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.