Orbiting Dicta

Fifth Sunday of the Year: AKA Sexagesima

Buccaneers versus Chiefs might sound like an episode from Peter Pan – if you were born on a different planet or asleep for as many years as Rip Van Winkel (and should you not know what or who those are, more’s the pity…)

In the absence of a wise Super Bowl prediction from the uncanny Sr. Jean Kenny, I have sought refuge in the pre-game show of Puppy Bowl XVII, where there might dwell a clue.  In the meaning, many millions of fans are prepped for the Big Game and the parties before and after, not to mention millions more betting on the outcome of the game. As a premonitory caution, today’s first reading from the Book of Job might come as a foretaste of the aftermath for many millions.  (But not likely to spoil the parties, despite tears in the beers…)

Being old, sick, and desolate is no laughing matter, of course, but the sad plight of far too many people here and abroad as we linger in the

Job 7:1-4, 6-7
1 Cor 9:16-19, 22-23
Mk 1:29-39

grim shadow of the Covid pandemic and the flu’ and other ailments. It is not without reason that Job has inspired some of the great literature of the world.  We understand Job.  And like Job we cling to the possibility that a ray of light might pierce the darkness, something more than the glow from wide-screen TVs.

In Christian ages past today was known as Sexagesima Sunday, and still is by many Christians.  It’s the season before Easter, which is now just eight weeks (56 days) ahead, and only a week and a half before Ash Wednesday.  Carnival time by the old reckoning, although the revelry will be curtailed this year for fear of another surge in viral spread. 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 time is coming to an end. In the Book of Job, 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.  If Job was also a complainer, 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.

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. 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. 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.  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 admitted 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 is of a man 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].

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.