In Christian ages past today was known as Sexagesima Sunday, and still is by Lutherans, Anglicans, and old-time Catholics. It’s the season before Easter, which is now just eight weeks (57 days) ahead, and only a week and a half before Ash Wednesday. Carnival time by the old reckoning, and to tell the truth, pretty much what is going on in Washington and Minneapolis for very different reasons. (Where is Sr. Jean Kenny now that we need her? Her Super Bowl predictions were far better than those of Punxsutawney Phil’s prognostications about the remaining days of winter!)
Even though the name has changed in the Catholic calendar, there is still a shift in the tone of the readings selected for today.
Carnival is coming to an end. In the Book of Job, one of the true masterpieces of world literature, the central figure appeals to us as a man of faith and heroic patience, true to God despite all that the Adversary could do to weaken his trust. But Job was also a complainer. It may be said in his defense that he had cause to be.
If we didn’t know the background, today’s first reading might be called the Prayer of a Chronic Depressive. Day drags into night, night drags on sleeplessly into day. And yet, it all passes so quickly. We wake up one bleak morning and find ourselves poor, lonely, old, stiff, sore, and probably not feeling well at all. It just ain’t fair. Job is even the butt of criticism and disparagement by his wife, friends, and neighbors. And yet, he remains true, a model of fidelity in the face of poverty, illness, age, neglect, and misjudgment. You might say that old Job is the patron saint not so much of whiners and malcontents, but of the elderly poor in most of the world.
For them and for many people, life on earth is a drudgery…. “Man… is a slave who longs for the shade, a hireling who waits for his wages… months of misery… troubled nights….” The contrast with Paul’s self-description could hardly be more complete. Like Job, Paul suffered a lot for his trust in God, and even he complains a bit: “I am under compulsion and have no choice….” Elsewhere, he details his sufferings, miseries, woes, and hardships. They were considerable, too. In his second letter to the Christians at Corinth, he itemizes his griefs (2 Cor 11:24-28) – but not here.
Paul was not a whiner. He says simply, “my only recompense … is that I offer the good news free of charge.” But I did this to myself, he adds. “I made myself the slave of all so as to win over as many as possible.” Paul’s slavery is a labor of love — patient, kind, persistent. God’s slave, he offers his drudgery as a ransom for others.
Next we come to the image of Jesus himself, the servant of the servants of God. That is the title the popes began to use of themselves increasingly starting back in the sixth century. But Jesus had no Swiss Guard, no secretaries, no staff, no chamberlains, or press secretaries. In any case, we tend to read these accounts of Jesus’ early ministry with an eye to the content — Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law, curing the sick and expelling demons… all of which seems to have been granted even by those who did not believe in him. But here we are also invited as with Job and Paul to read between the lines. It’s not about the what, or even the how, but the why.
Like Ado Annie in Oklahoma, Jesus was one of those people who couldn’t say no. The portrait Mark paints here is of a man who was tired from his exertions, but unable to refuse help to those who came to him. He didn’t seek out the lost sheep of the house of Israel so much as they sought him out. The whole town gathered outside the door, and he cured them, probably well into the night. And he arose early, stealing off into the desert for some alone time to pray and gather his strength. And the disciples came scrambling after him, tracking him down with the townsfolk practically at their heels. Jesus’ response is to go on to the next village and the next and the next, announcing the kingdom of God and driving back the darkness.
One of the adages of the modern world, perhaps not without reason at times, is that we should learn to say no. “Yes” comes to the fore too easily. And yet, it is exactly his “yes” that drove Paul to uncommon lengths to preach the gospel, fretting over his little churches like a mother hen in a raging storm. It was his “yes” that wore Jesus to the bone curing, healing the possessed, and preaching.
In that Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminds us, “As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No. For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No; but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why we utter the Amen through him, to the glory of God” [2 Cor 1:18 – 20].
In Christ, it is always Yes. Jesus is God’s “yes” to us, and he is our “yes” to God. In him God heals the brokenhearted, binds up their wounds, and sustains the lonely. And if that is to happen today, if the Kingdom is to be preached, the darkness driven back inch by inch, God and Jesus will be making some stiff demands on all of us. Let us pray that our response, like Job’s, like Paul’s, like Jesus, will always be “Yes, Amen,” to the glory of God and the good of our neighbor.