Many of us hear the scriptures only at Mass and thus in relatively short sections. The Sunday gospel readings are designed to be heard over a 3-year cycle it is often difficult to see how one weeks reading relates to the former or next passage or indeed the entire Gospel. This is particularly true with Mark, and we will need to locate where today’s reading falls in his gospel to see how to bring it to life in today’s world.
Last week Jesus sent his disciples on mission. Most of us would have found his timing inauspicious. For several chapters that we read for several weeks Jesus moved from one triumph to another. He cured the sick, cast out demons even raised the dead. He seemed unstoppable but then he went home to Nazareth, and he could do almost nothing. He was rejected by his own people. It was then that he sent out his followers. We will see today that he calls them apostles, Greek for one who is sent. They performed many miracles and preached the good news of repentance and forgiveness. They too seemed unstoppable.
Today Jesus stops them. He greets them on their return but before we look at that should remember that the lectionary, the book of the scriptures which we use in church, skips over the story of the death of John the Baptist.
Mark mentioned John’s arrest in chapter one of the gospel. It is the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry and shows very eloquently that Jesus is continuing and expanding the work of the Baptizer. He now tells the story of John’s execution when Jesus has sent the apostles to continue his ministry.
The gospel is always needed but rarely wanted. Every time is a good time to evangelize. The circumstances do not create the moment the Gospels do and indeed the times do not judge the Goodnews, the good news judges the times. We heard last week “Whatever place does not welcome you or listen to you, leave there and shake the dust off your feet in testimony against them”
Yet apostles of all times and places work under the sign of the cross. Success means that we the people of God make Jesus experienced and known by others. It does not mean that we are appreciated and indeed may mean that we are even persecuted. I am saying “we must” but I mean more “you must”. You are in the world more than I am and should you express many of the basic gospel beliefs that I do in a homily at work or in a social gathering you can expect to be at best dismissed at worst attacked. The apostles had it in some was easier they could leave and shake the dust off their feet. You rarely can.
Now we get to today’s reading. The apostles have retuned. They are excited, they perhaps are so fired up that they want to go back into the field. Yet Jesus does not send them out again he tries to bring them together alone with him.
This is not easy. The message is spreading, and they do not even have the time to eat. Jesus takes them to a deserted place. This should remind us of the desert. Not only the desert where Jesus went at the beginning of his ministry to be tempted by Satan but the desert where the Jewish people under Moses were taught the meaning of their vocation as the chosen people.
When they disembark however Jesus sees the people who ran around the sea of Galilee to be with him. He is moved with pity for they were like sheep without a shepherd. We sang today the 24th psalm which reminds us that we may be in the greatest danger – walking in the valley of the shadow of death but our shepherd will guide us along right paths. Knowing this he began to teach them.
Next week we will begin the feeding of the five thousand often called the multiplication of the loaves and the fish. But it is important to note that Mark begins with teaching. For the Jews the nourishment of the sacrificial meal at the temple needed to be preceded and balanced by the nourishment of good teaching. We do the same with the Mass, we first have the liturgy of the word with readings from God’s word and then the liturgy of the Eucharist when we celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus. We need both. The celebration of the Eucharist without the word would be misunderstood, the preaching of the word without the eucharist would be unsatisfying and frustrating. However providential the zoom masses were during the pandemic it seemed to me that the better we did them the more many people felt the need for an in-person celebration of the Mass.
The pandemic is coming to an end, and we must rebuild our Parish. It is providential that the readings at Mass for most of the summer will be about the Eucharist. Next week it will be the feeding of the five thousand from Mark, then for August the bread of life discourse from John. They will emphasize different aspects of the Eucharist but precisely because of that will show its absolute importance. The eucharist creates the church and the way we celebrate the eucharist will determine the kind of Parish we will have.
The pandemic has revealed much. Some people have yearned with an almost physical hunger for the Eucharist, others have mostly missed the community, for others attending Mass was predominately a habit and they have, alas, lost it. We will also see that we no longer have enough priests to staff our Parishes and what we saw with people volunteering to develop our media ministry will need to be extended to every area of parish life which does not absolutely require a priest. More will follow on this, watch this space.
Until then listen to the scriptures, pray and remember that to build on the bread of the Eucharist is to build on stone, to build on anything else is to put our trust in sand.