We are soon entering the season of Lent,
and for the second year,
we will enter it masked and distanced,
sanitized, gloved and Covid compliant.
We will enter it tired.
Tired of bad news,
Tired of loss,
Tired of isolation,
Tired of livestreamed bread and pre-recorded hope.
We want to return to normal.
We want full calendars,
full collection baskets,
full communion lines,
But those who work in the Church
can’t help but wonder...
once the pandemic is under control…
once the community is vaccinated…
once “normal” returns…
What will normal look like?
Will quiet cathedrals be filled with song?
Will vacant parking lots overflow?
Will threadbare budgets balance?
Will scattered people return?
Or has the pandemic simply accelerated a trend long in the making?
an erosion of people
an unraveling of energy
a fraying at the seams of communal life.
I heard some theologians and pastoral leaders
asking if this season—
this time of suffering and attrition—
is simply a necessary time of pruning;
a time of winnowing;
a time that will make the church leaner.
Asking if perhaps…
this season of challenge
is an invitation to purge.
A call to arms, as it were,
to take up our pruning shears and lop off dead limbs.
Cut back diseased branches.
Pinch off spent flowers.
Clear away the undergrowth.
Fire up the stump grinder and put a match to the driftwood.
A “theology of pruning”
can sound kind of attractive--
perhaps even prudent.
After all, careful pruning
could result in greater clarity.
Yep, pruning to reveal a
until I consider the very real possibility
that the diseased shrub
or spent flower;
the rough, scaly thing next in line to be purged
Or you over there…
Or even you.
And it is interesting,
and perhaps more than a bit ironic,
that these conversations about “pruning”
and “re-defining” and “re-branding”
and “re-establishing what it means to be truly Catholic”
are taking place against the landscape of this particular Gospel;
these particular readings.
This is the year we proclaim Mark’s Gospel—
This is the year we strap on our hard hats
and tighten our seatbelts
and deep dive into the
journey to the cross
that Mark invites us to embrace.
The Jesus we meet in the first Chapter of Mark--
the Jesus just starting his public ministry--
is a Jesus who plunges headfirst into both
mission and messiness.
He was baptized by a man
who dressed in camel hair and snacked on locusts.
He was driven into the desert,
where he wrestled with Satan
and went seven rounds with wild beasts.
The Jesus we meet in Chapter 1 of Mark
Drives out demons,
Confronts unclean spirits,
Attracts undue attention,
and somehow convinces previously sane, hardworking, respectable men
boats and businesses
and roll the dice on a risky bet with a complete stranger.
The opening moments of Mark’s Gospel
are loud and disruptive.
People are possessed.
Bystanders are astounded, surrounded, and amazed.
Unclean spirits are rebuked, convulsed and cast out.
Jesus stands in the thick of it all,
right beside the lost,
the rough, the scaly, and the unclean.
It’s enough to make this sanitized, gloved, masked, distanced disciple shudder.
In the passage we just proclaimed,
Jesus closes out this extraordinary day of ministry
by touching and healing a leper--
an encounter that is the very epitome
of rough, scaly, and unclean.
at least the Jesus we meet
in the opening chapter of Mark’s Gospel--
doesn’t seem to be in the Pruning Business at all.
if we are using gardening metaphors,
Jesus seems like a wild and wasteful gardener--
Cultivating, cross-pollinating, fertilizing, irrigating, grafting on--
Jesus is adding,
If we are hearing this Gospel for the first time,
it is hard to even imagine what comes next,
but from Mark’s vantage point,
Jesus stands at the epicenter of something astonishing and new;
something boisterous and untamed and profound.
Mark paints the picture of a motley crew of “everybodys”
being gathered and formed and commissioned for work--
a community that will become the polar opposite of
“pruned”, “trimmed”, “clipped” or “groomed”.
And about that leper?
Although most translations read, “Moved with pity”,
there are other translations,
other readings of this ancient text that say,
“Moved with anger.”
Moved with anger, Jesus stretches out his hand.
Moved with anger, Jesus touches him and says,
“I will do it. Be made clean.”
Anger, at us, perhaps?
because we like to avoid rough and scaly people.
Anger, at society, perhaps?
because it is oh, so easy to collectively
turn our backs and close our eyes.
Anger, at religion, perhaps?
because holiness and purity
are too often equated with outward beauty.
anytime I find myself
by thoughts of a smaller, leaner, more “pruned”
and more “Holy” Church,
I revisit the opening scenes of Mark’s Gospel
with fresh eyes and an open heart.
Jesus came to do for us what the law could not—
to make us pure in the midst of our pain,
cleansed, in the midst of sickness and sin.
Holiness Incarnate took on our flesh,
took on our roughness, our scaly-ness, our fears.
Jesus stretched out his hands in pity/compassion/anger/love,
and in that gesture,
healed and whole and His.
(c) Susan Fleming McGurgan