From its inception, Jesus’ mission was the conquest of death. This is not always easy for modern Christians to understand. Most people today avoid thinking about death, or they try to spiritualize it with platitudes and euphemisms. Without an awareness of death’s power, Jesus might seem little more than a wonder-working philosopher. The understanding of death in Jesus’ day, by contrast, gave an importance to his healing ministry that we might not understand today. Death was God’s great enemy. It was a thing with intellect and will. It stalked creation, hungering for the breath in every living throat. Death took advantage of every calamity and conflict to snatch away the gift of life that God had shared with creation. Jeremiah spoke of death in these terms when he lamented the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem: “Death has come up through our windows and has entered our citadels, to cut down children in the street and young people in our squares” (Jer 9:21).
He went into their synagogues, preaching and driving out demons throughout the whole of Galilee. (Mk 1:39)
How has Jesus conquered death in your life?
How can you share that story to give hope to others?
Moreover, death had servants that prowled the world. Things like slavery, illness, demonic possession, war and oppression were the physical signs that death’s servants were at work. This is the reality Job laments in our first reading. Although he is alive, he already feels the grip of death closing around him as one calamity after another strikes his family.
This is the context, then, for the many miraculous healings Jesus performs in the opening chapters of Mark’s Gospel. From the first moment of his ministry, Jesus was locked in battle with death. As he drove away demons and freed people from illness, he proved that the good news he preached was true, that it was at last the time of fulfillment, that God’s kingdom was indeed at hand.
More than the other evangelists, Mark stresses the urgency of this message. Mark wrote during a time of great distress throughout the Roman world, but the story he told emphasized Jesus’ subjugation of the causes of this distress. Jesus’ work had a built-in multiplier effect. In Mark’s account, the healing of one person (1:30) rapidly became the healing of the whole town (1:33-34) and led soon after to the deliverance of all Galilee (1:39). Jesus’ ministry takes off like a brushfire, spreading the power of new life at a pace death cannot match.
In this week’s second reading, St. Paul teaches us how to live out such a ministry in our own discipleship. The promise of the resurrection frees Christians from the kind of despair that haunted Job and Jeremiah and others who lived before Christ. Because St. Paul knew that the power of death was an illusion, he was able to thrive in situations that filled others with desolation. In a sense, St. Paul could “slip behind enemy lines,” becoming weak to accompany the weak, and a slave to preach to slaves. Just so, Christ’s disciples today must renew their confidence in the Lord’s victory, and in that confidence place themselves in the company of any who still find themselves in death’s grip. Our message of hope and our acts of mercy will reveal to all who despair that the kingdom of God is indeed at hand.
[The Word is a weekly column of Scripture reflections published by America for over 70 years. You can sign up for a weekly newsletter of our newest reflections along with selections from our archive here. The Word podcast is available for free on iTunes.]