Holy Spirit

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A reading from the book of Numbers                                11:25-29

Responsorial Psalm                              Psalm 18 (19):8. 10.  12-14 R/.9

A reading from the letter of St James                                        5:1-6  

A reading from the holy Gospel according to St Mark

9:38-43. 45. 47-48


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A Sin of Omission

Twice in recent Gospel readings we have listened to Jesus teaching his disciples that “the Son of Man will be handed over into the hands of men and put to death”.  On both occasion, his learners failed to understand. Indeed, on the first occasion (8:31-33), Peter rebuked Jesus, implying that such thoughts were diabolical and Jesus condemned such arrogance by giving Peter another name: Satan.  When Jesus again attempted to impress on them what lay ahead, all the while, on the way, they were arguing who was the greatest among them (9:30-34). In chapter 10:32-34, in more detail than before, again Jesus tries to open their minds and hearts to the fate that awaited him.  And what do we find?

  The first thing we find is that our Sunday Lectionary does not include the third Passion Prediction (Mark 10:32-34).  This is a very serious omission and seriously diminishes the possibility of understanding what St Mark’s Gospel is about.

  There are three Passion Predictions in three consecutive chapters of Mark’s Gospel.  After each prediction, Jesus’ closest and most important followers, the group named The Twelve, not only fail to understand but show utter rejection, even indifference to what is been told them.   It is Peter who, in the name of the others, declares Jesus to be the Messiah but wants no truck with any thoughts of suffering and death. He is called Satan for his arrogance. Then having heard the most explicit revelation of what Jesus must endure, James and John immediately come forward with a power-play, a request for seats on the right and left hand of the throne when Jesus comes into his glory (10:35-37).  They get a very back-down to earth reply.

  What Mark is doing is showing us what we already know, that these men will all run away when the time comes.  They misunderstand, they reveal arrogance and personal ambition. No matter how much extra tuition Jesus gives them, they never seem to get it.  They are born failures. They are, if I may use Mark’s vocabulary, on the way to nowhere as far as an understanding of Jesus goes. What is to become of them?  

  The fact is that Mark uses their obtuseness to undermine our complacency and to teach us what we must know.  Our teacher will be Jesus and the brightest pupil in the class will be the pagan Roman centurion at the foot of the cross.


And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said,

         “Truly, this man was the Son of God”.

What Mark is telling us is that you cannot know Jesus until you have sat upon the ground at the foot of the cross and meditated, and wondered, and wept, and prayed.  For Mark the ultimate revelation of God’s love is revealed in the man crying out,

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Mark 15:34


  To be sure, the learners, the apprentices, these disciples, are taught much and learned little.  For the key that opens up the mystery of everything is, in Mark’s magnificent Gospel, the horror of the crucifixion and death of the Beloved Son we met on his first page (1:11).   That dead man is Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God.

  The women seemed to have grasped something of the mystery:

There were also women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. When he was in Galilee, they followed him and ministered to him, and there were also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem.                                                   Mark 15:40-41

They will gather spices and prepare to anoint him and they will hurry to the tomb.

 No one meets the Risen Christ in Mark’s Gospel.  Yes, a young man dressed in white, meets the women and informs that “he is not here”, “he is risen”.  But Jesus does not appear to them or to anyone else. If you have not grasped what Jesus has taught, namely, that his death is the gateway to his glory and to ours and there is no other way, then there is only one thing to be done.  We must go back to Galilee and read the story again. Mark is teaching us that we have the walk the way to discover the Way. For there is no other way than that of the cross.

   But all this is concealed from us in the omissions of so much in our Lectionary.  Thank God for our Lectionary. When we compare it to what went before it is a glorious gift.  But it is far from perfect and we deserve better. We need a new Lectionary.

A reading from the book of Numbers                                11:25-29

Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to [Moses], and took some of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. And as soon as the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied.  But they did not continue doing it.

  Now two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the Spirit rested on them. They were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua the son of Nun, the assistant of Moses from his youth, said, “My lord Moses, stop them.” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!”

The word of the LORD.

The Book of Numbers is what we call it.  But not the Jewish community. For Jews the Hebrew name of the book is Be-midbar (= “in the desert”).  The book is an account of the forty years spent in the wilderness before God’s people came to the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey.  The Septuagint, a Greek translation done by Jews in Alexandria who were forgetting their Hebrew, called it the “Book of Numbers” because of the numbering or census-taking mentioned in the first four chapters.

  What we need especially to note is that it is the fourth book in the five book collection called the TORAH, the first books of the Bible that are the non-negotiable, utterly indispensable Law of God.   It is this collection that gives religious Jews their identity before God as a holy people to whom, again and again, God declares, “I will be your God and you will be my people”.

  Our reading from Numbers today is rather like our Gospel reading and that is why it is in our Lectionary.

  The Spirit of God, we learn, is not given alone to Moses, God’s appointed lieutenant in the battle to take God’s people away from slavery in Egypt and from under the rule of the Pharaoh.  Moses is appointed as leader and teacher appointed by God to turn the slaves of Pharaoh into the people of God. The task is too much for a man who suffers from a bad stammer (Exodus 4:10) and faced with a very unruly classroom.  So the Spirit must be shared. A prophet is one who speaks on behalf of God but also whose gift of the Spirit empowers them as teachers. The prophets, in God’s good time, became not only the conscience of Israel, but its teachers.  And ours.

Responsorial Psalm                              Psalm 18 (19):8. 10.  12-14 R/.9

R/.   The precepts of the LORD gladden the heart.

The law of the LORD is perfect,

reviving the soul;

the testimony of the LORD is sure,

making wise the simple.           R/.

The fear of the Lord is pure,

enduring forever;

the decrees of the LORD are true,

              and altogether just.       R/

Moreover, in them is your servant finds instruction;

in keeping them there is great reward.

Who can be aware his errors?

Declare me innocent of unwitting faults.     R/.

Keep back your servant from presumptuous sins;

let them not have dominion over me!

Then I shall be blameless,

and innocent of great transgression.

R/.   The precepts of the LORD gladden the heart.


[Perceptive choir leaders or readers might wish to add the final stanza of this difficult psalm:

May the words of my mouth,

and the prayer of my heart

be acceptable to you,

O LORD, my rock and my Redeemer!     R/.]

Psalm 19 (18 in the Greek numbering followed in our Lectionary) is recited in the opening prayers of the morning service on the Sabbath in Jewish liturgy.  It has three themes. The first part is a hymn of creation, especially a hymn of the sun as it glories God in the heavens (verses i-7). Then follows a hymn focusing on God’s teaching, especially as given to Israel in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible (verses 8-11).  God’s teaching rejoices the heart, is more desirable than gold, and sweeter than honey. The third part of the psalm is a plea to be saved from sin, the sins we commit knowingly and even our unwitting sins.

  I repeat the final lines of the psalm, omitted from the Lectionary, for they are dear to all you come to God in prayer:

May the words of my mouth

and the prayer of my heart

be acceptable to You,


my Rock and my Redeemer.

A reading from the letter of St James                                        5:1-6  

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you.  Your wealth is rotten, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire.  It is in the lasts days that you have hoarded your wealth. Look! The wages which you have defrauded from the labourers who mowed your fields are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the LORD of Hosts.  You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence.  You have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter. You have condemned and you have murdered the righteous person. Does He not oppose you?        The Word of the LORD.

As Psalm 19, our Responsorial Psalm of today, praises God’s Torah as more precious than gold and sweeter than honey, so James’s Jewish traditions move him to condemn those who hoard riches.  He makes a complaint common in the Old Testament and frequently on the lips of Jesus. St Luke records his version of the Beatitudes, not on a mountain but down among the people on the plain.  He has this to say about the rich:

Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your reward.  Woe to you who are rich now, for you shall be hungry.  Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.                                                          Luke 6:24

James attacks the rich because their wealth is accumulated by cheating workers of their wages.  While you may know that gold does not rust, the righteous anger of James may be excused as he hastens to condemn as Jesus condemned those who batten on the poor.  There is a long biblical tradition of anger against the ‘haves’ who batten off the ‘have-nots’. Isaiah’s voice’s his anger as strongly as James:

Behold, the day of the Lord comes,

cruel, with wrath and fierce anger,

to make the land a desolation

and to destroy its sinners from it.

For the stars of the heavens and their constellations

will not give their light;

the sun will be dark at its rising,

and the moon will not shed its light.

I will punish the world for its evil,

and the wicked for their iniquity;

I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant,

and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless.

Isaiah 13:9-11

On the Day of the LORD, the Day of Judgement, “the last days” (as James names that awesome day) is approaching and that is not the time to parade your sins.  Early Christians thought that the Day of the LORD was not far distant, a conviction that pervades much of the New Testament.  James questions asks the rich, if the Day is near, is it not rash to expect that God will not oppose your sinful ways.

A reading from the holy Gospel according to St Mark

9:38-43. 45. 47-48

John said to [Jesus], “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Don’t stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.  For one who is not against us is for us. For whoever gives a cup of water for you to drink because you belong to Christ, Amen I say to you, will by no means lose his reward.

   “And whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’                                     The Gospel of the LORD.

  John, the brother of James (not our James above), a pair interested in status, complains that someone was casting out demons and apparently was annoyed.  Hadn’t Jesus sent him and the rest of the Twelve on a trial mission and weren’t they empowered to cast out demons? Hadn’t Jesus and his people cornered the exorcism market?  

  Jesus knows that whoever casts out demons must be on the side of God.   To cast out evil spirits one must be possessed by the Holy Spirit. So Jesus, not for the first time, puts John in his place with an incisive underlining as to the nature of the vocation Jesus is calling him to.

  Dealing with power over demons, Mark may have deemed it appropriate to introduce the subject of sin, and particularly the evil of leading others into sin.  He begins with children.

 That is where the preacher today will wish he had not been born into our time and our place, not ministering in the dark night which has enveloped our Church everywhere.

  To turn from where we are to the place where Mark’s Christian readers and hearers were may be of some help and may light our black darkness with a little hope.

  Christians in Rome, like everywhere else at the time Mark composed his Gospel (probably between 65 and 75 A.D.) met in house churches.  A community of Christians would have been as many as would fit in your front room (to use an old description). Or they might have a hired a room for their weekly worship.   Wealthy people may have had more space to offer but there were not many of those about the place. However these house churches were pretty good at communicating with each other and there was a deep sense that each little church was part of a large and growing movement in their world.  But in 64 A.D. disaster struck Christian communities in Rome. Here are the facts:

In July, 64 A.D. a tremendous fire, lasting for more than six days, reduced more than half of the city of Rome, the Eternal City, to ashes.  The Emperor, Nero (54 - 68 A.D.), quickly issued plans for the rebuilding of his imperial capital. A rumour began to spread that the fire had been an act of high authority; indeed, people were beginning to believe that Nero (whose wife, Poppaea was a convert to Judaism) may have instigated the fire.  To root out this suspicion, Nero blamed Christians for the disaster.  It may well have been that Christians were a suspicious lot.  Their secret ways and their refusal to take part in the religious/civic rituals of the city and state certainly marked them out.  Nero needed a scapegoat and Christians were declared “enemies of the human race” and rounded up.  

  The very distinguished Roman historian, Cornelius Tacitus (55 - 120 A.D.), records the matter:

[Concerning the fire], the precautions taken were suggested by human prudence: now means were sought   for appeasing deity, and application was made to the Sibylline books; at the injunction of which public prayers were offered to Vulcan, Ceres, and Proserpine, while Juno was propitiated by the matrons, first in the Capitol, then at the nearest point of the sea-shore, where water was drawn for sprinkling  the Temple and image of the goddess. Ritual banquets and all-night vigils were celebrated by women in the married state. But neither human help, nor imperial munificence, nor all the modes of placating Heaven, could stifle scandal or dispel the belief that the fire had taken place by order.

Therefore, to suppress this rumour, Nero fabricated scapegoats and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were popularly called).  Their originator, Christus, had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the procurator (sic) of Judaea, Pontius Pilate [Auctor nominus eius Christus Tiberio imperitante per procuratorem Pontium Pilatum supplicio adfectus erat].  But in spite of this temporary setback, the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not only in Judæa (where the chief mischief had started) but even in the City. All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capital.  Therefore, first self-confessed [Christians] were arrested. Then, on their information [deinde indicio eorum], vast numbers were convicted, not so much for the crime of arson, but for their hatred of the human race [odio humani generis].  Their deaths were covered in derision: they were cloaked in the skins of wild animals and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight declined, they were burned to serve as lamps by night.  Nero provided his Gardens for the spectacle and exhibited displays in his Circus, at which he mingled with the crowds, or stood in a chariot, dressed as a charioteer. Despite their guilt as Christians, and the ruthless punishment it deserved, the victims were pitied.  For it was felt that they were being sacrificed, not for the welfare of the state, but for the fierce cruelty of one man.

From:  TACITUS, The Annals of Rome, Book XV, §44.


What it boils down to is that some Christians who were arrested betrayed their brothers and sisters (deinde indicio eorum - on their information). As a result vast numbers were rounded up and were put to death with such cruelty that even the Roman mob began to pity them.  No Christian sources recorded this great betrayal, and you can see why.

  This betrayal mirrors the betrayal in our time and place.  In Boston, in every diocese in Pennsylvania, throughout the whole on North and South America, in Australia, in Ireland, in England, in Europe, here in my diocese, an even greater betrayal has destroyed the faith of millions.  But more heart-breaking is the cruel fact that it has destroyed the lives of so many children and vulnerable adults.

 So what is Jesus saying to the churches in today’s Gospel reading?

  Taking the child in his arms, Jesus warns that anyone who causes one of these little ones to stumble, such a one is in such peril from God that “it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung about his neck and he were thrown into the sea”.  God’s wrath will be unquenched against such a one. The verb that is translated as “to stumble” implies that the child’s relationship with God is broken. That is what happens when one who is perceived as a godly person destroys a child’s faith, a child’s confidence, a child’s love of God.  That is what makes the actions of such people more detestable and their sin an even greater abomination. For such there is unquenchable fire. If the salt loses its saltiness, if the priest loses holiness in such a sin, how can it be possible that he be made holy again? That is the question Jesus asks.  

  Today’s Gospel speaks to our times.  It does not offer any hope nor does it hold out any expectation of deliverance.  What it does is to proclaim from the rooftops that children belong to God. And a Church which robs God of his children has no place on this earth, and certainly no place in heaven.

 Rome’s communities of Christians recovered from their great betrayal.  With God’s help and the inspiration of Mark’s little pamphlet those little house churches came back to life and recovered from the evil inflicted upon them by some of their own.    It may be possible that God our Father will deliver us from the great evil into which priests and bishops have delivered the whole Catholic people throughout the world. We must hope and pray that they will repent of their sins.  A firm purpose of amendment, necessary if a good confession is to be made, will be a radical reformation of priestly ministry in our Church. Women priests and married clergy are an essential first step. An end to compulsory celibacy for priests in the western church is long overdue and all of us have experienced the ministry of married priests this many a year. A radical elimination of the evil we call clericalism will then become possible.  Priestly ministry must become fit for purpose, able to serve the people of the Church as they strive to fulfil their vocation as proclaimers of the gospel of God in our time and in our place. Pray God we come to change what must be changed so that God will be minded to move from the Seat of Judgement to the Seat of Mercy.

Joseph O’Hanlon