light kindled in us that opens our eyes and the eyes of our minds and hearts to the secret of life. Like the first disciples, we begin because something prompts us. We may barely understand what this grace is, like the first invitation to love someone that draws us into a relationship. We may barely understand why we feel attracted to that person, but if we say yes, everything begins to unfold in a new way.

We make every journey one step at a time. Today’s Gospel is an invitation to take the first step or to remain in a relationship that has already defined and formed us. In either case, there is always more ahead.  Jesus turns and looks at us and says, “Come and see.”  

Four Friends

"When Jesus saw their faith, he said to him, 'Child, your sins are forgiven' " (Mark 2:8).

The Gospel stories are like rich gems, and if we hold them up to the light, we see how many facets they have. 

In today's Gospel story of the healing of the paralyzed man, we realize that he would never have gotten to Jesus without the help of four friends. When it seemed impossible that would he reach Jesus through the crowds, these friends carried him to the house, hoisted him up onto the roof, removed the tiles and lowered him into the room in front of Jesus. Jesus sees "their" faith, and this sets in motion the miracle. 

Writer Melissa Nussbaum once remarked that something important was lost when the bishops changed the wording of the Creed from "We believe" to "I believe." There are times when it is hard for us to believe individually. I am in crisis or a time of doubt. I have to be carried by the community. How reassuring it is that this is what community can do for us in our weakness. All of us need to be carried some times.  When "I" am struggling to believe, the "we" of the community embraces and carries me. 

How blessed we are if there are four friends, or family, or even one friend, who will support us in a time of paralysis. This may be all it takes to keep us on track, focused on God's love while we work through some issue that has knocked us down, made us lose faith. 

This is the joy of the Gospel. 

 

Deep Listening

"I will do it. Be made clean" (Mark 1:42).

The story of Jesus healing the leper, like so many Gospel stories, is so familiar to us that we read it quickly but without really pondering it's simple power. One way to appreciate how much the evangelists put into the text is to read it slowly with attention to every word.

If we consider just the verbs, the leper does several actions: He came to Jesus, knelt down, begged him, then said, "if you wish. you can make me clean." The leper initiates the encounter by coming to Jesus, seeking him out even though, as a leper, he would have to break the taboo imposed on lepers to stay away. He believes that something would happen, so his faith is the basis for this miracle. He kneels before Jesus, an act of submission, again a sign of trust. He begs, an emotional sign of his desperation. Finally he carefully words his request:"If you wish," he says, "you can make me clean."  Jesus has the power, but will he use it? Many people said lepers were being punished by God for some sin. The leper trusted that Jesus did not share that view of God. 

Jesus' response also comes with four verbs. First, he is moved with pity, The Greek word implies a gut-wrenching compassion. Jesus feels the leper's pain and isolation, and it is from this well-spring of pity that his action flows. Jesus stretches out his hand. He reaches across the gulf  people put between themselves and the suffering of others, because they fear contamination, or fear getting too involved, too emotionally engaged in the pain of another. Jesus touches the leper, becoming ritually unclean, an outsider like the leper. He could have healed with a word, but he touches instead. Finally, Jesus speaks directly to the leper's prayer. Yes, he does wish to make him clean. Yes, he will do it. "Be made clean."  

By slowing down Mark's account of the healing, we see and feel the rich, nuanced, almost choreographed approach from both sides, ending in an embrace of hurt and compassion, brokenness and wholeness. Jesus reveals what God is really like, face to face, heart, hand and voice.

Our encounters with God can and should be he same. Prayer begins the dance between our needs and God's love. If we enter the dance and go with the flow, we come to know God in a new and intimate way, exactly what Jesus wishes for us. 

Formed by the Word

“Speak, Lord, your servant is listening” (1 Sam 3:10).

The beautiful story about the call of the boy Samuel in the night is a model for our search for intimacy with God. We are told that at first Samuel was not familiar with the Lord, because the Lord had not yet revealed anything to him. We can dispose ourselves to God’s presence, but God must initiate and reveal the divine Self. Patience is part of prayer, and we must trust that God will encounter us when the moment is right. The Psalms, the great prayer book of the Bible, teach us to wait for the Lord.

Samuel is awakened three times by God’s call before he realizes what it means. Our own awakenings may take time or be partial, until we learn to recognize and respond to God’s prompts. Samuel grows in his awareness as he matures naturally. It is the same with us.   

God’s Word is always effective. When God speaks, things happen. Even if our progress is gradual or in stages, the Word is always forming us in just the right way and at the right time. Our approach to God is part of the actual encounter. We have to learn how to love another, and the whole relationship is the gift, not just certain peak experiences.       

God spoke to Samuel so that Samuel could be God’s spokesperson to the people. If we learn to listen to God, our own words will continually express what God is saying to us. Prayerful people make good evangelists. Everything they say and do is a revelation of God’s presence.

Authority

"The people were astonished with his teaching, for he taught with authority and not as the scribes" (Mark 1:22).

May years ago I was invited to offer a retreat. I was young and filled with ideas and enjoyed sharing them. After one of the talks, a woman thanked me, but also offered this insight. She said there was a difference in tone and confidence in my voice when I shared from my own experience and when I was offering an idea I had gotten from a book.  

I think about this comment when reading today's Gospel, in which the people knew that Jesus was speaking with authority, unlike their scribes, who were only offering second-hand ideas from their reading of the Law. Jesus was obviously in touch with the source of truth, and so his teaching was fresh and convincing. 

We read today about the remarkable birth of the Prophet Samuel. It was clear from the beginning, even before his conception, that God was blessing the life and service of Samuel. God called him as a child, and this intimacy was evident every time he spoke. His word had authority. 

Jesus, as God's own Word, always spoke authentically. Even when he read from  the scriptures, his personal authority brought the words to life. They came true as he uttered them. People could feel the truth in his voice, and familiar passages took on new meaning, as though spoken for the first time. 

We begin reading Mark's Gospel this week, and it emphasizes that Jesus had authority over the whole spirit world. Unclean spirits and demons were some of the first to recognize that Jesus was stronger than the spells they had cast over people in order to possess them. Even Satan, the prince of demons, fled before the authority of Jesus. 

To be formed by the Word of God is to live in the authority of truth. If we listen deeply, cultivate an intimate attentiveness to the voice of Jesus, no illusion or lie can insinuate itself into our spirit or delude us with false promises. Let us be disciples, knowing that if we are, we cannot be misled. 

Baptized into Christ

"Whoever is begotten by God conquers the world" (1 John 5:6).

Our small midtown parish was blessed with a double baptism this past Sunday, welcoming two young brothers into the network of relationships that is the heart of the sacrament. United with Christ, we are united with each other and destined for eternal life in the Trinity. 

Our experience made up for this year's calendar moving the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord to Monday. The importance and scriptural density of this feast is profound and worth pondering.

The scene at the Jordan River reprises the key moments in salvation history. At Creation, the spirit hovers over the waters, imparting the image and likeness of God on the world. The ark carries the seeds of the renewal of life on earth through the great flood and a dove signals that restoration. Exodus through the Red Sea liberates God's people from slavery. When God speaks through the prophets, the sky opens. 

All of these moments are fulfilled in Jesus. He is the new Adam, the Beloved Son, the Ark of our salvation, the new Moses, the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. What Jesus will accomplish by his life, death and resurrection will be poured out on all of us. United with him, we are now God's beloved children. 

Baptism is our point of entry into the mystery of Christ. Everything else follows upon this incorporation into the body of the risen Jesus. Our life trajectory and identity are defined by our dying with him in order to rise with him. Baptismal maturity is nourished by participating in the Eucharist, the same dynamic repeated within the community that empowers us for our mission to be Christ in the world. 

The purpose of the sacraments and the liturgy is to expose us to this mystery of who we are. Our participation in the sacraments and the liturgy lets us experience this new identity gradually, in an unfolding revelation, deeper and deeper, until we make it our innermost life. Sharing the mystery of Christ is the reason we exist, to know God and to share in the divine life.  Baptism is the first step in our journey to God. 

 

Epiphany

"The star they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was" (Matt 2:9).

Winter light has a special clarity. The angle of the southern sun enters the house unfiltered by the cold air and spreads along wood floors and walls. From the cat napping in its warmth to the homeowner pausing to absorb its beauty, it is easy to understand why light itself holds so much significance for life. 

The scriptures use the image of light to describe God's presence. Ancient philosophers devised theories of emanating light to convey the levels of being in creation. Thomas Aquinas wrote that the intelligibility of all created things was visible to the human mind as a direct  encounter with the Creator, the source of all reality. The Nicene Creed proclaims that Jesus, the Son of God" is "Light from Light," and in the Gospel of John, the Word of God appears in our darkened world as Light.  Jesus is the "light of the world." 

The beautiful story of the magi coming from the East, the land of the rising sun, to find the promised Christ, celebrates the mystery and meaning of light in our lives. Scientists say that the human eye has evolved to apprehend the visible portion of the light spectrum, including its array of colors. Analogically, the human mind grasps the meaning of things with insight. Faith is a particular kind of insight that enables us to know the Creator through creation, to respond to the revelation about God's activity and purpose in our lives.

The magi, also known as "wise," traveled afar from Gentile lands to Israel, because their study of the heavens convinced them that the bright star in the sky portended the birth of a special child. Ironically and tragically, King Herod in Jerusalem was blind to the wonder contained in the prophecies and saw only a threat to his power. The magi recognized that the Christ promised to the Jews was a universal gift, meant to bless the entire human family with God's glory. 

The Solemnity of the Epiphany invites us to pray for sight, both physical sight so we can see clearly the beauty of life around us, and also spiritual sight so we will grasp the meaning of God's presence in all things. Light prompts us to respond to the all-encompassing love of God, present even when our lives pass through shadow or encounter darkness. Faith provides its own inner light, especially in difficult times, drawing us forward one step at a time through crisis and loss.  

Lord, we pray to see your face, know the warmth of your loving gaze, obey the light of your wisdom within our minds and hearts. Your light will never fail us.  

 

How Do You Know Me?

"You will see the sky opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man" (John 1:51).

The first Chapter of the Gospel of John focuses on the call of the disciples. Jesus is the Master they are searching for. Andrew brings Peter, and Philip brings Nathaniel. The first disciples are being assembled around Jesus.

What was it about Jesus that convinced each of them that he was the Christ?

I remember way back in high school that the students had lockers with separate combinations, but there was also a key called the "master" that could open every lock. This image of a Master Key describes Jesus, the pioneer and exemplar of the New Creation. By embracing our nature, Jesus held the key to our transformation. As both divine and human, Jesus revealed the path to liberation from sin and death. He was the Master the disciples were looking for, and when they met him, they encountered  the "Son of Man," the perfect human being. 

The encounter between Jesus and Nathaniel exemplifies this. Nathaniel is first skeptical when Philip tells him Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah. "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" he asks.  But when he meets Jesus, he realizes that this man already knows him, and in fact has seen him in an intimate time of prayer under a fig tree. Jesus knows that Nathaniel has been meditating on the story of Jacob's dream of angels ascending and descending over the place where he slept. The story was the first glimpse in the Bible of God's intentions to bring heaven to earth -- to join divinity and humanity.

When Nathaniel encounters Jesus, he realizes that Jesus is that very connection. Heaven has come to earth in this "Son of Man," the new Adam, the Christ. His humanity is the master key to our desire for holiness and perfection. To follow him is to be transformed by the Incarnation. Jesus is the way home, the redemption of our fallen nature as the first step toward our divine destiny. 

John's Gospel wants us to know this from the beginning. We are being invited to share in the life of God. This is why Jesus came, to call us to become who we really are before God.  We are redeemed by the Incarnation, the mystery we celebrate at Christmas.  

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