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St. Patrick's Missionary Society, Kiltegan, Co Wicklow, Ireland
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Wonder with the Word
Fr Dermot Connolly
Fr Dermot encounters the Word of God against a backdrop of human life: in the story and poetry of the Bible, and in the art and the people of Africa - and elsewhere. As in life, word and image and deed go together; as the Word comes in different modes, the author adopts a variety of styles in writing, and each article is illustrated by a batik or drawing, most of them by African artists. We are invited to wonder with the Word that makes such a wayward challenge to our hearts.
A member of St Patrick’s Missionary Society, Fr Dermot, graduated from the Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome, in 1967, after which he spent some ten years teaching Scripture in St Patrick’s seminary in Kiltegan, Co. Wicklow, Ireland. However, most of his adult life has been spent as a missionary in Nigeria, where for many years he led a Bible Study group in a large parish in the city of Lagos. This led to a workbook on the Psalms, A Book of Praises, published by Veritas in 1987. He has now retired from Nigeria to his own native Ireland.
Journey to Judah
A Reflection for Christmas – December 2022
And see, your cousin Elizabeth also, in her old age, has conceived a son, and she who was said to be barren is now in her sixth month, for nothing is impossible to God.
Luke 1:36; 1:26-56; Genesis 18:14
For Luke the Evangelist, anything can happen on a journey! “A man was on his way down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of bandits...” (Luke 10:30) Or, One day he got into a boat with his disciples and said to them, ‘Let us cross over to the other side.’ (Luke 8:22-25) Or, ‘In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth....’ (Luke 1:26)
ANNUNCIATION (Luke 1:26-38)
Luke, writing around 85 AD, recounts Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary, using words and titles from the Jewish scriptures and early Christian preaching (see Romans 1:3-4): Rejoice full of grace! The Lord is with you. You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. And so the child will be holy and will be called Son of God. Mary said to the angel: ‘Here I am, the Lord’s servant, let it happen to me as you have said.’ And the angel left her. (Luke 1:38)
VISITATION (Luke 1:39-45)
Before leaving Mary, the angel revealed that her cousin Elizabeth – like Abraham’s wife Sarah – had in her old age, conceived a son. Mary’s reaction was to head off on her own on a journey to visit her cousin! As Luke wrote, Mary went with haste into the hill country to a town in Judah, into Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth. (Luke 1:39-41; Genesis 18:14)
Luke describes great excitement at Mary’s arrival: when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She gave a loud cry. (Luke 1:40-42) They had a lot of family news to share, and, of course, the two such marvellous pregnancies. But it goes deeper than that. Although we never see him, Luke is the one to watch, as the Spirit inspires. The two babies, Jesus and John as yet unborn, already belong together in the unfolding of the will of God; the Good News is taking its shape. With words of wonder, and jumping for joy, the cousins recognise the Holy Spirit that surrounds and fulfils them. Elizabeth, the more senior cousin, blesses Mary’s faith: ‘And blessed is she who believed that what was said to her from the Lord would be fulfilled.’ (Luke 1:45)
MAGNIFICAT (Luke 1:46-55)
And Mary begins to sing, perhaps out of the power of Elizabeth’s blessing:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour
since he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant
For see, from now on all generations will call me blessed....
Luke may be quoting from an early Christian canticle of the poor and the lowly whose trust was in the Almighty who has taken down princes from thrones and raised up the lowly. Luke the Evangelist well knows that both of the children will die violently, Jesus Christ and John the Baptist. Yet nothing is impossible to God. (Genesis 18:14; Luke 1:37)
Mary stayed with her some three months and then went back home. (Luke 1:56)
And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
(Mark 16:8, Revised New Jerusalem Bible)
During the night-darkness of the Easter Vigil each year, the Resurrection of the Lord is proclaimed from one of the Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark or Luke. This year, on 3rd April 2021, it comes from Mark, the earliest-written of the Gospels, and the shortest. In general, Gospels are aligned along the life story of Jesus: through his birth, the living of his life, and through his death. It is usually in their final chapters that the Gospels describe the events after his resurrection.
THE FINAL CHAPTER
Three named, careful, courageous women watch as Jesus dies on Calvary; they note his place of burial. (Mark 15:40, 47) They wait through the Sabbath, before returning to the tomb:
When the Sabbath was over, Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go and anoint him. And very early in the morning on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen. They were saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ But when they looked up they saw that the stone – for it was very big – had already been rolled back. (Mark 16:1-4)
Within the tomb they found no body to anoint; only emptiness and an angel – a young man with a message for them to carry to the disciples and Peter:
On entering the tomb they saw a young man seated on the right-hand side clothed in a white robe, and they were amazed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be amazed. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified: he has been raised, he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go and tell his disciples and Peter, “He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”’ (Mark 16:5-7)
But the three women turn and run away:
And the women came out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and amazement had gripped them. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mark 16:8)
For most scholars of the New Testament today, that is how Mark originally concluded his Gospel: the women were overwhelmed – by terror or grief or the sheer greatness of God. They abandoned the commission the young man had given them; they were afraid and, in Mark’s blunt words, they “said nothing to nobody.” And yet, these were brave women: they had kept watch on Calvary, and had returned to the tomb to do what they could – while the men, the disciples and Peter, had gone into hiding.
It is a bleak ending to a Gospel, and it seems likely that at some stage a later writer tried to take the bare look off it by adding, from other sources, the meetings with the risen Lord we now find in Mark 16:9-20. These back fillings are indeed recognised as part of the New Testament scriptures – just, not written by Mark! Some 15 years after Mark, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (and later still, John) gave more complete accounts of Jesus’ post-resurrection encounters with his disciples, men and women, around Jerusalem and Galilee.
TALES FROM OUR OWN TIMES
In the 1970s, Margaret Daly-Denton was the Director of Music at the newly-founded Irish National Liturgy Centre at Killenard, Co Laois. Those were the times of the “New Liturgy,” following the reforms by the Second Vatican Council. Every Easter, Margaret composed a new musical setting for the proclamation of that year’s Easter Gospel, to be sung during the Night Vigil celebrated at the Liturgy Centre. And every year, with great kindness, she made sure that we, over at St Patrick’s College, Kiltegan, Co Wicklow got a timely copy of the music for our own Easter Vigil celebration – in those days there were still enough seminarians here for some fairly respectable Male Choir singing! We were very grateful for such a unique Easter Gift.
One Gospel in particular remains in my memory: Mark 16:1-8, as the women cut for cover, with not even a corpse for their loving, vital anointing. It seemed to me that for Mark’s Gospel, Margaret had composed in a more sombre mode; it ended in a sad, desperate cadence: And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. Unresolved. Unfinished. But truthful: as you might say, “That’s Gospel!”
I wonder why it is that the Easter Gospel for 2021 is even more incomplete than Mark left it. It is given to us as Mark 16:1-7 [Lectionary 1:415] Why drop verse eight – the women flee the tomb? What are we afraid of? Already in Mark’s account of the Passion of Jesus, which we listened to on Palm Sunday, he had met with betrayal, denial, and dereliction from among his closest followers and friends; Mark did not attempt to deny or redact any of that! In life and in liturgy, our failures are part of the unfinished business of the mystery of Christ. So I suggest, on the night read – or sing – Mark 16:1-8!
A PRAYER FOR EASTER (Mark 9:24)
All three synoptic Gospels tell of the child with epilepsy whose father brought him to Jesus for healing, but only Mark reports the father’s desperate cry, ‘I have faith. Help my lack of faith!’ (Mark 9:14-29) We could make the same cry at an empty tomb in our own lives.
When you come together
June 2020: The world is several months into the Covid-19 pandemic, taking cautious steps to exit. We have a long way to go. A new disease, with no known cure; the only strategy: stop the virus spreading from one person to another. Like urban warfare, it’s mobile and lethal, with the greatest danger at the gathering-places of our lives – at our work and worship and play; in our schools and homes; at the skin of our bodies. “When you come together.”
In Kiltegan we’ve been on lockdown since the Unparaded St Patrick’s Day 2020: a large community of St Patrick’s Missionaries in various stages and conditions of life. One group is in nursing care, others are counted among “the over-70s and the vulnerable” (within the meaning of the law!), and some still active and in office. And of course, the great, dedicated people who care for us and work with us. Stories of courage and kindness, ingenuity and integrity continue to decorate the Covid-19 narrative. We have our own local heroes.
The Coronavirus itself is deadly, trailing its own tragedies. As yet there is neither vaccine nor cure, so like everyone else we try to prevent it spreading, in constant vigilance, by washing our hands, physical distancing, and staying at home. Innocuous enough, you might imagine; things anyone could do, young or old. In fact, those three needs – hand sanitation, distancing, and self-isolation – have upturned the world of humanity as we have known it.
Like other buildings where people gather – stadiums, theatres, schools, markets – churches too had to be closed, and religious services drastically curtailed. Funerals were “private,” with grief left unattended, as mourners and friends must stand their prescribed distance. More sadness as first communions, confirmations and weddings were postponed or diminished. Masses live-streamed or broadcast on national television; it helped indeed, but we couldn’t come together. And Pope Francis prayed alone in an empty rain-drenched St Peter’s Square.
In our cocoon, there could be no large gatherings; 2-metres the measure expected in chapel, dining hall, TV room, even in the open air. A classroom which had formerly held over 80 students would allow only 18 when reconfigured for 2-metre spacing. As a result, we were unable to celebrate Holy Week and Easter as a community – a body-blow we shared with believers the world over. To proclaim and celebrate the Risen Lord, is at the heart of what we do as priests; it is what all Christians do, as St Paul reminded the Corinthians.
As often as you eat this bread, then, and drink this cup,
you are proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes.
(1 Cor 11:26)
St Paul and the Corinthians may have something to teach us for when we regroup after Covid-19. There were rich and poor in Corinth, and competing loyalties – ‘I belong to Paul!’ ‘I belong to Cephas!’ ‘I belong to Christ!’ They did not mix easily, even when gathered for the Eucharist. (1 Cor 1:10-13; 11:17-34) Paul encourages and argues, but ends with a simple tenderness: When you come together for the meal, wait for one another. As he wrote later in the letter: Love is patient; love is kind. (1 Cor 13:4) Love waits.