Nineteenth Sunday: Bread of Life

We continue with the Bread of Life discourse from John 6.

Ferdinand Bol - Elijah Fed by an Angel - WGA2360.jpgIn the first reading, Elijah is out of strength.  But the Lord gives him bread from heaven, and then he can walk forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God.  “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!”

But the New Testament always transforms the bodily things of the Old Testament into spiritual, or rather, moral things.  Our reading from Ephesians tells us we have been sealed with “the Holy Spirit of God” “for the day of redemption,” and therefore should put away “all bitterness, fury, anger, shouting,” etc., and “be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving . . . as God has forgiven you in Christ.”

We always say the journey is too long for us, we don’t have the strength to be like Christ.  And that’s true!  But he gives himself to us—“handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God”—so that, by receiving him as our bread, we can take on his way of life.  Only because we are fed with the bread of heaven.

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John’s Gospel rearranges things to give us deeper theological perspective.  For example, in a couple weeks we will read his version of Peter’s proclamation; in the other Gospels, Peter just proclaims him Lord, but John puts it in the context of the Eucharist.

So too this week we read how John incorporates the line, “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary?”  He puts that into the context of the Eucharist, too.  “The Jews murmured about Jesus because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven,’ and they said, ‘Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph?  Do we not know his father and mother?’”

John is attentive, first, to the Incarnation.  His Gospel begins, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”  So too here, first, he brings us to the clash of how he can be “son of Joseph,” member of their community, and also say, “I have come down from heaven.”  In fact, he pauses for much of our reading today, steps away from the Bread, and just talks about the Incarnation.

Jesus says a funny thing, “Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.”  You’d expect it to be the other way around: “everyone who listens to me comes to my Father.”  But John picks which of Jesus’s words to use to emphasize his divinity.  No one comes to the Father except through him—and so the Father always draws us through Jesus.

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This is the way of the Incarnation.  Our first two readings help us understand.  On the one hand, we need to love God with a strength beyond our own, to reach to him with the Spirit of God.  Because of sin, I don’t love God all that much.  Even without sin, I could never know him the way he wants me to know him.  He wants to give us way more than our human nature can reach.  That is the work of God.

But he always gives it to us—in our way, according to our nature: that is the work of man, of Jesus Incarnate.  That’s why I corrected myself above: I call this web site “The Catholic Spiritual Life,” but a great Thomistic author says, we don’t have a spiritual life, we have a Christian life.  We can’t love God in some disembodied way, as if we were pure spirits.  That wouldn’t be us loving God, and thus it wouldn’t be true love.  So our reading from Ephesians talks about all those very practical things: not grumbling, being compassionate, etc.  There is no other way to love God.

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Христос у точилі. Кінець 17 ст.jpgEphesians talks too about Jesus becoming “a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma.”  On the one hand, Jesus teaches us—and enables us—to love God in a human way.  His sacrifice is not in the Temple but on the Cross.  It is the sacrifice of pure human love—or rather, of God loving through human flesh.  Paul stretches the language of “sacrifice” by taking that Temple language and applying it to ordinary life.

But on the other hand, Jesus also gives us a Temple activity.  He becomes bread so that we can offer him, his flesh, on the altar.  We eat that flesh, we become that flesh, we take it into our flesh and make it flesh in our ordinary lives—but we also offer that flesh on the altar as our sacrifice.  Jesus unites communion and sacrifice, God and man, worship and ordinary life, love of God and love of neighbor, bread and flesh and God.

And so he becomes “the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. . . . And the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

How could your life be more Eucharistic?

Eighteenth Sunday: The Sign of the Eucharist

Last week we heard the John 6 version of the feeding of the five thousand.  Now we begin four weeks in the all-important Bread of Life discourse.

File:Ulm Hostienmühlenretabel.jpgThe first two readings just give us the background.  In Exodus we have the story of “the grumbling of the Israelites,” to which God responds, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you.”  Our Psalm response (always a summary of our Prophet) says, “The Lord gave them bread from heaven.”  Jesus will tell us the “true bread from heaven.”

But in Ephesians, St. Paul says, “You should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds.”  In Ephesians, he speaks to a Greek, non-Jewish audience, so he adds, “no linger live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.”  But he might say the same about the Israelites in Exodus: grumbling for material bread.  That is not eternal life.

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The key word in our part of the Bread of Life discourse is “signs”: “Amen, amen, I say to you” (means something important is coming) “You are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.”

Vézelay Nef Chapiteau 220608 O7.jpgA sign is something that points beyond itself.  The point of miracles (the root, mira-, means look, wonder, be amazed) is not to get us a Mercedes-Benz, but to get us to think, to look beyond, and behind, the miracle.  The crowd recognizes this when they say, “What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you?”  Funny, though, because they followed him to the wilderness because he was curing the sick, and then followed him to Capernaum because he multiplied the loaves, and they’re still looking for some miracle to testify to who he is.  (Our translation says, “believe in you,” but it might be better to say, “believe you,” as you testify about Another.)

Jesus says, “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life.”  The Eucharistic bread itself is a sign, in two ways.  On the one hand, it is a new bread: not the food that perishes; as he said in Ephesians, “put away the old self, corrupted through deceitful desires.”  The Eucharist means turning from a focus on earthly bread to a focus on heavenly bread.  The bread turns into Jesus; no earthly bread is left, only Jesus.

But it’s also true that Jesus turns into bread, he comes to us as bread, he gives himself to us under the sign of bread.  There’s an important article in the Summa that I like to summarize as: If Jesus appears to you in person, or if the Eucharist turns into a child, don’t eat him!  We eat the Eucharist because there Jesus has appeared to us in a different form, he comes to us as bread.

File:Giusto di Gand (Joos van Wassenhove), istituzione dell'eucarestia 2.jpgWhy bread?  Because bread is a sign of the spiritual work he is doing.  “The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”  The Eucharist is a sign of Jesus as life-giving.  In it he fulfills our true desires: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”  The Eucharist does not mean that we will never experience physical hunger again; that isn’t the promise.  But it does mean that Jesus fulfills our deeper desires, our deeper thirst—our hunger and thirst for righteousness, as the Beatitudes say, or our thirst for the living God, as the Psalms say.  Our physical hunger is a sign of a deeper hunger, a deeper need, and in the Eucharist Jesus comes to us under the appearances of bread, as a sign that he fulfills that hunger.

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Jesus says, “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life.”  They ask, “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?”  Jesus says, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.”  The word for work here is the work for “labor.”  In the physical life, bread gives us strength to labor, and we labor to receive bread.  In the spiritual life, Jesus gives us strength to work, and we work to receive Jesus: he is the bread of life.

File:Eucharisty with bread (1420s, Sergiev Posad).jpgBut the work is precisely to see the signs: “That you believe in the one he sent.”  Jesus is the way to the Father.  He is sent from the Father, and he comes to bring us to the Father.  What we are meant to do in the Eucharist is to follow the signs, to know Jesus as our strength, the one who gives us life, and our deepest hunger.

True “participation” in the Mass is precisely this awareness of the signs.  To eat the Eucharist without hunger, without longing for what Jesus gives us, is no salvation at all.  But to see the signs, to live by them, is to enter through the Eucharist into the life of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

How do you keep your awareness of the Eucharist alive?

Seventeenth Sunday: Better than Barley Loaves

We now pause from our reading of Mark for five weeks.  In Mark, we have read that Jesus went out to the wilderness with the disciples, and the crowds found them.  Next, Mark will tell us about the feeding of the five thousand.

But John’s Gospel fills in deeper details missing from the other three Gospels.  He tells us about the bread of life discourse that follows the feeding of the five thousand (though on the other side of the lake).  So the Lectionary takes us over to John 6 during August of our year of Mark.

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The first reading tells us that with twenty barley loaves (John will specify that Jesus uses barley loaves, too), Elisha miraculously feeds a hundred people.  The miracles are similar—but the similarity brings out the difference, since Jesus feeds 5,000 with only five barley loaves.

Our reading from Ephesians is on the other side of Jesus.  At first it seems to have nothing to do with the loaves.  In fact, like John, it points us beyond.  The crowds search for loaves; Paul is “a prisoner for the Lord.”  He urges us “to live in a manner worthy of the call,” which means humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, love.  The food Jesus offers is not bread but love.

And so he calls us to “the bond of peace.”  Of course it’s silly when people pretend the feeding of the five thousand is just about sharing; such naturalism is precisely the opposite of what the Gospels are asserting.  But the grain of truth in it is that the Church is united, as Paul says elsewhere, by the one loaf.  Through the Eucharistic bread we receive the “one Spirit,” who is “the one hope of your call . . . over all and though all and in all.”  The Eucharistic Jesus is the bond of peace.

***

John takes us through the transition from bread to Ephesians.

The humor begins when Philip says, “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.”  Two hundred is precise but bizarre.  Five thousand divided by two hundred is twenty five; a day’s wage for a laborer obviously can’t feed twenty-five families, not even “a little.”  Perhaps John is pointing out how stupid our earthly calculations are.

There is a boy—I don’t know why our translation doesn’t tell us he is a “little boy”—with five barley loaves and two fish.  My dictionary tells me Middle Eastern loaves are traditionally about seven inches across and less than an inch thick.  It’s not a lot of bread for people who have been hiking—small enough for a little boy to hold, maybe enough food for his family.

Worldly poverty

John gives us two details missing from the other Gospels.  He tells us they are “barley loaves,” not the wheat loaves that are sometimes required for Temple worship (because they’re nicer) and that Jesus seems to use to feed the disciples on the beach at the end of John’s Gospel.  In Revelation, a hawker calls “a measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny”: this is the cheap stuff.

But the word for fish he uses is not the ordinary ichtus, as in the other Gospels, but a word that means “relish”—which for them usually meant some sort of fish paste.  The fish isn’t more food, it’s a condiment.  In short, this is the food of poor people.

So too they sit on the grass, and the word John uses isn’t the normal word for eating (there’s been a lot of eating in the Gospels lately), but one used for cattle.

Their existence is barely human, or at least very poor: chasing after cheap bread, lying on the ground, eating their fill, stupidly calculating how much they have.

Jesus tells them to gather the left overs “so that nothing will be wasted.”  I guess that’s nice—but it’s not like they’ll go hungry without the leftovers.

***

Two interpretations:

Holy Poverty

First, they want to make Jesus their king because they have bread.  In a couple verses, Jesus will say, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.   Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.”  We need to move from Elisha to Ephesians, to seek higher things.  Jesus doesn’t want to be our bread savior, he wants to fill our hearts with love.  The Eucharist doesn’t satisfy our bellies, it fills us with the love of God.

Second: he is recreating the Exodus: out in the wilderness, receiving bread from heaven, all the way down to “Let no one leave any of it over till the morning” (Ex 16:19).  Jesus is going to talk about that, too: how he is perfecting the work of Moses, by leading us from the bodily exodus out of bodily slavery with bodily food to the perfect liberation, and perfect thanksgiving, of the kingdom of heaven.

In what ways do you beg barley loaves when Jesus wants to fill you with greater things?

Sixteenth Sunday: Out and Back

In this Sunday’s Gospel, the Apostles return from their apostolate, and Jesus provides for them.

The text of the Gospels is bottomless.  On the surface, they come back from their journeys, and he says, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest awhile.”  That makes sense and is, obviously, endless richness for prayer.  But as we ourselves come away into this deserted place of Scripture, we find Jesus saying and doing more.

The opening words have too much, I’ll only point toward their richness.  “The apostles gathered together.”  But “gathered together” is “synagogued,” that’s just the Greek word.  Jesus has been going through the synagogues teaching, and when he sends them out to continue that mission, they come back and synagogue with him.  It’s both ironic, because perhaps they should be in other synagogues—and wonderful, because they know that Jesus is the true synagogue.

Apo- means away, and “apostles” means “sent out,” though before “sent” the root seems to mean “set”: they are “sent out” because they are “set apart.”  So again, there’s a double irony.  First: when he sets them “apart,” they come “together.”  Second: the Greek word for synagogue starts with the idea of movement, being “led” together, but ends in stability, being “set” together—while “apostles” starts with the idea of being “set” and ends in the movement of being “sent.”

I don’t want to make this too complicated.  Let me just say two things.  In general, there is always more in the text, the Gospel is worth pressing into.  And in this particular, there’s a wonderful dynamic relationship between going out, being sent by Jesus, and coming back together with him, a circular movement out and back, over and over.  That’s the life of the apostle, missionary disciple.

***

And that’s the theme of the rest of the Gospel.  Ironically, they go away to a deserted place to rest—and when they get there, a huge crowd is waiting.

Sosthenes, Apollo, Cephas, Tychicus, Epaphroditus, Cæsar and Onesiphorus of 70 disciples (Menologion of Basil II).jpgWith his splendid humor, Mark underlines the irony.  He gives the quaint detail that before they left, the apostles “had no opportunity even to eat,” because of the crowds.  But what happens immediately after our Sunday reading ends is that Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.”  The Apostles think they don’t have enough; they are going away to the desert place to get some time for themselves—and Jesus turns it upside down, and makes the desert place the place where they will have to provide, not by resting but by relying on him (as they serve a huge meal: hard work).  Out and back, synagoging and apostling.

Even funnier: Mark says “they went off in the boat.”  Then he adds the detail that the crowds “hastened there on foot . . . and arrived at the place before them.”  After the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus is going to walk on water.  But almost a more awesome miracle is that the crowds walk on land faster than the boat can go on water.  Before the miracle of Jesus providing bread comes the miracle of Jesus providing hungry mouths to feed.  The desert place is not the place of recharging, it’s the place of harder work—but more divine work.  Out and back, synagoging and apostling.

And it is all rooted in the heart of Jesus: “When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them.”  (“Heart was moved with pity” is a Greek word that means “spleen” or “bowels.”  It’s more visceral than our romantic “heart”: his stomach churns for them—a nice line for hungry crowds.)  When we rest our heads on the heart of Jesus, when we go to his desert place, more than crowds, we discover his hunger and thirst for the crowds, his infinite love.

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The other readings are also worth more words than I can give them.

File:St Petrus und Paulu Bellenberg - Kanzeltürbild Jesus als Guter Hirte.JPGIn our Gospel, Jesus says “sheep without a shepherd”—and Jeremiah blames shepherds “who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture.”  There’s a lovely ambivalence in Jeremiah’s prophecy: “I will appoint shepherds,” the Lord says, he will send apostles.  But “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock,” he will send one shepherd, a king.  Out and back: the shepherds who stand on their own are bad shepherds.  Only Jesus is the good shepherd: and those who synagogue and apostle with him, who lay their heads on his heart and are filled with his stomach-churning love.

In Ephesians, Paul’s words about the Law are harsh: “abolishing the law with its commandments and legal claims.”  (Worse: “legal claims” is in Greek literally “dogmas.”)  Now, Paul is the last one to abolish right doctrine or morals.  But he does say we must go deeper.  Our “peace,” our “reconciliation,” our coming “near” are not by signing up for divisive party lines, but being drawn by “the blood of Christ” and becoming “one new person” with him, finding “access in one Spirit to the Father.”  The only Christian doctrine and morals are the ones always rooted in union with Christ.

True union with Christ fills us with a hunger that leads us back out to his apostolic work in the world.

Do you ever have false union, prayer that doesn’t lead you back?

Fifteenth Sunday: Against Clericalism

AM 7:12-15, PS 85:9-10, 11-12, 13-14, EPH 1:3-14, MK 6:7-13

Clericalism turns everything inside out.  It seems to take ministry seriously, but it is like an inversion of ministry—whether the ministry of the Word or of sacraments—where people value the wrong authority.

Our Gospel reading this Sunday is about the Apostles—the original clerics.  The Lectionary warms to the theme with the prophet Amos.  Just before our reading, “Amaziah, priest of Bethel”—someone with status—has just told the king, “Amos has conspired against you.”  Now he says to Amos, “Off with you, visionary, flee to the land of Judah.  There earn your bread by prophesying.”  Amaziah thinks of the ministry of the Word as a kind of careerism, full of plots and earnings.

Amos says, “I was no prophet, nor have I belonged to a company of prophets; I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores.  The Lord took me from following the flock.”  I am nobody.  My authority is from the Lord, and I speak only his word.  Between Amos’s and Amaziah’s views of the prophet is all the heresy of clericalism.

***

Our Epistle is the opening hymn from Ephesians, one of the richest hymns in Scripture, far too much for my limited space here.  The riches God offers us in Christ are superlative: “Every spiritual blessing in the heavens,” “Holy and without blemish” (Latin, immaculati—what we believe about Mary is just a statement of the power of grace in all of us), “Adoption in love,” “Forgiveness,” “Riches of his grace lavished upon us,” “All wisdom and insight,” “Knowing the mystery of his purpose,” “Sealed with the Spirit,” “Redemption,” “God’s possession.”

But it is all in Christ: “To sum up all things in Christ,” “            Blessed us in Christ,” “chose us” in him, “adoption through Jesus,” “in his beloved,” “Redemption by his blood,” “the favor set forth in him.”  What we believe about Christ and what we believe about grace go hand in hand: if we believe he is awesome, we believe he can do great things for us; if we lose sight of him, we lose sight of grace.

And thus we are, “Who first hoped in Christ,” “Heard the gospel of salvation,” “believed in him.”  And above all, “for the praise of the glory of his grace”—my wife has been reading the amazing Carmelite mystic St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, who wanted the Latin for this phrase to be her name: laudem gloriae, the praise of his glory.  Let me be nothing else.

Clericalism is instead the praise of our own glory.  Ironically, many of our alternative strategies for great parishes—from focusing on ushers to clever homilies, etc.—just shifts to a clericalization, and clericalism-ization, of the laity, replacing the praise of his glory with constant self-reference.

***

As always, it comes to a head in the Gospel.  Jesus sends them out two by two.  On the one hand, he gives them high spiritual authority—“authority over unclean spirits.”  On the other hand, right at the start, “two by two” keeps them humble, as if they need a chaperone.

Their packing list is funny.  “Take nothing for the journey but a walking stick”: going to be doing a lot of walking.  “No food, no sack, no money in their belts.  They were, however, to wear sandals.”  Gonna need those sandals, you’ll be doing a lot of walking.  “But not a second tunic.”

They are sent.  It’s not that there are no clerics, or that there is no work for them to do.  The Apostles are given authority and they are expected to use it—expected to hit the road and walk hard.

But they are also expected to rely entirely on God.  This isn’t about their great strategies, it isn’t about their material or social or intellectual wealth.  To take the sandals and walking stick but no money is both to make a radical act of trust that Jesus will provide, and to accept an awesome responsibility to bring Jesus to others.

(The Lectionary is going to skip it, but the next story in Mark’s Gospel is Herod thinking John the Baptist has risen from the dead: despite the Apostles going two by two, everyone knows it is One whom they represent.)

“Shake the dust off your feet.”  Matthew adds a threat—“It will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah”—but Mark keeps it simple.  If they don’t hear you, move on, leave them behind and go.

And they go, preaching repentance, driving out demons, anointing with oil (a first sacramental representation of Christ’s power and authority, delegated to them), curing the sick.  Christ is powerful, and he works in them, works only he can do.  But only when, like Amos, they renounce their own credentials and become nothing but the praise of the glory of his grace.

How are you over-complicating the ministry Christ has given you?

Fourteenth Sunday – Power in Weakness

EZ 2:2-5, PS 123:1-2, 2, 3-4, 2 COR 12:7-10, MK 6:1-6

The theme of our readings this Sunday is “power made perfect in weakness.”  That is the heart of true devotion to Mary.

The Yaroslavi Virgin With Child (15th century, Tretyakov).jpgNow it must be said at the beginning, Scripture is not setting out to lead us to Mary, but to Jesus—and in fact, true Marian devotion leads us always past Mary to Jesus.

Our Gospel has Jesus’s neighbors saying, “Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon?  And are not his sisters here with us?”  The Gospel’s aim is not to teach us about the perpetual virginity of Mary—in fact, though her perpetual virginity is important, it is not the central thing we need to know about her.

(That said, we read elsewhere about “Mary the mother of James the younger and Joses” (Mt 15:40): half the women in the Gospel seem to be named Mary, but here it appears that James and Joses, the names of Jesus’ first two “brothers,” are children of a woman not identified as the mother of Jesus.  Paul refers to “James the Lord’s brother”: one of the apostles, the James who is not the brother of John but is called “son of Alphaeus,” and who became head of the Church in Jerusalem, was known by his blood relation to Jesus.  But the author of “Jude” (i.e., Judas, the third of the brothers in Mark’s list) calls himself “a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James” (Jude 1:1), but John’s Gospel seems to refer to the same one of the Twelve as “Judas (not Iscariot)” (Jn 14:22).  Well, the point is, there are a lot of relationships here, and all we can conclude is that it’s not clear who is literally brother to whom.)

The real point is contained in the first line: “Is he not the carpenter?”  The claim they are making is not that Mary has other children.  The claim is that Jesus is one of them, truly man.  God can’t be man!

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Revers Poganovo Icon.JPG

Ezekiel’s vision

Our first reading is the opening of Ezekiel.  In chapter one he sees a vision of God’s glory.  Now he is sent to the Israelites, “rebels who have rebelled against me,” in their exile in Babylon.  We see that God’s people often resist his word.  And that he continues to pursue them.  Man is sinful; God seeks out man.

So too, Paul is given “a thorn in the flesh.”  We don’t know what that thorn was: it could be a temptation, a physical malady, maybe an annoying member of his Church.  It doesn’t matter.  God wants to show him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”  “When I am weak, then I am strong”—because Christ is my strength.

***

That’s the point of our Gospel.  Jesus is power in weakness, God in man.  We tend to separate them, as if the choice is between Ezekiel’s divine majesty or his fallen Israel.  But Jesus is both.

The Gospel has some nice touches.  They say, “What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands!  Is he not the carpenter?”  A carpenter, of course, works with his hands, to do humble things.  “We know those hands!”  God cannot be in those human hands.

But God is—and the end of the reading says, “He was not able to perform any mighty deed there, apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them.”  A funny line: he couldn’t, except that he did?  Part of the point, at least, is not that he couldn’t do mighty deeds—but that he only did them through those hands.  They reject the humanity of God—and he acts only through it.  Just as Ezekiel’s rebellious house cannot believe that the mighty God comes through such a miserable little prophet.

Jesus “was amazed at their lack of faith.”  We learned last week that Jesus can feel power going out of him, and the other thing the locals cannot believe is his lack of wisdom—so it’s odd that he would be surprised at their lack of faith.  Not much surprises Jesus.

Testa di Cristo redentore.jpgInteresting, though: it also says, “Many who heard him were astonished.”  It isn’t the same word.  That word means something like, “hit with a hammer,” dumbstruck.  The word for Jesus is literally about wonder, about pondering, studying, gazing.  And I don’t want to make too much of a preposition, but Mark doesn’t use the normal preposition for this verb here: Jesus marvels “through” their lack of faith.  He sees right through them, understands them.  He isn’t dumbstruck, he’s wise.

***

All of this is the true meaning of Mary.  We look to Mary to be dumbstruck that God could become man.  We turn their words inside out, and ourselves marvel: “What kind of wisdom has been given him?  What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands!  Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary”—and one of us?

The point of Mary is not that she’s so awesome.  The point is that she is so small, so weak, she lets us see in Jesus Christ the strength of God pouring through human weakness.  God became a baby.  And then, by becoming weak, he made us strong: the Mother of God is holy, because she is full of grace: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

Where do you find yourself thinking you need to make up for God’s weakness?

Thirteenth Sunday – He is There

This Sunday the Lectionary gives us another of Mark’s splendid “sandwiches.”  The story opens and closes with the resurrection of Jairus’ daughter.  In the middle is the story of the woman with a hemmorhage.  Together, they show the many working of Jesus, the wideness of his mercy.

Spas vsederzhitel sinay.jpgAt the heart of our Epistle, our second-to-last Sunday reading Second Corinthians, is the curious word “equality”: “As a matter of equality your abundance at the present time should supply their needs.”  The word means “likeness,” or “matching up.”  “Though he was rich, for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich”: his poverty somehow matches up with our poverty so that he can match us up with his riches.  He does “gracious acts” so that we can do the same.

The reading brilliantly pairs with our reading from Wisdom.  “God did not make death.”  He doesn’t want us to suffer, that isn’t the point of death—but there is some kind of “match up.”  On the one hand, a match between the “imperishability” and “image of his own nature” that he gives us, so that we can match up with his richness.  On the other hand, a kind of match-up—not yet quite in sight in the Old Testament—between our death and Christ’s, his resurrection and ours.

In short: Why is there suffering in the world?  So that Christ can heal it.  They “match up.”

***

The Gospel is exquisite.  Mark is short; scholars claim it must have been written first because it is primitive.  But there is nothing primitive about this passage.  Here, Mark is longer and more detailed—and richer—than either Matthew or Luke.

The sandwich encourages us to see the two stories together.  Two sick girls.  The woman has been bleeding “for twelve years.”  We later learn (Matthew doesn’t have this detail) that the girl was “a child of twelve.”  Jesus calls her “Little girl” and her father (in a detail our translation leaves out) calls her his “daughterling,” his little girl, but that signifies more about her station than her age.

File:Healing of a bleeding women Marcellinus-Peter-Catacomb.jpgThe woman’s infirmity is obviously connected to her reproductive system—there is some sort of match-up between daughterhood and motherhood.  The two are the same, and opposites.  Jesus calls the woman, too, “daughter”: “Daughter, your faith has saved you.”

The woman hasn’t died, but the language is dramatic.  When it says she had a “flow” of blood, the Greek word doesn’t mean “trickle,” it’s the word you use for a current in a river.  She has “suffered” from the doctors.  But when he heals her, it says her “fountain” of blood becomes “arid,” like scorched earth.  At the end he calls it her “scourge,” the thing you get beaten with.  She does not rise from the dead, but her situation is awful, humiliating, and dramatic.

The ways of approach are opposite.  The woman approaches for herself, the child’s father approaches for her.  The woman is in a crowd “pressing on” Jesus, so that her touch is only one among many; the child is in a house, where Jesus keeps the “commotion” outside.  He “looked around to see who had” touched him; he was the only one who touched the little girl, and the small crowd in the house—only the father and mother and three disciples—were watching closely.  The father orders Jesus to come with him to his home, the woman tries to touch him without being noticed—but the story ends with Jesus giving the father a command (“give her something to eat”), but only generosity to the woman (“go in peace, and be healed”).

***

File:P1340364 Paris XII ND Bercy Lafosse Ressurection fille Jaire rwk.jpgMark alone gives us the Aramaic: Talitha koum.  It is his own version of when John says, of the water and blood at the Cross, “He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows what he is telling.”  Mark, of course, was not there—but Peter was.  Mark is also the only one to tell us that Jesus called God “Abba” in the Garden (where again only Peter, James, and John were with him); and that Jesus said “Ephphatha” to the man who was deaf and dumb, after “taking him aside from the crowd privately”; and that James and little-brother John were called “Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder”; and even that Jesus used the Aramaic “Corban” to discuss false vows of poverty and that the blind man was named “Bartimaeus.”

The scene in the house is parallel to the Transfiguration, where again Jesus will take just Peter, James, and John to see his glory.  This is the only time Jesus raises the dead in Matthew and Mark (though Luke has a mother’s son to parallel the father’s daughter).  Mark and Peter use the Aramaic to indicate the intimacy of the scene: I was there, I remember the words he said.

But in a different way, the crowd scene, too, is so dramatic: the pressing in, the grasping of the cloak, Jesus “twisting around” and “looking about,” the woman falling on her knees and telling “the whole truth.”

***

File:Healing of a bleeding women.jpgTaken together, these scenes show the universality of Jesus’s mercy.  In intimate silence and in the crowd, in our youth and our old age, in death and in humiliation, when we call out in strength and when we fall on our knees in fear—Jesus is there.

Where don’t you seek the Lord?

Birthday of the Baptist: The Source of our Fruitfulness

I am the vine

Jesus calls us to bear fruit.  It is tempting, then, to put aside contemplation in favor of action.  I have seen this said, for example, by both scholars and young people, about marriage: we can’t let family slow us down in our mission for the world!  And I feel the temptation to cut both my studies and my prayer short, so that I can go “make a difference.”

But our reading last week—and we could quote endlessly from the Gospels—reminds us that the power of the fruit is in the seed, which bears fruit “we know not how” and springs up far beyond what we would expect.  The key to fruitfulness is not activism, but letting Jesus work in us.

***

This week our Ordinary Sunday gets trumped by the Birthday of John the Baptist.  John is the ultimate missionary, the greatest of the prophets.  But in celebrating his Birthday, we celebrate God’s work in John before John worked for God.

File:Meister von Gracanica (I) 001.jpgThus our first reading, from Isaiah, a prophet like John, says first, “The LORD called me from birth,” then “He made of me a sharp-edged sword.”  The point is: He did it, my effectiveness is from Him.

And only because he is God’s work, he can reach beyond human limitations.  “It is too little, he says, for you . . . to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel.”  Working for the salvation of the whole people of Israel would be pretty good, more than I could hope to accomplish.  But “I will make you a light to the nations”—and indeed, both Isaiah and John the Baptist have served to convert the entire world.  Only because it was God’s work, not theirs: “My God is now my strength!”

And John always points beyond himself.  Our reading from Acts reminds us that he was always herald of the King: “What do you suppose that I am?  I am not he.”  His strength comes from beyond him, and so it points beyond him.

***

Our Gospel, of course, is the story of John’s birth, from the first chapter of Luke.

The center of the story is the naming of John.  Yochanan or Yehochanan (whence the Greek Ioannes) is a semi-common name in the Old Testament, meaning God (YHWH) has bent down, or had mercy.

File:Nativity john baptist.jpgThere are some nice themes.  One is relatives.  The same word is used in the earlier story when the angel tells Mary, “Your relative Elizabeth in her age old has has also conceived.”  Then in our story, “Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her” (had Yochanan-ed).  And then, “None of your relatives is called by this name.”  Nature does not produce John.  God’s mercy does.  Mary and Elizabeth are deeper sisters by grace than by nature.

“The Lord had shown his great mercy toward her.”  He had “megalune-d” his mercy, just as Mary had just told Elizabeth, “My soul magnifies [megalune-s] the Lord . . . for he who is mighty has done great things [megalune-d] for me . . . And his mercy is on them that fear him, from generation to generation.”  Mary makes God great, because God has made her great.

So too Zechariah “blesses” God, because God has blessed him.  Our work is always in response to his mercy in our lives.

***

And, like the mustard seed, it bears fruit faster than we would think.  Here are two more echoes from what Luke has just said about Mary.

File:Leonardo da Vinci - Saint John the Baptist C2RMF retouched.jpgFirst, “Then fear came upon all their neighbors” (not their relatives?)  Now, we don’t like to talk about fear of the Lord, but the Bible does.  Mary says in her Magnificat, one of the most important prayers we have, that “His mercy is on those who fear him.”

In our context, let us just say: they realize that God is powerful.  That’s not everything, but it’s a huge thing.  Fear of the Lord means knowing that we are lost without him, and that we will be changed by him.  There’s an awful lot in modern Christianity, especially modern Catholicism, that seems to say, “He is weak and we are strong”—I heard again recently the very lame line, “We are his hands, Jesus cannot reach out without us.”  Balderdash.

He created the universe.  He doesn’t need you, you need him—and the amazing thing about our taking part in his work is that he chooses to share his life with us, to let us participate in his mercy toward others.  I am weak and he is strong!

That’s what fear of the Lord means.  That’s what Mary proclaims, and what Elizabeth’s neighbors discover in God’s mercy to her, his Yochanan, YHWH bending down to her.

***

Second, “All who heard these things took them to heart, saying, ‘What, then, will this child be?’”  Twice in Luke 2 we hear that Mary “treasures” the mysteries of the child Jesus in her heart.  It’s an echo, too, of Psalm 119, “Thy word I have hid within my heart.”  Here they only “place it” in their hearts—but the point is, everything begins with us pondering the unfathomable works of God.

How do we bear fruit?  Not by setting aside God or the duties he puts on us, but by letting him work his miracles in us, letting him make of us a marvel that makes people wonder what’s going on.

What miracles does God want to show to the world through his work in your heart?

Eleventh Sunday – Thy Kingdom Come

This Sunday our Gospel plunges us into Jesus’s teaching, with the parables of the seed that grows “he knows not how” and the mustard seed.

The first thing to notice—in continuity with last week’s struggles about the “house” and the “kingdom,” is that Jesus’s teaching focuses on “the kingdom of God.”  “Thy will be done” can sometimes, by itself, give us an individualistic idea of our relationship with God, but “thy kingdom come” situates us within a people and a greater project of renewal.  Christian salvation is social.

***

Our reading concludes, “Without parables he did not speak to them, but to his own disciples he explained everything in private.”  This passage summarizes a half chapter which this year’s Lectionary skipped—though we read about the parable, and I commented on it, last year (Fifteenth Sunday), in Matthew.

That story is about the seed that falls on different kinds of ground, and in both Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts, Jesus ties that parable to the claim, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables.”  Sometimes people say Jesus’s uses quaint parables to make himself accessible to quaint country people.  But Jesus says just the opposite: he uses parables in part to hide his teaching.

Or rather, Jesus is the key to the teaching.  The teachings are all from Jesus and about Jesus, he is the way, the truth, and the life.  If we stay close to him, the teachings are luminous; without him, we can do, and understand, nothing.

Also in the half-chapter we’re skipping, Mark spins two other sayings in this direction.  Matthew says we are the light of the world, and a lamp is not supposed to be put under a bushel basket.  But here in Mark, it’s Jesus’s teaching, and his kingdom, which are meant to be revealed and revealing.

So too with the line, “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”  For Matthew and Luke, this is about treating others right.  But for Mark, here in chapter four, it is about understanding the words of Jesus: live by the sword, die by the sword; live by the word of Jesus, and his word will reveal everything to you, but live by another word, and all is darkness.

As I’ve said before, Mark is Peter’s Gospel, and Peter wants us to keep our eye fixed on Jesus.

***

The first parable we read is the seed growing.  The parable of the sower, which we skipped, emphasizes the difference of the ground: is our heart ready to receive his word?  But this parable emphasizes the mysterious power of the seed itself.  The farmer just “scatters” the seed, then goes to bed.  “The seed sprouts and grows, he knows not how.”

The kingdom of God depends not on our strength, not on our plans, but on the power of Jesus, and of his seed, the Word.  We cover it with the bushel basket of our human calculations, measure it by human prudence—but he can do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine.

Jesus adds the picturesque detail that first the blade comes, then the ear, then the full grain.  Sometimes all we see is a tiny little plant sticking up, and we don’t even know if it’s the Kingdom or not, or if it can possibly survive.  But he is working, and we must pray, “Thy Kingdom come!” and give ourselves over to that divine work.

Other times we see the Kingdom at work, but it doesn’t yet bear fruit that we can receive.  No matter, Thy Kingdom come!

***

Our second parable is the mustard seed.  The simple point is, we think Jesus can’t possibly win.  But he can.  He’s more powerful than you think.  Jesus, I trust in you.

My Bible dictionary says the thing about Middle Eastern “Sinapis” is that it grows fast.

Our first reading, from Ezekiel, reminds us that this parable has a background—Jesus is often quoting the Old Testament (maybe we should read it).  Ezekiel even has the detail of the birds dwelling in the shade of its boughs.  Ezekiel, too, underlines the power of God: it is not we who make the kingdom strong, it is the Lord.

***

The reading from Second Corinthians is dizzying.  We are at home in the body, we would rather leave the body, we are judged by what we do in the body.  We are at home (literally, among our people), away from home, we want to go home, we should please the Lord at home or away from home, we’re going home.  There’s a lot to pray about here.

But one point for us: we will appear at the foot of Christ.  (Our translation says “judgment seat,” but that adds a detail that only distracts.)  We must live all our life in the light of this final encounter: love what he loves, share in his work, live by his word, and let him be our all in all.

That’s the meaning of the Kingdom: not that Jesus has some project he wants done, but that he wants our whole life to be united to him, for our every moment to be hallowing his name, calling out for his kingdom and his will, living by his bread, dwelling in the mercy of his forgiveness, letting him be our leader and deliverer.

What does Jesus’s kingdom mean in your daily life?

More on the Strong Man

Another thought on this Sunday’s Gospel:

The scribes, coming down from kingly Jerusalem to Jesus’s house, say, “By the prince of demons he casts out demons.”  (Continuing the parallels between kingdom and house, they also say, “He has Beelzebub,” whose name seems to be a Hebrew parody: Baal of the Flies, maybe, the pagan God of the filthy house.)

Jesus first responds to the general charge, “How can Satan cast out Satan” (how can the attacker throw out the attacker).  Then he ties it to kingdom and house: “If a kingdom be divided against itself . . . if a house be divided against itself.”

***

Then he adds one last version: “No one can enter a strong man’s house and seize his goods unless he first bind the strong man.”

Now, there are two houses here.  Jesus is casting out demons and “preaching the Gospel of the kingdom of God” (Mk 1:15): he is entering Satan the strong man’s house and seizing his goods (that is, us, those the strong man has bound).  And Satan has entered the house of Jesus the strong man to seize his goods.  It all depends on who is stronger, who can bind the strong man.

That’s what Jesus means when he says next, “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven (sent away) for the sons of men,and whatever blasphemies they utter.”  Jesus is the stronger man.  No matter how Satan has bound us, no matter how we have fallen prey to his lies, Jesus is stronger.  He can cast out those demons because he is the stronger one.

***

“But,” he immediately adds, “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty—no, held in—with eternal sin.”  “For they were saying, ‘He has an unclean spirit,’” and casts out the unclean spirits by an unclean spirit.

The only sin we cannot escape is the sin of denying that Jesus is our liberator.  That is the logic of the strong man: we are bound by Satan the strong man, and no one can enter that strong man’s house and seize his goods unless he first bind the strong man.  We are not strong enough to bind that strong man, we need someone stronger.  If we reject him—if we reject his Holy Spirit, if we turn against Jesus the liberator—then we are stuck.

It’s not that he won’t forgive us.  That’s not the problem.  The problem is that we are bound and we need someone to set us free.  We need to call on Jesus.

***

Of course, it’s worth noting that all this language of “binding” and “forgiving” points right to Jesus’ mandate to the apostles: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” he tells Peter, “and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16).  He extends it more broadly two chapters later.

In John he breathes on the Apostles and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit”—just as Mark is talking about the sin against the Holy Spirit—“if you forgive (send away) the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from (actually, it’s a different version of, ‘use strength on’) any, it is withheld” (Jn 20).

Jesus passes this power to his disciples, especially in Confession.  You could paraphrase: “The only sin that cannot be forgiven is the one that is not confessed.”

***

But Mark doesn’t make that connection, he sticks with Jesus the strong man.  And this is an important point, one our devotion needs to discover.  It is not the sacrament that frees us from our sins.  It is Jesus.  We approach Jesus through the sacrament; the sacrament is the structure he has established by which we say, “Oh Jesus, the strong man, bind Satan the strong man and set me free from his possession”; but it is Jesus, working through that sacramental ritual, who sets us free.

Never forget it is Jesus, Jesus alone, who frees us from our sins.  If we are not his kingdom and his house, we are lost.