We continue our reading of Mark 1 this week (and next week too), and we find before us another scene still near the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. Who is Jesus? What is his message? Mark gives no lecture, but simply says: see what he does, how he treats people, where he goes, how he spends his time, and you will know who he is and why he is the One we have been waiting for.
Last week, Mark told us of Jesus preaching in the synagogue in Capernaum, and by a simple rebuke, driving out an unclean spirit, and thereupon unleashing in the congregation a living word that spread from mouth to mouth like wild fire until Jesus was known everywhere in Galilee. This week Jesus lingers in Capernaum. He stops by Peter’s home for what was surely to be a social occasion, a relaxing day off with family and friends, a good meal, good wine. Jesus probably met Simon Peter’s wife and perhaps children and, for sure, his mother-in-law:
"As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her. So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them. (Mark 1.29-31)
Now this scene might be interpreted as rather too efficient: the poor lady has been sick, and Jesus does cure her — so that she can serve them their meal, one more woman at the service of men. But perhaps the point is rather that in the house of Peter’s in-laws, she is the matriarch, hostess, mother of a great family, always welcoming guests new and old – and now she is sorely distressed that she cannot offer her customary hospitality to Peter and his new friend and guide. So Jesus sets her free, and the hospitality is grand.
They have a good time. Jesus and companions spend all day there, and are still there, even after sunset:
"That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was. (1.32-34)
In a sense, this is a reverse of other scenes: Jesus is not traveling here and there. Rather, he is simply sitting on the front porch. People are coming to him, all the friends and neighbors of Peter and his family. Jesus turns no one away; he simply helps and heals, body, mind and soul.
This scene will be repeated over and over, and today’s reading ends on precisely that note — other towns to visit, people to be helped:
"Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” Jesus said, “Let us go somewhere else — to the nearby villages — so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons. (1.36-39)
All of this is quite wonderful, both the intimate details and the larger scene, Jesus enacting the kingdom rather than just talking about it.
But I find most interesting and important what Mark adds just before today’s Gospel ends:
"Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a quiet place, where he prayed. (1.35)
A quiet place: this is the third of four times such a place is mentioned in Mark 1, all with the same Greek word, erēmos (desert, solitude). John comes forth from the quiet place that is the desert; baptized, Jesus is driven by the Spirit out into that same quiet place. Later on, at the chapter’s end (in next week’s reading), the word is spreading so quickly that Jesus seems to hide, “no longer entering any town openly, but staying outside in quiet places…” (1.45)
So this day, after the meal, and after healing one and all, Jesus went off to pray by himself. How does he pray? We are not told. In Mark, Jesus does not much instruct us in prayer. He gives us no Our Father, as do Matthew and Luke. But Mark here too teaches by example. Jesus now, and other times too, returns to the quiet places of the desert where the Spirit had spoken to John, where God and Satan had pulled Jesus himself this way and that.
By this principle - by grace, do as Jesus does - we are reminded that when we are busy, too busy, with a thousand cares and concerns whirling around us and inside us — then, we too, like Jesus, need to pull back, leave the work aside, and retreat to our own quiet place. When you have the least time to pray, then pray.
Find your solitude, find it regularly, even a few minutes a day. Your quiet place could be in the woods, or by the ocean, or a quiet walk when no one is around. Or simply in your own home, phone turned off, computer screen darkened, or lying in your bed late at night, wide awake, just watching, waiting, resting.
How am I to pray? Big books are written on this topic! But perhaps the point is simpler than that: go to the quiet place, unclutter your mind and heart, learn to stop doing — and let God do the rest. Perhaps prayer is not what we do, but is something God does to, for us, in us. St. Paul puts it this way:
"Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8.26-27)
Perhaps Paul is catching something of the prayer of Jesus himself.
Jesus actually invites us to this quiet prayer, God praying in us, as Mark makes clear, a few chapters later, at a hard moment in Jesus’ ministry: John has been beheaded, Jesus’ enemies are gaining ground, yet the crowds keep coming, giving Jesus and his disciples no time to eat or sleep or relax. Jesus realizes that what he needs, his disciples need:
"Because so many people were coming and going that his disciples did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me, just you, to a quiet place and get some rest.” So they went away by themselves in a boat to a quiet place. (6.31-32)
A message for us: come with Me to a quiet place and get some rest — rest, be quiet, let God speak to and in you. We just have to answer the call. If we want to be better able to find God in our homes, in our families, if we want to be unafraid in admitting the hurts in our bodies, minds, and hearts, and if we want to help and heal one another — then let us accept this call and come away to the quiet place, that God may find us and speak to us again, as in the beginning. God does the praying, we just have to be there.
(After this writing, OLOS longtime parishioner Carol Greve-Philips called to my attention this very apt quotation from St. Francis de Sales: “Everyone of us needs half an hour of prayer each day, except when we are busy – then we need an hour.”)
(an earlier version of this homily can be found in the video for the Sunday Mass of this weekend, here)