Monthly Archives: January 2015

4th Sunday B: An Explosive Day

To listen to the audio for today’s homily, please select the audio player below:

Our gospel reading this Sunday, like most from the last four Sundays, is from the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel. It describes a day– one day in the life of Jesus–one commentator calls it a “paradigmatic day”– a day you can see everything you need to know about Jesus.

The evangelist prepares us for this day with an account of Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the desert by Satan. At the Jordan River the heavens open and a voice says, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Immediately, Mark says, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by Satan for forty day.

This is God’s beloved Son, but he knows what it means to face evil. He came among us and faced evil.

“After John had been arrested,” Mark continues, “Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

Jesus goes into Galilee “after John has been arrested,” not the safest time to announce anything, but that doesn’t matter. God’s kingdom is stronger than the powers of this world. It wont be stopped.

Mark’s Gospel is fast paced. As Jesus passes the Sea of Galilee, he sees Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea. Jesus says to them. “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” They abandoned their nets and followed him.

He walked along a little farther, he sees James and John, the sons of Zebedee, getting ready to go out in their boat. He calls them and they leave their boat to follow him.

They can’t resist him, Mark’s gospel says. There’s something exciting and commanding about him. They have to follow him.

They come to Capernaum, the town where they all live. It’s the Sabbath Day. They all go into the synagogue and Jesus begins to teach. He amazes the people with his teaching. No one has taught like him before.

But then, as happens all through his life, the voice of evil is heard. A man with an unclean spirit cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?

“Have you come to destroy us?

I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

Jesus rebuked him and said,

‘Quiet! Come out of him!’ The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him.

All were amazed and asked one another,

‘What is this? A new teaching with authority.

He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.’”

Of course, when those people leave the synagogue, they tell everybody they meet. Capernaum was a trading center. The news gets out quickly.

“His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.”

Next Sunday’s gospel from Mark will continue the story of this momentous day. Jesus leaves the synagogue goes into Peter and Andrew’s house in Capernaum and heals Peter’s mother in law. This same day is filled with excitement. Mark ends his account by saying that as the day ends, the whole town in at the door, anxious to hear him, with their sick and those who are disturbed.

I wish I could convey some of the excitement that this gospel wants to convey. When Jesus comes into your town he brings life. Peter and those he calls can’t resist him. They have to follow him to know more. That’s always what Jesus does. He draws us to himself; he sets our hearts on fire.

Of course, he’s always accompanied by the evil of this world. The man with the unclean spirit whom always be there too. “Stay away from us. Get away from us. We want to be left alone. Even if you are the Son of God we want to be left alone.”

“If today you hear his voice harden not your hearts.” What a tragedy that is. not to hear his voice, to harden our hearts.

Friday Thoughts Continued

Friday is the traditional day Christians remember the Passion of Jesus. We’re losing that tradition I’m afraid. Can we do something about it?

The words “Friday Thoughts” came to my mind and so I put some thoughts from Thomas Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux on a previous blog. Then I happened to #hashtag Friday Thoughts over at Twitter and came upon #fridaythoughts , a whole world of people probably finishing the week and looking at the coming weekend.

So here are some Friday thoughts:

“Fri-YAY! Welcome back weekend, can’t wait to enjoy you!”

“You can’t climb the ladder of success with your hands in your pocket.”

“In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”

How can we offer #fridaythoughts a reminder of the Gentle One who shook the world this day and brought it hope and life?

Some of them might be interested

Friday Thoughts

When you blend the prose of St. Thomas Aquinas with the poetry of St.Bernard, you get something like this:

“Why did the Son of God have to suffer for us? There was a great need, and it can be considered in a twofold way: in the first place, as a remedy for sin, and secondly, as an example of how to act.

It is a remedy, for, in the face of all the evils which we incur on account of our sins, we have found relief through the passion of Christ. Yet, it is no less an example, for the passion of Christ completely suffices to fashion our lives.”  ( Thomas Aquinas)

“Where can the weak find a place of firm security and peace, except in the wounds of the Saviour? Indeed, the more secure is my place there, the more he can do to help me. The world rages, the flesh is heavy, and the devil lays his snares, but I do not fall, for my feet are planted on firm rock. I may have sinned gravely. My conscience would be distressed, but it would not be in turmoil, for I would recall the wounds of the Lord: he was wounded for our iniquities…

They pierced his hands and feet and opened his side with a spear… But the piercing nail has become a key to unlock the door, that I may see the good will of the Lord. And what can I see as I look through the hole? Both the nail and the wound cry out that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. The sword pierced his soul and came close to his heart, so that he might be able to feel compassion for me in my weaknesses.

Through these sacred wounds we can see the secret of his heart, the great mystery of love, the sincerity of his mercy with which he visited us from on high. Where have your love, your mercy, your compassion shone out more luminously than in your wounds, sweet, gentle Lord of mercy? More mercy than this no one has than that he lay down his life for those who are doomed to death.”  (St. Bernard)

The Conversion of Paul

Saints show us our capabilities, how far we can rise, from the depths to the heights. That’s why the church celebrates the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul every January 25th. As he readily acknowledges, Paul through God’s grace rose from the dust and became a powerful force in his church and in the world.

St. John Chrysostom says of him:  “Paul, more than anyone else, has shown us what we really are, and in what our nobility consists, and of what virtue a human being is capable. Each day he aimed ever higher; each day he rose up with greater ardour and faced with new eagerness the dangers that threatened him. He summed up his attitude in the words: I forget what is behind me and push on to what lies ahead. When he saw death imminent, he bade others share his joy: Rejoice and be glad with me! And when danger, injustice and abuse threatened, he said: I am content with weakness, mistreatment and persecution. These he called the weapons of righteousness, thus telling us that he derived immense profit from them…

The most important thing of all to him, however, was that he knew himself to be loved by Christ.”

May God raise up the Paul in us.

3rd Sunday: A Sabbath Day

 

To listen to the audio for today’s homily, select the file below:

One disadvantage in reading the scriptures as we do in our liturgies on Sundays and weekdays is that we can miss the overall picture an evangelist is trying to paint. By breaking up the scriptures in parts, as we do, we can miss the sweep of the gospel as it unfolds and as one detail leads to another.

That’s especially so for Mark’s gospel, I think. Mark wants to tell an exciting, fast moving story, but read slowly, part by part, Sunday after Sunday, we may miss the breathlessness of the whole account. This is God speaking, revealing himself, God who brings new power and excitement to the world. This is the “gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” Mark says.

Some years ago I went to a play on Broadway called The Gospel of Mark. It featured a famous English actor, Alec McCowen, who came onstage alone, put a copy the New Testament on a table– “just in case” he said– and then proceeded to tell the whole story of Mark’s Gospel, just as it was written, from memory. It was a wonderful experience, listening to the whole gospel story unfold.

It might be good to do something like that with our gospel today, about the call of the disciples, from the first chapter of St. Mark. Let’s look at it in its setting, what comes before it and what comes after it.

Before Jesus calls his disciples, Mark says as the other gospels do that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River by John. “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well-pleased,” a voice from heaven says. The Spirit then drove Jesus “at once” into the desert to be tempted for forty days. Mark summarizes those events in few words. He moves quickly to bring Jesus into Galilee, into the world where the Good News is proclaimed.

After John had been arrested,

Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God:

“This is the time of fulfillment.

The kingdom of God is at hand.

Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

“John was arrested,” Mark says. A dangerous time. but the kingdom of God is stronger than dangerous times. With simple words Mark tells the story.

Jesus meets four fishermen along the Sea of Galilee, Peter and his brother Andrew, then James and his brother John. He calls them, promising to make them “fishers of men.” Immediately– there’s no delay– they leave their nets and families to follow him. They’re taken by him and they want to share what he does. (Mark 1, 14-20)

And the story doesn’t stop there. Right away after they’re called, Jesus and the fishermen go into Capernaum, a fishing village along the Sea of Galilee. It’s the Sabbath Day, the day of God’s blessing. They enter the synagogue and Jesus begins to teach. His teaching immediately amazes those who hear him, the same amazement the fishermen felt when he called them.

Then, a possessed man in the synagogue shouts out at Jesus. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” Jesus rebukes him. “Quiet! Come out of him!”

“The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him.” They’re all amazed. This is different, his teaching, his silencing of evil.

Mark says: “His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.” What would we expect? The people from synagogue that day go out and tell others what they saw and heard. There is someone here from Nazareth who teaches and works wonders we have never seen or heard before. (Mark 1,21-28)

They leave the synagogue; Peter and his brother Andrew take Jesus to their house, a compound not far from the synagogue. James and John, the other two disciples are with them. Peter’s mother in law is sick in bed and immediately they tell him about her. Going to her Jesus takes her by the hand and helps her up. The fever leaves her and she begins to wait on them. She is not only healed, she becomes a disciple. She’s serving people, helping them. She has become a disciple of Jesus, Mark is saying.

Of course, she not only waits on others, but Peter’s mother in law must have told her neighbors. The news spreads. By evening, after sunset “they brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons. The whole town was gathered at the door. He cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he drove out many demons, not permitting them to speak because they knew him. (Mark 1,21-34)

Now, that’s one exciting Sabbath day. The next day, Jesus goes with his disciples to other synagogues and towns where he teaches and performs miracles. The excitement continues, but Satan who tempted him in the desert and the man possessed by a demon in the synagogue take on new forms. Jesus faces opposition, growing opposition, from the leaders of his people. Scribes question him for daring to forgive sins. They call him the devil himself. Pharisees accuse him of not keeping Jewish laws; enemies begin to plot to put him to death. Eventually they’ll do just that, they’ll put him to death.

His own family came down from Nazareth to take him home because they think he’s out of his mind. And Capernaum and other cities that received him with excitement will turn away from him. People who clapped their hands and ran to the synagogues where he taught turned away. They had better things to do.

What has that to do with us? Well, we might have the same experience we see before us in Mark’s Gospel. The kingdom of God has been promised to us. What greater promise can we receive?There’s a power and attractiveness to the person of Jesus. Who can deny the beauty of his teaching, to love one another? Forgiving one another? Caring for the poor and those in need?

Who can deny also that there is evil in this world, a powerful evil that makes us question and fear? Even Jesus fears, according to Mark’s gospel. It’s good to read the scriptures, especially the gospels. They describe Good News, real news.

 

Early Roman Martyrs

Contemporary historians have problems with the accounts of early martyrs of the Roman church like Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia, Sebastian, Lawrence, John and Paul– all honored in the Roman liturgy and commemorated in ancient churches throughout the city. We’re celebrating Sebastian, January 20, and Agnes, January 21, this week .

In an age that wants facts, real evidence, how much of what is written about these early saints is true, historians ask? One thing I find helpful when considering the early accounts of the Christian martyrs is to remember that Diocletian, the emperor who unleashed the last and greatest persecution of Christianity, wanted to completely obliterate Christianity throughout the Roman empire, so besides putting Christians to death, he tried to destroy all their written records, scriptures, prayerbooks, including accounts of heroes honored in their church. He wanted no record left at all. The emperor succeeded in destroying most of the records kept by the church of Rome.

Stories about the Roman saints were then reconstructed by Christians after the persecutions, and these accounts, instead of looking like court records–a form they often took before– appeared as embellished legends.

What core of truth in these stories should we remember? For one thing, let’s remember that a range of people believed so strongly in Jesus Christ that they died for their belief. Not only popes, like Fabian, deacons like Lawrence, but young girls like Agnes, women like Cecilia, soldiers like Sebastian witnessed to their faith by dying for it.

The historian Peter Brown, in one of his brilliant books on early Christianity, offers an important insight into the martyrs. He says that the Romans were not impressed so much by the bravery of these Christian martyrs–the Romans prided themselves for their ability to die bravely. Rather, they marveled at the vision of another world they revealed as they died. They believed they were entering another world, more glorious than this one, and Jesus Christ was their Lord and Savior, calling them on.

Are legends of martyrs like Agnes, who dies surrounded by heavenly visions and miraculous signs, meant to show a heavenly world already revealed now in this one? I think so.

Take a look at the video on Saint Sebastian, above.

Entering the Circle of Believers

One of the disadvantages of reading the scriptures parceled out as they are in our daily Mass lectionary is that we can lose sight of the larger picture an evangelist like Mark is painting. He starts Jesus’ ministry with the cure of a possessed man in the synagogue at Capernaum and then Jesus cures Peter’s mother in law and that brings crowds of local people to Peter’s house.

Mark’s narrative is quick and excited. They go to other towns in Galilee, and by the 3rd chapter of Mark, when Jesus returns home to Peter’s house, he’s followed by “a large number of people from Galilee and from Judea. Hearing what he was doing, a large number of people came to him also from Jerusalem, from Idumea, from beyond the Jordan, and from the neighborhood of Tyre and Sidon.”

They’re not the only ones following him now. The scribes have come from Jerusalem, who say he has a demon, and the Pharisees go to plot with the Herodians about putting him to death. And they hear about him in Nazareth; his relatives say, “No, he doesn’t have a demon. He may be out of his mind,” and they come to bring him home. Mark wants us to see the mother of Jesus and his brothers pushing through this noisy, confused crowd as they arrive at the house to bring him home. “Standing outside, they sent word to Jesus and called him. A crowd seated around him told him, “Your mother and your brothers and your sisters are outside asking for you.” But he said to them in reply, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking around at those seated in the circle he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3,31-35) Just a small circle of believers were seated around him then. VATICANCRUC

Some commentators describe Mark’s gospel as a Passion Narrative with a prelude. In other words, the early stories in Mark’s gospel announce the last story of his Passion and Death and Resurrection. Also, they see Mark’s gospel written to help the Christians of Rome who suffered a brutal, surprising persecution by Nero in the mid 60s. It was an awful persecution, senseless, arbitrary. It left them confused and wondering what did this all mean? So, even in Mark’s account of Jesus’ early ministry there’s an atmosphere of confusion and lack of understanding that was found during his Passion.

Not only do the Jewish leaders and scholars misunderstand him, not only do the crowds not understand, but his own family can’t grasp what’s happening. It’s too much for them. The Passion of our Lord is not something we easily understand, Mark’s gospel reminds us, no matter how long we look at it. It’s not easy to enter the circle of believers. But we have to keep following him. Like Mary and others from his family we have to keep going back until, like them, we finally understand. Only after Jesus dies in Mark’s Passion Narrative do you hear a word of understanding; that’s when the Roman centurion cries our, “Truly, this was the Son of God.”

We’re Called: 2nd Sunday B

Audio below

We may think our relationship to God is something just between the two of us, but it isn’t. Others help us on our way to God. So, in this Sunday’s gospel John the Baptist tells some of his disciples to follow Jesus and in that same reading, Andrew brings his brother Simon to the Lord. More than we know, we’re led to God by others and we lead others to God too.

We go to God together. Another way of saying it is that we belong to one body, a church. We’re not lonely believers. We know and are called to God together.

Our first reading from the Book of Samuel is about the young boy Samuel whom God has chosen for a special mission among the Israelites. His mother is the first to sense this, and she sends him to the temple where she hopes the priests there will help him understand what his calling is. Parents are the first guides for their children; they know them and they’re their most important teachers.

Young Samuel hears God calling in the night but it’s a very indistinct call; he’s a young boy and he doesn’t know what to make of it. The old priest Eli doesn’t help much at first. He tells the young man there’ s no one calling, go back to sleep.

Finally, the old man recognizes that God’s calling the young boy. You wonder if this isn’t an early example of “the generation gap,’ someone from an older generation not understanding someone from a younger generation? The story is not just about a young boy finding what God wants him to do; it’s also about someone from an older generation helping him find out. What was the old priest thinking? Was he too concerned with himself perhaps and couldn’t be bothered with this young boy? Or had he lost hope in the youth of his day?

After awhile, the old priest gives Samuel the right advice: “Go to sleep, and if you are called say ‘Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.’”

Very wise advice. The old priest is telling him, first of all, believe that God speaks to you. Believe, even in the night. Listen humbly like a servant. Don’t let your own ideas intrude. Be a listener; hear what God wants to tell you. Pray.

We published a little prayer some years ago “Be With Me Today, O Lord” asking for God’s guidance each day. There’s an elderly man from California who calls me every few months asking for copies of the prayer which he distributes in schools and churches in his area. I’m reminded of him and the prayer as we listen to the story of Samuel.

Be with me today, O Lord,

May all I do today begin with you, O Lord.

Plant dreams and hopes within my soul, revive my tired spirit, be with me today.

May all I do today continue with your help, O Lord.

Be at my side and walk with me. Be my support today.

May all I do today reach far and wide, O Lord.

My thoughts, my work, my life: Make them blessings for your kingdom;

Let them go beyond today.

Today is new, unlike any other day, for God makes each day different.

Today God’s everyday grace falls on my soul like abundant seed,

Though I may hardly see it.

Today is one of those days Jesus promised to be with me, a companion on my journey.

And my life today, if I trust him, has consequences.

My life has a purpose…

“ I have a mission…I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. God has not created me for naught…Therefore I will trust him. What ever, where ever I am, I can never be thrown away. God does nothing in vain. He knows what he is about.” (John Henry Newman)

Reading the Gospel of Mark

MarkThe Gospel of Mark is the first of the four gospels, written sometime between the year 65 to 70 AD. It’s read at Mass on weekdays from the end of the Christmas season until  Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, from chapter 1, verse 14 to chapter 10.

The readings begin with the announcement that “After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the Gospel of God:
“This is the time of fulfillment. The Kingdom of God is at hand.
Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

In each weekday reading Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of God, first in Galilee and then in Jerusalem, by miracles and powerful signs. He also faces growing opposition that eventually brings him to death.

From its very beginning, Mark’s Gospel offers intimations of the tragic mystery of the Passion of Jesus. Coming from the Jordan River where he is baptized by John, Jesus is led “at once” by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. “ He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.” (Mark 1,13) In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus constantly faces the forces of evil and death.

Almost half of Mark’s 16 chapters describe the final period of Jesus life, when he went up to Jerusalem and suffered, died and rose again. As chapter 8 ends, Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is. “You are the Messiah,” Peter answers, but Jesus announces he must go up to Jerusalem and be rejected and killed and raised up. Peter will have nothing to do with it. In response, Jesus calls him “Satan” and tells him he’s thinking as man thinks and not as God does.

In God’s thinking, Jesus, his Son, must die and rise again. All who follow him must do the same. Peter’s not alone in not understanding God’s thinking; all the disciples, including us, are slow to understand. Our lack of understanding is emphasized in Mark’s gospel, which some have called “A passion narrative with an extended introduction,”

Many commentators say that Mark’s Gospel was written in Rome for the Christians of that city who suffered in the first great persecution of the church by Nero after a fire consumed the city in 64 AD.

I lived in Rome for a few years in the Monastery of Saints John and Paul on the Celian Hill. The monastery was built over the Temple of Claudius; its gardens were once part of Nero’s gardens. From its heights you could see the Circus Maximus a short distance away where the great fire of 64 AD started and the extensive area that burned in the fire, up to Tiber River. Probably over a million people were affected by it.

The Roman historian Tacitus says that Nero blamed the Christians for the fire and had many of them arrested and put to death in his gardens and at the Vatican circus across the city.

I was living in the gardens where some of those early Christians were put to death, I believe. On the other side of the Colosseum, a short distance away, was the Roman prefecture and prison were many of them would likely have been held and sentenced. The Church of St. Peter in Chains stands there today.

I narrated a video about that church and the early persecution which may help you understand the church Mark wrote for. The persecution must have had a devastating affect on the Christians of Rome at the time, innocent people completely taken by surprise by this brutal injustice. They didn’t understand it at all. Neither did his first disciples understand, Mark’s gospel says.

An Unclean Spirit

Our gospel reading this Sunday is from the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark.  Jesus  has come from his baptism in the River Jordan; he’s gathered disciples and now he’s living at Peter’s house in Capernaum along the Sea of Galilee.He enters the synagogue in the town and amazes people with his teaching. They’ve never heard anyone like him.

But a man in the synagogue who has an unclean spirit challenges him.  I’m not sure what an unclean spirit is. Certainly the man reacts violently to Jesus. Listen to him shouting out:
“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

In other words: “Keep away from us; you’re only going to bring us trouble.” The man just wants to be left alone. Even if Jesus is from God, the man just wants to be left alone. “Get away from us!” he says.

That strong reaction was not limited to the synagogue in Capernaum. It continued as Jesus made his way to Jerusalem. Mark’s gospel insists that others rejected Jesus, sometimes strongly, sometimes by simply ignoring him, and he calls their rejection diabolic.

However wise his teaching, compassionate his healing, loving his words, some rejected Jesus in his lifetime. In the end, his enemies killed him.

We believe the gospel repeats itself, and so it’s repeated today as we relive and experience it.  “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” Can we reject Jesus too?

Doesn’t he stand in our synagogue today, in signs and in faith?

Belief in Jesus Christ is at the heart of everything. “I believe in God, the Father Almighty…I believe in Jesus Christ…I believe in the Holy Spirit.” Believing means hearing Jesus, listening to him, offering ourselves to him, entering into friendship with him, hoping in his strength, waiting patiently to receive what he promises.

Belief is not something we do once; we believe day by day. We’re always dangerously close to losing sight of Jesus. “Leave us alone,” we say, “You want to destroy us.” How easily we prefer isolation to communion with the One God has sent.
Perhaps an unclean spirit is not rare at all. If it’s a spirit that’s cloudy and dark then, when it takes hold of you, you cannot see the Light at all.

Deliver us, Lord, from an unclean spirit.