Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time – February 1, 2009 – Blessed Sacrament
The reading we have just heard comes from the very first chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel, right after the passage read last week where we heard Mark’s summary of Jesus’ message–“The time of fulfilment has come. The reign of God is at hand. Repent and believe the Gospel!”–and the calling of the first disciples so that Jesus could make them fishers of men. Today’s reading describes the first impact that Jesus’ teaching and actions make on the people. He astonishes, amazes them.
The people are astonished, first, by his teaching. What he said we do not know, for Mark does not tell us. What astonished the people was how he taught, not like the Scribes, that is, he did not teach by citing texts and earlier authorities, but on his own, perhaps even in his own name. His teaching, as we might put it today, was self-authenticating.
This authority is immediately displayed also as power, power over evil. One of the earliest and most trustworthy traditions about Jesus was that he was a worker of wonderful deeds–deeds that made people wonder–and particularly a worker of exorcisms. The little dialogue we heard shows the demon trying to gain power over Christ by using his name and by recognizing him as “the Holy One of God,” an effort that Jesus ends with his command that the spirit be quiet and come out of the man. New cause for amazement: even evil spirits obey him.
In this simple account, St. Mark has provided us, already at his Gospel’s beginning, with the fundamental choice his narrative places before the reader. As one scholar put it, a Gospel is “designed among other things to challenge the reader with the necessity of a definite decision about the claims made by and for Jesus” (Nineham, 50). Mark’s Gospel will urge that challenge more by way of narrating what Jesus did than by way of presenting what he taught; but the two go together because if the basic message was that God’s reign is breaking in upon human history, then the accounts of healings and of exorcisms show the power of God already triumphing over the various embodiments of evil.
St. Mark urges the challenge at several points in his Gospel. Here the people are moved to ask: “What is this?” A few chapters later, after another wonder, the question is:“Who is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” Jesus provoked enough questions that, in a turning-point in the story, Jesus asks his disciples what people are saying about him, and they can point to a number of answers that were being given: John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets. At which point, he puts the challenge to them, “And you, who do you say that I am?” And Peter answers in the name of all: “You are the Messiah.”
This, of course, is Mark’s own answer to the question; it is the answer of the primitive Church; it is the answer of the Church today. But the challenge that Jesus posed did not end there, in Mark’s account, because now the disciples must learn something they by no means want to learn: that his being Messiah, so far from being glorious, must mean rejection, suffering, and death. It required, in other words, the overturning of expectations, the purifying of desires. Speaking again, no doubt, in the name of all, Peter cannot accept that and rebukes Jesus, and then in turn is rebuked by Jesus.
With today’s account of the first day in the public ministry of Christ, then, we are placed before the challenge which the whole of this Gospel will place before us. It is the basic challenge of Christian faith. Before the figure of Jesus of Nazareth, before the account of what he said and of what he did, we are asked, nineteen hundred years later, to ask the questions his contemporaries asked: “What is this? Who is this?” and to be ready to have the question thrust upon us: “Who do you say that I am?”
Each time a Gospel is read in church, the same challenge is posed: What is this? Who is this? Does this Gospel passage come with authority? Do we perceive the authority of what he says, of what he demands, of what he promises? This is not just authority in the sense of acknowledging Jesus to be the Son of God, and so one to whom one should listen. Do we find that he teaches also with a self-authenticating authority, that is, does what he says vindicate itself, display its trustworthiness by its truth, by the light that it casts upon the world, upon human life, upon God?
The answer to that question is the answer to the other question: “Who do you say that I am?” St. Augustine used to say that it was useless for the sun to shine if our eyes are shut. To be able to see Christ as the light that makes the real world visible requires that the eyes of the mind and heart be open; in fact, Christ can be light only for those who wish to see. We will have a sense of this perhaps if we reflect on some occasion when a Gospel passage, a word of Christ, a parable, a word of comfort, a word of rebuke even, suddenly struck us with its truth, revealed the world for what it is, revealed ourselves for what we are, and we may even have said to ourselves, “How could I have been so blind?!”. That is Christ being light for us, when he opens our eyes to something that was always there to be seen, but to which we were formerly blind, to which we had shut our eyes.
A particular experience like that can enable us to acknowledge something that we may simply take for granted–just as we may take for granted the light of the sun–that is, how we Christians live in a world illumined by Christ, a world whose features are discernible because of what he said and what he did, whose contours are described by his example and by his commandments, whose roads we walk with confidence because we are following paths he himself trod. Familiarity has perhaps dulled our appreciation of all this. A Gospel like today’s reminds us that when Jesus first began to speak, first began to act, he provoked astonishment, amazement.