Sunday, Sunday, 31st January 2021
Fourth Sunday of Year (B)
Dt 18:15-20, 1 Cor 7:32-25, Mk 1:21-18
Today’s gospel has Jesus preaching in Capernaum in Galilee. This was a politically contested part of the world where the Jewish world met the Greek and Roman worlds and several of the major trade routes from Egypt to Babylon passed through the area too. So it’s a frontier area where identities clashed and political power caused considerable instability, and this is the town which Matthew calls Jesus’ city (Matt 9:1). There’s an amazing set of archaeological remains of a synagogue in Capernaum which shows influences from several cultures – Roman, Greek and Syrian elements – living alongside each other in a jumble that shows the pliability of the local people’s cultural world, and this is where Jesus preaches more than anywhere. And yet this city rejected him. They didn’t drive him out or threaten him; they just didn’t accept his message; they were just indifferent.
So how does today’s gospel fit into this scene? Hearing this story about the possessed man brings a shiver to some of us, and a wry smile for others. For some, it is the uncomfortable fringe of religion; an unsettling esoterism. Is this is where faith meets the eerie and the weird? For others, this is part of the historical dross that comes with Christianity having arisen before the modern psychiatry: it is just one more bit that needs to be dumped. For most people I suspect it’s just another thing that doesn’t seem important one way or the other: another bit of religion that just slips over us. But I think that this story has important things to say to us. The man possessed isn’t possessed by just one demon but by several. And I think if we’re honest we can all identify with that, we all have several demons. The idea of calling these demons out into the clear light of day, modern psychology tells us, will remove their power over the sufferer. Jesus has the authority to call these out and he also has the power to remove their power. The work of identifying our own demons and bringing them to light simply and honestly is part of our life’s work just as the business of understanding this Christ of faith we have met and followed is a life’s work.
All around the world at the moment there are street protests from Washington to Moscow, Amsterdam to Tunis, from Santiago to Lagos and to Warsaw. People all around the world feel themselves out of step with their governments and societies in a way that doesn’t seem capable of being expressed through more conventional and less confrontational means of debate. It’s like a great bubbling up of discontent that had heretofore been kept under wraps. The lockdowns associated with the pandemic mean that we may have similar feelings of tectonic pressures shifting within us ourselves, and things bubble up that may surprise and upset us, not to mind in our societies and communities. Joseph Biden the American president in his recent inauguration noted “Many centuries ago, Saint Augustine, a saint in my church, wrote that a people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love, defined by the common objects of their love”. There’s a part of the Catholic identity that’s happy to be affirmed in such a public fashion on so large a stage, a bit like cheering for the Catholic greyhound in the derby. Be that as it may, St Augustine’s point and Mr Biden’s paraphrase is worth noting. The bishop of Hippo noted “If one should say, ‘a people is the association of a multitude of rational beings united by a common agreement on the objects of their desire,’ then it follows that to observe the character of a people we must examine the objects of its love.” (St. Augustine, City of God 19.24) For Augustine there can be really only two loves: the love of self and the love of God. If one of those is a candidate for the common bond of our modern societies, it is not I fear perhaps the latter. But Biden to be fair to him is asking what does unite us, for the good reason that our ability to live together in peace seems so very fraught and strained. Our ability to share common lives and loves to bind our societies and communities seems imperiled. Biden answered that question suggesting opportunity, security, truth, respect and dignity were the core values that unite. Of course one speech isn’t going to unite a country but it’s a start. Analogously St Mark’s sees Jesus call up the rival contestatory spirits and expel so much of that which is contrary to the love God.
In a world as fractured as ours appears to be, the steady work of Christians has to involve opening ourselves to God’s power to transform and call out that which is contrary to his graceful love at work in us, and our Church. This is the work of a lifetime for sure. But it is also a work to which we can merely be indifferent like the people of Capernaum.Reading Pope Francis’s recent letter “Let Us Dream.” He writes that times of crisis reveal our hearts–how big, how small. Normal times are like a formal dinner. We can put on nice clothes. Hide our faces behind prepared expressions. Say the right things. The crisis lays us naked. Unprepared. The Pope says the general rule of a crisis is that you do not exit unchanged. The crisis will change you especially if you attempt to remain the same. So when we’re trying we are trying to figure out the pandemic and the political rersentments broiling across the world we should set ourselves the task of coming out better or we’ll find that without consciously willing it, we are much worse than we thought we were to begin with.