When it comes to misreading the lectionary on Sunday morning, there’s lots of ways of going wrong.
“There are a few Gospel texts in the lectionary in which the most common homiletic approach is to insist that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said,” notes Christian McConnell of St. Peter’s Seminary in London, Ont.
McConnell is a liturgy expert who is head of St. Peter’s Institute for Ongoing Formation. He’s heard a lot of sermons — good and bad. The story of Martha and Mary is one that very often gets priests and deacons disagreeing with Jesus, McConnell said.
“Most homilies insist that Martha’s ‘active’ approach and Mary’s ‘contemplative’ approach are equally important, despite the fact that Jesus’ entire point — his punchline, as it were — is that ‘Mary has chosen the better path,’ ” McConnell wrote in an email. “If we don’t want to allow (rightly) that contemplation is more important than action, we should maybe revisit the assumption that (the story) is about ‘contemplative’ and ‘active’ at all.”
Look again at the story and you may see that Martha is doing exactly what is expected of her in Middle Eastern culture, where women serve dinner to the men then eat later in a separate room. In the ancient near east (and sometimes today) women were to keep silent and defer to men in public. Mary defies the norms of her culture and its expectations for women. She sits at Jesus’ feet, making herself equal to the men in the room.
“There’s a lot of countercultural sting in that text,” said McConnell. “And it almost never gets preached. Instead, homilists actually preach against the text itself.”
If there’s any place where inattentive reading can turn the New Testament into a weapon of fundamentalism, it’s The Revelation to John also known as the Apocalypse — the last book of the Christian Bible. (See related story.)
“The Apocalypse is one that preachers avoid,” said Rev. Andrea Spatafora, New Testament professor at Saint Paul University in Ottawa.
Parts of Revelation come up toward the end of the liturgical year, during Advent and during Easter. Nearly 32 per cent of Revelation appears in the modern Catholic lectionary. Before the Second Vatican Council, it was never read at mass.
The book isn’t primarily about the second coming, or condemning people to hell or some horrible, fiery final judgment, said Spatafora.
“It is good news. There’s some dimension of judgment. There’s that aspect. But the emphasis is not on that,” he said.
“It really is on the Paschal Mystery and the salvation that is now already realized.”
The imagery that drives this poetic search for Christian meaning reminds readers constantly of endurance, perseverance and salvation. There is the lamb that is slain but still standing, the Son of Man coming with power and authority but to save us, and finally the new Jerusalem — an enormous city that can accommodate everyone.
“The new Jerusalem is an image again of universality and immensity — the city that really is beyond human measurement,” Spatafora said.
When the book of Revelation names 144,000 who are saved, it’s not meant as a limiting number. It’s 12 by 12 by 1,000, a number so large it is unimaginable in the ancient Mediterranean mind.
Revelation saves its condemnation for systems that oppress people and authorities that abuse their power. Ordinary folk don’t get that treatment.