The Word Encountered
The Ways of Jesus
“For the sake of the gospel.” (1 Cor 9:23)
We do not have to feel the drudgery and anguish of Job to sense sometimes that our lives are without point or passion.
While disaster and depression might be rare for us, ennui and a lack of focus are not. And they are enough to bring us low. The causes can be many, yet often enough it is just simply a “managerial” attitude toward our lives, a “maintenance” frame of mind, that makes our feelings and faith go flat. We seriously misunderstand our faith if we see it in terms of getting by and getting through. If that is what it is all about, it has to become a frightful bore.
Perhaps at times our young people catch this. They sense a tedium, a staleness about our religion and our practices. “Mass is so boring,” a young woman recently told me. Well, surely, she is not going to find much entertainment there—especially if you compare it to our fifty available channels and the razzmatazz of pop culture. And besides, why would one expect novelty and slickness from a sacred communal practice, the hallmarks of which are great tradition, universality, and stability of form?
But I also think my young friend is on to something. There is not much intensity or urgency in a community whose primary concerns are managing its relationship to God and maintaining its own existence. Is the church really about the powerful message of Christ, or is it just concerned with itself?
St. Paul, on the other hand, seems positively driven to write and speak of Jesus and his revelation. “An obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it!” So much does his faith mean to him that he is willing to be the slave of all, to be all things to all people in order to win them over. For Paul, the faith is definitely not a matter of small consequence.
We, in contrast, seem hounded by doubts. Is it really that big a deal that people believe in Jesus? Does it matter very much to us if our children drift away from a faith we say we love? Isn't one religion just as good as another? And don't theologians themselves suggest that conversions, missions, and proselytism are passé, if not wrong-headed?
Well, if our faith is something that really does not make a very big difference, if it is actually not crucial that we or others believe, no wonder it seems boring to some of our young. Anything we don't care much about can't be very interesting.
The things we do care about, however, we inevitably talk about. As another, very wise, young person put it: “If you love someone or something deeply enough, you want to tell others, you want to share it with others, you think they are missing something if they do not have it.”
Paul’s drivenness is as understandable as the lover's. Both turn almost desperately to declamation, poetry, or song.
If faith is real, it seeks expression. It will communicate and profess. It will have the energy of passion.
But faith cannot be real for us if it is not allowed into our real world. A Christ who is squeezed into a pew may feel cozy, but the relationship will soon tire and confine.
Could this be one of the reasons why the Gospel of Mark at the outset portrays our encounters with Christ over a broad range of life experiences?
We first find Jesus leaving the synagogue to enter into the midst of human intimacies—friends, community, and family. He walks and abides with comrade-apostles and their in-laws. There he is found. He inhabits relationship.
Second, he is never far from pain and diminishment. Grasping the hand of Simon's mother-in-law, he helps her up as her fever abates. Other people with afflictions, obsessions, and interior injuries call out for his touch and he responds. This was not his major work, of course, but he seemed always to have time for the marginal and the outsider.
Third, he is found in the “lonely place.” Mark notes here that the desert is where he finds solitude. At other times, it is on the mountain. But as it is with his appearance in relationships and the wounded of the world, he maintains this dimension of quiet and prayer as a hallmark of his life.
The ground of the real world—our solitude, our relationships, and our human solidarity—is the terrain from which Jesus sets out to proclaim the good news and visit the synagogues of Galilee.
Our practice of faith, our discipleship, cannot be otherwise. Jesus not only transforms our secluded moments, our intimacies, and our social compassion. He lives there.
And his presence is a matter of supreme importance. For in our human solitude we find not isolated brokenness—we discover a citadel of relationship to God. Our friends are not diversions from a far-off deity; they give our life in God flesh and blood. The call of the wounded is not merely some problem to solve or avoid; it is an invitation to love's redemptive power.
The Eucharist re-enacts this truth. And without this truth or its expression, we would be, like Paul if he were not to preach Christ, quite desperate.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
**From Saint Louis University