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In last Sunday’s Gospel Mark announced, right at the beginning of his Gospel, what would be two of the important aspects of Jesus’ activity: healing and preaching of the Good News. Today, he mentions them again, but add another ingredient of Jesus’ life: his long hours in prayer. But this is not simply another element more. It is very intimately related to the two other elements. It is in his long hours ‑‑ even his long days and nights of prayer, that Jesus discovers his own mission.
Let’s go back a little in time. The arrest of John the Baptist was a turning point in Jesus’ life. After forty days and nights of prayer in the desert Jesus made an important decision. John had been a sort of traditional rabbi around whom a group of disciples lived, who had come to be formed by him. Jesus renounces that style. He will not wait for disciples to come to him; he will go to the crowds. And when he calls disciples, it is to send them in mission.
He also makes the important decision to return to backward Galilee instead of staying in the flourishing Judea. His first day of preaching and healing, as we saw last Sunday, were very successful. People wondered at that boy from the place who returned home after a short absence and now was acting as a prophet and speaking with authority to men and to demons. At Peter’s home he heals Peter’s mother‑in‑law; and in the evening, after the end of the Sabbath rest, the whole town starts bringing him all their sick. And he performs many healing.
That’s almost too much for a start. Jesus must make another important decision about the nature of his ministry. Is he going to stay in Capernaum, the large city of Galilee or go to all the small towns and take care of the simple and poor people living there? How does he come to such a decision: ‑‑ spending a full night of prayer in solitude. When Peter comes to fetch him in the morning, his decision is made.
This tells us a lot about the way God expects us to make our decisions. And first of all, he expects us to make them. Sometimes we don’t have the courage to make our own decisions and we expect God to make them for us. We may start praying a lot, asking God to tell us what to do; we may even ask Him to give us signs; we may also see a lot of signs in what other people consider as ordinary events of life. That is really a tricky business. Because this can be easily a way to confirm our unconscious expectations or our unconscious fears. What God wants us to do is to make intelligent, rational decisions, taking into account all the aspects of reality in us and around us. And this can be done only if we reach a sufficient degree of freedom.
In our daily life, in the fire of our activities, we are conditioned by many things. And not least of all, we are conditioned by what people around us expect of us, which often is not the best of what we have to offer them. Jesus himself had to make a choice about what people expected of him. People often expect of us monks all kind of things or service that are not the best that we, as monks, have to offer them. The time of prayer, like the time Jesus spent on the mountain at night, is a time when we enter into our hearts, and being in touch with our real self, we are in touch with God, who is the Creator and the Source of our Self, and can be honest with ourselves and with Him. Then, we begin to see everything in our lives from His perspective. Then we can make the important decisions. They will be entirely our decisions; but they will also be an act of radical obedience to God, because they will be an answer to the whole reality in us and around us, seen from the perspective of God, and, so to say, with the eyes of God. It is what Paul calls the Obedience of faith; and what John calls the Communion (Koinonia) with the Father. Obedience that does not consist in doing something that was ordered, but in sharing the same will. It is not so much a question of doing what he wants as of wanting what he wants. And this can be achieved only through a personal encounter in the communion of a contemplative prayer.
May this Eucharist be one of those moments, when, freed temporarily from many of the things that make us slaves of ourselves, of others, of our passions and ambitions, we can make at least one decision that will make the rest of our life more conform to the plan of God on us and on the whole humankind.
As I indicated last week, the beginning of Mark’s Gospel is some kind of draft, not only of a “day in Jesus’ life,” as many writers describe it, but as an advance of his whole ministry. In these opening sketches, Mark insists on Jesus’ authority as a preacher or interpreter of the Scripture. The people noticed from the very beginning that there was a remarkable difference between Jesus and the teachers of the Law. And Jesus’ authority was not limited to the word, but manifested in works: he could cast demons and cure diseases. The terms used by Mark to describe the reaction of the people ranged from astonishment to amazement. These two Sundays will offer us some examples of Jesus ministry “with authority” over demons and sickness. Unfortunately, as I also said last week, we will miss the signs of his authority over sin and the oppressive interpretation of the Law demanded by the scribes. I repeat my recommendation: read Mark 2:1 to 3:6 to have a comprehensive understanding of Mark’s viewpoint before we start the time of Lent.
But for now let us go to our texts and fix our attention on some different dimensions of Jesus’ ministry. Emerging from the common background of the Old Testament, which is valid also for Jesus’ time, Job’s fragment represents the puzzlement of humans when facing disease, pain, and suffering in the broader sense of the word, especially the old understanding of suffering as a consequence of sin. Job’s words throughout the book reflect the feelings of a man who cannot understand his suffering without a reason. If he had committed a sin he would at least have an explanation for his lack of hope. The people who come to Jesus do not share those feelings, but seek relief from their suffering, supposedly a consequence of their own transgressions. Anyhow, they respect the Sabbath, and it is only after sunset that they come to Jesus.
The context changes and shows that Jesus’ message of salvation is not confined to sacred spaces. From the synagogue he goes to Simon’s house, a domestic environment of everyday life. A simple verse provides us with a number of hints to interpret Jesus’ saving authority and the way he exerts it: “He approached [Simon’s mother-in-law], grasped her hand, and helped her up. Then the fever left her and she waited on them” (1:31). Even if the expression belongs to Matthew (1:23), for Mark, Jesus is, no doubt, Emmanuel, “God is with us.” He comes close to this old woman, touches her and helps her up (a gesture inconceivable for a rabbi), thus showing that he shares her suffering and helplessness. Then finally, she resumes her role as the “lady of the household,” for her recovery is real and effective. (By the way, all these “works” are performed on the Sabbath!).
Jesus’ activity is not even limited to a domestic area, but reaches the streets and, finally, the nearby villages, because that was the purpose of his coming: “He went into their synagogues, preaching and driving out demons throughout the whole of Galilee” (1:39). In the middle of the story we find an intimate trait of Jesus’ personality – his customary times of prayer. “Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed” (1:35). He does the same on many different occasions, not only in special circumstances like the prayer on the Mount of Olives (Mark 14:32-42 and the parallel text in the Synoptics), or after the multiplication of bread and fish (Mark 6:46), but also as a regular practice not related to any special event (Luke 5:16, 9:19).
In a subtle way, the ending of the passage offers an insidious temptation. We are not dealing with the “power and glory” Satan offered, a temptation easy to detect and reject. In this case, the allure is more enticing and comes under the disguise of humility: “Stay here in Capernaum and minister to this community as their rabbi, do not get involved in plans and designs that are too grand” (see Psalm 131). At first sight, it is modesty with a reasonable degree of satisfaction: becoming a domestic Messiah, whose universal saving message can be easily tamed. It would involve no problems with religious or political authorities, no persecution, no passion and death. Only renouncing God’s plans: as simple as that.
After such a long Lectio, a few questions for our Meditatio will suffice. The Gospel offers a synthesis of Jesus’ ministry and, thus, of our own calling to follow in his footsteps. In Paul’s text we can see an example and model for our own response. Just as Jesus shared the feelings, suffering and condition of the people who approached him in order to communicate his salvation, so Paul became “a slave, weak, or all things to all,” in order to transmit the Gospel. How close are we to the people around us in order to proclaim and share our faith? To what extent do we share the weakness, hopes and distress, joys and sorrows, of those who live near us? How often do we limit our witness under the disguise of respect to others’ consciences, so as not to be involved in proclaiming a message that could be “disturbing”?
Pray that as we imitate Jesus’ attitude of silent and retired prayer, we may also imitate his commitment to transmit God’s saving power to those who suffer in any domain of their lives.
Pray for the elderly, bedridden, forgotten and isolated; for those subjected to the demons of guilt and despair: that they may experience the saving help and the liberation only Jesus can grant them.
We, just like Jesus, feel the temptation of confining our Christian life to the limits of our parish, community or local environment. Couldn’t we look for other spaces and horizons? Have you thought about the possibility of cooperating with some organization working with or ministering to immigrants, missions, ecumenism, persecuted Christians or marginal people?
Reflections written by Rev. Fr. Mariano Perrón,