Second Sunday of Ordinary Time: Beginning with Christ

And so we begin again, Ordinary Time.  This year we are reading Mark.  As I have often said, I like the theory that Mark was Peter’s disciple, and this is therefore Peter’s Gospel.  Peter is, above all, the one who was commended for knowing who Jesus is – “who do you say that I am? You are Christ!  . . . You are Peter!” – and then immediately put down for denying the cross (“Get behind me Satan”), and who would always know that he abandoned Christ at the Cross.  Therefore Mark’s Gospel is the most Cross-centered, rushing toward the key event.

But because it is short, we also get some supplemental readings from John.  This first Ordinary Sunday (called the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time), in fact, we get the story of the call of Peter.  It is a conversion story.

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John is like a theological commentary on the other Gospels.  At the end of our Gospel this Sunday, he inverts Peter’s Confession.  In the other three Gospels, the call of the first disciples begins like this: “And walking along beside the sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen.”

But in John, there are three differences.  First, those two disciples are disciples of John the Baptist, not just fishermen.  The other Gospels tell us that the Baptist has prepared the way – but John the Evangelist dramatizes it.

The second and third differences are here: “One of the two who heard John and followed Him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.  He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, We have found the Messiah (which is, being translated, the Christ).  And he brought him to Jesus.”

Peter is not the first called, he receives his call through his brother.

And Peter is not the first to profess Jesus Messiah – he hears from his brother.  All the way through, they are hearing from another.

John’s version of the story culminates like this: “And when Jesus saw him, He said, You are Simon the son of Jonah; you shall be called Cephas (which translated is, A stone).”  It is an inversion of Peter’s profession.  In the other version, Peter says, “You are Christ, Son of the Living God.”

The standard theory says John is only distantly related to the other three Gospels.  I guess I should submit to those who know better than I.  But look, in the Greek, these are word for word the same.  John isn’t ignorant of Matthew’s story.  He’s quoting it, and turning it inside out.

It’s not that John is opposed to Matthew – or that any of the Gospels are opposed to each other.  It’s that John is giving a theological commentary.  Yes, of course Peter professes Christ (in John 6, it will be about the Eucharist).  But before Peter found Jesus, Jesus found Peter, and before Peter knew Jesus, Jesus knew Peter.

How powerful the moment earlier in our reading when “Jesus turned and saw them.”  To be seen, to be known, by Christ.

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I just got to teach Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium again.  This time, one of the lines that moved me the most quoted this Sunday’s Gospel: “The apostles never forgot the moment when Jesus touched their hearts: ‘It was about four o’clock in the afternoon’ (Jn 1:39).”

15 Lorenzo Veneziano, Calling of the Apostles Peter and Andrew. 1370 Staatliche Museen, Berlin..jpgIn fact, I think the point of the document – it’s about evangelization, but it’s called “The Joy of the Gospel” and talks a lot about our motives – is not that we should start with evangelization, but that if we don’t want to evangelize, we should ask what is wrong.

In the introduction, almost the first words, Francis says, “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment” – not to start with evangelization, but – “to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day.”  This is the topic of our Gospel this Sunday.

He continues, “Thanks solely to this encounter – or renewed encounter – with God’s love, which blossoms into an enriching friendship, we are liberated from our narrowness and self-absorption. . . . Here we find the source and inspiration of all our efforts at evangelization. For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?”  Evangelization is a result of the joy of the Gospel.

Our first reading, the call of Samuel, says the same thing.  Samuel leaps when he hears the Lord’s voice, and then says, “Speak for your servant is listening!”  That is why “the Lord was with him, not permitting any word of his to be without effect.”  His words had an effect on his listeners because he was listening to the word of the Lord.

Our second reading is First Corinthians – the first several weeks of each year begins with a different section of First Corinthians – here, talking about sexual morality.  But that’s not how St. Paul approaches the issue.  He talks about being a member of Christ, a temple of the Holy Spirit, glorifying God in our body.  As Pope Benedict said at the beginning of his first encyclical, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

At the beginning of this new year, the Lectionary summons us to encounter Christ, to begin again with that first meeting.  To stumble with the disciples of John the Baptist, as they hear Jesus pointed out, follow him, are discovered by him, go to see where he stays, and thus become apostles even to the other apostles.

When did you first meet Jesus?  Can you remember the hour?Hendrik ter Brugghen - De Roeping van Sint Mattheus.jpg

The Incarnation and the Sea

Since my first John Denver Christmas post was popular – and, more important, since I encouraged us to think about Christmas in relation to the kerygma – here’s another piece.

The least Christmas-y song on “John Denver and the Muppets: Christmas Together,” is called “When the River Meets the Sea.”  Once again, John Denver is helpful because he’s so wrong – and then also helpful because he’s not all wrong.

His theme, I guess, is patience.  Some of the lines are just corny: “Like a baby when it is sleeping / In its loving mother’s arms / What a newborn baby dreams is a mystery”

I’m not sure a baby’s dreams are any more mysterious than anyone else’s, except that they appear to dream a lot about nursing.  So hey, let’s not press too hard on John Denver’s philosophy.  He’s just writing sentimental lyrics about the beautiful things he cares about: mostly mountains (the first line is “When the mountain touches the valley / All the clouds are taught to fly”), other things Colorado (the next verse begins “Like a flower that has blossomed / In the dry & barren sand”), and at this point in his life, I guess, babies (the chorus of another song says, “Merry Christmas, little Zachary” – it appears that he adopted a Zachary and an Anna, which might explain why he loves babies but doesn’t know that newborns appear to dream about nursing).

Anyway, the song is about patience: “truth and justice will be done” eventually, just like, I guess, the clouds learn to fly when they bump into the mountains.  But the chorus – the central image – is, “when the river meets the sea.”  For example, whatever that baby might be dreaming about now (maybe John Denver thinks he has premonitions of his blessed hope?), “His life will find a purpose / and in time he’ll understand / When the river meets the sea / When the river meets the Almighty sea!”

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Well, here’s my point: as Christians, we don’t believe that our lives end the way the river ends when it meets the Almighty sea.  John Denver’s idea is a perfectly reasonable one, held by most world religions: somehow our lives are momentary outgrowths from God (the “Almighty”), like spots on the sun, into which we then disappear again.  That makes sense.

But it isn’t what Christians believe.  One way of stating the kerygma is that we believe in heaven: we believe that we will survive contact with God.  Like the burning bush, and unlike the sunspot, we are not destroyed by contact with God.  The pleasure in heaven is our ability to survive as persons in union with God.

One of the greatest theological words for this is communion (from the Latin translation of the Greek word koinonia, a central word in the New Testament).  Com- means with, and communion means that in our union with God there is not just union, not just one being swallowed up by the other, as the river meets the almighty sea, but still two who are “with” one another.

Gebhard Fugel Moses vor dem brennenden Dornbusch c1920.jpgTraditional piety connects Mary with the burning bush – but the original burning bush is the one lying in the manger.  The mystery of Christmas is that human weakness is not destroyed by contact with God.  Were Jesus only to be a superman, we might think that somehow God and man had been blended, a halfway-between – but the weakness of Jesus, in the manger and on the cross, shows us that the fragile human person remains in all its singularity, even in the closest contact with divinity.

Mary is the burning bush because she too remains in her integrity, she is not swallowed up, either by the God in her womb or by being full of grace.  Jesus in the manger is the first full proclamation of the Gospel, and Mary is the second: she shows that the mystery of the burning bush doesn’t end with Jesus, but is our destiny too.

We don’t end like when the river meets the sea, swallowed up and disappearing.  We survive, like the burning bush, and live eternally, full of the light and life of God himself.  Communion.  That is the kerygma, and that is the mystery of Christmas.  John Denver has it exactly wrong.

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Now, I’m not trying to make you a John Denver fan here – I just like the album because I think the Muppets are funny.  (And humor, like family, is not destroyed but embraced by the presence of God.)  But we can come back and see that John Denver does get some things right.

The mountains bumping the clouds is not yet communion – the mountain pushes the clouds out of the way.  But the clouds do survive.  Even silly sentimentality knows it can’t be right that our destiny is just to disappear into the ocean.File:Cretey-Nativité-Detroit.jpg

The flower that is born in the dry and barren sand hints at a deeper union.  Jesus himself uses the seed as an image of how we flourish in union, and somehow the tender image of the flower does say something about life – though Jesus’s metaphor points to communion by insisting that the soil not be dry and barren.  It is worthwhile to ponder whether God or man is soil or seed.

We needn’t completely beat up on our silly sentimental secular songwriters.  Grace does not destroy nature, and the truest flowering of our nature survives contact with God.  But let the weakness of John Denver’s visions remind us how desperately we need the Gospel of that baby in the manger, and the grace he pours first into his mother’s heart and then into ours, to purify our hope.