Since the start of Advent last year, our Sunday gospel readings have been mostly from the Gospel according to Mark. Let’s look again at how this gospel begins.
Mark’s Gospel does not include any scenes around the birth of Jesus or his early years. Instead, it rapidly takes us through the ministry of John the Baptist, the adult baptism of Jesus, his wilderness sojourn and temptation. Then John is arrested, removed from the scene.
Jesus comes to Galilee with good news to proclaim. Finally we hear words from his lips, namely, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”( Mark 1:15)
More about all this in a moment.
Our first reading today come from early in the Book of Proverbs. What we have in this passage is not a series of aphorisms, proverbs, wise sayings. We have instead a speaker and her speech.
A woman known as Wisdom appears in public. She’s out there in the sidewalk, in the town square, at the busy intersection. And she’s making a scene, raising her voice, calling out to anyone who will listen as well as those who do not. She wants them to pay attention, to become wise themselves, to do this for their own sake. Otherwise they will be destroyed, I remind you of both of these episodes from scripture because they are related, almost identical.
The Wisdom Woman warns us of the danger of ignoring her, of living a life that is clueless, ignorant in the worst way.
Jesus launches his public ministry announcing that the kingdom is near, closer to us than we are to ourselves. We must allow ourselves to change.
These episodes are closely related. For what reason? Because Jesus, the historical Jesus, the victorious Jesus, who is alive even now is divine wisdom in human form.
The Wisdom Woman who appears at the start of the Book of Proverbs warns us not to forsake a life of wisdom.
Jesus alive even now repeats his message from the start of Mark’s Gospel: The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the good news.
Underneath that English word repent is a Greek word, metanoia. Metanoia means much more than putting aside our sins. Metanoia is a transformation of mind, a change of heart, a way of knowing where we recognize the reign of God as a reality which surrounds us even now. Jesus embodies this metanoia, makes it possible, invites us in.
This metanoia, and the wisdom that Wisdom Woman is all excited about–these two are inseparable.
So the wisest thing we can do is welcome this change of mind, this continuing conversion through which we recognize the reign of God not as something distant or inaccessible, but as a reality right at hand. For us to do this, we do not need new content or information, but we must practice a different way of knowing.
The way of wisdom that Wisdom Woman announces and that Jesus embodies is hard to describe. It exceeds our categories of understanding. But Bruno Barnhart, a contemporary Christian monk, provides a clue to wisdom when he describes it as “participatory knowing: a knowing that is personal, experiential, and tending toward union with that which is known.”
(Bruno Barnhart, The Future of Wisdom: Toward a Rebirth of Sapiential Christianity (Continuum, 2007), 6)
As we enter more deeply into wisdom, true wisdom, we discover how everything is connected, that somehow it all belongs together, that underneath distinctions and differences and disagreements, there is the reality of one creation and its one creator.
Creator and creation are so close to one another that wisdom summons us to find God in whatever direction we look.
As we come to know the other, what is different from us, we find it not so other as we first thought, for we recognize that the other and ourselves have a common source in God who maintains us all in existence.
We are commanded to love God. This God is forever offering us opportunities to show our love, whether directly or in a mediated way. We are commanded to love neighbor, stranger, enemy. In beginning to obey, we find we can do this once we recognize that the other and ourselves already have a connection because we both belong to God.
As we increase in wisdom, we relish the diversity that creatures display, and at the same time we see this diversity in the light of the source that makes and sustains all these creatures. Thus we start to see creation even as God sees it, a reflection of the divine splendor.
But wisdom appears to be in short supply!
Rather than engage in a knowing that is personal, a matter of experience, tending toward union with what it is we know, we may choose the opposite: we maintain an ignorance that is abstract, divisive, and keeps us separated from each other. We divide and isolate where God refuses to do so. And often we engage in this folly invoking the name of God.
We see this happen time and again. It is no wonder if belief falters and many decent people see no purpose for religion when wisdom is manifestly absent from some who talk often about God. What goes wrong when we live without wisdom, when we forsake our chance at participatory knowing, and opt instead for divisive ignorance?
One way to look at this is that our ego gets in the way. This ego may be collective or individual. The ego is not evil; in fact it is necessary. However, a central task in our spiritual development is to overcome the ego, to die to ourselves, that we may become wise and live in deep communion with the orchestra of creation and the God they praise.
What occurs often, though, is that we treat our ego, our wounded, fragile, imperfect ego, as absolute, as though it were God. Regarded in this way, the ego becomes a barrier to grace at work. The ego turns into an idol, an insult to faith even when it speaks religious jargon.
When our ego takes over, then we refuse to participate in the paschal mystery. We do not share with Christ the dying and rising necessary if eternal life is to be ours both here and hereafter.
This effort at preserving ourselves, protecting ourselves, is what comes to destroy us. We build our own hell and draw in others to join us there.
The result? When protecting our ego becomes the first and final priority, then our hearts become hard and lifeless. As the Book of Proverbs tells us today, “waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them.”( Proverbs 1:32?)
This is not the only alternative.
Wisdom Woman cries out, imploring us to become wise.
Jesus announces the kingdom is near, now is the time to change our minds.
The saints of every age and every land beg us to do as they did, to participate in the fullness of creation, in divine life offered as a banquet.
But how to become wise?
The materials are ready at hand for all of us. According to Richard Rohr, they are great love and great suffering.( The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (Crossroad, 2009), 122-28)
Great love and great suffering. These free us from the tyranny of our ego, whether that ego is collective or individual.
Great love and great suffering assault the defenses we construct, they expose us, often against our will, to the mystery of the true and living God.
As the Gospel of Mark opens, Jesus announces the need for us to change our minds that we may welcome the kingdom.
As the Gospel of Mark closes, Jesus shows us the way our minds can change, how our hearts can open up through great love and great suffering. He experiences both on the cross.
Time and again we join him on the cross when great love and great suffering appear in our lives. We cannot avoid their arrival. We consecrate them and use them well when we extend our love to others and do not pass on our pain to others.
Time and again we join Jesus on the cross where our ego will die. Through great love and great suffering we come to participate in all things, even as Christ rose from death and ascended to fill the universe. Great love and great suffering are the school where wisdom is taught. They strip us of what we thought we were, that we may truly live.
Copyright 2015, Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.