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A Contemplative Prayer Journey With Jesus

by Armand Nigro, S.J.

Praying with Scripture has long been a part of our tradition as Catholic Christians. But many people wonder where to begin their prayerful reading of the Bible.

In this issue of Scripture from Scratch, we will move with Jesus through the Gospel of Mark, looking and listening with openness and faith. As you go through the article, take time to read the suggested passages. Pray with them and reflect on what they mean in your own life. In his first sentence Mark introduces Jesus as "Messiah (Christ—s, Greek for "the anointed one"), the Son of God." From the outset, we know that this man Jesus is someone special, someone unique, someone who has power in our lives.

Setting Out

As you travel with Jesus from Nazareth, you may want to open before you a good map of first-century Israel. Jesus' entire life was confined to an area smaller than Vermont.

Jesus leaves Nazareth and arrives in the southern part of Israel near Jericho. At the Jordan River, John is preaching repentance, preparing the way for the Messiah. We know what John and the crowds do not: The Messiah is here.

When Jesus is baptized he experiences a mystical moment in which the love of God is made clear to him. The Spirit descends and the voice of God says, "You are my Son, I love You and am pleased with you" (1:11).

Stay with Jesus, driven by the Spirit into the desert, struggling with evil forces (1:9-13).

Walk back with him to Galilee, as he moves from town to village, proclaiming the good news of God, calling his first disciples, associating with sinners, driving evil spirits out of people, healing the sick with a word or touch.

Rise early with him as he goes off to pray. Hear him insist to those who search him out: "Let us preach in surrounding villages. For this I have come" (1:38). He affirms an essential connection between his prayer and his ministry (1:14-39).

Who Is This Jesus?

After Jesus calms a storm on the lake, his frightened disciples raise the question: "Who is this man whom even the wind and sea obey?" (4:42). That question and its answer are at the heart of Mark's Gospel.

Jesus is certainly human, but continues to do what only God can do. Read Mark 2—8. Notice how urgent Jesus' message is and how active he is in his ministry, and yet how often he takes time to pray. As a religious teacher he speaks with his own authority. He forgives sins, controls the powers of nature, multiplies food and raises the dead to life. He challenges corrupt religious authority and condemns their hypocritical behavior.

In Mark 9, Jesus is enveloped by the defining experience of his human life, the acknowledgment that he is the beloved Son of God. As at his baptism, so now on the mountain of his transfiguration (9:2-8), he hears God say, "This is my beloved son. Listen to him." Jesus' entire ministry in Mark is sandwiched between his baptism and his transfiguration.

All that Jesus does is permeated by his Father's reassuring love. Because of this, in Gethsemani, on the night before he dies, he prays agonizingly, "Abba [Hebrew for Papa], all is possible to you. Take this cup [of suffering] from me; yet not what I want, but what you will" (14:32-36).

Steeped in Tradition

Much of the richness of the Gospels lies in their echo of the Hebrew Scriptures. Just as the Bible has formed and transformed our own lives, so the Scriptures of Jesus' tradition gave him a deep and prayerful sense of his life and ministry.

Jesus deliberately identifies himself with key prophetic figures in Israel's religious writings. We need to understand these connections if we are to come to know Jesus more deeply.

Let's pause here to read carefully six passages in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Moses. Read Deuteronomy 18:15-20. Moses, Israel's greatest prophet, is the key figure during the exodus of God's people from Egyptian oppression. Before Moses dies, around 1200 B.C.E. (Before Common Era), God promises the people another prophet like Moses.

Now look at Mark 1:22-27. Jesus proceeds to preach and teach as no other prophet, not even Moses, has done: "He taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes—a new teaching." He repeatedly reinterprets their religious legal traditions (see, for example, Mark 2).

Mark writes, "[Jesus] went up a mountain and called to himself those whom he wanted. Yes, he appointed twelve, whom he named apostles, to be with him [presumably to soak in his presence and teaching] before being sent to preach and...to drive out demons" (3:13-15). This is surely reminiscent of Moses' going up Mt. Sinai to be with the God of the covenant.

That soaking-in process is an image of contemplative prayer. Without consciously sharing Jesus' presence in prayer, we will never be effective in our ministry. Notice, too, that doing the will of God is Jesus' primary concern (3:34).

David. Now read 2 Samuel 7:8-16 and Psalm 89. Over 200 years after Moses, God promises to King David an everlasting dynasty.

In Mark's Gospel especially, Jesus is reluctant to acknowledge his identity as the Jewish Messiah. Some refer to this as the "Messianic Secret." Why this reluctance? Because the people have a much different understanding and expectation of the Messiah than the destiny Jesus knows is his. Read 8:29-33; 14:61-65.

Even Peter and the other disciples fail to understand Jesus' true identity as Messiah until after his death and resurrection (8:31-33).

Isaiah's Suffering Servant. Read Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22. During the Babylonian exile, some 400 years after the time of David, a nameless balladeer sings of an innocent servant of God burdened with the people's sins. By his vicarious suffering and dying, they are forgiven, healed, regenerated—even as he continues to live on in some mysterious way.

The Son of Man. Read Daniel 7:9-14. The Book of Daniel was written during the Jewish revolt against a brutal Syrian-Greek tyrant who tried to force pagan religion and culture on the Hebrew people.

This book describes a vision of someone who looks human ("like a son of man"), "coming on the clouds of heaven" (that is, of apparently heavenly origin) whom God makes ruler of all the world forever.

Jesus identifies himself with both the world-ruling Son of Man in Daniel and the suffering servant of Isaiah. Read Mark 8:31-32; 9:31; 10:33-35.

We can see now that Mark's portrait of Jesus is of a man who is conscious of fulfilling these four prophetic figures. "This is the time of fulfillment," Jesus proclaims. "The reign of God is at hand" (Mark 1:15).

Even to the Cross

After moving into Judea and teaching crowds near the Jordan, Jesus goes up to Jerusalem where opposition to him comes together into a deadly trap (Mark 11—13). He confines his teaching to his remaining disciples, and answers trap questions from enemies who circle him.

Mark indeed believes that Jesus fulfills the four prophetic figures and, even more, that he is God's Son. Yet, according to Mark, this same Jesus is misunderstood, disbelieved, rejected, hounded, stalked and persecuted. He is finally accused, unjustly condemned, publicly brutalized and executed for affirming the truth of his identity.

Before he dies, Jesus is opposed by every faction of his people— Saducees, Pharisees, Herodians, Romans and even his own townsfolk and relatives. He dies abandoned by all, including his male disciples and associates.

In spite of his apparent failure, however, Jesus triumphs through it all. He doesn't capitulate, he doesn't lose trust in his Father. He doesn't fail to be and do what the Father asks of him, but instead he proclaims the good news of God's love in truth, uncompromisingly, to the end.

We find hope and consolation in the fact that Jesus never gives up on us, either. He never ceases to love us. His suffering and apparent failure was redemptive for us all. Paradoxically Jesus succeeds by failing, redeems by suffering, lives by dying, triumphs by submitting.

It seems like upside-down theology, but this redemptive suffering is at the heart of Christian spirituality Jesus was raised from the dead because of his obedience and love for his Father and for us, and he lives on as our glorified Lord and savior.

The first to receive and believe and proclaim this good news were his women disciples (and women have continued to be his best and most numerous disciples ever since). They were told, "He has been raised.... Go, tell his disciples and Peter: 'He goes before you to Galilee where you will see him as he told you'" (Mark 16:6-7). A later editor of Mark adds, "They preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them" (16:20).

Mark does not feature Mary the mother of Jesus, or mention his women disciples, except in a few words after his death (15:40, 41, 47; 16:1-8). He focuses on the rejection and apparent failure of Jesus. Faithful women disciples did not fit into this emphasis. No woman in any of the Gospels ever abandoned or disappointed Jesus, but every man associated with him bailed out.

Mark's silence regarding women disciples until after Jesus' death, far from ignoring or belittling these women, acknowledges their fidelity and courage. To have featured them earlier, as Luke does, would mitigate his emphasis on the disciples' rejection and abandonment of Jesus.

Mark wrote first for a suffering and persecuted community. No surprise, then, that his Jesus pointedly reminds us, "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny themselves (put others first, as Jesus did), take up their crosses (accept what we cannot avoid) and follow me."

Read Mark 8:34-37. We save our lives as Jesus did, by losing them through generous self-giving. Selfish grabbers lose it all in the end.

The Journey Continues

Sacred Scripture is a source and help for a unique kind of contemplative prayer. In the Gospels we meet Jesus. In and through him we meet God the Father and the Holy Spirit. When we meet the real Jesus alive in us now, everything recorded of him in the Gospels and everything he ever experienced is part of that presence.

All the saving mysteries of Jesus' mortal life continue to be life-giving for us now. To contemplate the Gospel narratives and words of Jesus means simply to listen to them with an open, hungry heart and a long, loving look. The Holy Spirit does the rest. As Paul promises, "the Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness; we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes [for us]..." (Romans 8:26-28).

In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus gives his followers this invitation: "Come to me, and I will renew you" (Matthew 11:28-30). Now that we've taken a contemplative journey through the Gospel of Mark, you might want to try one of the other Gospels on your own.

Armand Nigro, S.J., a well-known retreat director, is a professor in the religious studies department at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. He founded the Mater Dei Institute, which specializes in preparing men and women for ministry in the Church.


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