|Date:||January 30-31, 2021 Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B|
I am sure I have told some of you this before but my favorite bumper sticker is one that said, “Question Authority” and then under that in slightly smaller letters: “Ask me anything!”.
Today's first and Gospel readings are about authority. At first glance, the story we heard from Mark is about a miracle: Jesus drives an unclean spirit from a man who was possessed. Can you imagine this happening in our assembly? What would you be thinking? Then Mark reports that what astonished the people was how Jesus' taught! Not his casting out the demon. Not even the content of Jesus' teaching but the fact that he taught with authority, unlike the teachers they were accustomed to.
So how did Jesus teach in such a way that the people would say that he taught "not like the scribes". Certainly the scribes were very schooled in the scriptures, and would have taught based on them. There is a story told about the great stage actor, Charles Laughton, that illustrates where Jesus authority comes from.
When Charles Laughton was not engaged in doing a play or a movie, he used to go around the country and do bible readings. People would come from far and wide to hear this great actor read his favorite bible passages. One night in a small country church, Mr. Laughton was holding one of these bible readings. After he had read his passages, he would ask if there were anyone in the audience who would like to read their favorite passage. Most of the time, no one volunteered because they simply could not imagine following such a impressive reader as Charles Laughton. But this one night, a grizzled old farmer stood up and shuffled up to the podium where he proceeded to recite the 23rd Psalm. When he finished and sat down there was only silence. It was apparent to everyone in the church that if this had been a bible reading contest, Charles Laughton would have come in a distant second. Later that evening, a young man questioned Mr. Laughton about this. How was it possible that this farmer could have made such an impression? Charles Laughton answered, "I have a excellent trained voice; I know how to annunciate, and how to project; I know the lines of these readings by heart. But that farmer, he knew the author."
So here in this short passage we have Mark revealing a deep mystery of our faith. Jesus taught with the authority of God, conferred on him by the Father with all the capability that this implies. I would suggest that this is a very important mystery to reflect on because this authority did not leave the world when Jesus went back to the Father. We believe that Jesus passed this authority on to the church, filling it with his Spirit so that the church can teach with an authority that comes from God, and is therefore capable.
But I think we have to be very careful when we say that Jesus passed this authority on to the church that we don't locate that authority solely in the clergy and the theologians. The truth as expressed in many reflections in church documents is that this spirit has been given to all of us in baptism. Like the author of the bumper sticker, we have to be very concerned about who we look to as authority. But as people entrusted with this authority by our baptisms, we have to intentional about deepening our relationship with Christ so that we know Christ, and not just know about Christ. To be authoritative teachers of our faith we have become one with Christ as he and the Father are one. One aspect of doing this is to go deeper in knowing what the symbols we use in our liturgies and sacramentals mean rather than getting mistaking the sign or symbol for the reality. This doesn't mean that the sign or symbol is not real but that it is meant to be a window into a deeper reality. For example, when we receive communion, we receive the real body and blood of Christ but that is not the end of it. We receive the body and blood of Christ in order to be changed more deeply ourselves into the body of Christ. If we don't leave mass and be the incarnation of God's love for those we meet during the week, we miss the point. Conversly, when we are unable to receive Communion as so many are these days, it does not mean that we should not or cannot continue to be transformed more deeply into the body of Christ.
This Ash Wednesday we will have another opportunity to reflect more deeply on the practice of receiving ashes on that day. Because the COVID protocols will not allow us to receive ashes on our foreheads this year, we can take this as a moment to reflect on why we normally practice that. But if we are to fulfill our baptismal responsibility to teach with the authority that Jesus did, we need to see through the ashes to what they symbolize, which is a conversion of heart. Wouldn't it be great if this year, our friends, family, co-workers, etc. would recognize that we are practicing Catholics, not because we walk around on Ash Wednesday with a smudged cross of ashes on our foreheads, but because we go about that day as Christ would. Instead of depending on the ashes on our foreheads to remind us of our conversion of heart to live out the Gospel, to glorify God by our life, we can put a home made reminder on our desk or refrigerator or bathroom mirror to pray, fast, and do charitable works this Lent. Or maybe we can put a note on our night table to remember to wake up each morning saying, I repent and believe in the Gospel.
We heard Jesus say in last week's Gospel: Now is the time of fulfilment; the kingdom of God is at hand. He was talking about you and me as well as himself. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.