Some thoughts on Mark’s Gospel (M. Powell’s Introducing the New Testament, p. 125-136)
The Gospel of Mark is the briefest of the four Gospels, and much of the best-known and most-loved material about Jesus is missing (Jesus’ birth story, the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Beatitudes, the raising of Lazarus). Mark tells stories of Jesus in ways that seem to emphasize frailty, suffering, failure, and ambiguity. His book is less complex than Matthew’s or Luke’s, and it is less “talky” than John’s. It works as a story told from beginning to end, the sort of story that one might have heard read aloud in a single sitting. It was probably the first Gospel written, most scholars dating it between 65 and 73 during the Jewish war with Rome, just after the Roman persecutions of Peter, Paul and many others. The book is anonymous because there are only guesses at the author’s identity. Mark was a common name. There is suspicion it could be the Mark mentioned in 1 Peter 5:13 or the John Mark mentioned in Acts and some of Paul’s letters. But we do know he is a devout Christian who believes in Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God, and he was probably writing for an audience of Roman Christians.
When it comes to the Passion, Mark’s Gospel is distinctive. On Easter morning, a group of women come to the tomb where a young man (probably an angel) tells the women Jesus is risen: They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. It is such an abrupt ending that some Christians added on to it later. The centrality of Mark’s Gospel is the cross. The crucifixion of Jesus is clearly what matters most to Mark. Jesus has not ultimately come to heal the sick or to argue with Pharisees ;he has come to give his life as a ransom (10:45). The cross of Christ serves as the primary symbol for the life of self-denial, service, and sacrifice that Jesus’ followers (That means us!) are called to embrace (8:34).
Points made by Raymond Brown in A Crucified Christ in Holy Week (p. 21-24)
- Begins on a gloomy note, and the darkness will intensify until Jesus breathes his last the next day. In all that time no support will come from those who have been his followers, and he will die alone. The tragedy seems almost too much for Jesus himself.
- Even though he predicted Peter’s denials, he is upset that Peter could not watch one hour with him. Although there is no direct response from God to Jesus’ prayer for deliverance, ultimately Jesus rises resolved to encounter the betrayer, leaving us to assume that he has understood God’s answer to be that he must drink the cup and face the hour that is at hand.
- For Mark (and here he differs from the other 3 evangelists) Jesus’ resignation to his fate may be seen in his failure to respond to the Judas who kisses him or to the bystander who draws the sword and strikes the slave of the high priest on the ear. If the hour and cup could not pass, as Jesus had prayed earlier, let be what God wills.
- The disciple fleeing naked is symbolic simply of the abandonment of Jesus by his disciples. The first disciples to be called left nets and family (1:18, 20), indeed everything (10:28), to follow him; but this last disciple, who at first sought to follow Jesus, ultimately leaves everything to get away from him.
Points made by Garry Wills in What the Gospels Meant (p. 42-47)
- The reason that Jesus was still not being accepted as Messiah is that he was the wrong kind of Messiah. It was bad enough for Jesus to claim to be the Messiah. It is simply insane for him to say that he would suffer death for being the Messiah. The call of this Messiah is a call to suffering. Later Christianities will be ruling, crusading, and triumphalist bodies, sitting on papal and imperial thrones, sending out armies to slay the heathen. Mark’s Gospel could not be further from such distortions of what Jesus said and did and meant.The Messianic community not only suffered because it was like Jesus. It suffered because it was Jesus.
- Mark knows the opening of Jesus’ prayer in the garden, Abba, the Aramaic for “Father,” which he translates into Greek for his readers. When Mark quotes Jesus using his original language, he is close enough to his sources to be giving the Lord’s precise words. He does it here, at the beginning of the Passion, as he will at the end, when he quotes the Aramaized Hebrew of Psalm 22, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani.
- Where do you see yourself in this story? What feelings in your gut are stirred?
- Gethsemane in Hebrew means “oil press”. How does this symbolism speak to you?
- Why do you think Jesus asks to have the cup taken from him?
- Have you ever been betrayed?
1st Reading – Leviticus 13: 1-2, 44-46
Biblical leprosy was any fearful condition that was of unknown origin and could possibly contaminate others. It ran the gamut from acne, psoriasis, boils, ulcers, rashes, even dandruff to serious malignancies. Leprosy was another name for the community’s fear. Lepers were not only sick, but also condemned as sinners. They were called ‘the living dead.’ A healing was considered as difficult as raising the dead to life. (Exploring the Sunday Readings, and Celebration — Feb. 2000)
Have you ever been able to identify with this leper? Perhaps you didn’t have anything visibly embarrassing on your person, but maybe you were self-conscious about something? Or felt the world knew something wrong about you? We sometimes have a little voice inside of us that counts us unworthy, unclean, unlovable. But Jesus saves! We must turn to Jesus’ voice, and He will heal those feelings to worthy, clean and lovable.
2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 10: 31- 11: 1
This reading is dealing with the problem of whether it was all right to purchase meat that had been previously sacrificed to idols. Was it okay for Christians to eat this meat? Some thought it was since the idols were not real anyway. Paul is trying to help this community see that while the meat might be fine to eat, one should not cause undue scandal to those who were more scrupulous. It may be fine to eat as all things belong to God, but if they are aware it is idolatrous meat then it may bother their consciences. Paul is trying to encourage them to do what is just and follow Jesus’ example by being concerned for the well-being of others. God is glorified when we freely live lives of love and service. We become better and so do others! (W. Barclay’s Daily Study Bible Series p. 94, and M Birmingham, W & W Year B, 485) Paul more fully comes to explain himself in chapter 13 when he discusses love: “Love is kind. Love is patient. . . . etc.”
Paul has personally experienced the risen Christ; as a result, his life mirrors Christ, who is himself the image of God. Christ has so taken possession of Paul that his own life is now that of Christ. The Christian communities identified with Paul did not have the same experience. His uniqueness as an apostle rested on his direct experience with Jesus. Therefore, he calls on the communities to imitate him as they move toward their sole model, Christ himself, (R Faley’s Footprints on the Mountain, p. 159).
Gerald Fagin SJ says this of glorifying God: The goal or end of life is to praise, reverence, and serve God, and to come to eternal life. All of God’s gifts are means to achieve this goal; we should use them accordingly. “From this it follows that I should use these things to the extent that they help me toward my end, and rid myself of them to the extent that they hinder me.” (Sp. Ex. 23)…it means being so passionately and single-mindedly committed, so completely in love, that we are willing to sacrifice anything, including our lives, for the ultimate goal. It means magnanimous generosity, abandonment into God’s hands, avallability, (Putting on the Heart of Christ, p. 41-43).
The Gospel – Mark 1:40-45
Last week, we learned from Simon Peter’s mother-in-law that when we are touched by Jesus, we must ‘rise up and serve.’ Now we see a leper proclaim freely the good news of salvation (full health and life). We find the love of God in Jesus.
“Moved with pity” – sometimes translated “Moved with anger” – literally this phrase in Greek means to have one’s intestines turn over . . .(“Jesus was indignant”NIV, “Moved with compassion”NLT). Yet, this leper had dared to ignore the law’s strict rule of quarantine. So did Jesus. The passion and sympathy that moved Jesus from deep within showed how he empathized with this man’s plight. Jesus’ passion for the suffering of others challenges us, his followers, to also be stirred and motivated by the same mission. Jesus was willing to touch so as to comfort and heal, touching even those who were condemned as outcasts, (Celebrations, Feb. 2000, 2003; and Quest, Spring, 2006)
Jesus also spoke sternly toward the man commanding him to tell no one anything, but to see the priest. The literal translation of this is that Jesus ‘snorted’ or ‘puffed’ – a way that was often used to confront evil in his culture. Mark’s messianic secret seems to be an important motif here. Fantastic miracles do not seem to be why Jesus came. He came to break down barriers between the clean and unclean – between the insiders and the outsiders. Eduard Schweizer says that Jesus is horrified at the misery of this man’s condition and isolation for it is contrary to God’s plan for creation. Also, of course, there is irony in the way Mark tells this story for the healed man is so full of good news that he cannot be silent! God’s kingdom is breaking through! It is just too good – too real – to be concealed. Wouldn’t it be a shame if we kept such goodness to ourselves? (R. Fuller, “Scripture in Depth,” http://liturgy.slu.edu; E. Schweizer, The Good News According to Mark, 58-59)
Society tends to exclude people and treat them as social lepers today no less than in the time of Jesus. At that time, justification could be found in the law for a certain measure of separation. While Jesus shows a basic respect for the Mosaic law, he never fails to respect primarily the worth of the human person as transcending every other religious or social consideration. We have many examples of exclusion of people on the basis of nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation, or social class. It is Jesus’ over-riding love for the human person, virtuous or sinful, without qualification, that is his greatest challenge in any age or culture (R Faley’s Footprints on the Mountain, p. 160).
1st Reading – Job 7: 1-4, 6-7
In this reading, Job is answering his friends who say he is suffering because of his sin. What do you make of his words? What dialogue do you have with God concerning suffering?
“Without reading too much into words spoken by Job out of the depths of his grief, it is worth noting that neither Job nor his visitors invoke the possibility of life after death in a better place than this world as a source of consolation. Sheol is not Heaven (or Hell). It is the repository for “used souls’” since presumably our souls are not subject to physical destruction the way our bodies are. But [the understanding at the time of Job] our souls do not seem to retain anything of our memories or personality. For the biblical Israelite, dead is dead…”. The Book of Job seems to teach us, “It’s not all about you. If at times God’s world causes us grief, from plagues killing thousands to snowstorms ravaging a city, that is a consequence, not a punishment. It was not done with us in mind. The task of religion is not to explain why the water is bitter or to justify its bitterness, but to sweeten it to slake our thirst, not to help us understand the cause of our misfortune but to help us cope with it, (The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person, H. Kushner, p. 59, 186-187).
The mystery of pain…Why does God allow it to happen? There is no satisfactory answer to that question. But as Christians, we believe that violence, suffering and death are never the last word. We have hope. We do not have a God who is removed from our sufferings; ours is a God who has lived a human life and knows suffering. There may not be answers that will satisfy, but for the believer there is God, who is sorrowful with us, who offers us eternal life, and who moves us, through our hearts, to build a more loving and compassionate society. (Fr. James Martin in the New York Daily News after the Newtown school shootings)
2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 9:16–19, 22-23
This is the cost of discipleship. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said:
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate,
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.
From Bonhoeffer who wrote The Cost of Discipleship:
“…what we want to know is not, what would this or that man, or this or that Church, have of us, but what would Jesus Christ himself wants of us.” (p. 37)
“Happy are they who, knowing that grace, can live in the world without being of it, who, by following Jesus Christ, are so assured of their heavenly citizenship that they are truly free to live their lives in this world.” (p. 60)
“He who is called must go out of his situation in which he cannot believe, into the situation in which, first and foremost, faith is possible.” (p. 67)
From Barclay’s Daily Study Bible Series, p. 84: We can never attain to any kind of evangelism or friendship without speaking the same language and thinking the same thoughts as the other man. So long as we patronize people and make no effort to understand them, we can never get anywhere with them. Paul, the master missionary, who won more for Christ than any other, saw how essential it was to become all things to all . One of the greatest necessitites is to learn the art of getting alongside people; and the trouble so often is that we do not even try.
The Gospel – Mark 1: 29-39
Before this passage, Mark tells of Jesus teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum and casting out demons (last Sunday’s gospel), and then the day goes on with this reading –Mark is presenting dramatically a ‘typical’ day in the life of Jesus who is intent upon proclaiming and ‘preaching’ God’s Kingdom. What do we see of God’s kingdom here?
John Pilch points out that in Jesus’ culture Peter’s mother-in-law should have been living in her husband’s family home – or — if he was dead, then, she would be with one of her sons. The fact that she is in Peter’s house suggests that she may have no other living family members to take care of her. This woman may have known a lot more sorrow than just this fever. When Jesus touches her, she rises up with energy and purpose in her life. Jesus seemed to have helped her regain her meaning in life. This was beautifully expressed by her eager service. What do you see in her story?
Jesus’ healing power was not only an historical reality – people were healed, meaning was renewed in their lives, and they were restored to community – but it was also symbolic action. Jesus’ healing miracles spoke to the religious and political conditions of the day; but they spoke in action, not words. To the Hebrew mind-set, miracles were not “proofs” of God’s sovereignty. God created the world and could intervene in it if God so chose. God’s lordship over the world is not proven through miracles; miracles simply recognize the lordship that is already present. (M. Birmingham, Word & Worship, p. 481).
“I’m living in a broken world, and there is holy work to do.” Rabbi Ronnie Cahana
1st Reading – Jonah 3: 1-5, 10
This is a story about Jonah the prophet. God told Jonah to bring about the redemption of Ninevah, to which Jonah ran in the opposite direction toward the sea (How often do WE run away from where God may be leading us?). The sea became stormy and the sailors thought Jonah was bringing God’s wrath to them, so he sacrificed himself and was swallowed by a huge fish (not necessarily a whale!). After 3 days, God had mercy and Jonah eventually through twists and turns went to Ninevah to do what God had said.
This story can help us ponder how we listen to God in our own lives. Is following God’s will always placid and without ambiguity? When we pray, do we really pray to know God‘s will or do we ask God to do our will? (John Foley, S.J., “Spirituality of the Readings, http://liturgy,slu.edu )
Its major literary style is that of irony. Jonah does everything a good prophet should not, from fleeing to refusing to speak to complaining that God does not fulfill all the threats of doom that he made Jonah preach. Bus it is also set up in a number of clever panels, so that the prayer in chapter 2 parallels exactly the dialogue found in chapter 4, although one is praise, the other complaint. The prophet takes action in chapters 1 and 3, but in one he refuses to act and in the other he does perform what God commands…Also note that God saves Jonah from death despite his sin, yet Jonah will not let the Ninevites be saved from death even though they repent, (L. Boadt’s Reading the Old Testament, p. 468-469). How fickle we are! How much we let our emotions lead our action! And yet God continues to dialogue with Jonah even through Jonah’s anger. The lesson is clear: God’s mercy is more powerful than his judgments, and God’s plan will not be thwarted even by the negative “righteousness” of his prophet.
2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 7: 29 – 31
This is a very early letter of Paul’s. The expectation at this time was that Jesus was coming back very soon – that his life, death and resurrection had ushered in the ‘end-times.’ This belief empowered the early Christians including Paul to eagerly share the good news of Jesus Christ.
“The world as we know it is passing away” – Paul wanted us to think about the priorities that fill our lives and preoccupy our minds. Richard Rohr talks about this a lot, the idea that we NOTICE what we are feeling and doing as a way of seeing how God works in our life. We don’t need to be so attached to the emotion. We can wonder about our responses, a little like Paul is telling the Corinthians to do. Rohr says, “Wondering is a word connoting at least three things: standing in disbelief, standing in the question itself and standing in awe before something. Try letting all three ‘standings’ remain open inside of you…whenever we can appreciate the goodness and value of something, while still knowing its limitations and failures, this also marks the beginning of wisdom and nondual consciousness,” (The Naked Now, p. 46, 106). It is allowing the tension…to live without resolution. When we open ourselves in this way, God has an easier time entering in and causing something new to happen. Have you experienced this? How does this help us with the Gospel message?
The Gospel – Mark 1: 14 – 20
Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes in her essay, “We Were Made for Times Like These”, “When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for.” Simon, Andrew, James and John are all safely keeping to their boats, but Jesus calls them out. They go. What would your response be…to stay safe or to go out?
Joseph Fitzmyer, a New Testament scholar, notes how strange this metaphor of ‘catching people like fish’ seems to be. The mission of the disciples was to bring people to salvation (fullness of health). Yet, fishermen eat fish, not save them! He points out, though, that the Greek term that Jesus used to say that they would be ‘catchers or netters’ of humanity could literally be translated as “you will be taking them alive.” The strange metaphor then comes to mean that those ‘caught’ or ‘netted’ by Peter and the others would be saved from death and gathered into God’s Kingdom. (Celebrations, Feb. 1998)
After his baptism, Jesus may have stayed around John and his followers for awhile. After John’s arrest, it seemed that Jesus began setting up his home in Capernaum. His old life at Nazareth was over and done; it was a clean cut, momentous decision. The village was on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. This lake was and is a large inland lake that is 680 ft. below sea level. It has quite a warm climate and is surrounded by phenomenally fertile land that was quite densely populated. It is considered to be one of the loveliest lakes in the world. “Seen from any point of the surrounding heights it is a fine sheet of water – a burnished mirror set in a framework of rounded hills and rugged mountains.” In Jesus’ time it was thick with fishing boats. This is probably not the first time that these men have met Jesus. Some of them may have been disciples of John. They had known and talked with Jesus; they had heard him preach. Now these fishermen were being invited to “throw in their lot with him.” These were ordinary, sort of middle-class men – certainly not poverty stricken – nor were they men to be easily fooled or impressed. As fishermen they may have had just the qualities Jesus needed in his disciples: men of patience, perseverance, courage, cleverness, with the ability to ‘fit the bait to the right fish’, to stay out of the way, and to know how to recognize the right moment for action. (William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol.1 77-79)
The invitation is also open-ended. Jesus does not tell Peter and Andrew how they will “fish for people.” No, Jesus’ call is – like many calls – appealing but also confusing…There are many ways of being called. Many people think that being called means hearing voices. Or they feel that since they have never had a knocked-me-off-my-feet spiritual experience that they have not been called. But often being called can be more subtle, manifesting itself as a strong desire, a fierce attraction, or even an impulse to leave something behind,” (Fr. J. Martin’s Jesus: A Pilgrimage, p. 134, 141).
The leaving of everything to follow Jesus was the way the gospel writers expressed the need of disciples to make Jesus the priority in life. These fishermen were no longer just fishermen anymore once they began to follow Jesus. They probably went out during the day with Jesus to the surrounding areas returning to their families at night or after short intervals, even returning to fishing when necessary. Their total response to Jesus is meant to be an example to all of us as to where our priorities should lie. With Christ as the center of their lives, it was now more important to go out to ‘catch’ the suffering sea of humanity. This humanity was in need of God’s love, God’s kingdom and presence in their lives. What they have to offer others in Jesus’ name was not just good news; it was great news! It still is and we still have the same calling. (M. Birmingham, Word and Worship Workbook for Year A, 363,364)
Martin Luther King responded profoundly to God’s call of justice with great hope, faith, and love – even in the midst of violence and hatred: “If you lose hope, somehow you lose vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be . . . so today, I still have a dream.”
1st Reading – Samuel 3: 3b — 10, 19
From M Birmingham: The Books of Samuel recall a time of transition. From the time of Joshua, Israel had been governed by a loose tribal confederacy. These books tell of the move to one central government that reached its pinnacle in the reigns of David and Solomon. The major figure during this time of political change was Samuel, a late-eleventh-century B.C. voice of the times. The books span the time from Samuel’s birth and childhood through the reign of David and his sons. David is remembered as Israel’s ‘golden age.’ Prior to David’s reign, Israel was suspicious of kings. These books reflect these suspicions. Many preferred the tribal system over the monarchy. The Books of Samuel reflect these tensions. The first king, Saul (who Samuel anointed), was a great disappointment. David came and was able to unify the tribes and to establish the city of Jerusalem as the capital: it was on the border between the north and the south and, thus, acceptable to both. The high point of these books is Yahweh’s promise to David that his reign would last forever. Israel would remember this promise as a sign of God’s protection during future difficult times. (Word and Worship Workbook for Year B, 451-451)
Are you “familiar with the Lord”? How does God reveal Godself to you? And where? Notice God comes to Samuel right where he is-in bed! Of course, we don’t find out what God says to Samuel in this reading, but God reveals that he is going to punish Eli because his sons blasphemed (1 Samuel 3:11-14). It may have been left out of the lectionary because the point being made is God calls us to action, and does so where we are.
2nd Reading – I Corinthians 6: 13c-15a, 17-20:
Paul is speaking about what was common in Greek thinking at the time, that the body is separated from the soul. Because of the separation, if one sinned, that was the body’s fault and not the soul. So sin away! Paul is telling them (and us!) that our souls are enfleshed. We are body AND soul for the Lord. How does this affect our lives today? How do you use your whole self for God’s work?
Just because God’s Spirit dwells in us we have become a temple of God; and so our very bodies are sacred. And more – Christ died to save not a bit of a person, but the whole person, body and soul. Christ gave his life to give each person a redeemed soul and a pure body. Because of that our bodies are not our own to do with what we like; we belong to Christ. We must use our bodies not for the satisfaction of our own lusts, but for the glory of Christ. The great fact of the Christian faith is, not that a person is free to sin, but that it makes a person free NOT to sin. It is so easy to allow habits to master us; but the Christian strength enables us to master them, (W Barclay’s Daily Study Bible Series, p. 56-57)
From Ronald Rolheiser’s blog entry, “In Praise of Skin”: In becoming flesh, God legitimizes skin, praises skin, enters it, honors it, caresses it, and kisses it. Among all the religions of the world, we stand out because, for us, salvation is never a question of stepping outside of skin, but of having skin itself glorified. That is why Jesus never preached simple immortality of the soul, but insisted on the resurrection of the body.
The Gospel – John 1:35 – 42
We go right from Epiphany to the Baptism of the Lord to Jesus in ministry now. Jesus grew up and into his calling in a couple weeks!
What’s in a name? Jesus is called the Lamb of God, Rabbi and Messiah in this pericope. Simon gets the new name of Cephas, or Peter. Think about the different names you are called, maybe nicknames, terms of endearment, maybe not-so-kind names in traffic! Names are how we are known to people. Names make us unique. Names can sometimes hurt. Sometimes we have pet names for people. When your name is remembered by an old friend, it makes you feel good (and not if it is forgotten). Jesus always knows your name (like Cheers!). You are unique, called and special in Jesus’ eyes always.
The title, Lamb of God, has many overtones and shades of meaning. It obviously was an important title for Jesus in John’s community. It contains a rather compact wealth of Christological information. Ray Brown and William Barclay point out the various meanings and images connected with this phrase.
- Passover Lamb: By whose blood the Israelite slaves were saved from death (Exodus 12). This was also celebrated by the sacrifice of a lamb every morning and evening in the Temple in Jerusalem.
- Suffering Servant Lamb: In whose suffering others would find healing and strength (Isaiah 53:7).
- Triumphant Lamb: Whose mission it was to overcome evil and reign over all peoples of the earth (Revelation 7:17, plus it is used 29 times throughout the book).
As Barclay says, this title sums up “the love, the sacrifice, the suffering, and the triumph of Christ.” (Celebration, 2000, and The Gospel of John, Vol. 1, by William Barclay, p. 80-82)
More thoughts from Barclay:
It is John the Baptist that calls Jesus the Lamb of God. Once again we see him pointing beyond himself. He must have known very well that to speak to his disciples about Jesus like that was to invite them to leave him and transfer his loyalty to this new and greater teacher; and yet he did it. There was no jealousy in John. He had come to attach men and women not to himself but to Christ. There is no harder task than to take the second place when once the first place was enjoyed. But as soon as Jesus emerged on the scene John never had any other thought than to send people to him.
Notice that Jesus TURNED to the disciples. It is God who takes the first step. And what does he ask? “What are you looking for?” What are YOU looking for? What’s your aim and goal? What are you trying to get out of life? Whether you are a young person or retired, this is a question for all of us.
Andrew seems to be the man of introductions, because that is all he ever does in Scripture. He does so here, in John 6:8-9 when he brings the boy with the loaves and fishes to Jesus and in John 12:22 when he brings inquiring Greeks to Jesus. Like John the Baptist, it must have brought Andrew joy to bring people to Jesus. And he is often named as Peter’s brother, as if he was second fiddle to Peter. He seems to be a humble, loyal servant of God.
From Mary Birmingham, Word and Worship for Year B, p. 457:
The readings for this Sunday remind us that “all of salvation history can be summarized as the process in which God is in constant search of human beings. God is the initiator. But the invitation must be accepted in faith and in freedom. It is an invitation to respond. We are told what that response involves: action. Today’s gospel is pregnant with action words – see, stay, hear, believe, come, watch. These verbs evoke the acts, which lead from one’s initial discovery of the Lord to the resolute commitment to follow him in order to be near him . . .
What is it that causes people to hope when all seems lost? Where do they find it? The Women of St. Kateri met virtually last night, and we talked about the story of Ruth. A famine came, and it took the lives of Ruth’s husband, brother-in-law and father-in-law. It left three women, Ruth, Orpah and Naomi, with nothing. They heard there might be food in the land where Naomi originally came, Bethlehem, so they start walking there. After great emotion, Orpah decides to go back to her mother’s house; Ruth and Naomi continue on. As a group of women sharing this story together now and in our world today, we grappled with the desperation of these three women and what could have led them to have hope. Especially Ruth, because Naomi had lived in Bethlehem before and knew people. Ruth left everything she knew behind to be with Naomi, saying the famous lines, “Do not plead with me to leave you or to turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you sleep, I will sleep. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do so to me, and worse, if anything but death separates me from you,” (Ruth 1: 16-17). How is hope found in the darkness?
It seems what we can learn from this story is that hope can be found in courage, hope can be found in each other, and hope is always found in the Lord. Ruth and Naomi trudged onward from Moab to Bethlehem because they couldn’t stay in the famished land with no husbands (not a feminist thought, but it is how it was then). They had no choice but to move forward toward something and someone that might help them. Their courage proves fruitful, because they do find food, land and people that help them in the end. It is that courage (the root “cor”, meaning heart) that keeps them going.
Hope loves company. It is so hard to hope alone. Ruth and Naomi leaned on each other to get through. If one of them got discouraged, the other carried them both. When Naomi begged Ruth to go back home, she eventually stopped urging her, “for she saw she was determined to go with her,” (1:18). They were in this together.
Eventually Ruth marries Boaz who is a relative in her father-in-law’s family, and they have a son Obed who will be the grandfather of King David. Naomi rejoices, and the women around her say, “Blessed is the Lord who has not failed to provide you today with an heir!” (4:14). Our hope is in the Lord. Even when all seems defeated and lost.
In reflecting on all of this – and please take this time if you’re able – I doodled a picture of a bucket. We all have buckets in our hearts that the Lord pours hope into (faith). We have to be brave (courage) and hold our buckets out so we can catch it. Then, it is our job to pour a little into each other’s hearts too (company). Ruth and Naomi, through their courage, company and faith, had full buckets of hope that they were willing to share. May they strengthen us. May we hold out our buckets to the Lord, gather the hope and share it like they did. Naomi and Ruth, pray for us!
1st Reading – Isaiah 42: 1-4, 6-7
This is the first of four ‘suffering servant’ songs from the second part of the Book of Isaiah. The prophet wishes us to see that God acts through this chosen servant to nullify the power of evildoers and so to restore the harmony and peace that arises where God’s justice is acknowledged and lived. Jesus must have loved the Book of the Prophet Isaiah for he modeled his life on these words concerning what it is like to be God’s servant. From his baptism on, Jesus knew that he was called and empowered to be this servant – to bring light, and sight, and freedom to all in bondage. God’s justice was one of compassion for all. Like Jesus by our baptism we are called to do likewise – to try to reproduce God’s justice in the world: father the fatherless, mother the motherless, welcome the stranger, feed the traveler, be hospitable to the alien. By trying with intelligence and perseverance to love all who touch our lives, we can help to bring God’s steadfast love into the reality of our everyday life. (Celebration, January 2005)
The justice or righteousness used here means living in right relationship with God and with other people. This justice acknowledges the human dignity of all people, especially those who are in need. Love of God is intrinsically tied to love poured out on others. Isaiah tells us of a Suffering Servant whose justice does not proceed with force or cruelty. This servant brings forth justice carefully, caringly, gently, so gently that even bruised reeds will not break, nor will smoldering wicks be quenched. This Servant brings God’s love to the weak and fragile and needy. Jesus is the fulfillment of this idea of servant. As disciples (learners) of Jesus we, too, must become suffering servants; it is our highest dignity. In baptism we become like Jesus – priest, prophet, and king – sent to lead others to this love of Christ, to share the Good News of the love, and to offer our lives in service for others.(Celebration, January 2002, and Mary Birmingham, Word and Worship Workbook for Year A, 126) What does this “stir to flame” in you?
2nd Reading – Acts 10: 34-380
Cornelius was a gentile – a non-Jew – yet Peter, a faithful Jew, became convinced that he too could be baptized and become a follower of Jesus.
This is echoed in a homily given by Pope Francis: “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class. We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all. And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: We need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: We will meet one another there.”
“For God was with him” Do we know this? That God is with us? That God makes it possible for good to happen in (and through!) our lives if we are open to God’s presence? Just think what your life would be like if God’s love was able to flow freely in and out of you. What good would come?
The Gospel — Jesus’ Baptism – Mark 1: 7-11
Why do you think that Jesus was baptized? **If Jesus shows us what God is like, what do we see in this passage? There is a special irony in Jesus’ baptism that speaks to the central message of the redemptive mystery. Jesus enters into radical solidarity with all people, taking upon himself even the condition of our sinfulness, himself having not sinned. The “one more powerful” assumes the position of weakness. It is precisely in this that he is beloved, and it is from this that he is sent. But how could he be fully human, like us, if he did not sin? We misunderstand this, because we misunderstand our humanity as well as our sin. Jesus reveals to us not only what God is like; he also reveals to us who we are. Our sin in essence is the rejection of the truth of our humanity. Jesus’ utter acceptance of his humanity reverses our sinful rejection of our ‘creatureliness’. His baptism is at the heart of his mission to heal us. He enters into even the wounds of our self-rejection and insecurity, without making the rejection and insecurity his own. He stands with us even if that means that he is seen as a sinner. Here the Word of God is enfleshed for all to see. The Spirit hovers over him and the Voice declares to him and to all of us who share his flesh: “This is my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” Jesus IS God’s ancient covenant of love. In him, both halves meet: the divine and the human. (J. Kavaanaugh, S.J. “The Word Encountered”; http://liturgy.slu.edu )
In first-century Israel there were two seasons: rainy (late September to late April) and dry (early May to early September). Most stayed inside during the wet season, so during the dry season people wanted to be out and about, a very important Mediterranean activity. When John was baptizing, it was probably the beginning of the dry period. The Jordan River would be still filled with water and it would now be warmed by the sun. Jesus’ baptism by John is one of the most certain historical events recorded in the gospels. Its significance caused the early Christians first some embarrassment and gradually great insight. Another point: in Marks’ brief account it is a ‘mouth-full’ to say that Jesus leaves his family and village to come to John for baptism. One’s family was the central social institution of his day; this step away from his family would have been seen by his culture as very risky, even shameful. When the voice from heaven claims him as a beloved son, a whole new type of family is set up. Mark expects us who are hearing this gospel to recognize that the source of Jesus’ honor is God not his family or culture. God personally acknowledges Jesus as a beloved, obedient son and servant. (John Pilch, “Historical Cultural Context,” http://liturgy.slu.edu )
Jesus’ encounter with his calling and identity at his baptism is the starting point for all that he will undertake. It is because Jesus knows who he is that he does as he does. He trusts the truth that he is God’s beloved; he refuses, even in the face of suffering and death, to believe the lie that God is distant, uncaring, or condemning. At baptism, we are also called sons and daughters of God. In fact, our baptism is our acceptance of that truth. Like Jesus, we need to let that truth fill our lives and overflow into all we do and are. We are never just consumers or spectators or travelers or workers – all of us are God’s beloved, “Working with the Word” http://liturgy.slu.edu .
1st Reading – Isaiah 9: 1-6
Of course, when Isaiah first wrote this passage he was not thinking of Jesus – or of a ‘far-future messiah.’ He was trying to encourage King Ahaz (the weak and unwise king at the time) to be strong and to rely on God’s wisdom and power. He was promising the birth of a son who unlike Ahaz would be faithful, prudent, and far-sighted – and in this way would be Immanuel, God-is-with-us. It seems that Isaiah’s hope never did become reality; this expectation, though, gave rise to the yearning for a true Messiah – one born to bring God’s presence to the people. (Mary Birmingham, Word and Worship Workbook for Year C, 77-78)
2nd Reading – Titus 2: 11-14
This letter was written not to a community but to an individual in regards to their pastoral duties. Many commentators feel Paul himself probably did not write this letter; most likely a disciple of Paul wrote it wanting to give the advice that he felt Paul would have given. In this passage he is simply reminding all that Christ’s coming in time and history [in birth and on a cross] is about our lives right now – and in the ultimate future hope of a second coming in fullness and light. Our task we are told is not to retreat from the world but to be “eager to do what is good” – to let our very lives reflect the goodness of our Lord. It is only in the light of the ‘second coming’ – the final and full triumph! — that we can celebrate the first coming!
(R. Fuller, “Scripture in Depth”, http://liturgy.slu.edu./ChristmasC122509; M. Birmingham, Word and Worship Wrbk. for Yr C, 77-78)
From John Kavanaugh, S.J. “The Word Engaged,” http://liturgy.slu.edu./ChristmasC122509:
Christmas is a celebration that is concrete, particular, and universal. It is about a past event of a small baby and about humanity and the heavens. It is about us. As the letter to Titus reminds us, Christ is central to us and our salvation (the fullness of life and health). The Spirit of God is lavished on us through Jesus who saves us and justifies us through the wondrous mercy of God. We all become heirs in hope of eternal life. Christmas means that God not only created space and time: God entered them, became our flesh and blood, our kin, our child . . .
The Gospel – Luke 2: 1-14
The Infancy Narratives pose difficult problems for those who try to use them to reconstruct some actual history for there are agreements and also discrepancies. (Reginald Fuller, “Scripture in Depth”, http://liturgy.slu.edu.) It is more about the truth of God’s entrance into human history through the person of Jesus – born as one of the poor and insignificant, tracing his life to two inconsequential towns (Nazareth and Bethlehem). His power is not about ‘government overthrow’ but about conversion and openness to God’s love. In Jesus God comes for the outcast, for the despised, and ‘unclean’ – the shepherds. Angels bring messages: God is offering salvation to everyone. The phrase “people of good will” is not meant to be an exclusion – it is meant to refer to all people who because of this birth, are objects of divine favor — all is permeated with God’s life and love and holiness. (M Birmingham, Word and Worship Workbook Year C, 79-80)
From John Foley, S.J. “Spirituality of the Readings” http://liturgy.slu.edu./ChristmasC122509:
The Christmas story urges us to ask: “What does it mean to be fully human?” Since God chose to become human, the whole meaning of Christmas rests on the answer. Is it about all the ‘Martha-like-work’ that the season brings? Is it the ‘family tradition’ of dinners and presents and decorations to which we cling? But what about those who have no family – or are sick and alone? Jesus’ life, too, had fun and laughter along with the suffering and poverty. Maybe full humanity has to do with loving and being love. Isn’t love the aching desire that lies under all the rest? Don’t we all long for a love that will at last be carried out? A love we can trust? And a love that we might be bold enough to love in return? In a word, to be fully human means allowing enough room inside ourselves to let God and others in. It means letting go of all those things we think will save our lives (possessions, honors, importance, bigness), so that we can relate to God and to others. In the busy-ness and noise of this season, we need to find time to listen for the stillness. We may be only inches away from the emptying-out that will let God be born inside of us. Let it be!
Ronald Rolheiser in The Holy Longing:
***Thought on Jesus’ Incarnation: The Word was made flesh and dwells among us. (John 1: 14) The incarnation is still going on and it is just as real and as radically physical as when Jesus of Nazareth, in the flesh, walked the dirt roads of Palestine (p.76).
God takes on flesh so that every home becomes a church, every child becomes the Christ-child, and all food and drink become a sacrament. God’s many faces are now everywhere, in flesh, tempered and turned down, so that our human eyes can see him. God, in his many-faced face, has become as accessible, and visible, as the nearest water tap” (p. 78). We are the Body of Christ. This is not an exaggeration, or a metaphor . . . The word did not just become flesh and dwell among us – it became flesh and continues to dwell among us (p. 79-80). This is the core of Christian spirituality . . . God’s presence in the world today depends very much upon us. We have to keep God present in the world in the same way as Jesus did . . . The word that he spoke is not heard in our contemporary world unless it is proclaimed by the community . . .As God once acted through Christ, so he now acts through those who are conformed to the image of his Son (p.80). The God who has become incarnate in human flesh is found, first and foremost, not in meditation and monasteries, albeit God is found there, but in our homes (p.100).
Luke’s Birth Story – Notes from William Barclay
The Roman Census — In the Roman Empire periodic censuses were taken with the double object of assessing taxation and discovering those eligible for compulsory military service. The Jews were exempt from military service so any census would have been only for taxation. In Egypt they have discovered much evidence of these censuses – and that they were taken every 14 years. If that pattern held true, then Jesus’ birth might have been in about 7 or 8 B.C. Quirinius was not governor of Syria until 6 A.D. but he did hold an official post there from 10 -7 B.C. It was also the custom in Egypt to have every man go back to his home origin; it may also have been the case in Israel.
Bethlehem — Nazareth was 80 miles from Bethlehem. (Its name means the ‘place of bread’.) The accommodations for travelers were most primitive. ‘Inns’ were merely a series of stalls opening off a common courtyard. Travelers brought their own food. Since there was little room according to Luke, Mary and Joseph would have stayed in the common courtyard – or perhaps found shelter in a cave, also common around this town. The fact that there was no room for Jesus was symbolic of what would happen to him: rejection would be his fate: the only place where there was room for him was on the cross. He still seeks to enter the crowdedness of our hearts . . .
Swaddling clothes were the common way to ‘dress’ an infant. They consisted of a square of cloth with a long, bandage-like strip coming off from the corner. The infant would be wrapped in the square and then the long strip was wound round and round about him.
The manger was quite literally the place where animals feed.
Shepherds were despised by orthodox good people of the day. Shepherds were quite unable to keep the details of the ceremonial law; they could simply not observe all the hand-washings and regulations. Their flocks made constant demands on them. They were rough, uncouth, and unclean characters. But these shepherds also served God. Their sheep were the lambs to be one day offered as sacrifice in the temple in Jerusalem just 7 miles away. Luke is certainly comparing their lambs with Jesus, the Lamb of God. The shepherds, the unclean and rough, were invited by angels (God’s messengers) to come.
1st Reading – Isaiah 61: 1-2, 10-11
Some scholars suggest that this prophet may have delivered this uplifting message to his people while standing among the ruins that had once been Jerusalem. With these words of hope, they could begin to rebuild their city – and their lives. It was the ‘year of favor’ from the Lord. A ‘Year of Favor’, or a Jubilee Year, was a time of social reconciliation and economic restitution according to Leviticus 25: 9-19, 23-55. The land was to rest without planted crops. The poor could eat freely of whatever ‘wild crops’ grew. Property that had been once seized, borrowed, or rented was to be returned to its rightful owner. Slaves were to be set free. All debts were to either be remitted or forgiven. For such was the favor and forgiveness that Israel had experienced at God’s hand. (Celebration, December 15, 2002) When you experience and know this kind of joy, you want to DO something about it.
Henri Nouwen reflecting on joy in Here and Now:
Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death – can take that love away…Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day. It is a choice based on the knowledge that we belong to God and have found in God our refuge and our safety…Joy does not depend on the ups and downs of the circumstances of our lives. Joy is based on the spiritual knowledge that, while the world in which we live is shrouded in darkness, God has overcome the world…God’s light is more real than all the darkness.
2nd Reading – 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24
Verses 16-18 give us 3 marks of a genuine Church: happy, prayerful and thankful. When a Church lives up to Paul’s advice, it will indeed shine like a light in a dark place; it will have joy within itself and power to win others (Barclay’s Daily Study Series, p. 207-208). How are we as Church doing this now? Where can we grow?
In daily life we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy…Love wholeheartedly, be surprised, give thanks and praise-then you will discover the fullness of your life. ~ Br. David Steindl-Rast
Verse 23: “make you perfectly holy” is also translated (www.biblehub.com):
NIV-sanctify you through and through
NLT-make you holy in every way
KJV-sanctify you wholly
MGE-make you holy and whole
The Gospel – John 1: 6-8, 19-28
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in. ~Leonard Cohen
Maybe John the Baptist is the crack, and helps us see the light coming through it.
This gospel may seem out of place with the other two readings. We have been prepared with joy and hope; we have been encouraged with positive words and messages. But John’s message in this gospel is filled with negations: “I am not the Messiah, not Elijah, nor the Prophet . . .” He knew himself to be the “voice of one crying in the desert.” Yet, in that solitary truth and task he found joy. There is comfort and assurance in knowing who we are and what our calling is. There is joy in knowing how to look for the “one who is to come.” John is incomplete by himself: so are we! Let us with John be expectant in the midst of a desert – looking for light in the midst of darkness. Even a tiny flicker of light can dispel the darkest gloom. Maybe then we will be free to discover the many and various ways the Lord Jesus Christ comes into our lives. (Living with Christ, December, 2011, p. 123)
As the questioning continues in today’s passage, and John the Baptist increasingly illustrates no eschatological role, why does he baptize? He replies that his is a water baptism, a Jewish rite of purification, implying a change of heart. There is no immediate or direct comparison with Jesus’ baptism; rather, the emphasis is on the witness to Jesus as one superior to John. Whom do you not recognize (or know) (v26): this is one of John’s key words. The believer is the one who “knows” Jesus in faith; the non-believer remains unknowing. The Johannine narrative centers wholly on the person of Jesus, God’s Son, the Word incarnate, light and life (R. Faley’s Footprints on the Mountain, p. 38).
1st Reading: Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11
From Mary Birmingham, W & W Wkbk for Year B, p. 61: Today’s reading refers to Israel’s return home (They are still in exile.) as well as the prophet’s commissioning, The heavenly court witnesses and approves God’s command, call, and commissioning of the prophet. So commissioned, the prophet’s word announces a new age of restoration for the people. Through the power of God’s Word, the world will be reconciled. The people stood on the threshold of a new age. The creative Word of God had spoken as it was spoken at the dawn of an earlier age, the creation of the world, and into the hearts of all believers was infused the seeds of new life. God’s glory would be revealed when the people were safely restored and in their own land. For Christians the glory of God is revealed in the advent of the One Who Is to Come. What does all of this mean to you?
A reflection question from Breaking Open the Word of God, Cycle B (p. 26): There is such a tension between wanting something and waiting for it. Children ask, “How many days until Christmas?” This is the plea of all of us. When we become aware of our need for God, then we want to experience forgiveness immediately. Patience. Why is waiting so difficult? What do we learn in our waiting? We’ll explore this more in the next reading.
2nd Reading: 2 Peter: 3: 8-14
From Mary Birmingham, p. 63-64: This letter is a pseudonymous work attributed to the apostle Peter. Most scholars date it around the mid-second century (130-150AD). It is probably the last letter written of all the canonical New Testament documents. Its imagery concerning the ‘end of the world’ was a part of the culture of the times. Total destruction by fire was a popular belief from Persia to the Greco-Roman world. These images were also common in Jewish apocalyptic literature. Such images or opinions are not scientific assertions but mythopoeic images. Some scholars also suggest that the translation of heurethesetai (dissolved by fire) is better translated ‘will be laid bare’. Yet, keep in mind that the main point of this passage is that our God is a patient God – and that we need to use whatever time we have to repent, to change, to be reconciled.
Reginald Fuller adds these three points: 1) Watchfulness is a part of Christian living. 2) Rightly understood, the imminent hope in Christianity is a motivation for the pursuit of holiness and Godliness in life. 3) While we can demythologize our scriptures in order to have them ‘speak’ more clearly to us today, we must also hold dear to the fact that the final goal of history is the hope of a new heaven and a new earth. (“Scripture in Depth”, http://liturgy.slu.edu )
The Gospel: Mark 1: 1-8
John’s clothing seems to be taken directly from 2 Kings 1:8 as the traditional ‘dress’ of a prophet. John’s diet also has to do with the truth of the good news he is to proclaim. Locusts were traditionally regarded as God’s instruments of judgment because they were agents of bitter and punishing destruction (Exodus 10:4, Isaiah 33:4, Psalm 105:34). Honey, however, signified peace and plenty and was a symbol of God’s comfort and care (Exodus 3:8, Deuteronomy 6:3). Together, these two ‘ingredients’ seem to announce the dual character of the gospel. Like locusts, the good news of Jesus Christ would lay bare and devour evil; like honey, the gospel would bring comfort, peace and sweet salvation to the repentant sinner. Today, John still stands in our midst. He still calls us to prepare ourselves, our ways, our hearts, our wills, and our world to welcome the challenge and the comfort, the purifying power and the peace that is Jesus. (Celebration, Dec. 2002)
From Mary Birmingham, W & W Wkbk for Year B, p. 65: Mark asserts that the story of Christ really begins with the arrival of John the Baptist. The story begins in the desert by the Jordan’s banks – a place that evokes images from the Hebrew scriptures. The desert was always known as a place of numinous encounters between God and human beings. The desert was also known as a place of retreat, where one could disassociate from the world and enter into Yaheweh’s divine presence (Have you ever been to a desert? Have you ever been on retreat and had it feel like a desert experience?). The Essene community is one such example. The Essenes made their home in the desert at Qumran by the Dead Sea in protest of what they believed to be the unlawful way in which those who were in power at the Temple in Jerusalem came into that power. The Essenes wished to establish a new community of Israel that was pleasing in the eyes of God. Assuming that John the Baptist was a part of this community, how does this information help us understand more from where he is coming from? How does this attitude help us prepare for Jesus?