Speak Lord: News and Good!

 

DSC06301The beginning of the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It is written in the book of the prophet Isaiah:

Look, I am going to send my messenger before you;
he will prepare your way.
A voice cries in the wilderness:
Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight.

and so it was that John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. All Judaea and all the people of Jerusalem made their way to him, and as they were baptised by him in the river Jordan they confessed their sins. John wore a garment of camel-skin, and he lived on locusts and wild honey. In the course of his preaching he said, ‘Someone is following me, someone who is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals. I have baptised you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.’

Gospel for the Second Sunday of Advent
Mark 1:1-8

It begins…

Ansd with what confidence and assurance Mark’s Gospel begins.

So much of the Gospel is concerned with challenge, failure, confusion and ambiguity, but there is no doubt that Mark is very clear about the importance of what he speaks and of whom he speaks. This is Gospel, and this is about the Son of God, and it is fulfilment of prophecy.

And the Gospel begins with ALL responding to John, welcoming the one who prepares the way, ALL of Judaea and ALL of Jerusalem make their way to him.

What follows in the 16 chapters of this the shortest Gospel demonstrates how hard it is for many of these to accept the newness of the Gospel and to let go of old ways that hide the glory of God and thwart his will.

As then, so now… We may find ourselves to be faithful to our religion and its expectations, but are we faithful to the love of God and neighbour? That’s the question.

  • So, are you, and how do you know?
  • If you are not, and are ashamed of that, then this is the Gospel for you, to encourage repentance and to instil fresh hope and even courage…

John the Baptist. St John Lateran, Rome. (c) 2016, Allen Morris

 

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Speak Lord: Of strength and weakness

The GoSt Peterspel reading on Sunday, the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time, brings us to the very centre of Mark’s Gospel. It is literally the very middle of his text; and also the passage engages with the very core of the message of Mark – the tension between the glory of faith and faithfulness and the experience of the persecution and death of Jesus, and the continuing experience of persecution in the Church.

Jesus and his disciples left for the villages round Caesarea Philippi. On the way he put this question to his disciples, ‘Who do people say I am?’ And they told him. ‘John the Baptist,’ they said ‘others Elijah; others again, one of the prophets.’ ‘But you,’ he asked ‘who do you say I am?’ Peter spoke up and said to him, ‘You are the Christ.’ And he gave them strict orders not to tell anyone about him.

And he began to teach them that the Son of Man was destined to suffer grievously, to be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and to be put to death, and after three days to rise again; and he said all this quite openly. Then, taking him aside, Peter started to remonstrate with him. But, turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said to him, ‘Get behind me, Satan! Because the way you think is not God’s way but man’s.’

He called the people and his disciples to him and said, ‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’

Mark 8:27-35

Peter welcomes the Gospel of Glory – that Jesus is the Christ. Peter cannot accept the Cross, and in his rejection of the Cross, Peter is renamed Satan by Jesus!

Mark is believed to have written his Gospel, informed directly by his hearing the reminiscences of St Peter. He writes in the wake not only of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the subsequent martyrdom of St Peter. It is believed that many in his first audience were survivors of the persecution of the Church in Rome, and not a few of them survivors because they denied the faith or fled.

The Church is a community of sinners (and therefore in some sense failures) but the Church is not always comfortable in admitting it, not least to itself. Mark confronts us with the challenge of getting real about ourselves and how it is through such defeats that we become more and more fit for sharing in the triumph that is ours, not by our success, but by the Glory of Christ, crucified but now risen from the dead.

  • How have I learnt from failure?
  • What I have I failed to learn from my failures?
  • How can I share what I have learnt?

St Peter, depicted on the Syon Cope, in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London © 2015, Allen Morris.

Speak Lord: Call us to truth

Christ the lawgiverThe Gospel reading on Sunday, the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, sees us return to the reading of Mark’s Gospel, which is characteristic of the Sunday Lectionary in this Year B of the Cycle.

And the reading returns us to scenes of controversy and tension between Jesus and the Pharisees and scribes…

The Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered round Jesus, and they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with unclean hands, that is, without washing them. For the Pharisees, and the Jews in general, follow the tradition of the elders and never eat without washing their arms as far as the elbow; and on returning from the market place they never eat without first sprinkling themselves. There are also many other observances which have been handed down to them concerning the washing of cups and pots and bronze dishes. So these Pharisees and scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not respect the tradition of the elders but eat their food with unclean hands?’ He answered, ‘It was of you hypocrites that Isaiah so rightly prophesied in this passage of scripture:

This people honours me only with lip-service,
while their hearts are far from me.
The worship they offer me is worthless,
the doctrines they teach are only human regulations.

You put aside the commandment of God to cling to human traditions.’ He called the people to him again and said, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that goes into a man from outside can make him unclean; it is the things that come out of a man that make him unclean. For it is from within, from men’s hearts, that evil intentions emerge: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within and make a man unclean.’

Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23

The first reading on Sunday affirms in a strong and beautiful way the power and goodness of the Law. The controversy is not about Law, but how human beings can so easily subvert its purpose. Sometimes deliberately, sometimes by mistake.

Human frailty is God’s speciality. When we fail, and however we fail, deliberately or by mistake, his mercy, his help, his love are ours, always.

  • Where do you need that love, now.
  • Take a moment to ask for it, admitting your need, and confessing God’s love.

Carving of Christ as Law-giver. Christian sarcophagus, Musée de l’Arles et de la Provence antiques. © 2014, Allen Morris

Taste and See: Closed to life?

NazarethThe Gospel reading for Mass on Sunday, the 14th Sunday of the Year, came from the Gospel of Mark. In it Mark spoke of Jesus’ return to his home town of Nazareth.

Jesus went to his home town and his disciples accompanied him. With the coming of the sabbath he began teaching in the synagogue and most of them were astonished when they heard him. They said, ‘Where did the man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been granted him, and these miracles that are worked through him? This is the carpenter, surely, the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joset and Jude and Simon? His sisters, too, are they not here with us?’ And they would not accept him. And Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is only despised in his own country, among his own relations and in his own house’; and he could work no miracle there, though he cured a few sick people by laying his hands on them. He was amazed at their lack of faith. Mark 6:1-6

St Luke tells the same story, but tells us in some detail what Jesus spoke of – reading from the prophet Isaiah – ‘The Lord has sent me to bring good news to the poor…’, and then saying that ‘Today this text is fulfilled…’

Mark is rather more reticent. It is as though he wants us to work out for ourselves what it was that Jesus said. In the absence of anything more definite we might imagine that Jesus preached what he first preached immediately following his baptism in the Jordan. ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the gospel.’

What can there be in that to cause such offence as Nazareth took? For what Jesus said was pretty much what all rabbis would teach, not only prophets. Now the difference seems to have been that Jesus spoke it so you knew he meant it, and wanted you to mean it and live it. Jesus preached the Kingdom, not himself, but he preached the Kingdom so that it was personal, real and now. And could not be ignored. It can’t be ignored, but can be rejected – as Nazareth rejects Jesus.

What about you? Where you are?

  • What do you accept of Jesus’ message?
  • What do you hesitate over? How do you act out the hesitation?.

Photograph of Nazareth – closed for business. (c) 2012, Allen Morris

Speak Lord: Of the harvest of life

Harvest sjw

The gospel reading today, the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, speaks of the Kingdom of God. And, inevitably, it does so in terms of metaphor.

Jesus said to the crowds, ‘This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man throws seed on the land. Night and day, while he sleeps, when he is awake, the seed is sprouting and growing; how, he does not know. Of its own accord the land produces first the shoot, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the crop is ready, he loses no time: he starts to reap because the harvest has come.’

He also said, ‘What can we say the kingdom of God is like? What parable can we find for it? It is like a mustard seed which at the time of its sowing in the soil is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet once it is sown it grows into the biggest shrub of them all and puts out big branches so that the birds of the air can shelter in its shade.’

Using many parables like these, he spoke the word to them, so far as they were capable of understanding it. He would not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything to his disciples when they were alone.

Mark 4:26-34

The Kingdom of God is, very nearly, that greater than which nothing can be conceived.

Yet Jesus offers as comparisons the abundant harvest which is gifted to the (maybe) lazy farmer (having sown the seed, he seems to have spent the growing season chilling out!); and to the weeds that provide plenty of ground cover to the birds (ever seen a mustard tree?)

So what is Jesus urging us to? A recognition that God’s goodness is great and generous; that  his goodness is provided not to impress but to benefit, and, whatever our deficiencies, when we know the goodness of what God offers, we will move ourselves to receive what is offered.

  • How well do you trust in the goodness of God and his faithfulness?
  • Where in the less well-regarded do you find signs of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God?

Photograph of figure of the Risen Christ by Michael Clark and Tabernacle surround by Stephen Foster, Church of Our Lady, St John’s Wood. (C) 2004, Allen Morris.

Speak Lord: call us to silence…

Chapel, LerinsThe Gospel this Sunday is the Passion narrative from the Gospel of Mark.

It was two days before the Passover and the feast of Unleavened Bread, and the chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by some trick and have him put to death. For they said, ‘It must not be during the festivities, or there will be a disturbance among the people.’

Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper; he was at dinner when a woman came in with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the ointment on his head. Some who were there said to one another indignantly, ‘Why this waste of ointment? Ointment like this could have been sold for over three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor’; and they were angry with her. But Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. Why are you upsetting her? What she has done for me is one of the good works. You have the poor with you always, and you can be kind to them whenever you wish, but you will not always have me. She has done what was in her power to do: she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. I tell you solemnly, wherever throughout all the world the Good News is proclaimed, what she has done will be told also, in remembrance of her.’

Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, approached the chief priests with an offer to hand Jesus over to them. They were delighted to hear it, and promised to give him money; and he looked for a way of betraying him when the opportunity should occur.

On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb was sacrificed, his disciples said to him, ‘Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the passover?’ So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the city and you will meet a man carrying a pitcher of water. Follow him, and say to the owner of the house which he enters, “The Master says: Where is my dining room in which I can eat the passover with my disciples?” He will show you a large upper room furnished with couches, all prepared. Make the preparations for us there,’ The disciples set out and went to the city and found everything as he had told them, and prepared the Passover.

When evening came he arrived with the Twelve. And while they were at table eating, Jesus said, ‘I tell you solemnly, one of you is about to betray me, one of you eating with me.’ They were distressed and asked him, one after another, ‘Not I, surely?’ He said to them, ‘It is one of the Twelve, one who is dipping into the same dish with me. Yes, the Son of Man is going to his fate, as the scriptures say he will, but alas for that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! Better for that man if he had never been born!’
And as they were eating he took some bread, and when he had said the blessing he broke it and gave it to them. ‘Take it,’ he said ‘this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and when he had returned thanks he gave it to them, and all drank from it, and he said to them, ‘This is my blood, the blood of the covenant, which is to be poured out for many. I tell you solemnly, I shall not drink any more wine until the day I drink the new wine in the kingdom of God.’

After psalms had been sung they left for the Mount of Olives. And Jesus said to them, ‘You will all lose faith, for the scripture says: I shall strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered, however after my resurrection I shall go before you to Galilee.’ Peter said, ‘Even if all lose faith, I will not.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘I tell you solemnly, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will have disowned me three times.’ But he repeated still more earnestly, ‘If I have to die with you, I will never disown you.’ And they all said the same.

They came to a small estate called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Stay here while I pray.’ Then he took Peter and James and John with him. And a sudden fear came over him, and great distress. And he said to them, ‘My soul is sorrowful to the point of death. Wait here, and keep awake.’ And going on a little further he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, this hour might pass him by. ‘Abba (Father)!’ he said ‘Everything is possible for you. Take this cup away from me. But let it be as you, not I, would have it.’ He came back and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, ‘Simon, are you asleep? Had you not the strength to keep awake one hour? You should be awake, and praying not to be put to the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ Again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And once more he came back and found them sleeping, their eyes were so heavy; and they could find no answer for him. He came back a third time and said to them, ‘You can sleep on now and take your rest. It is all over. The hour has come. Now the Son of Man is to be betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up! Let us go! My betrayer is close at hand already.’

Even while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, came up with a number of men armed with swords and clubs, sent by the chief priests and the scribes and the elders. Now the traitor had arranged a signal with them. ‘The one I kiss,’ he had said ‘he is the man. Take him in charge, and see he is well guarded when you lead him away.’ So when the traitor came, he went straight up to Jesus and said, ‘Rabbi!’ and kissed him. The others seized him and took him in charge. Then one of the bystanders drew his sword and struck out at the high priest’s servant, and cut off his ear.

Then Jesus spoke. ‘Am I a brigand’ he said ‘that you had to set out to capture me with swords and clubs? I was among you teaching in the Temple day after day and you never laid hands on me. But this is to fulfil the scriptures.’ And they all deserted him and ran away. A young man who followed him had nothing on but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the cloth in their hands and ran away naked.

They led Jesus off to the high priest; and all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes assembled there. Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the high priest’s palace, and was sitting with the attendants warming himself at the fire.

The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus on which they might pass the death sentence. But they could not find any. Several, indeed, brought false evidence against him, but their evidence was conflicting. Some stood up and submitted this false evidence against him, ‘We heard him say, “I am going to destroy this Temple made by human hands, and in three days build another, not made by human hands.”’ But even on this point their evidence was conflicting. The high priest then stood up before the whole assembly and put this question to Jesus, ‘Have you no answer to that? What is this evidence these men are bringing against you?’ But he was silent and made no answer at all. The high priest put a second question to him, ‘Are you the Christ,’ he said, ‘the Son of the Blessed One?’ ‘I am,’ said Jesus ‘and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.’ The high priest tore his robes, ‘What need of witnesses have we now?’ he said. ‘You heard the blasphemy. What is your finding?’ And they all gave their verdict: he deserved to die.
Some of them started spitting at him and, blindfolding him, began hitting him with their fists and shouting, ‘Play the prophet!’ And the attendants rained blows on him.

While Peter was down below in the courtyard, one of the high priest’s servant-girls came up. She saw Peter warming himself there, stared at him and said, ‘You too were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.’ But he denied it. ‘I do not know, I do not understand, what you are talking about’ he said. And he went out into the forecourt. The servant-girl saw him and again started telling the bystanders, ‘This fellow is one of them.’ But again he denied it. A little later the bystanders themselves said to Peter, ‘You are one of them for sure! Why, you are a Galilean.’ But he started calling down curses on himself and swearing, ‘I do not know the man you speak of.’ At that moment the cock crew for the second time, and Peter recalled how Jesus had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows twice, you will have disowned me three times.’ And he burst into tears.

First thing in the morning, the chief priests together with the elders and scribes, in short the whole Sanhedrin, had their plan ready. They had Jesus bound and took him away and handed him over to Pilate.
Pilate questioned him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ ‘It is you who say it’ he answered. And the chief priests brought many accusations against him. Pilate questioned him again, ‘Have you no reply at all? See how many accusations they are bringing against you!’ But, to Pilate’s amazement, Jesus made no further reply.

At festival time Pilate used to release a prisoner for them, anyone they asked for. Now a man called Barabbas was then in prison with the rioters who had committed murder during the uprising. When the crowd went up and began to ask Pilate the customary favour, Pilate answered them, ‘Do you want me to release for you the king of the Jews?’ For he realised it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed Jesus over. The chief priests, however, had incited the crowd to demand that he should release Barabbas for them instead. Then Pilate spoke again. ‘But in that case,’ he said to them ‘what am I to do with the man you call king of the Jews?’ They shouted back, ‘Crucify him!’ ‘Why?’ Pilate asked them ‘What harm has he done?’ But they shouted all the louder, ‘Crucify him!’ So Pilate, anxious to placate the crowd, released Barabbas for them and, having ordered Jesus to be scourged, handed him over to be crucified.
The soldiers led him away to the inner part of the palace, that is, the Praetorium, and called the whole cohort together. They dressed him up in purple, twisted some thorns into a crown and put it on him. And they began saluting him, ‘Hail, king of the Jews!’ They struck his head with a reed and spat on him; and they went down on their knees to do him homage. And when they had finished making fun of him, they took off the purple and dressed him in his own clothes.

They enlisted a passer-by, Simon of Cyrene, father of Alexander and Rufus, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross. They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha, which means the place of the skull.

They offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he refused it. Then they crucified him, and shared out his clothing, casting lots to decide what each should get. It was the third hour when they crucified him. The inscription giving the charge against him read: ‘The King of the Jews.’ And they crucified two robbers with him, one on his right and one on his left.

The passers-by jeered at him; they shook their heads and said, ‘Aha! So you would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days! Then save yourself: come down from the cross!’ The chief priests and the scribes mocked him among themselves in the same way. ‘He saved others,’ they said ‘he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the king of Israel, come down from the cross now, for us to see it and believe.’ Even those who were crucified with him taunted him.

When the sixth hour came there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you deserted me?’ When some of those who stood by heard this, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling on Elijah.’ Someone ran and soaked a sponge in vinegar and, putting it on a reed, gave it him to drink saying; ‘Wait and see if Elijah will come to take him down.’ But Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the veil of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The centurion, who was standing in front of him, had seen how he had died, and he said, ‘In truth this man was a son of God.’

There were some women watching from a distance. Among them were Mary of Magdala, Mary who was the mother of James the younger and Joset, and Salome. These used to follow him and look after him when he was in Galilee. And there were many other women there who had come up to Jerusalem with him.

It was now evening, and since it was Preparation Day (that is, the vigil of the sabbath), there came Joseph of Arimathaea, a prominent member of the Council, who himself lived in the hope of seeing the kingdom of God, and he boldly went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate, astonished that he should have died so soon, summoned the centurion and enquired if he was already dead. Having been assured of this by the centurion, he granted the corpse to Joseph who bought a shroud, took Jesus down from the cross, wrapped him in the shroud and laid him in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the entrance to the tomb. Mary of Magdala and Mary the mother of Joset were watching and took note of where he was laid.

Tradition, supported by the most recent scholarship, says that the Gospel of Mark was written by a disciple of St Peter, basing the narrative in large part on the memoirs of Peter. It was written in Rome and written particular for the encouragement of Christians in Rome who had denied their baptism and their Christian faith during a time of persecution.

In this Passion narrative the ‘head’ of the Church in Rome, Peter himself betrays Jesus. Singled out by Jesus as one whose actions will be recalled, where ever the Good News is shared, is a nameless woman, in memory of her (surely a direct verbal link to the command to celebrate the memorial of the Last Supper in memory of him, a command omitted in Mark’s Gospel but quoted elsewhere in the tradition of the institution of the Eucharist ). It is women who distinguish themselves among his followers by being present, albeit at a distance, at the Cross.

Mark is not an iconoclastic gospel, but it refuses to make varnish away the scratches and flaws. It especially refuses to show discipleship as an easy and inevitable ‘way of life’. It is something to be chosen and chosen again despite confusion fear and error. The key to faithful discipleship is Jesus Christ, Son of God. If we are to follow we must allow him to lead.

  • If a particular episode in the Passion has struck you, stay with it: meditate on it, and bring the fruits of your meditation to God in prayer. Ask for the gift of faithfulness and love as you continue to live this Holy Week.

Photograph of chapel in Abbey of Lerins, France. (c) 2005, Allen Morris.

Taste and See: light in the darkness

DSC07210

The Gospel heard at Mass yesterday is rather atypical for a passage from Mark’s Gospel.

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.

Mark 1:14-20

Mark’s Gospel is full of short passages, which are full of incident and wonder. But almost always they will end with an acknowledgement that people did not understand; or Jesus says do ‘x’ and they do ‘y’; or ‘they’ begin to plot how to kill him.

Mark is told to reintroduce to faith those who are struggling with their frailty as disciples, and who are familiar with the darkness of the world. So mostly he frames his stories in this way, and the Gospel as a whole gives such prominence to the Passion of Christ, to his experience of abandonment and weakness, of being object of the actions of others rather free subject, wholly in control of one’s own actions.

This passage is atypical, because of its place in the narrative. Here Mark is evoking first enthusiasm, and the two incidents related are first in a sequence of impressive events which tell of the powerful impact of Jesus, and people’s wholesome response to him. So no ‘dying fall’ at the end.

But note how it begins: ‘After John had been arrested….’ Storm clouds are gathering, John – we know – is to die, but Jesus proclaims Good News. But will we hear it? How enthusiastic in this darkening world will our response be? And for how long?

Photograph of boats on the banks of the Rhone at Avignon. (C) Allen Morris, 2014.