Above All, Love

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

Jesus challenges the scribes and Pharisees for insisting on the ritual hand washing and the purification of cups and dishes while neglecting the deeper call to be pure of heart. Their legalism was self-serving, a way to set themselves above ordinary people. They even excused themselves from the commandment to care for and honor their parents by saying they were dedicated to God.  

In his ongoing struggle with religious leaders, Jesus’ deepest criticism was that they neglected the first commandment to love in favor of their own man-made rules.  

If we sort out basic commandments from church rules, we uncover a long history of reformers who have tried to bring the church back to essentials clashing with traditionalists who insisted on institutional rules and their own theological systems above all else. 

The debate over clerical celibacy is one of these issues. Some see rejecting the ordination of women as a tradition that owes more to male power than the New Testament and Jesus’ own inclusion of women among his disciples or Paul’s witness to female leadership in ministry and house churches.  

The current criticism by some in the hierarchy of Pope Francis’ emphasis on pastoral accompaniment in the case of Catholics in second marriages seems more about enforcing legal purity than acknowledging real suffering with compassion. The pope has angered many clerics by simply suggesting that ordinary Catholics are capable of discernment and examining their own situations conscientiously. Priests should be part of that process but without needing to control it. 

All of us are asked to determine what is essential and most important in our lives. Do we insist on our human rules and traditions at the expense of being patient and loving with others in their struggles? Are we living in fear of God’s judgment instead of opening our hearts to God’s mercy?  Jesus came to liberate us from both fear and legalistic thinking. If we do our best and concentrate on love, we are fulfilling the whole law.   

Baptism First

"The began to bring in the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was” (Mark 6:55)

Today’s commemoration of Japanese martyrs Paul Miki and Companions will perhaps garner more interest from Martin Scorsese’s film "Silence," about early 17th century Jesuit missionaries opposed by authorities in Japan trying to protect national culture from European influence, including Catholicism. 

The violent expulsion of foreign priests meant that the faith went underground and survived for 200 years without clergy or sacraments other than baptism.  Benedictine scholar Godfrey Diekmann saw in this phenomenon the potential of the lay church in times of priest shortages and a reminder that baptism is the preeminent sacrament for all Christians, greater than Orders, a function derived for clergy from their baptism in common with the “priesthood of all the faithful.” 

Today’s gospel continues Mark’s narrative of Jesus’ ministry with his disciples as they cross the Sea of Galilee to the gentile area of the Genneserat, where crowds await them and miracles of healing occur with just a touch of Jesus’s cloak. 

We are heirs to this gospel, empowered by our baptism to be Christ to others, sources of healing, forgiveness and consolation to anyone who sees our faith and invites us to touch their lives. Neither Jesus nor the disciples are “clergy” as such, a much later specialization in the institutional church. 

One of the central goals of the Second Vatican Council was to ignite a deeper sense of mission in the lay majority of the church.  A passive laity that expected clergy and religious to be the church was a distortion of the early church and a tragic diminishment of the mission of every baptized person to be another Christ in the world.  

People in search of God will always be attracted to wherever Jesus is.  Jesus is with us, in us, alive and active through us.  

Show the World

“You are the light of the world” (Matt 5:13). 

One of the most decisive questions confronting the church is whether it is in the world or apart from the world. 

One way to separate it from the world has been to say that Christian faith is essentially a spiritual reality focused on the salvation of souls. Good Christians are those who remain aloof from material concerns, unworldly and uncontaminated by the “world, the flesh and the devil.” 

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes a decidedly different view of the role his followers were to play in history and in the world. He begins with the Beatitudes, descriptions of a community that engages society with its witness to justice, peace-making, mercy, compassion and humility, even if rejected and persecuted by the dominant culture. 

The mission they received from him is not to be hidden or spiritualized. They must be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Be seen, permeate your lives with your faith, for you are not sent to ignore the world but to transform it. 

Faith then, expresses the underlying mystery of the Incarnation. God is in the world, among us, one of us. Our flesh, our daily responsibilities and personal relationships are how we make the Kingdom of God real. Grace permeates everything human.  Politics, media, social and cultural commitments, our careers in business, education, finance, the arts, medicine, public service are all realms where faith shapes people’s lives.

Today’s first reading from the Prophet Isaiah calls believers to show their love for God by caring for the poor, the hungry, the homeless and naked. This is how we show we are serious about our faith. What good is our piety and personal morality if it does not express itself in service and compassion to our vulnerable neighbors.  God sees who we are by what we do. The blessings showered on us are meant to be shared. 

One question every church ought to ask, especially as it concludes its Sunday worship and its members head back out into the world and into the week ahead, is this: What difference does it make that we were here praising God, listening to the Scriptures, receiving Communion?   What impact do we have on the neighborhood around us, the city we are part of, the world we live in? 

It is a question on which our own salvation may depend. We are the light of the world, the salt of the earth. Does the world know this, and if not, why not? 

The Price of Power

“Ask of me whatever you wish and I will grant it to you” (Mark 6:25).

Lord Acton, a 19th century English historian, is famous for writing: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Acton had studied the effects of power on many rulers and knew why Shakespeare’s plays about most rulers were tragedies. Power leads to paranoia that justifies brutal suppression of any perceived threat, and this ends with the death of conscience and any capacity for human empathy. 

References to Herod in the New Testament include the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem by Herod the Great and the beheading of John the Baptist by his son, Herod Antipas. The Herodian dynasty was propped up by the occupying Romans for their own purposes, but history consigns these rulers to the monster category for their cruelty and wanton violence to protect their power.  

Mark repeats the tabloid version of the drunken banquet Herod hosted for his sycophants, how the sexually provocative dance of his stepdaughter prompted the king to promise her anything as a reward. Her vengeful mother directs the girl to ask for the “head of John the Baptist, on a platter, at once!” Herod, like many powerful men, also craved approval, and he could not go back on his word. Despite his misgivings and, even realizing the spiteful hand of the girl's mother in the whole affair, he acceded to their bloody taunt to his pride and had John beheaded. 

Evil deeds summoned up by the rich and powerful to satisfy their lust for self-aggrandizement are like prayers to the dark powers of death. Mark uses the language of prayer to recount Herod’s promise to Salome: “Ask of me whatever you wish and I will grant it to you.” Herod, imagining himself a little god who can do whatever he wants, in fact proves himself a fool manipulated by others, shamed for his venality and cowardice in the view of his guests and courtiers. John the Baptist will be honored as a martyr for the faith, while Herod will disappear like dust in the wind, another sorry example of Lord Acton’s rule. Half his kingdom will prove to be half of nothing. 

God’s Word is the one power that does not corrupt, but makes whatever it touches holy. We should pray for that power and for the wisdom to use it wisely in whatever sphere of influence we have, small or great. When judgment comes, only justice and love will remain, so let us pray to be among those who pursued God's will in our lives. 

Here I Am, Lord

“This child is destined for the rise and fall of many” (Luke 2:28).

The Feast of the Presentation is rich in many themes. Jesus is born among us, one of us, and he is subject to the Law. Though he was God, he was ritually presented to God in the Temple according to the Law. Years later, he would be baptized in the Jordan, though he was without sin.  Mary, his mother, holy beyond ritual or protocol, also submits to the rite of purification 40 days after the birth of her son. 

While in the Temple, two elderly mystics who had been there most of their lives in expectation of the Messiah are alerted by the Holy Spirit to the presence of the child Jesus. Simeon takes the boy in his arms and prays in thanksgiving that he has lived to see the salvation God had promised. Anna, also blesses the child and tells everyone about him. This encounter gives continuity to the long history of salvation going all the way back to Abraham.  Jesus is the One they have been waiting for. It also echoes the importance and prayers of all senior believers who gather at daily Mass each morning around the world, the elders of the church and its source of wisdom. 

Jesus’ ministry will not be easy or without cost. Simeon proclaims that the child will be the cause of the rise and fall of many in Israel. Jesus will occasion the decisive challenge of faith for everyone.  He is God’s offer, and we will either receive or reject him.  Everything depends on this discernment and choice. 

Mary leads us in saying, “Yes, be it done unto me according to your Word.” She is the model for every disciple, and she will endure great suffering as she witnesses the rejection and passion of Jesus. Her passion, like his, will be the passage every disciple must make, to complete their baptism --  dying with Christ in order to rise with him. 

Let us take the occasion of this feast to present ourselves to the Lord. “Here I am, Lord, I come to do your will.” This prayer is all we need to position our lives to experience the full mystery of Jesus in the world with us. This is the joy of the Gospel. 

Who Wants A Miracle?

“He was amazed at their lack of faith” (Mark 6:6).

After a spectacular start to his ministry in Capernaum, Jesus returns to his hometown with his disciples. What should have been a warm welcome to a native son turns into a painful confrontation.  The people who have known Jesus all his life and watched him grow up think of him only as the local “carpenter, the son of Mary,” one person among a family of brothers and sisters known to everyone.  

Their familiarity with Jesus as just a local fixture leads to skepticism about his sudden rise to fame as a miracle worker and preacher.  Their lack of faith, Mark says, hinders Jesus’ ability to work many miracles. For Mark, faith is an essential part of every miracle. Whatever gift Jesus has, receptivity and trust on the part of the person in need must be there for anything to happen. Every miracle Mark records up to this point is evidence of this mutuality.  

The crowd in Nazareth wanted a show of Jesus’ supposed miracles before they would accept him. Their lack of faith drained the moment of the one element necessary to any miracle.  Where Jesus does find faith, there is no limit to the signs that occur, as we saw yesterday in the healing of the woman with the hemorrhage and the raising of the daughter of Jairus.  

It may seem strange to think of Jesus being “unable” to work a miracle, but Mark’s Gospel puts us on notice that even God’s grace is not automatic or independent of our participation. We may have long lists of prayers we say faithfully and then wait for God to answer them. What if the answer we are not hearing is God’s call to us to act in each circumstance we are concerned about, trusting that God is partnering with us to resolve the problem. Our share of the effort may be small compared with God’s, but we must offer it to set the prayer in motion. 

Passivity, like caution and fear, is the great enemy of faith. We just never get moving, or get overwhelmed and stop trying. Jesus is saying to us, “Come with me as we make you holy and more loving and more open to the Beloved Community.” Our own small prayers are part of a much larger prayer, and he is inviting us to make it happen.

In Touch with God

Daughter, your faith has saved you” (Mark 5:32).

This compact, double healing by Jesus of a woman suffering from hemorrhages and a girl on the threshold of puberty speak to us of the power of faith, the importance of touch and the mystery of the Incarnation. 

The woman’s affliction would have rendered her “unclean” according to Jewish purity laws, yet she risks public humiliation and expulsion by pressing into the crowd to try and touch the cloak of Jesus as he passed by.  Despite the mob surrounding him, Jesus feels power go out from him.  A miracle has occurred without his active invitation, emphasizing dramatically what he tells many who are healed: “Your faith has healed you.” 
Jesus proceeds from this encounter to the house of Jairus, encouraging him not to let fear overcome his faith, which is essential to the miracle that is about to occur.  As before, Jesus incurs legal contamination by touching the dead girl, but with her parents and his three closest disciples gathered around her bed, he recalls the girl from death to new life: “Little girl, I say to you, arise!”

Jesus, whose own body represents the promise of the new creation, emanates life, and in these two miracles, a woman suffering from menstrual bleeding is healed by touching his clothing, and a girl on the threshold of her first menstrual flow as a woman, is summoned back to life by his touch. Both healings exceed the power or permissability of the Law, revealing that in Jesus Grace has replaced the Law as how we know God.   

If prayer sometimes seems a purely intellectual exercise, this story reminds us that what we ought to pray for is the chance to touch and be touched by Jesus. His Incarnation signals our own.  Our flesh is destined for intimate union with the body of Christ. What we experience now sacramentally — in the Eucharist, in caring for one another and as members of the church – is real even if hidden. In every act of loving service and self-sacrifice we are encountering Jesus intimately.   When we embrace this in faith, we are in touch with God and living the joy of the Gospel.    

Where Do We Go from Here?

“Unclean spirit, come out” (Mark 5:7).

Jesus’ dramatic encounter with the Gerasene demoniac contains allusions to the presence of strong Greek and Roman influence in the region of the Decapolis, or 10 cities, east of the Sea of Galilee in what would today be Jordan and Syria. 

Alexander the Great had conquered the area three centuries before the time of Jesus, and Roman armies had followed, assimilating the local Semitic peoples into imperial trade, religion and culture. Greek and Roman culture challenged Jewish beliefs and values. The Maccabean revolt (167-160 BCE), which reclaimed Judea, Jerusalem and the Temple from Greek rule, was part of the long Jewish resistance to Greco-Roman assimilation. 

Jesus travels by boat to this region and is met by a fierce man living among the tombs possessed by a “Legion” of unclean spirits who recognize him as the "Son of God." Jesus drives out the spirits into a large herd of 2,000 pigs that rush into the lake and are drowned.

One way to understand the story beyond the liberation of a single possessed man is to see Mark’s assertion that Jesus preached a campaign to reclaim the whole culture from the imperial forces threatening the survival of the early church. Jesus’ Spirit was more powerful than the evil spirits being promoted by the secular cultures pervaded by domination, idolatry and immorality. Even the power of Rome and its legions could not withstand the authority of the Word of God, which was reclaiming even the gentile world from the power of sin and death. 

Some say we are witnessing today the rise of fear-driven ideologies and movements that espouse conflict based on religious and national identity reminiscent of the breakdown of civilization that engulfed the world in two catastrophic wars in the 20th century. The way forward from such a potential crisis will require more than proper protocols and human optimism. A deep healing of the collective spirit among nations and a cultural transformation that restores civility, tolerance and human respect for one another is needed. Only the Holy Spirit can effect such an awakening to common values and the hope of a shared future for all peoples. 

Our faith calls us to participate in this process of renewal and reconciliation. Jesus is among us as healer and guide, cleansing us of the forces of fear and selfishness, suspicion and prejudice that can overtake all of us when we feel threatened. The antidote is available to us. The way of the Beatitudes (yesterday’s gospel) is the path to life, and we must choose it now. 

Blessed Are You

“God chose the foolish … and the weak … and the lowly … “ (1 Cor 1:27 ff.).

Nowhere do we confront the paradoxical nature of the gospel than in the Beatitudes. Jesus proposes a profile for his disciples that is the antithesis of worldly success.  Think of the opposing profile touted by the dominant culture today: “Blessed are the rich, the strong, the winners, the satisfied, the care-free and the secure.” How foolish to imagine those outside this inner circle  as in any way blessed. And today we see an even more shameful effort to exclude the world's most vulnerable people to protect this gated enclave of privilege.  

Yet Jesus proclaims that God is with the poor, the meek, the sorrowful, the merciful, the pursuers of peace and justice, the rejected and persecuted. Even more astonishing, Jesus reflects in his own life a God who exercises supreme power in apparent weakness, moving others to goodness not by force but by love, not by threats but with mercy.  

What made Jesus’ message so paradoxical and challenging was that he proposed this path in a culture built on the pursuit of social standing, honor, family and tribal loyalty, reciprocal favor or threat to enhance and protect personal well-being. No one imagined any value in not going along to get along, or in conceding any advantage in the everyday competition to get ahead.

To follow Jesus meant stepping apart from the “real world” into a risky, vulnerable existence wholly dependent on God and on the community of faith. Jesus’ dream of the Kingdom of God was based on mutual trust, openness, shared resources and table conviviality. Within this alternate circle of blessing, everyone had enough, witnessed miracles of healing and reconciliation, and shared a common good marked by abundance and joy.  

We see glimpses of this beloved community in the Gospels and in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. The early church is depicted as a kind of utopia where the Beatitudes were possible. This is not to say that it was easy or automatic.  Discipleship was a way of life both realized and strived for, a reality both here and not yet here, requiring continual conversion and growth inspired by the mystery of the crucified and risen Christ present within the community.  

Jesus knew the Kingdom of God was a process, like planting seeds that promised increase in time. In the Sermon on the Mount, which begins with the Beatitudes, he invites his followers to be salt and light, leaven and seed, trusting that if they did their small part God would grant the increase. He set the example of how this growth would take place by emptying his life into the movement to reveal the blessing of resurrection promised to every disciple. He lived the Beatitudes by becoming poor, meek, grieving and rejected as the road to genuine glory. Worldly success is dust in the wind compared to the eternal destiny of the pure of heart, the peacemakers who are God’s own children. 

We will know this pilgrimage only in walking it, day by day, step by step, little by little. There is plenty of evidence that it works if we look at the lives of the saints and consider the people we know who seem joyful and at peace in the midst of life’s uncertainties and contradictions. They say to us, “Don’t be afraid, and don’t hesitate to come along, for this is the way home and the joy of the Gospel." 

Measure for Measure

“To one who has, more will be given”  (Mark 4:23).

Today’s Gospel, almost Zen-like in its brevity and depth, is for disciples.  If we want to follow Jesus we must first let him kindle a light in us that is meant to be shared. Do not pray for it if you do not intend to let it shine. 

Listen carefully: The measure with which you measure will be measured out to you. If you sow small, you will reap small. If you give yourself away, you will become your real self in full measure. God loves a generous giver, and those who empty themselves will be refilled again and again to overflowing. 

Finally, know that those who respond to this gift of discipleship will multiply their capacity to share it.  Anyone willing to take the first step will see the whole road open up to them, and their lives will become a journey of ever increasing joy.   But, those who stand at the threshold but do not cross it will find their lives empty of meaning, and even what little they thought they had will fade away. 

Our first “yes” to God is not the end of the journey, but the beginning.  Jesus told his disciples not to take up the plow and look back. Count the cost of discipleship and set out confidently, for God will walk with you, one yes at a time, little by little, step by step, until your joy is complete.