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On the first reading, Ezekiel 2.2-5, and 6
With the fall of Jerusalem in 597 BC, the Babylonians made sure that anybody from the leadership there was among those who were taken away into exile. Ezekiel, a priest, was one of those. In exile he had a strong sense of his call to prophetic speaking, that is to say, to speaking the truth as inspired by God. It was a difficult message. On the one hand he found that in exile the people of Judah were prone to lose heart and to seek comfort and consolation in alien religion with all its idolatry. He had to condemn this. On the other hand he had to encourage them to keep faith, to believe in the impossible, namely that one day they or their descendants would be restored and the glory of Jerusalem would be greater than ever. Not an easy task, and as our reading shows, he received some bracing words from God.
The Church today faces some of the same difficulties. Late capitalist culture mesmerises Christians like everybody else, and promises easy fulfilment. There is no such thing, and yet the Church faces ridicule for saying so. Catholics along with other Christians have to take a longer perspective. Spiritual growth in our lives will take time. We have to persevere. And within our sacraments, within our spiritual traditions, within the life of our communities, there lies a richness that can make out of us humdrum folk a new Jerusalem.
On the second reading: 2 Corinthians 12.7-10
There are two spiritual conditions which make it very difficult for the grace of God to help us. One is self-pity. The other is self-sufficiency. Self-pity (which is different from real suffering) blows everything out of proportion, and says that the world should come to us and make things right. Self-sufficiency says that we do not need any help, thank you, that we can do everything ourselves.
St Paul invites us to a different way. He knew his own need. We do not know what the thorn in his flesh was, but this phrase from the King James Bible has become so well known that it has become common currency in today's English. Whatever it was, it was something that Paul longed for God to remove, or to heal. Instead, he had to learn to live with it. He learned, in fact, that it was precisely through his own neediness that he would be more open to God. Because he knew his need, he would be more able to receive. He shows neither angry self-pity nor vain self-sufficiency. Instead, his vulnerability, his thorn in the flesh, draws him closer to God, for it teaches him to rely on God's strength which is made known precisely where Paul's strength ebbs away. This same mystery helped Paul to understand more deeply the meaning of the cross. He could say that we are able to be there with Christ, and to find his wounds a source of healing for our wounds.
On the Gospel, Mark 6.1-6
I can understand the incredulity of the townsfolk of Nazareth. They doubt that God could be shown through the life of a carpenter. They are doubting not only Jesus, but actually they are doubting themselves, for they can hardly believe that they would be the place of grace. Each of us has been tempted to think the same thing, that our lives are too ordinary for God to take much notice. But he does. To each us he comes in the grace of the sacraments, to touch the ordinary moments of our lives, so that they may reflect his love.
Fr Terry Tastard is Parish Priest of St Mary's, East Finchley, in north London.