Sunday By Sunday
FAITH Magazine March-April 2006
Our regular guide to the Word of God in the Sunday Liturgy
1ST SUNDAY OF LENT: B
05.03.06 Mk 1, 12-15
· Mark condenses Matthew’s account of the temptation of Jesus in the desert, but still manages to make his narrative evocative and intriguing. No other evangelist talks of the ‘wild beasts’ or ‘the angels’ looking after him (Mk 1,13), and we are left with a sense of the danger and isolation Jesus suffered in his hour of trial. The loneliness of Christ is a key theme for Mark, who shows a Messiah whom only the demons recognize in mock derision (cf. Mk 5, 7). Even his miracles cannot penetrate the fog of misunderstanding that envelops the disciples (cf. Mk 4,41).
· Jesus’ determination to be about the work of his Father shines through in this gospel. John’s arrest (Mk 1, 14) would understandably have shaken the resolve of any human agency planning to start a new movement following on from one the authorities had just silenced. But Jesus is divine as well as human – he through whom the universe was created and is sustained determines the hour of action solely on his own authority. Time is now claimed for Jesus. As the Baptist grows less, the Christ grows greater, and salvation goes out to the ends of the earth.
· Lent is a time when we seek to imitate Jesus more closely in his fight against temptation, so that we too might receive the same Spirit to preach the Good News. Sometimes that struggle means joining him in his own loneliness, as we seek through his grace to give up the sin in our lives that clings so easily. Leaving dead ways behind can leave us feeling isolated and fearful, but always bears fruit for the kingdom. Jesus never deserts us, but we need to trust him and his truth to win through. Perseverance in this trust converts us.
2ND SUNDAY OF LENT: B
12.03.06 Mk 9, 2-10
· Eastern Christian spirituality marks the Transfiguration as a key meditation in the spiritual life. Monks pray the Jesus Prayer continually in their work and recreation, saying quietly, ‘Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’. The Holy Name of Jesus constantly on their lips mellows the spirit and purifies the soul until, through God’s grace, they perceive the uncreated light of Tabor. The transfiguring of the sacred humanity of Jesus lives on in the souls of the holy, who perceive what the apostles perceived on the Holy Mountain and are shaken to the core by the Divine Presence.
· Tabor remains a place of particular sanctity to this day. Perhaps because so much brutality goes on between Jew and Arab, the heights distil a peace and quiet joy that attracts all, no matter what race or religion. For the Jew, mountains were the place of divinity and thus many come. For the Arab taxi drivers, it is one of the few opportunities they have to make money, but this is never at the expense of the special atmosphere. They can be loud and drive enthusiastically round hair-pin bends, but they do not disturb the divine reverence of Tabor.
· We all need some of that peace. Lent is about the heart so much more than it is about the head. Eastern Christian spirituality leads from the heart and never draws its focus away from heaven. It never subverts the transcendent nature of God or empties out the divinity of Christ, unlike so many over-rationalized and corrupt spiritualities of the West. Icons are revered as windows on heaven in Eastern liturgies and are incensed because of this. Perhaps we might like to meditate on an icon of the Transfiguration this Lent. We might well be in for a surprise.
3RD SUNDAY OF LENT: B
19.03.06 Jn 2, 13-25
· “It has taken forty-six years to build this sanctuary” (Jn 2, 20). The irony of the apparent impregnability of the Temple would not have been lost on the members of the early Christian community, for whom St John wrote his gospel account. The Roman Emperor Titus destroyed their handiwork in a matter of days in 70AD. By heating the massive stones of the sanctuary and then pouring cold water on them, the Romans reduced the whole place to rubble, thus punishing the Jews for rebelling against Roman authority. Those who put their trust in bricks and mortar are confounded.
· Jesus always thirsts for a response of faith, belief and trust in him. His reply to the Jews, “Destroy this sanctuary and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn 2, 19), is highly enigmatic and was not even understood by his disciples until later (cf. Jn 2, 22). Jesus says this deliberately in order to draw his audience to himself and to his teaching, to provoke further discussion and break down the self-satisfaction of the Temple authorities. In this he failed, because even those who believed in him in Jerusalem would not let their hearts be remade (Jn 2, 24-25).
· Would Jesus entrust himself to us? So often we pay him lip service whilst our hearts remain far away. We reserve the right to do things our way, as if we know better than our God. This is a sin against obedience, which consists in not just hearing the Word of God but allowing it to change us utterly through a joy-filled submission to the divine will in all things and at all times. This is hard, but we cannot enter heaven by any other route. We may think we know the way, but we don’t. Let grace triumph.
4TH SUNDAY OF LENT: B
26.03.06 Jn 3, 14-21
· Some commentators give Nicodemus a hard time, accusing him of only half loving Our Lord, because he would only see him by night for fear of his colleagues in the Sanhedrin. But at least he listens to Jesus, and is the occasion of some of the Saviour’s most sublime teaching (including Jn 3, 16, which is the gospel in a verse). Nicodemus does exactly what Jesus wants and what his colleagues refuse to do. By entering into dialogue, he allows himself to be taught by the Master whom every other religious authority is determined to silence. Nicodemus is brave.
· Jesus is well aware of Nicodemus’ predicament. Irony is ever present in the writings of St John, and Our Lord’s words, though part of divine revelation to all, nevertheless gently point out the fault of the one who will only see Jesus by night: “men have shown they prefer darkness to the light” (Jn 3, 19) and “the man who lives by the truth comes out into the light” (Jn 3, 21). Nicodemus will be present at the crucifixion (Jn 19, 39), and there can be little doubt that the words of Jesus proved a vehicle for his conversion.
· Are we bold in coming to Jesus? Do we ever allow him to speak to us, or are we afraid of what he might say? He might show us our faults, as he did with Nicodemus, and then we would feel awkward, just like Nicodemus. Proud and humiliated, will we go away, nursing our grievances? Or will we see the gentleness behind the call to conversion and respond? We need to pray for an end to smallness of heart and enter into the dark confessional, just as Nicodemus stole into the garden at night where Jesus waited for him.
5TH SUNDAY OF LENT: B
02.04.06 Jn 12, 20-33
· “Now my soul is troubled” (Jn 12, 27). St Teresa of Avila was fond of telling her sisters that it was the humanity of Jesus that saves us. Here we see the human will of Christ rebelling against the appalling affliction of the cross. Who among us would not baulk at such a terrible prospect, especially if we were innocent? It is absolutely vital that we understand that Jesus struggles here as any man would. He does not experience some privileged humanity unlike ours, but rather enters into the natural revolt of human nature against the destruction of death.
· In his weariness and desolation of spirit, the human will of Jesus cries out to be saved from this hour (Jn 12, 27). But in a supreme act of totally unmerited generosity, Our Lord conforms his human to his divine will: “Father, glorify your name” (Jn 12, 28). Jesus will accept the cup of suffering the Father proffers him, on our behalf. This decision is taken freely as a human being in utter loneliness of spirit. Outside Jesus there are curious crowds, but inside him there is only the looming shadow of the cross. The Father acknowledges such generosity (Jn 12, 28).
· “Now sentence is being passed on this world; now the prince of this world is to be overthrown” (Jn 12, 31). So many ‘nows’ indicate that the hour of Jesus has arrived. This is the hour of the cross, when Jesus’ generosity in freely accepting all that sin and death could do to humanity turns a gruesome execution into the triumphal procession of the Lamb. Since it has arrived and Jesus has accepted it totally and in complete freedom of spirit, then the reign of sin and death over humanity instigated by the malice of the Devil is doomed.
PALM SUNDAY: B
09.04.06 Mk 11, 1-10
· Whilst tradition in England has people carrying Palm branches in imitation of Christ’s triumphal procession into Jerusalem, in Italy they usually carry olive branches and strew their churches with bay leaves, so that the Palm Sunday Procession leaves the most delightful smell, as those walking by crush the leaves as they go. Catholic piety has always rejoiced in the physical as a way of communicating the divine, and those bay leaves lend a pungent edge that emphasizes the importance of the beginning of Holy Week. Nature too begins to rejoice at the salvation about to come upon the world.
· “Blessings on the coming kingdom of our father David” (Mk 11, 10). Jerusalem was the city of the king, captured by David some 1000 years before Christ, at a time when it was thought to be an impregnable fortress. Here it is assailed by the King of Kings, not with soldiers and siege engines, but riding humbly on a donkey. Christ proclaims a very different kingship from that of his illustrious forebear. It is the kingship of the cross, and the irony is that those who proclaim his Messiahship here will be baying for his blood by Friday.
· Jerusalem was also the city of God. From the time of David, the theology of Holy Zion had established that location as the abode of the divinity: “Have compassion on the holy city, Jerusalem, the place of your rest. Let Zion ring with your praises, let your temple be filled with you glory” (Sir 36, 16). No sense of vainglory clouds the vision of the Messiah, but merely a humble and reverent fulfilling of all righteousness. Jesus enters Jerusalem because he is the heir, the one so long expected. The glory of God enters his own on a donkey.
EASTER SUNDAY: B
16.04.06 Mk 16, 1-8
· “The women came out and ran away from the tomb because they were frightened out of their wits; and they said nothing to a soul, for they were afraid” (Mk 16, 8). This is not a good way to start a religion. There is no clever build up or big launch, no networking with influential people and no advance publicity with slick marketing. No-one says anything to anybody, least of all to the disciples. The silence is deafening, broken only by the scramble of the women to move as far away from the Empty Tomb as quickly as possible.
· These eight verses of resurrection narrative in Mark’s gospel so disturbed the Early Church that twelve more verses of appearances of the risen Christ were added on to the original formula. To say that the resurrection in Mark is understated is itself an understatement. The constant theme of people misunderstanding the person and teaching of Christ continues into the resurrection account ( cf Mk 4, 41). For Mark the key moment of the gospel are the words of recognition of the pagan centurion at the foot of the cross: “In truth this man was a Son of God” (Mk 15, 39). Thus Jesus saves.
· So does Mark discount the resurrection in any sense? Not at all. There is merely a sense of utter confusion at the turn of events. Such a bitter loss becomes the most brilliant of victories as resurrection completes and informs crucifixion. The women cannot take it in, and there is a sense of incompleteness as the tale breaks off with them fleeing. There is also a sense of more to come in the story, once the dust of the shock of the Empty Tomb settles down. Mark’s purpose is served by condensing his resurrection account: he never ignores it.
2ND SUNDAY OF EASTER: B
23.04.06 Jn 20, 19-31
· Signs theology in the gospel of John has a specific intent. This intention is three-fold, and consists in seeing the signs, believing in them and the one who works them, and receiving life through the holy name of Jesus (Jn 20, 30-31). St John is quite specific about being selective in the signs he has chosen – for him they are those most likely to elicit faith and a participation in the divine life. Signs are miracles, and the seven the evangelist chooses show Our Lord’s divinity and his thirst for souls. Only those who see and believe receive life.
The narrative about doubting Thomas is technically not a sign, for Thomas is only asked to believe the evidence of his eyes (Jn 20, 29). That Jesus is risen from the dead is a fact of nature. It is as true as water is wet or the sun hot. Thus the indicative founds the imperative: “Doubt no longer but believe” (Jn 20, 27). Thomas has only to believe what is before him, but in doing so becomes the source of hope and faith for millions of believers not privileged enough to be in the Upper Room on that occasion.
· Resurrection faith founds Christianity. Without it Jesus is a fraud and a failure, his disciples deluded and our faith in vain. Thus, Christ rising is the most attacked doctrine in the entire deposit of faith of the Catholic Church. It is nevertheless the most important historical fact in the universe. It shows us a radically transformed human nature, no longer defined by the twin evils of sin and death. It shows us a future lived with God in heaven not just in our spirit but in our bodies too. Human nature is thus revitalized, and paradise made truly personal.
3RD SUNDAY OF EASTER: B
30.04.06 Lk 24, 35-48
· “He then opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (Lk 24, 45). Thus was authority over the scriptures bequeathed to the Church by the Master himself. Jesus fulfils all prophecy, is the righteousness of the Law in person, and distils within his Sacred Heart all the wisdom of the ancients. As he founds the community of the New Covenant on the faith of the apostles, so he confers on them that authority over Holy Writ that comes from God himself as gift to the heirs of the believing community of Israel. Truth in scripture comes only from Truth himself.
· But surely those in the Upper Room in Luke’s account are more than just the apostles? All who believe the truth, who is Christ crucified and risen alone, are inheritors of the promises of Christ and enjoy a living sense of the Faith as a gift of the Holy Spirit. Only the apostles, and Peter supremely, bear the charism to define what is and what is not of Christ in the Faith, but all who listen to the voice of truth in the Church open themselves up to the riches of understanding that only God’s Holy Spirit can give.
· Repentance for the forgiveness of sins is the first fruit of understanding the scriptures ( Lk 24, 47). This is the supreme gift the Church has to offer in the name and power of Christ. No-one can forgive sins but God himself, and, through the ministry of his priests, that is exactly what Christ does to those who come to him in sorrow and repentance. Many find approaching the priest challenging. But it is really Christ to whom we address ourselves. Pray that this Easter Season for us will be a renewed commitment to so life giving a sacrament.