I don’t know about you, but for me, the announcement of Good News today is a bit jarring. Hearing, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus ChristWhen yesterday we were with Doubting Thomas, and for the past week we have been inhabiting the other end of the Gospel narrative, the resurrection stories. The break with the lectionary reflects that today we celebrate the feast of St. Mark, the Evangelist, and it breaks us out of an important cycle.
For liturgical Christians, the lectionary cycle is important. That both seminary and the lectionary last for three years make sense. As Dr. Kate Sondregger would say, it is “fitting.” Leaving aside arguments about how the lectionary is shaped. Sacramentally at least, during these three years we touch elements of the whole Bible, the whole story.
My first year of seminary, I went with my Hebrew class down to Aggudis Achim, the synagogue down South of Quaker Lane, for the celebration of Simchat Torah. The Jewish lectionary actually reads through the entire Torah in a year, and the feast day marks the end of the cycle. Because the liturgical Torah is an actual scroll, the community has to re-wrap the whole story at the end. I am not sure whether Aggudis Achim follows custom, or if the liturgy that evening had a touch of Rabbi Jack Moline flare, but I was incredibly moved by what I saw.
Slowly, carefully, Rabbi Moline and helpers unwrapped the entire Torah, passing in a circle around the room. Each of us carefully held the lambskin between our thumb and pointer fingers as the whole assembly was encircled by the text. As teenagers who had just finished their bar and bat mitzvah’s read key passages, I looked around the room. We were literally surrounded by sacred story.
This celebration expresses the hope of those of us who undergo the lectionary cycle. We hope to be surrounded by the text. The year in and year out repetition slowly forms us. The lectionary is an investment in formation. The lectionary shapes the way we see the world. The lectionary helps us to “grow up into the full stature of Christ” as our reading from Ephesians has it today. In the words of Ed Kilmartin, the Jesuit theologian, it helps our autobiography look more and more like the biography of Christ.
This shaping is important when an interruption occurs. We hear this announcement from St. Mark’s Gospel, “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ” with ears shaped by the whole text, by the whole story. We cannot hear this “Good News of Jesus Christ” in a simplistic way. We know the nuances.
Knowing the nuances becomes important for Christians who are shaped and formed by sacred story. The interruption of Good News cannot be seen simplistically. In the last 13 hours or so, we have begun to hear a piece of Good News that has been jarring. The immediate reception of the news of the death of Osama Bin Laden, the crowds that gathered last night around the White House, seems premature to me. Bin Laden’s death in some ways is good news, but in others, like any death, it is tragic. Unexamined rejoicing can be dangerous. Uninformed celebration could take a quick turn to Islamophobia. How much better would it have been if Bin Laden had stood trial in the Hague? If the world had had the opportunity to deal justly and humanely with a criminal who had committed such inhuman acts, there would be no opportunity for Bin Laden to be seen as a martyr.
Good News, for Christians, often requires discernment. Even, and perhaps especially when the Good News seems obvious. That first line from Mark’s Gospel gives us a hint. The word “Good News” appears in the genitive. It is inextricably linked to the words that follow: Jesus Christ.” For Christians good news always belongs to Christ. The Christian task is to discern Christ in the good news.
In the weeks and years to come, I believe those of us in Christian leadership face an important task. Lest our society declare some misguided idea about victory over Islam as the Good News today, we are tasked with discernment. Where can we see the good news in Islam? As Christians, shaped by our own texts, how can we look for and affirm the Gospel, the good news, in the faithful lives of our Muslim sisters and brothers? Failure to do so, seems to me a kind of atheism, a denial of God’s presence in the lives of others.
We are coming to the end of the seminary year, and many of us are facing some Good News. Whether we are starting professional ministry , a summer of CPE, or a sabbatical, whether the good news comes as we cross international borders. Our work, shaped by the whole Christian story, is to discern how our good news is of Christ. New beginnings are an invitation to find the “of Christ” in our “Good News” to discern the Christ alive in our lives.