Church

“A prophet is not without honor except in his native place” (Mark 6: 5).

The martyrdom of 26 Catholic missionaries in Japan is part of a complex story of East meeting West in a shrinking globe. Paul Miki and his companions were crucified and impaled in Nagasaki on Feb 6, 1597, by Japanese officials who feared that missionary activity would be followed by colonial intrusion and control. The executions marked the beginning of the closed-door policy that isolated the remaining members of an underground church for 250 years, without clergy or any sacraments except baptism. Remarkably, when Japan again opened itself to outside contact, the church had survived.

Benedictine Fr. Godfrey Diekmann once marveled at the resiliency of the faith exhibited by the Japanese church, and he found hope in its example for the vitality of the larger church today in which priestless parishes are more and more common. The faithful have within their baptismal identity the charisms to be the church, even without bishops and clergy. A Catholic bishop was once quoted as saying that if Catholic families did not give their sons as priests, there would be no Eucharist, and without Eucharist there would be no church.

The Japanese church, with only the primary sacrament of baptism, did not have bishops, priests, Mass or Eucharist. But the laity survived for 250 years because they were the Body of Christ.

The Secret

“Who touched me?” (Mark 5:32).

The two miracles in this Gospel passage are so tightly woven together, we might think of them as a single miracle that leaps from the woman to the little girl through Jesus.

Mark’s Gospel, thought to be the earliest written, offers us a curious look at Jesus, who seems to learn as he goes what it means for him to be God's messenger, a process Mark calls his “messianic secret.” One way to describe this has been to say that Jesus was a different kind of messiah—a suffering servant—rather than a warrior king, and so to avoid misunderstanding, Jesus tells people not to reveal his identity. But another way to understand this is to say that the secret lies in Jesus’ own unfolding grasp of how God is revealing the kingdom through him. In Mark, Jesus deflects credit for miracles, telling people that it is their faith that has healed them. Mark even records that where faith was lacking, Jesus was unable to perform miracles. Today’s reading from Mark 5 illustrates some of these themes.

The woman with the hemorrhage draws power from Jesus by touching his cloak in the crowd. Jesus is unaware until the healing occurs. He stops to ask, “Who touched me?” and the woman comes forward to reveal her healing. Jesus is on his way to the house of Jairus, whose daughter is dying. The woman’s faith instills the moment with profound promise. Jesus pushes forward, telling Jairus not to lose faith, even as messengers arrive to say that his daughter is dead. The professional mourners ridicule Jesus, but he puts them out, taking his disciples and the girl’s parents into the room where her body is lying. Jesus takes her by the hand, tells her to rise, and the girl is alive again. Faith has done this, a continuous flow of faith from the woman in the crowd to the parents and, so it seems, to Jesus himself. The kingdom is at hand where faith draws it forth.

For us, perhaps the real messianic secret is that this same power is always available to us if we believe in it. Where fear and doubt overwhelm us, faith withers and nothing can happen. But where faith flows and grows and is passed along, miracles happen. Could it be that the real messianic secret is about us?

Possessed

“What have you to do with us?” (Mark 5:7).

Forty-five years ago, in October of 1967, several hundred peace activists performed an exorcism on the Pentagon. The public ritual had its most visible effect within the growing consciousness that U.S. foreign policy was, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr the previous April, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” in its pursuit of the war in Vietnam. The exorcism was also recognition that the root of the violence was so deeply ingrained in the American psyche that only a spiritual remedy could counter it. The idea of spiritual force was not alien to military conflicts. It is said that Charles De Gaulle saw the conflict between France and Germany during World War II as struggle between the “angels” of Liberty and National Socialism, an ideological conflict with profound spiritual implications.

The exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac shows Jesus’ authority over demons, but also alludes to the general overcoming of the spirit of the age. Mark has the demon even explicitly name itself “legion,” a reference to the Roman occupation that imposed an alien culture on conquered peoples. The “unclean” spirit is driven into the unclean herd of swine, which, over 2,000 strong, rushes into the sea, a scene evoking the death of Pharaoh’s army at the time of the Exodus. Exorcism is an act of liberation.

Collective obsession and addiction are matters for prayer and fasting, Jesus will later tell his disciples. How many cultural attitudes and behaviors in our own age could be named as a kind of possession? We are forewarned that uprooting them is a long and difficult process. But we are also assured that no alien spirit is more powerful than the Holy Spirit, who brings liberty and healing wherever the kingdom of God is welcomed and lived.

On Edge

“In your justice rescue me” (Ps 71).

We are reminded that Nazareth was in the hill country of Galilee when Jesus’ neighbors, after his spectacular performance in the synagogue, move to throw him over the edge of a hill on which the town was built. Jesus seems to have gone out of his way to offend them by not working any miracles there after delivering his inaugural sermon about how the Spirit of the Lord had been given him to preach, heal and liberate. “A prophet is accepted everywhere but in his own hometown,” Jesus tells them. He has no plans to stay there to make Nazareth into a shrine for pilgrims seeking its favorite son. As Elijah and Elisha worked miracles outside of Israel, so Jesus would take his message afar, beyond local expectations and claims.

It is a strange scene both for Jesus’ provocation and the violent response from his closest friends and neighbors, who were impressed by his gracious words but openly skeptical how this simple carpenter had come by his remarkable reputation. They wanted a show, proof, and he wasn’t about to surrender his freedom or larger mission to perform for them. Thus, from the start, Jesus would fulfill Simeon’s prediction in the Temple 30 years earlier, that he was to be a sign of contradiction, destined for the rise and fall of many. By challenging convention and reversing expectations, Jesus would turn the world upside down. For this offense he would live his life on the edge, always in danger of rejection and misunderstanding. For every healing and exorcism he performed, he would take upon himself the sins of the world, ending up on a cross, reviled and abandoned, even by his disciples and closest friends.

We enter the paradox of the Gospel by walking the edge with Jesus, accepting the ambiguities and risks that call us from our secure certainties and logical expectations into the margins, where miracles and suffering are everyday events. This is why we must say yes each day to his invitation, not knowing what lies ahead, over the edge and beyond the next hill.

The Dream

“My eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:39).

The prophet Joel wrote that “the young see visions and the old dream dreams” (2:28 ). Today’s feast of the Presentation (also Candlemas) depicts Simeon and Anna encountering the child Jesus in the temple. He is the dream they had been pondering most of their lives, the desire of the everlasting hills and the hope of Israel. To hold this child was to experience the fulfillment of God’s promise to save his people. One generation of believers — senior citizens — rejoices to see that God is faithful and that their role to wait and witness this truth is now complete.

The link between the elderly and children is especially cherished. One group, coming full circle to know again the fragility and dependencies of old age, beholds the newest arrivals filled with energy and promise. So it goes, past and future in one seamless story. Simeon also knows that life is not without suffering, that the child will be a sign of contradiction and that a sword of sorrow lies ahead for his parents.

We present our lives to God and for all that has been, we say “Thank you,” and for all that is to come, “Yes.”

Mustard Seed

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

The parable of the mustard seed is about great results coming from something small, a theme found throughout the Gospels: If we offer our small part, God will multiply it. But there is also something wonderfully subversive about Jesus’ choice of the mustard seed. It could be sown by the wind and often found itself in gardens and near fields where it invaded valuable space, grew uncontrolled like the famous kudzu that could take over highways across the American South. And when it became a large bush, it attracted birds, no friendly presence to a farmer when the crop came up.

So what was Jesus saying? The Kingdom of God might invade your life if you accept even the smallest invitation. How many people have started small, volunteering somewhere one day a week, or offering to assist a neighbor? A year later they find the joy and challenge of seeing their time, treasure and talent woven into the fabric of other people’s lives. The Kingdom of God is like this. Love is in the wind. Expect the birds to arrive any day.

Transparency

“There is nothing hidden that will not be made visible” (Mark 4:22).

Lovers light up the room. Children’s faces beam with every emotion. The light comes on for a student sitting in a classroom. After a long night of doubt, new hope dawns within the believer and life goes on. When fully alive, we are beings suffused with light.

Jesus tells his disciples to kindle the light of faith in their hearts, but also to let it shine for all to see. There is no greater witness to God’s grace at work than a person filled with truth and purpose. In a world of poker-faced deception to hide motives, half-truths and white lies to please everyone, the person who lives with total transparency is as light and as free as the open air.

St. Catherine of Siena once described integrity as being the same person before God, self and neighbor. No need to change gears or faces with different situations. And no added burden of keeping track of which persona to put on, when to be open and when to be sly and elusive.

The Gospel of new life enters a world of shadow and confusion one heart at a time, as each believer kindles the light of love that is our natural state. Let it dawn on you today.

The Sower

“Some seed fell on rich soil” (Mark 4:8).

The ancient world held its breath each spring as sowers went out to commit precious seed grain to the ground and the weather, knowing that crop failure meant almost certain famine.

Jesus describes the reign of God with a parable about a sower. The crowds who listen understand the drama as the seed is broadcast to the open ground, four times failing to sprout because it is trod upon, devoured by birds, choked by briers, burned up by the sun. Disaster! But then, good ground, where it springs up into a harvest that saves the day.

Jesus was a sower who freely sowed the Word of God, good seed that met resistance, misunderstanding and rejection. But it also found good ground and was multiplied into a rich harvest. The parable was for his disciples – for us -- but also for himself. It would be one of the last parables he told, recorded in John 12:24, as he made his way to Jerusalem to die. Jesus saw himself as a grain of wheat falling to ground that would be multiplied by God’s mysterious power at work in his suffering and death.

We will never know the fate of our attempts to share love in this world. Much of it will seem wasted, ignored, misunderstood and even rejected. But we sow anyway, because in God’s own wisdom and time, a harvest will spring up that will feed the hearts of many.

Family

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

To understand the startling nature of this scene in Mark’s Gospel, we need to appreciate the importance of family ties in the culture Jesus was part of. Tribal and family identity was everything. British journalist John Gray once pointed out that a complicated difference between Western and Middle Eastern cultures is that one is based on contract and the other on family loyalty. For Jesus to declare that allegiance to the community forming around him in his preaching mission was deeper than blood ties was radical and disruptive of cultural expectations. The sword of sorrow Simeon foretold for Mary in Luke 2:35 must have pierced her heart often as Jesus went forward in his mission, and this moment in Mark would have been such an occasion. She and the family come to see him, are kept at the edge of the crowd surrounding him, and then hear him ask publicly, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”

Our own journey into deeper discipleship is a continuous process of asking, “Who am I?” Every influence or credential or loyalty that might make a claim on us must fall away before the one claim God has on our very being. We come from God and will return to God. In between, everything we are and say and do flows from that identity.

Recognizing the Spirit

He is possessed by Beelzebul” (Mark 3:22).

In a letter to a student, St. Thomas Aquinas, whose feast we celebrate today, wrote that the truth should be received from whatever source, even a poor teacher. Truth is truth.

The scribes were so upset with Jesus that they sought to explain his obvious power to heal the sick and drive out evil spirits by saying he was in league with the devil (Beelzebul). Jesus addresses the absurdity of their argument that evil was driving out evil. Their criticism showed just how desperate the religious establishment was to denounce Jesus for proclaiming and demonstrating what religion itself should have been giving people -- God’s unconditional love and freedom.

We live in a time of fierce denunciations, polarization and failure to listen, often emanating from the very top representatives of religion, who feel threatened by changing reality and loss of influence. The real question should be, where is grace at work, where do we find creativity and energy, mutual respect and collaboration on behalf of justice and tolerance? As Jesus taught, a tree is known not by its age or status or power, but by its fruits.

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