What wonders the Lord can do! A tender shoot from a cedar becomes the tallest tree on the mountain. Seed scattered on the earth yields fruit of its own accord. A tiny mustard seed grows into a huge shrub. What’s more, in each case the fruit of God’s work extends its blessings to others. The majestic cedar in Ezekiel’s story provides shade and shelter for every kind of bird. The sower of the seed harvests the fruit of the untended plants. The mustard plant yields pods filled with seeds that add flavor to food. But these are all parables. Each image used by Ezekiel and Mark describes something else. Because the Israelites were in exile at that time, Ezekiel needed them to trust that God had not abandoned them. The tender shoot from the crown of the old tree suggests a future king from the linage of David, himself the youngest son of Jesse. The two parables of Jesus in today’s passage from Mark explicitly connect the stories to the kingdom of God. Like the fledgling Christian community in the time of Mark and Paul, the kingdom of God starts out tiny and seemingly insignificant. But if a small shoot can grow into a majestic cedar, if a tiny mustard seed can grow into a large plant, if a microscopic sperm and egg can grow into a human person, so much so can the kingdom of God be built up into a whole world as one.
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Some awfully strong accusations are made of Jesus in today’s Gospel: “He is out of his mind,” “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” “He has an unclean spirit” (Mark 3:21, 22, 30). The accusers fail to understand where Jesus was getting the power to drive out demons, misattributing it to Satan, the prince of demons. Jesus explains how this is impossible, but then he turns it around by making an extremely harsh pronouncement: “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never have forgiveness” (Mark 3:29). Why is it that this blasphemy, alone among all others, is unforgivable? Perhaps it is because it turns good and evil upside down. It says that what is good and holy is driven by evil. No, it is not an evil spirit, but the opposite, the Holy Spirit, that is “possessing” Jesus as he acts according to his Father’s will. So it is for us when we allow the Holy Spirit to act through us. As Jesus tells the crowd, of all the people who were gathered around him—relatives, scribes, neighbors, his own disciples—the ones who can truly be considered his family are those who do the will of God. Those who do the will of God are manifesting the Holy Spirit, for it is the Spirit who is driving them.
Are there times when you misconstrue the work of the Spirit, too readily dismissing something as misguided or wrong?READ MORE
Covenants in ancient times, whether between individuals or tribes, were often sealed with the blood of animals. Why? Because blood was equated with life. In Exodus, after agreeing to remain faithful to God and the commandments, the people perform a ritual that includes animal sacrifice. Moses sprinkles the altar and then the people with the blood of young bulls. What seems to us today to be disgusting was for the ancient Israelites a sharing of life. Blood was life. By sprinkling both the altar and the people with blood, Moses showed that God and the people were united in life. In the new covenant, the blood is not the blood of goats and calves, but the blood of Jesus himself. Life is not just life here on earth, but eternal life with God. Sacrifice becomes redemptive. When Jesus transformed the Passover meal into the first Eucharist, he anticipated his redemptive act to come, looking forward to being able to “drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:25). Today, as the Eucharist is celebrated around the world, we all continue to share in this life-giving covenant between God and humanity.
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The phenomenon of the Holy Trinity is perhaps the deepest mystery of our faith. One God, but three persons? Limited by human concepts, we can only attempt to understand the mystery. God is truly one, but God is not solitary. God is in relationship, and always has been. The intimate relationship of Father and Son and Spirit is an essential part of the identity of God. The reading from Deuteronomy alludes to another triple relationship: that of God, the Chosen People, and the Promised Land. Moses reminds the people of God’s awesome deeds, done specifically for the people God chose. Paul makes the connection that if we are sisters and brothers in Christ, we are then also children of God. We have received a “Spirit of adoption,” the Holy Spirit bearing witness to our relationship with God (Romans 8:15). Then in Matthew we have the clearest expression of the Trinity, in Jesus’ instructions to baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). Since the Spirit comes upon us in baptism and stays with us, Jesus is able to reassure the apostles (and us), “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20).
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The coming of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles on the first Pentecost they celebrated after Jesus’ death and resurrection was a historical event, to be sure, but it is also an event that occurs again and again over thousands of years. The continual movement of the Spirit is apparent in the setting of that first Pentecost. The apostles clustered inside a room, doors locked, hiding from authorities. After the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit, people from all over Jerusalem could hear them proclaiming their faith. Obviously, the doors and windows were open now! Like the wind, the force of the Holy Spirit could not be contained. Indeed, the fact that they were able to speak in foreign tongues, in the native languages of all people in Jerusalem no matter how far they had traveled, clarifies the mission of the disciples to spread their faith to all the known world. The Holy Spirit has reversed the effects of Babel. In Genesis, the boastful tower builders scattered to all corners of the earth once God had confused their speech. After the gift of the Holy Spirit, people from every country and of every culture gathered together to hear a message that transcended language. The Holy Spirit has no boundaries.
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The Ascension marks a turning point for the disciples. This is the last time that they will see Jesus in the flesh. For years they had turned to him for guidance and direction. Jesus was right there to instruct them, to counsel them, and sometimes, to reprove them. In fact, Mark’s account Jesus directs his disciples immediately before ascending to the Father: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). Now they have to take the lead. As the angels who make an appearance in the first reading say to them, “Why are you standing there looking at the sky? (Acts 1:11). They couldn’t just stand around and wait for the Second Coming. They needed to act. They were called to teach, or preach, or prophesy, or evangelize, each according to his or her talents, all “for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12). The Ascension, then, was the moment of transition. The church, the people of God, the Body of Christ, commissioned by Jesus and guided by the Holy Spirit, though still in its infancy, was now the visible presence of God’s work here on earth. At this point the church’s mission truly begins.
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Love one another.” We hear this directive at the beginning of the second reading (1 John 4:7) and then again at the end of the Gospel (John 15:17). The Greek word that John uses again and again is agápe, the selfless, unconditional love that God has for the world and that Jesus has for his disciples. Jesus provided the ultimate example of self-sacrificing love on the cross, but we are also challenged to exercise agápe, love that puts others before ourselves, love that knows no boundaries. In the first reading, Peter takes this challenge, visiting Cornelius, a newly converted Roman centurion. Just as Peter is telling the group that God shows no partiality, God , as if one cue, sends the Holy Spirit down upon all who had come to listen to Peter testify in Jesus’ name. That same Holy Spirit can help us be faithful to what God asks of us. This fidelity to loving God and one another means that we will remain in that love, that it will be a part of our character, our being. In this way we can “bear fruit that will remain” (John 15:16), as Peter did in the first reading, as we are called to do today.
Who do you know that is most in need of that love, the love God has shown to us?READ MORE