By Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz
My parish has a custom of which I am very fond. When the time comes for the announcements at Sunday Mass, the commentator begins by welcoming those who are worshipping with us for the first time. They are invited to stand and receive our warm applause, and — in pre-pandemic times — a greeter would present them with a welcome gift. When I arrived and celebrated Mass in the parish for the first time, I was surprised and delighted to be on the receiving end of this greeting, which made even this introvert-to-the-core feel at home.
In Sunday’s Gospel, it is Jesus who was the unexpected newcomer when he entered the synagogue at Capernaum on the Sabbath. Mark’s lean narrative skips over the formalities of Jesus’ arrival and doesn’t share any details about what he taught. Mark focuses on the impression this newcomer made among those gathered for prayer and the Scriptures study. “The people were astonished at his teaching,” the evangelist explains, “for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.”
Before we have any chance to ponder what that means, Mark’s fastpaced style moves on to what came next, the unsettling unwelcome Jesus received from a man who was afflicted with an unclean spirit. The unclean spirit cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are — the Holy One of God!”
Those who heard this outburst must have concluded that, if the unclean spirit was right, it was no wonder that Jesus taught with such extraordinary authority. Jesus refused to engage the unclean spirit on its own terms, rebuking it instead and commanding, “Quiet! Come out of him!” Powerless to resist, the unclean spirit convulsed the man it was afflicting and came out of him with a loud cry. The evangelist tells us that, on witnessing this, “all were amazed and asked one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ ”
What a first impression that was! Mark places this episode at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. After his baptism, the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove, and the spirit drove him into the wilderness where he contended with Satan for forty days. After the arrest of John the Baptist, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the Good News of God and announcing, “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand.” Then, passing along the Sea of Galilee’s shore, he called Simon, Andrew, James, and John to leave their fishing nets behind to follow him.
These four accompanied Jesus into the Capernaum synagogue that Sabbath. As Mark’s Gospel follows the course of Jesus’ ministry, what begins with a stunning victory over an unclean spirit by the Holy One of God in the Capernaum synagogue ends with what seems like abject defeat on the cross. Yet it was on Good Friday that a Roman centurion made a declaration even more dramatic than what the unclean spirit said on that Sabbath at Capernaum.
“Truly this man was God’s Son,” said the centurion, as he saw how Jesus breathed his last. As disciples of Jesus, the road that we walk with him that leads from Capernaum to Calvary and the empty tomb is a journey of steadily maturing faith. It leads from amazement at the authority with which Jesus taught and awe at his power over the unclean spirit to the conviction that God’s power, most perfectly revealed in weakness, defeats even death itself.
May we always welcome the death-dispelling and life-giving power of God’s Holy One into our parishes, our families, and our hearts!
Readings for Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7, 7-9
1 Corinthians 7:32-35
Father Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University, Jamaica.