• Jb 7:1-4, 6-7
• Ps 147:1-2, 3-4, 5-6
• 1 Cor 9:16-19, 22-23
• Mk 1:29-39
Fast-paced. Abrupt transitions. Constant action. Confrontations. Good vs. Evil. Death. Demons. Sickness. A decisive hero of few words. Supernatural acts.
Such words might be used to describe a movie, a comic book, or a work of fantastical fiction. But they actually describe very well the Gospel of Mark, which is punchy and fast moving, the shortest of the four Gospels. Of course, it has the significant feature of being a true account of historical events and people.
As Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch write in their commentary, “Mark paints a portrait of Jesus that is vivid and dynamic, focusing most of his attention on Jesus’ mighty works.” Aside from two discourses (Mk 4:1-32; 13;1-37), the second Gospel “depicts Jesus as an active healer and exorcist continually on the move …” (Ignatius Catholic Study Bible). The urgency of St. Mark’s style is evidenced by his repeated use of the word “immediately,” which appears over forty times in the span of just sixteen chapters.
All of these qualities are found in abundance in the readings from the first chapter of Mark, heard last week, this week, and next week. In last week’s reading (Mk 1:21-28), Jesus confronted a demon after speaking in the synagogue. In today’s reading he is described healing a variety of physical illnesses and casting out more demons. And next week’s reading depicts Jesus’ dramatic interaction with a desperate leper.
These actions demonstrated—in startling, powerful fashion—the reality of what Jesus declared in Mark 1:15: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” The kingdom is not about words only, but about the saving, healing actions of the only Word, the Son of God. By casting out demons, Jesus showed his power over the dominion of darkness and spiritual death. By healing the sick, he revealed his love and care for those who suffer, who are blind, lame, and deaf. Those physical healings, the Catechism points out, “announced a more radical healing: the victory over sin and death through his Passover. On the cross Christ took upon himself the whole weight of evil and took away the ‘sin of the world,’ of which illness is only a consequence” (par 1505).
Jesus himself made explicit this connection between physical maladies and spiritual sickness. “Those who are well do not need a physician,” he said to the scribes questioning his motives and methods, “but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (Mk 2:17). It is a sad and desperate fact of the Fall that once we are born, we begin to die. We need to be reborn through radical, supernatural surgery: a new heart, a transformed mind, a sanctified spirit.
“The wounded surgeon plies the steel,” wrote T.S. Eliot, in Four Quartets, of the Physician of souls. “Beneath the bleeding hands we feel/The sharp compassion of the healer’s art/Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.” The fever afflicting Simon’s mother-in-law was likely deadly; the scene is set forth with curt urgency. Upon being “raised up”—the same language used, it is worth noting, of the risen Lord after his death (Mark 16:6)—she waits upon Jesus and his disciples.
Why? St. Jerome thought the question was silly. “Can you imagine Jesus standing before your bed and you continue sleeping?” he wrote, “It is absurd that you would remain in bed in his presence.” He focused on the spiritual meaning of the physical actions involved. “See how costly is the compassion of the Savior,” he stated, “Our sins give off a terrible odor; they are rottenness.”
But the fever of sin and the stench of death flee at the touch of the Savior. The sharp compassion of the holy healer cuts us to the quick. The grace-filled paradox, as Eastern Christians sing during Easter, is that “by death He conquered death.” It is not, praise God, just a movie, or a comic book, or a work of fantastical fiction.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the February 8, 2009, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)