Easter and the Gospel

Easter allows us to state the Gospel in the simplest terms: The death and resurrection of Jesus are symbolic and causative (just as a sacrament causes what it symbolizes).  And they symbolize and cause our moral death and resurrection.

File:Altenburg Brüderkirche Wandmalerei Auferstehung.jpgJust as Jesus died in the body, we are to die to our old way of life.  Just as Jesus rose again, we are to live a new life.  The new life is no less bodily, but it is a life from God and for God, and a life that never ends.

Jesus’s death and resurrection don’t just affect him.  They don’t just affect us emotionally, as if the main point of Good Friday was to be sad and the main point of Easter is to be happy.  They are sad and happy, and they do affect Jesus, but that is not the main point.  They don’t just affect our bodies, as if the Resurrection promises us only physical life after death.

And they are not just encouragement.  My silly new line with my students is, Jesus is not our Zumba instructor.  It is not that he moves vigorously around in our sight, and then we have to do our best to imitate that vigor.  The point of the Resurrection is that God is powerful to do what nature cannot do on its own.  I am weak and he is strong.

Jesus lives his life in the flesh to raise us to a greater life.

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Thus at the Easter Vigil, one of the central proclamations of the Gospel in the whole Church year, proclaimed with the Gloria and with lights after darkness, is from Romans 6:

“We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.”

  1. File:Atribbuted to Hans von Aachen 001.jpgOur participation in his death is sacramental. It’s not that when we physically die we will imitate Christ’s physical death and resurrection (though that happens too, as a consequence).  It’s that his physical death, and our physical baptism, participate in a world of symbols that point to and bring about something greater: our moral resurrection.
  2. Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father. So too it is only the glory of God that brings our new life: not just zumba-style imitation, but an influx of the light of God, bringing eternal life to our death.
  3. The new life we are given is not just more of the same physical life, but “newness of life,” that is, a new way of life, a transformed life, a new “moral” life, the life of the Beatitudes.

“We know that our old self was crucified with him, so that our sinful body might be done away with, that we might no longer be in slavery to sin.”

There is a death we must die.  But it is death to sin.  It is a bodily death, and sin is in our body, our “body of sin.”  But of course the Resurrection (not to mention the physicality of Baptism) cannot mean that bodies themselves are sinful, as St. Paul will say in a moment.  An old way of being bodily—a bodily life that is “corruptible,” in both the corruption that is physical death and the corruption that is sin—is ending, so that we can live a new, incorruptible life, also in the body.

File:Hans Thoma Auferstehung.jpg“If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.  We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him”

The end is not death, nor is it the destruction of our body.  The end is new life, in the body.

“As to his death, he died to sin once and for all; as to his life, he lives for God.  Consequently, you too must think of yourselves as being dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus.”

His physical death is a sign of death to sin.  His physical life is a sign of life for God.  The consequence in us is that we live, in our bodies, a new life, no longer for sin but for God.  Our Resurrection is above all a moral resurrection, the life of the Beatitudes.

How do you pray the Resurrection?

Palm Sunday – Mark’s Picture of the Savior

Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the “Synoptic” Gospels–it means something like “look-alike”–because they are so similar, mostly word-for-word, that it is obvious they are copying from one another.  

Luke says in his introduction that he is working from previous versions, but we don’t know the relationship between Matthew and Mark.  I like to think of Mark as Peter’s revision of Matthew, though most modern scholars think Mark came first.

Acknowledging that we don’t know the exact relationships between them, it can still be fruitful to approach these three similar documents by digging into what is distinctive in each.  This year, the year of Mark in the Lectionary, I took this approach to my meditation on Palm Sunday, digging into the differences between Mark and Matthew.

***

There are some details of personal recollection.  If the ancient legends are true, Matthew was written by one of the Twelve, and Mark by the disciple of one of the Twelve, so both have inside information.  But it is touching to see the details Peter passes on.

Mark’s gospel tells us that Matthew’s “very expensive ointment” was spikenard–maybe Peter can remember the smell.  When the two disciples go to find the upper room for the Passover, Mark tells us the man they spoke to was carrying a pitcher of water. Matthew tells us only that the room is in a “house,” Mark adds that it is a “guest room,” a “large upper room, furnished and ready.”  

Matthew has the rooster crow once, all that is necessary for the story.  Peter remembers the detail that it was twice.

In the garden in Matthew, Jesus cries out to his Father–but Peter remembers that he used the Aramaic term, “Abba.”  (There’s a legend, started around the year 1900, that Abba means daddy, and we’re supposed to see something sentimental in it.  But it seems just to have been the word for father in Jesus’s language. So too Mark remembers Judas using the Hebrew title “Rabbi,” the places were called Gethsemane and Golgotha, and on the cross Jesus quotes Psalm 22 in Hebrew: Eloi, eloi, lama sabachani.)  Peter remembers the exact words.

Matthew tells us Peter was standing in the courtyard when he denied Jesus.  Mark knows that he was warming his hands by the fire. And he tells us that Peter was recognized by his accent as a Galillean.  

Mark has the weird detail of the young man running away naked.  Many scholars think that’s Mark’s own cameo appearance.

And Mark tells us that Joseph of Armimathea was the father of Alexander and Rufus–people he knows.  

Maybe there is symbolism here, I don’t know.  I just like the picturesque details, the personal touch.

***

And then there are the things Mark leaves out.  Mark’s gospel always cuts to the chase.

The central point in Mark’s gospel is that no one knows who Jesus is until he dies on the Cross.  Peter doesn’t deny that he had said, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God,” and that Jesus had named him Peter, the rock on whom he would build his Church.  But Peter leaves it out of his version of the story, because Peter knows that whatever he said way back then, he didn’t really understand, didn’t know Jesus’s identity well enough to stay with him at the Cross.  

Only at the Cross is Jesus truly revealed.

So in the Garden, Mark has the poignant line, “He said to Peter, ‘Simon’.”  Not such a rock that night. How that old name rings in Peter’s ears.

The characteristic word in Mark is “immediately”: always racing toward the Cross.  And Mark’s account of the Passion skips several details from Matthew’s.

When the soldiers come, Matthew tells us Jesus said he could call on angels, and tells his disciples to put their sword back.  Mark leaves out these details, so that Jesus’ words, “Have you come out as against a robber?” stand in all their starkness.

Mark leaves out the story of Judas hanging himself, Pilate’s wife’s dream, and Pilate washing his hands.  Nice details–but Mark is focused on Jesus headed to the Cross, and he does not want to distract us.

They both say the veil was torn when Jesus died–but Mark leaves out the distracting detail of people rising from the dead, and Matthew’s detail about Pilate guarding against a resurrection hoax.  

Christ is on the Cross, that is all that matters.

It’s not that Matthew’s details didn’t happen.  It’s that Mark wants us to focus, and adds only the details that make the scene real.

***

Finally, a series of details focus on Christ the King.  When the soldiers beat him, Matthew has them asking him to prophesy who did it.  By taking out that detail, Mark lets us focus us how they mock him as messiah-king.  He adds the detail that the mockers “knelt down in homage.”

Matthew says Barabbas was a “notorious prisoner.”  Mark focuses on kingship: “among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection.”  In Matthew, Pilate offers to release “the Christ.” In Mark it is “the King of the Jews.”

In Matthew, they offer Christ on the Cross gall, just something nasty.  But in Mark it is myrrh, a royal embalming spice.

In Matthew, they say to him, “He trusts in God; let him deliver him now, if he desires him; for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”  But Mark stays away from calling him Son of God until he is dead, and changes it to, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross.”  It makes less sense–Matthew’s God can get you down from the Cross better than Mark’s kingship–but Mark keeps us focused on this royal title.

And finally, the great hero of Mark’s gospel, the one who finally recognizes Christ, is no one but the centurion, the captain over a hundred soldiers, who then appears again, only in Mark, as the one who delivers the news to Pilate.  

Mark keeps directing our attention back to Christ as king.

***

And so he directs us back, too, to the triumphal entry with palms.  Matthew is focused on the fulfillment of prophecy, even to adding the weird detail that there were two animals, a colt and an ass.  Mark focuses us on the image of Christ riding in as a humble king, a different kind of king.

Matthew’s crowd acknowledges him as Son of David–fulfiller of the prophecy–but Mark again adds the detail of him being king, so that they say, “Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming! Hosanna in the highest!”

He leads us to our own profession at every Mass: “Hosanna in the highest!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Hosanna appears in the Bible only in this scene; it means something like, “come save us!”)  

Mark makes it a little ironic.  Like the crowds, we may call this king-who-comes blessed because we seek an earthly kingdom.  Or we may have found the true kingship of Christ, a totally different kind of kingship, crowned with thorns and hanging on the Cross.

At every Mass, as we say those words, may Mark’s challenge ring in our ears: do we seek the king apart from the Cross, or the king who hangs on the Cross?  What salvation, and savior, do we profess?

Fifth Sunday of Lent: God Will Act

A very late publication for last Sunday’s readings.

We are getting close, entering the last two weeks before Easter.

The Gospel for this Year B is a reading from John that concludes, “He said this indicating the kind of death he would die.”  What is this death—both the death of Lent that we have been experiencing, and the death of Christ we are about to celebrate?  What do we gain from dying?

***

The beginning of the answer is in our Prophet, Jeremiah.  “The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant.”  Covenant theology became very hip among conservative Catholics, perhaps through Evangelical influences, in the late twentieth century.  I confess I don’t understand what this is about.  But I think it’s important to challenge one idea about covenants: most covenants are two way, but our relationship with God is not one among equals.  More important—and I think this is the central point of the readings this week—it is not the case that God “does his part” and then passively waits for our response.  Our God is living and active.

“This is the covenant that I will make,” he says.  “I will place my law within them. . . . All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the Lord.”  This is not like a two-way agreement.  It is a promise that God will act—will act within our very hearts, stirring the sources of our action.

***

Our Epistle, from Hebrews, says of Jesus, “Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered.”  (Hold this word “obedience” loosely—wait to see what he’s saying about it.)  He learned to offer “prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death.”

The suffering of Christ is about begging God to act, and trusting that even if God leads us to death, he will give us life.  It is entering into the purest passivity—nothing is more passive than being dead—and trusting that God will act to save us.

And so “he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”  We enter into this pattern of trusting God to act—and just as Jesus in his humanity was saved from death by God, so Jesus who is God will himself save us from death.  It is about learning to trust God to act.

***

Our Gospel, from John, not a famous passage, is a telling illustration of two approaches to religion.

Jesus has gone up to Jerusalem for Passover, the feast where he will die.  This is the story immediately after the Triumphal Entry.

In Jerusalem are “some Greeks.”  They tell the Apostle Philip, “who was from Bethsaida in Galilee,” a more Greek part of Israel, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.”  Maybe I’m wrong, but this request sounds . . . tourist-y.  We’re seeing the religious sights, let’s see Jesus too.  They’re like tourists who don’t genuflect in a church, or gawking at the pope in St. Peter’s.  There’s no indication of reverence.  They don’t approach Jesus with faith, they don’t fall down in worship.  Instead, they go to their ‘connection,’ Philip—who himself goes to his connection, Andrew, a more central apostle. (John 1 tells us, “Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.”)

And how tourist-y is our faith?  How much are we looking for an ‘in,’ instead of putting our hope in God?

When Philip and Andrew go to Jesus, he changes the subject—John never mentions those Greeks again.

Instead, Jesus says, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies. . . . Whoever loves his life loses it. . . . Whoever serves me must follow me”—to death—“The Father will honor whoever serves me.”

“I am troubled now.”  Literally, he says, “my soul is stirred up”—and he has just said, “whoever loves his soul will lose it.”  Yes, he is afraid of death—and he says, “damn the torpedoes,” forget the fear, full steam ahead.

***

Then comes one of the weirdest moments in John’s Gospel.  Here, in the middle of Jerusalem, the Father speaks.  Jesus says, “Father, glorify your name,” and a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it and will glorify it again.”  It’s a bizarre experience for the crowd, who then debate whether it was thunder or an angel or what—because they don’t expect God to speak.

But the God of Jesus Christ is alive, he acts.  He speaks.  He glorifies his name.  And he will glorify it—by raising Christ from the dead.  It’s not that we glorify him with our goodness—it’s that he shows his goodness through our weakness.

This is not the god of tourism, not a god in the zoo, or a dead idol whom we check out at our convenience.  This is a God who speaks into our lives and raises us from the dead.  That’s the kind of death Jesus will die: a way of living that stakes everything on God’s promise to act.

“Pray as if everything depends on God, but act as if everything depends on you”?  No.  That’s the opposite of what Jesus does at the cross.  Stake everything on the power and promise of God!  Act like you believe God is alive.

How would you behave differently if you were confident that God will even raise you from the dead?

Laetare Sunday – The Joy of Conversion, the Joy of the Cross

The fourth Sunday of Lent is Laetare Sunday, rose-vestments, a moment to rejoice in the midst of Lent.  For Year B (unless your parish uses Year A, the readings for catechumens), our Gospel gives a sort of stylized vision of the Cross: Jesus is “lifted up,” the light of the world, so that we are not condemned but saved: “for God so loved the world.”  It is another image of the joy of the Lenten desert.

On our way to that Gospel, the Lectionary gives us an astoundingly rich Old Testament reading, from Second Chronicles, of all places.  (The little tastes we get from the Old Testament should set you on alert: these books are more wonderful than we could ever imagine.)

It is the story, told many places, of how God allowed first the ten tribes of the North, then even Jerusalem and the two tribes of the South, to be conquered by the Assyrians and the Babylonians.  Even here there is Good News—rejoicing, even in the Cross and the Desert of Lent.

***

The reading is hard because it is full of Hebrew puns.  “The anger of the Lord against his people was so inflamed.”  Now, the Bible uses metaphors—in the very first question of the Summa, Thomas Aquinas talks about how the Bible uses metaphors both to make divine realities accessible in human language and to remind us how far we are from full knowledge of God.  Of course, the Tradition says, God doesn’t literally get angry.

File:Moses-icon.jpg

The Burning Bush

But here it’s not even a metaphor—not that metaphor, anyway.  The Hebrew word for anger really means “heat.”  God is a consuming fire.  He doesn’t have to get worked up, and it’s not about emotion.  It’s about the reality of God, which our sin runs against like a car racing into a brick wall.  God isn’t angry, he is fire.

The result is that “their enemies burnt the house of God”: his flame consumes them.

Then, in that opening statement, his anger isn’t “inflamed,” as in our translation.  In the Hebrew, it “ascends,” goes up.  Then the enemies “ascend” against them.  And at the end, God’s people “ascend” back to Jerusalem.

And in the middle, God says that by letting his people be deported, he will enforce on the land the sabbath rest that they refused to take: “during all the time it lies waste is shall have rest”: sabbath.

The punishments fit the crime.  God isn’t randomly lashing out in anger.  He is—albeit through created causes—bringing his fire and rest and rising up into his people.  At first it hurts—but then it becomes joy, transfiguration.

***

File:Christ Bearing the Cross MET DP215890.jpgOur Epistle, from Ephesians, gives a very gentle spin to the Cross.  “We are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for good works.”  God is at work in us, he has “raised us up with him.”  Our Epistle says this is about “God, who is rich in mercy,” “great love,” “by grace,” “immeasurable riches,” “kindness,” “the gift of God,” “that we should live.”  Very positive.

But let’s not forget, what he means is that we are being converted, and it is by passing through the Cross of Christ.  On one level, this is very painful.  He is not leaving us as we were, “dead in our transgressions.”  Conversion hurts.  But on the deepest level, our mid-Lenten Epistle reminds us, it is pure joy.

***

Our Gospel is the second half of the Baptism discourse to Nicodemus, “unless you be born again,” though now Christ talks and Nicodemus disappears from the story.

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up”—lifted up on the Cross.  The comparison is striking: Moses’ serpent is the one who bit them, killed them, punished them for their sins.  Again, Jesus puts it in a positive way, but we are reminded that the Cross is the sign of our sin.

File:Russian - Christ Pantokrator - Walters 371183.jpg“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”  The word for “perish” is the strongest one possible, with a preposition added to strenghten it.  We are on the road to destruction—and Christ, Christ on the Cross, pulls us out.

“Everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed.  But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.”  The Cross reveals our sin: our violence, our hatred, our sensuality, our negligence, our rebellion.  True life is in acknowledging our need for conversion—and letting God work that conversion in us, even through Lent and the Cross.  Staying in the dark means destruction.

Laetare Sunday is still Lent, still the way of penance on the way to the Cross.  But in that penance is the joy of turning to the Lord.

Where do you need to be reminded of the joy of conversion?

Third Sunday of Lent: Spring Cleaning

I’m really trying to get these posts up before Sunday, but I have had one technical problem after another.  Sorry about that.

File:Jésus chassant les marchands du temple.JPGLent is a time of spring cleaning.  We are called to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  Prayer and almsgiving fill us up (in relation to God and neighbor)—but there is something central about fasting, emptying ourselves out.

Thus it is appropriate that the revised Lectionary, after the traditional first two Sundays going into the desert to be tempted and going up to the mountaintop to see Christ, now (unless your parish, like mine, chooses to use the Year A readings because of catechumens) gives us John’s story of Jesus cleaning out the Temple.  To be filled up, we must also be emptied out.

***

The first reading is the Ten Commandments.  To keep things simple, the Lectionary gives the option of skipping the extra stuff (verses 4-6 and 9-11) and just getting the main points about the commandments.  But the rhetoric of Exodus is wonderful.  All the “Second Tablet” stuff, the stuff we think most about, honoring our parents, murder, adultery, theft, and coveting, gets said very quickly.  But Scripture takes its time with the First Tablet, idolatry, the name of the Lord, and the Sabbath.  The purpose of the commandments is to empty ourselves out—so that we can put our focus on God.  The First Commandment is the longest because it’s the main point.

Our Epistle, from First Corinthians, gives a Christ-centered spin on this emptying out.  “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified.”  We have to be emptied out not only of mortal sin, but of all our distractions, all our earthly fascinations, and look to Christ alone.

***

And so we come to the cleansing of the Temple.  Jesus drives out the sellers of sheep and oxen and doves, and the money changers.

File:Two scenes in the Temple Christ, the woman taken in adultery, and Pharisees, Christ drives out the money-changers (f. 20v) Cropped.jpgA little background is helpful.  In the last verses of Deuteronomy 14, for example, Scripture specifically says it is okay to buy your sacrifices when you get to Jerusalem.  The language there is nice: in your hometown, you “change” your sheep into money, which is easier to carry, and then change it back into the proper symbols of Old Testament worship when you get to Jerusalem.  As for money changing, I presume the point is that you get your local currency, whatever it is, turned into what can be used in Jerusalem, and pay your tithes.

All of this God has commanded.  And Jesus here calls the Temple his “Father’s house,” and John uses Old Testament Scripture—Psalm 69, “Zeal for your house will consume me”—to confirm him.  Jesus is in favor of the Temple worship.  It finds its perfection in his sacrifice, but here—in John 2, the very beginning of his ministry, first thing after the wedding feast of Cana—he defends the Temple.  The sheep and the money aren’t the problem, and the Temple isn’t the problem.

But Scripture also says, for example in those same verses of Deuteronomy 14, that the priests are supposed to live on the sacrifices and tithes.  Not all of the sheep and oxen get burned up, some of them are food for the priests.  And the people bring other things to the priests, including wheat and money.  So the question is: why are they selling things inside the temple area?  (In fact, the Greek calls it not “the temple area” but “the sacred place.”)  The whole city of Jerusalem is there to be the “marketplace” near the Temple.

The answer, I think, is that the priests are greedy.  They want not only their portion of the sacrifices, but also some profit off of selling the sacrifices (or rent from those who sell).  We are never satisfied with enough, and never satisfied with righteousness (for which we are supposed to hunger and thirst).  Always greedy.  That’s why we fast—to learn about enough, instead of greed.

***

File:Jesus Chasing the Merchants from the Temple.jpgJesus “made a whip out of cords.”  People often remember the whip and cite this as an example of righteous anger.  But it doesn’t say he was angry, only that he was zealous.  The detailed list of how he dealt with each thing, including asking them to carry the pigeon cages, shows deliberation more than rage.

What is more fascinating is making the whip out of cords.  The word for cords, as best I can tell, refers to the kind of ropes that tied up the animals.  (I guess the ropes are cast aside once the animals are sacrificed.)

Far from an image of rage, this is an image of deliberation.  Jesus sat down and carefully wove his tool.  He thought this out.  Lent is a time for us to carefully weave the tools of our own cleansing.

***

In the next scene, they ask him what right he has to cleanse the temple.  He responds, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”

They respond, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years.”  No wonder they’re looking for money.

But Jesus is talking about the Resurrection—and the power and wisdom of God.  Our human calculations lead always to compromise, to set aside the primacy of God in the name of human prudence.  Jesus calls us to keep holy what is holy, trusting that he can build what needs to be built.

What human calculations are crowding your Temple?

Second Sunday of Lent: Mountaintop Experience

On the first Sunday of Lent, Christ led us into the desert, where we found a rainbow of hope: one image of Lent.  On the second Sunday, Christ leads us to the mountaintop: another image of Lent.

File:MtSinaiJune2006.JPGMountaintops have a romantic reputation, maybe confused with sunsets.  A “mountaintop experience” is supposed to be pure bliss.  But mountaintops are themselves a kind of desert, a hard assent followed by an empty place and rarified air.  And so they too are an image of our Lenten desert.

Our first reading gives us one kind of mountaintop experience: the sacrifice of Isaac.  In the Old Testament, mountaintops, “the high places,” are places of sacrifice.  Here Abraham has a harrowing mountaintop experience, an encounter with God in the desert.  It is a place of challenge, a place of aloneness with God, and a place of conquest: where God conquers Abraham, Abraham conquers himself, and finally Abraham triumphs.  In that triumph, he recovers his son.

Our Epistle, from Romans 8, picks up a phrase from the story of Isaac: “did not spare his own son.”  But here we find that God did not spare his own Son.  We find that Jesus too has been to the mountain of sacrifice, where in losing everything, everything has been gained.  These are rainbow stories, images of Lent.

***

But the main story is the Transfiguration, where the disciples discover Jesus in a new way on the mountaintop.  This year, of course, we get Mark’s account – the spiritual testament of Peter.

Armadio degli argenti, trasfigurazione.jpgIt begins by saying Jesus “led them up a high mountain.”  The Greek is even stronger, more like “carried them up.”  An interesting contrast to the end of the story where “they were coming down” with a verb that emphasizes their own two feet.  We go to the Lenten desert on the wings of an eagle.  The Gospel emphasizes that they were “apart by themselves,” a lonely place, where they will see nothing but Jesus.

Matthew says Jesus’ face and garment are filled with light.  Mark makes it more down to earth: his clothes were like no bleach can make them.  Otherworldly, yet Peter emphasizes that it was incomprehensible to them, a revelation of how little they understood.

Peter says, “It is good that we are here!”  Beautiful, really: Greek’s word for noble and upright is “beautiful.”  But Peter bumbles: “three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” has something of stuttering stupidity about it.  “He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified.”  Matthew has the fear in a different place, where they bow down in reverent worship and Jesus touches them.  But for Mark, they’re just blown away, completely confused.

And so too, where Matthew has Peter reverently say, “Lord,” and “if you want,” Mark has Peter call the transfigured God-man “Rabbi,” and there’s no politeness in his offer, just stuttering stupidity.

“A cloud came, casting a shadow.”  It’s a nice translation.  We are too familiar with the religious-sounding word “overshadowing.”  Here it makes a strong contrast: after the bright light of the Transfiguration, there is mystical shadow.  Matthew calls it a “bright cloud.”  Mark just calls it a cloud, leaving them in darkness.  The light of Jesus is more like darkness for the stunned intelligence of St. Peter.

And yet in the end, “they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone” – and Mark adds to Matthew, “alone with them.”  Here on the desert mountaintop, Jesus astounds and astonishes and baffles – but he is with us.

***

File:Prophet Elijah, Serbian painter, 18th c.jpgOn their way down the mountain, they talk about what is coming.  He tells them to keep quiet about this vision, “except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”  They don’t know what “rising from the dead meant.”  Constantly baffled by Christ – and especially about his call to suffering.

The Lectionary stops there, but the Gospel has one more exchange.  Baffled about rising from the dead, they change the subject: Isn’t Elijah supposed to come?  Can we have more of the exciting part?

And Jesus changes the subject back, “Elijah truly does come first and restores all things. And how has it been written of the Son of Man that He should suffer many things and be despised?”  You want Scriptural prophecies?  I’ll give you prophecy: suffering and persecution.  And he adds, “Elijah has indeed come, and they have done to him whatever they desired, as it is written of him.”  On the mountain, they encounter the cross.

Matthew says that then they understood about John the Baptist.  Mark leaves them baffled.

***

And so here is another image of Lent.  We go off into the desert, to the mountaintop.  And the more we are alone with Christ, the more we realize how little we understand, how deeply he challenges us.  Lent is a time for that kind of mountaintop experience, slowing down enough to see how challenging Jesus is.  Fasting itself is a new encounter with our frailty and confusion and inability to grasp Jesus.  From the heights, we can see how far we have to go.

This Lent, how is Jesus humbling you?

The Rainbows of Lent

The first Sunday of Lent, we read of the Temptation in the desert – in Mark’s version, because this is the year of Mark.

But we began with the covenant with Noah, and the Lectionary has made a fantastic choice.

God makes a covenant with “you and your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you” – the whole earth saved through man.  “Never again shall all bodily creatures be destroyed by the waters of a flood.”  And “This is the sign . . . I set my bow in the clouds.”

File:Regenbogen über der Nordsee.JPGThe rainbow is exquisite.  It’s called a bow because it’s a bent line – but in the Hebrew as in the English, bow is a reference to a weapon, a tool of destruction.  And it is set in the storm clouds, themselves signs of destruction and flood.  And yet the rainbow is something of fanciful, unbelievable beauty and delicacy.  (The rainbows we draw are silly.  Real rainbows are unbelievably beautiful.)  And Genesis makes it a sign, in the darkness, that God will never abandon us.

And so the rainbow is like the Crucifix, the tool of destruction now made a sign of hope, darkness turned to beauty.

Our Epistle, from First Peter, adds that Baptism, too, is a rainbow, a sign of drowning become “an appeal for a clear conscience,” just as the death of the righteous one becomes hope for the unrighteous, and his death in the flesh becomes hope for “the spirits in prison,” who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Lent is Spring.  The Latin for the season is Quadragesima – just “the forty days” – but Lent is an Old English word that says that here, when winter has grown long, life is coming again.  Fasting itself is a place of renewal and joy and hope.  It is a rainbow.

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File:Suðuroy rainbow2.jpgAnd so too is the Temptation of Christ.  Mark’s Gospel is wonderful.  Matthew gives the Temptation eleven verses, Luke give it thirteen.  Mark gives it only two verses – so that the Lectionary this year has to add a second two-verse story.  On the one hand, we just need those second two verses to make a respectable reading.  On the other hand, the genius of Mark is to move quickly enough to tie the stories together.

The Holy Spirit “throws him out into the desert.”  It is the work of the Spirit that brings us here.  And the interplay of “out” and “into” is lovely: the desert of Lent is both a going away but more deeply a going toward, and a going forward.

He is sent to be “tempted by Satan,” to face “the test,” the same word as we pray in the Our Father, “Lead us not into temptation.”  That temptation, too, is a rainbow, a fear that becomes in Christ a triumph.

Despite Mark’s compression of the Temptation account, he adds to the other two that Jesus was “among wild beasts.”  The other two have Jesus talking about Psalm 91, “You shall tread on the lion and adder; the young lion and the jackal you shall trample underfoot.”  Mark just points out that Jesus faces both physical and spiritual tests – and conquers.

***

File:Tecza.jpgAnd then, “immediately” (that’s Mark’s favorite word), we’re launched into his preaching.  “John had been arrested”: another rainbow, where dark clouds seem to gather and suddenly hope emerges in the person of Christ.

He brings hope – he brings good news, “proclaiming the gospel.”  And what is the good news?  “The gospel of God” and “the kingdom of God is at hand.”  It’s not that the storms won’t come – but above the storms, we see the power and beauty and hope of God.  On the face of the Crucified shines the rainbow light of the Resurrection.

The last words of our Gospel are, “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”  Lent is repentance, and repentance itself is a rainbow.  The joy of Lent, the spring of Lent, is to know that though we must battle hard against our sins, though we must suffer for a little while, the glory of love stands on the other side.

And what a fabulous connection: “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”  The phrase is familiar enough to sound normal: one obligation, then another.  But the two halfs are opposites.  Do you believe the gospel, do you believe the good news of Jesus and the kingdom of God and the triumph of love?  Then change your ways!  Nervous about repentance?  Perhaps you need to rediscover the good news of Jesus.  You need to see the rainbow in the storm clouds.

What holds you back from true repentance this Lent?

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Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time: The Frustration of Jesus

Sorry, I’m not sure what happened last week.  I wrote a post, and when I came to post it, it was gone.

And just as I am frustrated by my inability, this week we hear of Jesus’s frustration in relation to his own ability and inability.

A man with leprosy

The readings begins with a challenge.  The reading from Leviticus tells us of the rules about leprosy.  The key line is “he is in fact unclean.”  It’s tempting to blame the Old Law for everything, as if Leviticus is cruel.  But Leviticus isn’t cruel, leprosy is cruel.  It is a horrible, deadly – and until recently incurable – disease.  As our Gospel reading makes clear, Leviticus has policies not only for banning lepers, but also for bringing them back to the community.  But leprosy is not Leviticus’ fault, Leviticus is merely trying to manage a bad situation.  Leviticus doesn’t cause the leper’s isolation, leprosy does.

That’s true about the Old Testament’s dealings with sin, too.  Leviticus is just trying to manage a horrible situation, and in so doing, it reveals how horrible that situation is.

***

That is the context for this week’s Gospel reading, the last verses of Mark chapter 1 and the first major physical miracle Jesus works.  The first words of the reading are “a leper,” and all the horribleness of leprosy comes before us.  But the next words (actually the first words in Greek) are “came to Jesus.”  Our awful situation meets Jesus.

The leper’s words are direct: he kneels down and begs, because he knows how objectively horrible things are – but he professes, “If you wish, you can make me clean.”  He doesn’t even ask, he just says, “You can.”  That is the heart of faith: to believe that he can.  Jesus is powerful.  (In Greek, “can” and “power” are the same word.)  Hope is the trust that this God who can, does wish to do it.

He does wish, he can, and he does.

***

Next, we come to Jesus’s emotions.  Our translation has, “Warning him sternly.”  But that might not be stern enough.  The Greek evokes something like snorting with anger.  At the end of this first chapter, already Jesus is frustrated, he knows what is happening, and what is going to happen.  He wants – “he wishes” – that the man will keep things quiet.  The Greek is great: ‘don’t tell no one nothin.’

But of course, he “began to publicize the whole matter.  He spread the report abroad.”

Compare this snorting anger with the emotion just before: “Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, Christ presenting the Sacred Heart. Engraving by Francesco R Wellcome V0035653.jpgtouched him, and said to him, I do will it.”  “Moved with pity” is the great Greek word, splagchnizomai, which sounds like guts and means he felt it in his guts.  Jesus’s stomach churned with pain for the man.  And he didn’t just touch him, he grabs hold, fastens himself to the man.

How deeply Jesus feels his love for the man – and his frustration at the stupid way he will respond.

***

The word for what the man does is kerusso.  It’s the same word Jesus said last week, “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach [kerusso] there also.  For this purpose have I come.”  It’s where we get the word kerygma: it means, the thing you preach, the central content of the teaching.

Jesus says he has come to preach.  But what does he preach?  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God draws near. Repent, and believe the gospel.”  And subordinate to that, “Come after Me and I will make you fishers of men.”

That is not the former leper’s kerygma.  He says only, “He can!”

Jesus’s power over physical illness is part of the message.  He tells the man to follow the regulations of Leviticus for healed leprosy, a way of subordinating physical things to the spiritual and moral requirements of our relationship with God.  “That,” Jesus tells the former leper, “will be your witness.”

But the man doesn’t subordinate things.  He disobeys Jesus and preaches his own gospel, a gospel of physical healing.

***

The final line is wonderful: “It was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.”  For Jesus, nothing is impossible.  He can cure leprosy, he can rise from the dead, he can heal our moral ailments.

But the frustration of Jesus is that we refuse to hear his Gospel, his call to the kingdom and to repentance.  Just as the leper is “in fact unclean,” so Jesus “in fact” cannot preach to us when we are busily preaching an alternative Gospel.  He “cannot.”

***

Our reading from First Corinthians gives us the proper moral spin.  Paul says that he has become an “imitator . . . of Christ.”  That means he does “everything for the glory of God” and seeking the “benefit . . . of the many, that they may be saved.”  We need only to be open to letting Jesus transform us, through his preaching (his Word, his Gospel) and through his touch (his sacraments) – and to stop preaching our alternative gospels of worldly success.

This Lent, what can you do to set aside false gospels of worldly success and instead let Jesus heal you for the kingdom?

 

Fourth Sunday: No Empty Words

In this Sunday’s gospel Jesus begins his ministry.

A Prophet (Jeremiah)

The first two readings teach us about prophets.  In the first, from Deuteronomy, Moses tells us God gives us a prophet, and God says he “will put my words into his mouth” so that we can hear God’s word before we are ready to face him.  The Psalm confirms that the prophet lets us “hear his voice.”

Our Epistle takes us now to the end of 1 Corinthians 7, where we hear the value of virginity.  For us, the rationale is more important than the conclusion.  The two most important words are “anxious” and “distraction.”  The Greek for anxious really is just “worry”: it’s not that we shouldn’t worry, Paul says, it’s that we should know what to worry about: pleasing God.  And distraction is “getting dragged around.”

In the context of our other readings, the point is: God speaks to us to tell us what we should be worried about, so we don’t get dragged around by every little thing.

***

In our Gospel, Jesus speaks his third word, according to Mark.  He introduced himself with the shout, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God draws near. Repent, and believe the gospel.”  Then he said to the first apostles, “Come after Me and I will make you fishers of men.”

This week what he says is surprising: “Quiet!  Come out of him!”

It surprises us that after such a bold basic message, and after calling his apostles not only to follow, but to be fishers, he tells the demon not only “come out of him,” but “quiet!”  Quiet because he’s saying, “I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”  Doesn’t he want that shouted from the rooftops?

***

The question in this Gospel is about “authority.”

Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus is saying, in the synagogue in Capernaum.  He says only that Jesus “taught.”  But he does tell us that “the people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.”

The word scribe, in Greek as in English, is connected to the word “Scripture.”  They are “the Scripture Christ Giving His Blessing.jpgguys,” or Scripture scholars.  “Pharisee” means separatist; Sadducee might mean “righteous” or might refer to the name of their founder; the “priests” have a function, and social status, in Jerusalem.  But the “scribes” have no message, they are just guys who quote Scripture.

Jesus quotes Scripture – if he’s in a synagogue, that’s what they’re talking about.  But he does it with authority.  The distinction is parallel to what is sometimes said about lectio divina.  The difference between lectio and other ways of reading Scripture is that it actually has force in our life – authority over us.  The scribes are like cartoon characters, with words floating in bubbles outside their heads but no real significance.  (I’m stealing that image from Parker Palmer’s work on teaching.)  Jesus speaks and it matters.

***

And that is why Jesus silences the demon who says, “I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”  We can say those words . . . we can say “Lord, Lord” . . . we can profess the true nature of Christ, as Peter did before denying him at the Cross . . . we can exclaim over our own orthodoxy . . . we can quote Scripture, like a scholar or a trivia buff, or even like an apologist . . . and not accept his authority over us.

But Jesus has come not so we can make empty statements, but so that we can know his authority.

F.Mazzola-Cristo benedicente.jpgThe whole structure of Mark’s Gospel – Peter’s Gospel – is to say, sure, as Matthew tells us, perhaps people along the way called Jesus Lord.  But until the Cross, we cannot really know what it means.  Until we embrace his total authority, it is meaningless to say, “Lord, Lord.”  Even demons can say, “I know who you are,” as Peter did that fateful day.

So Jesus’s first words are, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God draws near.  Repent, and believe the gospel.”  He points first not to himself, but to God’s authority over us.

And second, “Come after Me and I will make you salties of men”: if I am to be your Lord, you must be serious about your neighbor.

And now, “Come out of him!”  The demon asks, “What have you to do with us?”  It is a deeper question than “who do people say that I am?”  Deeper because it includes that question, takes us deeper into it.  Who do you say that I am?  What do you think I have to do with you?

Jesus’s answer is to demonstrate his authority, even over unclean spirits.

What part of your life calls into doubt your profession that Jesus is Lord?

Third Sunday: Of Beach Rats and Businessmen

This Sunday’s Gospel tells again the story of the calling of the first four apostles – but this time from Mark’s perspective.

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Jonah

The first two readings suggest our angle of approach: Jonah (after his experience with the whale) tells the great city of Nineveh that destruction is at hand – and they repent of their sins, and God “repents
of his plan to destroy them.”

In our reading through First Corinthians, we now have Paul telling them that the time is short, this world is passing away.  Therefore – this is the theme of chapter seven, where our reading is near the conclusion – even those who are married should look beyond our marriages to the time of fulfillment.

Our first two readings give us an apocalyptic slant.

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Our Gospel has three acts.  First, we have Jesus alone, preaching.  In Mark, these are his first words.  Last week, John in his account emphasized the closeness between John the Baptist and Jesus.  But in Mark, the clouds hang lower and darker.  Jesus begins his preaching “After John had been arrested,” or betrayed.  Our first two readings have set the right theme: Jesus comes in apocalypse.

In this context, he says, “This is the time of fulfillment.  The kingdom of God is at hand.”  This is the good news – Mark says, “Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel, the good news, of God.”  But he concludes, “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

The Gospel is good news, God is good news.  But it is a radical call, out of our complacency (“repent”) and worldly perspectives (“believe”).  So too Jonah had good news for Nineveh, and Paul for Corinth – but the good news is that they can change their ways and live in the light of God.

***

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Peter

What comes next is the calling of the brothers Simon and Andrew, and then the calling of the brothers James and John.

In many ways these two stories are the same, but take a look at the differences.

Simon and Andrew are brothers.  But James and John are “sons of Zebedee” – and we will hear later how their family sticks up for them.  (We will later hear that Simon is “son of Jonah”: that’s probably just his father’s name, but it’s fun to imagine him belched onto the beach from the belly of the whale, parallel to that bumbling preacher of old.)

Simon and Andrew are “casting their nets into the sea.”  James and John “were in a boat mending their nets.”  Jesus “said” to Simon and Andrew, as if in a normal voice, up close – on the beach.  He “called” James and John, a Greek word often meaning a loud voice, for people far away – on a boat.  There’s no mention of Simon and Andrew having a boat, or taking care of their stuff.  James and John seem more established, more like they have a business plan.

Simon and Andrew leave behind only “their nets.”  James and John leave 1. “their father Zebedee” 2. “in the boat” 3. “along with the hired men.”

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These are two kinds of conversion stories – or two sides of every conversion story.

File:Konrad Witz 008.jpgIn one, Simon and Andrew have little to lose.  Here they are, bumbling through life.  They don’t know what to do.  The English calls them “fishermen,” which sounds established.  But the Greek word refers not to the fish but to the sea: they are “salties,” beach rats.  And aren’t we all?

In the other, James and John are established, they have life plans, a proper family, a business, employees and property to tend to.  And don’t we all?  But they need to be shaken.  Preachers sometimes note the impropriety of leaving their father in the boat.  Well, Jesus tells us to care for our parents – but he also calls us to love him above even our family.  What our reading from First Corinthians says is shocking, but important: we can’t get so tied up in our marriages and families and earthly joys and sorrows that we treat these things as the end: “For the world in its present form is passing away.”  The only way to live your life is to lay your whole life down.  We all need to be shaken out of our business and busy-ness, like James and John.

***

He finds them in their own situation, and then makes them, not “fishers” of men, but “salties of men.”  The image is different – more like Pope Francis with the smell of the sheep.  It’s not so much that they are called to sit above the water hooking the people that are in.  Rather, they are called to smell like the water, smell like those in the water, be united to the fish – sympathize with the perils of both the washed-up beach rats and the fancy businessmen of the world.

Jesus sets them free so that they can dive in.

How are you bound up in this world?  How does Jesus want to set you free for the Gospel?