Monday, February 6, 2012

Homily for 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
5th Sunday of
Ordinary Time
Feb. 5, 2012
Mark 1: 29-39
Ursulines, Willow Dr., New Rochelle

“He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up. Then the fever left her” (Mark 1:31).

We can joke about Jesus having to heal Simon’s mother-in-law so that the men would have someone to “wait on them.” (You’ve heard the joke that asks how many men it takes to change a roll of toilet paper? No one knows, because it’s never been done.) Joking aside, that angle would miss one point Mark is certainly making in his telling of this episode, and another point he could have intended.

The certain point is that the cure of this woman—anonymous, unfortunately, like most of those whose lives Jesus touched, but more precisely described than the generic “all who were ill or possessed by demons” who were brought to him that evening, after the Sabbath rest was over—her cure is immediate (to use a favorite Marcan word) and complete. Mark is making a point about the awesome power at work in Jesus, his exercise of God’s power to make people whole, to defeat evil in any of its manifestations, whether that be the evil powers of the devil (the immediately preceding exorcism in the synagog as well as those done in the evening), the evil powers of disease, (later on) the evil powers of out-of-control nature, and finally the evil power of death.

The 2d point—which we may deduce from the story, whether Mark intended it or not—is the woman’s gratitude. She responds to what Jesus has done for her by doing what she can for him. She gives him her attention, her devotion, her service.

In the Collect today, we prayed that the Lord would “keep [his] family safe with unfailing care.” In effect, that’s what we see him doing here. If Simon has become his disciple, then Simon’s family has become part of Jesus’ family, and the Collect presents all of us disciples of Jesus as his family—for Baptism has put us all into a direct relationship with him as his sisters, his brothers, children of his Father. In this gospel story Jesus acts to care for his family—the immediate family of Simon, and the extended family of all the inhabitants of his adopted hometown, Capernaum: “When it was evening…they brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons. The whole town was gathered at the door. He cured many who were sick…, and he drove out many demons” (1:32-34). (Note that use of many: it doesn’t mean anyone was turned away; it means lots of people, and not just a few.[1])

He acts to restore their health—a word that would be rendered as salus in Latin, which in turn could mean in English also “safety” or “salvation,” depending on the context. I expected that the Latin of the Collect for “keep your family safe” would use a cognate of salus, tying together the gospel text and the prayer, tying together the physical cures and our eternal salvation; but, alas, it prays, instead, “Familiam tuam continua pietate custodi,” literally, “Stand guard over [or ‘Keep watch over’] your family with your continuing care” (“unfailing care” in the official version).

In any case, that familial concern which Jesus showed for Peter’s mother-in-law and his Capernaum neighbors is what we appeal for ourselves, reminding our Father that we’re family too. One commentary on the Collect states: “The Christian family is God’s family,” and it notes that “the word translated as ‘care’ (pietate) refers to the devotion between a parent and child.”[2]

Furthermore, like the humble townsfolk of Capernaum—who probably couldn’t afford such meager medical care as may have been available there—we depend utterly upon “the hope of heavenly grace” (Collect) for relief of our ailments. Unlike them, we ought to have a greater sense of what really ails us—our sins and the various maladies of our souls, our spirits, our psyches; we depend on the Father to offer us in Christ salus, which is more than bodily health; it’s spiritual salvation and the ultimate physical health: resurrection on the Last Day.

It is, finally, against that Last Day that we beg the Lord to “keep your family safe,” to stand guard over us, to protect us—the same prayer that we make several times a day: “Deliver us from evil”—from the Evil One, whom the Lord powerfully drives away thru his exorcisms, and from the ultimate evil of everlasting death. We expand upon that plea at every Eucharist: “Deliver us from every evil, that by the help of your mercy, we may be always free from sin…as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ” (Embolism after the Our Father). The Lord’s “unfailing care,” his defense of us “always by [his] protection” is what we pray for in the Collect, a spiritual and eschatological extension of what Jesus has done in this beginning of his public ministry.

Mark shows us over and over Jesus’ power to deliver us from evil in all its facets. In today’s passage he also shows us what made Jesus powerful against evil: “Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed” (1:35). An interesting verbal link here: in the Greek text, “Rising very early” is πρωϊ λίαν αναστάς, words that Mark will use again in ch. 16, v. 2, to tell us when the faithful women went to the tomb (λίαν πρωϊ), and in v. 9 that Jesus αναστάς. The Greek word for the Resurrection is ανάστασις (whence the girl’s name Anastasia). Jesus rises—to commune with his Father, in ch. 1 thru prayer, and in ch. 16 thru his return to the Father’s side. Rising very early in the morning isn’t essential to our prayer life, of course, but that language from Mark and that practice of Jesus does more than suggest the priority of prayer, of communion with the Father on his part, and on the part of all who belong to his family. God’s “heavenly grace” and “unfailing care” sought in constant prayer, in communion of heart and mind with the Father and the Son and the Spirit, is the way to our own ανάστασις.

Returning to Simon’s mother-in-law: she “waited on them” after he “grasped her hand and helped her up.” “Helped her up” could be translated also as “lifted her up” or “raised her up”—another resurrection allusion, tho here Mark uses a different verb, the same one he puts in the angel’s mouth at the tomb in 16:6. In this unnamed woman—who is thus a kind of Everywoman for those who hope to be “helped up”—we find the response that’s “right and just” for us, as well, to God’s saving actions on our behalf, the right response to “the hope of heavenly grace” on which we rely so hopefully, so confidently. That response of course is service: the service of adoration and praise, which is the heart of all our liturgical actions and much of our personal prayer; the service of carrying out our daily ministry and our daily life in community as acts of love for him and for the members of his family; the service of humble submission to his will, exemplified in Jesus’ mother: “I am the maidservant of the Lord; be it done to me as you say” (Luke 1:28) and “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5); the service, finally, of longing to be with him, not as servant but as friend (cf. John 15:13-15)—and for the religious sister, more than a friend, also a spouse.

[1] Cf. the new wording at the consecration at Mass.
[2] Daniel J. Merz and Marcel Rooney, OSB, Essential Presidential Prayers and Texts: Roman Missal Study Edition and Workbook (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2011), p. 168.

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