Each Advent season begins with a reading from Isaiah, for Isaiah is the great prophet of the Messiah. This reading is taken from the latest part of the Book of Isaiah. After the return to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon the Jews were passionately awaiting the coming of the Messiah. They were conscious that they had sinned and deserved their punishment, but still longed for the liberation from foreign interference that the Messiah would bring. After the coming of Christ we are in much the same position of waiting for the fulfillment of the sovereignty or kingship of God. Jesus brought the pledge of this kingship by his miracles of healing, his welcome to sinners, his teaching about the Kingdom and, above all, by his Resurrection from the dead. We no longer have any reason to fear death. We are conscious of our own failings, of our cooperation with evil, and long for the strength and fidelity that wholehearted membership of God’s Kingdom would bring us.
Three times in Mark’s gospel Jesus formally tells his disciples about his coming Passion, and each time they seem entirely deaf to it. So each time Jesus counters their misunderstanding by repeating the need of a disciple to follow him in suffering. Today’s reading begins just after the third prophecy, and—true to form— the sons of Zebedee reply with a request for the best seats at the banquet of the Kingdom! Matthew spares the two disciples by putting the request in their poor mother’s mouth. Only in a second exchange with Jesus do they woodenly accept to share Jesus’ ‘cup’ and ‘baptism’. Do they really know what they are accepting, or do they just blithely agree? The indignation of the other disciples prompts Jesus to his clearest statement in words that authority in the Church is a service. His clearest statement in action is the smelly business of washing their travel-gnarled feet at his last meal with them. The lesson is difficult to assimilate, for authority corrupts even at this level. At the ordination of a priest the Church still speaks of ‘the dignity of the priesthood’ rather than the ‘service of the priesthood.’
After the initial discussion about eternal life, Jesus addresses an issue which has always faced Christians. Are riches an obstacle to faith? Jesus’ answer is that riches can be an impediment to the life of a disciple. The astonishment of the disciples arises from the belief that material prosperity is a reward from God. Jesus does not seem to share this view.
Instead, Jesus maintains that material possessions may well be an obstacle to salvation. For this reason Christians are invited ‘to leave everything’. If this is not possible they should ensure that whatever they possess and whatever power they have is used for the good of others. The real enemy is selfishness. It is selfishness that kills love.
“They are no longer two but one flesh.”
The Catholic Church has suffered heavy losses through the scandalous sexual sins of a few priests. These priests were ordained in the sacrament of Holy Orders to be a sign of God’s love for His people. Instead, the sign the world reads through the sins of these priests is that the Church is no longer trustworthy. Catholic married couples are also a sacrament, through the Sacrament of Matrimony, an outward sign of God’s love for the world. God so loved the world that He created us male and female (Gn 1:27). He poured out His love in our hearts (Rm 5:5) so that married couples would take the lead in showing broken, bruised humanity how much God loves them. Therefore, no Catholic married couple should ever criticize a priest for being a poor sign of God’s love. Instead, they should look in the mirror, for a married couple is called to be a great sign of God’s love. One marriage rich in God’s love can greatly build up the Church. Far too many Catholic marriages in the USA end in divorce. No wonder the Church is weakened! People simply read the signs and conclude that God is not with the Church because wives and husbands don’t love each other (cf Eph 5:23-25, 29-32).
Couples, your marriage is not just about the two of you. Your marriage “has been decided in heaven” (Tb 7:11). Renew your love for each other “not because of lust, but for a noble purpose” (Tb 8:7) of building up the kingdom of God.