Sunday By Sunday
FAITH Magazine January-February 2006
Our regular guide to the Word of God in the Sunday Liturgy
SOLEMNITY OF MARY MOTHER OF GOD
1.1.06 Lk 2, 16-21
Mary’s joy at the words of the shepherds knows no bounds. But it is a quiet joy deep within her soul, remaining ever present to her as she ponders over the good things that God has done for her (Lk 1, 18). We sinners have a tendency to bear grudges, refusing to let go of wrongs. Mary does the opposite: she holds and nurtures within her heart a deep gratitude for the good done to her. She takes nothing for granted, and gives God infinite scope to make his home within her heart, as well as in her arms.
During Christmastide the Church rightly gives due worship to the Son of God become man, and to Him alone. As St Louis de Montfort wrote at the beginning of his treatise on true devotion to Mary: “I avow with all the Church that Mary, being a mere creature that has come from the hands of the Most High, is in comparison with his Infinite Majesty less than an atom; or rather, she is nothing at all” (True Devotion 14). God is always independent and sufficient unto Himself: He has no absolute need of Mary to accomplish his divine will.
“Nevertheless”, adds St Louis, “I say that, things being as they are now – that is, God having willed to commence and to complete his greatest works by the most holy Virgin ever since He created her – we may well think He will not change his conduct in the eternal ages” (True Devotion 15). The whole Incarnation is a necessity in the order of charity, and therefore duly honouring the Mother of God for her co-operation in this divine work is a sublime and fitting way to complete the Octave of Christmas. Only through Mary did God come into the world.
FEAST OF THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD
8.1.06 Mk 1, 7-11
John the Baptist is the saint of Advent, as the one who fulfils prophecy in himself: “A voice cries in the wilderness: Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight” (Is 40, 3 quoted in Mt 3, 3). He is no less the saint of the sending forth of Jesus. During Advent the Church concentrated on the Baptist’s call to repentance (cf. Mt 3, 1-12). Now he gives his witness to one who will grow greater as he grows less: “I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals” (Mk 1, 7)
Only John hears and sees the Divine Theophany as Jesus is immersed in the waters. He bears witness to what no eye has seen nor ear heard – the presence of the Dove and the voice of the Father (Mk 1, 10-11). It is the Baptist’s swansong, as Jesus begins his public ministry and is anointed by the Spirit for service. This stirring event achieves its full drama in Eastern liturgies, as the priest waves a piece of cloth over the font to symbolize the sanctification of all baptismal waters by the Holy Spirit and the beginning of new life.
We are all called to service after the model of Jesus. As in the case of our Saviour, this is a work of the Holy Spirit achieving the will of the Father in us. We must co-operate body and soul in this enterprise by letting God do his work. It is not our work, but His. Uniting ourselves with Christ in the sacrifice of the Mass, frequent confession and regular communion renders us the grace to keep God’s commandments and do his will for us. Only then will we ourselves see and hear what the Baptist saw and heard.
2ND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: B
15.1.06 Jn 1, 35-42
There is no record of Peter’s profession of faith in John’s gospel, though his denial of Christ and subsequent rehabilitation form a significant back-drop to the central narrative (Jn 18, 15-27; 21, 15-19). Peter’s role is clearly one of apostolic leadership, though his impetuosity in making extravagant statements exceeds his ability to fulfil what he has promised: “‘Why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.’ ‘Lay down your life for me?’ answered Jesus. ‘I tell you most solemnly, before the cock crows you will have disowned me three times’” (Jn 14, 37-38).
There is only one real leader for the Fourth Evangelist, and that is Jesus. But his kingship is one of Christ crucified. He does not shout or through his weight around, but calmly prepares for his hour. This is the hour when he proclaims, “It is accomplished” from the cross and yields up his spirit (Jn 19, 30). Then is he truly Universal King, as he fulfils his own prophecy: “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he” (Jn 8, 28). All this is hidden from Peter until Jesus rises.
Andrew leads his brother to Jesus: “We have found the Messiah” (Jn 1, 41). There is deep appeal in the initial calling of the disciples by Christ. It is all so understated. The Baptist points to the Lamb, John and Andrew are curious and spend a lot longer with Jesus than they had first expected. Jesus’ house becomes a second home to them: “So they went and saw where he lived, and stayed with him the rest of that day” (Jn 1, 39). Peter is also drawn in: “You are to be called Cephas – meaning Rock” (Jn 1, 42).
3RD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: B
22.1.06 Mk 1, 14-20
Mark very effectively conveys the appeal of Jesus as he enters the lives of ordinary Galilean fishermen: “At once they left their nets and followed him” (Mk 1, 18). The Second Gospel is briefer than the other three, but no less detailed. The detail, however, can often be passed over if the reader is inattentive. Fewer words are made to work harder. St John explores the deep appeal of the Word made Flesh in a series of intricate encounters (Jn 1, 35- 51), but for Mark the apostles are no sooner called than caught (Mk 1, 18.20).
There is a sense of urgency in the start of Jesus’ public ministry. His words and works must have seemed like a whirlwind striking the mundane lives of Peter and Andrew, James and John. Understanding whom they were following and what he required of them completely passes them by. Ironically, it will only be the evil spirits who will put a name to the Lord: “I know who you are: the Holy One of God” (Jn 1, 24). But Jesus’ chief battle in Mark’s gospel will be with the spiritual forces of darkness. The apostles muddle along understanding little.
Yet these special friends never leave the Master at this time. Their attraction to him and his way goes beyond fickle amazement at a growing reputation. There are deep chords of love, no matter how partial and inadequate. They stick with him, and his choice of them once given is never revoked. We too must never give up being Jesus’ disciples. His will is all. Though we may struggle to understand at times, let us, like the apostles, stick with the Master, the founder and perfecter of our faith. He calls us each day: will we respond at once?
4TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: B
29.01.06 Mk 1, 21-28
“His teaching made a deep impression on them because, unlike the scribes, he taught them with authority” (Mk 1, 22). Rabbinic disputation was very common at the time of Jesus’ public ministry. The fact that Jesus taught openly and attracted followers would not have seemed extraordinary. But his manner of instruction without any reference to previous rabbinic teaching would have been immediately controversial and even revolutionary. For one thing, his teaching would have been clearer and easier for the people to grasp as he spoke using his own personal authority. Such authority over scripture can only denote divinity.
Up to the mid-point of Mark’s gospel, Jesus attains a celebrity that could easily have made him a worldly messiah. The crowd hang on his words, and his miracles and power over unclean spirits assure a high reputation among the poor and downtrodden. Though the scribes and Pharisees loath him for his evident goodness (Mk 3, 2), which directly challenges their own ascendancy over the people, the common people would easily have prevailed had Jesus wished to encourage them to make him their political leader. But Jesus always remains detached from the crowd, loving them but knowing their fickleness. Then everything changes.
From the moment Our Lord first prophesies his Passion (Mk 8, 31ff), things begin to go wrong for him in a worldly sense. Peter is appalled at the prospect of his death (Mk 8, 27) and the authorities begin to close in on him as he journeys up to Jerusalem in full knowledge of his Father’s will for him (Mk 11, 18). There is a starkness in Mark’s narrative depiction of the Messiah - an aloneness born of the ignorance of human minds and hearts corrupted by sin and self interest. How do we welcome Jesus in our hearts?
5TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: B
05.02.06 Mk 1, 29-39
Archaeological evidence has unearthed the house of Simon in Capernaum. Parts of the wall and floor show that a certain room in the house subsequently became a church. Scholars contend that this room was the place of the cure of Simon’s Mother-in-law, and that the layout of the house as one of four dwellings around a courtyard, with only one door onto that courtyard from the street, adequately explains Mark’s account of Jesus’ healings: “The whole town came crowding round the door, and he cured many who were suffering from one kind of disease or another” (Mk 1, 33).
The apostles would have let one person into the courtyard at a time to see Jesus, who would then be able to pray and lay his hands on the sick person without fear of molestation from the crowd. This also explains the later miracle of the cure of the paralytic in the same place (Mk 2, 1-12). With the door blocked by people and access to Jesus thus impossible, the friends of the paralytic climb onto the roof and lower him down into the room where Jesus was. Such faith had its rewards, and the room itself was sanctified.
Jesus invariably moves on from Capernaum to other Galilean towns. The power of his ministry cannot be the possession of one place or people. He had moved from Nazareth to Capernaum because of the hardness of heart of his own kindred, and also because Capernaum itself was an important frontier town. Now he seeks escape from political and civic influences which would deflect him from his true mission. In solitude he seeks out the Father, so that he may be strengthened in his humanity to fulfil perfectly all the expectations his heavenly Father has of him (Mk 1, 35-38).
6TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: B
12.2.06 Mk 1, 40-45
Sensational events would sometimes occur in Roman Palestine, with people talking about Herod’s latest exploit (Mk 6, 17-29) or the latest rumour of war in the Empire (cf. Mk 13, 7). All this, however, would have passed lepers by completely. They were outcasts, cursed by God and reviled by men. They were never at any time part of normal social intercourse. So we can guage the unprecedented impact of Jesus on Jewish society by the boldness and curiosity of the leper who dares to approach the Saviour. The frightened apostles were probably hiding, appalled by such a damnable presence.
But the grace of so noble a miracle worker emboldens the leper to approach. Jesus’ sympathetic reaction (Mk 1, 41) shows that he is well aware what such an action would have cost the poor man. The leper did not expect to be cured or even dare to ask for this. He makes himself vulnerable to an anticipated rejection (Mk 1, 40), thereby revealing the truth of his own heart to Our Lord. “Of course I want to” (Mk 1, 41) from Jesus is tantamount to saying, “Of course I love you”. All are cured who seek Divine Mercy.
As so often occurs in Mark’s gospel (eg. Mk 3, 20-21), goodness from Our Lord is met with coldness and rejection from the very people who should have been closest to him. Jesus is stern in his warning to the leper (Mk 1, 43), who nevertheless disobeys so solemn an injunction to keep quiet by speaking everywhere about Jesus (Mk 1, 45). Perhaps this is understandable, but the ironic consequence is that Jesus himself is forced into leper-like isolation from the communities he has come to save. Misunderstanding accompanies Our Lord everywhere he goes. How do we obey Jesus?
7 TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: B
19.02.06 Mk 2, 1-12
“Seeing their faith, Jesus said to the paralytic, ‘My child, your sins are forgiven’ ” (Mk 2, 5). Vicarious prayer and the faith of others reap a golden harvest for the paralytic. He may well have been unaware of what was going on around him, but the faith of his friends in Jesus’ power to heal him would neither brook delay nor acknowledge any barrier. St Monica over Augustine, de Foucauld’s sister over Charles and many others throughout the history of the Church testify to the power of prayer and intercession on behalf of others, especially sinners.
Because of the association of disease with sinfulness among Jews (even to the third or fourth generation), Jesus’ words are doubly provoking to the brooding presence of scribes and Pharisees. For Christ, the physical condition of the paralytic was no barrier to acceptance. All that alienated him from God were his sins, as with everyone in relation to the God of holiness. But for the Pharisees, Jesus words confirming the paralytic’s sinfulness would have been an explicit admission of his absolute unacceptability in God’s sight. Coupled with blasphemous claims to forgive sins, this association with sinners scandalizes religious authority.
Jesus calls himself ‘Son of Man’ consistently (eg. Mk 2, 10; 8, 31; 13, 26). This recalls the majestic vision of Daniel (Dn 7, 14ff), where one like a son of man is led before the throne of the One of great age. Such a designation denotes the end times, when Christ will come again in glory. Our Lord wishes to remind us that time is short, eternity long. We must not put off the good we can do today for a more convenient occasion: “To prove to you that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, I order you: get up, pick up your stretcher, and go off home” (Mk 2, 11).
8TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: B
26.2.06 Mk 2, 18-22
Edersheim wrote in his ‘Sketches of Jewish Life in the days of Christ’ (Eerdmanns reprint 1990 p152): “Marriages were not celebrated either on the Sabbath, or on the day before or after it, lest the Sabbath should be endangered. Nor was it lawful to wed on any of the three annual festivals, in order, as the Rabbi’s put it, ‘not to mingle one joy (that of marriage) with another (that of the festival)’. As it was deemed a religious duty to give pleasure to the newly-married couple, the merriment at times became greater than the more strict Rabbis approved”.
Entertaining the bridegroom was a solemn religious duty, so important that its joy was not allowed to intrude upon the Sabbath or religious festivals. Jesus’ imagery is powerful and perfect: the religious duty to attend upon the bridegroom outweighs the obligation to fast. For what is here is greater than any realize. Christ loves his people and cherishes them as a bridegroom loves and cherishes his bride. The joy of festivity is not to be taken from them while the bridegroom is still with them. Only when this happens, during Our Lord’s bitter Passion, will his disciples fast.
The new dispensation is here. If the image of the bridegroom stresses continuity between Old and New Testament thinking, Our Lord’s reference to the new wine of his teaching and presence (Mk 2, 22) presents the world with something never before witnessed by human beings. It is something radical and revolutionary. His ways tear away from the cloth of the old dispensation (Mk 2, 21). The two can never marry without ruining both. The image is also one of leaving old ways in encountering Jesus. We need to be re-made in the image of God through Jesus.