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BY WHOSE AUTHORITY?
4th Sunday Ordinary Time B
In today’s gospel (Mark 1:21-28) we read that Jesus had “authority” over unclean spirits and his fame spread everywhere in the region. Jesus’s authority did not come from any government official or written document. His authority emanated from his charismatic being, his Spirit, and he released it for the common good. People believed him because he spoke to their needs.
There are a lot of people who exercise “authority” throughout the world these days. Who or what gives them that power? In the government of the United States powers and authorities exercised by elected officials are outlined in the Constitution and its amendments. While those rights of individuals are stated in that document not all citizens have been or are treated in the same way because of the “hard hearted” divisions in this country.
On the local level there are various authorities at work to protect and represent all people and to see that everyone has a fair chance to advance in society with dignity and equity regardless of race, religion, gender or ethnicity. However, these aspirations, also rooted in the Constitution, are hard to realize. Consider, for one example, the growing gap between wealthy and poor people.
In the Catholic Church, the pope is considered the supreme authority. His ecclesial ministry is most notable in matters of faith and morals. In principle this authority is shared by bishops and the laity.  The role of the Holy Spirit acting in the entire body of the church is extremely important but often difficult to accept because the hierarchy continues to ignore the insights and contributions of so many people.
The polarization that exists in civic societies is not new in religious ones. It is clear that Pope Francis does not have the support or obedience in his own household. There are clergy and laity who question the pope’s teaching authority and power to lead. Because of these divisions people yearn for truthful and authentic voices. Organized religions are expected to provide moral leadership.
What kind of authority did Jesus have? Where did that power come from? In general, there are at least two forms of power and authority according to James Rowe Adams.  First is the power that enforces obedience. This kind of authority uses coercive means to rule over the people who have no voice. The second type is the power to influence or inspire. This is a more collaborative authority that seeks out the wisdom of the group.
A close reading of the Second (New) Testament clearly suggests that, in the beginning, the followers of Jesus used their teaching authority to influence and inspire others. These early disciples believed that the kingdom of God was at hand. Jesus’s power over the unclean spirit reported in today’s gospel metaphorically signaled an end to the oppressive regimes that ruled the world. Jesus announced a new day was coming. And, he backed up his words with action.
In the words of Dennis Hamm: “To say that the ‘kingdom of God’ is at hand is to draw upon the apocalyptic world view and to say that God is about to manifest divine kingship by rescuing God's people from whatever oppresses them ….”
Hamm continued: “When we find ourselves depressed and oppressed by the evil we detect in others, perhaps we best hear the authoritative teaching of Jesus when we hear it as a call to our own further conversion.”
In his sermon at the inaugural prayer service at the Washington National Cathedral the Rev. William J. Barber II  likened the invasion of the Capitol to the many breaches that exist in our country. He said, “According to the imagery of Isaiah … a breach occurs when there is a gap in the nation between what is and how God wants things to be.” Barber added that unity without action will get us nowhere.
Seekers of unity, reconciliation, and peace? Repairers of the breaches? What action is required to achieve such ambitious agendas? With the witness of Jesus in mind what is holding us back from releasing the Spirit inside us?
Starting with our personal lives we can clean out the demons, the evil forces that consume us and mislead us. In doing so we can regain our true identity as a Spirit-filled people with a purpose. We are not to be led by suspect powers that take advantage of us. We do not want a new normal that is merely the old normal in disguise.
Instead we want to take control of our destinies to find ways to emerge with new energy, new composure, new agendas, to shape the world we live in. In doing so our collegial authority and power, rooted in a divine presence in and among us, will influence and inspire others just like Jesus of Nazareth did.
1. See The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 874-913.
2. Adams was the rector of St. Mark’s Church on Capitol Hill for 50 years before his retirement. He also founded The Center for Progressive Christianity.
3. Barber is President and Senior Lecturer at Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.
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INAUGURATION OF A NEW AGE
3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time B
There are times when it seems our sacred texts cannot readily help us examine what is going on in our lives right now. Sometimes, rather than starting with the narratives found in scripture books, it can be more productive to begin with the wisdom of contemporary voices.
The inauguration of Joseph Biden as the 46th President of the United States was one of those uplifting times when the prose, prayers, poetry and songs help us gain a new perspective on our biblical texts.
Many of the words heard at the inaugural echoed what we often hear in churches, synagogues, mosques and shrines every week — unity, service, justice, and peace. The inaugural twist was that these terms are the keys to preserve a republic built upon democracy.
When the Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman recited, “We’ve braved the belly of the beast,” she provided a fortuitous segue into the biblical texts for today. While in the belly of the whale, Jonah (3:1-5, 10), full of fear and doubt, is transformed. He emerges to take up his prophetic job. He boldly tells the Ninevites it is time for them to change the way they have been living.
Like Nineveh  our nation has been swallowed up by the lack of attention to what is true. While many Americans live rather comfortably millions more continue to suffer from various inequities and prejudices. Jonah did not want to be the one to tell the Ninevites they needed to change their ways. We, too, are often remiss in our prophetic role to challenge the status quo, to foster a common good.
Having been tested, now we are summoned to be united in an effort to restore our nation. If the poet Gorman is right that we are “a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished” we still have work to do together.
Our identity as a Catholic church, a sacrament of unity, has also been weakened. In fact, many Christian religions and their leaders are divided over grave issues that affect American lives. Jonah’s experience nudges all of us to find ways to transform the religions we belong to, the societies we live in. This is what Jesus also taught his followers.
In today’s gospel (Mark 1:14-20) Jesus tells his listeners a new kingdom is near and that repentance is required to embrace it. A biblical definition of “repentance" is to have a change of mind, heart, and action. Jesus recruited disciples to build up his coalition, to spread his message.
The term “new kingdom” is not a reference to the end of the world or to a heavenly place but to the realization of God as the primary and powerful wellspring for living here and now. It is in this sense that a change of heart is a necessary first step to make things right in our lives. How do we actually do this?
In commenting on the socio-political situation when Mark’s gospel was written, theologian Walter Brueggemann wrote it was a time to “de-script” from empirical and religious exploitation. This direction suggests a movement away from any ideology that blocks the out the presence of a holy Spirit among us. But Brueggemann also warned, “We have forgotten what has been entrusted to us.”
According to Osvaido Vena  Jesus recruited disciples not to leave a “hostile world” but to create an environment where the word of God abides in all of us. Bluntly, Jesus is calling us “to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege.”  The damage done by the defeated president is very deep leaving rifts for us to repair in our country, our religions and ourselves. We are not finished.
While we can continue to celebrate the passage from a failed presidency to a more civil, kind, and hopeful one, each of us must do our part like Jonah, Jesus and others working in the vineyard.
In speaking about the American aspiration on the eve of the inauguration, Vice President Kamala Harris reminded us, “Even in dark times, we not only dream, we do. We not only see what has been, we see what can be. We shoot for the moon, and then we plant our flag on it. We are bold, fearless, and ambitious. We are undaunted in our belief that we shall overcome; that we will rise up.”
1. Ancient Nineveh is now modern day Mosul, Iraq. Once in history the region around Nineveh, with its hanging gardens, was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
2. Profesor de Nuevo Testamento, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill., USA
3. Ched Myers, quoted by Osvaido Vena. In the Bible catching fish represents judgement upon extremely wealthy power brokers. See Jeremiah 16:16, Amos 4:2.
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THIS IS NO ORDINARY TIME
2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time B
The Catholic church is now in a period called “Ordinary Time.” It is an interval on the liturgical calendar when no particular event of the mystery of Christ is celebrated. However, on our daily calendars this is no ordinary time.
The events of the past fortnight are filled with both fear and hope. There was the dastardly breach of our nation’s Capitol, the historic second impeachment of President Donald Trump, and the upcoming inauguration of Joe Biden, whose 1.9 trillion dollar rescue plan aims to curb our economic and public health emergencies.
While we await nationwide vaccinations against SARS-CoV-19 we worry about continual threats against democracy and national security triggered by crazed mobs and specious conspiracies. The FBI considers, for example, the QAnon conspiracy a domestic terrorist threat. Although a majority of Americans believe QAnon is bad for this country many Christians strongly believe its theories.
What is hard to understand is why so many Christian people continue to accept these deceptions and a defeated president who intentionally abused women, separated children from their parents, shamed persons with disabilities, disregarded the Constitution, and mocked veterans for serving in the military.
A president who has consistently eschewed core Christian teachings, not to mention legal statutes, can hardly be called “pro-life.” More intolerable are the large numbers of Christians and their leaders who believe the outgoing president was appointed by God to be the savior of this nation if not the entire world! They are such loyal followers they have become complicit in embracing and promoting the shallow but dangerous agenda of Mr. Trump.
James Martin SJ wrote last week: “The invasion of the U.S. Capitol was seen by many rioters not simply as a political act but a religious one, in great part thanks to the moral framework fostered by too many Christian leaders. Christians in the mob probably did not consider themselves criminals as much as prophets.”
What are good, well intentioned people supposed to do? In the first biblical text for today (Samuel 3:3b-10, 19) the aging high priest Eli said to the teenager Samuel, son of Hannah, if you hear God calling you, you had better reply ASAP. Unlike Eli’s sons, Samuel did not yet know about God. Further, he did not realize God was calling him to be an important prophet.
The gospel (John 1:35-42) offers another example of readily answering the call. We read about Jesus recruiting people to follow him.  In this passage Peter is called by Jesus but, perhaps like Samuel, he did not understand what he was being asked to do nor did he grasp the significance of his calling. Some scholars think Peter never understood.
We, too, have been hearing this same biblical mandate over and over. We cannot ignore the call. Just as the world did not become an egalitarian sphere as soon as Jesus was born or when he died, neither should we think that our thirst for social justice will be quenched overnight. There is work to do.
In his sermon “No Surprise,” Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, preached about the traumatic and dispiriting event in Washington as an example of what happens when unchecked leaders rule. He urged, “There is no one moment when dissent dies.” Cosgrove continued to say that redemption does not happen all at once but takes one step at a time. “The dawn beckons,” he said.
What explains the dangerous behavior of the Trump cultic following? What locks ordinary people into a frenzied loyalty to crazed incendiaries like Jim Jones, David Koresh, Charles Manson, or Keith Raniere? Chris Jackson, a pollster with Ipsos commented: “Increasingly, people are willing to say and believe stuff that fits in with their view of how the world should be, even if it doesn't have any basis in reality or fact.”
We cannot forget that Jesus, like his cousin John the Baptizer, started a cult with a goal in mind. And, yes, Jesus, an itinerant Jew, did excite his disciples and others with his stirring speeches and radical actions. Christians today are baptized into that same cult and are called to rally, protest, attack, march against what we believe are grave injustices.
The difference between Jesus’s call to action and the maneuvers of egregious cults deluded by a demagogue is that Christians, along with people of other faith traditions, are committed to a united  effort to seek justice by peaceful means and without acts of violence. We do not stir up barbarity.  We move about in society using immeasurable kindness and truthful conversation as agents of reconciliation and peacemaking.
This coming week we begin with the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. on a National Day of Service.  Undeterred, and true to his calling, King challenged unbridled bigotry, racist structures and, specifically, a White supremacist, homophobic culture. King’s prophetic voice still resounds. In his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech he said: “ …Faith can give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom.”
In mid-week a new president and vice-president will take office. They promise to restore our nation’s credibility worldwide, to make health care a human right, to create jobs so everyone can live with dignity, and to lift up our pride in being an American citizen. It is no small task. We are all beckoned to do something, anything, to work harder for reconciliation and justice. Like the invitation to Samuel and the disciples of Christ we need to answer the call ASAP.
This is no ordinary time.
1. Next week’s gospel Mk 1:14-20 reports the continuation of the same recruiting process.
2. This is the beginning of a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
3. Those who peacefully protest various issues of public interest have a constitutional right to do so. The criticism is aimed at those who endanger the lives of others to make their point.
4. In 1994 Congress passed the MLK holiday and Service Act designating the day as a National Day of Service.
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SERVICE ABOVE SELF 
The Baptism of Jesus
Today, January 10, 2021, the Catholic church commemorates the baptism of Jesus. (Mark 1:7-11) Usually, it is a time to ponder the important vocation that persons initiated into the Christian tradition need to carry out in the world.
However, we cannot focus on this sacrament without asking ourselves some serious questions about who we are as people of God and what our role is in the public sphere.
Donald Trump clearly instigated the hostile march to the Capitol. Populist lawmakers who mindlessly continue to support him are complicit in his seditious actions. This latest odious tactic of the president and his legions did not develop overnight. His unhinged behavior has been well known for a long time.
The third from the last lines in the Christian bible warns against preaching falsehoods (Rev 22:19). During the last five years current and factual news in the United States have been skewed by outright lies, denials, and trumped up fictions fueled by the president and spewed by dishonest politicians, ratings hungry media personalities and, yes, ordinary citizens.
The climate was ripe for someone to rise up in 2016 promising to make a republic, broken apart by racism, poverty and greed, great again. Trump ironically stymied his own mission. Sadly a very large number of people, for some unthinkable reason, remains lured into the delusional world of the outgoing president. Vast numbers of well intentioned citizens remain loyal to a demagogue who despised the very people he needed to vote for him, the man who lied to them for five years.
On January 6, 2021, the feast of the Epiphany, reality set in when a mob of White extremists invaded the Capitol, our nation’s civic temple. Imagine the deaths, injuries and arrests that would have taken place if those who stormed into our sacred precinct were people of color, Black people? While thousands were beaten and arrested at Black Lives Matter rallies, not even a dozen (at this writing) were taken into custody during their siege on the Capitol.
Public buildings, aside from being functional, are symbolic expressions of principle, character, and identity. The treasonous invasion of the Capitol was an attack on the foundations this country was built upon. We, the citizens of this country, like it or not, are also responsible for the state this nation is in.
San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy said, "Today's events show the immensely perilous pathway of division and polarization that our country has embarked upon in these past four years.” Baptized persons, to be true to our calling, must step up.
How can Christians regain composure and rally together to repair this planet, the country, the church? Some bishops have publicly denounced the attack on the Capitol and the president’s actions. They are calling for prayer but that is not enough. Catholics, and Christians in general, are hardly united in searching for a common ground in civic, ecclesial and moral matters. For example, fifty percent of Catholics in the USA voted for Trump.
The teachings of the Vatican II Ecumenical Council refer to the church as “a sacrament of unity.”  The rituals of baptism, anointing and eucharist should celebrate and affirm this coalition. These ceremonies are designed to initiate new members willing to proclaim the social justice agenda started by Jesus of Nazareth. Ironically what is suppose to unite the church does not.
Charles C. Camosy  wrote: “Cleavage between Catholics of differing political stripes still exists, but it has been complicated by America's political realignment ….” Of course, membership in a religion does not require that every one must agree on every socio-political-ethical issue.
However, one hopes that the gospels proclaimed every single day should have some effect on moral instincts, that in turn, will guide the decisions people make in their lives and for the common good.
Those of us who are baptized need to stop, be still for a moment, take a deep breath and figure out exactly what is it that we are doing that will make a difference in our lives and the lives of others. Sitting back and doing nothing is not an option. Mandated by our baptisms we have to find ways to act.
Liturgical scholar Melinda Quivik  wrote, “Baptism opens our hearts and our minds to becoming instruments that bring unity and peace to our neighbors.” Quivik’s words are similar to today’s passage from Isaiah’s servant song (42:1-4, 6-7) “I formed you, and set you as a covenant of the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes of those who cannot see, to bring out prisoners from confinement and dark cells.”
In his baptism Jesus of Nazareth was energized by a new Spirit to practice “service above self,” to advance the kingdom of God on earth. According to the text, God was pleased with him. Baptized persons embody that same Spirit, and are summoned to do good for others, to speak the truth always, and to show thanks for the beauty that surrounds them with an eagerness to share that grace with others so that they, too, can live freely, equally and with a peace of mind.
Heather Cox Richardson, law professor at Boston College, wrote last week: “Once you have replaced the principle of equality with the idea that humans are unequal, you have granted your approval to the idea of rulers and servants. At that point, all you can do is to hope that no one in power decides that you belong in one of the lesser groups.”
We cannot allow a few powerful, wealthy people and corporate monopolies to run this country by creating agendas that suit their own personal or company ambitions. Donald Trump is still a dangerous person. Right now, or as soon as possible, he should be brought to justice for his mutinous behavior and countless other actions that have, over the past four years, jeopardized national security as well as the physical and mental health of this nation.
If there is any significance to the act of Christian baptism at this moment of history it is to birth disciples of Christ. For those of us already baptized we need to renew our promises to restore the well being of all religious persuasions and the nation at large. 
1. “Service Above Self” is the motto of the Rotary Club. It refers to unselfish community oriented service.
2. Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, No. 26.
3. Associate Professor of Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham University in New York City.
4. Quivik is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in St. Paul, MN,
5. By the way, do you know the date of your baptism?
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DO YOU SEE WHAT I SEE?
The twelve days of Christmas are filled with stupendous biblical accounts and characters — a virgin giving birth, a carpenter adopting Mary’s son, grungy shepherds spreading news, and heavenly choristers singing alleluias. Today, on the feast of Epiphany, we read about inquisitive astrologers following a star. Although these stories still astound us what can we learn from them that will give us renewed energy for 2021? What is the Word of God revealing to us in these passages?
Literally, the word Epiphany means “appearance.” In the Book of Maccabees (15:17) it specifically refers to the manifestation of the God of Israel. Scholars assert that this account about the “wise men” — it appears only in Matthew’s gospel (2:1-12) — is the first announcement of Jesus’s divinity to non-Jews, the Gentiles. Scripture scholar Reginald Fuller wrote that one of the elements that shaped the tale of the “three kings” is the “folk memory of Herod’s character and of his psychopathic fear of usurpation during the closing years of his reign.” Hmmm.
Another way to read this story is to think of it as uncovering a divine cosmic scheme that includes something for everybody. If so, what is in that plan for our planet, you and me as we deal with civic and ecclesial power mongering, manifold inequities, and interminable grief? But first, who were those night visitors anyway?
It is clear from the biblical texts there were no kings in the caravan and their number and names are unknown. Further, Jesus was already a young boy when they met him. The magi (think of magicians or wizards) belonged to a priestly line in the Parthian region contiguous to the easternmost frontier of the Roman Empire.
According to Greek and Roman lore the word magi refers to “dream interpreters.” Perhaps these commentators saw the bright “Christmas star” (the confluence of Jupiter and Saturn?) as a sign that dreams can become realities or, more so, biblical prophecies fulfilled.
Many ask, “how can we make our dreams come true today?” A more essential question is “what new revelations will each of us bring into 2021?”
People are worn out from a relentless pandemic and never ending political follies. Many are anxious for a return to some normalcy. Is this what we look forward to, the same old way of living, working, studying, relating, friending, worshiping God?
Theologian Mary McGlone suggests, “the Magi might be inviting us … to read the stars, to look for epiphanies of God among us and to allow mystery to shake us out of our status quo and beyond the borders of our comfortable relationships and thought patterns.”
What exactly will shake us out of our tiresome routines and old expectations? In his World Day of Peace message Pope Francis wrote about the importance of developing a “culture of care.” It is a social teaching that promotes the dignity and rights of all people, advances the common good, develops a sense of responsibility for others, and protects the environment. 
The same urgency is facing the new administration in Washington DC. “To fulfill the mandate that the 2020 electorate has given them, Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris must reject the politics of austerity and fulfill their commitment to policies that address human needs and cultivate human capacities.” 
The reason for this challenge is obvious to some but not all. The Brookings Institute offers one startling example from research conducted in 2016 but still relevant. “Gaps in wealth between Black and white households reveal the effects of accumulated inequality and discrimination, as well as differences in power and opportunity that can be traced back to this nation’s inception. The Black-white wealth gap reflects a society that has not and does not afford equality of opportunity to all its citizens.”
If we believe that God is love then maybe we need to move slightly away from the biblical narratives and images that stirred our imaginations this season. Instead of depending on a distant God to solve our problems what if we accepted what we believe, that we who are made in the image and likeness of God, can glow with love, showing love to one another like anyone who cares for little children. Mary looked into her infant’s face and saw the radiance of God. The shepherds got all excited, angels sounded their trumpets and magi perhaps thought a safe and secure world was forthcoming. Complex and difficult as it may seem we can see in each other the luster of God’s face. This can be our epiphany, our revelation of the presence of God in our midst.
The month of January gets its name from the Roman god Janus, known as the animistic spirit of doorways or thresholds. Janus has two faces. One gazes forward while the other looks to the rear. Mythologists consider Janus the god of new beginnings. As we leave 2020 behind we approach a new portal that, with assurance, will open up fresh possibilities for all of humanity.
1. Pope Francis, “A Culture of Care as a Path to Peace” January 1, 2021 (No. 6)
2. Wm Barber II and Liz Theoharis, “What Biden and Harris Owe the Poor” in The New York Times, December 25, 2020