After thirteen densely-packed verses that recount the mission of John, the baptism of Christ, and his temptation in the desert, Jesus opens his mouth for the first time in last week’s gospel passage, marking the beginning of his public ministry. His words are terse and pithy: “Repent, and believe in the gospel.” A twofold action, Jesus calls his people to express remorse for their sins and turn back to God with all their hearts.
In our new message series for Lent, Mass Communication, we are exploring the various parts of our Sunday worship and what they say about our faith. The focal point this week is the Penitential Rite. In an action that is highly counter-cultural, we stand before God during the introductory rites of the Mass and openly confess in a public setting that we are sinners.
The rite absolves us of venial, or less serious, sins and prepares us spiritually to receive the Eucharist. Together we recall our common need for salvation and express sorrow for our false desires and the “pride of life” through which we have become our own gods.
There are three forms of the Penitential Rite. After one of them, the Confiteor or “I confess,” the assembly says or sings Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, Kyrie Eleison, which is Greek for “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.” It is one of the oldest known prayers of the Mass. After the assembly has confessed their sins, the priest prays for absolution.
The Scripture readings today emphasize the great value of the gift of Jesus to humankind. As Saint Paul writes, God the Father “did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all” (Romans 8:32). The story from the Book of Genesis in the first reading illustrates the precise nature of God’s sacrifice to redeem us from sin. The pain and anguish Abraham must have felt in nearly slaughtering his only son Isaac at God’s command prefigures the cross and shows the tender love the Lord has for all of us in giving his only Son to die for the human race.
The account of the Transfiguration in the gospel is similar. While it anticipates the Resurrection and future glory of Christ, it also comes immediately after the announcement of Jesus’ passion and death and therefore illuminates the whole journey to the cross that is to follow. When the presence of God appears in a cloud, the Father’s voice acclaims: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” Those words reveal a status that far exceeds that of Moses and Elijah with whom Jesus converses. It is no less than God’s own Son who will die on the cross.
The Penitential Rite ultimately gives way to the Gloria, a hymn of praise found in Christian prayer books as early as the year 380 A.D. The placement is deliberate because even while confessing our sins we anticipate the remarkable favor of God’s forgiveness, born out of the greatest gift we could ever know, the death of God’s own precious Son.
Over the last five weeks in our Sunday message series called, It’s Better In Here, we have been reflecting on all the reasons that our lives are enriched when we come to church. In our homilies and the bulletin articles written by parishioners, we have shared the beauty, goodness, and truth that we discover in church. More so than anywhere else, we find in our cozy parish transcendence, peace, support, stability, guidance, love, welcome, and total belonging. It is the one place in our world where it is truly safe to ask questions and where we can contribute our talents to the mission of God and feel valued.
The source and summit of this spiritual wealth is rooted in the Mass we celebrate every Sunday. Indeed, “the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows” (Vatican II, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, n. 10).
That’s why I’m so excited about our new Lenten message series that we’re calling, Mass Communication. Each week we’ll reflect on the various parts of the Mass and what they say about our faith. This series is a tremendous opportunity for all of us to deepen our understanding and appreciation of “the greatest prayer of the Church.”
Today, we welcome Bishop William Justice, auxiliary bishop emeritus of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, who will speak at all the Masses on the often-missed richness of the simple Gathering Rite that we celebrate at the beginning of each Mass.
In the short gospel reading today, Jesus sums up the core of his message, when he urges his listeners to “[r]epent and believe in the gospel” because it “is the time of fulfillment.” God now is breaking into history to fulfill his promises and bring his whole plan to completion in the kingdom embodied in the person of Jesus.
After the Great Flood described in the first reading, “every creature—human and nonhuman—is assured that God is still the Creator and that the basic divine relationship to the world still holds.” (Fretheim, Terence. The Pentateuch. Abingdon Press, 1996, 82). Indeed, the flood itself, as St. Peter points out in the second reading, actually “prefigured baptism.” The covenant that God established in the post-flood account through the rainbow sets the stage for his great work of redemption in salvation history that began with Abraham in the Old Testament and culminated in the salvation offered to us through baptism by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
The Gathering Rite of the Mass rallies Christians every Sunday to celebrate this new covenant in Christ Jesus. In the solemn entrance procession, the singing by the assembly, the wafting of incense, the greeting by the presider, the Gloria and the opening prayer collecting the many strands of the people’s individual concerns, we recognize our unity as the gathered people of God. Our thoughts turn to the mystery of the liturgy through which we experience, once again, the unbreakable promises of God.
It’s not often that I consult the Urban Dictionary, an online glossary of slang words and streetwise lexicon. Searching for the perfect word to describe the behavior of the healed leper in the gospel reading this weekend, however, it seemed necessary.
According to an entry made by “Pistol Packin’ Pappy” in 2010 on the crowdsourced dictionary website, the word “reppin’”—which is short for “representing”—means “to be showing off your colors, letting the world know who’s your crew and hood.” According to a secondary definition in the local patois, the word also means to be “[g]etting up in someone’s face to let them know who you are, who you run with, and where you hang.”
The gospel reading tells us that the man Jesus healed of leprosy “spread the report abroad.” In other words, he was representing by letting the world know that Jesus healed him of the terrible disease and was now his crew.
Indeed, leprosy was an incurable disease and a death sentence that imposed a total quarantine. As the first reading says, the Law of Moses required that lepers, once diagnosed by a priest, be declared “unclean.” To identify himself and thereby avoid accidental contact with a healthy individual, the leper was required to wear tattered clothing, leave his head bare, muffle his beard, wear a bell around his neck, and cry out “unclean, unclean,” in order to warn others of his immediate presence.
Combined with the common physical ailments of sores, disfigurement, loss of limbs, and blindness, the anguish of leprosy was absolute. I can only imagine the sense of joy and relief the healed man experienced when Jesus made the bold move of stretching out his hand in pity and touching the defiled individual with his curative power. Covering his tracks to avoid sensationalism, Jesus warned the man not to publicize his recovery. Apparently unable to contain his delight, however, he began reppin’ Jesus everywhere.
In this book, To Light A Fire on the Earth, Bishop Robert Barron identifies a spiritual hunger in every human being, a “hungry heart, hungry for God, and that means we’re ordered for something that goes beyond . . . what we can see and [that] . . . [n]o amount of the merely natural will satisfy the hungry heart” (Crown Publ’g, 2017, 138). Unlike the leper restored to health, however, too many of us fail to recognize this deep hunger fully or how Christ satiates it. As a result, we do not represent Christ to the world as we should.
The term, New Evangelization, began with an Italian priest, Monsignor Luigi Guissani, who “drew the conclusion that what Western culture really needed was . . . a new determination to preach Christ to the world” (Id., 116).
For five weeks now, we have shared all the reasons we believe that It’s Better In Here than out there: beauty, goodness, truth, verticality, and a sense of belonging and being valued. Now, it’s time to rep it out there! Invite someone to church.
After demons flee helplessly at Jesus’ command in last week’s gospel reading, he walks the short distance from the synagogue in Capernaum to the home of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, in this week’s gospel, and heals her of a serious and most likely life-threatening illness. Soon thereafter, he cures many people in the village.
Although the New Testament records numerous healings—by one account, at least 37—the gospel passage today poignantly reveals the tenderness with which the sick and suffering are attended to by Jesus. In the case of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, he “grasped her hand, and helped her up,” a detail that reveals his kindheartedness. In the case of the people who were cured, the Greek word used in the passage (therapeuō) suggests more than a physical remedy. The implication is that Jesus was therapeutic, spending time ministering on a personal level to each malade. Not interested merely in removing the source of the suffering, he compassionately cares for every person individually.
Also inspiring is that it was the disciples of Christ and those drawn to him who brought the sick for him to heal. Simon and Andrew with James and John told Jesus about Simon’s mother-in-law, and the gospel passage says that “they brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons” (Mark 1:32). In another instance, four men hacked through a roof and lowered a paralytic man on a stretcher to see Jesus (Mark 2:1-12). Later the people “scurried about the surrounding country and began to bring in the sick on mats” (Mark 6:55). In another passage, Jesus opened the ears of a deaf man brought to him by the people (Mark 7:32). Likewise, when he arrived at Bethsaida, “they brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him” (Mark 8:23). Over and over again, it was the compassion of those seeking Jesus who made the effort to bring the sick to him for healing.
Next week, the Church celebrates World Day of the Sick. People everywhere take time to pray on this day for those who are ill and for those who work to alleviate their suffering. In our own parish, I have witnessed the healing power of Christ in the kindness of our members, from parishioners scheduled to visit the sick every week to the simple act of assisting an elderly parishioner down the aisle to receive communion.
So far in our five-week message series, It’s Better In Here, we have claimed that the church, as opposed to the world, is the best place to discover beauty, goodness, and truth, as well as a direct connection to the transcendent God. But it’s also better in here because healing from life’s wounds can be found in this place. If you are willing to entrust yourself to others and open up about your own struggles, you will discover the restorative power of Christ in the loving and caring hands of the People of God, who will carry you to Jesus.
Father Roger Gustafson