1 January [Mary Mother of God]
The shepherds went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
We begin this new year, as always, in the company of Mary, whose title, ‘Mother of God’, affirms equally the humanity and the divinity of Christ.
Who else is with us? Shepherds, a carpenter, a baby put to sleep in an animal’s feeding trough…. It’s a humble beginning. There are no world leaders, no ambassadors, no retinue. There is no palace, nor ceremony, nor fancy dress. There is no cheering crowd, no press, no brass band. There are no scholars to analyse its meaning, no historians to tell us it all happened before, no observers to say it could happen again. But far away and out of earshot of the powerful and the wise there is a rumour of angels. Only the shepherds, the simple of heart, can hear it. Each daily gospel passage that we read beckons us to follow.
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, "I am not the Messiah." And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" He answered, "No." Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" He said, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,'" as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, "Why then are you baptising if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?" John answered them, "I baptise with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal."
At the beginning of a drama you need to get to know the characters. “Who are you?” the Pharisees asked John. John answered by saying who he was not (which is just as important as saying who you are). Then he said, “I am a voice....” It was enough. He was a voice speaking of God, a finger pointing to the new thing that God was doing in the world. That was his deepest identity. His, and also ours.
‘Who are you?’ ‘How do you see yourself?’ These are questions we ask one another to this day. But today we ask these questions especially of ourselves; today we tend to turn the searchlight inwards. ‘Who am I?’ ‘How do I see myself?’ In our complex world these are not trivial questions. There are many who are willing to offer us ready-made identities. Some of these identities are intensely tight-fitting: our world is full of cults and fanatical movements, secular and religious. Many look at you and don’t want to know who you are; they see only the identity they would like to impose on you. We had better know where to find our real identities.
‘Among you stands one whom you do not know.’ We do not know him because we cannot get away with imposing an identity on him - though we try all the time. Jesus the Catholic, Jesus the Protestant, Jesus the Baptist…. Yes, John, we too are unworthy to untie the strap of his sandals.
3 January [Epiphany of the Lord]
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”’ Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.
When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Ours is not the first age to look east for wisdom; the East has always had a reputation for it. The word ‘magi’ is translated here as “wise men.” ‘Magus’ meant different things: a magus was a member of the Persian priestly caste; or one who possessed occult knowledge and power (this is the origin of our word ‘magic’). If people had the careless habit of throwing around the term ‘New Age’ in those times as many do now, the Magi would certainly have been called New Agers.
Herod was one of history’s great tyrants: he spared no one, not even his own family; to keep his grip on power he murdered his wife, three of his sons, his brother-in-law, an uncle, and his mother-in-law. He had been appointed “King of the Jews” by the Senate in 40 BC and he had already reigned for over thirty years. He was in no mind to hear of a new king, especially one who was no son of his. “He was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” He was frightened to hear of a rival, and the people were frightened because they knew what he was capable of. But the chief priests and the scribes – the religious authorities of the day – were able to give him directions in locating this rival. They knew in detail about the expected arrival of “the anointed one.” They had studied the Scriptures, they knew the prophesies, they knew where to look. And they used all that knowledge to direct a killer to him. Nor was it just a momentary lapse of judgment: Herod would fail to kill him, but later on they would succeed.
The Magi were foreigners, pagans, astrologers: everything that was most base in the eyes of the religious authorities. Though they had not the benefit of the prophecies the Magi came and did the Child homage. Tradition calls them “kings” – judging, probably, by the wealth of the gifts they brought. At any rate they came looking for a king. Where do you look for a king? In a palace. Who else is likely to be there? A royal family. But the Magi came to a cave or a stable where they found a poor family, with animals and perhaps a few shepherds. All the appearances would have told them they had made a ridiculous mistake, yet “falling to their knees, they did him homage.”
We can look at the significance of this from many angles. Preparation is no guarantee that you will be ready; it may actually blind you, because you prepare according to your own idea. There is no substitute for an open heart; learning sometimes has the effect of closing the heart, and in some cases even the mind. Religious authority is the most perilous of all: the claims are absolute, the deepest things are at stake, and with the years comes the habit of listening to no one. The most chilling feature of this story is the collusion of the religious leaders with Herod.
Mt 4:12-17, 23-25
Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.’
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
Galilee was clearly Jesus's favourite place. In today’s Gospel, when he heard of John’s arrest, “he withdrew into Galilee.” Much later on, he appeared after his death to Mary Magdalen and asked her to tell the brethren to meet him in Galilee (Mt 28:10). It was the northern part of the country, and it had always been much more open to foreign influences and new ideas than was Judea; it was also much more densely populated than the rest of the country. Judea brought him endless trouble with the Jews, and finally death; in Galilee people were more open and they listened. He grew up in Galilee, in the village of Nazareth; but strangely, Nazareth was the one place in Galilee that seemed unreceptive to him. He left there and made Capernaum his base, never again returning to Nazareth to live. His townspeople tried, you remember, to throw him over a cliff because he said things they didn’t like to hear. It is clear, however, that he was not embittered by this. Bitter people like to proclaim bad news, or when they proclaim good news there is some bitter echo in it. But he “went around all Galilee… proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom.” It was their loss. Nathanael was surprised when he heard that Jesus was from Nazareth, “From Nazareth?” he said, “Can anything good come from that place?” (Jn 1:46). There is no bitterness like small-town bitterness. It is small and intimate, it penetrates to the roots. But those townspeople could not infect him with their bitterness; it was they who remained bitter.
Yet they were able to rob him of some of his power. “He could work no miracle there” (Mk 6:5). Not only Nazarenes but all of us have the power to poison the well of life and to stop miracles from happening. And we do it best in our own place - perhaps even in our family.
As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat." But he answered them, "You give them something to eat." They said to him, "Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?" And he said to them, "How many loaves have you? Go and see." When they had found out, they said, "Five, and two fish." Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled; and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.
Miracles seem to happen in situations of scarcity rather than plenty. Why? Because where there is plenty there is no need for miracles. Where there is plenty you don't have to struggle, you don't have to come up against realities too painfully, you just bop along. There were only five loaves to feed thousands. The parallel passage in John 6:9 says the loaves were barley loaves. This was the cheapest kind of bread; in fact barley was really considered animal-feed. It is only the very poor who would eat barley loaves. To be poor is to have no resources. That can have one of two effects: it can turn people in on themselves, filling them with resentment and self-pity; or it can turn them outwards to a real experience of God’s Providence. Poverty can break people’s spirit, that is why it is so urgent to fight against it. But equally, or more so, riches can destroy the human spirit, muffling it against reality and against God. Here is a rule of thumb: if you want a miracle, give something away, to make room for it.
In the past, theologians used to use the expression, “the divine economy.” It conveyed an image of God as economist: totting up good and evil, carrying forward the balance from day to day, indeed from century to century. Not a single penny would be left unaccounted for. Every image of God, being inadequate, becomes an idol when it is taken in isolation. Taken in isolation, what this image omitted was the reality of grace, a reality that lies at the heart of Christian awareness. ‘Grace’ means gift, something given for nothing.
If it makes any sense at all to speak of ‘the divine economy’, we have to speak of it as a crazy economy, where everything is given for nothing. It is more or less the reverse of what we mean by economy. The word ‘economical’ has come to mean ‘scarce’, ‘penny-pinching’. But in today’s gospel story, everyone didn’t have just barely enough to eat; there were twelve basketfuls left over. The ‘divine economy’ is an economy of superabundance. There are no limits to God's goodness.
Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray. When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid." Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.
His friend and cousin, the man he admired above all others, John the Baptist, had been put the death to satisfy a tyrant’s whim. Jesus wanted to be alone - to think, to mourn, to pray - but the crowds prevented him. They arrived ahead of him, preventing his being alone; and when he saw them “he took pity on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he set himself to teach them at some length” (Mk 6:34). Eventually he is free, even of the disciples. “He made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead...while he himself sent the crowds away. After saying goodbye to them he went off into the hills to pray.” These are among the most moving words in the Gospels. He needed to be alone, yet he did not put that need above all others. Grief is capable of becoming selfish, it can descend into self-pity. Nobody will risk telling a grieving person, “You need to move on.” We do not understand the human heart well enough. The best teacher is the Lord himself in his own grieving.
All the details are so realistic, so workaday. He makes arrangements, he tells them to go on ahead, you can almost see his gestures. Later he sees them from a distance and notices that they are straining at the oars because the wind is against them. He has the practised eye of a man used to boats and fishermen.
Then suddenly the realism is shattered: he comes to them walking on the water. A strange irruption into the life of common sense. It is night-time; they think it is a ghost: that at least is some kind of explanation. But it is no ghost, it is their familiar friend.
Mark says, “their minds were closed.” This is a strong expression, elsewhere used of the Pharisees (Mk 3:5; Jn 12:40). Mark likes to emphasise how little Jesus was understood. Many chapters later in the gospel the question of his identity would arise explicitly (8:28). But in this mysterious incident the crust of normal awareness is broken for a moment and Jesus appears like God dividing the Red Sea in Genesis 14.
There is another symbolic meaning easily lost to us. The Jews at that time feared the sea, and there was a popular belief that in its depths lurked Leviathan, the mythological monster of chaos. The significance of Jesus’ walking on the water then is that he has conquered evil.
Then just as quickly he is saying to them, “Courage! It is I, don’t be afraid.” They and we can take mystery only in small doses.
Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’
In the synagogues there were no professional preachers; anyone, particularly a distinguished guest, could be asked to speak. This was the beginning of Jesus's public life; it was by invitation, but it was a chapter quickly closed: as soon as he began to say things they didn't like they threw him out of the synagogue and he never returned. It tells us how egocentric a group can become, how impervious to challenge, how violent when our self-image is punctured. They were all respectable people, and he was obviously not: that was why they had to throw him out.
Religions evoke a powerful nostalgia for the past and an equally powerful longing for the future. No doubt it is good to be stretched beyond our own narrow limits. At the same time, all real religions challenge us to live vigorously in the present. But it is much easier to live in the past or future than in the present: to live in the present is to have to act, while living in the past or future is only a matter of thinking and dreaming. And much of what we call religion is an escape into the mind, where we can indulge certain feelings without having to put them to the test of reality.
Jesus took up the ancient scroll, read from it, and then said, “Today these words are coming true even as you listen!” They were not ready for that! Now they may have to do something!
Most books are about other books. If they are not referring directly to them they have them at the edge of their vision and they are quoting or half-quoting from them, agreeing or disagreeing. That's the way we are. We are a community, even when we are doing one of the loneliest things one can do: writing a book.
Jesus stood up in the synagogue and read from the book of Isaiah. The rabbis and scribes loved to quote commentary after commentary, but here there is silence as Jesus finishes. “The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” Into that dramatic moment he spoke the words, “Today these words come true even as you listen.” Not sometime in the future, not in eternity, but today. It is awkward when a book spills over into reality – into the present moment. It is as if a picture on the wall were to expand beyond its frame and its figures were to come down the wall and speak to you.
A zen master had spoken for an hour on the power of the present moment, the Now. At the end, someone said, “I like your concept of the Now!” The zen master reacted almost as if he had been struck. “It is not a concept!” he roared! ‘Now’ is reality, ‘Today’ is reality. Good news to the poor is to be a reality, freedom to the oppressed is to be a reality. This is real community, unlike the fictional community of books.
Once, when Jesus was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, "Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean." Then Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, "I do choose. Be made clean." Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. "Go," he said, "show yourself to the priest, and, as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing, for a testimony to them." But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.
“He would always go off to some place where he could be alone and pray,” another translation says. Others say often, or repeatedly. It is clear that it was his custom, not an occasional thing. This became all the more necessary as his fame increased. There has to be a balance of the private life and the public. Fame is very superficial, as Jesus had every reason to know. I saw a famous actor being interviewed on television, and I was astounded to see that he seemed to have no real life of his own: he existed only in the characters he portrayed on screen and stage; he seemed to be empty himself. Perhaps this is an advantage to an actor, but it is a terrible price to pay. Jesus has not faded into history, because he was substantial, he was not an actor. What does it say about our age that most of our great heroes are actors and entertainers?
“He doesn’t have a single unpublished thought!” someone said about some writer. There is a kind of exhibitionism that is quickly recognised. It is even more true of television and the entertainment industry. Even the humble graffiti-writer with his spray-can is seeking a degree of fame.
An exhibitionist may seem very community-oriented, but he is just the opposite. He is contributing nothing, he just wants to see his own image reflected in people’s eyes. Many people like the music of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, but the thing makes Jesus appear as just a media star who got out of his depth. Every passing age, I suppose, sees Jesus in its own terms, and ours is the age of media entertainment.
It is striking then to read that Jesus said to the leper he had just healed, “Tell this to no one.” And that “he would often withdraw to solitary places and pray.”
After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptised. John also was baptising at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptised – John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison. Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. They came to John and said to him, "Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptising, and all are going to him." John answered, "No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, 'I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.' He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease."
“Are you the boss in that place, or are you Paddy Last?” my 10-year-old nephew once asked me. Little boys only know extremes, they know nothing about playing second fiddle. Come to think of it, big boys have trouble with this too. For such a strong rough man, John the Baptist appears in the Gospel as gentle as a lamb. That has the stamp of truth on it; all posing and posturing is from the ego. John, said Jesus, was the greatest man that ever lived.
John’s gospel makes the ministries of Jesus and John the Baptist overlap, while Mark says (1:14) that it was only after John had been put in prison that Jesus began his own ministry. John’s gospel may have wanted to put them together in order to contrast them.
“No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven” (v. 27). In another translation it says: “One can lay claim only to what is given by God.” This is something you could spend days thinking about – or perhaps a lifetime. I generally lay claim only to things I believe I have achieved by my own effort. Everything else I call luck, or chance... or ‘providence’. But this reading suggests that the things most distinctively my own are the purest gift of God; the more they are mine the more they are God's, the more they are God's the more they are mine.
This is not a kind of alienation, because God is really our own, “more ours,” said Johann Tauler, “than anything else we call our own.”
10 January [The Lord’s Baptism]
John proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptised you with water; but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.’ In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
Why did Jesus wait till the age of thirty before beginning his public life? Perhaps the answer is glimpsed in today’s reading. It was not till that day by the bank of the Jordan river that he had that experience of the Spirit of God coming to rest on him. The heavens opened for him, it says; the Spirit of God’s gentleness came down and rested on him; within he heard a voice that said, “You are my beloved Son, you are chosen.” These are the kinds of expression that mystics use when trying to say what they experienced. Jesus had to wait till that experience happened. He could not force that moment: he waited on the Father’s will, as he did all his life. He did not decide wilfully to go; he was sent.
How do you recognise John the Baptist in Christian art? He’s the scruffy one - though it’s a scruffiness made genteel by generations of artists. He came from the desert, where “he wore a garment made of camel-hair…and his food was locusts and wild honey” (Mt 3:4). His message was equally rough: he didn’t begin, “My dear brothers and sisters…”; he began, “Brood of vipers…!” (Lk 3:7). Could he be the Messiah, the Promised One? Many thought he might be. This shows that they had no glamorised image of the Messiah. They expected a thrashing. God would burn up most of them up like chaff, John promised. This was a significant phrase: the Pharisees regarded the common people as chaff - empty husks. John’s words must have cut them to the bone.
John’s cousin too came from the desert, but his attitude was so different. Looking at the crowd “he felt sorry for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is rich but the labourers are few…’” (Mt 9:36). He does not see them as chaff, but as harvest - ripe and full of life. It is because he believes in us that we are able to believe in him.
After John had been arrested, Jesus went into Galilee. There he proclaimed the Good News from God. 'The time has come' he said 'and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.' As he was walking along by the Sea of Galilee he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net in the lake - for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, 'Follow me and I will make you into fishers of men'. And at once they left their nets and followed him. Going on a little further, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John; they too were in their boat, mending their nets. He called them at once and, leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the men he employed, they went after him.
John the Baptist shouted, “Repent, you brood of vipers!” Jesus said, “Repent and believe the Good News!” They had both come from the desert, from the outside. Like all outsiders they had that extra leverage. But you get the impression that John was thinking only of his listeners, while Jesus was thinking of God; there is a deeper quality of gentleness in the approach of Jesus. Sometimes, of course, we have to believe the bad news before we are ready to hear the good news. Still, I think when we make a strong effort to live the good news we find out all the bad news we need to know about ourselves. Yes, first the good news!
In this reading he calls fishermen to follow him. The New Testament is full of fish. Fish was people’s staple diet (see Mt 7:10; Mk 6:30-34; Lk 11:11; etc.). Fishing was therefore an important trade. The Jewish historian Josephus wrote that in his time there were more than 300 boats fishing on the lake of Galilee. The lakeside town Bethsaida means ‘house of fish’.
It was people who plied this ordinary trade that Jesus called; not learned scribes or professional religious people, but working men. He himself came from a no-good place, Nazareth, and he never lost the common touch. Most people are snobs in one way or another. “You can't put a great soul into a commonplace person,” wrote D.H. Lawrence; “commonplace persons have commonplace souls.” The man from Nazareth would never agree with that. He looked at broken bodies, ignorant minds, prostrated lives; he looked at loud-mouthed fishermen (those two were not called ‘sons of thunder’ for nothing), and saw greatness there. He even looked at Pharisees, who were the primary snobs of their day, and saw greatness.
The disciples went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, Jesus entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried 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.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
“He spoke as one having authority.” This expression ‘having authority’ usually means being authorised, having the right from some authority to act as one does. But the word ‘authority’ itself means just the opposite. It means to be oneself the source (the ‘author’) of one’s words and actions. Jesus spoke with authority; he was not quoting texts, like the scribes and Pharisees; he was not pulling rank on people. The best quoters are people who have no ideas of their own, just as the cruellest people often say they were acting under authority. But Jesus was his own man. That is what attracted people to him.
“The earth was literally a hell,” wrote someone describing the belief in evil spirits in Jesus's time. The air was thought to be full of them. They were believed to cause physical and mental illness when they gained access to a person.
The synagogue was a place of teaching; there was no music, no sacrifice (that was in the Temple). But in casting out demons, Jesus was doing something for people; he wasn't just discoursing on the Law, as the scribes did endlessly. When Jesus frequented synagogues (before they expelled him and he never returned) he didn't just preach; he healed people’s tortured minds and bodies; he restored their strength to them.
Sometimes preachers disable people, by a habit of denunciation, by forever enjoining obedience, quoting rules.... But listen to Jesus preaching. And also look. See what happens when he comes near people.
I pity the man who had to preach in that synagogue on the following Saturday. I know how it feels: I have often had to speak after great people finished speaking. You feel about the size of a mouse, and very uninspired; all your ideas suddenly seem half-baked. Many years ago, during the lifetime of Bernard Leach (the greatest Western craft potter of modern times), a ceramics teacher showed slides of Leach’s work to his own students. To his surprise and disappointment they made almost no comment…. But he noticed that from that time on they kept few of their own pieces. That is what happens when you see the work of a master.
On leaving the synagogue, Jesus went with James and John straight to the house of Simon and Andrew. Now Simon's mother-in-law had gone to bed with fever, and they told him about her straightaway. He went to her, took her by the hand and helped her up. And the fever left her and she began to wait on them. That evening, after sunset, they brought to him all who were sick and those who were possessed by devils. The whole town came crowding round the door, and he cured many who were suffering from diseases of one kind or another; he also cast out many devils, but he would not allow them to speak, because they knew who he was. Jesus quietly leaves Capernaum and travels through Galilee. In the morning, long before dawn, he got up and left the house, and went off to a lonely place and prayed there. Simon and his companions set out in search of him, and when they found him they said, 'Everybody is looking for you'. He answered, 'Let us go elsewhere, to the neighbouring country towns, so that I can preach there too, because that is why I came'. And he went all through Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out devils.
At the time of Jesus, the popular belief was that the air was thick with evil spirits or demons, ready to get inside you at every opportunity, especially when you eat, causing physical and spiritual havoc. What they said about them was in many ways quite like what we say nowadays about microbes. We say such things as, “I caught the ‘flu,” and we think it a very precise expression; but ‘flu is short for influenza, an Italian word which just means ‘influence’. “I have an influence” - something has ‘flown into’ me - a very imprecise expression: in fact, hardly more explanatory than ‘evil spirit’. Scholars ask if Jesus shared this popular belief, and many are inclined to say no. No doubt he saw beyond all so-called explanations of illnesses; he saw human beings suffering and he went to their aid.
Mothers-in-law get a very bad press in world literature. “Give up all hope of peace so long as your mother-in-law is alive,” wrote Juvenal, around the end of the first century. It makes you curious to know what a first-century Roman mother-in-law was like. Well, we know a little about one: Peter’s wife’s mother. We know about her that she once had a fever. It is little enough: it must be true of everyone that ever lived. But we also know that Jesus healed her. And we know that the moment she was healed she began to serve them. This has its own significance: those who are healed by Christ begin straight away, as by some deep instinct, to serve the community.
When fame begins to catch up on him Jesus heads for the mountains or for a lonely place (Mk 1:35; Lk 5:16; 6:12; Jn 6:3, 15). See also tomorrow’s reading. In today's reading, when they told him everyone was looking for him he said, ‘Let’s go somewhere else.’ There is a wrong kind of fame. Someone famously said that nowadays everyone can be famous for a quarter of an hour. Many people do everything they can to be famous, and some even resort to criminal acts. Having perhaps a deficient sense of identity they crave notice: the notice of a crowd will persuade them that they exist. But on a smaller scale we all want to have our existence noted by at least a few people. Anyone who can live even for a while in a desert must have (or must develop) a powerful sense of their own existence. More profoundly they discover that their existence is not just a dull fact but a mysterious activity welling up from God moment by moment. Some people discover this in the desert of a prison, but all of us can discover it in a moment of solitude.
A leper came to Jesus begging him, and kneeling he said to him, "If you choose, you can make me clean." Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, "I do choose. Be made clean!" Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, "See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them." But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.
Many people have spoken and written about alienation, the modern illness. The psychologist R.D. Laing wrote, “No one can begin to think, feel or act now except from the starting point of his or her own alienation.” Another psychologist, Erich Fromm, wrote, “Alienation as we find it in modern society is almost total; it pervades the relationship of man to his work, to the things he consumes, to the state, to his fellow man, and to himself.” Does the Gospel, so ancient, have anything to say to this modern condition? I think yes. Lepers were the alienated people in Jesus’ time: they had to live outside society and shout ‘Unclean!’ when they saw anyone coming near. We meet one in today’s Gospel passage. “Jesus was moved with pity for him, stretched out his hand and touched him,” healing him. When you feel all alone in the world and meaningless, feel his hand on your shoulder.
Leprosy terrified the ancient world; it was seen by Rabbis as “a special scourge from God” and “a living death”. More than other diseases, it was seen to be a punishment for sin; and Mark speaks of it as demonic possession. The repulsive physical aspect of the disease lent credence to this. To heal a leper, then, was to show a power approaching the divine. Scholars say that the words “he sternly warned him” in v. 43, which seem emotionally so inappropriate, are in fact addressed to the demon that had just been expelled, and not to the pitiful man who had just been healed.
Sometimes you hear a person say, “I felt like a leper!” No need to look at their skin, though, or to count their fingers; what they are saying is that they felt isolated or completely discredited. In that sense the world is still full of lepers. There are lepers in every parish and there may even be a leper or two in one’s own house. A young man said to me recently that he felt like a leper in his own family. People were steering around him, he said; no one ever asked him what he thought or how he felt. It is one thing to choose to be alone (see yesterday’s reading), but to be cast into isolation is another. We are social beings by nature, and it requires great strength to be alone; nor is it always a good thing. What can you do for someone who feels isolated but to reach out and touch them? You are more than just you when you do that: you are society, you are community, you are the Church, you are the human race. One may even say you are Jesus. “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.”
When Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralysed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, ‘Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven”, or to say, “Stand up and take your mat and walk”? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ — he said to the paralytic — ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’ And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’
“There is nothing hidden but it must be disclosed,” Jesus said once, “nothing kept secret except to be brought to light” (Mk 4:22). How is a thought, for example, brought to light? By becoming an action. Thought is a kind of incipient action: when it is full-blown it is an action. The Japanese Zen Master Deshimaru, who lived about fifteen years in France, said that western culture had become weak and decadent. We have been weakened, he said, by excessive use of the mind and imagination, without action. Of course we are active, but it is nervous activism, which can be a flight from real action. We don’t bring our deepest thoughts to fruition in action, we complicate them so much that we can scarcely even understand them ourselves. Thinking become so specialised that only philosophers can engage in it, and they become professors rather than doers. Meanwhile the doers dive into activism. You have lost the run of yourselves, he said.
Jesus wasn’t thinking about sin as a concept, he saw it as a crippling thing. “Is it easier to say to this paralysed man: Your sins are forgiven, or to say: Rise, take up your mat and walk?” Then he said, “Stand up!” And the man stood up and walked.
Jesus went out again beside the lake; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.
And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax-collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax-collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ When Jesus heard this, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’
Levi (also known as Bartholomew) was still working at his rotten job when Jesus called him. It was an ugly exploitative job: he and his likes were shunned by Pharisees and befriended by nobody. But Jesus didn’t wait till Levi had turned his back on his old way of life. He called him while he was “sitting in his office,” totting up his profits, it may be, for he was a tax collector. What do we see next? A whole crowd of tax collectors, having a meal – and Jesus in the middle of them. And for good measure there were some public sinners there too. In those days, to sit at table with someone was to express unrestricted friendship with them. What were they talking about? Try and imagine that!
17 January [2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time]
John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, "Look, here is the Lamb of God!" The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, "What are you looking for?" They said to him, "Rabbi" (which translated means Teacher), "where are you staying?" He said to them, "Come and see." They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o'clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, "We have found the Messiah" (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him an said, "You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas" (which is translated Peter).
This reading is like rush-hour. It is full of names, there are lots of people passing by, happening to bump into one another, overhearing a few words by chance. The snippets of conversation are brief in the extreme, and practical: 'What are you looking for?' 'Where are you staying?' - like the conversation on a crowded street. And just like people in rush-hour they were conscious of the time: "it was about 4 o'clock."
Then suddenly, silence. "They remained with him that day." There is no crowd, no consciousness of time, no account of what they talked about, no description of the place where they sat together. But whatever happened that afternoon changed the lives of Andrew and his companion forever, and started a development that is still in process twenty centuries later all over the world.
"They remained with him that day." In fact they remained with him for the rest of their lives. Their relationship to him would become their new identity, as it would become the new identity of Andrew's brother Peter, and of their circle of friends. We know that, but of course they didn’t know it at the time. Nor could they know that countless others through the ages would cling to this new identity and disclaim all others. The historian Eusebius of Caesarea described the martyrdom of a Christian in Gaul under Verus in the 2nd century. "He endured in an extraordinary fashion all the outrages inflicted on him. While the torturers hoped to wring something from him which he ought not to say, he girded himself against them with such firmness that he would not even tell his name, or the nation or city to which he belonged, or whether he was a slave or a freeman, but answered in the Roman tongue to all their questions, 'I am a Christian', Christianus sum. He professed this instead of name and city and race and everything besides, and the people heard from him no other word." This new identity was the only one he claimed, and it was indestructible.
It is a fundamental question for every person in every age: which of the many identities that I claim, and of the many that are thrust on me, is indestructible? The consumerist society identifies me as a consumer, politicians as a voter, lawyers as a client, shopkeepers as a customer, television companies as a viewer, and even football clubs as a fan…. All of these, singly, are highly volatile and easily destructible; but together they can be a great distraction from the real question: to what or to whom do I give my life? They are the new 'crowd', the rush-hour that never ceases. Like Andrew and his companion I need a quiet hour, a quiet evening, in which the Lord can ask me, "What are you looking for?"
Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, ‘Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding-guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day. ‘No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.’
There are very good reasons why a Christian disciple might fast. But they are reasons; they are not a gloomy and miserly attitude that can appear very religious while being nothing of the sort. A reason applies at one time and not at another, but an attitude goes on forever. People who are capable of the deepest joy are also capable of the deepest sadness, because they are responding to life as it comes. But others become mired forever in a half-way place, experiencing neither joy nor sorrow. Joy is the chief characteristic of a Christian – “joy even in tribulation,” as Tauler said – and one of the first fruits of the Spirit (see Gal 5:2).
“No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins.” We need a new mind, he says: one that is flexible like a new wineskin. There are things that cannot be repaired, only replaced. I run occasional workshops where I teach people how to make ceramic pieces on the potter’s wheel. It is not an easy skill to learn, and typically the beginner’s pieces spin off centre and collapse. There is no way that even the most skilled potter in the world could retrieve a collapsed lump of clay; what you have to do is put it aside to be wedged and kneaded before being reused later on, and begin with a new lump of clay. But people never want to do that! They continue forlornly with the collapsed lump, with everything against them, with no encouragement from me and with no hope in their hearts. It is very painful to watch. Better to put the mess aside and begin afresh. It is good advice in many other situations too: the Lord said, “Don't sew new cloth onto an old coat.” We need a new mind, a different way of looking.
One sabbath Jesus was going through the grain-fields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, "Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?" And he said to them, "Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions." Then he said to them, "The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath."
The Sabbath was a day of rest not only for Israelites but also for their slaves and farm animals: people were to have a heart, they were to remember that they themselves were once slaves in Egypt. But it became a rigid observance, a regulation that took on absolute importance. In the early centuries Jews who had become Christians had a hard time wriggling free of it. In a letter written sometime between 70 and 200 A.D. Barnabas (not the apostle) used all his ingenuity, saying that yes we are to observe the Sabbath, just as God rested on the seventh day after the six days of creation. But with God, he said (quoting psalm 90), “a thousand years are like a single day.” Therefore you can observe your Sabbath, he told them, in several thousand years’ time! Christians gave up observing the Sabbath and celebrated instead the Day of the Lord’s Resurrection. It was a way of saying that the power of Christ to raise us up is more important than our own rituals and our own attempts to save ourselves.
Picking ears of standing corn with the hand (not with a sickle) as you walked through a neighbour’s field was permitted in the Jewish scriptures (Deut 23:26). The Pharisees’ objection, therefore, was not to the act itself, but to the fact that it was done on the sabbath. They considered this simple act of plucking a few heads of corn as a five-fold breach of the Law: reaping, threshing, winnowing, bearing a burden and preparing a meal.
To Luke’s version of this incident, one manuscript adds an interesting (but the scholars say probably spurious) saying: “On the same day, seeing a man working on the sabbath day, he said to him, ‘Friend, if you know what you are doing, you are blessed; but if you do not know, you are accursed as a breaker of the Law.’” In a Zen monastery I once saw a piece of calligraphy that said, “If you break the law you will never attain freedom.” Grim but true, I thought. Then, underneath, part two, “If you keep the law you will never attain freedom.”
I knew a canon lawyer who used to say, There are two kinds of canon lawyer: the one who studies the law in order to tie you down with it, and the one who studies it in order to set you free. He himself was the latter kind. It sounded somewhat seditious in a Church lawyer! Yet, as he loved to point out, in Latin the Code of Canon Law is called ‘codex iuris canonici’; and the word ‘ius’ (genitive: ‘iuris’) does not mean ‘law’ but ‘right’. Canonical Rights. It is about defending your rights.
Jesus never bound people up with the Law; in fact he accused the Pharisees of doing just this. "Woe to you lawyers also! for you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them” (Lk 11:46). In today’s reading he scanned history to find exceptions to the law against working on the Sabbath, and he found them! Then he made the most radical statement about law and law-making: the Law is for human beings, not human beings for the Law. He said this in relation to the Sabbath, which was no corporation bye-law, but a law of divine origin (Exodus 20:10). The deepest intention of the Law is to set you free. When you think about it, this is not so surprising. Surely God wants to set you free: your freedom is God's gift. Jesus came “to set captives free” (Lk 4:18).
Jesus entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
The Gospels record a few occasions on which Jesus became angry. Once, it was in the Temple when he chased out the traders. The other occasion is the one we read about in today’s passage. He became angry because people had closed their minds. What can you do with people who have closed their minds? It is useless to argue or explain: they will not listen. You can only become angry! Even Jesus could not think of another way. There are many who think that being a good Catholic is a matter of keeping a closed mind, not listening to speakers or writers who are not approved, rejecting other people’s views in advance. They build their own image of a sweet Jesus, always meek and mild. Would that we could sometimes see his anger! Mark is the only gospel-writer who mentions the anger of Jesus. Of course John mentions that he drove the buyers and sellers out of the Temple (Jn 2:15), but he doesn’t say explicitly that he was angry. Another small but distinctive thing in Mark’s gospel: he often says that Jesus “looked around” (3:34; 5:32; 10:23; 11:11). In today's reading you get both, “he looked around at them with anger.” Many pictures of Jesus have him looking up at the sky with a sad sentimental look on his face. Have you ever seen a picture of him looking around with anger? I haven't. Such a picture would never become popular, but it would at least show that we weren't restricting Jesus to being merely ‘nice’. (Incidentally, in Middle English the word ‘nice’ meant ‘stupid’.)
Why was he so furious? “Because they had closed their minds,” this translation says. “Because of their hard-heartedness,” says another. These only seem different. The mind is open by its nature; it is the heart that closes the mind. These sullen people in front of him had no feeling for people, no love; and so their minds were closed. Love is an opening, a kind of wound. Julian of Norwich prayed for “the wound of true compassion.” God grant that we may never be healed of it!
Jesus departed with his disciples to the sea, and a great multitude from Galilee followed him; hearing all that he was doing, they came to him in great numbers from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and the region around Tyre and Sidon. He told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, so that they would not crush him; for he had cured many, so that all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him. Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, "You are the Son of God!" But he sternly ordered them not to make him known.
Today’s passage conveys an impression of a mass-movement: huge crowds of people coming from all over Galilee, from Judea in the south, from far-flung places like Idumaea, bordering Arabia, and from Phoenicia; the precaution of a boat was lest he should be crushed by the press of the crowd. “You are the Son of God!” people shouted in their enthusiasm. This was not a profession of faith in his divinity but a common phrase that meant ‘close to God’. But “he warned them sternly not to make him known.” Why? Had he not come to bring the Good News of the Kingdom? Why the secrecy? Clearly because the people’s idea of the Kingdom differed so far from his that their mass-enthusiasm could only bring him trouble. It was a time of volatile political passions, and his interest was not politics but something far deeper. There is a kind of Christian advertising (let’s not call it preaching) that has none of the depth of Gospel. The wrong kind of enthusiasm is no help whatever to the Kingdom of God. This is a good reading for people who tend to over-stretch themselves and feel guilty if they are not always working frantically. More is not necessarily better. It doesn’t flatter the ego to say so, but sometimes the best thing you can do for others is to rest and keep silent. Even Jesus had to leave many things undone.
In the world of advertising, there has to be as much initial coverage as possible, even to the point of saturation. Advertising campaigns are planned and executed like a military assault. Some companies mount the assault first, then gauge the response, and only if the response is good do they finally make the product. In other words, the advertising is literally about nothing.
The way of the Gospel is the opposite of this. Everything begins on a small scale: Jesus spoke of seeds hidden in the ground. Seeds are very small, but they are not nothing; they are a tremendous something; to understand even a single seed in its very essence would be to understand the universe.
Jesus went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons. So he appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); and Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. Then he went home.
I have a large cross illustrated in the Coptic style; one of the panels shows Jesus with the Twelve. There is nothing remarkable about that - except that all thirteen have haloes, so that must include Judas too.
We have perhaps been too ready to write off Judas. But if Judas is a complete write-off, then so are we all. Jesus spent the night in prayer and then called Judas (among others) to be a follower; and Judas followed. Later he made that tragic mistake - due perhaps to his eagerness to get Jesus to act, rather than to a desire to betray him. If he acted only out of greed for money, then he should have been happy when he had that money in his pocket. Instead he was plunged into despair and he took his own life. A mere greed for money could never explain his suicide. He was a more complex man than that. Aren’t we all?
Sometimes I have to scratch my head to think what to say to you about the day’s reading. When nothing comes I begin to look for ‘polarities’: opposites that make the text somehow three-dimensional and rising off the page. What caught my eye in this reading was the polarity of “to be with him” and “to send them out.” If he wanted them to be with him, why did he send them out?
Mark often uses this phrase ‘to be with (him)’: 2:19; 4:36; 5:18; 14:14, 67; 15:41. It is said to be almost his definition of discipleship. Peter was Mark’s source, and Peter wrote about the time “when we were with him on the holy mountain” (2 Peter 1:18). In today’s reading, too, it is a mountain (well… a hill). To be a disciple is to be with him on the holy mountain of prayer and meditation. But neither he nor they stayed forever on the mountain; they “went out” to the whole world. Every disciple is called not only to be with him but to go out to others. Prayer and action, said St Catherine of Siena, are like our two feet: we need them both if we are to follow the Way.
Jesus went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’
I knew a man who had spent a year or two in a psychiatric hospital. On his discharge he went drinking with his old friends. When a dispute arose between them, one of them dismissed some opinion of his by saying he was only a lunatic anyway. “On the contrary,” he replied, “I’m the only one here who can prove that he’s sane!” “Prove it then!” they challenged. He invited bets, and when he had secured bets of several beers he put his hand in his pocket and drew out the certificate of discharge from the psychiatric hospital. It stated there in black and white that he was sane.
Who is sane and who is mad? Today’s reading is ambiguous, though the translations all opt for interpreting that it was Jesus who was mad. Was Jesus mad? Or was the crowd mad? This reading could be taken either way. In Greek the word for ‘he’ and the word ‘it’ are the same; so it could read, “His relatives came to take charge of him because it (the crowd) was out of its mind.” Many people would be sorry to exclude Jesus from the long list of mad saints and saintly comedians and idiots. (The main character in Dostoyevsky's novel, ‘The Idiot’, is a Jesus figure.)
What is madness but a definition by some group who are probably madder themselves? In the 4th century, Abba Antony, the founder of monasticism, said: “A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, ‘You are mad, you are not like us.’”
But what’s the difference? If Jesus is described as mad and the crowd as sane, or if Jesus is described as sane and the crowd as mad, the contrast between them is the same. And who’s calling Jesus mad? The crowd! So you have a choice: do you want to identify with the crowd calling Jesus mad, or with Jesus calling the crowd mad? Who do you believe in your heart of hearts?
“On how to sing,
The frog school and the skylark school
Are arguing.” (Shiki)
24 January [3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time]
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea – for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
In all three readings at today's Mass there is a sense of time running out. "Only forty more days…" shouted Jonah (1st reading). "Our time is growing short," wrote Paul (2nd reading). "The time has come," said Jesus (gospel reading).
Everything in this world is transitory. We are not the first people in the world to think that everything is changing and that nothing remains the same. An ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, writing about 500 BC, said, "Everything changes and nothing remains the same…. You cannot step twice in the same river, for the waters are perpetually flowing upon you…."
Since Alvin Toffler's Future Shock in the 1960s and his Third Wave a decade later, we have come to realise that change feeds on itself: not only is change accelerating but the rate of acceleration is accelerating. Most of our new inventions (and not only computers) are in the service of greater speed.
Jesus lived in tumultuous times, and his country was one of the cross-roads of the world. The people were on fire with revolutionary ideas. Into this atmosphere Jesus announced, "The time has come!" There is a kind of breathless haste in Mark's gospel. He tells the story as a child in crisis might. Phrases like 'straightaway' and 'immediately' occur almost 30 times; in chapter 3 there are 34 phrases and sentences one after another beginning with 'and'. He also loves to use the 'historic present': "Jesus sends two disciples and says to them…" (11:1-2). (This is not always preserved in translations.) The cumulative effect of this is a feeling that there is no time to waste.
No people were ever so well-placed as we are to realise that "the time is short," "the time is come." But what are we rushing towards? What is the future into which we are accelerating? For many, it is a launch into nowhere; it is like those expensive rockets into empty space. We are not so much intent on getting somewhere as on getting away. On the grand scale, when climate change becomes truly alarming we start dreaming about colonising Mars. On the small scale, when we get bored at home we go somewhere "just to get away." We have never had such capabilities of moving and changing, but we don’t know where we are going, or why we should go anywhere.
As in last Sunday's readings, the question the Lord would ask us is, "What are you looking for?"
25 January [Conversion of St Paul]
Jesus said, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptised will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.’
Jews look to Jerusalem, Muslims to Mecca, but Christians are not asked to regard any city as more sacred than another (Rome has quite a different meaning for Christians than has Jerusalem for Jews or Mecca for Muslims). Christians were sent out to the whole world and were not told to look back. We are free in many more ways than we want to be. There is a hymn that says, “Let us build the city of God....” Don’t look for plans; your own village is the city of God. The city of God is not made of stones but of people, “living stones” (1 Peter 2:5).
What are we to make of those “signs that will accompany those who believe”? St Augustine (354–430) gave a broad, imaginative, profound, and very sensible interpretation of them. “What else are hearing, reading and remembering, than several stages of ‘drinking’ thoughts? The Lord, however, foretold concerning his faithful followers, that even ‘if they should drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them.’” Then he adds that if they read with discrimination, even if what they read is false, it will not poison them. “Even if they commit to their memory heretical statements which are declared to be worthy of disapproval, they receive no harm from the poisonous and depraved nature of these sentences.” The implication is that they can go out not only to the whole geographical world but also to the whole intellectual and cultural world without fear.
Gregory the Great (540-604) was at pains to play down the importance of these signs. “Is it because we do not have these signs that you do not believe? These were needed at the church’s beginning. The new faith needed to be nourished by miracles to grow. When we plant a vineyard, we must water the plants till we see they have begun to grow in the earth, and when they have once taken root we cease to water them constantly…. But true life cannot be obtained by means of these outward signs by those who perform them. For although corporeal works of this kind sometimes do proclaim an inner holiness of life, they do not bring it about.”
These two ancient figures have more common sense than many of us today who look for ‘signs’, apparitions, messages….
Jesus’ mother and brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’
People sometimes take this passage to mean that Jesus was in some way making little of his mother. Put beside it the passage where he said to her at Cana, “Woman, what is that to me?” and the case seems proven. But it is not so. ‘Woman’ was in fact a term of respect; and in today’s passage he was raising others to his mother’s status, surely, not lowering her to theirs. The man or woman who lives by the will of God is a familiar of Jesus, a member of his family, as sometimes a family will take you right into its heart. When you visit there you feel utterly at home and you don't have to watch every word you say; you can take your shoes off, you can talk with those people till the small hours; you are one of the family.
If indeed Jesus’ family thought he was mad (see Jan. 23), then they belonged to those who “stood outside.” Belonging to the same family or race as Jesus does not make one a disciple (see Mt 3:9). Not that, but doing the will of God. This was the passion of his life; anyone who was not part of that was not part of him. In the agony of Gethsemani he was able to say, “Not my will but yours be done.” In him the passion to do the Father’s will was deeper than death; it is not surprising then that it should also be deeper than birth and natural life.
How many things are deeper than birth and death? Or more practically, what would I live and die for? “Nothing to live or die for,” sang John Lennon, imagining an ideal world. It was a sort of negative ideal. Ideals can have a crushing weight, and they make us painfully aware of our own fragility. When Vincent McNabb was asked in Hyde Park, London, what he would do if he was faced with martyrdom, he replied, “I’d probably deny the Faith immediately!” He knew that in the real world, as distinct from the ideal, everything is grace when it comes to the crunch. “Nothing to live and die for” is not a description of an ideal world but precisely the opposite: a world without an ideal. Better to be a failure (under grace) in the real world than to imagine one where it is impossible to fail because there is nothing at which to succeed.
Jesus began to teach beside the lake. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the lake and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the lake on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ And he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’
When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that “they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.” ’
And he said to them, ‘Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’
In Greek, the words for symbol (symbolos) and for devil (diabolos) come from the same root, ballein, ‘to throw’. A symbol puts things together, but the devil’s work is disintegration, throwing things apart. The word for parable too (parabola) has the same root: to put things beside each other. Jesus taught in parables; he taught people to connect different parts of their experience: to look at the physical world—at a farmer sowing seed, for example—and to see that this is how God comes to birth in the human heart. “By day, by night, while he is asleep, while he is awake, the seed is sprouting and growing, how he does not know” (Mk 4:27); likewise the Kingdom of God is coming to birth mysteriously in the world. The obstacles to it we know only too well: the stony ground of the heart, the weeds that overgrow the human spirit, the interior disintegration, the unwillingness to look, to see parables all around.
Again a reference to “those outside” (see Jan. 23 and yesterday’s reading). But he will not reject those outsiders and shape his own followers into a narrow circle, a cult. No, he will teach them in parables: that is, with stories, images. Jesus was a consummate story-teller; some of his stories are among the greatest in any literature, and would be remembered even if he wasn’t who he was. Abstract statements you either understand right away or you fail to understand. You have to catch them in the air when they’re flying; you get no second chance. But a story stays with you even if you don’t grasp its full meaning. It waits for you, it gives you time. It is the part of courtesy to wait for people who cannot move fast. Think of parables as part of the courtesy of Jesus. He is waiting for your mind to open, your spirit to deepen. And that's the point of this particular parable: the readiness of the soil makes all the difference.
Jesus said, "Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!" And he said to them, "Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away."
Every language has its own homespun wisdom, and this is often best seen in its proverbs. In Irish, for example, “A friend’s eye is a good mirror.” “Don’t break your shin on a stool that isn't in your way.” “A wild goose never laid a tame egg.” “Winter comes fast on the lazy.” “The herb that can't be got is the one that brings relief.” “The person who brings a story to you will take two away.” “The man who was dividing Ireland didn’t leave himself last.” “No man ever wore a cravat as nice as his own child’s arm around his neck.” “He that is bad at giving a lodging is good at showing the road.” “A person often ties a knot with his tongue that can’t be loosened with his teeth.” “When you go forth to find a wife, leave your eyes at home and take your two ears with you.” “It’s no delay to stop and edge the tool.” “Time and patience will bring the snail to Jerusalem.” And so on and on endlessly!
Jesus quoted two proverbs from his own language in this passage, “No one lights a lamp to put it under a tub,” and “The measure you give is the measure you get.” Don’t ask me to add a commentary to them: proverbs are well able to speak for themselves.
“Whatever is hidden will be disclosed,” he said. “Murder will out,” we say. So will everything: This means that there is no fundamental difference between the inside and the outside. There is an early Christian writing known as the Second Letter of Clement, in which you find the following. “When the Lord himself was asked by someone when his Kingdom would come, he said: ‘when the two shall be one, and the outside as the inside....’ By ‘the outside as the inside’ he means this, that the inside is the soul and the outside is the body. Therefore, just as your body is visible, so let your soul be apparent in your good works” (12:2-4).
Jesus said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come." He also said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade." With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
Jesus was sparing with explanations. The word ‘explanation’ comes from ‘planus’, a Latin word that means ‘flat’. To explain is to flatten out. (This makes better sense when you remember that Scriptures used to be written on scrolls, not in books.) Jesus did not do a lot of explaining; he did not flatten out the meaning of our existence; instead he gave it a third or perhaps an nth dimension. He refused to be drawn into explanations in John 3:5 and 6:53. In today’s reading he says the Kingdom of God comes in ways too subtle to detect or control. Thank God there are things not subject to human will!
Experimental psychologists discovered that the autonomic systems in the body are not so independent in their operation after all; they can be taught to do things! Rats have been taught to speed up or slow down their hearts at a signal, or to alter their blood pressure, or to switch off certain brain waves and switch on others. The human applications are endless. What do you think of it? Would it be better if we were able to control everything? The unflattering truth is that our gall bladders and livers (for example) are much more intelligent than we are, and left to themselves they do their complex work infinitely better than if we were interfering with them. Likewise all the other parts of us. To have full control of everything that happens in you would be like having an airline pilot hand you the controls of the aircraft at 39,000 feet and jump out with a parachute. Thank God there are many things not subject to human will! The deeper one goes, the less subject. At the deepest level of all, the “Kingdom of God” (the Presence of God) is a mystery that unfolds gradually, mysteriously, how we don’t know....
For ‘kingdom’ say ‘presence’. Then read it again. "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” The seeds of awareness of God are in us. They will not suddenly leap into the air, bypassing all stages of growth, and fill the grain-loft to the door. Instead they will lie in the damp earth, lost and forgotten, seeming dead. But the miracle of life is happening there where no one can see and no one can understand or explain. Then the most vulnerable part appears just above the ground. It has no defences, it doesn’t find itself in a glasshouse; it is exposed to everything that could happen to it. That's life. Only love could take such risks.
In this parable Jesus says that the presence of God is like that. Now, for ‘presence of God’ just say ‘God’. God doesn’t appear with flashes of lightning and claps of thunder. God appears slowly, microscopically, humbly, tenderly…. Our part is to wait, to listen, to have the wise humility of the earth, and to have faith and hope and love.
On that day, when evening had come, Jesus said, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’
“Why are you frightened? Have you no faith?” In this passage, as in many others in the Gospels, we see fear and faith contrasted as opposites. What kind of fear? Not the natural instinct, which is part of our equipment for survival, both as individuals and as a species. Not the gift of the Holy Spirit called ‘fear of the Lord’ (that is, filial, not slavish fear). It is neurotic fear, the natural instinct gone bad, fear that is no longer your helper but your enemy, fear that sees nothing but danger everywhere and makes you run, fear that has turned back on you and wants nothing to happen in your life, good or bad. This is perhaps one of the greatest enemies of faith. If you want to know what are the next steps in faith for you, look at your fears! They will tell you, just as hunger tells you something about food, weariness about rest, death about life.
A small boat crossing a stormy lake: what a perfect image of human existence! And Jesus asleep at the back: a common experience! St Thérèse of Lisieux had this experience for most of her short life, she tells us. “Jesus was asleep in my little boat,” she says casually here and there. It didn't dismay her; she wasn't greedy for high experiences; she accepted it completely. “I think he comes to me to rest,” she said, “other people give him no rest at all!” This is how she made sense of the intense spiritual darkness that she lived in, ‘the dark night of the soul.’ She has much to teach us who are impatient to lift ourselves up and ‘manage’ our spiritual lives.
31 January [4th Sunday in Ordinary Time]
They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried 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." But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, "What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him." At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
Jesus taught "with authority," that is, he was the author of what he said; it never became his habit to quote rabbis and other authors, as the scribes used to do (see Jan. 12). His message itself, too, must have had its own inherent authority (though Mark does not tell us anything here about its content). What he said, if we are to guess from all the gospels, went straight to the hearts of his listeners. The only rhetorical devise we know he used was the parable. A parable is not an interpretation of some text, it is a fresh way of looking at ordinary experience. His parables were drawn from the world of farming, fishing, viniculture…their world. It is inherently subversive to show people that their ordinary experience can be an open path to God; the scribes of every age would prefer that only their sacred text should do this. People realised that here was a teacher who understood and respected them, and not a scribe discharging his erudition over them. They were "astonished," because this was so unusual.
His teaching had authority in a further sense: it made things happen. He cast out demons. In other words he liberated people who were tormented and demented in every way. "Poetry makes nothing happen," wrote W.H. Auden, in a poem about Yeats. But it does, as Yeats himself knew when he wrote, "Did that play of mine send out certain men the English shot?" When preaching is only commentary it seldom makes anything happen. But when Jesus preaches "the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them" (Luke 7:22). In Matthew 11:5 the description is identical, word for word. These were of the Messianic age: in other words, they were indications that Jesus was indeed the long-awaited one, the Messiah.
In today's reading, the demon which is being cast out shouts, "I know who you are, the Holy One of God." This may sound like a profession of faith, but how could it be? Instead it was a reflection of the belief that if you could name someone you had power over them. This was the significance of Jesus' asking a particularly intractable demon, later on in Mark's gospel, "What is your name?" (5:9).
Jesus did not disrespect the Scriptures; he used them for their intended purpose, to set people free, not to tie them up. "To be ignorant of the Scriptures is to be ignorant of Christ," wrote St Jerome (c. 347 - 419 AD). We could add that the converse is equally true: to be ignorant of Christ is to be ignorant of the Scriptures. If we did not read them in the spirit of Christ we would be certain to misuse them. "If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:36).