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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.
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.
Following the Sheep
Psalm 78 tells the story of the people of Israel and their Exodus from Egypt to the mountain of Zion which God loves. (Ps 78:68) The psalmist called it a mashal, a teaching, a parable: I will open my mouth in a parable / and utter hidden lessons of the past. (Ps 78:2)
The psalm describes the Exodus, saying that the people on that journey were a defiant and rebellious generation. (Ps 78:8) They resisted every step of the way:
Yet again they turned and tested God; they provoked the Holy One of Israel. (Ps 78:41)
They strayed, faithless like their ancestors;
they betrayed him like a
A disturbing poem, and it goes on long enough – the second-longest psalm in the Bible. But woven through its conflicts is a God who behaves like a shepherd. Could this be the parable?
By day he led them with a cloud;
throughout the night, with a light of fire.
He split the rocks in the desert.
He gave them plentiful drink,
as from the deep.
He had brought out his people like sheep,
leading them in the desert like a flock.
He had led them safely with nothing to fear,
while the sea engulfed their foes.
A later practitioner said about the shepherd’s craft: “When he has brought out all his sheep, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow because they know his voice.” (John 10:4) It is the classic Biblical image of the shepherd but, as Jesus well knew, only half the parable.
What of those who can’t keep up? Listen: “The children are weak, and the sheep and the cows which have calved make it hard for me. If they are driven too hard, even for one day, the whole flock will die....For my part, I shall move at a slower pace, according to the pace of the flock I am driving and the children.” It could be any time, any war zone, any wasted earth; in fact, it is the voice of the Patriarch Jacob, another shepherd. (Genesis 33:13-14)
Psalm 78 completes the parable with David, who is to be shepherd of Jacob:
And he chose his servant David,
and took him away from the sheepfolds.
From the care of the ewes he brought him
to be shepherd of Jacob, his people,
of Israel his own possession.
The shepherd not only leads but accompanies. The Hebrew idiom behind “the care of the ewes” is literally “from after” and is most often translated “following.” Or as we might put it, the shepherd looks after the flock.
He tended them with blameless heart;
with his skilful hands he led them.