From St. Mark’s Gospel appointed to be read this Sunday, we hear the following summary statement: “After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God. `This is the time of fulfillment. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.’”
This statement by the evangelist includes a most simple, clear, complete presentation of the basic gospel of Christ. Note at the outset that St. Mark has Jesus’ ministry begin only after John the Baptizer was arrested. It was the kairos, the critical and opportune time for Jesus to act. He acts by preaching the gospel. St. Mark assures us that Jesus begin his ministry in his home territory of Galilee, where he would no doubt have relatives and friends, and where he “knows the territory.” Also note that the phrase “proclaiming the gospel of God” is not usual; it occurs here and once in the wirings of the Apostle Paul (Romans 15:16), but otherwise, is not found in the New Testament. The phrase usually found is “the gospel of Christ,” meaning not what Jesus taught, but rather the story of what God has done for all of humankind in Jesus Christ, and especially through the Incarnation, death, and Resurrection of Christ. “The Gospel of God” brings out the origin of this good news for humankind: it comes from the unknown God, and has as its purpose the plan to bring all of humankind into a full and eternal union with God. Ultimately, the gospel is about God, although as we can see in the New Testament, no writer presumes to speak directly on who or what God is. Symbolic language is employed, and actions, to display the character of the God of the gospel. As an example of symbolic language, call to mind the Parable of the Prodigal Son, in which the evangelist Luke portrays God as the all-loving, merciful Father, who never gives up on either of his sons. As an example of symbolic action displaying the character of God, the outstanding case by far is the suffering and death of Jesus out of love for his fellow human beings, to bring us to God. In his suffering and death, fulfilled in the Resurrection, Christ demonstrates at once the infinite and unfailing love of God with mercy and patience for us sinners, and the power of God’s Life over sin and even death itself. In the gospel, God triumphs in human beings.
Next we briefly consider the content of Jesus’ initial proclamation, worth our time, for it contains a complete gospel in miniature: “This is the time of fulfillment. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” If understood properly, that is sufficient to communicate the message of Jesus Christ. Nothing elaborate, no gnostic speculation on God, no rigid “do’s and don’ts,” no ideological nonsense. Just KISS: “Keep it simple, stupid.” What follows is not, I hope, simplistic, but simple clear, true, and to the point.
“This is the time of fulfillment” is literally, from the Greek, “The Kairos is fulfilled.” Kairosmeans the critical time, the time for decision and action. “NOW is the right Moment!” The Apostle Paul refers to the same insight frequently: “But NOW is Christ risen…” By genuine, simple faith, one lives NOW, in the now, in this precise moment God gives you. God is not in the past, or in some imagined future. Rather, God is always now and only now--the eternal Now. And the Now of God is the moment for human beings to be attentive, to make critical choices, to act on them. In other terms: the law and the prophets--including John the Baptizer--were all preparation. NOW God is acting in the most decisive, complete way in and through Jesus.
“The Kingdom of God is at hand.” Indeed it is, for “Jesus is himself the Kingdom,” as the early church Father Origen wrote. In the person, deeds, and words of Jesus Christ, God is fully present, acting, accomplishing His will for each and for all. God’s Kingdom is not some earthly ordering of affairs, not a place to go, not a political or imagined “kingdom” at all--and not the institutional Church, either. Rather, God’s Kingdom is God’s Presence in Christ, which is liberating, forgiving, healing, triumphing over evil, and above all, “reconciling the world to Himself.” In the Kingdom, God and man are made one here and now, and forever. God’s Kingdom is light, love, joy, and peace, for all who enter. Want to see the Kingdom? See, love, obey Christ. And how does one enter the Kingdom?”
“Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” “Repent” translates the Greek word metanoeite, which literally means, “change your mind, your heart,” or in plain language, “get a new attitude.” But even better: the Greek for “repent” translates the Hebrew word meaning “Turn around!” It is that simple and direct. “Stop going in the direction you are heading, turn back towards God, and enter the Kingdom of his Presence, for it is all good, true, beautiful.” “Believe in the gospel” does not mean “believe the writings of a book,” but far more simply and profoundly: “Trust this message of life, true life!” This means, in effect, “rejoice and be glad,” “enter into God with rejoicing,” and “cast all your cares on God, who cares for you” (I Peter). This message is not negative at all, and should not be cheapened into such a message as “Give up candy and sex, and you will enter the kingdom of God,” or any such thing. The words of Jesus are completely positive, uplifting, life-affirming. Christ is utterly convinced that God is all good, and so entering into His Presence brings one happiness, fulfillment, peace, energy, and a joy that nothing in the world could destroy. “Rejoice, dear friends, for God’s love and life are NOW.”
What is separated in time and space can be joined in consciousness, in the mind. And what is joined in consciousness is separated into stories to communicate meaning. The reality of Christ, the presence of God-in-man, is the truth of humanity. We celebrate this reality in every Eucharist. For the sake of our understanding, we separate reality into parts. And so at Christmastide, the mystery of God in us, of incarnation, is separated into two inseparable realities: the birth of Jesus Christ, and then the Epiphany of Christ to the Gentiles. Even children can appreciate the parts, and can be nourished by reflecting on them. Our adult task is to bring the parts back together in the truth of consciousness and action: God in Christ is one. Christ brings the genuine believer into a living contact with God.
You may have noticed over the years that the evangelist Luke has no need for the feast of the Epiphany, because he has the equivalent experience take place in the scene he sets for Jesus’ birth. No Magi or astrologers are mentioned coming to see what God has done for humankind, but lowly shepherds, the “poorest of the poor,” representing all those who are open to what God is doing here and now, with minds not limited to beliefs about past events. The shepherds live in the present of God, under God, and so are moved by God to find His Presence in the new-born Christ. Open to God, we behold God by faith in Jesus. The evangelist Matthew has a different tale to tell, and wants to emphasize that Christ has come for all peoples (as the angels announce in Luke’s Gospel), and so has the Gentiles represented by three men, attuned to heavenly signs, journeying from the East. That the Magi recognize the divine Presence in the baby Jesus is artfully symbolized by their gifts, as described in our familiar Christmas carol, “We three kings”: incense pointing to divinity present; gold witnessing to the true ruler of humankind; myrrh foreshadowing the saving death of Christ for all.
From beautiful stories and rich symbolic meanings one needs to return again and again to the truth of spiritual experience: This is done best by sitting still in quiet meditation. For our foremost goal is not to tell stories or to “spread the word,” but to grow into a deeper and more lasting union with the God present to the consciousness of every human being open to receive him. Genuine openness is a demanding spiritual work, requiring prayer, study, recollection, meditation, action, love. That many refuse God’s gift of presence is symbolized by Matthew’s bloody story of the slaughter of infants in Bethlehem, ordered by the wicked Herod, a shrunken soul jealous for his own power. We may have obstacles in our hearts and lives that prevent us from living in the truth of divine Presence. And so our task includes reflecting on habitual and actual ways in which we fail to respond wholeheartedly, or let our awareness of God shining into our minds be obscured by the smoke of worldly preoccupations. The task of openness to the divine light shining into consciousness is endless. The essential activity is silent meditation, and many of us are too busy to sit still.
The reality of Epiphany is now—for you, for me. Our Christian and human duty is to enkindle in our hearts a flame of the fire of God’s love, which means allowing his love to flood in. What good is it for us to celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus, as we did on Christmas, and refuse to live in the light shining in? We live in the light by letting it enlighten us in meditation and wonder. If God is not here, then where could he be sought? The stable and the manger in Bethlehem are gone, or just rebuilt monuments to what God has done. But God is here and now; living in his light, love, peace is indeed the constant gift and burden of our lives.
Blessed New Year to each and to all.