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.
The 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.
The 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 . . . .
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?