Monthly Archives: February 2014

How Lovely is Your Dwelling Place, O Lord

Mt.olives
How is God present to us? That’s a question prompted by the Old Testament readings at Mass these days about the temple in Jerusalem.

When David builds a splendid palace in Jerusalem after his conquest of the city he decides that God also needs a beautiful temple to dwell in. But God tells David through the Prophet Nathan that he doesn’t need a place to be in. ( 2 Samuel 7, 4-17) He dwells in a tent so he can move with his people wherever they are. A beautiful reminder that God goes with us wherever we go.

But then David’s son, Solomon, builds a great temple for God on the threshing floor he buys in the upper city in Jerusalem, and God makes his dwelling place there. A dark cloud fills the Holy of Holies of Solomon’s temple, the Book of Kings recalls; it’s so awesome that the priests can’t remain in the place. “… The priests could no longer minister because of the cloud, since the LORD’s glory had filled the temple of the LORD.” (1 Kings 8,22-30)

You can hear Solomon wrestling with this mystery of God who is transcendent and yet immanent. “Can it indeed be that God dwells on earth? If the heavens and the highest heavens cannot contain you, how much less this temple which I have built!”

But the king accepts God’s presence in this place and prays to God there and asks for God’s blessing there. “Listen to the petitions of your servant and of your people Israel which they offer in this place. Listen from your heavenly dwelling and grant pardon.”

These are good readings to reflect on the presence of God in our lives. God has promised to be with us, yet God’s presence will always be mysterious, beyond our understanding. He goes with us wherever we go, but then there are also holy places where God meets us– sacraments, signs where he’s promised to be.

Jesus fulfilled these Old Testament realities. As God’s Word, he dwells among us, accompanying us on our journey of life and, as he said himself, he’s also the new temple of God who dwells in signs and sacraments. His presence is “a dark cloud,” the mystery of his death and resurrection. Awesome, mysterious, beyond our understanding. Yet we draw close and pray and ask that he listen and bring us life.

Evil Doesn’t Have Its Way

Beheading JohnToday we read a long narrative from Mark’s Gospel (Chapter 6) describing the death of John the Baptist at the hands of Herod Antipas. It’s been called a “Passion Account before the Passion of Jesus.”

Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee, had his capitol in Tiberias a short distance from Capernaum where much of Jesus’ ministry took place. He certainly knew what Jesus was doing and what people were saying about him. Some said he was Elijah, or a prophet. But what caught Herod’s attention especially was talk that Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead.

Herod had arrested John and imprisoned him, probably in his fortress at Macherius near the Dead Sea. Then, influenced by his wife Herodias, who resented John’s criticism of their marriage– which violated Jewish law– Herod had John put to death.

The story told in great detail in Mark’s Gospel is an example of evil, oppressive power at its worst. Herodias’ daughter Salome dances at one of Herod’s bloated banquets and elicits his promise to do anything she asks for. “What shall I ask?” Salome asks her mother. “The head of John the Baptist,” is her answer.

Later in Mark’s gospel, Jesus identifies John the Baptist with Elijah. “I tell you that Elijah has come and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.” (Mark 9, 13) Like Jesus, John suffers and is treated with contempt.

The story of John’s beheading by Herod prepares Mark’s readers for the story of the Passion of Jesus. Both stories were meant to help Mark’s first audience, Roman Christians, face the sudden, absurd persecution inflicted on them by the Emperor Nero in the mid 60s. Like Herod, Nero seemed supremely powerful. They could not see it yet, but evil would not have its way. The Son of Man would rise from the dead and be glorified. So would they.

That’s the lesson we should take from this story too. Evil doesn’t have its way.

The Scandal of the Incarnation

Nazareth, Annunciation ch


The four gospels take a dim view of Nazareth, the hometown of Jesus Christ. Early in his gospel, John says that Philip, one of Jesus’ first disciples, invited Nathaniel to meet “Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth.” “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Philip replies. (John 1,46).

The other gospels recall the sad rejection of Jesus by his hometown after his baptism by John the Baptist. According the Matthew, it takes place after Jesus has spoken to a large crowd in parables. Then, he goes to Nazareth and speaks in the synagogue to his own townspeople, who are at first astonished at his wisdom, but then wonder where did “the carpenter’s son” get all this. They know his mother and his family, and they reject him. (Matthew 13,54-58)

Mark’s gospel puts the event after Jesus has raised a little girl from the dead. Going to Nazareth with his disciples, he’s greeted in the synagogue with astonishment because of his wisdom; they’ve heard of his mighty deeds, but then they ask where did this “carpenter” get all of this? He’s “Mary’s son” and they know his family. Jesus “was amazed at their lack of faith.” (Mark 6,1-5)

Why do they reject Jesus? The reason seems to be that they know his family and what he’s done for a living, and they can’t believe someone like him could be a messenger of God to them. He’s just a carpenter. What does he know? He came from an ordinary family, some of whom may not have been nice people at all. So they dismiss him.

At Nazareth we see an example of what’s called the “scandal of the incarnation.” People can’t believe that God could come to us as Jesus did.

That scandal still continues. One obvious instance of it is when people claim to be “spiritual, but not religious.” They want God and not the human ways God comes to us. They want God to be in the beauty of a sunset, but not in a church. They want God as they would like him to be, and not in the messiness of humanity.

I think of that line from one of the English poets:

“I saw him in the shining of the stars, I marked him in the flowering of the fields, but in his ways with men, I knew him not.”

The scandal of the Incarnation is always with us.

A Woman Touched His Garments

The ancient fresco (above) of the woman who touches Jesus’ cloak and is healed is found in the catacombs of Saints Peter and Marcellinus in Rome. Her story in Mark’s gospel is placed in the middle of the story of Jesus raising the daughter of Jairus the synagogue official from the dead. Many say Mark’s gospel is written in Rome. We read the stories of the woman and the dead girl today at Mass. (Mark 5,21-43)

You wonder why the woman’s story interrupts the very dramatic story of the dead girl? Could the fresco in the catacombs offer a clue? Did Roman Christians see her pointing to the way they could know Jesus and the mystery of death?

She doesn’t approach Jesus and speak to him face to face as the little girl’s father does.  She just touches his cloak and power went out from him and cured her. In a sense, the woman is like every believer after her who knows the Risen Jesus, not face to face, but through signs.

Those buried in the catacombs were like her. They were baptized with water and received the body and blood of Christ in signs of bread and wine. Like the woman, they touched his garments in the sacraments, and he welcomed them in sacraments. He sees their faith and gives them new life.

When the Catechism of the Catholic Church was issued after the Second Vatican Council, the publishers of the book were instructed to put the picture of the woman touching the cloak of Jesus at the beginning of its section on the sacraments. She’s our guide to  sacramental faith.

She tells us to believe and touch the signs that Jesus gives us.