ACTS 10:34A, 37-43 COLOSSIANS 3:1-4 JOHN 20:1-9
The Easter gospel invites us, as a community, to travel back in time to a garden that’s just a short distance outside the walls of Jerusalem. We’re standing in the predawn darkness, but we can see that there’s a tomb there. It’s cool and very quiet. Jerusalem is just beginning to wake up. It’s Sunday and the work week will soon begin.
In the distance we see a woman making her way down the hill to the garden. She goes directly to the tomb and sees that it’s open. The quiet is broken by her sudden cry. As she looks into the tomb her cry becomes a heartwrenching wail. She turns, runs back up the hill and disappears through the city gates. We listen as her cries gradually fade. We turn our gaze back to the empty tomb just as the pink rays of dawn appear along the horizon.
We can see a bit more now. There are some burial clothes neatly folded and resting on the shelf where a body would have been placed. The cloth used to wrap the face was rolled up and not with the others.
Again, there’s movement at the city gate. The same woman is returning. She has two men with her. They’re running, the woman is first followed by a young man. The other man lags behind them.
The young man and the woman arrive first. The woman is still crying. The young man stands beside her. They stand outside the tomb watching the other man, who’s elderly, hurry toward them. He goes directly to the tomb and looks in. For a long moment he studies the shadowy tomb. The moment he moves away the young man looks in. He looks for only a moment. He turns around. His face caches the morning light. He’s smiling yet there are tears running down his cheeks. No one says a word.
The two men leave the tomb in silence. The woman, still weeping, remains. The scene ends here.
There’s so much more to this account, but the Church only gives us this one scene to think about today. Who are these people? What are we to make of this scene?
This is the beginning of the story of the resurrection of Jesus in John’s gospel. The woman is Mary Magdalene. Jesus cleansed her of seven demons. She became his fervent disciple and even supported him during his mission. Loyal to the end, she stood at the foot of the cross keeping vigil as he died. The young man is the apostle John. It’s his account of the event that we’re reading today. Simon Peter is the older man who was given the title “rock” by Jesus.
Mary loved Jesus deeply. She came to the tomb blinded by her tears and overwhelmed by her sorrow. The young man, John, looked into the tomb and believed that Jesus had transcended; Jesus was the Christ. The elderly Peter, was puzzled by the empty tomb. He returned to Jerusalem wondering what had happened there.
Through this short gospel passage the Church is focusing the attention of her children on the empty tomb. These three people represent us – all of us looking into the tomb. We respond in different ways.
Mary looked into the tomb and saw only darkness. She was blinded by her personal loss. Mary was stuck in time. She knew Jesus and she loved him but now he was gone and she was in deepest mourning. Unlike John who “saw and believed” Mary was blinded by her sorrow. She wasn’t yet ready to see the transcendent Jesus, the Christ.
John, the mystic, looked into the tomb and realized that Jesus wasn’t dead. The burial clothes were neatly folded. The stone was casually rolled away. It was obvious that death had no power over him. Jesus had stepped out of the constriction of time
and space. He had conquered the cruelty of the world. He was the universal Christ. He would be present until the end of time.
Peter left the tomb wondering “what rising from the dead meant.” He knew Jesus was no longer in the tomb. No one stole his body; the condition of the tomb gave no evidence of that. If he had risen from the dead where was he now?
Mary, John and Peter represent all of us. Some of us, like Mary, are good, dedicated people. We love deeply. We aspire to follow Jesus and his teachings but, somehow, we can’t see beyond the cruelty of the world and we can’t overcome our fear of death.
Some of us, like Peter, are slow to understand. Believing is a long and difficult process. It involves not only our minds but our hearts.
John represents the Church, those believers who, from the day they looked into the empty tomb, have proclaimed Jesus Lord, resurrected and with us, feeding us with his very life at the Eucharistic table. John represents the Church who throughout the centuries “sees and believes.”
This account of the resurrection will continue. In the next scene Jesus will speak Mary’s name. She’ll see him, recognize him and fall at his feet to worship him. She’ll come to be remembered as the first witness to the resurrection. In another scene, Jesus will ask Peter three times if he loves him. Each yes will heal his heart. Healed, he’ll join the resurrected Christ in shepherding the Christian community until the day he himself will be crucified.
The empty tomb is a challenge to our faith. It forces us to ask what “rising from the dead means.” Each of us is Mary. Each of us is Peter. We listen to hear him call our names. We assure him that we love him. We unite with the Church at the empty tomb. In chorus we whisper, “My Lord and my God.”
ISAIAH 50:4-7 PHILIPPIANS 2:6-11 MARK 14:1—15:47
Many years ago, while I was in graduate school, I read the writings of Egeria, a 4th century Spanish nun. She kept a diary during a long pilgrimage she made to the Holy Land that she intended to share with her sisters when she returned home. Her description of the events that took place in Jerusalem during Holy Week are fascinating.
She speaks of various Church rituals celebrated throughout the city, but more importantly, she describes the movement of the congregation from one “station” to another throughout the week.
Egeria’s diary is my inspiration for the Holy Week stations that follow. I’m going to stop to reflect at seven stations, one every day of Holy Week. I invite you to read the scripture texts for the day as the basis of your personal meditation. Put yourself into the scene. Allow yourself to feel whatever the scene evokes in you; let the feeling lead you to a personal prayer.
THE FIRST STATION: Sunday. Jesus enters Jerusa- It was such a powerful event that we can still hear Jelem as the crowd cheers and lays palm branches along sus shouting out, “Lazarus! Come out!” There’s a large the road. (Matthew 21:1-11) (Additional scriptures for crowd gathered around the house. They’re here to see Palm Sunday Mass: Isaiah 50:6, Philippians 2:6-11, Jesus, but they also want to see Lazarus.
THE FIRST STATION: Sunday. Jesus enters Jerusalem as the crowd cheers and lays palm branches along the road. (Matthew 21:1-11) (Additional scriptures for Palm Sunday Mass: Isaiah 50:6, Philippians 2:6-11, Matthew 26:14-27:66)
We’ve gathered at Bethpage, a small town on the Mount of Olives just outside Jerusalem where Jesus has been waiting. It’s a time of great caution. The religious leaders are looking for an opportunity to arrest him. He had made an arrangement with a secret disciple in the town to purchase a donkey for him. He waits here while two of his disciples bring the donkey to him. He mounts it and begins his slow ride into Jerusalem. “This happened so that what had been spoken by the prophet might be fulfilled.” “Say to daughter Zion, ‘Behold, your king comes to you, meek and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’” (Zechariah 9:9)
As we follow him, note that the crowd along the road is growing. Passover is near so the city is jammed with pilgrims. Spontaneously they’re throwing palm branches onto the roadway – a kind of VIP carpet.
They begin shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David; blest is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” They’re welcoming him with a Messianic acclamation. They’re treating him like a military hero, but he’s anything but that. He’s riding a donkey, not a decorated chariot. This Messiah isn’t a political figure nor a military figure. This Messiah is Isaiah’s suffering servant. By his wounds we will all be healed. He doesn’t silence the crowd knowing full well the consequences of his decision.
THE SECOND STATION: Monday. Six days before the Feast of Passover Jesus is anointed in Bethany, the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus whom he raised from the dead. (Isaiah 42:1-7, Psalm 27, John 12:1-1)
We’re in Bethany, a short distance from Jerusalem, at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. They’re Jesus’ family away from home. A short while ago Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. We can see the tomb where he had been buried from the dining room. It was such a powerful event that we can still hear Jesus shouting out, “Lazarus! Come out!” There’s a large crowd gathered around the house. They’re here to see Jesus, but they also want to see Lazarus. Many people are here for dinner, friends of the family and Jesus’ apostles. They’re reclining around a large central table. Everything looks quite festive but it’s tense inside the house. The chief priests are looking for an excuse to arrest Lazarus, also, because many people have come to believe in Jesus because he raised Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus is reclining at table. Martha is serving the meal. Mary has just entered the room. She’s carrying “a liter of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard.” She pours the oil over the feet of Jesus and wipes it with her hair. A beautiful verse from the Song of Songs gives her action a deeply spiritual meaning. “While the King was at his table my perfume spread its fragrance. My beloved is to me a sachet of myrrh resting between my breasts.” Mary is anointing Jesus as kings and High Priests are anointed. The fragrance of his anointing clings to her hair. But Martha and Lazarus are part of
this scene, too.
There’s a mystical understanding of the Church in this scene we’re watching. Martha is the Church, the ministering servant. Lazarus is the Church reborn sitting at the heavenly table. Mary is the Church sanctifying the world with the fragrance of the King of love.
Suddenly, Judas protests claiming that the money spent on this expensive oil should have been given to the poor. Jesus turns toward him looking straight into his eyes. “Let her keep this for the day of my burial.”
THE THIRD STATION: Tuesday. Jesus reveals his betrayer. (Isaiah 49;1-6, John: 13:21-33, 36-38)
We’re in Jerusalem in an upper room that has been rented for Jesus and his closest disciples to celebrate the Passover. We stop and focus on a jarring moment. As the meal progresses Jesus is becoming deeply troubled. He suddenly stops the conversation at the table with a shocking proclamation. “Amen, Amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” Everyone turns in their place to look at him but Jesus doesn’t say anything else. The conversation picks up again but in hushed tones. Peter motions across the table to John who was lying next to Jesus. He leans back. “Master, who is it?” He receives a whispered response: “It is the one to whom I hand the morsel after I have dipped it.” He dips a piece of unleavened bread and hands it to Judas.
“As Judas took the morsel Satan entered him. So, Judas took the morsel, and left at once. And it was night.”
As soon as Judas walks out into the night, the anxiety that was permeating the room seems to leave with him. Jesus takes a deep breath and slowly looks at each individual around the table. “Now is the Son of Man glorified.” Peter, James and John glance at each other. Will Jesus manifest his glory again as he recently did on the mountaintop? No. Something’s different here. Then, whispering his last words to them, Jesus continues: “My children, I will be with you only a little while longer. You will look for me…but where I go you cannot come.” For a few moments silence overtakes the room.
Peter’s voice suddenly pierces the stillness. “Master, why can I not follow you? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus’ response clutches every heart in the room. “Will you lay down your life for me? Amen, amen, I say to you, the cock will not crow before you deny me three times.”
Peter, you will follow me. You will lay down your life for me. But you’re not ready yet. The King himself must show you the way.
THE FOURTH STATION: Wednesday. Judas betrays Jesus. (Isaiah 50:4-9a, Matthew 26:14-25) We’ve walked across the city to the residence of Caiaphas the High Priest. He’s meeting with the Sanhedrin, the council of chief priests and prominent Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes. They’re worried. The crowds have been rallying around Jesus. There’s
bound to be a revolt and this liberal upstart from Galilee will surely be leading it. The Roman military will come in again to squelch it. Many will die, and the little autonomy the nation enjoys will be lost. A servant enters the room and whispers a message to the High Priest. Caiaphas stands and turns toward the door. Everyone looks around. Judas enters.
He takes note of the people in the room, then looks at Caiaphas. “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?”
Will we ever know what was going through Judas’ mind? What led him to this? Did he feel that Jesus was a failure because he chose a spiritual path rather than a political one? Was it jealousy because Jesus seemed to be grooming Peter, James and John as his leaders? Was he expecting a place of honor in the new kingdom? We can only conjecture.
“They paid him thirty pieces of silver, and from that time on he looked for an opportunity to hand him over.”
This moment was prefigured long ago in the story of Joseph, the youngest of Jacob’s twelve sons. (Genesis 37:1-36) His brothers, jealous of him, sold him to Ishmaelite traders for twenty pieces of silver. The traders took him to Egypt where they sold him to a representative of the Egyptian court. There Joseph, through his cunning and wisdom, rose in power and influence. When a great drought struck the Middle East Jacob, his sons, and their families migrated to Egypt in search of food.
Despite what they did to him, Joseph never stopped loving his brothers. He forgave them and welcomed them. Jacob and his entire family settled in Egypt. They grew in number and became prosperous.
Judas handed Jesus over to the religious authorities knowing it would seal his death. Little did he know that Jesus’ death would model a new way of living, a way that would change the world.
THE FIFTH STATION: Thursday, Jesus celebrates his last supper with his closest disciples. (Exodus 12:18, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-15)
“Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father. He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end.” (John 13:1)
We’re in the upper room, a rented space where Jesus is sharing what will be his last meal. Judas Iscariot has just left the gathering. Jesus is reclining with his closest and dearest friends, Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, James and his brother John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew the tax collector, Thomas, James, Simon the member of the Zealot party, and Judas the son of James.
Look at his face as he gazes around the table. In spite of knowing each one’s short-comings, his love for each of them is clearly visible. He knows that in a few hours every one of them is going to abandon him, but that can’t destroy the love he has for each of them.
He gets up from the table and leaves the room for a
moment. Returning with a towel wrapped around his waist and carrying a bowl and pitcher he begins, one by one, to wash their feet.
Look at their faces. They’re shocked. He’s acting like a house slave! Peter objects loudly. Jesus puts down the pitcher and bowl. Everyone is looking at him. There’s tremendous kindness in his voice as he begins to speak to them.
“What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later…unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me…Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, your master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you an example to follow, so that what I have done for you, you should also do.” They’re silent. He moves from one to the next washing their feet and drying them with the towel.
Returning to his place he teaches them at length. He becomes solemn as he declares a new commandment. “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. If you have love for one another, then everyone will know that you are my disciples.” Look at them. They’re listening but they don’t understand the depth of his teaching. His words touch their ears but can’t penetrate their hearts right now. They must first suffer his passion with him. Let’s leave the room now to ponder his last teaching. Tomorrow we gather at Golgotha.
THE SIXTH STATION: Friday, the sacrifice of the Lamb. (Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9, John 18:1-19:42)
We’re standing within the walls of Jerusalem near the temple precincts. It’s the preparation day for the Passover; it begins at sundown. Jerusalem is crowed and noisy. Venders are selling lambs to the pilgrims for the obligatory sacrifice in the temple. Tens of thousands will be slaughtered today. One by one their blood will be collected and poured on the altar.
While the temple ritual continues throughout the day Jesus is held under arrest. He had been taken from the High Priest’s chambers, where the Sanhedrin condemned him, to the residence of Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judaea. Buckling under pressure from the religious leaders, and fearing that a riot might break out, Pilate condemned Jesus to be crucified.
We walk north about 300 meters outside the walls where we come to an open space surrounded by a rocky formation. The people have named the place Golgotha, the Aramaic word for cranium or skull because of the shape of the field. The main trade road runs by this spot. That’s why it’s chosen for public executions. The crucified were meant to be a deterrent against possible rebellion.
Jesus hangs from the cross here. His arms are wide and spread open – but not because of the nails that se
cure them. His arms are open to welcome everyone and anyone. Look at him. Remember what he said to his disciples. “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened. I will give your rest.” Listen to what he just said from the cross! “Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing.”
Let’s look at the cross and pray Saint Paul’s prayer. “For I am certain of this: neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nothing already in existence, and nothing still to come, nor any power, nor the heights nor the depths, nor any created thing whatever, will be able to come between us and the love of God, manifested to us in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
THE SEVENTH STATION: Saturday, we hope. We wait for the sunrise. (Acts 10:34a, 37-43, Colossians 3:1-4, John 20:1-9)
We’ve at a garden a short distance from Golgotha. Yesterday, soon after Jesus died, Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple, came out of hiding to petition Pilate for the body of Jesus so that he could give him a proper burial. Another secret disciple, Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin that condemned Jesus, brought myrrh and aloes for the burial. He and Joseph carry the body to the garden.
In the garden there’s a new tomb. It looks like any other countryside tomb, a small chamber carved in the rock. They place his body on a low shelf inside. Then they push a stone over the opening to seal it.
It’s so quiet here. The night breeze is cool. Listen to the insects speaking in the darkness. The full moon is setting but we can still see the tomb. Let’s conclude our vigil at the tomb by reading the description of Jesus burial from the Gospel of John.
“They took the body of Jesus and bound it with burial cloths along with the spices, according to Jewish burial custom. Now in the place where he had been crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had yet been buried. So they laid Jesus there because of the Jewish preparation day, for the tomb was close by.”
No one has ever been buried in this tomb. This is a NEW tomb. Saint Paul, the great teacher, looked at this tomb and understood its meaning. He looked at the tomb and then wrote this: “Death is swallowed up in victory. Death where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?”
As we await the sunrise of a new day let’s look at his tomb – a NEW tomb – our tomb.
A NEW STATION – A NEW WEEK – A NEW WORLD: Sunday, the sun is rising over the garden tomb. (Mark 16:1-8, Matthew 28:1-10, Luke 24 1-12, John 20;1-18) Wherever you are. Whatever you may be experiencing. Look into the empty tomb. DO NOT BE AFRAID! He is with us, the resurrected Christ.
JEREMIAH 31:31-34 HEBREWS 5:7-9 JOHN 12:20-33
Holy Week is still a week away but we can already feel the darkness closing in on Jesus. The gospel passage we’ve read today tells us that, as Passover was drawing near, Jerusalem was filling up with pilgrims. Some were Jews of Greek origin. They were probably converts. They had heard about Jesus, the teacher, the healer, the exorcist. He was the talk of the town. While some people believed he might be the Messiah, others considered him a religious radical and feared he might incite a rebellion.
Some Greeks asked to see Jesus. Philip consulted with Andrew and the two introduced them to Jesus who had no time for polite chit-chat. He immediately brought them into his reality. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” What a powerful statement! Was he announcing that he was the Messiah, and that Israel’s long-awaited Golden Age was about to begin? He continued.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies it
produces much fruit.” “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.” Not a very upbeat message! They didn’t know what to make of it. But suddenly, they all heard it: a voice as loud as thunder came from the sky. It spoke of glory.
He ended the “conversation” with a prophecy. “Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.”
These words Jesus spoke to the Greeks are spoken to us today. In a few days we’ll enter Jesus’ darkest hour. We’ll see him lifted up. We’ll witness his death. We’ll kneel in silent awe hoping for the grain to sprout. Where do we go from here….
Lord Jesus, you told us: “The light will be among you only a little while. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overcome you. Whoever walks in the dark does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of the light.” Lord, help us to believe. Help us become children of the light.
THE MAN WHO VISITED JESUS AT NIGHT
2 CHRONICLES 36:14-16, 19-23 EPHESIANS 2:4-10 JOHN 3:14-21
Today we listen very closely to a teaching Jesus gave to a clandestine follower. This is how John introduced him in his gospel. “There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. He came to Jesus at night.” First of all, he was a Pharisee.
The Pharisees took an oath to follow every letter of the Law – and they did. It was a 24/7 life commitment. The word Pharisee means “separated one.” They separated themselves from ordinary life and ordinary people in order to carry out every precept of the law. The Pharisees were the epitome of orthodoxy.
Second, Nicodemus was a “ruler of the Jews.” He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the court of 70 members that had ultimate jurisdiction over all Jews. It was at the Sanhedrin’s debate about how to deal with Jesus that Nicodemus argued that Jesus should be brought in to defend himself before they
formed any judgment about him.
He was attracted to Jesus and his message but had many questions. He couldn’t ask them when Jesus was publicly teaching because of his sensitive position. Opposition to Jesus was growing among the members of the Sanhedrin. Nicodemus needed to keep his opinion of Jesus private, and so he came to speak with Jesus under the cover of darkness. What we read in the gospel passage today is a portion of what Jesus shared with Nicodemus.
Jesus revealed the meaning of his death. He linked the image of the cross to the redemptive image of the bronze serpent. The book of Numbers records an incident when the Israelites had lost their trust in God and turned on Moses. “Why have you brought us up from the land of Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water? We are disgusted with this wretched food.”
God freed them from the slavery of Egypt, protected them from enemy tribes and fed them with manna every day, but still, they lost their faith in God. As a punishment God sent poisonous snakes into the camp. Many people died from their bites. But at the pleading of Moses God relented from the punishment. He instructed Moses to place a bronze serpent on a pole and to lift it up for the people to see. Everyone who looked at the image was healed.
By connecting this image to his crucifixion Jesus was teaching that his death would be redemptive. Looking at him crucified, opening our hearts to him and believing in him is the source of eternal life. Jesus went deeper into the teaching.
In the desert the people despaired because they had forgotten how much God loved them. Continuing to explain the meaning of his crucifixion Jesus told Nicodemus, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but might have eternal life.”
Nicodemus, the ultra-orthodox Pharisee who thought he would win God’s love by following every precept of the Law, was confronted by the reality of God’s love. God wasn’t waiting for an opportunity to punish him. “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” God, the Eternal One, doesn’t want to condemn anyone. God wants to share his life – Eternal Life.
I’ll leave you with an image from our liturgy. When I walk around the altar to incense it at Mass I stop at the center of the altar, bow, and incense the golden crucifix mounted high on a golden pole. I listen to his words as I watch the smoke rise to the cross. “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.”
JESUS CLEANSES THE TEMPLE
EXODUS 20:1-17 1 CORINTHIANS 1:22-25 JOHN 2:13-25
Let’s begin today’s reflection by putting the account of the cleansing of the temple into context.
It was Passover time. Jewish law obliged every adult male who lived within fifteen miles of Jerusalem to attend the feast, so Jerusalem was jammed. In addition to the population around Jerusalem Jewish pilgrims flooded in from the entire empire. An ancient historian wrote that Jerusalem could see as many as two million pilgrims during Passover!
During the festival it was common for individuals to sacrifice animals for the atonement of their sins or for a variety of intentions. These animals had to be approved for purity before the priests would accept them for sacrifice. There was a hefty fee for this approval. Passover was also an opportunity for pilgrims to pay the obligatory temple tax. Secular currency wasn’t permitted in the temple, so all currency had to be changed to the approved temple shekel. Of course, a fee was tacked on to the exchange.
Where was all this happening?
The temple was divided into sections: the court of the Gentiles, the court of the women, the court of the Israelites, the court of the priests and, in the interior of the temple, the Holy of Holies. The activity the gospel describes, people coming and going, buying and selling, haggling over fees, and the ruckus of the animals, took place in the court of the Gentiles. This was the only place where non-Jews were permitted to pray. It was being desecrated and de facto excluded Gentiles from the temple.
What’s the meaning of this event?
Don’t you find it interesting that no one
stopped Jesus when he began knocking over the tables and driving out the money changers. We’re told that his disciples immediately thought of a prophetic verse from Psalm 69:9-10: “I have become an outcast to my kin, a stranger to my mother’s children. Because zeal for your house consumes me, I am scorned by those who scorn you.” The religious leaders were aware of this and other prophecies that said the Messiah would reveal himself by entering the temple and purifying it. Evidently Jesus made just enough trouble to catch their attention. They immediately asked him by what authority he did this: “What sign can you show us for doing this?” They wanted to see a miracle or some powerful event to back up his prophetic actions.
What sign did Jesus show the religious leaders?
He didn’t show them anything…yet. Instead he made a prophecy. “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” At that time the temple was still under construction and had been so for forty-six years. Jesus was referring to the temple of his body; they understood him literally and mocked him for his answer. The evangelist notes that his disciples remembered this statement after he was raised from the dead.
How did the incident end?
Everybody began watching Jesus. Some were impressed with the signs (miracles) he worked and believed in him. Others, like the religious leaders, began to scrutinize his every word and action. The account ends with a comment. “Jesus would not trust himself to any of them because he knew them all and did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He himself knew it well.”
What are some thoughts we can glean from this account of the cleansing of the temple?
First, his actions were a declaration that he was the Messiah. The new time had arrived and the ancient prophecies were being fulfilled.
Second, by cleansing the court of the Gentiles Jesus was opening the doors of the kingdom to everyone. He fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy. “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.” (Isaiah 51:9)
Third, he was announcing a new time – a new world. As he would tell the Samaritan woman at the well, “The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…The hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.”
What does this incident have to do with our Lenten journey?
Jesus’ actions in the temple remind us that we must be open to all people of good faith – people who are searching for God. Our preaching must be that of Jesus. There’s a place for everyone in the kingdom of God. Jesus’ arms are open, and so should ours be. If there are attitudes or prejudices that make us unwelcoming they need to be cleansed from our hearts. Lent is the perfect time to take a personal inventory of our attitudes towards others.
Christianity is perhaps the most challenging of all religions when it comes to acceptance. St. Paul stressed this to the people of Galatia: “All of you who have been baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female, for all are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
As Christians, Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox, we’ve barely paid lip service to this most basic of Christian principles. Instead, we herald what separates us. I’m Catholic. I’m Greek Orthodox. I’m Presbyterian. I’m Church of Christ. We even use what’s most sacred to us, the Holy Eucharist, as a wedge between us. It’s not so easy to change a Church but each of us can change our hearts. If enough hearts change, the Churches will change.
The cleansing of the temple is a powerful Lenten image. It’s a call to cleanse our hearts, to use the love in our hearts to welcome and embrace, to heal and unite. It’s a call for us to become the new temple – the body of Christ.
THE TRANSFIGURATION OF JESUS
GENESIS 22:1-2, 9A, 10-13, 15-18. ROMAN 8:31B-34 MARK 9:2-10
In the gospel narratives, the transfiguration of Jesus is a prelude to the resurrection to come. After the three disciples had witnessed his transfiguration Jesus told them not to say anything about what they had seen. Mark ends the passage by commenting that “they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant.” This comment throws a challenge our way. We, like those disciples, must discover what the resurrection means.
Every year, for a period of forty days, we dedicate ourselves to acts of penance and fasting to prepare ourselves for the celebration of Easter, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Have you ever asked yourself why we go through all of this just to celebrate a moment in ancient history?
Actually, we’re not celebrating a historical anniversary. Fasting and penance are the tools, along with prayer and acts of charity, that we use to lift ourselves from the earthly plain to the spiritual plain the eternal now. This is where we discover the meaning of “rising from the dead.”
We can, and should, remember Jesus as an historical figure. He was a teacher, healer and miracle worker. He was betrayed by one of his followers, and sadistically executed. This is the story of the historical Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth.
The accounts of his resurrection and appearances to his disciples give witness to a Jesus liberated from the constraints of the historical plain. He appears to his disciples while they’re in hiding in the upper room. He teaches them. He eats with them. He appears to two of them as they flee Jerusalem. He teaches them and breaks bread with them. He promises that he’ll be with them until the end of time. This is the resurrected Jesus. This is Jesus, the universal Christ. He’s no longer bound by the restrictions of space and time.
The transfiguration is an icon of the resurrected Christ who in union with all of salvation history, past and present. In the eternal now, he’s in conversation with Moses and Elijah while still present to the three disciples who came with him to the mountaintop. This is the Jesus who said “this is my body – this is my blood” at the Last Supper. This is the resurrected Christ who speaks those same words at our Eucharist.
Lent is our communal retreat when we contemplate the meaning of the resurrection. This comes through prayer and an inner purification that frees us to love more deeply – to love as Jesus loved – unconditionally.
Lent is the time when Christians stop to reflect on the meaning of “rising from the dead.” The transfiguration is the icon the Church gives us for our contemplation. This image of the resurrected Christ is our invitation to transcend the earthly plain and to follow him.
GENESIS 9:8-15 1 PETER 3:18-22 MARK 1:12-15
Here we are marking the First Sunday in Lent. Last year we couldn’t celebrate Ash Wednesday, and we couldn’t celebrate Holy Week. It seems like we’ve been trapped in a year that never ends. The account of Christ in the desert is an appropriate image of what we’ve been experiencing. It has been a year of endless “temptation.”
What the gospel narrates can be applied so easily to us and our experience. “The Spirit drove Jesus into the desert for 40 days, tempted by Satan.”
I personally believe that we’re experiencing a Spirit-directed time of temptation. But we must remember that with the temptation comes God’s grace. We’ve been forced to realize how fragile our health is. At the same time, we’ve been forced to see how fragile our country is. Our time of temptation isn’t over. Covid still rages, and the battle to preserve our democracy continues. We’re still in the desert.
The evangelist adds an important sentence to his account of Christ’s temptation that we need to note: “He was among the wild beasts and the angels ministered to him.”
Here, Mark is recalling Isaiah’s prophecy of universal peace when the lion and lamb will live together in a new world – the kingdom of God. The angels who come to minister to him during his temptation will again minister to Jesus during his final temptation in the garden of Gethsemane as he begins his Passover into the new Eden. Mark is telling us that a
time of temptation always opens up to a time of grace.
This year’s 40 days of Lent are, perhaps, the most important time we’re ever going to experience. Temptations are sent to us to make us strong. We’re being challenged to renew our faith with a vigor and fervor we’ve never imagined. But the Spirit is with us in our temptation. We’re being guided by that same Spirit to open our eyes – to envision, maybe for the first time, the world God intended for us – the kingdom of God. As St. Paul told the Corinthians, “the world as we know it is passing.” May his kingdom come.
Heavenly Father, I pray your Son’s prayer in a special way today. “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” May Christians, and all people of good faith, join together as brothers and sisters united in love for one another. May the sacrifices we make for the good of all help to bring about your reign, your kingdom on earth.
LEVITICUS 13:1-2,44-46. 1 CORINTHIANS 10:31-11:1 MARK 1:40-45
In today’s gospel passage we’re told about Jesus curing a person with leprosy. But before we reflect on this particular cure let’s look at the social dynamic surrounding the disease during the time of Jesus. The medicines we have today that cure Hansen’s disease, called leprosy in the bible, were not available in Jesus’ day. There was tremendous fear of this disease.
It was incurable and fatal. It manifested itself in discolored patches on the skin, nodules, lumps on the face or earlobes, loss of eyebrows or eyelashes and stiff or dry skin. It was known that the disease was contagious but there was little scientific knowledge about the process of contagion. Leprosy was so feared that people afflicted with the disease were required to segregate themselves from society. Once diagnosed, they would never be allowed to return to their families.
Today we know that leprosy isn’t as highly contagious as the people in Jesus’ time thought. We now know that it’s spread by contact with the droplets from the mouth and nose when a person coughs or sneezes. Eating from a common dish or sharing utensils are high risk for contagion. It’s believed that Damien of Molokai contracted the disease by sharing his pipe and eating poi from the common dish. But in Jesus’ day it was believed that even a breeze that had touched a leper could carry the disease. That’s why lepers were required to shout “unclean” when they came near a town or village. The gradual degeneration of the body was a terrible part of the disease, but the social isolation was, perhaps, even more painful.
We can all relate to this aspect of the leper’s suffering, though in a lesser way. A year of living with Covid 19 and maintaining “social distancing” has brought depression and anxiety to most of us. The lack of human contact, socially and physically, is a source of terrible suffering. That’s why there’s so much protest against the practice of solitary confinement in our prisons, especially for teenage prisoners. It’s generally condemned by psychologists as inhumane. Some people consider it torture.
With all this in mind we can now look at Jesus’ encounter with the man suffering with leprosy. “A leper came up to Jesus, and kneeling down, begged him and said, ‘If you wish, you can make me clean.’” This seems natural enough to us, but not to the people standing with Jesus. A leprous man running through the crowd to get to Jesus must have caused tremendous panic. The entire 13th and 14 th chapters of the Book of Leviticus contains the instructions concerning lepers. Stemming from those chapters it was common practice that a distance of no less than sixteen feet be maintained between a leper and a healthy person.
Jesus remained alone with the man. From a safe distance everyone watched. What happened next would have brought an audible gasp from the crowd. “Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, ‘I
do will it. Be made clean.’”
According to the Law, Jesus would have, besides possibly contracting the disease, been instantly made ritually “unclean” himself, and would have had to go through a lengthy period of quarantine. The crowd watched as the man’s skin cleared. He was made whole and healthy again! In awestruck silence they listened as Jesus instructed the man to follow the laws from the Book of Leviticus, and to present himself to the priests who would proclaim him cured.
Let’s begin our reflection on this healing by applying it, first of all, to our society. Let’s, in the quiet of our hearts, ponder a few questions.
Who are the lepers of our day – the people we’re afraid to touch? Why are we afraid of them? What’s their status in our society? What does Jesus’ response to the leper teach us about our relationship with these “outcasts?”
It was a shocking and powerful moment when Jesus touched the leper. So, besides applying the account to our society, let’s also apply it to our personal lives. I’m going to conclude this reflection by sharing two “touching” moments in my own life. I encourage you to call to mind powerful “touching” moments in your own lives, too.
My sister called me to come to Wyckoff hospital in Brooklyn. Mom had suffered a stroke while in her doctor’s office. It took what seemed like hours to get there. I found my sister with her. My father was with the doctor.
I walked over to the gurney. Mom was sitting up. She looked at me and barely smiled a crooked smile. She looked at me with glassy, far away eyes, but I know she saw me. She reached out her hand and put it to my cheek for three, maybe four seconds before she began to get sick. A nurse came over to help her. My sister and I stood back. Mom slipped into a coma and died ten days later. She was 65. It would take a book for me to tell you what was contained in that touch. It spoke understanding. It spoke unconditional love. It said goodbye.
Years later, I was called to the home of a man in his 40’s who was dying. He had AIDS. He was lying on the living room sofa when I arrived. The friend who had called was with him. We talked a polite talk for a while. I sat down at the end of the sofa near his feet. We continued our polite talk a little longer. He began to tire so I said good-bye and left.
The next day his friend called me, thanking me profusely for visiting. He said that his friend was deeply moved by what I did. “What did I do?’ I asked. “When you sat down you began to rub his bare feet. For a nanosecond I was at the Last Supper. I believe that, during that short visit, both of us were healed.
JOB 7:1-4, 6-7 1 CORINTHIANS 9:16-19 MARK 1:29-39
Today’s Gospel continues to report the events of Jesus’ first day of ministry. We read last week that he went to the synagogue in Capernaum for the Morning Prayer and then addressed the congregants. They were quite struck by the simplicity and authority with which he spoke. He wasn’t at all like the religious leaders. He also liberated a man who was possessed by an unclean spirit. Leaving the man’s body, the spirit cried out that Jesus was “the Holy One of God.” We’re told that, because of these events, “his fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.”
The dramatic events of the day continued after the Morning Service as Jesus, Simon, Andrew, James and John left the synagogue. They went to Simon’s home for the Sabbath meal. What took place in the synagogue was a public presentation of Jesus’ ministry. What took place at Simon’s home was just the opposite – it was an intimate teaching for this new family of disciples. As soon as Jesus arrived the people in the house told him that Simon’s mother-in-law was ill with a fever.
In Jesus’ day medicine was mixed with magic and incantations. A fever was cured by using a lock of hair from the sick person to tie an iron knife onto a thorn bush. The person returned to the bush for three consecutive days, each day quoting a portion of the account of God speaking to Moses from the burning bush. There were times Jesus used common techniques to cure. There is an instance when he made mud with his saliva and smeared it on the eye lids of a man born blind. He then told the man to wash his eyes in the pool of Siloam. Another time he put his fingers into the ears of a man who was deaf and mute and then put his saliva on the man’s tongue. Most of the time, however, Jesus cured with a mere command or a touch.
As soon as he heard of the fever Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering, he went to her, “grasped her hand and helped her up.” The cure was as simple as that. Jesus spoke no words or incantations. He said no prayers. It all seemed so natural. It was the Sabbath. Jesus and his four new disciples came to the house to partake in the
Sabbath meal. It was a special meal, a sacred meal, an essential element of the Shabbat Shalom, the sharing in the peaceful rest God took on the day after the creation of the world. Jesus restored her to her ministry of preparing the sacred meal. “The fever left her and she waited on them.”
There’s a lesson behind this healing. His first disciples, Simon, Andrew, James and John would, one day, discover that they couldn’t continue their ministry relying solely on their own strength. They would personally need the powerful, healing touch of Jesus. Only then would they be strong. Only then could the power of Jesus work through them.
At sundown of that same day, when the Sabbath rest was over, the people from the surrounding area came to the house bringing with them, the sick and possessed. He cured them all. We have to note the difference between the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law and the healing of the people. The people came to Jesus to get something from him. He cured their sick; they were happy and returned to their ordinary lives. Simon’s mother-in-law was cured and immediately began to minister to Jesus and his disciples. This is the second lesson we can draw from this remarkable day. If we’ve been touched by the healing hand of Jesus we’ve also been called to minister to others. Maybe we could say that our healing is the invitation to to follow him – to take up his ministry.
DEUTERONOMY 18:15-20 1 CORINTHIANS 7:32-35 MARK 1:21-28
For the past two weeks we’ve focused our attention on accounts of the call of the apostles. Today we begin a year-long reflection on Jesus’ ministry as it’s presented in the gospel of Mark. His presentation is the most economical of all the evangelists. For example, in just twenty verses of his first chapter he describes John the Baptist and his ministry, the baptism of Jesus, his temptation in the desert and the call of the first apostles. In verse twenty-one of that same chapter, he begins his presentation of Jesus’ ministry. Today we’ll reflect on Mark’s account of the first day of Jesus’ ministry.
Jesus was an itinerate preacher. He taught on hill- sides, along the Sea of Galilee and in the neighborhood synagogues. He began his ministry by visiting the syna- gogue in Capernaum. For us to get a good picture of what happened there we need to understand the role of the synagogue in Jesus’ day.
We tend to think of the synagogue as a Jewish church, with a rabbi functioning in a way similar to a priest or minister. This is somewhat true of the synagogue of to- day, but in Jesus’ day, the temple in Jerusalem was THE center of prayer and worship. There, the great liturgical feasts were celebrated with solemnity and music. There, the daily sacrifices were offered by the priests. Unlike the temple, the synagogue wasn’t primarily a place of prayer, though morning, afternoon and evening prayers were recited there.
By law, every Jewish community of at least ten households were obliged to have a synagogue. It was essentially an edu- cational institution and functioned like a community center. It was led by the President who was responsible for the schedule of prayer and the daily distri- bution of alms. He was assisted by the Minister who cared for the sacred scrolls, the maintenance of the building and the education of the children. However, the synagogue didn’t have a resident preacher/ rabbi as it does today. It was up to the President to estab- lish a roster of speakers who would be competent to preach to the community on the Sabbath.
We have to remember that the Torah, the first five books of the bible, were revered as the direct instruction of God. The devout Jew devoted his life to the study of the Torah and its interpretation, called the Talmud. Over time, a group of scholars developed, called the scribes. They were the experts in the Torah, the Law. They ex- tracted rules and regulations from the Law and were al- ways ready to find additional ways to expand them. They were responsible for evolving the commandments from the ten articulated in the bible to 613! They, with the assistance of the Pharisees, managed to deconstruct Judaism into a mass of legalistic hoops. When Jesus preached in the synagogue in Capernaum that Sabbath day, everyone immediately knew that he was special.
The congregants exclaimed, “What is this? A new teaching with authority.” Jesus’ message was fresh and from the heart. He didn’t generate new laws for the people to follow. He enriched the princi- ples of the Law by adding compassion and love to them. As he would later teach, “I have not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.” He freed the peoples’ spirits by lifting the heavy weight of the Law that the scribes and Pharisees laid on them. He called them to a new way of life. “Come to me all you who labor and are burdened and I will give you rest. Take MY yoke upon you and learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves, for MY yoke is easy, and MY burden light.” He not only preached a different message from the scribes, he backed up his message with tremendous spiri- tual power. That day he showed that he was a pow- erful exorcist.
There was a man in the synagogue with “an un- clean spirit.” As soon as he saw Jesus the spirit that possessed him gave testimony to Jesus. The man shouted 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 issued a sim- ple response. “Quiet! Come out of him.”
What have we learned from this first day of Jesus’ ministry? We’ve learned that Jesus was a breath of fresh air for the people of his day. Some kind of change was coming, the people could feel it in the compassion and loving concern that Jesus gener- ated. He spoke his message from the heart. It was a message of hope and love. The kingdom of God was at hand.
There was power behind Jesus’ message, even the spirits of darkness recognized it. The spirit in the possessed man called Jesus “the Holy One of God.” The spirit acknowledged that Jesus had power over him, and even asked if he had come to destroy him.
For us, the lesson from this first day of Jesus’ ministry is clear and simple. If we’re going to take up the ministry of Jesus we must be of like spirit: com- passionate, hopeful and loving. His ministry was a ministry of the heart. If we’re to follow him we must liberate our hearts by accepting God’s unconditional and transformative love. That’s the first step in an- swering his call. The second step is to become a con- duit of God’s love for those who are searching for God, or for those whose hope is weak or depleted.
By our Christ-like lives we can join him in build- ing the kingdom of God on earth one day at a time.