Anyone who lives long enough questions. Why do the wicked prosper? Why do the young die? Why does potential wither while evil thrives? The genius of today’s gospel is that Jesus doesn’t try to answer the questions. He enters into them.
Mark’s passion begins with the exquisite scene of Jesus’ anointing. The bean-counters hate it: how will they justify the expense or fit it on their spreadsheets? But Jesus answers: hold onto kindness and beauty, which help us through the worst.
As does a meal with friends. Jesus’ concern in his final hours isn’t with imminent, brutal suffering but with a final gesture of friendship. He reaches out to them–and to us–with the nurture of bread, the spirit of wine and the praise of song. During his whole ordeal, there is no word of recrimination, though it would be understandable. He responds to insulting betrayal by pouring out love.
To the logical, it makes no sense. But to the believer, the powerless triumph. Those who seem defeated ultimately win. The questions aren’t answered, but they are blessed by the presence of One who lives through them.
Editor’s note: Kathy Coffey’s latest book, When the Saints Came Marching In: Exploring the Frontiers of Grace in America was recently published. Below is a review of the book by John F. Kane, Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Regis University.
“Kathy Coffey has given us a book of American Saints for the era of Pope Francis. Where her title metaphor focuses on the American penchant for exploring frontiers, the book’s saints—some canonized, others simply recognized—made me also think of Francis’ metaphor of going out to the streets of our world. The saints Coffey covers, in brief readable chapters, are all ‘gutsy realits’—a memorable phrase used to describe Sr. Dorothy Stang. And all wonderfully human, warts and all. I learned about saints I’d never known, and learned more about others I thougth I knew. In the end the book made me think of all the saints among us in this country—so much good news to counter all the bad news that fills our headlines and our heads.”
Visit the Liturgical Press Website to preview the book and to find out more info about how to order it.
Posted in Books, Family Spirituality, Media and Reviews, Resources for Retreats for Catechists, Parents, and RCIA, Retreats, Speaking Topics
Tagged Catholic saints, Elizabeth Ann Setor, John Neumann, Julia Greeley, Junipero Serra, Pierre Toussaint, When the Saints Came Marching In
What happens in today’s gospel is not unusual. It continues today. Two moms became friends and discovered that their oldest sons both skied. The next, natural step was taking the boys skiing together. The two became friends, and one’s name was—truly—Andrew. He began to meet the other boy’s friends, and became part of a group from another high school, not easy in adolescent society.
During college, the boys skied, kayaked and mountain biked together. Later, they attended each other’s weddings. When Andrew died suddenly of a staph infection, the friends flew from around the country for his funeral. Each then planted a pine seedling and a packet of wildflowers, signs of hope to honor him.
They probably didn’t say it as they scattered seed, but once again, a grain fell to the ground and died, bearing much fruit. The boys couldn’t ski without remembering Andrew; they consciously tried to bring his fierce delight to all their days.
The ripple effect worked for Jesus; Greeks drawn to him approached him through his friends. He saw his coming passion through the metaphor of seed. How could the company of friends, now including us, NOT try to act like him?
Nicodemus gets a bad rap. He’s criticized for coming to Jesus “by night.” But consider the references to him after today’s gospel. Courageously, he defends Jesus against his angry peers, asking whether their law judges a man who has not had a fair hearing (John 7:50-51). After the crucifixion, he helps embalm and bury Jesus’ body (19:39).
He is an honest seeker, who won’t settle for tried-and-true beliefs. His colleagues quickly dismiss anyone with a different angle. Nicodemus, however, explores the new teaching carefully. He questions honestly, and Jesus doesn’t reject him. Instead, Jesus welcomes their discussion and reveals himself magnificently.
Jesus even seems to tease Nicodemus as a teacher who doesn’t “get it” (v. 10). Nicodemus must be overwhelmed: he doesn’t respond.
Or maybe he answers through his life. After an avalanche of ideas, he sifts through them and applies them to daily events. Apparently Jesus’ teaching withstands that reality check; Nicodemus becomes an admirable follower.
Do we act like him, or do we wallow in unexamined prejudices and stale beliefs? Are we open to the Spirit’s unsettling winds?
Those who like their Jesus sweet and pious better skip today’s gospel. Those who want to explore his complex depths should read on.
The scene in the temple can’t be camouflaged by platitudes: it is violent and chaotic. What prompted Jesus to act so dramatically? We have a clue in the way “my Father’s house” is used throughout John’s gospel. “In my Father’s house are many rooms” we read in 14:2. That sounds spacious, but there is no room for greed, betrayal or sacrilege. The money changers and merchants have desecrated what is most precious to God; they must be expelled quickly and efficiently.
In Jesus’ ensuing discussion with the Jews, their pride is attacked. Any of us who spent forty-six years on a project might react the same way.
As is often the case, they remain on a literal level, seeing the temple as a building. Jesus, however, sees it as an image of the self: beloved of God and incorruptible, transcending the most glorious edifice. As he protected sacred ground, so he fights to preserve God’s children from any who oppress, exploit or harm them. Do we respect each other or ourselves as much as he does?
“Try it in G,” the musician suggests and we hear the same song in a different key. So Jesus models a transition from his glorious mountaintop experience to the verses that follow today’s gospel about a boy foaming at the mouth, grinding his teeth and rigid. Descending, Jesus scolds a “faithless generation,” who cannot cure him, then rebukes the demon, curing what today we might term epilepsy.
“Will the real Jesus please stand up?” We’re inclined to believe in the one whose face dazzles and whose clothes shine, affirmed by the Father’s voice. Clearly Peter is stunned into babbling an elaborate plan for building tents, so Jesus can converse with the prophets in peace.
Yet it is no less Jesus who repeats, “how much longer must I put up with you?” in exasperation with the disciples’ lack of faith and inability to cure the boy. He heals him “instantly,” so his power is still intact; his compassion still overflows.
We also go through various transformations in our days. We might be praying, then cooking, gardening, paying bills, caring for children or the elderly, chatting, reading, singing, shopping, working on the computer, filling the car with gas or doing the laundry. It’s the same self, in different keys. But because of Jesus’ transfiguration, we do all these things as divine children of the Great King. It’s all prayer in different ways. The disciples who saw Jesus in dazzling light also see themselves anew. The radiance might not be obvious, but it is there nonetheless, hiding beneath the surface.
One phrase from Sunday’s gospel is often overlooked: “and angels waited on him.” After a dreadful ordeal, when Jesus is hungry and probably exhausted, the presence of the divine is somehow still with him. It is possible that angels attend all our lonely desert places. Where we sense the least comfort, there it abounds. Perhaps it’s a relationship, health or job issue, looming decision. How might God be present in difficult circumstances?