“And Jesus entered the synagogue” – so today’s Gospel. It was the Sabbath, and so the thing to do, and his 4 newly- clicked and collected disciples, Peter and Andrew, James and John – were with him. They entered too. I don’t know if 1st c. Galilean Synagogues had actual doors, or just doorways, perhaps with a curtain; certainly a threshold of some kind. Whatever, Jesus and his disciples entered the synagogue. And the next episode has them exiting the synagogue, crossing the road perhaps and entering the house of Peter.
It will be Ash Wednesday in little more than two weeks. But in this brief interlude of Ordinary Time, in the first chapters of St Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is strikingly busy. He’s constantly to-ing and fro-ing, coming and going, always on the move. It stands out, and it’s worth mapping. It has something to do with the grace of Ordinary Time. Sometimes the Lord is indoors, sometimes outdoors; sometimes by the lake, other times up in the hills; sometimes in a synagogue (as today), sometimes in an ordinary home; sometimes in a village, other times the country; sometimes walking through a cornfield, other times speaking from a boat. To and fro he goes, criss-crossing Galilee, entering and leaving, filling the different spaces of the people.
This is how Christ appears in these first Markan chapters, in this passage of Ordinary Time. At Christmas time and in statues, paintings, icons past counting, we see him as a child in his mother’s arms. On Good Friday, and again in artistic expressions past counting, we see him on the Cross, arms outstretched. Risen and ascended, we “see” him with the eyes of faith seated at the right hand of the Father, as the Creed expresses it, or “the Lamb in the midst of the Throne” described in the Apocalypse. Here below, we see him on our altars under the appearances of bread and wine. Soaring higher, St John talks of him as the only Son “in the bosom of the Father”. This all maps and charts, so to speak, the geography of Jesus. And through these various filters and settings, he enters our imagination and so can lodge in our minds and hearts, and be more than an idea or a name. He can be real.
And in these Gospel passages, these opening “Ordinary” Sundays and weekdays, here he is filling the ordinary spaces of his own Galilean compatriots. Here he is where they fish and grow crops, plant olive trees and tend their animals. Here he is in their houses and their places of prayer, walking ancient roads and seeing the eternal hills, and feeling the wind and warmth still felt there today or be caught in a storm on the lake. There will be different feel in Jerusalem and when his Passion comes Jesus will enter the territory of human suffering. He will go into the dark and the valley of the shadow of death, all the way to the tomb and even, as the Creed says again, to the underworld of the dead. In his Resurrection and Ascension, again, it will all be other and changed, sunlit uplands, passing beyond the veil into the presence of his Father. But for now in the Gospels of Ordinary Time, “throughout the whole countryside of Galilee”, he is filling the ordinary spaces and making one small corner of the world part of the texture of himself. Thereby, he makes another connection between himself and us. He’s doing extraordinary things, teaching with authority in the Gospel of today, showing himself to be the Prophet Moses predicted, commanding an unclean spirit and restoring a tortured soul to its right mind. But he does all this in the ordinary settings of the people of his time and place. And in doing so he fills our ordinary settings too. What he did then, time-bound and place-bound, in the limits of his pre-Easter life, he does now untrammelled, risen and ascended, passing through every door. In Galilee, he foreshadows what he does here and now. “All time belongs to him” and every place. “He has ascended far above all the heavens that he might fill all things”, says St Paul (Eph 4:10). So, as he entered and filled the varied settings of his native land, toing and froing, sometimes here, sometimes there, so too he can fill the landscapes, townscapes, streetscapes, house-scapes, the geography of our lives.
When the early Christians imagined Christ on the Cross, they saw someone upright, linking above and below, heaven and earth, and with his arms outstretched, joining east and west, uniting humanity, reconciling everything. In another form, it’s the same already in Galilee and the same now: Jesus is joining the poles, the binaries, the dualities of our lives: here and there, health and sickness, work and rest, youth and age and, to pick up on St Paul, married-ness and singleness. They are all his. The dynamic of his Incarnation continues to unfold, everywhere and always. He keeps becoming flesh, getting inside the human, to free it of its unclean spirits and bring it back, like the man in the synagogue, to sanity and peace.
Is this then the grace of Ordinary Time? His extraordinary presence in the ordinary places. There is nowhere he can’t enter, bring truth to, heal and exorcise and so transform. No space he can’t occupy to start new processes. In the rough places of any city, ours as well, you can go through a door and be in a household full of Christ and kindness, humour and peace. He’s here.
“Jesus entered the synagogue”. He had already, by the power of the Holy Spirit, crossed the threshold of Mary and begun his human life in her. The Word had already become flesh and goes on doing so. And how? Jesus didn’t enter the synagogue alone, the Four were with him. In turn they would later enter synagogues and proclaim him Christ and fill landscapes of their own. Christ becomes flesh through them and through us: the branches of the Vine, the members of his Body, his ongoing Flesh, “the people who belong to his pasture, the flock that is led by his hand”. Where we are, he is. It struck me visiting Auschwitz, a hell on earth, how the Lord had sent even there at least two now canonised saints, St Maximilian Kolbe and St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), maybe others, certainly others known only to God: hidden transformers. And so with the ordinary places too, neither heaven nor hell. He wants to fill them by way of us, day after day, daily task after daily task, office, school, hospital, the houses of friends, the places we work and relax in. He brought peace to the troubled in the synagogue. To our disturbed geographies too, he wants to bring comfort and kindness, the blessing of God, and even just plain old common sense. Those may not be of themselves uniquely Christian things, but they are Christian in the Christian, and they resonate him. They can let the Gospel echo in. By way of us. (The Lord can handle imperfect instruments).
“Jesus entered the synagogue.” How many doors do we go through in a day? “Christ be beside me, Christ be before me.” Brothers and sisters, for the third time, how blessed we are to be part of this.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen)