Monthly Archives: January 2012

I Know Who You Are

Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching– with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.  Mark 1:21-28.

In today’s Gospel reading, Mark reports that Jesus taught in the synagogue in Capernaum.  Somehow, Jesus’ teaching wasn’t like the normal commentary  to which the people had become accustomed.  His words carried a power which they have not heard before, and they would soon discover the breadth of his authority.  Jesus had a command of scripture which the people had not encountered before, but we also get the sense that it’s more than that.  We have the impression that they encountered something in Jesus himself they hadn’t previously seen: a certain gravitas, a new mastery and might.

Suddenly, a man “with an unclean spirit” accosted Jesus.  Interestingly, this unholy spirit spoke to Jesus in the plural. (The spirit asked “What have you to do with us?” and “Have you come to destroy us?”) Perhaps this daemon refered to both itself and the possessed man.  Or perhaps evil is always multifaceted, or duplicitous by its very nature.  The spirit then announced, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 

Further evidencing his authority, Jesus expels the spirit from the man, freeing him from a terrible torment and bondage.  I suspect most of us have known someone in the grip of such an evil spirit, one which confines their souls and robs them of joy.  We may have concluded, as Einstein famously remarked, “It’s easier to denature plutonium than to denature the evil spirit of man.”  Those in the grip of such an evil spirit have no power within themselves to help themselves.

In a few short sentences, Mark has revealed several facets of Jesus: teacher; healer; liberator; and compassionate pastor.  This revelation fits perfectly within our Epiphany theme.  Through the act of freeing this man from the shackles of sin, Jesus restores God’s creation.

I don’t think Mark tells this story so much to describe an exorcism as to reveal the reach of Jesus’ authority, which includes the scriptures, the world of the flesh and the world of the spirit.  In this passage, Mark thus reveals Jesus as Lord of all created things. 

Ironically, Mark places some of the most important questions about and observations of Jesus within the mouth of this evil spirit.  The unclean spirit asks, “What have you to do with us?”  I am certain that I do not ask myself that question often enough.  What does Jesus have to do with me, with this day, with this place and with this hour?  In what way is Jesus relevant to this very moment of my life, and what am I going to do about that? 

The unholy spirit also announces, “I know who you are,  the Holy One of God.”  I’m wondering how well we know who Jesus is, and do we recognize his authority?  Do we recognize Jesus when we encounter him, and do we know his power?  Are we willing to let him rid us of those spirits that would destroy us? Will we listen when he tells our demons to be silent and to depart?  I pray we will.

 Shabbat shalom,

Br. James

© 2012 James R. Dennis

On the Road to Damascus

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. Acts 9:1-19.

God has a really funny way of doing business. He choses a murderer with a speech impediment to lead His people out of Egypt, an ethically challenged chiseler to bear the name of the nation of Israel, and a murderous philanderer to unite the kingdom of His people. In today’s reading, Luke reports that despite the resurrection, Saul continued to breathe threats and murder against those who followed the Way. Let’s be clear about this: Saul was engaged in genocide against those who followed Christ.

And so, had the Lord asked me about his selection of Saul, like Ananias I would have asked Him, “Are you really sure this is the guy?” You see, not much in Saul’s life suggested that he would be the person most responsible for spreading the message of Jesus throughout the Empire. God, however, had something remarkable in mind. God knew something we really struggle against: people can change.

While en route to Damascus to continue in his campaign of annihilation, Saul (or Paul, in the Greek form of the name) encounters the risen Lord. Again, the reading meshes well into our Epiphany theme, as Scripture records that he was surrounded by a light from heaven.

This passage further reinforces our understanding of the Church as the body of Christ. Saul, of course, was persecuting the early Church. Jesus didn’t ask, “Why are you messing with my church?” Rather, Jesus asks Saul, “Why are you persecuting me?” Already, in the book of Acts, the Church is identified therefore with the body of Christ.

After his post-resurrection encounter with Jesus, Paul loses his sight for three days. This story fits very well within an idea we’ve already encountered, the distinction between physical observation and spiritual insight. And Paul must lose his physical powers of insight before he can gain a genuine spiritual vision. God was reshaping Paul’s understanding of the Lord and his entire world-vision. It’s as though this transformation, this conversion, required a complete reboot of his system. Paul must have gone through a terrible loneliness during this time. As Bonhoeffer once observed, we are never more isolated than we are in becoming a Christian, but the alienation occurs for the sake of a new community.

For most of us, our conversion experience will not look like this. Although I’ve run across them now and then, most folks will not find their conversion so complete or so dramatic. I’ve found that my conversion takes place in small increments, daily, through several small decisions to follow Jesus’ example, through self-denial and participation in the sacramental life with which the Church has blessed us, and mostly through God’s redeeming grace.

And yet, God chose Saul–this monster, this antagonist and enemy of the early Church. God saw within him “an instrument to bring my name before gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.” It’s worth noting that Saul’s conversion required more of him than simply changing his mind about things. Saul’s conversion, like ours, carried along with it a call and a vocation. Rather than simply offering a new way of looking at things, his conversion required an apostolic commitment as Saul would be sent out to serve in the world. Ours does too.

So today, as we celebrate the Feast of St. Paul’s conversion, I hope this story serves as a reminder of the need for charity towards our enemies, and perhaps even charity towards ourselves. God may yet have in mind a way to use them (and us) for his redeeming work. As children of the Creator, we may all someday become new creatures, a great blessing and a great gift to the Church. Saul did.

May the peace of Christ disturb you profoundly,

Br. James

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Fishing for Souls

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea– for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. Mark 1:14-20.

Mark’s Gospel offers us some unique insights into the Christian life for the third week of Epiphany. After John the Baptist’s arrest, Jesus announces the imminence of the kingdom of God, requiring repentance and calling for hope (belief “in the good news”). Mark sets the story on the sea of Galilee, known for sudden storms. The men who made eked out their living fishing on these waters worked very hard, were heavily taxed, and struggled with many of the same day-to-day issues we know so well. I’ve known men like this, and they are not easily moved.

So, Jesus meets two sets of brothers: Simon and Andrew, and James and John (who Jesus later nicknamed the “Sons of Thunder”). He calls to them to follow him, and each of these men leave behind their work, their families and their homes to follow Jesus. As we discussed in the call of Samuel, God has a funny sense of timing, and his message often interrupts us when we’re trying to do something else. Perhaps these men were just ready to hear a message of hope and forgiveness. Perhaps they were ready to hear the message that evil doesn’t win and that there’s another way to live.

I think, however, that this arresting story of the origins of the Church sheds a good deal of light on the kind of man Jesus must have been. He must have been a remarkably compelling figure, this itinerant preacher walking along the Galilee. Mark’s Gospel reports that the decision to follow Jesus occurred “immediately”, suggesting that their hopes for the promised good news overcame their fears and their attachments. The passage also suggests these men felt a sense of urgency, that they couldn’t put off their walk with God any longer or take care of a few little things beforehand. May it be so with us, too.

The Gospel teaches us something important about our path to discipleship. Very few of us will start or travel down this path of conversion alone. Conversion, whether we’re turning away from or turning toward something, is a difficult process, and most of us will need to take a friend, a brother or a sister along for the journey. Jesus called these disciples into a vocation of hope and forgiveness and a relationship with the living God. These two sets of brothers felt impelled to leave behind their ordinary, workaday lives and follow Jesus. May it be so with us, too.

Finally, Scripture teaches us an important lesson about being a disciple. Then and now, following Christ will require that you’re going to have to leave some things behind. In the case of these men, it was their boats, their nets, their jobs and their families. For some of us, it may be habits, outlooks, destructive relationships, or the fears that bind us to the present moment. The disciples found a way to leave those things behind. May it be so with us, too.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Remembering Peter

Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’  Acts 10: 34-44.

Today, the Episcopal Church marks the confession of St. Peter the Apostle.  I have always found Peter one of the most approachable saints within the Church and a great source of hope.  Scripture records that he was quick to speak, even when he was deeply confused. Like me, Peter generally opened his mouth only to change feet.   But in today’s reading from the Book of Acts, Peter gets it right:  deeply and  thoroughly right.

This passage takes place as Peter visits the home of Cornelius, a Roman centurion living in Caesarea.  Scripture doesn’t reveal much about Cornelius, although we learn that he prayed regularly, and practiced charity.  Cornelius, however, was also a Gentile, and no good Jew would have anything to do with him.  Peter traveled to his home as a result of a vision in which he heard God’s voice telling him:  “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Now, the disciples had already accepted that Jesus held the hope of salvation.  The question remained, however: whose salvation? Peter began his sermon with a remarkable notion:  in God’s economy, all of the distinctions we’ve drawn are erased.  While we strive to create barriers to and enclosures around the well of sanctification, Peter preached God (through Christ) had knocked them down.

We may be initially tempted to read this passage as talking about our relations with our brothers and sisters.  Clearly, no people enjoy a special claim to salvation, God’s love, or the redemptive work of Christ.  I think a fair reading, however, would also permit an interpretation that looks to our relentless drive to keep Jesus contained in a single corner of our lives.  We allow Jesus into our hearts from nine o’clock to eleven thirty on Sunday mornings, and maybe one evening a week, but will permit no trespassing beyond those boundaries.  We have created a sort of spiritual ghetto, excluding God from all but a narrow section of our lives.

Peter’s confession, his sermon, announces God’s radical, promiscuous hospitality:  all are welcome; Jesus is Lord over all; and his forgiveness is available to all.  Despite our best efforts, God’s love will overcome all our attempts to contain it.

During this season of Epiphany, we are drawn into images of light breaking into the darkness.  The star that came to rest over Bethlehem, the heavens torn open at Jesus’ baptism, and the transfiguration of Jesus:  all of these icons center on the astonishing entry of the “light of the world.”  I love physics and the study of light. If you’ve studied light much, you’ve noticed that when you’ve turned on a light switch, the light bathes every surface in a room.  Some of those surfaces, however, reflect light better than others.

I think that’s the case with our spiritual lives as well.  The light of Christ, having entered into the world has spread throughout all creation.  In some folks, that light is reflected back again, piercing and holding back the darkness.  Peter seems, despite his lesser angels, to have learned to reflect the light of Christ, and we properly remember him and his vision today.

Pax Christi,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

A Voice in the Darkness

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was. Then the LORD called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The LORD called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him. The LORD called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the LORD was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, `Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.'” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.Now the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.  And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord.  1 Sam. 3: 1-10; 19-21.

I have a theory.  My theory is this:  with surprising regularity, things tend to end much as they began.  In many respects, the story of the prophet Samuel seems to validate that notion.

Now, the prophet Samuel began his ministry during the first generation of Israel’s monarchy.  You’ll remember the story that Samuel’s mother (Hannah) was presumed to be barren.  Hannah begged God for a child, promising that if God would give her a son, she would offer the child as a Nazarite (who would not drink wine or strong drink nor shave his head).  Eli, the priest at the holy place of Shilo,  assured Hannah that she would have a son.

Once Hanna weened Samuel, she presented him at Shilo.  In a song remarkably similar to the Magnificat, Hannah sang that God had broken the bows of the mighty, raised the poor up from the dust, and seated the needy with princes.  It’s a striking song, full of political radicalism and foreshadowing Jesus’ promise that the first will be last and the last will be first.

That same notion will run throughout Samuel’s ministry.  Samuel would eventually turn his prophetic vision to Eli the priest.   Eli failed to restrain his sons who abused their power and blasphemed by eating the choice cuts of the sacrificial animals.  1 Sam. 2:12-17.  Similarly, Samuel warned the people of Israel against kings who would abuse their power and take advantage of the vulnerable.  Now, that’s a very old story:  the poor and the powerless suffer under the appetites of the strong.  Samuel would ultimately give voice to God’s conclusion that King Saul’s reign has come to an end. God thus instructed Samuel to anoint David as the King of Israel.

I wonder whether we again live in days “when the word of the Lord is rare.” How do we confront those two twin tremendous mysteries, the silence of God and the voice of God?  Maybe God’s silence arises from our regular failure to ask him for guidance, or our failure to listen when He does speak.  For many of us, like Samuel, we’re not exactly sure when we’re hearing the Lord’s voice, and we certainly know that the news will not always be popular.  As was the case with Samuel, once we’ve identified the voice of the Lord, there’s no guarantee anyone else will be receptive, or even interested.

Despite that, I always smile a bit and find great comfort  when the Lectionary rolls around to this reading. I smile because when I was a child, my parish priest told me that this was a story about what happens to little boys who fall asleep in church.  I find comfort because God calls to Samuel again and again throughout that night.  Regardless of our confusion, God can be remarkably persistent.  He can, in fact, hound us repeatedly while we’re trying to sleep.  God’s word has a remarkable capacity to interrupt and disturb us when we’re trying to do something else. I pray that you’ll listen for that voice, and that I will also.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

What Are You Looking For?

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’  John 1:35-39.

In the Daily Office today, we read the Gospel of John, which again offers us a fine reading for the season of Epiphany.  Once again, we encounter John the Baptist, this time on the day after Jesus’ baptism.  As Jesus passes by, John again announces that Jesus is the Lamb of God.  

Rather than stepping into the spotlight, John  illuminates Jesus.  That phrase, “the Lamb of God”, would have carried immediate connotations for his Jewish audience.  The Passover operated as the pivot point for the Jewish people’s understanding of their salvation, and the Passover meal was lamb.  John thus bears witness that Jesus offers their deliverance. 

Andrew and another of John’s disciples hear this startling announcement and begin following Jesus.  The next passage provides us with insight into the kind of man Jesus was.  John doesn’t record Jesus announcing his ministry in a dramatic proclamation.  Jesus doesn’t attract his disciples with miracles or a sermon or a sales pitch. There’s nothing ecstatic or charismatic in his response. A friend of mine has recently convinced me that all forms of ministry (teaching, preaching, liturgy, outreach, and evangelism) are, at their core, pastoral

Jesus’ first question to the disciples reveals his pastoral nature:  “What are you seeking?  What do you think is missing?”  The world brims with people who are looking for something:  God, happiness, wealth, enlightenment or something new and exciting.  Each of us who claims to follow Christ, however, should regularly ask ourselves that very question:  “What are you looking for?”  If our response is something other than Jesus, we might want to reorient our pursuits.  Jesus’ question may call to mind God’s first question to mankind, “Where are you?”  Gen. 3:9. 

The disciples then ask Jesus, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”  That translation leaves a bit to be desired.  Their question wasn’t so much “Where are you spending the night?”  Rather, they wanted to know where Jesus lived, where he dwelt, where he “abided.”  We would do well to think here of another passage in John’s Gospel:  “Abide in me as I abide in you.”  John 15:4.  The disciples aren’t asking so much about geography as they are beginning to probe his teaching, his “yoke”, and his idea of relationships.  Jesus’ remarkable response, “Come and see”, will shape the lives of his disciples forever. 

In the Gospel of John, the word “see” always involves something more than one might understand initially.  The Greek word orapo connotes more than visual observation.  It suggests spiritual vision, insight or understanding.  Jesus thus invites these two disciples to follow him, understand and find what they are looking for.  He’s extending the same invitation to you, and to me.

Pax,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2012 James R. Dennis

 

The Beloved

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Mark 1:4-11.

The Lectionary offers us this reading from Mark’s Gospel on this first Sunday of the season of Epiphany.  The Greek word epiphaino translates roughly as the appearance or manifestation of the light.  This Gospel reading fits perfectly within that idea, and you’ll remember that we previously discussed  Jesus had describing himself as the “light of the world.”

I’ve always been fascinated with the issue of Jesus’ understanding of himself:  what did the incarnate Lord understand about his role, and when did he begin to understand it?  The story of Jesus’ baptism offers us some remarkable insight into these questions.

The story begins with a character we’ve become familiar with, John the Baptist.  Now, at the time, the practice of ritual purification was fairly common.  John seems to have been doing something different, though, in this rite of baptism. More than just a ceremonial cleansing, John appears to have called  his followers to a spiritual act of  initiation.   Rather than a regular ritual purification, John seems to be engaged in something unique, radical and challenging at the time. 

John’s baptism would have challenged the institutional church of the day, offering baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  John lacked any institutional authority and forgiving sins lay within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Temple priests.  Like most of the prophets, John presents himself as a fanatic, an outsider and a critic of the status quo.  So, when Jesus endorses John’s ministry, his baptism itself challenged the authority of the Temple. 

Jesus shared in listening to John’s prophetic call. He waded into the same waters as the rest of John’s followers. He approaches John just as everyone else came to John. Thus, Jesus shared those waters with all humanity. And then, something astonishing happened….

Earlier, we talked about the collision of heaven and earth in Jesus’ nativity.  We discussed the notion that the Incarnation changed the very fabric of space and time.  We see those ideas reinforced in this remarkable story of the Epiphany, as God begins to reveal Himself, to “enlighten” the world a bit.

 As Jesus comes forth from the water, Mark reports that the heavens were “torn open.”  That terribly interesting phrase, “torn open”, suggests this was no peaceful, gentle encounter.  Mark uses that same word, “torn”, to describe the separation of the Temple curtain after Jesus “breathed his last” on Golgotha.  As the veil separating heaven and earth rips apart, the Spirit emerges.

These remarkable events unfold as Jesus (whose very name means “God saves”)  emerges from the water.  The story reverberates with the memory of the Jewish people emerging the Red Sea, their principle narrative of salvation.  And then, from the heavens, God claims Jesus as His son, the Beloved.

I’d encourage you to engage in an exercise.  I’d like you to think back to your own baptism.  And I’d like you to imagine that same voice announcing that you are God’s child, and His beloved.  I believe it’s important that we become acclimated to that idea.  It may offer the first step in going beyond celebrating an Epiphany to living out the Epiphany and spreading the light of Christ into the dark places of the world.  My friend, Father Mike Marsh noted recently ( here)  that God calls each of us to “become Epiphany”.  Our vocation and our challenge lies in manifesting God’s love, helping His people hear that voice as the heavens are torn apart.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

  © 2012 James R. Dennis