FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, January 31, 2021
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.
- Published in Church Reflections
THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, January 24, 2021
EXODUS 20:1-17 1 CORINTHIANS 1:22-25 JOHN 2:13-25
This week’s scriptures continue the theme of call to mission. Last Sunday, we reflected on John’s account of the call of the apostles Andrew, Simon Peter and another disciple. This week Mark presents his version of the call of those apostles. The style of the call differs in the accounts. Mark presents Jesus directly calling these men to join him in his mission. In John’s account Jesus doesn’t directly call the apostles. Rather, John the Baptist witnesses publically that Jesus is “the Lamb of God.” Those who hear his witness begin to follow Jesus. Andrew then announces to his brother Simon that he has “found the Messiah.” He then introduces Simon to Jesus.
The different styles of the call reflect the nature of the call as it exists today. Some of us may have “heard the call” in our hearts. Some of us
have been led to the discovery of Jesus though friends, family or teachers. The call comes to each of us in various ways. Our acceptance of that call gives us a share in the ministry of Jesus……and we take up the work of the kingdom. This raises a question. What is the work of the kingdom? The answer to that question will differ from generation to generation because the world and its struggles will differ from one period of time to another. The principle that’s the foundation for our kingdom work is articulated by St. Paul in the short passage from his first letter to the Corinthians that we read today. “The world in its present form is passing away.”
As we work for the kingdom we continually chip away at the world and its imperfect structures. As Jesus taught us, our work will transform the world slowly and mysteriously, the way the presence of yeast transforms flour. Change is the foundation of the kingdom. This brings us to the reflection for today.
We know that the world we live in isn’t perfect. But if we look over the millennia that have preceded us we see constant change. Life is getting better, little by little. Though ignorance, injustice, poverty, inequality and racism continue to have a hold on our lives, we can still say that life has been gradually getting better on this planet. We
still have many serious challenges to continued progress, but we are, as the human family, moving along. Today we’re experiencing tremendous resistance and fear of progress of change.
The rise of populism throughout the world and, in our own country, the rise of violent white supremacy, give clear witness to that resistance and fear. Our work of preaching and witnessing to the principles of the kingdom is the leaven of hope and healing that the world needs in order to take its next step in our evolutionary journey.
I submitted this reflection for publication on January 19th, the day before the inauguration of our newly elected president. He’ll be taking office two weeks after an attempted coup by white supremacists. The resistance to healing and social progress is tremendous. It’s based on fear and fed by anger. On the eve of the inauguration I pray as a worker in the vineyard of the Lord. My reflection, today, is contained in the prayer I raise:
“Heavenly Father, I reaffirm my faith in Jesus Christ, your Son, sent to us as our guide and our strength. I reaffirm my commitment to him and to the principles of your kingdom: justice, inclusion, respect, equality, harmony, non-violence, and peace. I will do all in my power to work with you in transforming the world into your kingdom. Use me to heal the fear that breeds violence and hatred. May my love help to destroy the man -made walls that have separated and isolated us from each other for so long.
Heavenly Father, send your Spirit, the spirit of truth, into the hearts of our elected representatives. Give them the strength to stand for what is right and good. Give them the courage to lift up and liberate the poor and vulnerable among us.Bless all people of good will as we work for the coming of your kingdom.”
So may it be. Amen.
Give them, and all who work for the coming of your kingdom, the hope we need.
- Published in Church Reflections
SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, January 17, 2021
1 SAMUEL 3:3B-10, 19. 1 CORINTHIANS 6:13C-15A, 17-20 JOHN 1:35-42
What a wonderful Gospel passage we have to think about today – and every day! It’s John’s account of the “call” of the disciples. John’s approach to the topic is as different as night and day from the accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Take note of the way the disciples are called in these Gospels.
In Matthew’s account, Jesus tells Peter and Andrew, “Come after me and I will make you fishers of men.” In Mark’s account he tells Matthew, “Follow me!” In Luke’s account he tells Peter “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” Jesus is direct and to the point – a tap on the shoulder and a command. Their approach makes me think of the numerous times people have asked me, “When did you hear the call?” I never heard a call! At least, not like the “call” Peter, Andrew and Matthew received. That’s why
I love the way John’s Gospel presents “the call.”
In John’s Gospel Jesus doesn’t call anybody! Instead, one person has an insight. John the Baptist, preaching near the Jordan River, spotted Jesus walking by. He immediately raised his arm and pointed to him saying to those around him, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” He wasn’t just noting Jesus’ presence. In that short phrase he was defining him. He identified Jesus and announced what his mission was – to be the sacrificial lamb. That one insight began a process of discovery.
Andrew and another disciple heard John. Their interest peeked, they followed after Jesus who eventually turned around and asked them, “What are you looking for?” That was enough. They spent the day with him. After they left Jesus, Andrew found his brother Peter and told him that he had found the Messiah. He then brought
him to Jesus.
How simple! How wonderful! Most people don’t hear a voice from heaven calling them to follow Jesus or to take up a ministry. The call comes through people who have faith – who have identified Jesus and followed him. Their words and actions are a quiet invitation to follow.
How did you hear the call to follow Jesus? Whose words and actions opened your heart to Jesus? Take the time to think about it – lots of time – quality time. I bet you’ll discover that God works in marvelous ways!
PRAYER Heavenly Father, thank you for inviting me to follow you – to work for the coming of your kingdom. Please bless me in my work, and bless the people who have guided me, encouraged me and supported me.
- Published in Church Reflections
THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD, January 10, 2021
ISAIAH 42:1-4,6-7. ACTS 10:34-38 MARK 1:7-13
I want to focus my reflection this week on one line from the Gospel. “I have baptized you with water, he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” This is John the Baptist speaking of Jesus. He’s distinguishing what he’s been doing from what Jesus will do.
John’s baptism was a spiritual exercise. He asked people to give up their attachments to the dark things of the world, to redirect their lives and to live in the light of the Lord. His baptism, symbolically washed away past sins so that people might be ready for the new baptism that Jesus would bring. He refers to this as baptism with the Holy Spirit. What is this?
Baptism with the Holy Spirit is a life-altering experience that releases the spiritual gifts that each of us has been given by God. The Holy Spirit, working within and through us, frees us to be the hands of Christ.
Remember how Jesus laid hands on the sick and healing power flowed through him. When we’re baptized with the Holy Spirit we are gifted with special attributes: to really know God in our hearts, to be able to pray from the heart, to recognize God’s presence in the world and in our lives, the ability to give counsel and instruction to others, the ability to heal and to liberate others from the
powers of darkness. These gifts may sound heavy duty and not at all in the realm of possibility for me, but the Holy Spirit can and will work though every one of us.
Most of the time the Spirit’s work is quite subtle. But it demands that we be disposed to it. This can demand a great deal from us because we must stop focusing on ourselves and redirect our energies to others. This is the gift of self. When we succumb to the Spirit, the Spirit will gently touch others through us. That’s when our hands become the hands of Christ.
St. Peter, in his second letter, reminds all of us of our special relationship to God and to one another through the Spirit. “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
Today, as we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, let’s invite the Holy Spirit into our lives. Let’s pray for the liberation of our gifts. Let’s commit ourselves to be the hands of Christ. Let’s begin our work in the vineyard of the Lord. Let’s work with the Spirit to manifest the kingdom of God on earth.
- Published in Church Reflections
HOLY FAMILY SUNDAY, January 3, 2021
ISAIAH 60:1-6 EPHESIANS 3:2-3A, 5-6 MATTHEW 2:1-12
Here we are at the end of the Christmas Season. We’re celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany, sometimes called “Little Christmas.” In fact, this is the day the Orthodox Churches celebrate the birth of Jesus.
The account of the Epiphany is found in Matthew’s Gospel.
Shortly after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, magi “from the East,” most likely Zoroastrian astrologers from Persia, arrived in Jerusalem. Everyone took great interest in their arrival because they came looking for information about a newly born king. As Matthew puts it, “When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”
I can understand why Herod was “greatly troubled.” As he aged he became more and more mentally unhinged. He was a narcissistic personality to begin with, but as he aged, he became increasingly paranoid. He murdered his wife, her two sons, her mother, brother and grandfather. He constructed elaborate fortresses throughout the country that were meant to be places of refuge for him should he ever need to flee Jerusalem. The possibility of a rival king ignited his paranoia.
I wonder, though, why everyone else was “greatly troubled.” The religious leaders, the Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes would have been put off by these star-gazing pagans announcing the birth of a Jewish king. If their prediction were true, he could threaten their grip on the people. But I wonder about the other people in Jerusalem – the common people. How were they “greatly troubled?” The phrase “greatly troubled” is used several times in Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus. Zachariah, Mary and the shepherds are said to be “greatly troubled” when they’re greeted by the an
gel Gabriel. The angel’s response to each of them was exactly the same, “Do not be afraid.” This tells us a great deal. The angel is warning them that fear will block their hearts and minds from receiving his message of joy and hope.
Herod and the religious leaders remained troubled because they gave into their fear, a fear that they might lose their power. The ordinary people had no power to lose. The appearance of these exotic magi with their message of a newborn king would have immediately caught their attention. These people had no love for Herod or the religious leaders. They were suffering under Rome’s oppressive occupation and an ultraconservative religious regime. Could this star that guided the magi really be announcing the birth of a messianic leader and the beginning of a new time? They would certainly have remembered the prophecy about this. “I see him, though not now; I behold him, though not near. A star shall advance from Jacob and a staff shall rise from Israel.” (Numbers 24:17) The common people weren’t afraid. The magi’s message filled them with hope.
It’s so interesting that we can read these same scriptures every year, and every year find a new level of meaning in them. While we’re read the Epiphany story today, our entire nation is “greatly distressed.” We’ve suffered through so much this year. We’re afraid of the strife and political upheaval we’re experiencing. We’re afraid of the pandemic that threatens our lives and the lives of people we love. We’re afraid for our jobs and our livelihoods. We need to take the angel’s message to heart, “Do not be afraid.”
In your heart, let go of the things you’re afraid to lose. Raise your eyes. Gaze at the star. Allow yourself to feel its joy of hope. It’s the star that guided the magi to the King. It’s the star that will lead us to his new world.
- Published in Church Reflections