If we are to take the way St. Mark writes things up for us at face value, the verses we hear in today’s reading may actually be Jesus’ first real day in public. Mark just gives us a blizzard of vignettes here in chapter one of his Gospel. Jesus comes into Galilee “saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe.” He abruptly calls Simon and Andrew to follow him, and then James and John.
As Mark tells it, the first thing they do is go to synagogue together, where Jesus has a public confrontation with evil and sets someone free from an unclean spirit right in front of the whole congregation. Everyone sees this. Capernaum is a small city. It would to be hard to believe that there are more than a couple people who don’t know the guy.
And that’s where this morning’s Gospel reading came in, partway through that day, still on page one of the book, with the blizzard of vignettes continuing. They’ve been to synagogue, and when they come home, it turns out Peter’s mother in law has a fever. Jesus reaches out his hand to her and she too is healed, and then finally they get a little break to engage in whatever the average family does at home on a Sabbath afternoon in Capernaum.
But then at sundown, Mark tells us, this huge crowd shows up. Word of what happened in the synagogue has gotten around. Why sundown? Well, on the Sabbath of course, you can’t work, and work includes carrying things. So the villagers wait until the sun recedes beyond the horizon, and then they start to work, to carry their loads.
They pick up the broken bodies of their aging relatives and ease them onto stretchers, they hoist their feverish, wailing babies onto their shoulders, and they come. They can’t wait till morning. They’ve been waiting too long already. They come to Jesus the moment it’s possible for them to come, at sundown. “The whole city,” it says, “was gathered around the door.” So Jesus goes about the work of setting them all free. As the night wears on and these newly minted disciples (Simon, Andrew, James and John) sit there, I assume, gaping in astonishment, Jesus over and over reaches out to person after person, and everyone who takes his hand that night is raised up, set free, made whole.
How long does this take? If the whole city gathered around the door at sundown, what time is it when Jesus bids the last weeping, grateful family farewell? Midnight? The text doesn’t say but it does tell us that later on, “while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” You sometimes hear a modern interpretation of this verse preached that basically uses it to induce guilt for our self-care routines not being good enough, suggesting that we ought to work harder to emulate some disciplined regimen of self-care that Jesus allegedly held himself to.
Apart from the issue that prayer isn’t about self, I’ve long found that use of the verse really implausible. If the day Mark shows us on page one is the day as it was, I wonder if Jesus may have been up so early for a different reason. If his first day started by coming face to face with evil, and ended with a line of human anguish that stretched around the block three times, might it have been more likely that he just couldn’t sleep? It’s actually a rather important part of Christianity, you know, that Jesus doesn’t float tranquil and unmoved above the daily pressures and concerns of human beings. He is a human being, not just God in a costume.
At any rate, for whatever reason, Jesus is awake before dawn, and eventually he gets up and tiptoes out of the house. And he walks for awhile in the dark, until he is far away, until he feels himself safe from observation by anyone who won’t understand, out in the middle of this ocean of divine Life and Truth that is in him as it has never been in anybody else, and he prays. But eventually the disciples come find him, and what does he say? OK, he tells them, let’s keep going. That’s why I’m here.
This – from gathering a community, to worship in the synagogue, to victory over evil, to healing and mercy, to responding to the needs of a city, to deep union with the Father, to renewed mission each morning – this blizzard of vignettes on the very first page of the earliest Gospel to be written shows us through Mark’s eyes who Jesus is.
We see here the most compelling, fascinating person who has ever lived, launching the most important work anyone has ever had. We see someone who is caring enough to take the time to tend to one woman with a fever, and someone who is focused and competent enough to address the issues of a whole town. And when we look at him, we see God.
There’s nobody else like Jesus. And even more astonishingly, he is there to be met every time you pick up your Bible. This unique person who is God and man, Jesus Christ, is right there, just as he is right there when you come to an in-person Mass or receive contactless communion at home. It’s never too late to start really taking in these Words of Scripture, to ask God questions about them, to come to this Jesus who is every bit as extraordinary in person as he is in Mark’s description. Even if you’ve been waiting for years to get to know him, it’s never, ever too late.