Archive for February, 1997
It’s all a question of knowing where we are going. The first two readings set it up very clearly—in Lent we are heading once more to the Baptismal waters of Easter—but, to paraphrase Eliot, do we go all that way for a birth or a death? … It’s all a question of knowing where we are going.
A friend of mine worked for these past few years with refugees in East Africa—displaced, hungry, shattered people. Even among outcasts there are outcasts, the weakest of the weak—in particular the HIV positive who with little care and minimal medication quickly develop full-blown AIDS. And there in East Africa AIDS it isn’t a rarity, isn’t confined to any one portion of the community, AIDS is everywhere. Yet, for all it is common, its fear dissolves communities as it works the complete isolation of its sufferers. Even what little they have, what little they have been able to keep, is stripped from them as gradually they are edged out of the meagre comforts of the community. Figuratively, and then literally, pushed to the edge and beyond until they are driven into the desert to die alone and un-mourned. Only the kindness of strangers—people like my friend—stands between them and a forgotten death. Hands that will touch, and lift up and carry them back, out of the desert’s dryness, into the oasis of human care, to know life again before they must leave it.
Such a different desert from the one where Jesus, drenched still from the Jordan, is driven by the spirit. Despite the accusation and the testing this desert is for Jesus a place of life, a place of wild but ministering spirits, a place of calling. There, like the great prophets before him, like Moses and Elijah, he is nourished, cared for, and grows to new life, so that he can walk from the desert’s womb and storm Galilee with his message of urgent life: “Spring is here. Something new is here. God is here. Change! Believe the good news!”
Two very different experiences of desert. Womb or tomb? A holy place or a horror? It’s all a question of knowing where we are going. The spirit of life drives Jesus into the desert to be born again. The spirit of death drives the refugee into the desert to dwindle and die.
Entering Lent, we have to ask where we are being driven, and—more—which spirits are doing the driving. Mark paints a picture of Jesus in constant dialogue with angels and demons, companioned by spirits who attract him or repel him, care for him or plot his downfall. He is on first-name terms with darkness. He is fed at the hand of angels. Our difference from Jesus is not that he is a-swim in a sea of spirits and we are not but, rather, that he can tell them apart while we struggle even to feel their influence.
But recognising their influence, and telling them apart, is the key. Who is leading me into Lent? Friend or foe? If I know that I know whether to go hopefully into the desert or to kick and scream and cry out for rescue.
These are the Lenten questions. They are prior to questions of what we will do for Lent. Of what we will give up. Of what we will take up. Of fasting, charity, and prayer. The first question is “Who wants us to do any of this?” Which spirits guide us? Do we go all that way for a birth or a death? … It is all a question of knowing where we are going.
February 16th, 1997
Why do we come here on Ash Wednesday? Why do we come now in greater numbers than on Easter? Why do we inconvenience our work day just to get a blackened brow that will embarrass us and confuse our colleagues? It’s not obligation that brings us—there is none. It may be custom, or habit, or maybe a touch of superstition. But it goes much deeper than that.
I think it goes beneath the surface of success in our lives. It reaches wholeness—that mixture of good and bad, success and failure, hope and fear—that belong to us all. It’s a sign of the cross we leave here with today. A sign of the life and death of one man long ago whose living and dying changed the world. Not the way we’d like to change it maybe. Not very successfully, not very efficiently, not in blaze of light, and not once and for all. The change that Jesus made was messy, dirty, bought at the price of hardship and blood—and it is unfinished. But it is not forgotten. Ash Wednesday intrudes on the daily-ness of our living to remind us of deep and sometimes dark realities. It makes a mark on our washed and shaved and made-up faces—a mark of death and a promise of unlikely life.
2000 years ago someone loved life enough to die for it. 2000 years later we love life enough to never forget his death. By carrying his cross on our blackened faces we refuse to forget him. And we refuse to forget ourselves, our whole selves, with our light and our dark, our ash and our fire, our dirt and our green growth.
Ash Wednesday ought to be a relief to us. The secret is out—plastered on our foreheads. We are not perfect. We are not all we would like to be. But what we are is enough. What we are is enough for God. Someone has loved us enough to die for us. The sign of the cross we accept today is a sign of our willingness to love—to love and to do whatever it takes to continue what he started.
February 12th, 1997
Stories, like ours, can reveal our own selves to us. Stories draw us in. Stories awaken in us a sense of who we are and what we desire. They tell us what is changing in us. That’s why we read the scriptures at Mass and not the catechism: because we want to be changed.
That’s the question. Now the puzzle. One of the things I find most mysterious about Mark’s gospel is the way that Jesus is always described as preaching the good news. Like today: “he went into their synagogues preaching the good news and expelling demons.” The puzzle is that Mark never tells us what Jesus says. Matthew goes on endlessly about Jesus’ sermons and teaching but Mark never says a word. All you hear is how wonderful Jesus’ preaching is, how he teaches with authority, how even demons are struck dumb by him. But not a word of what he says. … At least not directly. Instead we get stories about what Jesus does. The story is the good news. And typically, for Mark, these stories are brief, hasty little dramas.
I want to lift up one of these dramas for our attention: the story of Simon’s mother-in-law. It seems simple: Jesus goes to the house of some of his disciples; the woman of the house is ill in bed; Jesus is told; he takes her hand and helps her up and she starts to wait on them.
What’s the story all about? Is it a simple healing story? Is it a moral tale about domestic hospitality? Mark’s stories may be brief but he chooses his words carefully and two in particular are important here. First is the word he uses to describe her healing. Our version says “Jesus grasped her hand and helped her up.” But the original says “he raised her up” and uses the same word that will later be used for Jesus’ resurrection. This is not just a healing story but a story of someone whose sickness is the sickness of every life before Jesus is a part of it; someone who meets Jesus and experiences the power of the resurrection.
The second interesting word is the one Mark chooses to describe how she responds. Our version says, “she waited on them,” but Mark uses the word dieikonei, from which we get the word deacon. It meant both service at table and Christian ministry. Simon’s mother-in-law has an experience of resurrection and immediately behaves like a deacon, becomes involved in service and ministry. And the whole story takes place in the home of some disciples, which is exactly the kind of place in which Mark’s Christian community met on a Sunday afternoon to worship, to share stories, and to minister to each other.
When Mark’s people listened to the story of the mother-in-law’s tale there would have been nods of understanding and recognition. Because her story is not just her own—it’s mine and it’s yours. We have each been lost in sickness of soul. We have each been grasped by Jesus and raised up by the power of the resurrection to new life. We have each immediately turned to our brothers and sisters and ministered to them.
At least, Mark can’t imagine any other way of being a Christian. In his day to enter the house where the disciples gathered meant to risk losing one’s livelihood, one’s respect, and even one’s life. And yet they did. They took the risk because they had been resurrected with Jesus and just had to gather and serve each other, minister to each other. That’s our challenge as Renew begins again, our challenge as Lent begins this week. Have we let Jesus take us by the hand? Have we experienced a real resurrection in our lives? And, perhaps most importantly, has that made us into ministers; disciples; servants of the word?
We have a chance in this time of renewal to pray for a deeper Yes to each of those questions. And in a moment we’ll begin with a rite of anointing in which we’ll both pray for whatever healing we need and be ministers of that healing to each other.
February 9th, 1997