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.    

Here and Now

“For this purpose I have come” (Mark 1:38).

Jesus’ mission to communicate God’s offer of grace continues in today’s gospel passage from Mark. His humanity radiates the glory God intended at creation, and so Jesus’ simple touch and presence resets every distortion in our human nature to its original design and purpose.
As he goes, Jesus extends this restoration in a widening circle of grace, beginning with individual healings, then with exorcisms in synagogues that drive out the distorted spirits that have limited and damaged people’s understanding of God’s mercy. He moves quickly into outlying villages to liberate people from fear and superstition. 
Jesus’ encounter with Peter’s mother-in-law is significant because it acts as both a healing and a call to service, for he is gathering disciples to help him spread the good news of God’s jubilee of forgiveness, freedom and celebration. 

This initial burst of grace seems intended to demonstrate that the new life God wants everyone to embrace they must also  share and participate in, for they are agents, not just recipients, of this victory over sin and death.  Each healing is also an invitation to extend the miracle to others, to pay it forward like a light kindled and then placed on the candle stand, salt and leaven that will permeate everyone and everything they come in contact with.
The revolution of love will continue where it finds willing disciples. Where it meets doubt, cynicism and resistance, it will begin to falter. With each healing, Jesus makes clear that it is the  person’s faith that is the essential ingredient in the miracle.  “You faith has saved you!” If this is lacking, God’s gift is limited, for our freedom is necessary. 
It is not long in Mark’s gospel before we see skeptics and enemies appear to undermine confidence in Jesus, to sow doubts about his origins, his authority and motives, to suggest that even his miracles are from Satan, not God.   The status quo has been threatened, and those in charge do not want things to change.
Don’t we hear these same questions and doubts in our own discipleship today?  Who are we to imagine we can influence the course of  events in our country? What can one person do to change society? Who really dares stand up to selfishness, greed and dishonesty? Who really believes in miracles these days? Where are the leaders we need before anything can get started?  

Jesus is among us and within us, encouraging us to trust the power of grace to take even our smallest effort, within the smallest circle we can actually influence, to begin to change the world.  There is only one gospel, and it is happening right now.  The lives we read about in the Bible, or the heroes and martyrs in former times and places, are all history. We are the disciples Jesus is calling today to extend the joy of the God’s grace. If we try, we will see just how powerful this grace can be. But we must try.   

Accompanying Jesus

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” (Mark 1:23).

The presence of Jesus, God incarnate in the world, is the first glimpse of the renewal of creation. He is what a human being is meant to be, and wherever he goes, the new reality radiates from his being. Entering the synagogue in Capernaum, he sets off alarms in the unclean spirits in the possessed man, who know that real authority is about to expel them. Something new and decisive has occurred in the order of things, and they are the first to realize that God’s Spirit is taking back the world. 

Yet it is <em>how</em> this is to be accomplished that makes up the rest of the Gospel story. Jesus has come to win back the hearts of sinners by love, not by force.  His ministry will be one of healing and forgiveness, not threat or regimentation. By openness, love and by example, Jesus will invite people to reclaim the image and likeness of God, their true selves, and the right relationships that establish peace and justice in their families and communities. All his preaching, parables, miracles and even his way of dealing with resistance will respect human freedom to come willingly to God’s plan.  

How could it be otherwise? God could have restored the world to perfection by a single command that enforced obedience and reordered every relationship to its intended design and purpose. But the result would have been a world incapable to genuine love which must be voluntary for it to be mutual and collaborative—friendship instead of servitude.  

Mark’s gospel will unfold the mystery of the humble messiah, the suffering servant who will reveal God’s mercy by absorbing in himself the brokenness of human sin, the chaos of violence and competition that had so damaged the original creation.  The good news Jesus reveals is hidden in his unconditional love, which takes him to the cross. Only eyes of faith will see in his self-sacrifice the revelation of God’s ultimate mercy. From the cross, Jesus will reject  human rejection and pour out his Spirit in the risen life offered to anyone who trusts in him and in the power of love.

The liturgical themes unfolding in this new calendar year will retell the story of this profound paradox. Jesus is both teacher and model for our own transformation. To know him is to become like him, and this is the journey we take up now.     

Baptized into Christ

“Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit” (Isa 42:1).

The baptism of Jesus by John must have raised the question in the early church about why Jesus, who was sinless and greater than John, would need to subject himself to John’s baptism of repentance.

Matthew answers this question by having John object to Jesus’ request for baptism, saying, “You should be baptizing me, not the other way around.” But Jesus insists on undergoing this ritual “to fulfill all righteousness.”  This is fitting because Jesus is fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy that God would send his servant to save us from our sins. This servant, as described in today’s first reading, will be so obedient and pleasing that God’s own Spirit will descend on him. 

And this is exactly what happens when John baptizes Jesus. As Jesus comes up out of the water, the scene turns into a theophany: “The heavens were opened for him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him,” and a voice says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”  

In this meeting of John, representing the righteousness of the old covenant under the Law, and Jesus, revealing the new covenant of grace, the two identities of Jesus come together.  First he is God’s beloved Son, the Word of God and Savior of the World. But, secondly, he is also one of us, Jesus of Nazareth, and in his human state he is part of humanity, “born of woman under the law,” in the words of St. Paul (Gal 4: 4), and therefore subject to the same limitations and temptations all of us face. 
As God’s Servant, Jesus will save us, not as a divine hero entering our fallen world to rescue us, but by living and dying within our human experience of suffering and struggle, for he is one of us, representing us before God. Jesus will empty himself of divine privilege, subject himself to our human vulnerabilities and accept not just death, but death on the cross (Phil 2:7). In Jesus, not only is God among us, but God is one of us. The bridge between heaven and earth that we will cross from this world into eternal life is Jesus himself. This is the joy of the gospel.

The Light of the Incarnation is for All

“The gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6). 

The visit of the three magi to see Jesus in Bethlehem is another way to acknowledge that the Incarnation of God as a human being was not just for the Jews, but for the whole world. Jewish exceptionalism was rooted in tribal identity and blood, which limited the promise and covenant made to Abraham to his descendants, the Chosen People. 

The idea of universal salvation was long debated within Judaism.  As the first reading for today’s liturgy from Isaiah indicates, what God first revealed to the Jews was meant for all the nations, flowing like a great procession to Jerusalem in praise the tribute. Out of the darkness of their limited understanding, the whole world was destined to be drawn to the light. 

The beautiful story of the wise men who follow the star depicts this same theme. Matthew, writing for a predominantly Jewish audience that was gaining more and more gentile converts, adds drama to the story to show how the scriptures were being fulfilled.  Herod is like Pharaoh, who ordered the killing of Hebrew children to prevent rivals. Joseph, guided by dreams, takes the child down to Egypt.  The gifts of the magi symbolize Jesus’ royal stature (gold), his priestly role (frankincense) and his death (myrrh).  

The rich layering of the text takes nothing away from the immense mystery it holds.  The Incarnation is the central revelation of the Christian gospel. Every other mystery depends on it.  And what will take a generation or more to articulate in the New Testament and in the letters of Paul is that the divine life is now available to humanity and has already entered creation in the person of Jesus. His humanity holds the promise of eternal life. He is the pioneer, the Adam of the New Creation, and we are coheirs with him. 

To believe in Jesus is to access this promise in ourselves, not just as a spiritual add-on but in our very flesh united with his flesh. By baptism we share in the life of Christ as siblings. Our adoption gives us royal, priestly and prophetic status. We are anointed to share both his life and his death as we make passage with him. His exodus through the cross leads the way for our exodus from the slavery of sin and the inevitability of death to freedom and new life.  

The Epiphany invites us to go toward the light. In the night sky of every soul, where ultimate questions persist in longing and in dreams, a light appears that is meant to draw us from doubt to faith, from despair to destiny. God did not create us to live in the land of gloom waiting for death, but to see the light, follow the light, become the light that is the purpose of our existence, eternal life with God. 

Baptism of the Spirit

"I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit" (Mark 1:7).

The gospels reflect a struggle in the early church between the followers of John the Baptist and the followers of Jesus, which persisted into the first century. The evangelists make clear in their accounts that John never claimed to be the Messiah or that he sought the ultimate loyalty of his disciples. He was a precursor, someone sent by God to prepare the way for another, namely Jesus.

In today's gospel passage, the distinction is made between the baptism of John and the baptism of Jesus. John invited the people to cleanse themselves with water, a sign of conversion, change of heart, turning away from sin to righteousness. Jesus' baptism with the Holy Spirit was a moment of creation. 

The imagery from Genesis of the first creation, and later, the story of Noah's Ark, depicts so much more than simple cleansing. To be baptized with the Holy Spirit is be drawn up from the primordial waters of the void formed the image of God the creator.  The sign of the dove that signaled the end of the flood and the beginning of creation again is another way of describing Jesus' baptism. Jesus comes up out of the waters of the Jordan and a dove descends on him while a heavenly voice identifies him as the Beloved Son, the image of God. He is the ark of salvation that will save a sinful world. 

Jesus brings a new creation. He is the first new human being, what God intended, for he bears the full image and likeness of God. John, whom Jesus calls the greatest of the old covenant prophets, can only point forward to this gift. His baptism is for repentance, restored obedience to the Law. Jesus is announcing God's mercy, given freely to anyone who opens their heart to the gift, especially sinners and outsiders who imagine they are beyond redemption and doomed to exclusion from the life of God.  The Holy Spirit breaths life into our futile human efforts to be good, and fills us with the divine gift of holiness. 

The New Year is a time when  so many resolutions are made that will be inevitably broken. Well-intentioned people typically move from resolve to heroic effort to become some ideal they imagine will bring them peace and the approval of others. We know from experience that weight loss or better habits, as valuable as this is, does not bring real transformation. Deep change comes only with the love of Another that enables us to first accept ourselves as we are, then to accept others in the same way, with graciousness and humor, patience and humility. 

This is the only path and  process of affirmation that over time can help us grow, not to some ideal of perfection, but as a real human being among other human beings, capable of compassion and forgiveness as together we come to know God. This is the baptism that the Holy Spirit gives. Take a deep breath and go forward. God's mercy will see us home.