Tag Archives: gospel of Mark

The First Martyrs of Rome: June 30

June 30th, the day after the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, we remember the Christians  martyred with them in Nero’s persecution in the mid 60s, a persecution that shook the early  church.

It began with an early morning fire that broke out on July 19, 64 in a small shop by the Circus Maximus and spread rapidly to other parts of the city, raging nine days through Rome’s narrow street and alleyways where more than a million people lived in apartment blocks of flimsy wooden construction.

Only two areas escaped the fire; one of them, Trastevere, across the Tiber River, had a large Jewish population.

Nero was at his seaside villa in Anzio and delayed returning to the city. Not a good move for a politician, even an emperor. Angered by his absence,  people wondered if he set the fire himself so he could rebuild the city on grand plans of his own.

To stop the rumors, Nero looked for someone to blame. He chose a group of renegade Jews called Christians, whose reputation was tarnished by incidents years earlier when the Emperor Claudius banished some of them from Rome after rioting occurred in the synagogues over Jesus Christ.

“Nero was the first to rage with Caesar’s sword against this sect,” the early-Christian writer Tertullian wrote. “To suppress the rumor,” the Roman historian Tacitus says, “Nero created scapegoats. He punished with every kind of cruelty the notoriously depraved group known as Christians.”

We don’t know their names,  how long it went on or how many were killed: the Roman historians do not say. Possibly  60,000 Jewish merchants and slaves lived in Rome then; some were followers of Jesus and had broken away from the Jewish community even before Peter and Paul arrived in the city.(cf. The Letter to the Romans)

Following usual procedure, the Roman  authorities seized some and forced them by torture to give the names of others. “First, Nero had some of the members of this sect arrested. Then, on their information, large numbers were condemned — not so much for arson, but for their hatred of the human race. Their deaths were made a farce.” (Tacitus)

The Christians were killed with exceptional cruelty in Nero’s gardens and in public places like the race course on Vatican Hill. “Mockery of every sort accompanied their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.” (Tacitus)

Nero went too far, even for Romans used to barbaric cruelty. “There arose in the people a sense of pity. For it was felt that they (the Christians) were being sacrificed for one man’s brutality rather than to the public interest.” (Tacitus)

How did the Roman Christians react to this absurd, unjust tragedy? They had to ask why God permitted this and did not stop it. Fellow  believers were among those who turned them in.

Some scholars say the Gospel of Mark, written shortly after this tragedy, was likely written to answer these questions. innocent and good, Jesus experienced death at the hands of wicked men, that gospel insists. He suffered a brutal, absurd death. Mark’s gospel gives  no answer to the question of suffering except to say that God saved his Son from death.

The Gospel of Mark also gives an unsparing account of Peter’s denial of Jesus in his Passion.. Jesus was betrayed and abandoned by his own followers, Peter prominent among them.

Finally, the Roman Christians afterwards would surely wonder whether to stay in this city, an evil city like Babylon. Should they go to a safer, better place? The Christians remained in the city. I wonder if the “Quo Vadis?” story was a story prompted by questions like these ?

The martyrs of Rome strengthen us to stand where we are and do God’s will, inspired by the Passion of Christ.

A video about the persecution is at the beginning of today’s blog.

Here’s a video about Peter’s encounter with Jesus as he flees from the city during this same persecution: “Quo Vadis?”

Here are Stations of the Cross in the gardens of Ss.Giovanni e Paolo in Rome, once the gardens of the Emperor Nero.

Jesus and the Leper

Jesus Heals the Leper, by Rembrandt (1655-60)

Matthew 8:1-4

“Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.” 

The leper represents all of us in need of divine mercy. In the eyes of Jesus there are no untouchables, pariahs, outcasts or rejects. Our unnamed brother must have been deeply moved by all that he heard concerning Jesus to have approached him with so much confidence and devotion. Rabbis routinely shunned lepers, even stoned them. This leper knew that Jesus was more than a rabbi.

His hope was fulfilled beyond all expectation. Jesus broke the law of keeping distance from lepers, stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I will do it. Be made clean.” His leprosy was cleansed immediately.

In his excitement, the leper failed to keep silent about the miracle (Mark 1:40-44; Luke 5:12-14), driving Jesus to withdraw into solitary prayer in the wilderness as crowds sought him. Jesus had wanted the leper to quietly obtain a priest’s approval of the miracle, cooperating with the authority structures in place, rather than drawing attention to himself as a wonder worker. 

Jesus’ life was full of surprises, twists and turns as he interacted with free persons. Who knows how the story might have unfolded had the leper obeyed Jesus and kept silent. We are still in the story post-Resurrection and Pentecost. How will our everyday thoughts, decisions and actions move history forward? Even the most hidden “Fiat!” heard by the Father alone can change the world.

-GMC

Friday, 3rd Week of Lent

Lent 1


Readings
Love God and love your neighbor, Jesus says in today’s gospel.(Mark 12, 28-34) We would expect to hear about love on a lenten Friday since every Friday of the year is associated with the Friday called Good. The lenten fridays especially prepare us for that great day of love.

The gospels dwell on what took place that day in great detail. On their part, historians, scholars, artists approach the mystery of Jesus’ passion and death in different ways. What political or religious factors were behind it? Who were the people involved? What was crucifixion like? The day is a fascinating conclusion to a fascinating life. But, above all, it’s a day about love.

Why did Jesus suffer such a death, we ask? As God’s Son, no one could take his life from him. The only answer we can give is that Jesus gave himself up to death and he accepted death on the Cross out of love for his Father and out of love for us. Love caused him to say in the Garden, “Your will be done.” Love called words of forgiveness from the cross:”Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The cross was not something Jesus endured; he embraced  it with his whole heart, his whole mind and all his strength. Before his cross, we stand before Love.

“When you experience dryness in your prayer, gently stir your spirit with loving acts then rest in God. Softly say to him, ‘How bruised your face, how swollen, how disfigured with spit. I see your bones laid bare. What suffering, what blows, what grief. Love is one great wound. Sweet are your wounds, sweet is your suffering. I want to keep you always close to my heart.” (Paul of the Cross:Letter 23)

Lord Jesus Christ,
the scribe in today’s gospel repeated the command to love
and you praised him for it.
May I keep before me the great commandment
to love God and my neighbor
and live it as you did.
Give me that grace. Amen.

Human versus Divine Thinking

DSC00804“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks his disciples on the way to Caesarea Philippi. “You are the Christ,” Peter says in reply, going beyond what the crowds were saying then of Jesus.

But then as Jesus speaks of suffering greatly, being rejected, killed and rising after three days, Peter rejects his prediction. In reply Jesus says to him “Get behind me Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as humans do. ” (Mark 8,27-33)

The Gospel of Mark, more than the others, presents us with the human Peter, thinking as humans do. He appears in the story of the Passion of Jesus failing miserably as he denies Jesus three times and deserts him in his last hours. If Peter is the voice behind Mark’s gospel, he certainly hasn’t made himself a hero nor does he excuse his failures. Many times he seems to say as he says elsewhere in the gospel; “I’m a sinful man.”

Yet, he was called upon by Jesus to lead and teach.

In a few days (February 22nd) we’re going to celebrate the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter. The chair is in the Vatican Basilica beneath the window of the Holy Spirit which sheds its bright light upon it. It’s a teacher’s chair, not a throne, and from Mark’s gospel we get a picture of the one who, with the Spirit’s help, leads and teaches the church.

A human hand reaches from the darkness to the divine.

Speaking the Truth

Often Mark’s Gospel offers little clues to help us interpret one passage in the light of another. For example, in today’s reading Jesus is sharply questioned by the Pharisees whether it’s lawful for a husband to divorce his wife. (Mark 8,1-12) Mark says the questioning took place as Jesus “came into the district of Judea and across the Jordan,” on his way up to Jerusalem where he will meet his death.

That was where John the Baptist was put to death for questioning the validity of Herod’s marriage to Herodias, who divorced Herod’s brother Philip so that she could marry him. Mark tells the gruesome story of that powerful man and ambitious woman a few chapters before in great detail. (Mark 6, 14-29)

Questioning Jesus in their stronghold, the Pharisees thought, might have two outcomes. Either it might incite Herodias and Herod to do to Jesus what they did to John, or if Jesus didn’t answer the delicate question about divorce, the crowds gathered around him might see him less brave than the Baptist.

Jesus’ answer is brave, and it’s not an abstract one. Marriage is not to satisfy human ambition, like Herodias’ ambition. From the beginning it was God’s will that man and woman be one flesh. The final lines of our gospel, spoken at this time and place, seem to be a strong judgment on the man and woman who engineered John’s death:

“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

In Rome these days questions of marriage are being raised again, at a different time and place. We pray those engaged in the deliberations of our church will be brave and wise and merciful, and walk in the footsteps of Christ.

Numbers

Polls are everywhere in the political world today. Numbers indicate power and popularity.

I think Jesus’ disciples were interested in numbers too. In Mark’s gospel, which we’re reading at Mass these days, Jesus begins his ministry in Capernaum before an enthusiastic crowd. At the end of his first day, the whole town gathers at the door of Peter’s house and word reaches out to other towns and places that a prophet has come. The numbers go up. (Mark 1, 21-34)

But then enthusiasm dies down as Jesus’ authority is questioned. His own hometown, Nazareth, takes a dim view of him; religious leaders from Jerusalem and the followers of Herod Antipas cast doubts about him. Gradually, Capernaum and the other towns that welcomed Jesus enthusiastically turn against him. His numbers go down.

His disciples must have wondered why. Why are the numbers going down? It didn’t make sense.

Jesus answers them in today’s gospel. God‘s working in this world, the kingdom of God is coming, but human beings are mostly unaware of it.
“This is how it is with the Kingdom of God;
it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land
and would sleep and rise night and day
and the seed would sprout and grow,
he knows not how.
Of its own accord the land yields fruit,
first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.
And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once,
for the harvest has come.” (Mark 4, 28-34)

A greater power is at work in the scattered seed; but we know little about how it grows. The seed takes time, with its own law of growth; a great harvest will come, but still there’s mystery.

Meanwhile, we worry about numbers. Why are a growing number of Americans–almost 25%– giving up going to church or synagogue? Why are there so few vocations to our religious communities? So many of the good things in this world seem to be diminishing.

What can we do? Treasure the seed we have, scatter it as we can, look into the signs of the times. The Kingdom of God comes.

Believing for Others

The healing of the paralytic told in today’s gospel from Mark is a great story. Four friends bring him to the door of Peter’s house in Capernaum but the crowds are so dense that they can’t get in to see Jesus so they climb up on the roof, cut a hole in it and lower him down before Jesus. Was the paralyzed man conscious, or half conscious? We don’t know.

What ingenuity! What nerve! What determination on the part of his friends! Think of the logistics involved in it all. The pictures here show the ruins of Peter’s house now enclosed in a shrine and a picture from the shrine looking down into the house–possibly just where the man was lowered down.

We know Jesus forgave the man’s sins and then healed him completely, so he left the house carrying the mat that once bore him. The gospel wants us to recognize that Jesus the healer is Jesus who forgives sins. Those who heard his words of forgiveness that day were shocked by this action which they rightly judged was divine.

But I’m led back to the four friends who had a part in this miracle. Let’s not forget them. They believe and their belief makes them go to extraordinary lengths to  help another .  We believe for others as well as for ourselves. Faith reaches out; it doesn’t remain within.  Believing prompts us to do daring things.

Back to Peter’s house. Did Peter look up that day and say, “Who’s going to pay for that hole in the roof?” The story of the paralyzed man is a wonderful story.

Capernaum: A Remarkable Day

Peter's mother in law

Jesus’ ministry in Galilee begins with a remarkable day, a “paradigmatic day,” a day you can see everything you need to know about Jesus. That’s the day described in Mark’s gospel today.

Passing along the Sea of Galilee Jesus calls Simon and his brother Andrew, then James and his brother John. “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” They accompany him.

Then, they enter the synagogue in Capernaum on the Sabbath Day and Jesus begins to teach. The people are amazed; no one has taught like him before.

Then, as it happens through his life, evil appears. 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!’

Leaving the synagogue, the people tell everybody they meet. News spreads quickly from Capernaum, a trading center, and the day is still not over.

From the synagogue Jesus enters Peter and Andrew’s house in Capernaum where Peter’s mother in law is ill. “He grasped her by the hand, and helped her up and the fever left her. Immediately she began to wait on them.” “Again, the news spreads. “After sunset, as evening drew on, they brought all who were ill and those possessed by demons. Before long, the whole town was gathered outside the door. He cured many who were variously afflicted.”

Truth and life came to that town, and from that town Jesus goes to other towns as well: “ I must proclaim the good news to them too,” he says.

He confronts evil wherever he goes. Jewish leaders from Jerusalem question his authority to cure on the Sabbath, his own disciples and his own family do not understand him. The towns that welcomed him, reject him. Still, he announces the good news.

To appreciate Mark’s remarkable day in perspective, try reading the gospels of these three days all a once. You can see Mark at his best, describing God’s beloved Son announcing the good news to the towns of Galilee and to the world as well.

Calling Disciples

DSC00036

Mark’s account of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee is succinct. John has been arrested and Herod, who rules in Galilee, is ready to behead him. Not a good time, in human thinking, to begin a ministry. Better wait, we say.

But this is God’s time, different from ours. The Good News is God’s message, not ours. God will act according to his plan, not ours.

The call of the four fisherman, Peter, Andrew, James and John occurs by the Sea of Galilee. For the Jews the sea, like the wilderness, was a dangerous place; storms unsettled it; unpredictable winds made it fearful. Even an inland body of water twelve miles long and six miles wide was something to be wary of. They made a living on it, but still the sea was a dangerous place.

Jesus says simply, “Come after me and I will make you fishers of men.” Mark’s Gospel sees the four fishermen with a lot to learn to be fishers of men. They slowly understand his call. Later on, twelve would be called, (Mark 3,13-19), still later their ministry would be explained. (Mark 6,7-13)

They keep learning, not something you learn in a book, or by yourself. “I will make you fishers of men,” Jesus said. “Come away by yourselves and rest awhile,” he said to his disciples who returned to him with reports of all they had done. (Mark 6,30ff) Every disciple has to learn what the call means for him and for her, and a great deal of it we learn with others.

photo

A World of Talking Trees

“Do you still not understand?” Jesus said this to his disciples in Mark’s gospel right after he cured a blind man who only gradually gains his sight. He has to lay his hands on the man’s eyes a second time before he sees clearly. Is that the way we see and understand, gradually?

The cross takes many forms and I wonder if one form it takes in our time is the cross of confusion. We like clear sight for ourselves and everyone else, but in times of great change confusion is inevitable. Like the man in the gospel we’re living in a world of “talking trees” and that’s hard to take, reasonable, resourceful people that we are.  It’s humbling to live in confusing times like ours..

It makes us angry. There’s a lot of anger around us today, the anger that boils over and lashes out, or the anger that retreats into a fortress of resistence and isolation.

Pope Francis often speaks of patience. He said patience keeps the church going. He spoke once of the music of patience, a patience that hears and waits, like the patient blind man who waits for the hand of Jesus to reach out again.

“When Jesus and his disciples arrived at Bethsaida,
people brought to him a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him.
He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village.
Putting spittle on his eyes he laid his hands on the man and asked,
“Do you see anything?”
Looking up the man replied, “I see people looking like trees and walking.”
Then he laid hands on the man’s eyes a second time and he saw clearly;
his sight was restored and he could see everything distinctly.
Then he sent him home and said, “Do not even go into the village.”
(Mark 8,22-26)