We continue our journey of churches along the road. On Sunday we attended Mass at Transfiguration Church in Tarrytown, NY, on busy U.S. 9. The church itself has a verdant or sylvan setting, although the continuing cold drizzle that lingered through most of Sunday kept me from leisurely enjoying the property. The church itself, staffed by the Carmelites, I believe, is an attractive post-Vatican II structure which is about three quarters circular, providing good sight lines to the altar, and the pews are slightly elevated to also increase visibility.
We attended the 10 AM Mass, which I assume to be the conventual Mass of the weekend. Attendance was modest; the church was at best half full, but I could not attribute that to any great deficiencies in the liturgy or preaching. There actually is another Catholic Church in the same town, and typically when on the road I try to do the math to assess if a community will be able survive numerically and financially. Tarrytown is in the Archdiocese of New York, which has been consolidating parishes for some years. I should add here that Tarrytown borders Sleepy Hollow, of Ichabod Crane fame.
This morning we attended Mass in a bishop's private chapel along with his Vicar General and Director of Vocations. We are fortunate enough to have a presiding bishop in the Northeast as a close friend, and he invited us to visit yesterday and stay overnight. We met him at the chancery, and he proceeded to give us a tour of the seat of his diocese before we retired to the episcopal residence for a long and leisurely dinner. Two of his priest chancery officials live with him, and the conversation was stimulating and humorous.
What struck me was the absence of "crisis mode" that I am seeing in many quarters of the Catholic press and many blog sites. The bishop and his staff seem very forward looking on new ministries (parish nursing care, for one example) and strengthening ministries that have proven successful in the past, such as Catholic schools. Our host believes in them very strongly. I would have liked to have engaged with him about his diocese's religious education program, but the opportunity did not present. The Vicar General did describe for me over breakfast an adult faith sharing program that appears to be catching on in his diocese, but as I was stabbing Irish butter on homemade rolls, I did not get a chance to write it down.
I will say that given all of the public things they are asked to do, in church and civil settings, there are few cohorts of men anywhere with treasuries of humorous anecdotes than bishops.p
We have a very interesting selection from St. Mark coming up this weekend, and an even more interesting passage that never made the Sunday Lectionary cut. Last weekend’s story of the calming of the seas will be followed liturgically by next week’s lengthy excursus of Mark 5: 21-43, the “miracle within a miracle” account of the healing of the young daughter of Jairus, a synagogue official, interrupted by the anonymous intrusion of a woman suffering from a gynecological disorder. But before plunging into next weekend’s text, it is worth our time to look at the Markan material that was passed over by the lectionary editors, Mark 5:1-20, the healing of the “Gerasene demoniac.”
The graphic detail of this exorcism, along with the dialogue and spectacular events described, may have led the Church to omit this substantive text on the grounds that given the confines of the Sunday Mass, there would simply be a lack of time to adequately explain all the questions raised. In brief, Mark 5:1-20 describes Jesus’ encounter with a possessed man (generally interpreted today as a form of mental disorder.) This unfortunate man wandering among tombs (demonic haunts), having broken his chains, apparently was a well-known and feared figure in his territory. Mark gives significant detail, including the man’s self-cutting to release his demons. Jesus addresses the demons within him, who identify themselves as “legion,” either many or possibly 100 such spirits. Jesus expels them into a herd of swine, who run down the hillside and hurl themselves into the sea and drown.
The locals are terrified. Commentators in the Jerome Biblical Commentary add, ironically, that they may have been upset about the monetary cost of their herds. Quite a crowd gathers, and in unison they ask Jesus to go away. The possessed man is now cured, communicative, and evidently moved by this dramatic turn of events, and asks the departing Jesus if he can join the Twelve! Jesus instead blesses the man’s own preaching endeavors to the region of the Ten Cities. As Mark has constructed this narrative from a much more modest narrative, it is worthwhile for those of you reading the entire Gospel of Mark to study the text and commentary at close range.
It is upon this incident that Jesus returns to Jewish territory, and here our Sunday reading begins with Jairus’s request on behalf of his seriously ill (but not dead) daughter. Jesus agrees to go to the home in the company of a large crowd, reflecting the importance of Jairus in the community. What makes this narrative so memorable is what happens on the way. Unknown to Jesus, a woman is seeking him out. She is suffering from a hemorrhage that has afflicted her for a dozen years. Mark inserts some catty observations about her doctors, (5:26) observing that they have treated her for years, taken her money, and made her condition progressively worse.
The key point of this episode is the nature of the illness. Menstruation was a time of periodic uncleanness for Jewish women; imagine the plight of a woman for whom this is a constant state. She demonstrates an understandable fear of announcing her condition in front of Jesus and a crowd; and yet, she manifests great faith, with the belief that just touching his garment hem anonymously will bring her the healing of the Kingdom of God.
Wondrous to behold, she is right! Mark emphasizes that the power of God goes forth from Jesus without his knowing it, leading his disciples in an exasperated state when Jesus asks, “Who touched me?” Mark notes that the woman herself was instantly cured, and instantly clean from a ritual standpoint, allowing Jesus to observe the Law while conversing with her and blessing her faith.
As Jesus is concluding this healing episode, word reaches Jairus and the crowd that the girl has in fact died. Jesus, in the face of probably a desolate crowd, indicates that “fear is useless, what is needed is trust.” In this respect Mark has linked the absolute faith of the previously hemorrhaging woman to a group whose faith is weak and eventually deteriorates into scorn. Jesus allows only Peter, James and John (the “A team” in numerous Gospel texts) to witness what happens next. Upon arriving at the house, Jesus must work himself through excessive mourners. Among the affluent, the custom was to hire “professional mourners,” and Jesus disdain for them is only slightly less than for the money changers in the temple.
In the presence of his disciples and the parents, Jesus takes the girl’s hand and commands, “Little girl, get up.” Mark immediately qualifies the term “little girl” by including the fact that “she was a child of twelve.” This is not a simple biographical observation. “Twelve years old” is the age of first menses, give or take, and the evangelist connects these two geographically distant miracles with a common point—the Kingdom of God has been extended to women, in this instance women of child bearing years. Paul may have put this theological principle with more elegance, when he writes that “in Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew or Gentile.” But Mark has made the same point that the Kingdom of God has indeed turned the world upside down, and that women as well as men are full partakers in the Kingdom, now and to come.
It is worth noting that Jesus bids those present not to tell anyone about this miracle (as if it could be hidden), but this is a common command of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel. For some years academics wrote extensively about “The Messianic Secret” characteristic of Mark’s Gospel, but that emphasis has declined significantly in the later twentieth century.
This Sunday we rejoin the Gospel narrative of Mark on the Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time. We pick up in Chapter 4 (4:26-34) with an intriguing series of parables about plant life. Parables in general present great challenges to scripture scholars. While there is little doubt that Jesus actually taught in parable form, the questions they pose are numerous. The first challenge, of course, is that parables are by their nature mysterious. Mark noticed this, to be sure, and he (or possibly an editor) actually adds an explanation at the end of Sunday’s reading, noting that “by means of many such parables he taught them the message in a way they could understand. To them he spoke only by way of parable, while he kept explaining things privately to his disciples.”
The language here is tricky: the text states that the general listener could understand, not necessarily that he did understand parabolic teaching. In fact, Mark 11:12ff presents an intriguing action/interpretation parable that creates considerable consternation among the disciples. In Chapter 11 Jesus curses a fig tree which evidently was quite lush but bore no edible fruit. He then proceeds to the temple where he dramatically expels the moneychangers. Returning along the same route, the disciples discover that this same fig tree is now brown and withered. Peter can hardly contain himself. There is general agreement today that the fig tree represented the official life of the Temple: lush and lovely to behold, but ultimately bereft of fruit. Ironically Jesus’ enemies may have sensed the underlying message better than his disciples, for accusations of Jesus’ intentions to destroy the Temple are reported in the Markan trial narrative.
Another challenge to understanding parables is the tendency of the three Synoptic Gospels to cluster them in series. (St. John’s Gospel did not include parables.) Sunday’s reading includes two parables; both connected by the generic theme of the Kingdom or Reign of God, but clearly separate pieces of literature and probably oral transmission. The first describes a man sowing an unspecified seed—its product suggests grain—and beginning a chain of events that are mysterious even to him. The plants grow relentlessly through the various phases of development, and the climax of this parable is the moment of fruition and the man “wields his sickle” “for the time is ripe for harvest.”
The editors of the Lectionary may have done well to stop here, because the inclusion of the second parable about the mustard seed actually distracts from the first, and I will bet you a pound of Panera Hazelnut Coffee that preachers around the world will preach generically about the Word of God as “seed” that needs to grow. This would be an excellent Sunday, however, to preach about the nature and purpose of parables.
The scholarly community today is in general agreement that parables were and are theological statements about the Kingdom of God, its nature, signs, time of arrival, etc. There are few subjects of New Testament study more intensely followed than the Kingdom of God. As of a few moments ago, Amazon.com listed 157,610 separate works under a search title “Kingdom of God.” It would be impossible to even summarize this work here, but recall our introduction to Mark earlier this year, “Repent, turn from your sins, for the reign of God is at hand.” Matthew, Mark and Luke are in agreement that a future is looming, both benign (Luke’s Prodigal Son) and awful (John the Baptist’s separation of chaff for the roaring fire—cut by that ever-present sickle we just saw in Mark’s parable.) I should add here that the Evangelist John does not have parables precisely because he believes the Kingdom has come; “he who believes in me (now) has life.”
Parables are of their nature unclear and mysterious precisely because they are analogies of a reality that is unclear and mysterious. In our parable at hand (the first one) for this Sunday, we have emphasis upon a man who is both a doer and a witness. He sows, then lives his life as a process takes place before his eyes that he does not understand, but yet lives in expectation of a fruitful end. The inclusion of the word “sickle” has interesting overtones; for us non-farmers the Palestinian harvesting process involved separating the desired grain from inevitable weeds, in a time long before pesticides.
The second parable this Sunday presents a significant literary and theological contrast. In this parable Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to the specific “mustard seed” which he describes as “the smallest of all the earth’s seeds.” At the NCEA Convention in April one of the exhibitors was marketing tiny containers of mustard seed, which looked to me like bits of ground cinnamon. But Jesus goes on to describe the remarkable growth of such seed into “the largest of shrubs.” Already the irony of smallest to largest is established, but Jesus adds another twist: the branches are big enough “for the birds of the air to build nests in its shade.” This last clause connects the new concept of the Kingdom of God with the apocalyptic passages from Isaiah, where a promise is made of a coming day when all the nations of the world would stream to Jerusalem bearing gifts (presumably for safety and protection?) Isaiah 60: 1-6 is, incidentally, the first reading for the feast of the Epiphany.
And on we could go. The key to the enrichment from the parables is to celebrate the yet unfolding mystery of God’s workings while respecting the autonomy of their telling. As Jesus himself observed, seeds essentially do the same thing, but they are certainly not all the same.
This coming Sunday we rejoin St. Mark’s Gospel in the B Cycle of readings. During the entire Lenten/Easter cycle of feasts, Mark was read only twice: the Passion narrative on Palm Sunday and the Resurrection narrative at the Mass of the Easter Vigil. This coming Sunday, the feast of Corpus Christi, segments of Mark’s Gospel from the Last Supper narrative will be proclaimed. On the week following, June 14 or the Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, the ongoing narrative from Mark will be resumed, more or less where we left off in February.
The Feast of Corpus Christi is very accurately discussed in Wikipedia, which records that the feast has its roots among communities of women mystics in the early 1200’s, particularly Juliana of Liège, Belgium. One of the significant discoveries of modern scholarship is the widespread activity and attraction of mystics throughout medieval times, particularly in the Lowlands. The Eucharist was the center of much local piety, and there seemed to be regret that the only true feast of the Eucharist on the Church calendar was Holy Thursday, which even in today’s Missal ends on a somber note of the stripping of the altars. Corpus Christi was established on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, originally as a holy day of obligation. In my youth the feast was celebrated on Thursday, but the solemn procession took place the following Sunday after the high Mass. The 1970 calendar allows for the feast to be celebrated as a Holy Day on Thursday or, as in the U.S., a Sunday solemnity.
As a side note, Corpus Christi has long been a day of processions. I remember walking in my parish’s procession in my white first communion suit with the class. My own diocese presently holds one in downtown Orlando. Pope Francis will process between two of Rome’s greatest churches, St. John Lateran and St. Mary Major. (St. John’s is the home of the heads of Sts. Peter and Paul, or so the claim is made. I’m on the fence about that.)
The Gospel, not surprisingly, focuses on the reality of the Eucharistic meal as the New Passover (14: 12-16) and the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ (14: 22-26). At the time of the establishment of this feast medieval universities were formulating the technical language of Eucharistic understanding. The term we use today in textbooks is transubstantiation, a change from the reality of bread and wine to the living body and blood of Jesus Christ. The doctrine of Real Presence is one of the central mysteries of the Catholic faith, and probably a mystery that is long due for pastoral reeducation.
The one danger inherent in discussion of Eucharistic presence and personal piety is a lapse into physicalism, or a preoccupation with the miracle to the exclusion of its overall meaning in the life of the Church. After all, if the entire meaning of the Eucharistic sacrament is the presence of God, we would be in the same position as pre-Diaspora Jews who believed that God lived in the Holy of Holies. Jesus himself, a Jew who lived in that era, spoke little about the temple and a great deal about the heart and conduct of the true believer. He replaced a practice of objective divine presence with a highly personal one, inviting each believer to ingest himself—a teaching so difficult that most of his followers left him, as we will hear later this summer in the five weeks of John’s Gospel, chapter 6.
Thus the study of the Eucharist has shifted from the metaphysical to the Biblical and liturgical sciences in the last century. The epic work on the Scriptural Last Supper narratives is The Eucharistic Words of Jesus by Joachim Jeremias. This work was written in 1955 but was recently republished. (Amazon Prime is currently out of copies, a sign of the book’s enduring usefulness.) I wouldn’t recommend it as a cold purchase, but if you are planning advanced studies in liturgy, and you see a decent copy sitting in an offbeat bookstore for $6.95, grab it.
Biblical scholarship has truly defined a greater understanding of the Eucharist by restoring its connection to Jewish Passover. The phrase “do this in memory of me” has tremendous power in Jewish context, as the act of “remembering” is to bring into this moment the reality and effect of the thing remembered. Passover is an obvious case in point: to this day Jews celebrate the liberating deeds of God through Moses not as a 3000th anniversary, but as a restoral of the very moment. As the Synoptic Gospels clearly identify the Last Supper as a Passover, Jesus is establishing a Hebrew-like memorial where his saving crucifixion and resurrection become real in the moment whenever break is broken in his “memory.” I should say that the English language has no equivalent word or term for the Jewish sense of memorial, so our catechetics often comes up short….unless one is biblically oriented.
I have no idea if those Lowland medieval mystics understood all of this Biblical history behind the Eucharistic sacrament….but they sure had a good idea.