Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Scholars often speak of Mark’s gospel as a passion narrative with a long introduction. The readings for this week as well as the past couple of weeks are part of that introduction.
Last week’s gospel reading and the first part of this week’s reading cover just one day in the ministry of Jesus. In Mark’s typically laconic style, we learn in short order that Jesus calls two sets of brothers to be his first followers (1:16-20). They enter Capernaum on a Sabbath and “immediately” go to the synagogue.
There, Jesus teaches “with authority.” Though we don’t learn what he says, we do learn that he casts out a demon. This activity certainly serves to buttress Jesus’ authority. Moreover, we learn that “immediately” the news about him spread throughout Galilee (1:21-28). This is all before lunch.
Our reading for this Sunday begins on the same Sabbath day with the breathless repetition of the word “immediately.” Jesus and his new followers go to Simon Peter’s house. We learn that Simon’s mother-in-law is laid up with a fever. “Immediately” they spoke to Jesus about her.
Before Mark rushes us past this incident and on to the next one, it might benefit us to stop for a moment. We never learn the name of Peter’s mother-in-law, but we do know that Jesus has come into her domain. He comes as a guest into her home and she is not well enough to offer even a minimal level of hospitality.
Perhaps by immediately speaking to Jesus about her, the disciples were explaining why she could not extend her typical standard of hospitality. Ultimately, this does not matter because Jesus “raises” her up, taking her by the hand. He heals her and she is able to resume her rightful place in the household, extending hospitality to her guests.
When the sun goes down and the Sabbath is ended, Jesus continues to heal and cast out demons from those brought to him. The entire day has been an overwhelming display of Jesus’ authority. No sickness, no demon, nothing can stand in his way. Although the demons can scream and proclaim Jesus’ identity as the Holy one of God (See Isa. 30:15; 43:3; 48:17; 54:5; 55:5; 60:9), they offer no resistance. Jesus is too powerful. By the time this passage ends at 1:39, Jesus has extended his activity to synagogues across Galilee.
The repetitions of “immediately” along with the assertions of Jesus’ authority throughout this part of Mark seem designed to impress us with the urgent and unstoppable nature of Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom. Nothing will slow him down; nothing will get in the way. It is both exciting and easy to get caught up in this whirlwind. During Epiphany, this time of light and revealing, Mark’s account of immediate and authoritative acts of power by Jesus do shed light, revealing him as the Son of God (1:1).
It is also easy to see why, in the light of this frenetic display of authority, even Jesus’ closest followers cannot seem to grasp his teachings about the cross and his willingness to take the cross on himself. This also may account for why Jesus silences the demons when he casts them out of people. It focuses Jesus’ identity too squarely on the authoritative acts of power without making room for the cross.
This is why it is significant that into the midst of our reading for this Sunday, Mark mentions that early the next morning Jesus withdraws to a solitary place to pray. In the same way that we learn nothing of his teaching in this chapter, we do not learn the nature of Jesus’ prayer. Nevertheless, Mark points briefly to this moment before Jesus extends his authoritative ministry across Galilee.
Inspired by this dynamic movement between authoritative action and prayer in the life of Jesus, the members of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, think of themselves as contemplatives in action. This recognizes, as Jesus seems to, that the demands of ministry are so constant, so compelling and comprehensive that it requires them to take time for prayer and contemplation. Otherwise they run the risk of becoming mindless in their ministry.
Prayer, reflection, and self-examination are habits for keeping ministry mindful, lively and life giving. For all of us, no matter the shape and nature of our ministry, the mindfulness that comes from patterns of contemplation in the midst of action will better prepare us to perceive the compatibility of the cross with Jesus’ authority to heal and cast out demons.
The Church will soon be moving into Lent. We will slow down, shifting from Mark’s breakneck pace to readings from John’s gospel. Even so, Mark has already shown us in this week’s gospel that in the midst of powerful, immediate and authoritative action on behalf of the God’s reign, Jesus invests time in solitary prayer. In this way he prepares himself for his extended journey to Jerusalem and the cross. Lent invites us to a similar withdrawal so that we will be better able to receive and respond to Jesus’ self-offering on our behalf.