Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – July 7, 2012 – St. John’s
St. Mark’s Gospel, which we are following this liturgical year, places a lot of emphasis on the questions that Jesus provokes as he undertakes his public ministry. On its very first day, people are astonished: “What is this?” they exclaim; “a new teaching, with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him!” Later, when he heals a paralytic and tells him that his sins are forgiven, the hostile question is asked: “Why does this man speak this way? … Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At another point, critics wonder why he allows his disciples to go against sabbath-laws. Two weeks ago we heard about his calming the storm and of the excited question: “Who is this whom even wind and sea obey?” Last week we heard of the amazement of those who witnessed him raise the daughter of Jairus. And today, when he teaches in the synagogue, his fellow townsmen are moved to ask: “Where did he get all this? What is the wisdom given to him? What mighty works are wrought by his hands! Isn’t he the carpenter, the son of Mary?”
In punctuating his narrative with such questions, St. Mark is placing his readers before the great question provoked by Jesus of Nazareth: Who is this? Nor was this simply a literary device of the evangelist. It was the question once provoked by Jesus as he walked the dusty roads of Palestine, announcing the Kingdom and teaching with authority, working wonders. His words and his deeds had to have prompted that question: “Who is this?” whether it was asked out of admiration, out of wonder, or out of hostility or criticism. Jesus of Nazareth did not pass our way unnoticed, unquestioned, unremarked.
St. Mark and the other evangelists wrote their works so that generations of people who never had the chance to bump into Jesus of Nazareth on those ancient and distant roads could bump into him by reading their Gospels. That is why the Church has always continued to tell of him, to recognize its duty to allow him to startle, to challenge, to criticize, to judge, to comfort, to enlighten, to strengthen. The Church is the community that gathers in the challenging memory of Jesus of Nazareth, whom it confesses to be Messiah, Lord, and Savior; today we are that community. And if we live lives in accordance with his Gospel, then in us, in the Church, it is possible for other people today to encounter Christ, and to be challenged and comforted by him, just as his contemporaries were, two thousand years ago. Most priests would agree, I think, that people are drawn to the Church, drawn to Christ, because they see something in the lives of Catholics that attracts them, or startles them, or challenges them; and, wondering what can give lives such beauty or depth or serenity, they are pointed in the direction of Christ. We Christians, the Church, are often the chief way, and sometimes, the only way, in which people encounter Christ today.
It is not that we take on this responsibility self-consciously, self-righteously, as if we are living our Christian lives so others may admire them; Jesus warned us against precisely that. But he also said that we are to be a light for the world, the salt of the earth. Perhaps we can reconcile the two statements by saying that part of this light and zest is that in following Christ Christians do what they do quietly, humbly, self-lessly. We see this often, as when loss and grief invade the life of one of our families and so the life of this community of faith. People meet needs that have to be met, do what needs to be done, whether the needs are material or personal or spiritual, whether they are met by an embrace or hug, or by food or other help, or by silent presence, or by a word of faith that echoes the words of Jesus. When we see Christians spontaneously responding in such ways, we see in their simple actions Christ himself present and powerful in them.
Later this year, we will hear Mark’s Gospel, after recounting all those questions to and about Christ, report that Jesus turned to his disciples and asked them, point-blank, “Who do you say that I am?” The one questioned had become the questioner, the challenged the challenger. We will hear Peter respond with great confidence: “You are the Messiah!” But only a few verses later we will learn that Peter’s bold statement was not echoed by his actions as he rebuked Jesus for setting out on a path that Peter himself did not wish to walk. Bold outer statements of faith are easy enough to make–we’re going to make another one in a few minutes; whether they are made also in our hearts is another matter, whether they are embodied in our actions still another. On judgement day, will not Christ ask of each of us: “Who do you say that I am? Who has your heart said that I am? Who has your life said that I am?” But we don’t really have to wait to hear those questions. Christ is already asking them of us, and we are even now responding to them.