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Archive for February, 2012

Gospel, Mark 9:2-10  People in ancient times believed the world to be stationary.  The place of God or gods was up above, controlling what happened down below like a puppeteer with puppets or a child with playhouse moving furniture and dolls about.  To get closer to God or gods, people went up on mountains, natural or artificial (high altars or pyramids).  Such was the case with Abraham going up on Mt. Moriah, Moses at Mt. Sinai, Elijah on Mt. Carmel and also Mt. Sinai, and Jesus in this gospel passage.  The figures of Moses and Elijah, both of whom had gone up mountains to converse with God, accompany Jesus in this transfiguration scene.  They represent the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah), the two main branches of God’s revelation to the Jewish people.  How Peter ascertained the identity of Jesus’ visitors, we don’t know.  He may have had an intuitive sense of their identity or had figured it out from listening to the conversation.  Why build tents?  The most common interpretations of this passage suggest that Peter suggested tents so that they figures of Moses and Elijah would remain for some time…that it was a way of giving dignity to each of the figures to have their own tent…that the Jewish way of entering into an intimate conversation was to meet within a tent.  The word “tabernacle” refers to a tent.  The prayer shawl (“tallit” or “tallis”) with which Jewish men customarily place over their head during prayer is symbolic of entering a tent to converse with God. 

The voice of God the Father speaks to the apostles, confirming Jesus’ identity as manifested visually in the transfiguration.  The Father had previously spoken a somewhat similar message at Jesus’ baptism, directed to the audience in Matthew (3:17) but to Jesus in Mark (1:11) and Luke (3:22).  To the words spoken at Jesus’ baptism, the Father adds, “Listen to him.”  This phrase takes on special meaning as we recall the presence of Moses and Elijah there on the mountain with Jesus.  As the Jewish people had been directed to listen to Moses, Elijah and the other prophets as representatives of God, now the word of Jesus is given a priority as God’s most authoritative voice. 

On Jesus command the three apostles will not tell the others about what took place on the mountain, but the restriction did not extend to conversations among the three of them.  How often would Peter, James and John discuss those and other events such as the raising of the daughter of Jairus (Luke 8:51-56) to which they were privy. 

The Greek word translated as “transfiguration” is “metamorphosis”, a word which elicits images of a caterpillar emerging out of its cocoon as a beautiful butterfly.  In zoology, metamorphosis technically refers to a major change of form of the same being (egg ð larva ð pupa ð adult).  The (temporary) metamorphosis of Jesus was from his natural human body to his glorified body.

As with Peter, James and John, none of us can fully comprehend the reality of God.  We receive glimpses, enough for us to continue on with day-to-day life in this world with faith and hope beyond our comprehension based on Jesus’ word.

Reading 1, Genesis 22:1-2,9a,10-13,15-18  The name Abraham is probably a combination of two Hebrew words: “Abram” meaning “high father” and “hamin” meaning a “multitude”.  Thus Abraham is father of a multitude, the promise God gave that he would have descendants as numerous as the stars or the sands of the seashore.  However, many years went by without Abraham producing even one heir.  That was quite a test of Abraham’s faith.  The event depicted in this passage exemplified that test. 

What was Abraham’s test in this situation? First of all, it was a test of obedience to God’s command and making God’s will his priority.  Would Abraham do what was totally contrary to the wishes of his heart to fulfill God’s command?  Second, it was a test of Abraham’s hope.  In an age when people had not yet come to believe in eternal life after physical death, the only way one “lived on” was through one’s offspring.  Isaac was Abraham’s only hope of having offspring through his wife Sarah. 

Along with the testing, God used this dramatic incident to teach Abraham a profound truth about God.  Many cultures of the ancient world believed that, to please or appease their gods, human sacrifice was required.  The choice of sacrificial victims varied.  Some offered young virgins for their purity or soldiers captured in war for their bravery.  In Abraham’s cultural background, or in religious practices of neighboring cultures, the victims may have been the first-born sons and daughters.  Abraham may have hoped that his God would be different, but sadly accepted the fact that God wanted the same sacrifice as other gods.  By staying Abraham’s hand and telling him to sacrifice a ram in place of his son, we see the transition from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice as a symbolic substitute.  In the story of the Exodus, Israelite first-born are spared by the blood of the sacrificial lamb.  The presentation of Jewish first-born children at the Temple of Jerusalem was a buying them back from God with the animal replacement.  God taught Abraham that He is not like the conceptualizations of gods prevalent in other societies…that God is a personal, loving God who will not require human blood sacrifice to be appeased.

We don’t know the location of the high place in the land of Moriah, but Jewish tradition identifies it with the hill upon which the city of Jerusalem was established.

Reading II, Romans 8:31b-34  Abraham was willing to offer his first-born son to God.  Paul may have been thinking of Abraham as he wrote to the Romans that God “did not spare his own Son”, giving his first-born son as a sacrificial offering out of love for us.  We call to mind that well-known text from John 3:16 that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”  With such great love, will God then turn and be against us?

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I am behind on my reading of the February Magnificat – I just read the “Meditation of the Day” for February 3rd by Elisabeth LeSeur, “a French married laywoman whose cause for canonization is underway.”   She died in 1914.   Her words certainly gave me pause:

(more…)

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Gospel, Mark 2:1-12  This is one of my favorite Gospel texts, encompassing such a variety of characters and so visual I find it easy to place myself in the scene.  Jesus has returned once again to the home of Simon Peter, to the same room in which he had previously healed many of the townspeople following casting out of the evil spirit during the synagogue service.  The house was built in the typical style of the region with an enclosing outside wall.  Rooms were constructed using that enclosing wall as one of their four walls, thus creating an open patio in the middle of the house.  Homes in Capernaum were constructed of uncut basalt stones, found readily in the region.  Each course of stones in the wall was balanced with small rocks and pebbles, then plastered with mud, and whitewashed.  Ceiling beams were spaced about every two feet, crisscrossed with a cover of branches and reeds from the lake held together with mud.  Then a layer of smooth clay mud was laid on top.  Stairways or ladders led to the roof where people dried fruits and grains and even slept on nights when the poorly ventilated rooms were too hot and stuffy.  The four men who brought their paralytic friend to Jesus knew how such roofs were built and how to cut a hole through that could be relatively easily repaired.

It was the faith of those four men that Jesus noted, not just the faith of the paralytic.  I can imagine Jesus looking up at the four gathered around the opening they had just made in the roof and giving them a smile acknowledging their ingenuity in getting their friend before him…and them smiling back in recognition.  I imagine Peter may not have been so happy about his roof being damaged, but I’m sure that, after the paralytic was healed and the crowds dispersed, the four men got to work repairing the roof and spending some time with Jesus, home-owner Peter, and the rest of the disciples.    

Jesus forgives the paralytic’s sins before the physical healing.  Some years ago a friend who participated in a healing prayer ministry told me of a person who had come numerous times for prayer but had not received the healing she desired.  One of the team members, sensing that God wanted to heal her, asked if she was holding onto any resentment toward another person.  She acknowledged that she was.  They began praying for the grace for her to forgive, and when she was finally able to do so, she received the physical healing following the spiritual one.  We are a unity of physical-emotional-spiritual and it is not surprising that illness and healing in the physical realm be related to spiritual illness and healing. 

In the order in which Jesus healed, Jesus also wanted to give his naysayers evidence that he had the authority to forgive sins.  In this context, the physical healing becomes a proof of Jesus’ authority to forgive sins.  Still, his detractors weren’t convinced.  They had already made up their minds about Jesus.  Everything he said or did was filtered through the prism of their prejudice.  Since we are a combination of body, mind and spirit, I wonder if their lack of spiritual openness may have also resulted in a little arthritis or indigestion.

Reading 1, Isaiah 43:18-19,21-22,24b-25  Chapters 40 to 55 of Isaiah, often called second or Deutero-Isaiah, are generally attributed to an anonymous poet, a later disciple in the tradition of Isaiah, who prophesied toward the end of the Babylonian exile.  From this section come the positive words of encouragement reviving the Israelites’ hope in the “something new” that God is preparing for their future.  The sins of the past are forgiven.  The people had learned and repented. Now God could begin to refashion his people.  Living without focus on God – falling into difficult times for living by our own will – recognizing the basic error of our ways – repenting and turning to God – receiving forgiveness and rising to newness with God…this cycle into which God injected the prophetic message of Isaiah has been repeated countless times throughout history.  It is part of everyone’s personal history.  Praise God for the prophetic message along with the ministry of Jesus Christ which assures us that with God there is always forgiveness and hope for those who turn to him with repentant hearts.

Reading II, 2 Corinthians 1:18-22  The words in this passage don’t flow very well in English.  I’m not sure how smoothly Paul’s writing came across in the original Greek, but the basic message is that God is consistently “yes” in forgiving and blessing those who call on him with true faith.  Although Paul and his associates are limited in their ability to be physically present to the many Christians communities under their pastoral care, they reflect that same “yes”.  It is best to read this passage in context with the preceding verses.  Paul had previously told the Corinthians that he was going to visit them on his way to and from Macedonia.  Apparently, plans changed and Paul was not able to do so.  Some members of the highly-factionalized Corinthian community, perhaps a bit smitten by the strong language of Paul’s previous letter to the Corinthians, probably took the occasion to challenge the trustworthiness of Paul’s words and, perhaps, character.  Although he hadn’t been able to visit them as he had said, Paul, nonetheless, asserts the integrity of his person and his mission…not “yes” and “no” any more than Jesus had been “yes” and “no”.  Specific situations of life may be beyond our control, but Paul was true to Jesus in every moment.  That’s how he could write, as we read in the second reading last week (1 Cor. 11:1): “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.”  Although we may not be as constant in our following Christ, more like the Corinthians than Paul, God takes us and transforms our “Amen” into a pure offering and newly bestows the Holy Spirit upon us.

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Gospel, Mark 1:40-45  See the commentary after today’s first reading regarding leprosy and Jewish understanding of both cause and cure.  The leper in this account was either quite bold, coming up so close to Jesus rather than keeping his distance and calling out “unclean!” OR he had such confidence in Jesus’ healing power (as clearly indicated in his statement) that he knew Jesus was immune from catching the disease.  It gives us cause to consider our own personal confidence level as we approach God in prayer or follow what we sense to be God’s will, although not knowing where God’s will is going to lead us.  Some years ago I read an account of a fellow who had a sense from God to go buy a gallon of milk.  Next came a sense that God was directing him to bring the milk to a certain house.  The fellow felt rather embarrassed to go up to a strange house and present people he did not know with a gallon of milk, telling them God had directed him to do so.  The family, it turned out, was out of money and needed milk for their baby.  Whether an actual happening or an inspirational fable, I don’t know, but it illustrates the point…we do best to follow what we sense to be God’s will and let God surprise us as God takes care of a plan beyond our understanding.

Regardless of Jesus admonition to the opposite, who could blame the former leper for telling everyone about what Jesus had done for him?  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were all such good evangelizers, sharing with others how we have experienced the goodness of God in our lives? 

Remember that the Son of God became one like us in everything except sin, meaning that Jesus got tired and needed rest just as we do.  He was understandably concerned about the number of people who were hearing about his healing powers and coming to him at all hours to ask for a healing.  He also tired of people seeking favors and then going away rather than staying to listen to his teaching and become disciples.  Well, the resurrected Jesus doesn’t get tired out from crowds, but he may still be concerned that people stop at asking favors rather than going on to be hearers of the word.

Reading 1, Leviticus 13:1-2,44-46  The Greek word “lepis” means a scale or flake and is the base word for “leprosy”.  The symptoms described in this text from Leviticus describe a variety of skin blotches or lesions, but although the Hebrew word tzara-at is translated as “leprosy”, it does not share the major symptoms of Hansen’s disease, what today in a more limited scope is referred to as leprosy. Hansen’s disease exhibits a puffiness of the skin rather than a dry flaky condition.  Only 5% of the general population is susceptible to the bacteria which causes Hansen’s disease which is only contagious for a few days after treatment is administered. 

You have probably heard the term “holistic healing” based on the principle that the physical, mental and spiritual dimensions of a person are closely interconnected both in the development of illness and recovery from it.  As clearly seen in the book of Job as well as numerous other biblical texts, Jewish people generally believed that physical suffering was the result of sin and physical well-being the reward for doing God’s will.  Leprosy was considered a physical manifestation of a spiritual illness.  In that context it is not surprising that the Jewish priest was both the spiritual and medical authority of his community and the person to whom the leper would go both for diagnosis as well as reintegration into the community. 

On seeing anyone approach, the leper was to cry out, “Impure, impure!”  According to the Talmud the leper does this not only to warn others of possible contagion but also to elicit compassion and prayers on his/her behalf.  It was the responsibility of the community to offer support and prayer rather than shun or ignore the afflicted.  Nevertheless, given the belief that the leprosy was the result of sin, people would have the tendency to judge and wonder how the leper had offended God to deserve such an illness.

Reading II, 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1   This follows on a discussion of whether or not to eat meat and vegetables purchased in the general marketplace or served at table.  Sometimes food was brought to a temple as a thanks to the gods prior to being sold in the marketplace.  Paul had told people not to be concerned about this unless someone knew for sure that it had been offered in sacrifice.  In that case Paul advised not to eat the meat or vegetables, not because it was tainted but out of respect for the conscience of the person who complained (1 Cor. 10:23-30).  On that principle, Paul tells us to be sensitive to others and avoid giving offense, trying to do all for the glory of God. 

I particularly like the final verse of this selection.  The scriptural reference is full of 1’s and the English text is full of I’s…even more so in an earlier translation which I memorized, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.”  One might, at first, think Paul is boasting.  Not so, he is challenging both his audience and himself.  He is to imitate Christ, and he gives his readers permission to hold him to that high standard.  I am mindful of a familiar story from the life of Mother Teresa of Calcutta on being interviewed by a reporter, “Mother Teresa, people say you are a living saint.  What do you think about that?”  She responded, “Isn’t that what we are all supposed to be?”  We are all to be imitators of Christ and challenge ourselves to be an example of such for others.

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Gospel, Mark 1:29-39  (You can find information on Capernaum and Peter’s house in last week’s scripture preview)

Visit just about any small town in the world, and you’ll find a pretty high percentage of the residents are related with ancestors going back generations in the same town.  People know one another, and news gets around town rather quickly.  As common as that is in this age of mobility, it was even more so centuries ago in a place like Capernaum.  Until the arrival of Jesus, Capernaum was a quiet fishing village of approximately 1,500 residents, most if not all Jewish.  With the establishment of his ministry headquarters there at the house of Peter, things would be anything but quiet in Capernaum for much of the next three years.

Jesus’ teaching and casting the unclean spirit out of the man at the synagogue had taken place on the Sabbath.  Recall that the Jewish day begins not at midnight as in our reckoning but at sunset.  That means that the Sabbath begins around 6pm on Friday and continues until 6pm Saturday evening.  No unnecessary work including food preparation, washing dishes, house cleaning, or chores other than feeding livestock was permitted.  Instead, people spend their time in prayer and being together with family and friends.  Little question that the main topic of discussion in Capernaum that Sabbath was about Jesus and what had taken place at the synagogue during the Saturday morning service.   If he could cast out an evil spirit, many of them pondered, he could surely heal grandma or Uncle Jacob.  Although they knew that Jesus was at Peter’s house, they waited until the Sabbath was over before bringing their sick and disabled to him.  They were not going to do unnecessary work or ask Jesus to do so either. 

It must have been quite a sight to see the streets of Capernaum bustling with so much activity on a normally quiet night when people tended to stay home, clean up from the Sabbath and prepare their Saturday evening meal.  Those who arrived first packed the inner courtyard of the house.  The rest crowded around the entryway out on the street.  First, news spread about Peter’s mother-in-law.  Then as one after another person was healed and their families made their way back through the crowd, a blend of euphoria and expectation ensued. Each story was repeated over and again accompanied by hugs and kisses, congratulations, words of encouragement and thanks to God. 

The people of Capernaum understandably wanted Jesus to stay around.  Over time they would witness many miraculous healings in their town.  For the next three years their quiet village would become a hotbed of activity.  Rumors spread that Jesus might be the long-awaited Messiah, and many…including representatives from powerful Jewish groups centered in Jerusalem…came to be inspired by or find fault with Jesus’ preaching and teaching. Most, however, came bringing their sick from some distance away to wait for Jesus to return.  As much as Jesus had a heart to heal people, that aspect of his ministry sometimes got in the way.  People came more to see Jesus the healer and miracle worker rather than Jesus the prophet and teacher of the ways of God.  How many crossed the bridge from favors received to faith in Jesus as spiritual guide?  Much later in his public ministry, we’ll hear some of Jesus’ frustration expressed right there in Capernaum where he had returned after feeding 5,000 people on the other side of the lake: “Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled (John 6:26)”.   Jesus’ desire to move on to other villages in this Sunday’s gospel passage carries a hint of that tension he will experience throughout his ministry.  

Do we turn to God primarily to seek favors or guidance?  Do we plan our lives and then ask God to bless our plans or do we seek God’s plan first and foremost?  How would we have related to Jesus if we had lived in Capernaum during his years of ministry and not known what we now profess to believe about him?

Reading 1, Job 7:1-4,6-7  Popular logic in Old Testament times was that those who observed God’s commandments prospered and sinners suffered.  After the upright Job lost nearly everything and was in physical anguish, three of his best friends, all believers in that logic, came to plead with him to confess and repent of whatever he had done so God could restore him to health and prosperity.  This passage is part of his response to the comments of Eliphaz, the first of the three friends to speak. 

How many of the people who would come to Jesus, including those who came to Peter’s house on the evening recounted in our gospel reading, wondered for what sins God was punishing them with sickness and infirmity.  The apostles even put credence in the sin-suffering logic, asking Jesus with reference to a blind man, “Who was it who sinned, him or his parents, that he was born blind?”  Jesus gave no credence to their way of thinking, responding, “Neither, it is so the works of God might be made visible through him” (John 9:2-3).  The apostles should have read the book of Job more closely.

How do I deal with the difficulties and setbacks of life?  Is my faith strong enough to not blame or get angry with God?  Jesus even more than Job gives us a model of how to face difficulties and carry the crosses of life. 

Reading II, 1 Corinthians 9:16-19, 22-23   Those who preach the gospel and pastor churches deserve recompense for their ministry just as their predecessors from the time of Paul did.  People feel uncomfortable, however, if it seems that self-promotion and enrichment is a major motivator for a preacher’s ministry.  That was, apparently, a concern during the time of Paul.  He puts a great deal of emphasis on the fact that he works as a tentmaker and supports his own ministry rather than live off people’s donations.  Paul mentions this to assure people of the truth of the gospel he preached and the authenticity of his fervor in preaching…so true and important that Paul was offering it “free of charge”.  Paul found great personal satisfaction in this as well…the recompense he seeks is not money but a part in the very gospel he proclaimed.

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