2 Samuel 7.1-11,16
Now we begin again: now in Advent, the beginning of the Church’s year, we come to the Gospel of Mark—Mark chapter 1, which begins “The Gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God.”
So perhaps I will share some of my reflections on this Gospel, so unlike modern literature. It might even seem barbarous and unpolished to those who approach it like a novel. But I love it. It is elusive. It is terse, finely crafted, full of subtleties, full of secrets.
One example: consider the author’s observation that, at the feeding of the 5000 by the Sea of Galilee, the grass was green. Why does the author say something so inconsequential? Because in Psalm 23 we hear “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; he shall feed me in a green pasture, and lead me forth beside still waters…”
So much for the gospel’s subtlety. What I first want to notice is that the gospel of Mark’s Jesus is about forgiveness. That had been the Baptist’s proclamation too. And in this text to forgive means literally to unbind.
What I think we need to talk about is Jesus’ ministry of binding and unbinding.
For Jesus, we hear, binds the Strong Man; he binds Satan and all the demonic powers, and plunders his house. He binds the forces of disturbance in the world. But how?
When Jesus encounters a demon at the meeting house in Capernaum he says, “we know who you are, the Holy One of God!” He shouts back, “Keep silence!”
Jesus, likewise, speaks silence to the seas that rage with a demonic force. Keep silence! he shouts to the waves: in fact, the word in Greek means “be muzzled!” To muzzle something is, of course, to bind it in silence.
Jesus binds Satan in silence.
In Mark’s gospel Satan and the ‘demonic powers’ especially work through language to whip up disturbance: it is our conventional ways of speaking that keep us unwell: for we internalise accusation, and we allow ourselves to be defined by our sins. Remember, Satan is the Accuser and the Adversary—that’s the tradition we have from Job. And to bind Satan means to silence the voice of accusation, the voice of affliction.
It means, oftentimes, to remove ourselves from conventional ways of speaking. Notice that every healing and exorcism in Mark involves Jesus’ taking someone apart—away from the crowd, outside the village, to a faraway place. They go outside custom and convention, outside ordinary ways of speaking, of seeing. Only then can the Satanic voice of accusation be hushed; a situation can be spoken differently. Then there is unbinding; there is forgiveness.
So you see, forgiveness in Mark is lifting the burden of accusation. And here in Mark we see an observation almost psychoanalytic: disturbance, neurosis, illness, work linguistically: but if, in quietness and stillness, we can speak a situation differently, someone has a chance to become well. If we clear away the internalised voice of accusation, which marginalises and shames, then their eyes and ears are opened; they become open to God the Holy Spirit, who empowers them.
All of Jesus’ healings and exorcisms have this pattern: we must go apart, away from the conventional speaking which would define us. Sometimes the text insinuates this quite subtly: for instance, when he finds a little girl, aged 12, lying in bed, apparently dying, he first throws out the weeping and wailing crowd. Then before God, he is able to speak the situation differently: she is only sleeping. Jesus speaks a holy word into the situation, interrupting conventional seeing, conventional speaking. She is only sleeping. So he binds Satan, and unbinds the girl: she is healed.
Much more could be said.
Let us notice that, in Mark, Jesus is not only a prophet of forgiveness, but also of human solidarity.
At the heart of this gospel are the feeding narratives–the first to the Jews and the second to the Gentiles—both in faraway places, outside the walls, so to speak where the nature of their humanity can be spoken differently.
Jesus feeds the Jewish crowd by the shores of Lake Galilee with 5 loaves, and the Gentiles near Roman Decapolis with 7 loaves. [The fish were a later interpolation: CT]
There is significance in the numbers. You will notice that 5 and 7 add up to 12. Jesus feeds all the nations with 12 loaves. But what is the meaning of this twelve? It is a meaning lost on the disciples : Jesus even goads them about it in the boat on the lake: do you have eyes and not see, ears and not hear? The text says “their hearts were hardened, for they did not understand about the loaves.” Indeed not. It is a theme scholars have called “bread obtuseness,” but perhaps many scholars have not eyes to see.
What is the meaning of these twelve loaves? I was always struck by the fact that, in the Temple at Jerusalem, there were twelve loaves arrayed on a golden table, the Shewbread, or Bread of the Presence—to symbolise the bounty of God upon God’s people Israel, yes, all twelve tribes. Now Jesus breaks bread in the sight of all. Surely it is a political act: for he says, now the Temple goes out into all the world, among people of every tribe and language and nation.
So where is God if not in Jerusalem? God is with all who have trust: the seed of God takes root in their heart, too, growing up by night—even if perhaps they are strange or foreign or impure. God reigns in their hearts, so they need no longer be ashamed or defined by accusation. That is their healing.
This is, I think, something of the mystical heart of Mark.
It is a gospel full of secrets. And, of course, not everyone would see it quite as I do.
For now let us remember the greatness of Mark’s Jesus, a prophet of forgiveness and of human solidarity, much like the Baptist himself.
May they go before us always.
2 April 2017
11:25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.
In the beginning God spoke a Word, and the universe came to be. God’s utterance was like a shining light; the darkness could not overcome it, could not comprehend it.
That is the sense of John’s famous prologue. It reminds us of the first book of the Bible, Genesis: in the Beginning God said “Let there be light!” and a creative Word, a living Word went forth. But what was this light? It was not the light of the sun, which was not yet. It was not any light that could be seen, for there was no one to see it. It was unseen light.
And this takes us far into John’s gospel, the story of the Word of God’s becoming flesh and dwelling among us. For not everyone could see the light burning within Jesus; they could not see the unseen light, which was Jesus’ glory. They were the ones who, we hear, walked by daylight but stumbled at night “because the light [was] not in them.” Nor had they understanding. They could not perceive the meaning of Jesus’ words or his works—his signs (semeia), or symbols. They could not perceive them in their revelatory quality, as revealing different aspects of the divine Word. Only those who trusted, who believed, had the capacity to perceive what their meaning.
In recent weeks we have heard that the Word of God is like living bread and living water–our true food and drink. It is a light that gives sight to the blind.
And now we come to the raising of Lazarus. We are to understand that the Word of God raises us up to life. Those who hear it have the life of the new age. They rise up, like Lazarus, from their tombs.
This divine Word is also present through and in all things. The universe exists because it is spoken. It is sustained by a divine Word. God does not stop speaking; the history of the universe is always being written. What is this Word but the deep grammar of the universe? Its reason, its logic, which we cannot fully understand. It is the Meaning of life the universe and everything, as Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had it.
All our worldly speech, all our chatter, our organising, our building, our rushing. What is all this speaking but a participation in the deeper and hidden meaning of things—the original Word, spoken before all?
To this mysterious Word we cling by trust. We live into it. We become available to God, so that the story of the universe can be written in us. Our own lives, with their joys and sorrows and very often their sheer ordinariness, can become a chapter of that great work. The Word of God can sound through us.
This last week I was reading a book about parish ministry in the UK. One priest tells of her experience with a woman, Blanche, who had suffered a stroke. She easily confused words, giving her language an unexpectedly creative edge. So for instance she declared: “they want me to eat the oak of the egg!” but she meant, of course, “the yoke of the egg.” It would be easy to see Blanche as defective, but actually, the author says, her humanity was “an icon of the Word.” Even in her impairment and her quirkiness, she was part of the divine “poetry”—and how gloriously!
Even illness is part of the story of God, and is redeemed, if we allow it to be. Jesus says: “this illness does not lead to death,” the sickness is not unto death. It is for God’s glory, that God might be glorified through it.
What does the raising of Lazarus mean for us?
It means that even in sickness and in death, the Word of God raises us up if we live into it by trust. We shall not die, but live, for our story will be written in the pages of the universe. Our lives will become signs. We ourselves can become part of the divine poetry.
I am reminded of something the Anglican liturgist Dom Gregory Dix said:
Death is a solemn and serious thing, even for those who are full of faith and are prepared to die. It should be a ritual act, an act of worship. (Dom Gregory Dix, The Sacramental Life, xxii)
So it will be for those who live into the Word by trust.
And at the sounding of that Holy Word, we shall rise up like Lazarus, alive. Come out! We shall live, yes with all our scars and wounds and limitations, but having overcome them all. For we ourselves will have become an utterance of God. That is the faith of the resurrection. “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though they die, yet shall they live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.
Let us not dwell in the world of chatter, of business-like speech, of rushing, and organising, or we shall miss the deeper meaning—the living Word in and through all.
You will not give me over to the power of death,
Nor suffer your faithful one to see the Pit.
You will show me the path of life; in your presence is the fullness of joy
And from your right hand flow delights for evermore. Ps. 16:10,11
…no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above (Jn 3:3)
We must be born, as we hear Jesus telling Nicodemus, of water and of Spirit. Not only must we be washed clean, but we must be infused with new life, with new humanity.
I want to suggest that our rebirth in the Spirit gives us a future orientation. For the Holy Spirit is the dynamism in and through creation, which in Genesis is said to move over the primordial waters. The Spirit is the Wind, or Breath of God, the pneuma of God, who is always creating, always fanning and winnowing, always breaking down and building up. But if She breaks down, it is only to build up: for the Spirit is bringing all things to their unity and completion—through all the long course of history. St Paul tells us of this process that
All creation awaits the revelation of the sons and daughters of God. For the creation was subject to frustration… in the hope that it will be liberated from … decay … into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until this present time. [And] we ourselves, who have the … Spirit, groan inwardly as we await our adoption…the redemption of our bodies. (Rom 8)
The Wind of God blows, like a breeze from the future. We might build up strong towers of defence, but the wind beats them down irresistibly.
We must learn to bend with the wind, or we will be blown over. We must lean into this Wind of God, like Spirit-catchers, setting our sails as it were to the future. So we cultivate a certain detachment from the current order of things, knowing that the present age will pass away; and indeed, it is passing away even now. Of course, we are, like everyone, tempted to think things will be more or less the same forever. We are tempted to absolutise our present reality. But the Wind of God blows all the same.
We are children of God’s future. We live not as citizens of this age, but as citizens of the age to come.
The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.
Our freedom in the Spirit is something like the freedom of Israel in the desert. We find ourselves on an exodus journey through the desert places of life to a new land—not a land marked out with bounds and measures, but an eternal homeland. Undoubtedly it is an arduous journey. We face reality head on: the scorching winds that blow by day and the chill that cuts by night. Reality bites, as they say.
And perhaps, like Israel, we find ourselves surrounded by poisonous serpents. We hear of this episode, too, in today’s gospel reading. In the desert Moses lifted up a bronze serpent on a pole, so that anyone who looked upon it should live. A strange episode from the Book of Numbers. What can this mean for us but that even pain and suffering and death can become the instruments of life? When the Israelites gazed into this symbol going before them, they took a strange courage. They continued the march. They saw that, though they die, they live. Even evil can become instrumental to God’s future.
Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.
The Son of Humanity goes before us, lifted high–a symbol of martyrdom. For though the powers of the earth sentence us to death, though life itself ravage and destroy us, we live. We have definitive life, the life of the age to come. We are drawn forth by the power of the Spirit.
And on this journey through life, we are not left without joy. Like Israel, we have food from heaven—the manna that appears with the dew and the dawn. Jesus gives us his radiant humanity for food and for drink; he himself becomes our common life, sharing himself with all.
So we who eat deepen our humanity: we grow more deeply into that mystery. Christ shares his life with us, and we are empowered to share ourselves with others. We learn to open our hearts, to spend time, and to support one another. Even in the desert, we have a foretaste of the promised land. We are woven together in solidarity: we learn to be one body, one people.
We who live by the Spirit live not as citizens of this age, but of the age to come.
Listen to the ancient letter of Diognetus written in the second century,
“Christians are indistinguishable from others either by nationality, language or custom. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. …
And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. …
…they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. They love all, but all persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. …
…we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. …
The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven.” [adapted]
So, we who live in the Spirit live on the edge. We live into God’s future and God’s creativity.
Very, truly, I tell you, no one can enter God’s reign without being born of Spirit.
If the Church finds itself in narrow straits these days it is, in part, because it has not listened deeply to its past masters. John Macquarrie, sometime Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford, must rank as one of the foremost Anglican theologians of the twentieth century. His Paths in Spirituality (1972) still offers departure points for a Church which is, in earthly terms, rather beseiged.
Religion is about the development of selfhood
The work opens on a polemical note: many young people left the churches in the 1960s, he says, because they identified it with the bourgeois and also because “worship and liturgy [had] become so trivialized in most American churches that those in search of a spirituality … thought it necessary to look elsewhere” (2)
We hear much these days of spirituality; but actually the thirst for spiritually has been with us for a long time. According to Macquarrie, spirituality is about becoming a person in the fullest sense; and religion, too, should be about growth and transformation. Religion can still be indispensible to life: he cites Harvey Cox, “Man is more essentially religious than many of us have assumed. He thirsts for mystery, meaning, community and even for some sort of ritual.” (3) In Macquarrie’s view “the practice of religion, when purged of egoism, brought to maturity, related to real life, encompassing intellect as well as emotion and will, makes an indispensable contribution toward the development of a fully human person.” (4)
In adoration we are drawn out of ourselves, not losing ourselves but finding ourselves in a self-expansion or, we might say, in God. We are drawn into the Other—into a “creative centre” which forms us, he says (14). Worship is creative: “it is creating persons of spiritual depth, and through them the creative Spirit will reach other further still.” (18) As we grow in self-giving love and in likeness to Christ, we become agents of transformation in the world.
There is no suggestion that worship is mere therapy: rather it is communing with God. God comes to meet us in prayer and worship. These
“are the very ways in which God, the creative mystery from whom we and all things derive their being, comes to us and make himself present with us….worship is a communing, the opening of human life to God, the response to grace, the growing up into union with God, who has made us for himself.” (22)
When we open ourselves to God, we become open to other people: “could there even be communion with other people at any depth without both sides being encompassed in a still deeper communion with God?” (22) So I wonder: is our current crisis of community life not ultimately because we have lost the capacity for God and, therefore, for one another? If we cannot find a metaphysical unity in the Word and Spirit of God who gives life to us all, won’t we become too, too anxious about our differences—about our foreign neighbour, our unemployed neighbour, our Muslim neighbour?
Religion is about self-actualisation; and the best advertisement for Christianity, says Macquarrie, is a person fully alive. That is just what Irenaeus said in the second century: the glory of God is a living person, and a person’s life consists in beholding God. Macquarrie bids us consider the saints, who have “an inner strength or an inner depth, at once stable and dynamic.” Their holiness has “a creative character—the saint is not only good, he enables others to be good, just by the kind of person he is.” (5) Such a person feels “’more at home’ in the universe” than others (6).
So how can our churches be renewed? Macquarrie suggests an emphasis on:
the fulfilling nature of religion;
the future society which is taking shape around the altar;
the new sociality; and
a religious practice which combines contemplation with action.
A Problem with Prayer
Macquarrie strikes another polemical note: “Prayer is at the heart of all religion, but for many Christians prayer has become something of an embarrassment.” (25)
He suggests that prayer is better thought of as a meditative kind of thinking—not mere thinking, apart from God, but a thinking which draws near to God. This thinking, non-linear, non-technical, and often stream-of-consciousness, is essential for our wholeness as human beings. It is:
passionate thinking: “To think of the world with longing for its perfecting is a step toward praying for the coming of the kingdom; to think of the world with rejoicing for all that is good is inarticulately to hallow the name; to think of the world with shame for our failures is implicitly to ask forgiveness of our sins and trespasses.” (26)
compassionate thinking: Intercessory prayer, he says, provides “openings into the dense texture of the human situation through which can come the creative and healing power of the reality we call God; and because within that human situation our lives are all bound together in a mysterious solidarity, then God’s power is able to operate far beyond the particular person who offers the prayer, though through him.” (28) Moreover in prayer God reaches into the depths of the unconscious (and collective unconscious?)
responsible thinking: In prayer we know God as the “unconditioned demand” made upon us—though that demand is mediated through some finite situation. (29)
And, finally, thankful thinking.
Yet there comes a point where we leave off thinking for “the silence of fulfilled speech” (37). We “contemplate” when
All that has been said and all that has been absorbed in the successive moments of meditation is now present together in an ineffable fullness to which words are inadequate. This is contemplation—a moment we may not know very often, but one in which the mind, so far from being blank, overflows with the fullness of divine truth. We are given a foretaste here and now of the vision of God, the vision that gathers up everything in itself. (37)
The Truth is always greater than any verbal formulation; we take off from language, becoming accustomed to the sun through squinting eyes. We simply allow our will and intellect to be formed in the Word and Spirit of God. In this connection Macquarrie relates a vision of the great Buddha of Kamakura, Japan:
He knew no anger, no despair.
He taught just one thing—how we should sink,
How we should direct our individual wills
Into the great will. (39)
Worship teaches us habitually to behold the Other; that is, God and our neighbour in the light of God. This is of a piece with St Thomas’ own understanding. As the Angelic Doctor held, adoration is the radical basis of sharing, of friendship, and of the body politic itself: when we worship we become ever more receptive to caritas. We open our eyes to see the Good, who shines like the sun.
Contemplation undoubtedly meant much to Macquarrie, who tells of his own religious experiences at Benediction. He relates Iris Murdoch’s opinion that:
I think there is a place both inside and outside religion for a sort of contemplation of the Good, not just by dedicated experts but by ordinary people; an attraction which is not just the planning of particular good action but an attempt to look right away from self towards a distant transcendent perfection, a source of uncontaminated energy, a source of new and quite undreamt of virtue.’ (29-30)
In the next part I discuss personal growth and transformation more fully–“spirituality as ekstasis,” as well as Eucharist, Benediction, the Daily Offices, and Stations of the Cross.