Homilies for September 2015

Christ healing the blind man by Brian Jekel; Christ Crucified by Diego Velazquez, 1632

Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year “B”—September 6, 2015

Readings: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/090615.cfm 

Ephphatha! “Be opened!”

Mark’s Gospel is rather racy in style, if we may call it “style,” for in literary terms it lacks “style.” From the outset, Mark jumps into his proclamation. No “preliminaries,” just a brief text from the Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah announcing John the Baptist, and then—so to speak—“bang, bang, bang” with one sentence strung upon another with “And” (Kai), as we see in Mark 1:9, where the original text reads, “And it came to pass in those days that Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee came {to John…}.” Your Bible may read differently, but that’s because of the desire of translators to “improve” the crude literary form of Mark.

Yet, the astonishing thing is that Mark’s Gospel, the briefest of the four Gospels, is the origin of a new literary type: what we call “Gospel.” The “newness” of this literary type is that Mark uses a narrative of events strung together in a way that seems rough, from an aesthetic viewpoint, to create a new literary type. This new literary type, this “Gospel,” achieves a proclamation by a selective narrative of historical events. The climax in this narration is the Resurrection. There is a complication here, because chapter 16—his last chapter—has manuscript variants. But, the crucial thing is to note the proclamation, “He is not here; he is risen … he goes before you to Galilee” (Mk 16:6-7).

Why have I jumped to chapter 16, when today’s excerpt is from chapter 7, and is early in Jesus’ ministry in Galilee? I jump because each hearing of one portion of the Gospel needs to be read in the context of the whole Gospel, and particularly in the context of the sweep and the climax of the Gospel: the Resurrection of Jesus.

You see, it is the Resurrection that is the final disclosure of, and the final witness to, the Person of Jesus, and to the work of the Person of Jesus.

Now, return to today’s text, and ask why Jesus drew the blind man aside, and why Jesus ordered him not to tell anyone of his healing. Why? The scholars have referred to this as the “Messianic Secret.” Well, I do not think that Jesus was trying to keep his mission as Messiah “secret.” And neither is Mark trying to keep it “secret” in his recounting of the acts and the teachings of Jesus. The crucial issue is how we understand the Messiah, the Anointed One?

Clearly, Jesus did not want his Person to be understood as the “wonder-worker,” and even—I am bold to say—as the “teacher,” even though his disciples often named him Rabbi (Teacher). Almost every miracle of healing that Jesus performs in the Gospels is in response to a cry. Every healing is a response of a mercy plea: “And people brought to him a deaf man who had a speech impediment and begged him to lay his hand on him” (Mk 7:32). Jesus responds to this plea, but he responds with a taking aside, and then a charge of silence.

Why? Because the crux of the work of Jesus is the Cross. The crux of the work of Jesus is his offering in abandonment at Calvary: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani!?” (Mk 15:34). As with our text today, Ephphatha! The evangelist preserves the Hebrew words of Our Lord. The “opening” of today’s gospel text in the sweep of St Mark’s Gospel is the disclosure of the One who opens the Kingdom of Heaven {to all believers}. This is the heart of the Markan gospel. The person of the Messiah, is not firstly a wonder-worker, nor even firstly a teacher, but firstly a Savior.

Let us then be like the poor, of whom St James speaks in today’s Epistle portion, let us be the poor who are rich in faith and thus heirs of the kingdom of God, and hear for ourselves Jesus’ word, Ephphatha! “Be opened!”

Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year “B”—September 13, 2015

Readings: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/091315.cfm


Today’s Gospel is a confronting one. The Gospels are often confronting, and all too often we respond too easily, “Praise be to you, Lord Jesus!” Whereas we might be more reserved if we were at Caesarea Philippi, and heard these awesome words, “Whoever would save his life will lose it” (Mk 8:35). Clearly, Peter had not already made this precept his own, and maybe up to Our Lord’s death, he had not made this precept his own—for voicing an oath, he denied Jesus during his arrest and sham trial leading to his tortured execution (Mk 14:71). And, it is likely, that most of my hearers today, and maybe even the preacher, have not have made this precept their own. Typically, the tests that we face under this precept are not momentous, as they were for those first disciples. Typically, our tests are so small that we even do not notice them—even do not notice that we fail the precept, fail the test.

We do not notice because we do not recognize that small, self-serving acts are denials of this precept. When we keep quiet when a small injustice is done (or even where a large injustice is done!); when we step aside from taking an action because it would be inconvenient to us; when we unthinkingly and unnecessarily detract another person. All such actions, or inactions, follow the precept of “saving one’s life,” and in fact “lose one’s life.” While the contrary actions, even if they do not quite “lose one’s life”—since they may be but small inconveniences—nevertheless, in a cumulative sense, tend toward the “losing of one’s life.” Yet, in the precept, as here enunciated by Our Lord, brings one to “gain one’s life.” One may “gain one’s life” where small and cumulative acts signal and enact a life that is true to the precept of Christ our Savior.

The more that we are habituated to such “losing one’s life,” the more we are able to say with the prophet Isaiah, as in today’s Old Testament reading: “The Lord is my help, therefore, I am not disgraced…” (Is 50:7). In this manner, we are less inclined to what is convenient and self-serving to ourselves, or by the general expectations of those with whom we have to deal. In brief, for most of us, it is not in high drama, but in low and everyday drama that we “lose our lives” and enter the discipline of Christ that “saves our lives”! With ourselves, and with our children, and with our friends, and with our adversaries, we should not allow onto our lips, and into our attitudes, the sentiments of St Peter when he rebuked Our Lord in his prophecy of suffering. Sometimes, it is even the Prince of the Apostles, even a Pope, even a Bishop, who can show us what should not be our attitude and behavior by their very attitudes and behaviors that are contrary to those of Jesus! St. Mark the Evangelist wants us to note this! He wants us to note well that our reference point should not firstly be bishops, priests, and deacons, but Jesus, and with ourselves in direct relation to Jesus as a disciple who is under the Savior’s discipline: “He who would follow me…” (Mk 8:34).

With this perspective in view, we are now poised to notice something else that is crucial in this Gospel excerpt of today: “But turning and seeing his disciples, Jesus rebuked Peter…” (Mk 8:33). I want you to focus on that phrase, turning and seeing his disciples. You see, it is for us, for those who should follow afterwards, that Jesus embraces the Way of the Cross.

The prophecy of the Passion was Jesus’ answer to the will of God the Father; but the will of God the Father was for the restoration of a fallen race, for our restoration to divine grace and favor. And it is the sight of his disciples that so surely orients Our Lord in his enacted adherence to his prophecy of the Passion. In the exact context here examined, “his disciples” are the Eleven (twelve minus Peter), but in our contemporary reading, “the disciples” are the common folk—the people in the pews today, and the people who are not in the church pews today. It is for such persons to whom Jesus turns; and in turning, views, and in seeing, rebukes, rebukes the first among the Twelve, who would have the Master turn aside from what was “saving his life.” For Jesus did indeed “save his life” by “losing his life”: his Resurrection and Ascension and Glorification are the corollary of his “losing his life,” according to the precept he here enunciates, and according to the saving will of God the Father. It is for us, the weak and sinful; it is for “turning to us” that Jesus walked the Way of the Cross! In all the events and acts of our lives, this fact must be our guide: Jesus has gone before us, and goes before us. We as disciples follow; and as disciples, do “save our lives”!

Lastly, let us note the sober words of St James: our discipleship is not of words, or not firstly of words, but of actions: our faith is “demonstrated by our works” (Jas 2:18).


Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year “B”—September 20, 2015

Readings: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/092015.cfm

The Teaching Is Difficult

Today’s Gospel from St. Mark comes after the Transfiguration experience on Mount Tabor, and the first prophecy of the Passion. This is the second of three prophecies of the Passion in Mark that are the prelude to the journey to Jerusalem. Again, in today’s Gospel the teaching of the disciples (in this case, the Twelve) is in private, as “{Jesus} did not want anyone to know about it” (Mk 9:30). Again, some authors treat this under the heading of the “Messianic Secret.” I do not subscribe to that understanding; rather, it is that the teaching is difficult, and it takes time for it to be understood aright. In this instance, we do not have Peter challenging Jesus; rather, Mark records that “they did not understand, and they were afraid to question Jesus” (Mk 9:32).

When people “are afraid to question” it typically is because they don’t want to look silly, and when they recognize that the mental set that they have encountered is strange to them. That is, most typically, the response in the face of such “not understanding” is weak and evasive. We, however, should not overlook the word in the reading from the book of Wisdom, where the response is confrontational. Perhaps, you may think, “Oh, yes, we see such responses occasionally of the kind ‘let us beset {such a one} because he is obnoxious to us, and sets himself against our doings’ ” (Wis 2:12).

Further, this recognition of such “occasional” responses really deflects the truth of the matter—for in truth the “besetting” is common, but it is more mild, and more covert. The parishioner who doesn’t go along with the common understanding, or the common behavior, becomes an outsider; and where the pastor tries to bring inwards the outsider—such as by assigning responsibilities—it is not uncommon to notice those who consider themselves to be the insiders taking offense and acting covertly to undermine the inclusion of those who displease them. Such behavior is usually conducted with a kind of sham courtesy that does not descend to words like, “Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for … God will take care of him” (Wis 2:20). But the character of the behavior is of the same kind—briefly, the behavior is un-Christian and, yet, it can be pervasive in Catholic congregations. “This must not be so among you!” (Mk 10:43).

Such behavior is more directly reported in St. Mark where the disciples are said to have been discussing among themselves on the way as to who was greatest (Mk 9:34). And we have Our Lord’s enacted teaching of setting a child in their midst with the words, “Whoever receives one such child in my name, receives me…” (Mk 9:37). Maybe you, my hearers, think that I am laboring the point too much. But I assure you that constant jockeying for position is prevalent, even if it is implicit, rather than forthright. And it occurs with priests also, who favor those who favor him, while distancing himself from those who do not favor him—even though the withholding of favor may arise from reasonable reservations about some of his observed behaviors, and the line taken by the priest.

In brief, whether as clergy, or as religious, or as laity, we are constantly challenged to be upfront in our grappling to understand, to understand in terms of the way of God—the way of Jesus—what is the behavior of a disciple, and the paths along which The Lord is leading us, and is leading his Church, and his local congregation. We have to be unafraid to ask, and to learn, so that our manner, and our direction, is the manner and direction of Jesus.

And here we turn to the words of the portion from the Epistle of James for this Sunday. James is pretty straight-up-and-down, and unsophisticated. It’s unsettling to read of the apostolic church that there are “wars and conflicts” among them (Jas 4:1). In every era, one is confronted with the nature of human nature that is in need of redemption, the nature for which Christ endured his Passion. And in every era, we have again to hear what comes from the new life of grace (“from above”): what is “pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy…” (Jas 3:17). Although repetitious, it has constantly to be repeated that this is the standard that God sets, and this is the standard in which there is true wisdom, and in which the presence of the Holy Spirit is discerned.

So I give you, my parishioners, license to challenge me to understand and to exemplify this wisdom in my pastoral leadership. And from The Lord himself, I take license to challenge you to understand and to exemplify this wisdom in your personal and family lives and civil lives, and in our life as a local Catholic congregation. This is what Our Lord asks of me, and of you. And Our Lord gives us the grace of the Holy Spirit to be able to enact what he asks of us. Let us then “do it,” and be found to be in deed!



Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year “B”—September 27, 2015

Readings: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/092715.cfm

The Gospels Challenge Us

I commonly find the Gospels to be tough reading, because they so challenge us. Today’s Gospel is pointedly challenging in two respects. Let’s look at the first challenge now. The key verse is, “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mk 9:40). This is challenging for us Catholics, because we rightly think of ourselves as inheritors of the Apostles, and we are in communion with our bishop, and our bishop is in communion with the Successor of Peter; while others—of various kinds—are not. The others lack the fullness of the apostolic Faith, and “the others” may even include those whom we may wonder, “Do they have faith? Are they even Christian?” All this is difficult for us, as a sense of authority, a sense of apostolic commissioning, is so central to our Catholic confession.

This centrality is in Our Lord’s dispensation. The way we, over time, may have portrayed that dispensation may have its human dimensions. Yet, Our Lord founded his Church, and founded his Church along lines of his choosing. This text confronts us with the fact that our understanding of God’s choosing, and of God’s action, is not complete. God is not confined to what we understand as his choosing and his action. Yet, God’s action can, and must be, discerned by the marks of authenticity: “No one who performs a mighty deed in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me” (Mk 9:39). In brief, we have to respect God’s action in others, even when it does not conform to the boundaries that we expect. God is not confined by our expectations (even when we believe that our expectations have been taught by God), and we have rather to discern what is right, what is truthful, what is godly. This is the discernment that is recounted in today’s reading from the book Numbers when the prophetic utterances of Eldad and Medad are discerned as authentic (Num 11:27).

The second challenge of today’s Gospel (or at least the second main challenge, for there are many challenges in the text) is the awesome one of causing “one of these little ones who believe in me to sin” (Mk 9:42). This is a difficult text, because some people (“little ones”) would ask us “to eat only vegetables” (Rom 14:2), rather than “cause them to sin.” And I often refuse such expectations. I could give you examples as a priest; you may give examples as members of the laity. I often am confronted with people who expect me as a priest to behave in a certain stereotypical way, but often my behavior does not fit the “type.” I am “my own man,” and I enjoy the freedom of Christ. In brief, we have to discern that which is really a “cause of sin,” and what is not a “cause of sin,” but rather is a perception of expected behavior. Right discernment is so crucial, and our engagements and our conversations often need to be directed to cultivating right discernments, rather than simply conventional expectations. The touchstone in these discernments is going to be understanding what is authentic, what is loving, what leads people to the freedom that Christ has wrought for us.

Let us now look at the word from the Epistle of James. As usual, it is practical and unsophisticated. It presents the challenge: Is your behavior toward those who lack your privilege such as may be judged to be just? Or is it exploitative? Now answering such questions may be quite tricky in practice, and require subtle discernment and diverse practical understandings. Ideologists from the “Left” and from the “Right” will give slick answers, and distorted perceptions about “justice.” We cannot be slick—as stewards of God; we have to be prudent, and to render just judgment; and justly to conduct our everyday affairs. I am not going to give you a lesson in economics; or in politics; at this point, but rather underscore a principle. The principle is that we are stewards who are answerable before God, across all the dimensions of our dealings. Our dealings are with those who are brothers and sisters, with those others for whom God has concern, and where God’s concerns are to be, our concerns also must be, since we are People of God.


Fr. Paul Anthony McGavin About Fr. Paul Anthony McGavin

Fr. Paul Anthony McGavin holds a Masters in theology (TheolM) from the Catholic Theological College, Melbourne, and a PhD from the University of Melbourne. He is a priest of the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn, Australia. Much of his ministerial life was spent as a university educator, and as a senior faculty member at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. He continues his work in pastoral ministry and is now a Catholic chaplain at the University of Canberra.