Imagine you are invited to join on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. At the airport you are met by your guide and ushered onto the bus, off to the Galilee and Capernaum. Stepping out of the bus, you are led to the second century synagogue, but with a large section of the earlier tile floor. Jesus walked here and prayed and healed. Someone reads the Scripture from St. Mark—last Sunday’s Gospel lection. Then, prayer time and you exit and walk over to Peter’s house,…takes about 10 minutes. A church has been built on flying buttresses over the excavation of the home. You walk up into the church and look down on the rooms of the house through a glass floor. And there, at the outset of his ministry, Jesus entered—you can see the entrance--and was met by the family. One member was missing, and she was very sick.
Jesus entered the house of Simon and Andrew with James and John. Simon’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever. We might best translate it to say that she was “burning up with fever.” So, immediately, they told Jesus about her. He entered the room where she was in bed, grasped her hand, and “lifted her up.” Jesus “raised her!” Then the fever immediately left her and she waited on them. Peter’s mother-in-law “deaconed them,” she “served them” It was time for the Sabbath meal and all was well. What is being lived out here is the first example of a domestic church. Whether of one extended family or good friends living together, or, well, you name it. A household with many combinations of adults, and perhaps children, gathered because of love and commitment to each other. We speak of such a gathering as a domestic church. In a domestic church, most have been sick at one time or other, most have needed to be “lifted up” from emotional or physical conditions or the hardships that buffet the household from the world. Just now, the Covid 19 pandemic has provided more of that buffeting then any of us could have imagined—the isolation, the anxiety about contracting the disease, even catching the virus itself. A time of trauma for our domestic churches. “A home,” Pope Francis said, “is a domestic Church in which to experience communion and offer the example of worship of a life lived in faith, hope and charity.” Jesus was there and those present communed with the Lord. And there is healing. But beyond being made whole, a new season of serving in Christ’s named. “Charity,” Pope Francis called it.
Now the sun had set. The Sabbath was over and it was the first day of the week. And after the sun set, a big, noisy crowd gathered at the door of the house—all clamoring for Jesus’ attention, bringing others who were sick, bringing those oppressed by demons. There were the joyful celebrations of those whose loved ones had been healed and the clamor of others who could not yet squeeze through the crowd and come before Jesus. St. Mark uses an interesting word to describe this noisy crowd—they “synagogued,” the Greek says, they “gathered,” they “assembled” there in front of Peter’s home. A new day has begun and a group of needy people have assembled to come to Jesus. But St. Mark adds a particular bit of information as this gathering is happening, as the voices are praising God or pleading for Jesus’ attention: The Lord drove out many demons, but did not allow them to speak because they knew him. The only silent members of the gathering are those now evicted demonic powers who no longer can oppress but who do know who Jesus is. Now I don’t know about you, but I wonder why Jesus shut them up. Maybe his command that they speak not a word was because Jesus seemed to be holding back on his full identity. Of course, we were told in the opening words of the Gospel that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. Yet in many of these healings early in his ministry, Jesus admonishes, “Tell no one.” (Of course, many of them don’t heed this injunction and immediately tell all sorts of people who Jesus is and what he has done.)
There may be another reason for this silencing of the evil that has been driven out of God’s children by the Lord. See, when we are oppressed by evil, those demons seem to do all the talking.
- A young woman tells her counselor, “I am bad.” After some time exploring the roots of this self-judgment, both she and her counselor discover that this voice that has been defining her is not her own, but that of abusive parents. Her healing will need to have that voice of continuing oppression silenced. She can discover her own voice, one that declares that she is valued and gifted and loved only as the evil voices are silenced.
- Members of a parish tell their new pastor, “Father, you need to know that we fight a lot around here.” Soon, the new pastor discovers that there is truth in these warnings. Anger and grieving conspire together to keep this “domestic church” sealed up in a tomb, living out some past event or season again and again. It’s like that traumatic event happened last week rather than years ago! The savvy priest begins a journey of healing with the parish. Instead of just the repetition of those old voices of loss or abuse, the congregation is invited to a series of healing liturgies during Lent. At the same time, the parish council is led to envision a future that God has in store for them. The Easter Vigil includes both baptisms--thank God!—and a renewal of the baptismal vows. One renunciation is added this Easter Eve—it has to do with the silencing of all that angry talk and old indictments. Those demons are silenced and the proclamation, “Christ is risen!” fills the church.
- Just a few months after the national elections, and days following the inauguration, the old, noisy voices on the extremes of both parties are now back to screaming at each other on all the media. The other side is all “racist.” Or, they are “communist.” Or “murderers.” The demons have taken over once more (as if they ever took a break from their domination). Most speech that urges reconciliation and common purpose is again drowned out. But what if we begin some Christian conversation here within our domestic church? One group that is dedicated to a return of civility recruited ten women from Kentucky and ten from Massachusetts to be in conversation about “hot button” issues. But there were some ground rules. First, all references to the physical appearance of any person were disallowed. Then, the focus was on what each member felt and believed rather than what “my group” said. Finally, the twenty participants were to speak without using those words that painted their opponents as all demonic. The group completed their series of conversations; no one dropped out. At the end, no one’s mind was changed as to their political convictions. What was changed was that the old put-downs were silenced and the women began to relate to the other side in a civil and much more fruitful manner.
So the demons were silenced there in that gathering in front of Peter’s home. Many were healed. Things would never be the same again. Jesus’ ministry had begun with them.
But Jesus does not sleep late the next day and take it easy after that late night of hard work. Instead, he left the house very early, well before daybreak. How many hours of sleep did he have? Instead, he walks out into the darkness and heads to a deserted place, back to the wilderness. Now you may have heard homilies on this lection that portray Jesus as needing some time alone to rest up and recover from his exertion. But St. Mark is quite emphatic that Jesus is seriously about other aspects of his ministry. Here, at the beginning of his story of Jesus, we are being told that the Lord Jesus comes among us in his work of healing and casting out all demonic powers, and proclaiming the reign of God. And his “work” also includes prayer. Without prayer to the Father, Jesus would not have the strength and the intention that he needs for his ministry. The same, of course, is true for us. How many times have we seen church members about all sorts of work in the church or in the service of Christ to the world and, wham!, there comes the inevitable burnout. We look around at Sunday Mass and they are missing, maybe for good. The “ministry switch” for some has only two settings: Full-bore efforts without ceasing or, at the other pole, a complete collapse of energy and even participation in parish life. Perhaps we can all learn from the Benedictines. Their motto—appearing in most every Benedictine monastery—is “Ora et Labora” (Pray and Work). The motto certainly depicts Jesus’ ministry here in Capernaum. It also needs to be written on our hearts, and maybe even in our Sunday bulletins! One Benedictine scholar added this—St. Benedict also insisted on the study of Scripture.1 So the Christian life has its foundation in work and prayer and the Word of God in Scripture. Jesus set out in the dark, while it was still very early, to pray. Work and prayer and the love of Scripture. Jesus will not cease from all three in his ministry, even on the Cross.
So here we are on this “Peter’s Mother-in-Law Sunday.” We delight that she is healed of her raging fever and picks up her deacon-like service in that domestic church. But there is so much more in play here. Maybe these things include voices that need to be silenced or a prayer life that needs to begin. In all of these and more, St. Mark is definite about one thing—Jesus leads the way and will never forsake us, but abide with us and feed us at the Holy Meal.
1 Terrence Kardong, “Work is Prayer: Not!” The Order of St. Benedict, Monastic Topics, accessed January 19, 2021, http://archive.osb.org/gen/topics/work/kard1.html.