The Word of God is not a single utterance once spoken, once heard and then passed on by Tradition. The Word is ever being spoken. As long as creation exists, God is breathing the Word into everything that lives. It is not confined to church liturgy nor limited to bounded books of the Bible. As John says: “The Word of God became flesh and pitched his tent among us.” That tent is still pitched, still a living and breathing Word proclaimed for our hearing in so many ways.
While hearing that Word and holding fast to it is the vocation of every Christian, the dynamic relationship we are called into by God requires an open, listening heart. So today we pray in our psalm for an openness to that voice: “O that today you would listen to God’s voice. Harden not your hearts!”
The story of God’s relationship with us is a story of hot and cold responses to a word of love and a call to intimacy, repentance, conversion and hope. Today’s reading from Deuteronomy comes as Moses is seeing the end of his role as God’s prophet. The people had grudgingly accepted Moses as their leader. But what would happen with Moses gone? God promises them another prophet, another leader who will transmit God’s will and direction for the people. Along with this promise comes the challenge to accept this prophet’s leadership and inspiration.
In today’s Gospel, Mark is describing the early stages of Jesus’ ministry as he visits the synagogue in Capernaum. It begins with Jesus teaching with authority and ends with the expulsion of an unclean spirit from a man. The response to this “word” is noteworthy. All are amazed at this man and contrasts his message with that of the scribes. His fame is about to spread throughout Judea. This dramatic beginning of his ministry puts Jesus in the place of a prophet of God. Even the unclean spirits recognize who he is: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
The scribes and Pharisees are less convinced and, while his popularity is on the rise, their position of authority is somehow threatened. Jesus’ teaching is something new, something fresh, something exhilarating. He not only speaks with words of wisdom, but he acts with the loving energy of God: healing, curing illness and dispelling evil spirits.
Mark is a wonderful storyteller and begins his Gospel with all the right questions: Who is this that heals? Who is this that speaks with authority? Who is this that has power over unclean spirits? What a way to start the story of Jesus!
All of the Gospels will tell a story that asks for a response from us. At the beginning of the story we understand the question as “Who is Jesus?” However, as we delve deeper into the story, we are compelled to answer a more personal question, a question that begs for a deeper answer: “Who am I after I have seen and heard Jesus of Nazareth?” The Word embeds itself in our psyche and in our hearts.
If we are honest, we can look at our sin history and our grace history as a response to this deeper question. Sometimes the word amazes us. Sometimes we are skeptical and sometimes we are just too distracted to even hear it. There is a spectrum of responses to that word that is spoken to us. But we continue to hear the prayer of the psalmist: “Harden not your hearts!”
Alan Light has written a whole book on the life of Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah.” He describes one Jewish rabbi’s reaction to its use in Jewish prayers: “In the beginning of the Kol Nidre service, we say three times al da’at ha-Makom — a prayer saying we hereby make it permissible to pray with the wrongdoers. It doesn’t mean there are some black sheep and they can come too. It means bringing our whole self, including the wrongdoer inside ourself, even the piece that maybe doesn’t want to be there or doesn’t believe.”
Into the night of our dark soul, into the light of our inspired spirit, into the greyness of everyday routine, a word is spoken by God . . . to us. “Do not harden your hearts!”
Williston gives parish missions and is a missionary with the Redemptorists. He is also a song writer and recording artist.