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Stay in Touch with God

Posted on 13 February 2015 by patmarrin

“He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak” (Mark 7:37).

Jesus continues his journey to the edges of Israel, and in today’s Gospel he is in the district of the Decapolis (10 cities). His reputation has gone before him, and people bring him a deaf mute, begging Jesus to “lay his hand on him.” Touch is significant, as we have seen in earlier miracle stories where people surge around Jesus in hopes of touching him or even the edge of his cloak.

The healing reminds us of the creation stories in Genesis. God creates the universe by verbal command, but when the moment comes to create human beings, God forms clay into Adam (earth) and breathes life into him. It is an intimate, personal act, and the creature possesses the “image and likeness” of the Creator. Adam is a son of God.

Jesus encounters the deaf mute in much the same way, putting his finger in the man’s ear, touching his tongue with his own spittle. Jesus looks up to heaven and sighs, emitting a deep exhalation of breath as he says, “Epbphatha” (“Be opened!”). Only the raising of Lazarus equals the effort and care this astonishing miracle evokes from Jesus.

Mark’s intent is to show Jesus as recreating the world. Wherever he goes, by word and touch he restores creation to its original state, before sin and death distorted everything. God walks within his own creation in Jesus, and his physical presence reveals what the “new creation" looks like. Grace is unblocked and flows into everything and everyone.

It is an unfinished work, and as Mark’s Gospel continues, we see that Jesus is not only transforming the world, he is also absorbing the damage of sin and death into himself, so that when he dies on the cross he will take evil with him. His final breath from the cross will open ("epbphatha") the world to God’s love once again.

The church, his body in the world, has this same power to touch, heal and open. We, as members of that body, are sent each day to the edges of the world to announce the Good News by touching the lives of everyone we meet.

Time to Stretch

Posted on 12 February 2015 by patmarrin

“Jesus entered a house and wanted no one to know about it, but he could not escape notice” (Mark 7:24).

In today’s first reading from Genesis we hear the story of how Eve came to be as the perfect partner for Adam in the garden. The Bible presents male and female united in love as the image and likeness of God. Original sin strikes at this intimacy and profoundly complicates the relationships between men and women. Redemption must address this fundamental estrangement to restore the balance within creation.

Mark’s story of the encounter between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman is loaded with possible interpretations, but seems to show Jesus "meeting his match." It is one of many instances in the four Gospels where women enter his life and appear to expand his perspective. Jesus’ mother initiates his ministry at Cana by prompting his first miracle. A woman presciently anoints his feet in Bethany before his death. Women remain with him at his crucifixion and are the first witnesses to the resurrection. Women's faith in Jesus guides and supports his mission from beginning to end.

Within the deep scriptural patterns of fulfillment, the evangelists seem to show Jesus learning and growing in his encounters with women as necessary to his own human completeness and as essential to redeeming humankind as the “new Adam.”

The Syrophoenician woman stands up to Jesus for the sake of her sick daughter. She bests him a duel of wits that includes his provocative slur about gentiles as “dogs” and her appeal for them as hungry puppies under the children’s table. He cannot resist such determination and seems to know that the Spirit is at work beyond the borders of Israel, the larger theme for Mark of the universal scope of the Gospel.

Discipleship never stops expanding our understanding of the unconditional range of God’s mercy for everyone. If you feel stretched today by the challenge to love beyond familiar borders and attitudes, rejoice that the Spirit is calling you to grow.

Food, Glorious Food

Posted on 11 February 2015 by patmarrin

“Nothing that enters a person from outside, but the things that come out from within are what defile” (Mark 7:15).

Both scripture readings today are about food. Jesus emerges from his confrontation with the Pharisees over hand washing and dietary restrictions with a little parable about the difference between digestion and the intentions of the heart. In Genesis, God gives Adam a tour of the garden with its luscious trees, but warns him to stay away from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. What we eat is less important than what we think about.

Food, like air and water, is at the center of all life. People in Jesus’ time spent much of their day gathering and preparing food. Religion had a lot to say about eating. We live in a food-obsessed culture. Most of the developed world has surpassed the issue of food security and concentrates on food quality, dining as recreation and on weight control. Wealth is the power to eat.

Again, Jesus focuses not on physical consumption but on human motivation. What we eat might make us sick but it does not defile us spiritually or morally. It is what comes from our inner thoughts and desires that defines us. Avarice or lust can consume a person, dominate their perceptions, control their relationships and overwhelm their thoughts. A virtuous person sees the world and other people not as objects but as subjects worthy of respect.

The Creation story sets the stage for the entry of sin into the world. God has provided every imaginable resource to Adam, surrounding him with beauty and security in a garden. But Adam is not yet fully human, capable of choice and responsibility. He must be tested. Eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil gives him consciousness and freedom to say yes or no to God’s plan. Human beings will first say no, and the story of salvation is set in motion – God sending a second Adam to free us from our own poor choices to recover purity of heart. Jesus models human maturity and true freedom.

It is often said that we are what we eat. This is true physically, but even more important, we are what we think about and imagine. If this is true, who are we?


Did You Wash Your Hands?

Posted on 10 February 2015 by patmarrin

“You disregard God’s commandments but cling to human tradition” (Mark 7:9).

Today’s Gospel story about hand washing might have been in the newspaper. The recent measles outbreak attributed to parents deciding not to have their children vaccinated has fueled other news stories about some public officials questioning whether Big Government can require anything, like mandating that restaurant workers wash their hands.

In Jesus' pre-scientific world, many of the ritual purity laws and food restrictions were based on health concerns about contagion. Not eating pork was one of them. But the Pharisees and scribers had elevated these basic rules to a ritual show of perfection. They promoted literal observance of all purification rites, while observing that Jesus’ disciples -- an uncouth crowd by their standards — did not.

The argument for Jesus was not about the validity of the rules but about priorities. The scribes and Pharisees apparently kept their rituals but ignored the big commandments, like honoring your parents. A central theme of many of these confrontations was Jesus’ insistence that the whole law could be reduced to love. If you loved God and your neighbor, everything would take care of itself. Enforcing human traditions but ignoring God’s laws was the issue.

The challenge for us is that the commandment to love requires creative discernment to adapt it to all kinds of circumstances. Parents know this, effective pastors and confessors face it every day. Most people live by trial and error, doing the best they can, asking for understanding and forgiveness along the way. It would be so nice to be perfect, but real life seldom affords such moments. Strict rule keepers may feel safe by avoiding ambiguity and risk, but they are often judgmental and not much fun to be around.

We are disciples of Jesus. He wants us to live in the real world, observing and responding to one another, using common sense and doing our best. Does love mean washing your hands and being concerned about public health? Probably, but it is also broader and more challenging than any one rule.

Pursuing Jesus

Posted on 09 February 2015 by patmarrin

"People immediately recognized him. They scurried about the surrounding countryside and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was" (Mark 6:54).

As you look at today’s scriptures, treat yourself to a short video of Pope Francis visiting one of the refugee camps in Rome. Scroll down to the item that begins with these words in Italian: Una visita inaspettata: Papa Francesco al campo nomadi Arcobaleno di Ponte Mammolo a Roma (Translation: A rare visit: Pope Francis to refugee camp Rainbow Bridge Mammolo in Rome). Here is the link:

A similar scene occurs in today’s Gospel when Jesus arrives on the other side of the lake and is besieged by people trying to touch him and to get healing for themselves and their sick friends and family members. Power is flowing through Jesus, and anyone who so much as touches his cloak is healed.

While no one expects miracles from Pope Francis, it is clear that wherever he goes people are eager to touch him, have their children touched and kissed by him. For both Jesus and Francis, this magnetism can actually limit their ability to move freely, accomplish other goals.

The pope is more than a celebrity, and only a limited number of people will experience his physical presence. Jesus actually begins to avoid the crowds because his mission is to preach the Kingdom, not dispense miracles that serve only as signs of the deeper miracle he is offering, which is access to God and conversion of heart. It would be so easy to be swamped by requests for healing, but he knows that his brief time must be focused on fulfilling his mission from God.

The Gospels invite us to ask ourselves what we really want from God. A miracle might change some aspect of our life today, but will it set us on a lifelong course to serve others, sacrifice ourselves for the community, surrender our wills to the Will of God in new and demanding ways? To reach out and touch Jesus is to be touched in return by One who is one his way to Jerusalem and to the cross. Are we ready to follow him all the way?

Darkness Before Dawn

Posted on 07 February 2015 by patmarrin

"Rising very early before dawn, he left and went to a deserted place, where he prayed" (Mark 1:36).

Have you ever had news so good you could not keep it to yourself? In today’s second reading from his Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul describes his urgent need to preach the Gospel. “Woe to me if I do not preach it!” He is like the prophet Jeremiah, who said that God’s word was like a fire in his bones.

It is evident that each of the evangelists felt this same burning desire to share the story of Jesus. This is why each Gospel account possesses a density of meaning and connections under what may seem like a simple narrative. Today’s Gospel from Mark is a good example.

Mark is barely 26 verses into his Gospel, and already we have been told that Jesus is the Son of God, that has been baptized by John, tempted by the devil, chosen his disciples, performed an exorcism in the synagogue in Capernaum on the Sabbath, and that he is now launching his mission to heal and preach.

But there is so much else loaded into these verses. Mark’s title for Jesus, “Son of God” is a challenge to the Roman emperor; Jesus has broken the hold of Satan over the world; he has confronted the religious leaders who claim to control access to God; and he is welcoming the poor to freely enter God’s kingdom.

Even more significant is Mark’s simple description of time and place. After a full day of healing the sick, Jesus slips out before dawn and goes into a deserted place to pray. Two dimensions are evoked in this description.

Just as Jesus went into the desert after his baptism, he is now facing the temptation to fulfill his mission by working miracles. Power is flowing through him and everyone is flocking to him. But he knows that his primary work is to proclaim the kingdom, not perform miracles. He is out in the wilderness in prayer to confirm this. He also knows that his messianic mission entails great suffering and apparent failure. He will encounter increasing hostility from Rome, Herod, the Temple establishment and that even his own disciples will fail to grasp that he is God’s suffering servant, not a popular savior.

The predawn hours also hint at the end of the story, when after his death by crucifixion, everything will hang in the balance before the sun rises on Easter morning. God will not abandon him to the darkness of sin and death but will raise him up in glory.

Mark knows the end of the story, but he must walk his readers to glory through rejection and suffering. His design as an evangelist, like that of a skilled novelist, is to spread clues in the text to help readers understand the full meaning of his Gospel.

Our own lives are stories filled with light and darkness, success and failure. Faith is about accepting that God will save us not by allowing us to escape suffering, but by accompanying us through it. Everything is important, even necessary, in our path to glory through the cross. This is the Good News.

The Cost of Discipleship

Posted on 06 February 2015 by patmarrin

”Ask me whatever you wish and I will grant it to you” (Mark 6:22).

It is hard to read today’s Gospel account of the brutal death of John the Baptist without thinking of the conflicts raging in the Middle East, including the violence of the ISIS insurgency and the Western response.

At the time of Jesus, beheading was as common as crucifixion (or infanticide, assassination, and torture during interrogation). The story of John’s decapitation is remembered in the context of a banquet at which a vindictive queen directs her daughter to ply a drunken Herod for the head of the prophet in the presence of his court, generals and guests. The girl receives the severed head on a platter and gives it to her mother.

It is a horrific scene, perhaps lost to us for its familiarity as just another Bible story, but it provides a window into a time, not unlike our own, when power and pride brook no criticism and can strike back with impunity. Jesus was crucified by the Romans, a form of capital punishment reserved for traitors and rebels, publicly tortured to death as a deterrent.

We also observe today the martyrdoms of St. Paul Mike and 25 companions crucified in Japan in the 16th century. This feast of multiple martyrs takes on special significance in the light of the announcement that Archbishop Oscar Romero, murdered at the altar in El Salvador in 1980, will be declared a saint soon. His beatification opens the door to church recognition that he did not die alone but among thousands of others killed by death squads during the vicious civil war in that tiny Central American country (1980-1992). Romero’s canonization will be celebrated by the church, but it also cannot be seen as anything but an indictment of U.S. foreign policy in the region, which funded the war in the name of fighting communism.

Herod’s words to his scheming stepdaughter mimic the language of prayer: “Ask me whatever you wish and I will grant it to you.” Evil makes its own promises and lavishes rewards on those who are seduced by it. God raises up saints and martyrs who are not afraid to bring truth to power.

There are many of these figures standing lonely vigil on the front lines of justice today. Someday we will recognize and celebrate their courage. This is the joy of the Gospel and the cost of discipleship.

We are Sent

Posted on 05 February 2015 by patmarrin

"Jesus sent them out two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits" (Mark 6:7).

Every job situation moves from training to deployment. The supervisor says, "Now you do it." A newly minted nurse draws a blood sample or places an intravenous line. A clerk steps to the counter to greet a customer, a young reporter sets up an interview by phone. It's up to them to get the job done right.

The sending out of the disciples marks a crucial moment in Mark's Gospel. Jesus entrusts his mission to them and also assures them that they now have the same authority he has to preach, heal and drive out contrary spirits. They represent him as he represents God, engaging a sometimes reluctant or even hostile world. Some will welcome the disciples, others will turn them out and slam the door.

Two details are important. Jesus sends them forth without resources. They will eat and find shelter from the people they are being sent to, or not at all. Ministry is a mutual encounter. Their dependence will elicit the first response of openness on the part of others that also opens them to God's power. Jesus also sends them two by two. They come as community, encouraging one another and modeling a companionship that is essential to the mission. God saves us not as individuals but together. Opening our hearts to one another is the first step in coming closer to God.

We are today’s disciples. Do we know this, feel confident? Are we willing to let others see us not as benefactors but vulnerable and in need ourselves (for this is the secret of real ministry)? Will we witness at all or remain silent?

Let the adventure begin. Pick a partner and hit the road. Expect good results but be prepared for rejection and apparent failure. God goes with us into our small worlds today. Grace will flow through us to others. This is the joy of the Gospel.

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.