All gifts have a hole, an emptiness embedded in them which are also invitations.
A doughnut is a wonderful symbol for much of life. It can have so many promising attractions -- sugar, chocolate, caramel, coconut shreds, sprinkles, and coatings of sweetness. In the middle, at its center is an encounter with reality. While in the middle there is nothing, by our eating the circle, our middle circle becomes even more something.
The Jesuit poet G. M. Hopkins once pictured our seeing the gifts, but not the hand that offers them. Gifts are what they are and also what they are not. We long always for the infinite and the finite, while having wonderful promises, which will eventually disappoint our longings, as they should. We can lick the ice cream cone quickly, because it is so good, but the quicker we do the licking, the quicker it is gone with only the taste lingering. Fullness is a temporary condition and all that is outer leads to the inner where there is the invitation to keep searching for the Searcher Who is always giving and giving the invitation as a gift as well. We are left with a graceful and quite holey, disappointment.
To understand clearly the original meaning of these three verses which form our First Reading, one would have to take a history course about the kings of Israel and their triumphs and failures. These lines come at the end of a poetic allegory which is interrupted by an explanation of the symbols. Basically the king of Babylon took the king of Israel from Jerusalem with all his followers into captivity, the symbol used is one eagle capturing a second.
There is a familiar theme to all this which deals with Israel’s not being faithful to the covenantal practices and customs. What we hear uses the symbol of tree-trimmings and replanting of those highest clippings to be replanted back in Jerusalem. These words have echoes of the Advent promises where God is going to bring back Israel, making the valleys raised and the mountains made low.
The branches of the tree will be the faithful and loyal kings who will form the new kingdom of Israel and all creation, symbolized by the birds of all kinds, who will return to their original innocence pictured in Genesis after the flood. God is faithful and God’s mercy is God’s existence. The lowly trees will branch above the lofty who will whither and be brought low. It is the Lord Who speaks and does it.
The Gospel reading continues a string of parables in this fourth chapter of Mark. It opens with the parable of the seed sown in various types of soil, continues with the parable of a lamp’s not being hidden under a bushel, as well as a parable about measuring out what has been received. We hear two parables about growing things from seeds.
The first parable is about how the Kingdom of God grows within a person precisely because it is of God’s Goodness and cannot be attained by mere human intellectual processing and or solving. It grows while you are even sleeping or distracted, while you are trying to pray imagine that!
The Kingdom of God parable is like a tiniest of all seeds which also grows into the largest shrub and gives shade and rest to the birds of the air. These pictures of the “Kingdom of God” are spoken and heard within the context and experience of the Roman kingdom which was occupying Israel during the time of Jesus. This Kingdom will not be established by any kind of force, nor reinforced or regulated by outside authorities. It is established quietly, in the inside where the heart is attracted to Divine Goodness. It is identified by the fruits or actions of Faith, Hope and Love. Jesus speaks in these parables for the listening pleasure or distress of the crowds. To His disciples He speaks plainly and yet, the story, which ends this chapter, which follows these parables, which we do not hear today, is about how fragile the faith of the disciples really is. They are with Jesus in a boat and the storm comes up, but Jesus is down for a nap. They have heard the parables and His teachings, but their faith, like a mustard seed, is slowly growing with groaning and terror.
Often it can seem that God, at least sometimes how Jesus talks, expects faith and trusting should be easy. Jesus asks Peter to leave everything to follow Him and later invites Peter to get out of a boat and walk on water! God asks Mary to believe she is pregnant and she does, but has very good questions first. God is always asking that we be not afraid, and that just might be because God knows we will be and are usually quite frightened. We don’t like the dark, the unfamiliar, the complexities and that is how we find following Jesus, just like the disciples in Mark’s Gospel.
Seeds of the Kingdom grow into fruits of faith very slowly, hiddenly and God, “Who sees in secret” does the cultivating through our experiences of life’s invitations to trust in the little things. I’d say, don’t get out of your boats too quickly for the water dance, toes first.
“There is one thing I ask of the Lord, only this do I seek- to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.” Ps. 27, 4
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