Grieved

“Grieved” is the word that stands out in today’s gospel. Jesus asked the Pharisees if it is “lawful to do good on the Sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it.” They believed otherwise and the hardness of their heart “grieved” Jesus. 

This word for “grieved” (sullupeó) carries a deep sense of emotional pain, almost like the sadness of a broken heart. Jesus was “grieved” (sullupeó) in his heart because of the state of their hearts. By this point in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus had already performed many miraculous healings, just as God had already performed many miracles for the Israelites in the wilderness during the Exile, such as in Exodus 17, one of the places where we first encounter the hardness of heart, when the Israelites kept testing the Lord and finding fault with Moses. Hard-heartedness becomes a running theme throughout Scripture, so much so that God promises “a new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:23).

But what does it mean to have a heart as hard as stone? The word for “hard” (qashah) in the Old Testament is used to describe the severity (qashah) of Rachel’s labor when she gave birth to Benjamin (see Genesis 35:16-17). Jacob also used this word to describe the cruelty (qashah) of Simeon and Levi’s fury (see Genesis 49:5-7). This word is also used to describe the difficulty (qashah) of Elisha’s request for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit (see 2 Kings 2:10). The hardness of a person’s heart is not simply about stubbornness, as today’s gospel seems to indicate, but it also implies stubbornness to the point of severity and cruelty in need of a miraculous transformation. 

In today’s gospel, it was easier for Jesus to “restore” a withered hand than a hard heart. He commanded the man with the withered hand, "Stretch out your hand,” but he commands all of us: Stretch out your heart. And just like the man with the withered hand who obeyed Jesus, we must do the same. We must stretch out the withered hand of our hard hearts toward Christ so that he can miraculously restore all hearts from cruelty to compassion, from severity to sanctity, from pride to piety and purity, because he is grieved at our hard-heartedness. He is grieved when we do not let him replace our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh. He is grieved when we do not let him restore our lives to holiness. 

 Be restored by him today. Stretch out your heart!


Deserted

“Deserted” is the word that stands out in today’s gospel. “Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed” (Mark 1:35).

This word for “deserted” (erémos) is also translated as “wilderness.” It’s often used to describe the living conditions of John the Baptist. As a child, “he was in the wilderness [erémos] till the day of his manifestation to Israel” (Luke 1:80). As a man, he was found “preaching in the wilderness [erémos]” (Matthew 3:1). He even said of himself, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness [erémos], ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” (John 1:23). This word is also used in the New Testament to describe the conditions of the Israelites before they entered the Promised Land. “Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness [erémos]” (John 6:31). “Now when forty years had passed, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness [erémos] of Mount Sinai, in a flame of fire in a bush” (Acts 7:30). When Jesus went out to a deserted place, the imagery of communing with God comes to mind, the kind of communion experienced by John the Baptist and the ancient Israelites.

This word for “deserted” (erémos) is also where we get our word eremitic—a descriptor for the life of a hermit, which the Catechism describes as people who “manifest to everyone the interior aspect of the mystery of the Church, that is, personal intimacy with Christ” (CCC 921). In one sense, Jesus going out to a “deserted” (erémos) place for prayer is like a hermit seeking personal intimacy with God. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI teaches us that, in this scene, “the true centre of the mystery of Jesus appears” because in this deserted place, in this hermitic behavior, “Jesus was conversing with the Father and raised his human spirit in communion with the Person of the Son, so that the humanity of the Son, united to him, might speak in the Trinitarian dialogue with the Father; and thus, he also made true prayer possible for us” (Homily, February 2006).

Sometimes it’s important for all of us to be hermit-like—to go out to a deserted place and spend time in prayer, to enter into a personal intimacy with Christ, and to deepen our relationship with God. Those intimate encounters are the moments when the Lord replenishes our soul so that we can love him more fully and serve our neighbors more wholeheartedly. A deserted place isn’t truly a wilderness; it’s an oasis of peace.

Take courage

“Take courage” is the word that stands out in today’s gospel because in the Greek text it’s actually one word: tharseó. This word occurs only seven times in the New Testament. Twice it happens before a miraculous healing, first with a paralytic in Matthew 9:2 and next in Matthew 9:22 with a woman suffering from a hemorrhage for twelve years. Jesus tells them both: “Take courage” (tharseó). His disciples repeat this phrase when they bring the blind Bartimaeus to Jesus for healing. “Take courage [tharseó],” they tell him; “Jesus is calling you” (Mark 10:49).

Today’s gospel portrays Jesus telling his disciples to “take courage” (tharseó) after he miraculously walks across the sea to them. This scene is retold in Matthew 14. In both gospel passages, Jesus couples this encouragement with the reminder, “Do not be afraid.” This coupling is also implied in John 16:33, the very last time this word appears in the gospels, in the very last sentence of Jesus’s very last teaching right before his high priestly prayer and his passion and death. He tells his disciples to “take courage” (tharseó) because he has defeated the world.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI also focuses on “taking courage” in Christ and to “fear nothing” through faith in his explanation of today’s gospel: “‘Take heart, it is I; have no fear’, Jesus exclaimed to the disciples who, with the wind against them, were bent over their oars on the Sea of Gennesaret (Mk 6: 50). Although sometimes the present blows a stormy wind in our faces and we are filled with great fear for the future, we must have confidence; we must not be afraid because God comes to our aid. If we understand the future in this way, we shall be able to confront its challenge. We shall then be able to shape the future and to make the most of the opportunities it offers us” (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Message on the occasion of the 97th German Katholikentag, 2008).

When Jesus tells his disciples to “take courage,” it is a message for all of us, when the storms of life seem overwhelming. That is the time to be not afraid. That is the time to invite him into the boat of our souls and wait until he calms every tempest.

Straight

“Straight” is the word that stands out in today’s gospel, when John the Baptist sums his mission by explaining that he is the voice of one crying out in the desert: “Make straight the way of the Lord.” 

What does it mean to make “straight”? 

This word for straight (euthunó) appears only twice in the New Testament. The next time it appears is in James 3:4 when teachers are described as pilots (euthunó) who steer massive ships with small rudders. 

John the Baptist is talking about direction. He is urging us to make a straight path that leads directly to the heart of God. 

But how? 

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI explains that making straight the way of the Lord “calls for inner conversion” and to “make a sincere examination of our life” (Angelus, 4 December 2011). Making a straight way for the Lord begins with our willingness to stop sinning and to start turning the rudder of our soul toward Christ. 

But sometimes, when we feel like a ship lost and tossed on rough waters in the darkness, it seems as if turning our lives around and making a straight path for Christ is impossible. That’s the hour to turn to Mary. 

One of her most ancient titles is Our Lady Star of the Sea. She is like a star that sailors watch so that they can steer the rudder of their ship in a straight direction through the darkness of night. We must let her be our guiding star. We must ask her to give us inner conversion. We must ask her to help us make a sincere examination of our life. We must ask her to make straight the way for her Son to enter into our heart and show us the way to the harbor of heaven. 

Beware

December 26, 2018, Wednesday, Feast of Saint Stephen

“Beware” is the word that stands out in today’s gospel, on the feast of St. Stephen. The word itself mirrors the peculiarity of the day, the feast of the Church’s first martyr right after the solemnity of our Savior’s birth—a celebration of life followed by a celebration of death—since the word for beware (prosechó) is very different from the words we have been investigating this month: pity, grace, and joy. As we begin the Christmas season, we are immediately called to “beware” (prosechó), a word that is essentially identified with Advent as an urgent call to “be aware” of the coming Christ. The Christmas season begins where Advent left off: with watchfulness. But what do we have to watch for now that the Word has become Incarnate? Christ warns in Luke 21:34-36 that you must be aware “lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a snare; for it will come upon all who dwell upon the face of the whole earth. But watch at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of man.” In other words, now that we have finished being watchful for Christ’s first coming, now we have to be aware of Christ’s final coming, which is in our midst right now, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI explains: “Jesus Christ does not belong to the past, nor is he confined to a distant future whose coming we do not even have the courage to seek. He arrives with a great procession of saints… he is already on his way towards us, towards our present” (Christmas greetings, 21 December 2007). Beware. Be aware of Jesus Christ in your life.

Joy

December 19, 2018, Wednesday of the Third Week of Advent

“Joy” is the word that stands out in today’s gospel, when the angel Gabriel appears before Zechariah and tells him that, at the birth of his son John the Baptist, “you will have joy and gladness.”

This word for joy (chara) is related to the word we dug into last week when Gabriel greeted Mary, “Hail, full of grace!” The word for full of grace (kecharitōmenē) comes from the common New Testament word for grace (charis). Joy (chara) and grace (charis) are both related. The joy predicted for Zechariah at the birth of John the Baptist is an experience of God’s grace, a free gift that Elizabeth also experienced during the Visitation when she “heard Mary’s greeting” and” the infant leaped in her womb” and filled Elizabeth with the Holy Spirit, which St. John Paul II, describes as a “small Pentecost,” because “the Virgin, who carries the Son conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in her womb, radiates grace and spiritual joy around her. It is the presence of the Spirit within her that causes Elizabeth’s son, John, destined to prepare the way for the Son of God made man, to leap with joy” (Address, May 31, 2001). John passes that same grace-filled joy to his father Zechariah, whose first words at the birth of his son is a song that begins, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,” a song that the Church still sings joyfully every morning at Lauds in the Divine Office.

May you all be filled with this same gracious joy this Christmas.

Full of Grace

December 12, 2018, Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Second Week of Advent

“Full of grace” is the word that stands out in today’s Gospel on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, when the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and says, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”

This phrase “full of grace” is actually one word (kecharitōmenē) that can also be translated as highly favored one. It’s a unique word that doesn’t appear again in Scripture, a word that reflects the uniqueness of Mary herself. The word is an indication of how special she is among all women in salvation history. Pope Pius IX connects this uniqueness to Mary’s Immaculate Conception when he explains that this greeting “showed that the Mother of God is the seat of all divine graces and is adorned with all gifts of the Holy Spirit” (Ineffabilis Deus, 1854). In other words, even before the Holy Spirit came upon her and the power of the Most High overshadowed her, she already had “a special grace and privilege of God” from the “first instant of the soul's infusion into the body” (Ineffabilis Deus, 1854). This word “full of grace” (kecharitōmenē) means that “the Blessed Virgin was, through grace, entirely free from every stain of sin, and from all corruption of body, soul and mind; that she was always united with God and joined to him by an eternal covenant” (Ineffabilis Deus, 1854).

An anonymous painter of the 18th century captured this perfectly, depicting God the Father eternally painting the image of Our Lady of Guadeloupe for his Son, who with the Holy Spirit is lovingly looking on. That’s how Mary is truly “full of grace.”

Pity

December 5, 2018, Wednesday of the First Week of Advent

“Pity” is the word that stands out in today’s Gospel, when great crowds follow Jesus and he says of them, "My heart is moved with pity for the crowd, for they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat.”

This word for “pity” (splagchnizomai) refers to a person’s internal organs, especially when those inward parts are moved by an emotional experience. Have you ever felt broken hearted? Have you ever experienced a gut-wrenching feeling? You know your heart wasn’t actually broken and your guts weren’t physically wrenched. But they certainly felt that way. The pity that Jesus experiences for this crowd is a physical reaction, going on deep down inside our Lord; but it’s also a spiritual action, since this word for “pity” is directly related to “the tender [splagchnon] mercy of our God” in Luke 1:78. Jesus’s pity that sparks the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes is a gut-tugging compassion that is the image of the invisible God’s tender mercy for all of us.

As we begin this season of Advent, let us continually pray that God will have the same gut-wrenching pity, that same tender mercy upon us when he comes again.