Category Archives: Mary Healy

Reflecting on the Gospel for Palm Sunday

From The Gospel of Mark by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 11:7–9:

Why did Jesus choose to ride a colt, when most pilgrims would enter the city on foot? It was a prophetic gesture, fulfilling the messianic prophecy of Zechariah: “Rejoice heartily, O daughter Zion, shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem! See, your king shall come to you; a just savior is he, meek, and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass” (Zech 9:9). The lowly animal shows that he, the King of glory (see Ps 24:7-10), comes in humility and peace, not as a warrior-king mounted on a stallion to lead a rebellion against Rome. It is also reminiscent of the royal procession of Solomon, the son of David, who rode a mule into the city at his coronation (1 Kings 1:32-34). Jesus knew what he was about, even if those around him did not yet realize its significance.

Jesus’ triumphal entry takes place among thousands of pilgrims arriving in the Holy City for the feast of Passover (14:1). There is a sense of excitement and elation, as the crowd around him shouts for joy and spontaneously shows him signs of honor. To spread cloaks on the road was a gesture of homage before a newly crowned king (see 2 Kings 9:13). . . . The crowd chants from Ps 118:2526: Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! This psalm, originally a royal song of thanksgiving for a military victory, was one of the great hymns sung by pilgrims processing into the temple for a festival. Jesus will later apply it specifically to his coming passion and resurrection (Mark 12:10-11).

© 2008 Mary Healy and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

 

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Reflecting on the Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent

From The Gospel of Mark by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 1:12-13:

The desert is depicted in Scripture as the realm of evil powers, symbolized by the predatory beasts that lurk there (Lev 16:10; Isa 35:79; Ezek 34:25). Jesus goes there to be tempted (or “put to the test,” NJB) by Satan, that is, to be tested in his resolve to carry out his messianic mission in accord with the Father’s will. He faces the same decision as Adam and Eve in the garden (Gen 3:16) and Israel in the desert (Exod 15:25; 16:4)but unlike them, he rebuffs temptation and stands fast in his determination to please the Father.

© 2008 Mary Healy and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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Reflecting on the Gospel for the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Mark by Mary Healy, reflecting on Mark 2:6-8:

Jesus’ word is what philosophers call a “performative statement,” a statement that brings about what it says. He is not merely telling the man that God has forgiven him; he is effecting that forgiveness. The significance of this stunning claim is not lost on the audience, some of whom are scribes trained in the law. They know well that forgiveness of sins is a prerogative of God alone (see Ps 51; Isa 43:25). Understandably, they are discomfited, and think to themselves, He is blaspheming. By perceiving these unspoken misgivings, Jesus gives the first evidence that his claim is legitimate, for it is God who reads the human heart (1 Sam 16:7; Jer 12:20; Sir 42:18). 

© 2008 Mary Healy and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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Reflecting on the Gospel for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Mark by Mary Healy, reflecting on Mark 1: 40-45:

Although leprosy has been virtually wiped out in developed nations, the loneliness and social stigma attending various physical or interior afflictions–for instance, AIDS or mental illness–is as widespread as ever. Indeed, leprosy is only an outward sign of the inner uncleanness experienced by all fallen human beings. The defilement of sin often causes a deep inner shame, even when a person is not consciously aware of it, that makes a person hesitant to turn to God. But as this man’s boldness in approaching Jesus was richly rewarded, so is the prayer of all those who approach him with confidence in his cleansing power, especially through the sacrament of reconciliation. Jesus is not dismayed, scandalized, or contaminated by any human defilement. He willingly removes it by the power of his own holiness, restoring our communion with others and making us fully qualified to enter into God’s presence.

© 2008 Mary Healy and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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Reflecting on the Gospel for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Mark by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 1:31:

Jesus’ healings often involve his physical contact with the patient, a personal and consoling touch. In this case he grasped her hand and helped her up (literally “raised her up,” the same word used for his own resurrection, 16:6). This woman’s recovery from illness is a foreshadowing of the resurrection on the last day (12:24–26). Her immediate reaction is a model of discipleship: she waited on them. The Greek verb, diakoneō, later becomes a standard term for Christian ministry (Acts 6:2), from which we derive the word “deacon.” It is what Jesus himself said he came to do: “not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45). The right response to an experience of Jesus’ healing power is to begin to spend oneself in service to him and his disciples, that is, to the Church. Women exemplify this service in a particular way in the Gospels (Mark 15:41; Luke 10:40; John 12:2).

© 2008 Mary Healy and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

 

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Reflecting on the Gospel for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Mark by Mary Healy, reflecting on Mark 1:21-28:

The story of Jesus’ first exorcism portrays the forces of evil in a way that may appear to readers today as strikingly personal. For Mark, as for the whole New Testament, evil is not an impersonal force but is concentrated in invisible, malevolent beings who are bent on destroying human beingss and hindering God’s plan of salvation. These evil spirits are responsible for various mental and even physical maladies (7:25; 9:17–27; see Matt 12:22; Luke 13:11). Some exegetes, noting that the Gospels do not always clearly distinguish between illness and demonic possession, have concluded that the references to demons are simply a mythical way of symbolizing the misfortunes to which human beings are prone. The Church has always taught, however, that demons are real spiritual beings, fallen angels who were created by God but became evil by their own free choice (Catechism, 391–95).

© 2008 Mary Healy and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

 

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Reflecting on the Gospel for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Mark by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 1:18:

The call to be fishers of men evokes a prophecy of Jeremiah in which God promised to send out “many fishermen” to gather in the Israelites who had been scattered among the nations (Jer 16:14–16; see Mark 13:27). Jesus’ first disciples may have recalled this prophecy with a dawning sense of excitement as they began to realize the momentous significance of the vocation into which they were entering. 

© 2008 Mary Healy and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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Reflecting on the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Advent

From The Gospel of Mark by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 1:1-8:

In the original passages [of Isaiah] God was speaking to his people, but Mark has reworked them to portray God speaking to his Son, telling him, Your coming will be prepared by a forerunner, John the Baptist.  Thus the Lord whose way is prepared is Jesus!  His paths will be made straight—that is, the people’s hearts will be made ready for his coming—by the contrition for sin and the repentance that come about through John’s preaching.  Mark is saying, in effect, “Israel, here is your God!  God’s promises are being fulfilled, and a new and greater return from exile is about to take place!”

© 2008 Mary Healy and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

 

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“When you have lifted up the Son of Man…”

“When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am he.” (John 8:28)

Just as in the Synoptic Gospels, so in the Gospel of John Jesus three times solemnly prophesies his passion (John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32). But the passion predictions in John are unique in that Jesus speaks of his crucifixion as a “lifting up,” alluding to the biblical story of the bronze serpent lifted up on a pole (Num 21:4-9; cf. John 3:14). Of all the images to use to reveal the meaning of his paschal mystery, why would Jesus choose this strange and disturbing one? The readings for Mass today, Num 21:4-9 and John 8:21-30, invite us to reflect on this question.

The story in Numbers 21 is rich and suggestive.

They set out from Mount Hor by way of the Red Sea in order to circumvent the land of Edom, and the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you led us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread and no water, and we are tired of this wretched bread!” Then the Lord sent fiery serpents against the people, and they bit the people so that many of the Israelites died. So the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord to remove the serpents from us.” And Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a serpent and set it on a pole. And anyone who has been bitten who looks upon it will live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone and he looked upon the bronze serpent, he lived.

The narrative presents us, first of all, with the figure of Moses, the model intercessor for God’s people. As Israel’s divinely-appointed leader, Moses routinely bears the brunt of the people’s complaints against God. Yet he perseveres as a passionate intercessor who repeatedly wins pardon for the very people who had insulted and rebelled against him (Exod 15:24-25; 17:3-4; 32:11; Num 11:2). His humility and self-effacement emerges most clearly in those incidents where the people’s hostility is directed against himself—when Moses is blamed for the Egyptian taskmasters’ cruelty (Ex 5:15-23), when Aaron and Miriam grumble against him (Num 12:1-15), when the unruly mob attempts to depose and stone him (Num 14:1-23), and when he is accused of causing the death of Korah and his followers (Num 16:41-50).

In fact, Numbers implies that it is precisely because he is the target of the people’s anger that Moses’ intercession is efficacious. As he himself endures the people’s rebellion along with the Lord, Moses displays the total lack of ambition and self-interest that alone has power to move God’s heart. Each time God threatens to destroy his people, it becomes clear that God does not truly desire to do so, but is only waiting for someone to plead their case (just as in the story of Abraham’s intercession in Gen 18:22-33). When God tells Moses, “now let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; but of you I will make a great nation” (Ex 32:10), he receives precisely the answer he was looking for: “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you led forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?… Turn from your fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against your people.” The story of the bronze serpent incident portrays Moses once again willing to plead for the people the moment they repent.

The story also portrays the profound connection between sin and its consequences. The mysterious fiery serpents (nechashim sepharim) who bite the rebellious Israelites recall the primordial deception by the serpent (nachash) in Gen 3:1-6. The people have succumbed to the perennial temptation that originated with the serpent in the Garden of Eden—the temptation to distrust and disobey God—and they thus experience the serpent’s own bitter toxin: death.

More surprisingly, the method of cure devised by God is also symbolically linked to the sin. That which heals is shaped like that which caused the wound. God did not remove the fiery serpents, as requested by the people. Instead he instructed that a bronze serpent be held aloft on a “pole” (the Hebrew word, nēs, actually means “ensign” or “standard”; cf. Isa 11:10, 12). The bronze serpent is a visible sign confronting the people with both their own rebellion and God’s gratuitous mercy. Thus the bronze image is able to stir up the repentant faith in God that is the necessary condition for the cure.

How, then, does the bronze serpent serve as a prefigurement of Christ, shedding light on his paschal mystery?

Jesus is the new Moses, who surpasses the leader of old in his role as suffering intercessor and advocate for his people. In fact, in comparison to Jesus it is now Moses who stands as accuser (John 5:45)! Moses is powerless to bestow the unconditional forgiveness and mercy that are needed in the face of the people’s transgression of the law (cf. John 1:17; 7:19). On the cross, Jesus brings to perfect fulfillment the role of the intercessor who stands solidarity with his people, accepting God’s just punishment. Jesus, in effect, says like Moses, “But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written” (Exod 32:32). Whereas Moses only expressed his willingness to share his people’s fate, Jesus actually took upon himself the just penalty of death in place of the people (cf. John 11:51-52).

The bronze serpent is fulfilled in Christ who is himself “lifted up” like an ensign on the cross. The expression “lifted up” signifies both his physical crucifixion and his simultaneous glorification as the obedient Son of the Father. The link with the bronze serpent is even closer in that the Hebrew term for “lift up” (nasa) is often associated with a standard (nēs) in the prophetic literature. Isaiah links God’s lifting up of a standard with the gathering of his scattered people: “He will lift up a standard for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth” (Isa 11:12). This prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus’ crucifixion, the means by which God will gather all people to himself: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32; cf. 11:51). Despite its external appearance as an image of pain and punishment (like the bronze serpent), the cross is the supreme “sign” that reveals the Father’s merciful love. It is a sign of death that paradoxically brings healing and life.

The sign value of the cross leads to one other dimension hinted at in John’s bronze serpent typology, namely, the necessity of “seeing” the sign. In Numbers 21, it is not simply the bronze serpent itself that heals, but the act of looking upon it. God requires his people to cooperate—in however passive a manner—in his healing action. John accents this aspect of human cooperation by replacing “sees” with “believes” in 3:15. The notion of “seeing” Jesus is one of the central themes of the Gospel. To “see” Jesus is not merely physical but a contemplative gaze that penetrates into the mystery of who he is. It is thus closely associated with believing: “everyone who sees the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life” (John 6:40; cf. 19:35; 20:8).

This theme culminates at the crucifixion, where the Son’s divine glory is most hidden from sight and yet, paradoxically, most revealed to those who believe. John quotes Zech 12:10: “They shall look on him whom they have pierced” (John 19:37), suggesting a graced moment of revelation by which the rejected One is suddenly recognized and accepted in faith as the Messiah who is vicariously suffering for the people’s sins. As the people in the desert were restored to life by looking upon that which God provided for their healing, so those who look upon the Son with the interior gaze of faith are given the fullness of life.

Just as the image of the people’s punishment, lifted up on a pole and gazed upon, became the source of their recovery, so Christ, bearing upon himself the very apex of human malice and rebellion against God, lifted up on the cross and gazed upon, becomes the source of limitless divine mercy and healing.

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Quenching the Thirst of God

Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4, one of the longest dialogues in all Scripture, is full of Johannine symbolism and hidden layers of meaning.

The setting, Jacob’s well, provides an initial clue to the meaning of the story. As ancient Jews steeped in the Old Testament would recognize, a well is the place where, in a seemingly chance encounter, bridegroom meets bride. Isaac, Jacob and Moses all found their brides-to-be at a well (Gen 24; 29; Exod 2:15-21). These parallels suggest that so too, Jesus’ meeting with the woman of Samaria is a divinely appointed encounter, a meeting of love.

Jesus, thirsty from his long journey, asks the woman for a drink—thereby breaking the powerful social barriers that stood between men and women, Jews and Samaritans.

When the woman expresses her surprise, he answers:

“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

This makes clear that the real purpose of Jesus’ request was that he might quench her thirst with “living water.” Living water (or flowing water) is a biblical image for the divine life for which human beings yearn, as in Ps 42:1-2:

As a deer longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?

The Samaritan woman is intrigued.

“Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?”

She thinks Jesus is referring to flowing spring water in contrast to stagnant water. Like Nicodemus (3:4) and later the disciples (11:11-12), the woman misconstrues Jesus’ words about a spiritual reality in a literalistic way. But this gives Jesus an opportunity to explain further:

“Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Later in the Gospel, John explicitly identifies the “living water” as the Holy Spirit.

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” Now he said this about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive (John 7:37-39).

The feast mentioned here is Tabernacles, when the Jews commemorated the water that miraculously came forth from the rock that Moses struck (Exod 17:1-6). Jesus, then, is himself the life-giving Rock (cf. 1 Cor 10:3-4), the source of the Holy Spirit, and the way we drink his living water is by believing in him. The passion narrative portrays how this Rock is “struck”: after Jesus had died, “one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water” (John 19:34). From Jesus’ wounded heart flows divine life, the Holy Spirit, given to us in the sacraments of baptism (signified by the water) and the Eucharist (signified by the blood). As Paul expressed it, “God has poured his love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rom 5:5).

Jesus promises the Samaritan woman that his water will not only quench her thirst but become “a spring welling up” within her. This suggests that to the degree we drink from the inexhaustible fountain of God’s love, we become a fountain of life for others.

At this point the woman is finally ready to ask for the gift Jesus longs to give her:

“Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.”

She still does not understand; she is glad at the prospect of never again having to trek out to the well. Yet her request, like that of the Jews for the bread of life (John 6:34), is sincere. On a symbolic level, without knowing it she is asking for baptism (cf. John 3:5).

But Jesus’ reply is unexpected.

“Go, call your husband, and come here.”

Why this apparent digression? Now that her request has provided an opening, Jesus probes this woman’s heart, uncovering the place where she is wounded. Only the truly thirsty, who are willing to acknowledge what is parched and lifeless within them, are able to drink the living water. This woman’s brokenness, like that of so many others, is in the area of love. In fact, her life is a history of broken relationships.

Her reply, “I have no husband,” is somewhat evasive, but Jesus brings to light her true moral state.

“You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly.”

Although this revelation is painful, the woman recognizes Jesus’ total lack of condemnation (cf. 4:39). He exposes sin not for the sake of condemnation but forgiveness and freedom.

At this point it is becoming clear that the dialogue is not merely personal. The woman’s life story, in fact, embodies the history of the people of Israel. According to 2 Kings, when the Assyrians invaded the Kingdom of Israel they planted precisely five foreign nations there, each with its god (2 Kg 17:24-31; cf. Josephus, Antiquities, 9.288). Through the prophets, God had revealed himself as the bridegroom of Israel, the true God whose love for his chosen people was passionate and utterly faithful. Yet instead of being reciprocated, his love had met with continuous betrayal in the form of idolatry, the worship of alien gods. The gentile nations imported into Samaria had only intensified the infidelity.

Surely, as a faithless wife leaves her husband, so have you been faithless to me, O house of Israel, says the Lord (Jer 3:20).

But God had promised that he would use even the national calamity of conquest and exile to eventually bring about the healing of Israel’s adultery.

In that day, says the Lord, you will call me, “My husband,” and no longer will you call me, “My Baal.” For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth, and they shall be mentioned by name no more. And I will make for you a covenant on that day…. And I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord. (Hos 2:16-20)

Against this biblical background the deeper significance of the story comes to light: Jesus, the Word made flesh, is the divine Bridegroom proposing marriage to Samaritan people! He is inviting this woman, and her whole nation, to return to their first and true husband, the living God.

At the end of the dialogue, after discovering that Jesus is indeed the promised Messiah, the woman hurries back into town bursting with the news of what has happened to her. Her encounter with Jesus has overflowed in a desire to share with others what she has experienced. The narrative thus portrays the movement from personal encounter to evangelization, a pattern that remains foundational to the Church’s mission today. By making ourselves present to this story, we too can be drawn into the same movement, experiencing more deeply the “gift of God” and being empowered to proclaim it with a new dynamism.

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