Tenth Sunday: Gathered Around Jesus

We finally return to Ordinary Time—and I return to writing these reflections.  I have finally emerged from a very busy Spring—but I confess, I’ve fallen more and more in love with Ordinary Time, and I had more trouble motivating myself to write on the more scattered readings of Easter.  I missed Mark.  Easter is great, and Pentecost, and Trinity, and Corpus Christi!  But Ordinary Time, just praying through the Gospels: what a great gift to us.  It is one of the greatest gifts of Vatican II, to restore to us this orderly reading of Scripture.

File:Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1504, Engraving.jpgThe Old Testament reading is always chosen to complement the other two readings; this one is from Genesis 3.  Then we jump back into the fourth week of the Lectionary’s eight-week tour of Second Corinthians.  Paul sounds the theme for the day: “what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal.”

Genesis 3 tells us about the breakdown of human relationships.  “She gave me fruit from the tree, and so I ate it.”  Adam reduces their relationship to externals, first, by just relating to “her,” without consideration for God and the good, and second by choosing what food over higher goods.  It is in this way that they discover nakedness: “what is seen” in absence from “the eternal.”  This is the way of the serpent, always crawling on his belly and eating the dust, and it will always be the enemy of the woman.

Paul instead proposes faith, thanksgiving, the glory of God, and even affliction.  None of these things are opposed to earthly life—but we need to live “what is seen” in light of “what is unseen.”

***

And that is the theme of our Gospel.  We have what scholars have given the ugly name, “a Markan sandwich”: Mark likes to put two connected pieces around a central piece.  The “bread” of this week’s sandwich is about Jesus’s family according to the flesh.  The “filling” is about a “house divided against itself” and the “everlasting sin” against the Holy Spirit.

70Apostles.jpgThe two outside pieces are magnificent, but they require a closer look than it is easy to get just hearing the Gospel read at Mass.  They are full of parallels and contrasts that are easy to miss so far apart, and in a translation that ignores them.  The great contrast is those who are “around him” (in spirit) and those who are only “near him” (by the flesh).

In the first part, “Jesus came home with his disciples.”  Actually, he “came into house”—in Greek it could mean “a house,” any house, or “home,” but “house” and “in” are important words this Sunday.  “Again the crowd gathered”—sorry, I’m going to have to abandon the Lectionary’s translation.  “Again the crowd came with him.”  And then his family—literally, those “near him”—“heard and came to muscle him, for they said, ‘he stands outside.’”  Our translation is right, it means, “he is out of his mind.”  But the phrase is “he stands outside.”

Then in the second half of the sandwich, after the business about a house divided, “The brothers and the mother came and stood outside.”  Hmm, it’s the same word.  But notice that he is inside the house but somehow outside of the family circle.

Colorful details paint the picture.  In the first, the crowd are so tight that they “couldn’t even eat bread.”  In the second, his family “sends out toward him, “bellowing to him”—those who are “near him” by the flesh are not so near after all.

The crowd “sits around him”—so close—and says, “behold your mother and your brothers stand outside.”  Again the standing outside, same words.

But Jesus “looks around him”—again “around”—and now it adds “sitting in a circle,” and says “behold my mother and my brothers, for whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

***

Yes, this is harsh to Mary.  We needn’t reject our Marian devotion to acknowledge that Jesus is hard on her—Jesus is hard.  We can blame the brothers here if we want.  But the bigger point is, there are two ways to be united to Jesus.  We can be “near him” by the flesh.  Or we can be “around him,” sitting at his feet, hearing him, making his will our own.  It is, in fact, important to say that Mary is united to him not just by the flesh, by “what is seen,” but by the spirit, “what is unseen.”

But it is worth adding here that those who do his will can be seen—he “looks around at them, sitting in a circle.”  We’re not supposed to escape from the flesh.  We are supposed to love Jesus in the flesh.  That’s the point of the Incarnation, and of Mary.  But it has to be more than just flesh.  More than just receiving the Eucharist, for example, we need to sit at his feet and truly receive him.  The readings are part of true Eucharistic devotion . . . .

***

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

In the long middle section Satan is divided against himself, and cannot stand.  But so too Jesus speaks of a “house” divided—alluding to the familiarity of his family and his disciples, two kinds of “houses”—and of a divided “kingdom,” which is the theme of much of his teaching.  To follow Jesus means being a united house and kingdom: united with Christ, and with one another.

Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is not some special sin that Jesus can’t forgive.  It means “all sins and all blasphemies will be forgiven”—but only if are united to Jesus.  To separate ourselves from him, and from his spirit—“For they had said, ‘he has an unclean spirit’”—is death.  Let us sit around him, in a circle, at his feet.

How do you practice really sitting at the feet of Jesus?

The Ascension: Victory in the Flesh

File:The Bible panorama, or The Holy Scriptures in picture and story (1891) (14804899633).jpgThis past Sunday—or last Thursday, the fortieth day after Easter, if your diocese can handle mid-week days of obligation—was the Ascension.  “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?  This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”

This year of Mark, we get one of the weirdest of all New Testament readings.  The end says, “So then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them, was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God.”  But first comes Mark’s version of the great commission, with some weird promises: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.  Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned.”  So far so good.

But then: “These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages.  They will pick up serpents with their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them.  They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

Picking up serpents?

***

File:Вознесение Господне 16 в.jpgThe Ascension completes the Resurrection.  In the Resurrection Christ conquers death—but the deeper point, and the reason for all those appearances where he eats fish and lets people poke his hands—is that he redeems the flesh.  Life in the fallen world is deadly.  But death is not the end, or the goal.

Pagans (and too many Christians) believe that death is a release from the sufferings of this world.  But we look forward to the resurrection of the dead.  We don’t want to be rid of our bodies.  We don’t want to die—though for now, we have to pass through death as part of how Christ conquers our sin.

Mark’s strange lines about picking up serpents and drinking poison point to Christ’s victory over death.  He has taken our flesh into heaven in his body, so that our flesh can ascend to heaven in our bodies, too.  We look forward to the resurrection of the dead.

***

Mark’s promises are in part missionary.  The Apostles are given miraculous powers as a way to manifest the power of Christ and win believers.  The traditional teaching of the Church is that more such miracles were given in the early Church—because they did not yet have the miracle of the sanctity of the saints, and the conversion of the poor.  We have different, more essential signs now, the miracle of the Church itself.  But in that early age, Christ showed his power through many physical miracles.

File:Giotto - Scrovegni - -38- - Ascension.jpgThe line from Acts, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?” shows us this missionary dynamic.  On one level, it highlights the weakness of the Apostles.  Men from the boondocks, from the backwaters of a backwater country, looking at the sky, is an image of the human weakness of the Church, through which, as through our physical weakness, Christ manifests his strength.

But Galilee is not only a backwater, it is also a crossroads, “Galilee of the Gentiles,” where Jews lived among pagans.  And so those small-town fishermen also point toward Pentecost, which is a miracle not just of general miraculous strength, but of the specific miracle of tongues: the Gospel preached in every language, to every tribe and people and nation.  Only the power of Christ can conquer Babel and forge unity in this divided world.  These Galileans are the first sign that the Gospel will spread from Jerusalem to all nations.

Our Epistle, from Ephesians, makes a parallel point: “to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace: one body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”  And so “he gave some as apostles, others as prophets,” etc.: many tasks at the service of the one mission of the Church.

***

File:The Ascension of Our Lord.jpgThe Ascension is partly about mission.  When Christ goes to heaven, he becomes no longer a member of one nation, in one time and place, but the one Lord of all history.  And so the Ascension brings with it these missionary miracles of snake handling and poison drinking.

But more than that, it is about the victory of Christ, source and goal of that mission.  No more is human flesh a place of distance from God.  Christ takes our flesh to heaven in victory, so that he may triumph in our bodies, too.  Those strange bodily miracles of the early Church serve for mission because, above and beyond mission, they testify to the redemption of the body, Christ’s victory even in our flesh.  We look forward to the resurrection of the dead.

In what ways are you tempted to deny that your own flesh can be transfigured by union with God in Christ?

Sixth Sunday in Easter: Dearness

This Sunday’s readings, obviously, were about love.  Our Epistle, from 1 John, said, “Let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.  Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love.”  Our Gospel, the passage from John 15 right after last week’s reading, the vine and the branches, has Jesus saying, “As the Father loves me, so I also love you.  Remain in my love. . . . Remain in his love. . . . This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.”  Lovely.

But what kind of love?

Of course you know the Greek here is agape.  It’s not the standard Greek word for love; it’s distinct from eros, desire, and philia, friendship.  Sometimes it gets translated “Christian love,” because it is a word almost made up for Christians.  But what kind of love?  Benedict XVI spent his whole first encyclical trying to tell us.

***

Sometimes we misunderstand (BXVI points out) and call it “service love.”  It sounds like there are two totally different things, mistakenly covered up by a common word.  When normal people say love—from “I love pizza” to “I love him” and even “I love you”—they mean something about liking the person, desiring to be around them, finding them pleasant.  But Christians, we might be tempted to think, are above all that.  We aren’t sullied with mere desire.  Our love is without desire, purely self-giving.  Right?

Well, there’s something true in that framework—an important pushback against the million silly homilies we’ve heard that begin, “Our Bible readings today talk about love,” then never return to the Bible, and give us a lot of sentimental mush.  It’s important for us to say, “no, they’re not about ‘love,’ they’re about agape”; to pretend that Jesus just tells us to go on being perfectly normal is to throw away the Gospel—so perfectly symbolized by the utter lack of interest in what Jesus actually says about this ‘love.’

***

St. Augustine and St. Jerome, studying Scripture

But it would be wrong to throw out actually liking people.  My insane semester is almost over; for now I could only do a short Old Testament Scripture study.  Agape is a word in the old (Jewish) Greek translation of the Old Testament, maybe made up for that context.  (Much of the time, at least) it translates the Hebrew word achab, which is a word for affection.  It describes how Abraham feels about Isaac, and also Sarah, and how Jacob loved Rachel, and how God loves his people.  This is not about extinguishing affection.

In the great wisdom of the ancient Latin translation of the Bible, there’s a (I think) made-up word, caritasCarus means “dear,” or “precious” (there are cognates in Spanish, French has things like cher), so caritas, the Latin translation of agape, the special word for Christian love, means literally, “dearness.”  This isn’t about extinguishing affection—it is about having much more affection.

***

“As the Father loves (agape’s) me, so I also love you.  Remain in my love.”  “Remain” (or “abide,” or “dwell”) is one of John’s favorite words.  When he says “in my Father’s house, there are many rooms,” it’s really “places to dwell,” because we are supposed to dwell in this love, to feel the depth of our dearness to God, and to hold that dearness dear.

“You are my friends if you do what I command you. . . . I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.”   Agape doesn’t extinguish desire or friendship, it takes them deeper.  It means seeing as God sees—and so seeing the dearness of things, and especially people, as our Creator and Redeemer sees them.

We are called to “lay down our life,” yes—for our friends.  It’s not because, like Stoics, we set affection aside.  It’s because we burn with such love that we are willing to die on the cross: he held them so dear, he loved them till the end.

That’s why we have to be “begotten by God”: until he pours his love into our hearts (by the Holy Spirit, who is given to us, Rom 5:5), we just don’t hold things as dear as he does.

***

Our reading from Acts is not obviously connected.  Peter is finding “that God shows no partiality.  Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.”

The bigger story is, God spelled out a thousand details of right conduct for the Jews, tailored to all the details of their historic time and place.  In Christ, he transcends the particularity of that nation.  But he transcends it by giving us the deeper law, the law of agape.  It’s like moving from being told, “at 7:15 each morning, you should offer to make your wife breakfast”—to holding her so dear that we don’t need to be told all the details, we attend to those and even more, not because we are told to, but because we love.

Dearness takes us beyond the law, because dearness is the point of the law.

Whom in your life should you hold more dear?  How can you practice dwelling in God’s love for that person?

The Fourth Sunday of Easter—The Power of the Spirit

Пророк Троица XVIII.jpegOur reading from Acts this Sunday begins, “Peter, filled with the Spirit.”  Acts is like the Gospel of the Holy Spirit.  By my count, the Spirit is named about 60 times in these 28 chapters—compared to 67 times in the 89 chapters of the four Gospels.  Acts shows us the power of the Spirit.

The Spirit gives Peter the power to preach, of course.  But more deeply than that, the Spirit gives him knowledge.  He says he acts “in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.”  The Spirit is power, and so is Jesus—the name of Jesus signifies that it is Jesus himself who has power.

Then he cites Scripture—another manifestation of the power of the Spirit: “He is the stone rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone.”  Peter knows what they don’t know.  The Spirit has revealed to him the power of Jesus Christ.

***

Every Easter season we read Acts.  This year of Mark, we read 1 John as our Epistle.  And this week John speaks of knowledge and love.  “See what love the Fathers has bestowed on us,” he says, and twice calls us, “beloved” agapatoi.

But what is the gift of the Father’s love?  “That we may be called the children of God.  Yet so we are.”  There is our identity—and there is our knowledge of our identity.  Both are gifts of the Father’s love.

Our identity is itself tied to knowledge: what we, God’s children, “shall be has not yet been revealed”—we don’t know yet—but “we do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”  We know that we will know.  The power of the Spirit is in all this knowing.

***

Every year, this fourth Sunday is Good Shepherd Sunday; we read different selections from John 10.

Hermes crioforo.jpgNow, I don’t want to stretch things too far, but—when he says, “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” it sounds like he is talking about what is common to all shepherds.  But first of all, the Greek says, “The good shepherd.”  One way to read that is just as a general statement about shepherds, just as the next sentence says what “The hired man” does.  But another way to read it is to say, he’s not saying all good shepherds lay down their life, he is describing what The Good Shepherd does (and “the hired man” might be a more significant figure than he at first appears).

And the way he says, “lays down his life for the sheep” is literally, “puts his soul onto the sheep.”  Yes, it is saying that he is willing to die for them (how many shepherds die for their sheep?).  But later, John will say that when this Good Shepherd is pierced on the Cross, he pours out blood and water for them, and when he dies he “hands over the spirit.”  Both of these statements have to have double meanings: he lays down his life—and he gives his soul, his spirit, to us.

***

He goes on to talk about knowledge.  “I know mine, and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I put my soul upon the sheep.”  Yes, he dies for them.  But they know him because he gives them his Spirit, his soul.  That’s what it means to be his: to know him—whose death and resurrection make him the least knowable of all—because we have received the Spirit from him.

He goes on to say that he has other sheep who are not part of this fold.  “These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice.”  They too know his voice, and follow him—but they hear his voice because he leads them, because he gives them his spirit, speaks into their hearts.

Why does he talk about another fold?  To make clear what defines his flock.  It is only Jesus.  Wherever Jesus goes, whomever Jesus draws, those are his sheep.  It’s not because we were in the right place at the right time, not because we’re part of the right club—but because Jesus has put his Spirit upon us.  Don’t make the church more natural than it is.

Christ Angel of Great Advice (Ochride).jpg“And there will be one flock, one shepherd”—one flock, because one shepherd.  He’s not saying there are alternate churches—he is saying that what defines the true church is being led by him.

***

“This is why” (or: it is through this that) “the Father loves me, because (or: that) I lay down my life in order to take it up again.  No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own.”  True, this is the power of the Resurrection, that he willingly dies and has power to rise again.

But it is also the power of grace, the power of the Spirit.  He has the power to give that spirit to us, to lay his soul upon us, and thereby to draw us up to him.  We have no power to take that spirit—it is not by our own merits—but he lays it upon us.  That is the power of the Resurrection: the giving of the Spirit.

How can you gave more intently on Christ?

Easter and the Gospel

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you pray the Resurrection?

Palm Sunday – Mark’s Picture of the Savior

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Only at the Cross is Jesus truly revealed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Mark keeps directing our attention back to Christ as king.

***

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

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

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

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

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

Fifth Sunday of Lent: God Will Act

A very late publication for last Sunday’s readings.

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

File:Moses-icon.jpg

The Burning Bush

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third Sunday of Lent: Spring Cleaning

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

What human calculations are crowding your Temple?

Second Sunday of Lent: Mountaintop Experience

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

This Lent, how is Jesus humbling you?