Cosmic Struggle

 “A house divide against itself cannot stand” (Mark 3:23).

Jesus was attacked in the severest terms possible when the scribes, or religious lawyers, accused him of being an agent of Satan: “It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons.”  

Jesus dismisses their charge as totally illogical, since why would Satan drive himself out? If this were the case, the kingdom of Satan would be divided against itself and could not stand. 

In his classic 1988 commentary, <em>Binding the Strong Man</em>, scripture scholar Ched Myers saw in this passage of Mark the key to understanding the cosmic drama behind the narrative of Jesus’ ministry. Up until now, Satan had held sway over the world, controlling human activity by intimidation and demonic possession, causing every kind of illness and suffering and sowing conflict and distrust between people to prevent them from achieving community. 

Jesus declared an end to this reign of terror because the “Kingdom of God” had broken into the world. His exorcisms and healings were proof of this, for Satan was the strongman who has been bound and his house plundered. To accuse Jesus of being possessed by Satan was the ultimate sin against the Holy Spirit, an affront to God.  

Secular culture would hardly describe a conflict in these spiritual terms, what St. Paul called the principalities and powers raging against God. Yet Charles deGaulle once described World War II in Europe as a contest between the Archangel Michael, patron of France, and the dark angel of Hitler’s National Socialism. The cosmic imagery conveys the pervasive, cultural and historical forces that converged to unleash such destructive violence. 

It is frightening to think that the world could ever engage in this kind of pathological fury on a global a scale again, so today’s Gospel calls us to a renewed awareness of Jesus’ message that the Kingdom of God is more powerful than any other force in the universe or history. But we are its agents in our time. The best counter-offensive to fear and division is faith and reconciliation. Our own house is only as secure as the justice and love we bring to our own society and nurture in our own hearts.

Ambassadors for Reconciliation

“Be united in the same mind and purpose” (1 Cor 1:10).

In a coffee shop exchange this morning, I uttered the now famous post-election phrase, “It’s morning again in America,” and realized quickly that for some it was overcast and gloomy, and for others it was bright and sunny.

Whatever people’s politics, it seems evident that both our nation and our church are deeply divided. Inaugural events yesterday are being followed today by large protest marches across the country and around the world.  Where we go from here will test our institutions and our willingness to engage one another in a civil and productive manner.  

The role of the church in society was determined by the Gospel and the example of Jesus. He was a reconciler and a healer, and the first disciples he called were explicitly instructed to gather people together around the revelation that God was in the world to make of us a beloved community.  

The first disciples were fishermen. Jesus astonished them with a miraculous catch of fish after a night of empty nets. He first caught them with his look of love, then told them they would catch others in the same way.  By the end of their training, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, they got a final lesson on the shores of the Sea of Tiberias, where they hauled in 153 large fish, a number symbolically representing every known species, or the whole world. 

One of St. Paul’s most challenging mission churches was in the Greek city of Corinth, a bustling port that attracted people of every race, religion and origin. His preaching attracted Jews and gentiles, slaves and freemen, men and women, rich and poor.  

We have some of Paul’s most important teachings about Jesus because so many controversies and divisions arose in Corinth. Jewish Christians thought gentile converts should be circumcised and required to keep all the dietary and ritual purity laws. Rich people were eating separately from the poor at Eucharist. Male church members thought it inappropriate for women to speak. Charismatics were talking too much -- in tongues -- and some said they were free of ordinary moral restrictions, while others stopped working because they thought the world was about to end. 

We imagine a small, barely formed church already coming apart at the seams with rivalries and theological quarrels.  Paul writes to remind them that all their differences were less than the power of Jesus’ death, which reconciled us all by God’s overriding grace and mercy. 

The path to reconciliation leads to higher ground and common ground where greater principles overcome lesser divisions. But getting there means the hard work of dialogue, empathy, even sitting down with our opponents and critics. One name for the Mass is the “Feast of Enemies,” the one table where all our differences are less than the common experience of God’s unconditional love expressed in the sacrifice of Jesus, who laid down his life for all of us. 

The disciples Jesus gathered around himself did not achieve unity quickly or automatically, but only by accompanying him during his ministry, where they learned how to negotiate with one another, growing from competitors to partners, strangers to brother and sisters. Through the crucible of failure and grief at his crucifixion, they emerged as witnesses to the power of reconciliation. The great surge of evangelization occurs when the world witnesses a young church and says, “See how they love one another.” 

The test of the church in the coming months and years is here. Will believers be seen as bridge builders and reconcilers? Will we bring more light than heat to the conflicts that are inevitable as groups engage one another in every day encounters in coffee shops and community forums? Will our pulpits be beacons of clarity and calm and sources of authentic Catholic Justice Teaching on human rights and dignity?  Will the Eucharist be the center that holds even when tensions are high. 

The net cast by the first Apostles chosen by Jesus is the web of welcome and love we are asked to extend to one another.  Unity in diversity is the sure sign the God’s grace is visible and flowing through us when the world needs to see it the most. 

God's Role in History

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

While any comparison would be uneven, it may be hard for Americans not to contrast the scene in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus goes up a mountain and picks his Apostles to the ceremony taking place today in Washington D.C. A new president will take his place at the pinnacle of power, surrounded by those he has chosen for his cabinet.  He will deliver his “sermon on the mount,” an inaugural speech that lays out the goals of the new administration.

What any parallel does illustrate, however, is the fact that power flows according to the plan or mission of its leader. The Gospel emanated from Jesus. His central message of mercy reflected who he was and the vision of God he revealed at every step of the way during his public ministry, including his ultimate self-sacrifice on the cross. 

The selection of the Twelve to represent the 12 tribes of Israel had symbolic importance for the church’s claim that Jesus was both the new Israel and the new Moses who received the Law on Mount Sinai. The men named also show that Jesus did not choose perfect people, but representatives of the whole range of human weakness. From this rough clay God would fashion  the Beloved Community by mercy. 

As individuals and as a nation, don't we always stand at the threshold of mercy? Without God's help we can never rise above our human shortcomings to achieve the ideal. There is a lesson and even some inspiration in realizing that despite this God is always with us on the journey toward justice and love. 

Today’s commemoration of St. Fabian, one of our earliest popes, offers us a possible glimpse into how mysterious God’s ways can be. Fabian was a layman and a stranger in Rome at the time of a papal election. When a dove landed on his head, it was seen as a heavenly sign and he was chosen to be pope. He served for 14 years and was martyred.  Whatever our fears and expectations, history has never lacked surprises. 

Staying in Touch

“He told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, so that they would not crush him” (Mark 3:9).

Mark’s gospel begins by proclaiming that Jesus is the "Son of God." From the start of his ministry, his very presence changes everything. In a series of dramatic miracles of healing and exorcism – a possessed man in the synagogue, Peter’s mother-in-law, multiple cures in Capernaum, a leper, a paralyzed man lowered through the roof, a man with a withered hand — Jesus is revealed as the living embodiment of God’s grace in the world. 

The message is clear: The power of Satan has been broken. Evil spirits acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God with the power to restore creation to its original state before sin distorted human behavior and brought sickness and death into the world. People throng to catch a glimpse of Jesus and to try to touch him. In danger of being crushed, Jesus tells his disciples to have a boat ready to take him out onto the lake. 

The story reveals deeper meaning. Jesus’ mission is not to instantly transform creation by divine command, but to enlist the free participation of people open to personal and social conversion. With an initial burst of miracles, it is as though Jesus has given the crowds a glimpse of the glory God wants for them. But it will not happen automatically or without their  participation. Just as human sin entered the world by willed disobedience, so God’s promise will also be renewed only with human consent and obedience.  

Besides this, Jesus’ mission is not limited to first century Palestine, but must go beyond physical touch to a total transformation that reaches into history itself. There is only one Jesus of Nazareth, but as the crucified and risen Christ he will belong to every generation, able to touch every person who comes to him not with his earthly hands but with his mystical body, the Church, through the sacraments, present in the Eucharist in every faith community, active in the ministry of the church wherever it reaches, and alive within every human being who loves and serves others, longs for peace and works for justice. 

This mystery is conveyed in the narrative when Jesus removes himself from the crowds by being taken up in a boat that pushes away from the shore and onto the lake. This is where so many  gospel scenes take place that are both in time and in the timeless mystery of the risen Christ, who can calm night storms and walk on the water, teaching Peter to join him, showing the disciples not to be afraid of their own experience of crossing over from death to new life.
We are living this same mysterious process now. Jesus invites us to freely participate in the transformation of the world, beginning with our own conversion of heart and commitment to grow as disciples and members of his body. Jesus is with us in the boat of the church as together we make passage from death to new life. If we believe this by imitating Jesus, we will share in his power to heal and liberate, calm and guide others to God.  

This is the joy of the Gospel. 

Stretching Exercises

“There was a man there with a withered hand” (Mark 3:1).

The story of the healing of the man with the withered hand on the sabbath is one of several in which the word “stretch” is used.  People, like the friends who carried their paralyzed friend up onto the roof to lower him to Jesus, were stretching to accomplish this.  The crowds were constantly reaching out to touch Jesus when he passed by.  When he encountered a leper, Jesus stretched out his hand to touch him, crossing a line that defined the leper as untouchable, dangerous.  Jesus stretched social protocols and moral limits by eating with public sinners. 
There is an element of stretching in every miracle. Faith requires us to extend our trust beyond the safe limits of logic, ordinary limitations, to expect something extraordinary. 

Jesus praises those who initiate the encounters, take the first step, reach out to him. The blind man on the side of the road lifts his voice and cries out. He keeps calling even when the crowd reproaches him. Zacchaeus climbs a tree just to see Jesus, hoping to catch his eye.
Even prayer requires us to stretch toward God. Jesus tells us to seek, knock and ask, all forms of stretching. Expressing our need invites grace to enter our hearts, to stir up hope and begin the conversation with God that increases insight and courage.  Friendship with God is the essence of prayer, the prize even greater than our actual request. We are already home if we are communicating with God. 
The tragedy of Jesus’s enemies was that they closed themselves off to the possibility that he could be from God. No matter what he did, no matter how obvious the good that flowed from his words, his embrace of the sick and the poor, they had already hardened their hearts against him.  

Can we stretch our imaginations to see Jesus at work in our lives right here and now? 
If we can, if we are open to his love today, alert to his prompts, ready to act when even the smallest gesture of kindness or healing is possible, we will know the joy of the gospel. 

The Gospel, Pure and Simple

“I will give thanks to the Lord with all my heart” Psalm (111:1).

The teaching of Jesus was rarely new. Like all the prophets before him, he reminded his listeners to observe the commandments and fulfill their part of the Covenant. 
But what he often does is ask people to examine their priorities.  Put first things first. Do not let rules and rituals or some tradition take precedence over the spirit of the law or the principal commandments. In his encounters with religious leaders, he affirms that the Great Commandment of love of God and of neighbor always comes first.

In today’s gospel, Jesus defends his disciples for clearing a path through a field by picking heads of grain. To the Pharisees, who are carefully watching him to find fault, this constituted “work” on the Sabbath.

Jesus justifies their behavior by citing the example of David, who took loaves of special bread from the temple to eat when he and his companions were hungry. Human need took priority over a symbolic restriction. People take precedence over rituals. 

The late Bishop Kenneth Untner led the diocese of Saginaw, Michigan, under the principle that whatever action the church took should first be examined for its impact on the poor.  By setting this priority, he asked both pastors and parishioners to keep the needs of the most vulnerable in mind when all projects and spending decisions were made.  

Some called this radical, and they were right. It was the gospel, pure and simple, and proof that if we change our priorities, we  may end up changing our entire lives. 

The Wedding Is On

“New wine, new wineskins” (Mark 2:22).

In today’s short gospel, Jesus is criticized for not observing the regular fasting laws, which the Pharisees and the followers of John the Baptist observe. Jesus compares his presence to a wedding, when fasting is suspended so people can celebrate, eat, drink, sing and dance, often for several days.  

Jesus is cause for feasting because heaven has come to earth in him. The Incarnation is the nuptial between God and his people, divinity and humanity, the Spirit of God hovering over the world as at creation, the moment of conception when we came to be in God’s image.  Because of Jesus, a new creation is happening. Those who accept him experience a kind of conception which will lead to their birth as children of God. 

He uses two little parables to respond to the Pharisees.  They are like someone patching an old cloak with new, unshrunken cloth. As the patch shrinks it tears away from the rest of the garment. Or they like someone who foolishly pours new wine, still fermenting and expanding, into an old wineskin, which can no longer stretch, so it bursts and the wine is lost.  

The imagery is about the demand that newness places on the old. New ideas stretch tradition. New energy needs room to grow. Institutions that cannot adapt to change die. Jesus is proclaiming a whole new way of understanding God that will liberate the community to new life. New wine requires fresh wineskins. 

Two thousand years ago, Jesus was executed to try and stop the revolution of the heart and the transformation of history he proclaimed. But the wedding could not be stopped by violence, and it was revealed at Easter as universal and unstoppable. 

Almost 50 years ago, the Civil Rights Movement was the new wine challenging long-standing institutional racism. A champion of change, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated to stop another wedding of justice and peace, still far from consummated but now written into the fabric of American identity. There can be no going back.  

The promise of the Gospel is the energy built into the signs of the times. We feast on this promise in hope, even as we fast and struggle toward the day when it is accomplished. 

Just Who Do You Think You Are?

“I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon him” (John 1:31).

The question of identity is crucial in the four Gospels. Matthew and Luke include versions of the genealogy to establish that Jesus is of the line of Abraham all the way back to Adam. The four gospels probe the identity of John the Baptist to show that he is fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy as the messenger who prepares the way of the Lord. In today’s gospel, the Baptist testifies that Jesus is no less than “the Lamb of God,” preeminent in existence and stature, the one on whom God’s Spirit comes to rest like a dove. 

Midway through the gospels, the evangelists will return to this question of identity when Jesus quizzes his disciples about “who do people say that I am?” The validity of his mission depends on who he is. The enemies of Jesus are quick to point out that he is only a carpenter’s son from the hill country of Galilee, with no pedigree, no formal training, no link to the priestly tribe of Levi. Yet the crowds flock to Jesus because of his spectacular works and powerful words. They see God in him. 

Identity is crucial to us in probing the authenticity of any proposed leader. Who is he or she? What is their background, their resume? Where are they “coming from,” another way of asking about someone’s credentials. Who is backing them?  What do their actions and words reveal about who they are? Are they for real or just a facade?

Because our own identity as those baptized into the Spirit of Jesus depends on how we demonstrate his presence, the lifelong goal of discipleship is to reflect the values of the Gospel. To be an evangelist in the most basic sense is to have others recognize Christ in us. This can only happen if we remain in him, listening and learning from him, imitating him. To achieve this we must become like someone so centered, so at peace in our union with Jesus, that the peaceful "dove" of the Spirit comes to rest upon us. If we are agitated or unsure of him, this intimacy will not develop. Regular prayer is one simple way we enter this kind of familiarity and learn to trust Jesus' abiding presence. 

Our regular participation in the liturgy with the faith community is how we hear his Word, engage his identity in the most intimate way possible in the Eucharist, unite our lives to his at the altar and take him with us back into our families, our work and all our relationships.  Then, when life confronts us with the questions, just who are you, or where are you coming from, or who is the source of your words and actions, we can readily testify that we are with Christ, of Christ, for Christ. For he is alive and at work in us. This is the joy of the Gospel.      

We Can Forgive Sins

“When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Child, your sins are forgiven.’” (Mark 2:4).

Mark’s version of the healing and forgiveness of the paralyzed man lowered through the roof illustrates the power of heaven and earth coming together in Jesus. His Incarnation unites divinity and humanity, making what were formerly seen as exclusively Godlike powers now available to human beings. For God was no longer distant in heaven; God is among us, active in our relationships. 

The first sign that something more than just a human effort is occurring here is that the roof of the house is opened up to make it possible for the paralyzed man to come to Jesus. This repeats the image of the sky opening at Jesus’ baptism to unite heaven earth in him, called by the voice of God to be "my beloved Son." This is what makes possible the full restoration to wholeness for the paralytic. 

So that the full meaning of the miracle can be revealed, Jesus says, “Child, your sins are forgiven.”  Spiritual liberation will precede physical healing. This claim stirs objections in the scribes who witness the scene.  “Only God can forgive sins,” they murmur among themselves. Jesus is uttering blasphemy.  

Jesus answers them opaquely, saying that “the Son of man has power to forgive sins,” or, in other words, that people can forgive one another. Ritual sacrifices or some words only special representatives of God can pronounce (often for a fee) are no longer needed. Ordinary people of faith, like the friends who carried the paralytic to Jesus, are initiating this miracle. Jesus sees <em>their</em> faith and knows that healing is possible. Their faith is saving the man they are carrying to God with such love.

How might we understand Jesus’ words that human beings (the sons of men) have the power to forgive and heal? Just as certain forms of paralysis occur in communities and families because of fear, criticism, the refusal to forgive, binding people up with resentment, grudges and self-doubt, so can people release one another with mercy and reconciliation.  The paralyzed man is first called back to life by God’s mercy, and then he is able to stand up, pick up his life again and return to his family and community as whole. 

Because God is not distant or inaccessible, but right here with us, among us and in us, all things are possible if only we have faith. Who is waiting to be set free today, and how can we do our part to bring them to God with love?

Contaminating Grace

"If you wish, you can make me clean" (Mark 1:40).

After the exorcism performed in the synagogue in Capernaum, followed by a great number of healings in the town, Jesus continues to expand his ministry of preaching and liberation in a dramatic encounter with a leper. God's grace goes freely from synagogue to neighborhood to the outer fringes of society to an untouchable.  

It is as though the leper, having heard of the mass cures in Capernaum, seeks out Jesus to ask, "Will you heal me as well?" A leper was thought to be under punishment from God, and we sense the hesitation in the man's request. Perhaps he is not worthy.

Jesus not only reassures the man, but he reaches out and touches him. If his disciples were with him, we might imagine them pulling back to avoid contamination from the approaching leper. It is a moment of pastoral formation for them. If they are to do the work of Jesus, they must be ready to enter the lives of the outcasts, the contaminated and the sinful. 

Jesus shocks everyone, especially those religious leaders who uphold the elaborate codes of moral purity and personal cleanliness with endless ritual washings to avoid the "unclean." He will seek out and eat with tax collectors and prostitutes to demonstrate that God's mercy is for them as well. His disciples are to do the same. 

A child who was once told by his parents not to associate with "bad" children because it would make him bad, asked them if it was possible for a good child to make bad children good. 

Our fear of "contamination" can keep us from extending God's mission of mercy and grace to those who need our love and compassion the most. We fear the risks, but should also remember that a disciple is never alone. Jesus is always there. We are with him, and he is the source of goodness for us first, and then, through us, everyone we encounter. This is the joy and the freedom of the Gospel.