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.

***

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.”

***

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? 

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.

***

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

Like Children at Christmas, or The Joy of the Prophet

File:But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart Alice Havers.jpg“Unless you become like children.”  I’ve wondered for a long time what it means – feel free to tell me.

The obvious thought recently occurred to me that this might have something to do with the Fatherhood of God.  And as with the fatherhood, I wonder if we over-psychologize childhood.

A long-ago parish priest, for example, used to have a great line about how children immerse themselves in little details.  A beautiful thought – but awfully psychological.  Less beautiful, I heard today a sappy Christmas pop song that invoked Jesus’ line about childhood in the course of saying we should act more like children around the Christmas tree – Christian childhood at Christmas without reference to Christ.

Better, I think, to think metaphysically about childhood.  What is a child?  A child has received his Father’s nature, but is still growing into it.  To become like children means admitting that God isn’t finished with us, we aren’t divine yet.  That is the Christian child’s joy: not about the Christmas tree, but about the Child, who is God entering into our human weakness.

***

That thought goes well with the readings for this Gaudete Sunday.  The Epistle, from First Thessalonians, sounds the central theme of this Sunday, midway through the Advent night of winter: “Rejoice always.”  The other two readings speak to us of the vocation of a prophet.

The first half of the reading from Isaiah (the first two verses of chapter 61), speak of prophecy: “He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor.”  The second half (the last two verses of the chapter) sounds the theme of joy: “I rejoice heartily in the LORD, in my God is the joy of my soul.”  But what is the joy of the prophet?

***

Our Gospel, from the first chapter of John, brings us back to John the Baptist.  First it gives the key definition of John’s vocation, from the Prologue: “He was not the light, but came to testify to the light.”  The prophet is one who bears testimony to Someone Else.

So then we jump ahead to where John (the Evangelist) tells us about “the testimony of John” (the Baptist).  They asked him, “Who are you?”  And his first answer was, “I am not the Christ.”

There’s a lot of talk these days about our identity, about appreciating how great we are.  There’s something important in all that – but John’s identity, his first answer to “Who are you?” is “I am not the Christ.”  It is good to talk about how much God loves us.  But we don’t know what that means until we also can answer: “I am not God.  I am not the Messiah.”

They ask him other questions.  “Are you Elijah? . . . Are you the Prophet?”  Well, in the other three Gospels, Jesus will say, “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you will receive it, this is Elijah who is to come” (Mt 11:13-14, cf. Mark 9:12-14 and Luke 1:17).  Yes, John sort of is the ultimate prophet and Jesus even identifies him with Elijah.  But John’s answer is “I am not.”  The words ring more powerful when you know how often John’s Gospel has Jesus say, “I am,” an echo of God’s word to Moses at the burning bush, “I am who am.”  I am not.

They ask why he baptizes – and he doesn’t even answer the question, he only says that the one coming after him is one whose sandal he is not worthy to untie, whose feet he is not worthy to wash, whose baptism will actually be worth something.

John’s main purpose in the Gospel is not to be Jesus.  Jesus is not just a prophet.  Jesus’s baptism is not like John’s.  John is not the Christ.  John is not.

But he does also tell them his vocation, quoting Isaiah: “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’.”  He is not entirely “not.”  Even more powerful than that, he is the one who points to he who is, and who brings life to where life is not.  John’s life is entirely relative to Jesus.

***

So too when our reading from Isaiah talks about joy it is all about “him”: “He has clothed me, he has wrapped me like a bridegroom and a bride, the Lord GOD will make justice and praise spring up.”  And when he talks about being a prophet too it is all about “him”: “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, he has anointed me, he has sent me, to announce a year of favor from the LORD.”

So too when our Epistle says “rejoice,” it then says “Pray without ceasing.  In all circumstances give thanks.” Whatever you have not and whatever you have, point to him.  “Do not quench the Spirit.  Do not despise prophecy”: believe that God is alive and active in our world.  “May the God of peace” – He! – “make you perfectly holy.”  “He will accomplish it.”

***

The joy of the prophet is to know that he is not the source of his own joy, but receives everything from one infinitely greater.

Christian childhood is to know that the power at work in us, bringing us to full maturity in Christ, is infinitely greater than we can ask or imagine.  It’s not that we already possess, not that we have arrived – but that he is at work in us.

The joy of Advent is in looking forward to the one who comes, who can do what we cannot.

And the joy of Christmas is knowing that God is with us, and God has entered into our weakness, to give us a strength that does not come from us.

Where do you find yourself focusing too much on your own goodness and strength?

Second Sunday of Advent: A City in the Wilderness

At the center of our readings for the second Sunday of Advent is an image of Jerusalem.  The Entrance Antiphon says, “O people of Sion” (the temple hill at the center of Jerusalem) “behold, the Lord will come to save the nations, and the Lord will make the glory of his voice heard in the joy of your heart.”  The Communion Antiphon again says, “Jerusalem, arise and stand upon the heights, and behold the joy which comes to you from God.”  Jerusalem looks toward the Lord who will come.

The Liturgical renewal of Vatican II is remarkable, sometimes dumbfoundingly rich.  These two antiphons are ancient, and were part of the readings before the Council.  After the Council, the readings themselves changed – though the Gospel continues to bring our attention to John the Baptist – but we enter even more deeply into these antiphons.

The earthly Jerusalem is a strange city. Most cities, like New York, are near the sea and trade routes.  Jerusalem is in the mountains, desert mountains, a fortress set apart.  Jerusalem is a city in the wilderness, a watchtower.

***

Our Epistle, from Second Peter, keeps us looking forward, to the Second Coming.  We are reminded that on that day, “the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire.”  All that will remain is “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”  (In Revelation, that’s the New Jerusalem.)  “Therefore . . . be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him.”  Be cleansed so that you can meet your Lord when he comes.

Our Prophet, Isaiah, is more reassuring: instead of threatening the incineration of heaven and earth, he says, “Comfort”: tell Jerusalem that “her guilt is expiated.”  But still we are preparing “in the desert . . . the way of the Lord,” preparing for when “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,” because “Here comes with power the Lord God.”  A watchtower.

***

The Gospel is John the Baptist, whom Mark calls, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.”

A central line of the reading points us to the identity of Jerusalem.  I’ll give my own translation, because the point is tricky: “There came out to him the whole Judean territory and all the Jerusalemites.”

Like everything else in this reading, it is a reference to Isaiah and Elijah.  Our reading from Isaiah said, “Go up onto a high mountain, Zion, herald of glad tidings; cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of good news!  Fear not to cry out and say to the cities of Judah: Here is your God!”

Jerusalem, the city on a hill, is a people looking east.  The earthly Jerusalem proclaims salvation to all the nations, beginning with the Judean countryside that surrounds it.  “All of Jerusalem,” Mark says, goes out to John the Baptist.

***

John himself is an image of the Old Testament people.  The reading begins, “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet” – but then it quotes two of the prophets, Malachi, who says, “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,” and then our reading from Isaiah, “A voice of one crying out in the desert.”

Both passages have prophets telling of a prophet telling of the Lord who comes.  Jerusalem is a people looking East, a people of prophecy, a watchtower.

John the Baptist himself proclaims a baptism.  In the Greek version of the Old Testament that Mark is quoting, “baptism” is a word derived from the word for the ablutions that are center to Jerusalem’s identity.  In the Passover rite in Exodus, for example, “You shall take a bunch of hyssop and dip [bapto] in the blood in the bowl, and strike the lintel and the doorposts with the blood in the bowl.”  And on Yom Kippur, “the priest shall dip [bapto] his finger in the blood and sprinkle of the blood seven times before Jehovah, at the front of the veil of the holy place.”

But the exact word appears only, of course, in Isaiah, where baptizo is being “overwhelmed” (even in English, “whelm” literally means “submerge”) by the awesomeness of the Lord, and what Elijah’s successor Elisha tells Naaman the Syrian to do in the Jordan.

John leads the people of Jerusalem back to their roots, in the Jordan.  He wears the camel hair and belt that were the marks of Elijah and all the prophets.  He eats wild honey, recalling the promised land of milk and honey, and locusts, a food of the poor in the desert and the animal food allowed by the charter of the people in Leviticus.

John reminds the people of Jerusalem who they are: a prophetic people, a people looking east, awaiting their Lord – a people of the desert, a city in the wilderness, gathered not by trade but by the Lord who comes.

To be Jerusalem and Israel is to say, “One mightier than I is coming after me.  I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals” – to wash his feet, though he submerges mine.

We too are called to be that prophetic people, a people gathered together in prophecy of the day of the Lord.

How would your parish be different if it lived as a prophetic people, a city in the wilderness?

 

First Sunday in Advent: Christ’s Work in Us

“Let us see your face, and we shall be saved,” was our Psalm response this week. “Come, Lord Jesus!” is our prayer for Advent, as we prepare to celebrate for his first coming and look forward to his coming again.

Searching the Scriptures

Our Gospel sets our face toward that second coming when it says, “You do not know when the lord of the house is coming . . . .  May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.”  Those are the words of Jesus, who has already come, and tells us to look forward to his coming again.

So too in our first reading, from the beginning of First Corinthians: “as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  First Corinthians was written to a community already established by the revelation of Jesus Christ, else they couldn’t even use his name. But they look forward.  In fact, “He” – that is, Jesus Christ himself, who already came, and already is at work in us; “he” of whom Paul has just said, “the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus” – “He will  keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Christ who has come prepares us for Christ who will come again.

***

We enter into this mystery through the first reading – of course, as every Sunday in Advent, from the prophet Isaiah.  The reading begins and ends, “You, LORD, are our father.”  At the end it explains: “We are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands.”  We are what we are because God makes us.  That’s why in the reading from Corinthians Paul says, “I give thanks to my God always on your account” – because of “the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus.”  He makes us.

This appreciation of grace takes a startling turn when Isaiah says, “Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways.”  He believes so firmly that God alone makes us righteous that he can even blame God for not making us righteous.  And so he begs, “Return.”  And so we beg, “Come, Lord Jesus,” “let us see your face and we shall be saved,” “Lord, make us turn to you.”

Isaiah begs, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down” – and we beg, “Come, Lord Jesus,” “I believe that he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”  Be our king!  Reign!  Make the world righteous at last!

Isaiah would like to say that we are righteously awaiting, but he cannot: “all of us have become like unclean people,” even “all our good deeds are like polluted rags. . . .  There is none who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to cling to you,” says the Prophet who is calling on the name of the LORD, but knows he does it so poorly.

***

Mary sees

Things are the same and different for St. Paul.  “In Christ Jesus,” he says, “. . . you were enriched in every way, with all logos and gnosis . . . so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift.”  Because we know him, we are enriched by him.

And so now, too, after Christ has come, we long for his coming.  And now too we know that we cannot make ourselves ready for that coming, for that reign of true righteousness.  But “God is faithful,” and so “He will keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Before Christ, Isaiah sees nothing but polluted rags.  After Christ, Paul knows that the power already at work in us through faith in the revelation of Jesus Christ can make us holy, irreproachable as we await the perfect reign of Christ.

***

In our reading from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Be watchful!  Be alert!”  Or “Look, and stay awake!”  Keep your eye on him, on the revelation of Christ who has come and will come again.

“It is like a man traveling abroad,” he says.  “He places his servants in charge, each with his own work.”  We each have a work to do, a way to prepare, a way that he wants to work in us as we await the revelation of his perfect kingdom.

“He orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch.”  The gatekeeper is a specific work, not the work of all the servants.  And yet his work gives the ultimate meaning to all our other works.  “Watch, therefore.”  Be prepared at every moment, by living the vocation, the work that he has given you, and that he works in you.

To prepare for Christ is not to sleep, but to let him who has already come work in us.  If we are to be ready for his perfect reign, we must make sure we are not like the people in Isaiah’s time, when Christ had never come, and they were unclean and no one called on his name.  Rather we must be like St. Paul, enriched with every good gift for every good work, by our knowledge of him who has already come to begin his work in us

How is Christ trying to make you turn to him, to prepare your place in his kingdom?

Thirty-Third Sunday: The Lord’s Work

I am sorry I missed writing a post on last week’s amazing readings.  Part of it is my own laziness.  Part of it is that  this year I have been trying to read the Gospel readings more carefully – and it’s overwhelming.  I get started and can’t imagine paring things down to 800 words.  There is too much there, I had no idea the Gospels were so rich.

But notice how laziness and failure to receive the Lord’s goodness go together.  This week’s readings, in fact, speak right to me.

Searching the Scriptures

The first reading, from Proverbs, talks about the “worthy wife.”  She works hard.  When it says, “charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; the woman who fears the Lord is to be praised,” it’s telling us something important about women.  But the main point, the reason it’s paired with this Gospel, is to teach us that we’re all called to work.

The bigger context is in our reading from First Thessalonians: “the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night.”  At the end of the Church’s year and the end of the Gospel – these last three Sundays, we are reading every word of Matthew 25, Jesus’s last words before he goes to be crucified – the theme is preparing for the end of time and the second coming of Christ.  “Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober.”  Let’s get to work.

***

First Thessalonians’ discussion of the end – especially the parts the Sunday Lectionary does not give us – is scary.  So too Proverbs talks about the woman who “fears the Lord” and our Psalm refrain is, “Blessed are those who fear the Lord” (which the Psalm again ties to the health of the family).

File:Pantocrator from Gavshinka (1200s, Rublev's museum).jpgThe three readings from Matthew 25, meanwhile, are a crescendo of threats.  At the end of last week’s reading, the Bridegroom locks the foolish virgins out, telling them, “I do not know you.”  At the end of this week’s reading, the parable of the talents, the Lord says, “throw the unprofitable servant into outer darkness; where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth” (that is, both sorrow and anger).  And at the end of next week’s Gospel, the very last words of Jesus’ preaching are, “Truly I say to you, Inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.  And these shall go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into everlasting life.”

People think that the Old Testament is scary and the Gospels are nice.  That is because people haven’t read either one.  The most terrifying threats in Scripture come from the mouth of Jesus.

But what is the point of this fear?  In this week’s parable of the talents, the one who had received the one talent says, “Master, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter; so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground.  Here it is back.”

But that was foolish.  As the Master responds, if you are afraid, you should work hard.  Jesus is demanding.  He wants more from us.  The Gospel is not about being fleeing responsibility, it is about being filled with the vigor of Jesus.

***

The beginning of our parable is important.  Our translation says, “A man going on a journey.”  The Greek word means, “going away from his people.”  It is a powerful word at the end of Jesus’ preaching, as he goes, first to the Cross and then to the Ascension.

He “called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them.”  The Greek for possessions is “things under his authority.”  And notice the two uses of “his.”  The things are his – but the Greek uses a deeper word for saying the servants are his.

The last words of Matthew’s Gospel will be, “Behold, I am with you all the days until the end of the world.  Amen.”  He goes away – but he sends us with his authority, because we are his.

So notice too the words of reward.  “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”  We are called to be his servants, doing his work – as in the next and final parable we will be called to welcome him in the poor.  The word for Master in this parable is Kurios, as in Kyrie eleison, Lord!  The words we want to hear are that we have been good and faithful servants, that he has been our Lord.

Then he says, “since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great” – possessions? no – “responsibilities.”  Literally, “I will put you over much.”

“Come, share your master’s joy.”  But your Lord’s joy is in the care he gives, the work he does, the love he bestows, and pours into our hearts, by the Holy Spirit.

How perfect that the other readings tie this commission to family.  Our joy is not in being relieved of responsibility, but in entering into our Lord’s work.

What’s an important place in your life where you think you will find joy by fleeing the work the Lord has given you?

Thirty-First Sunday: We’re All Priests

This year, I have been making an effort to study the Gospels, especially this year’s Gospel, Matthew, better than I have before.  What has most struck me is the centrality of the Pharisees.  But one of my favorite things about the Pharisees is how accusations of Phariseeism boomerang.  Jesus manages to accuse them without becoming one himself, but every time I point out Phariseeism, I find myself committing it.

In this week’s Gospel we find Jesus saying, “They will not lift a finger” to help people carry the burdens they lay, and, “They preach but they do not practice.”

***

But the readings start with the minor prophet Malachi cursing the priests of Israel: “You have caused many to falter by your instruction.”  His particular accusation is “you show partiality in your decisions.”  The Hebrew for that is something like, “You look up,” looking at whom they are judging instead of, like our blindfolded Lady Justice, looking only at the case itself.

Thus he ends, “Have we not all the one father?   Has not the one God created us?  Why then do we break faith with one another, violating the covenant of our fathers?”  Instead of angling for whom we can benefit from, we should treat others right, because they are our equals and because they belong to God.  So too – looking back to our Gospel – we should help others carry their loads instead of trying to gain honors.

But one thing that’s fun about this juxtaposition of texts is that the Pharisees are the opposite of the people Malachi is blaming.  Malachi is talking to the Levites, the ones who serve in the temple.  But in Jesus’s day, that was the Sadducees, the enemy of the Pharisees.  The Pharisees thought the Sadduccees, who were worried only about temple observance were – something like what we would call liberals, not tough enough on how people behave outside of church.

In short, both sides of the argument are, in the broad sense, “Pharisees.”  Both sides are failing to practice what they preach.  There is plenty of blame to go around.

***

There is plenty in today’s Gospel that we can use to accuse the priests – or the blamers of priests – of our day.  It is true that they tie up heavy burdens hard to carry, but will not lift a finger to move them.   It is true that they sit in the chair of Moses, teaching with authority, so that we should observe all the things they tell us – but often we should not follow their example.  It is true that they often seem to love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Father.’  Some may disagree, but I don’t think we get anywhere denying that there is much about our clergy that is less than inspiring.

And it’s true, as Malachi says, that they ought to have greater respect for the people whom they serve.  The priesthood doesn’t make you the one special member of the congregation.  It makes you a servant of all, because we are all part of the priestly people, all called to holiness.  I think priests would behave better if they remembered the dignity of the Christian people.  So would the people who blame priests.

Fine.  But here’s my point: we are a priestly people in another sense, too.  We are all guilty of the sins of the priests, all guilty of what Malachi blames the Levites for, and Jesus blames the Pharisees for.  We all need Jesus to tell us, “The greatest among you must be your servant.  Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Whatever we accuse others of, the accusation comes back to ourselves.  Whatever gripes you have with other Christians, whatever you think many clergy are guilty of (whether you think they’re too strict or too lazy) – look to yourself.  It’s not so much that we shouldn’t judge others, as that we should judge ourselves.

In all these passages about the Pharisees, Jesus teaches us to judge ourselves.  Perhaps we start by seeing Phariseeism in others, but always the accusation boomerangs to us.

***

Instead, as Paul says of himself, let us be “gentle” with one another, “as a nursing mother cares for her children.”  Let us share “the gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved” may we see others.

In that way, and only in that way, we can make sure that “receiving the word of God from hearing us,” they may receive “not a human word, but, as it truly is, the word of God, which is now at work in you who believe.”

Who in the Church do you tend to judge?  How are you guilty of the same things?

 

Twenty-Ninth Sunday: Earthly Responsibilities

Sorry for my absence.  This past weekend I wrote my post but had technical problems.  The weekend before, life just overwhelmed me!

Our Gospel this Sunday is “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”  It’s a familiar reading – and far richer than we may recognize.

Notice, for example, that this reading about the rights of kings is in the context of controversies about Jesus’

StPierreVieuxC11.JPG

The King of Glory

kingship: both the previous story, which associates Jesus with the king who gives a wedding feast, and his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

Note too the way the reading’s ironies about truth.  The Pharisees and Herodians say, “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth” – which is of course exactly what they don’t believe: they lie in speaking of truth.  But Jesus speaks truth to them.

More could be said on these points.  My only point is to say that the Gospels are worth meditating on.  They are many layered, and richer than ever we expect.

***

But the central teaching here is about the meaning of earthly kingship and responsibility.  And Jesus teaches on two levels.

On the first level, he subverts the power of kings by shrugging his shoulders at their authority.  “Whose image is this?” he asks, the perfect insult to the all-importance of Caesar.  Does Caesar want this silly coin?  Fine, whatever, he can have it, I sure don’t want it.

He points further, to the Old Testament teaching on idols: “Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases.  Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands.  They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.  They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell” (Psalm 115, cf. Psalm 135).  Money then as now is classic idolatry (cf. Col. 3:5, and Jesus on God and mammon).  All this for a dead picture of a dead president, or a distant Caesar.

Sure, I’ll pay taxes and follow the laws – because, for the most part, what Caesar wants is worth nothing to me.  On one level, the Cross itself shows a kind of contempt for worldly goods.

***

But on another level, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” contextualizes our earthly responsibilities.  We do have earthly duties.  On one level, we have contempt for this world, because only

What is truth.jpgGod is God, but on another level, we see everything within this world as belonging to God.

Our reading from Isaiah reminds us of this teaching, found most directly in Romans 13: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”  (The Catechism, following Thomas Aquinas, takes this verse at face value to mean that God demands that we obey Caesar in all but the extreme cases.)  Our reading from Isaiah says that God has instituted even the pagan kings – whether they know it or not.  “I have called you by your name, giving you a title, though you knew me not. . . .  It is I who arm you, though you know me not.”  Even Caesar and Herod, who killed Jesus.

It is not that Caesar gets one thing and God gets another, but that Caesar gets some things and God gets everything.  Even the taxes we pay, and all our subjection to the secular governing authorities, we also pay to God – just as the true love that we give to our families and neighbors is also and above all love of God.

Jesus’s words in our Gospel only add the important caveat that it isn’t that God has chosen Caesar – in this story, Jesus doesn’t much care who Caesar is – but rather that God demands our civic responsibility.

***

Our Epistle is the beginning of First Thessalonians, which we will read for the rest of Ordinary Time.  It is a letter about persecution by kings, with enough of an apocalyptic tone to fit the end of the Church year.

Stadtk-murrhardt-altardet.jpgBut today, all we have is “We give thanks to God always for all of you.”  He gives thanks for their own merits and good works: “calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  But he gives thanks because their strength for those good works comes not from themselves, but from God: “Our gospel did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.”

It’s a good reminder that everything in this world, whether earthly authority or our ability to live out our earthly obligations, is a gift from God.  We both live those earthly responsibilities and have a bit of contempt for how little they are because we realize that everything is from God and for God.

Do you have disorder, either too much or too little concern, for any earthly responsibilities?