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  • Fr. John Jennings

Our Sacred Stories - The Reign of God: Walking Without Walls

One of the striking features of rural Ireland is the network of drystone walls that snake up and down the hillsides and valleys. These walls create a patchwork of green and grey over the landscape. The walls serve to divide the fields one from another. As well, they make good use of the many stones found when clearing the fields. They are practical.

Walls serve many purposes. They protect. They set limits. They provide safety. They hold together. But fundamentally, all walls divide. They all have two sides, in and out. They may be practical, but they so often are an expression of fear and a desire to protect ourselves and our space.

Mark, in his Gospel (Mark 1:21-28), describes Jesus coming into a synagogue (sacred space) on a Sabbath day (a sacred time). While teaching in this place, he encounters a man with an unclean spirit. In Israel such a person was ritually unclean and thus to be avoided. A person was deemed to be holy to the degree they kept away from the unholy, the unclean. Sometimes this was certain foods, certain actions or on occasion, certain people. The man possessed of an unclean spirit was one of these last.

The ritual avoidance of the “unclean” manifests a fear. It could be of a physical threat or one that stems from a spiritual danger. It creates a wall between persons or things. Seeing the man with the unclean spirit places him on the other side from those he encounters. He is seen as a threat.

Jesus knows of this demand for avoidance. He does not allow himself to be bound. Rather he crosses the boundary for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Jesus recognizes that, far from being limited by the ritual purity law his mission is go through the walls to bring life and release to those in need. In doing so, he brings the Kingdom near, with its liberation and its healing.

We live in a world of walls, some useful, but many hurtful and divisive. Often these walls reduce our humanity. They narrow our vision. They make us less than we have the possibility of being. The Kingdom that Jesus proclaims by his words and actions calls us to become the humanity of God’s dream.

Our experience of Covid 19 is one of those moments when we face choices for the Kingdom, choices that can bring life and liberation to ourselves and for our world. Globally, the good news has been that in less than a year, we have seen the development of vaccines. Now the challenge is to distribute them as broadly as possible.

Pope Francis, in his recent encyclical commented on the promise that has emerged with the pandemic. Like many, both globally and locally, he has seen a sense of “we are in this together”. What we all might have seen is the we have discovered that we cannot address such a global or personal challenge on our own, we need one another. As Francis puts it: Amid this storm, [we begin to gain a] blessed awareness that we are part of one another, that we are brothers and sisters of one another. (Pope Francis. FRATELLI TUTTI, 2020)

This sense of breaking down the walls that divide us and the openness to being one family, one human community, globally and locally, is fragile. It is easy for self-interest and separation to impede its continuance of growth. The walls can so easily be rebuilt.

At the end of his encyclical, Pope Francis offers this prayer for us all: May our hearts be open to all the peoples and nations of the earth. May we recognize the goodness and beauty that you have sown in each of us, and thus forge bonds of unity, common projects, and shared dreams. Amen.

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