An Intimate Miracle
Fifth Sunday of the Year. Fr Nicholas Paul Crowe notices that not all of Christ’s miracles are big and dramatic.
Most of our Gospel readings this liturgical year will be taken from Mark’s Gospel. But who was Saint Mark? According to a handful of early Christian writers, St Mark was St Peter’s interpreter. He assisted Peter in his preaching, and at some point – perhaps after St Peter’s death – he wrote down some of what he had heard Peter say. In other words, according to this very early Christian tradition, St Mark hands on to us the memories of St Peter. This perhaps explains the privileged insight into Jesus’ inner circle that we are offered in our Gospel reading.
Last Sunday we heard that Jesus – a young man who was gathering to himself a group of similarly young disciples – had a dramatic debut preaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. We heard that he astonished those present with the authority of his teaching and his power to exorcise demons with only a word. In casting out the demon, Jesus set the tone for the rest of his public ministry. In his person, the Kingdom of Heaven bursts into a human world oppressed by the dark shadow of Satan. The human race had been enslaved by the enemies of God; now God himself is coming as man to claim his Kingdom and rescue his people from the power of evil. Last Sunday, Jesus struck a withering blow against the minions of darkness, and as a consequence his fame spread rapidly throughout Galilee.
This Sunday we are blessed with an intimate insight into the aftermath of that incident. Like a triumphant football team, still buzzing with adrenaline at the end of the game, returning to the private sanctuary of the dressing room to savour their victory; or like a drama troupe celebrating backstage in the wake of a spectacularly successful first night performance, Jesus and his disciples return to Simon Peter and Andrew’s house full of joy and excitement and hope. The atmosphere among this group of young people must have been electric as their little band bonded around a shared sense of exhilaration and anticipation: they were young, and on the cusp of something big.
Yet one person is unable to participate in this intimate moment of friendship, community and connection. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever. This was unlikely to have been a life-threatening illness, but nevertheless she was sick enough to be missing out on this beautiful, shared moment and this must surely have been a cause for sorrow and disappointment. Wonderful things were happening, and she was sick in bed! More than that, the man of the moment whose name was on everyone’s lips, Jesus himself, was in her home and yet she was not able to welcome him. She was not able to play her part and join in the celebration. Just as we can sense in St Mark’s few terse lines the excitement and the growing connection of the young men gathered by Jesus, so we can sense the disappointment of the older woman who is isolated by her sickness.
But Jesus too is pained by her absence. He is attentive not just to the major sufferings and catastrophes of life, but also to the smaller disappointments that comes with being disconnected and isolated. He reaches out to Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, he touches her hand, and through this connection to our Lord she is raised up from her illness and her isolation is overcome. Once on her feet, she immediately began to serve. She makes her contribution to the community of disciples emerging around Jesus, she plays her part in the building up of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.
Like the spectacular exorcism in the synagogue earlier that same day, like the many miracles that would follow later that evening as the people of Capernaum brought their sick and oppressed to Simon Peter and Andrew’s door, this intimate miracle witnessed only by our Lord’s inner circle is a sign of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of heaven means healing, it means liberation, but it also means connection. Through Christ, we are connected to God and to other people in a communion that transcends the usual divisions of the world. More than this, through our connection to Christ we are empowered, like Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, to rise up and serve.
Image: detail from a stained glass window from the National Cathedral in Washington DC depicting the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, photographed by Fr Lawrence Lew OP