Preparing the Way of the Lord

Advent is an odd sort of beginning for the liturgical year. In one respect , it is the beginning of the story of Jesus, starting with his conception and St. John the Baptist’s preaching as a forerunner of Jesus, but in another respect, Advent is thought to be about the end of the story, the end of the world with the “second coming” of Jesus. Or is it? John the Baptist is a transitionary character who points to a great good God will do without knowing what it is going to be. Might the “end” of the story really be another transition? Malachi’s image of God being like a refiner’s fire ) Mal. 3:2) sounds ominous and violent, a perfect image for God burning up the world in a fit of anger. But a refiner’s fire is not destructive; it is constructive, even healing. As a refiner’s fire restores metals to their best condition, God’s refining fire purifies the sons of Levi so that they can offer their sacrifices. The refining fire is not an ending but a new beginning. In what other ways might the ministry of John the Baptist be a new beginning for us today?

Luke has John begin his preaching with a quote from Isaiah which stands by itself with no elaboration. John’s quote features the leveling of valleys and mountains in order to “prepare the way of the Lord.” The image of leveling can be threatening as it calls up fears of violent revolutionaries leveling everything to the ground out of anger and resentment. But this is not the kind of leveling Isaiah and John are envisioning. Isaiah was proclaiming the leveling of valleys and mountains in order to remove the obstacles between Babylonia and Jerusalem so that the Jews could return safely to their homeland. The way to prepare for the Lord, then, is to remove obstacles that we put between each other. In an online discussion of this reading, it was suggested that one way we smooth the way for others is to create barrier-free access for handicapped people although it was noted that we still have more progress to make since the distance of a barrier-free route can be quite extensive. In any case, this image gives us a small parable of the greater project of removing obstacles placed in the paths of the helpless. One way to do this would be the pass legislation that makes voting easier for people instead of harder. On paper or in a spoken sermon, removing barriers may sound like a calm action, but in reality, we are, first of all, removing obstacles in ourselves that cause us to stumble in the way of the Lord. Since we are likely to find that many of these obstacles have been mistaken for parts of ourselves instead of invasive infections, removing these obstacles may well feel like being refined by fire. Another way to say the same thing is to note that the Way of the Lord is from Empire whether in the household or a nation-state (Babylon) to Jerusalem, the freedom of a new beginning of life without obstacles between each other and God. Hence the importance of Luke meticulously listing the imperial rulers three times in the first three chapters of his Gospel.

In parallel to John’s introducing his ministry with an otherwise unelaborated quote from Isaiah, Luke has Jesus inaugurate his ministry with another quote from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” We do well to place these two quotes side by side as they add up to a fuller program of preparing the way of the Lord by freeing the oppressed from the obstacles we place before them..

In John’s Gospel, John the Baptist famously said of his relationship with Jesus: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (Jn. 3: 30) As my confessor of many years reminded me often, we must be like John the Baptist: decreasing so that Christ may increase within each of us. Letting Christ increase in us, of course has us decreasing ourselves by removing the obstacles in ourselves so as to prepare the way of the Lord.

Not One Stone Upon Another

It is one of many signs that Jesus’ disciples still don’t “get it” when they ooh and ah about the beautiful temple that Herod has built. Haven’t they noticed that Jesus doesn’t see Herod as a model ruler? Did they notice that Jesus wrecked havoc in the temple? Did they think about what the gesture might mean? The chief priests most certainly were thinking very hard about it and their thoughts were very hard. If any of the above notions were going through their heads, they might not have been so startled when Jesus predicted that “not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Mk. 13: 2)

It is important to realize, as pretty much all biblical scholars have noted, that prophecy is not fortune telling about the future, but is a word of where the present trends are leading unless there is a change of course. For example, many prophets warned that the injustices in their time were destroying the social fabric and were going to lead to a violent end. Throughout his teaching, Jesus gave a threefold set of warnings: 1) Social injustices connected to the temple were unraveling the religious system. (The scribes and Pharisees “devour widows’ houses.” (Mk. 12: 40.) 2) The threat of rebelling against Rome will redound on the Jewish people. 3) The religious leaders and the imperial leaders were on course to commit lethal violence against Jesus, as he warned in the Parable of the Evil Workers in the Vineyard. (Mk. 12: 1–12)

We can see readily enough that the social violence is human violence through and through and it has nothing to do with God. Mark’s Gospel also tells a story of human collective violence directed at one person who is deemed responsible for the social crisis in Judea. If social ills of institutionalized violence and scapegoating are the work of humans and not God, what about the apocalyptic violence in Mark 13? Jesus does mention earthquakes, which are natural disasters and not God’s doing, but mostly Jesus warns of “wars and rumor of wars,” and nations rising against nation. (Mk. 13: 7–8) Once again, we have human acts, only on a grander scale. Here we have Jesus’ warning of the ineluctable results of staging a violent rebellion against Rome. This violence causes social ties to break down to the extent that “brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.” (Mk. 13: 12) Jesus then warns of being handed over to councils and then standing “before governors and kings.” (Mk. 13: 9) The chaotic violence circles back to collective violence against a few victims. The technical term for religious cataclysmic literature is “apocalypse,” which means unveiling. Many people think that apocalyptic literature reveals God, but actually it reveals the truth of human violence.

In this analysis of violence, I have been greatly helped by the French thinker René Girard who argued that from the dawn of civilization, there has been a tendency of humans to solve social problems by suddenly gaining up on a victim or a small group of victims with lethal results. The peace following each gruesome episode was so dramatic that it was seen as an “act of god.” It is no wonder that societies founded on collective violence would be sustained by ongoing social violence. There is no time to explain Girard’s arguments further, but it is worth noting that all the Gospels end with the story of the collective murder of Jesus while stressing the human action that caused it. Girard also warns us that although the Gospel Story has opened the way to renewing society through concern for previously overlooked victims, it also greases the breaks that collective violence had previously put on social crises with the result that such crises spin out of control with no end in sight. This is precisely what we see going on all around us as I speak.

Although Jesus’ warnings about violence include violence that one might suffer, such as the violence Jesus suffered and his followers would suffer in the future, the warnings mostly concern inflicting violence upon others. That is, he is warning his listeners to refrain from the violence of social injustice, the violence of collective violence against a victim, and the violence of social upheaval that will only escalate violence. There is much fully justified therapeutic concern for victims of violence, but the trauma of committing violence is also severe. In fact, on a spiritual level, it is more devastating. What is so tragic about the trauma of inflicting violence is that so often one thinks that it is violence that reveals God. Jesus is telling us that we need to make a 180-degree turn to see God. An oppressive social order where some people are perpetual victims is not a God-given order. As Matthew 25 show us clearly, God is seen only in the victims of such a social order. Others turn to the social chaos of social upheaval, proclaiming that God is in the violence. But in Mark, Jesus makes it clear that God has nothing to do with the violence. The designated disrupter of the social order is the one believed to be designated by God for death or exile. In Isaiah, the people thought that the “Suffering Servant” was “stricken by God.” (Is. 53: 4) Mark tells us at the end of the Gospel that God is seen in a man dying in agony and despair on a cross. Keeping our attention fixed there will be our only defense before the powerful, which isn’t much of a defense. But it is the only way we can point to God in a world that is falling apart. Any other way will leave us with not one stone left upon another.

For introductory essays on René Girard, see:

Violence and the Kingdom of God

Living Stones in the House of the Forgiving Victim

Living with our Shared Desires

On Not Offending the Vulnerable—Or Anybody Else

Jesus’ suggestions that we cut off a hand or a foot or tear out an eye are so shocking that we are pulled away from the previous verse where Jesus mildly says that “whoever is not against us is for us” and that anyone who gives a cup of water will be rewarded. (Mk. 9: 41) It is worth noting that a great many sayings and parables of Jesus take us out of our comfort zones. This particular hard saying takes the cake, a rock hard bad tasting cake at that. The standard way for a preacher to wriggle out of these hard sayings is to say that they are “hebraisms,” that is to say, hyperboles to get our attention. Maybe so, but let’s allow these verses to get our attention and see where they take us.

We get some help from the broader context of these sayings. Earlier in Mark 9, read as last week’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that he will be “betrayed into human hands” and killed. The disciples respond to this warning by fighting about who is the greatest. Jesus responds to this infighting by putting a child among the disciples and saying that whoever welcomes this child welcomes him and the one who sent him. (Mk. 9: 37)

In this context, we can see that the disciples’ complaint about the person who is not “one of us” casting out demons is a renewal of the competitiveness on the part of the disciples. Casting out demons is something Jesus has told the disciples to do and now this other person is doing it. What’s the problem? Maybe the problem is that the disciples had just failed to exorcize a demon as Jesus was coming down from the mountain and they are jealous. Jesus gently rebukes them for their competitiveness by saying that anyone who is not against him is for him. The disciples aren’t the only show in town. Then Jesus echoes his commendation of the child by saying that whoever offers anyone a cup of water will be rewarded. That is, thinking about the needs of others, especially the most vulnerable, and doing something about it, leaves no room for competition.

Then come the hard sayings. Jesus warns the disciples (and us) about putting stumbling blocks before these little ones: the child in the midst of the disciples, the one who should be given a cup of water. It is precisely the competitive behavior that scandalizes the little ones, leading them to copy the behavior modeled by those larger and more powerful than they. Children playing cowboys and Indians, as in my day, or with GI Joe or Ninja toys more recently, may be cute, but aren’t they mimicking their elders too closely for comfort? When children see their elders fighting over who is the greatest, is it any wonder they do the same? The notion that it is better to be hurled into the sea with a millstone around the neck than to scandalize the little ones should make one think. It is worth noting that throwing people off of cliffs was a popular means of sacrificing. Being willing to cut off a hand or leg or gouge out an eye rather than scandalize a little one is drastic, but it makes it urgent that we sacrifice our competitiveness rather than scandalize the vulnerable. Indeed, lacking a limb or an eye (remember Odin?) causes one to be a “random” victim of sacrifice. Moreover, dismemberment is also a common method of sacrifice. (Remember Prajapati?) Of course, it would be simpler and less drastic to offer a cup of water, but if competitiveness through what René Girard called “mimetic rivalry” is a powerful addiction, as Girard suggested, our hands and feet are too caught up in rivalry to make even so simple a gesture.

This brings us to hell where the worm never dies and the fire never quenched. (Mk. 9: 48) It would indeed be better to have one hand rather than two that burn in hell for all eternity. But that isn’t what Jesus is talking about here. The word he uses is “Gehenna,” which means something different. Some scholars think it was a large garbage dump outside Jerusalem whose flames never stopped smouldering. More to the point, Gehenna was the valley where Jeremiah claimed that children were sacrificed to the pagan deities. It does seem fitting that such a cursed place would be turned into a refuse heap. Gehenna, then, is where our rivalrous battles end: a place where the vulnerable are sacrificed to fuel our battles. Maybe Jesus’ words about cutting off limbs is hyperbole, a set of “hebraisms,” but they are warning us of the consequences of our rivalrous ways. One of the clearest symptoms of mimetic rivalry is the sharp divide between us and them, a divide the contending disciples tried to make between themselves and the other person who exorcized people.

Jesus concludes his teaching by referring to salt. Salt was added to sacrifices by both Jews and Romans, but as in the use of the image in Matthew and Luke, salt refers to an inner quality, perhaps a willingness to sacrifice self rather than others. This willingness to sacrifice self is of great value and losing it would be much worse than losing an arm or a leg. Jesus tells us that the greatest value of the inner salt is to “be at peace with one another.” (Mk. 9: 49) Being at peace allows for offering a cup of water to one who has need of it, and such giving creates more peace. Indeed, Jesus himself gave up much more than a hand or a foot; he gave up his life to deliver us from the Gehenna of our own making.

The Real War

The tension that causes problems for me in Joshua is stated succinctly in the words of the people when Joshua challenges them to decide firmly whether they will serve Yahweh or other gods. The people promise to serve the God “who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed.” (Josh. 24: 17) So far, so good. Yahweh is the only god I know of who is interested in delivering people out of slavery and oppression. But the people go on to praise their god for driving out the Amorites before them. Destroying enemies was the job of other deities such as the gods of the Amorites. If Yahweh really is the God who delivers the oppressed from the oppressor, than Yahweh can hardly be the god who oppresses one people for the benefit of the other. Who is the real God of Israel?

In giving us a qualitatively different view of war in Ephesians 6, St. Paul lands heavily on the side of the God who delivered the people from Egypt. Paul admonishes us to “put on the whole armor of God,” not to go out and destroy other people but to fight “the cosmic powers of this present darkness.” (Eph. 6: 12) What is this armor? What are these cosmic powers? The armor includes the “belt of truth” and “the breastplate of righteousness.” One can hardly do an effective job of invading somebody’s country with such items. Still less could we do such a thing with shoes that make us “ready to proclaim the gospel of peace .” The enemies to be fought, then, are the forces of lies and unrighteousness, the sort that are best fought with truth and righteousness. The God who brought the Israelites out of Egypt would arm us with this kind of armor for this kind of battle. Perhaps the cosmic powers should not be reduced to systemic lies and unrighteousness in human societies but it certainly includes them. That is, God would have us fight today’s systems that emulate Egypt by institutionalizing oppression for some people such as institutionalized racism in our country. The helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit would not be used for cutting up other people, but for preaching the Gospel of peace in the face of such violence. Pharaoh and Egypt understand metal swords and bombs very well. What Pharaoh and Egypt do not understand is the Word of God that is “sharper than any two-edged sword,” “a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (Heb. 4: 12) It is the God of this Word whom we must choose, not the gods of the Amorites.

The enigmatic words at the end of John 6 might seem to be on a totally different subject, but they develop the same line of thought as Ephesians 6 in a distant key. Jesus’ words of eating and drinking seem pleasant until we realize Jesus is talking about offering himself as the bread and wine which is eaten and drunk. His use of the Greek word trogein has strong connotations of feeding upon, of grinding the food with one’s teeth. All of this brings to the forefront the violence involved in eating, that living things are devoured so that the one who eats can live. The Eucharistic overtones in the references to the Body and Blood of Christ also bring front and center the Paschal Mystery of Jesus who was killed on the Cross and then raised from the dead. What Jesus did on the cross was to absorb the human violence committed by Pharaoh and all others like him to open up a whole new humanity that does not need to live on such violence. The shield of faith is based on this self-giving of Jesus.

Feeding on Jesus absorbs the violence of eating in such a way that it becomes non-violent. The Eucharist redefines sacrifice from a bloody and deadly rite to a bloodless life-giving rite. Earlier in John 6, Jesus has set us up for this sort of nourishment by bringing in the Jewish teaching that the bread from heaven in the wilderness is the Torah. That is, the Word of God feeds us. We also speak of being fed when a preacher speaks the word of God in such a way that listeners feel nourished by it. The past few months I have often been reflecting on what the heavenly banquet might be like. I imagine lots of lobster and caramel cake but lobsters and plants are harmed in serving up this kind of menu and surely there is no room for the sacrifice of living creatures in heaven. But if all of us offer the substance of our personalities for the nourishment of others and receive the same from others, all modeled on Jesus’ offering the substance of his personhood to us, then that is quite a banquet indeed. Meanwhile, in this life, with the institutionalized violence surrounding us, fighting the good fight requires being strengthened by the Body and Blood of Jesus which comprise the material of the full armor of God. Jesus’ offer of himself was a challenge to his followers then and to followers today to decide whether to turn back to the gods of the Amorites, which most of the followers at that time did, or accept his offer of Life through his self-giving substance that leads us to offer our self-giving substance to others.

Transfiguration Present and to Come

The Transfiguration of Jesus is among the most inspiring and mysterious events in the New Testament. Not even exorcizing fierce demons and feeding multitudes of people could have prepared the disciples Peter, James, and John for seeing Jesus suddenly become blindingly bright. For the disciples, it was quite a “mountaintop” experience, one they wished to prolong indefinitely. We can sense the giddiness of Peter when he suggested making three booths for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah so that they would have places to live while staying on the mountain for some time. Of course, mountaintop experiences don’t last long and this one was over almost as soon as the disciples realized it was happening.

However, this mountaintop experience has its darker aspects as well. Moses and Elijah spoke to Jesus “of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” This departure was not a business trip or a vacation, but the painful death he was about to suffer. The disciples seemed to brush the matter off, not wanting to spoil the mountaintop experience and when Jesus told his disciples what was going to happen in Jerusalem as soon as they come down from the mountain, they brushed it off again. Like the disciples, we usually prefer not to face the darkness of pain and death until we have to.

But the darkness of pain and death is not all grim. That is precisely what the Transfiguration teaches us. The darkness is surrounded by dazzling brightness that, like the “weight of glory” Paul writes about, is beyond compare with the darkness. First, there is the true brightness with which we are all created. We do not normally perceive this brightness, but the more loving attention we give to the world and the people around us, the more of this brightness we will glimpse and the more the brightness will seep deeply into our selves. More important is the transfigured brightness that is in store for us on the other side of death when we will live with God who created us out of God’s brightness.

The transfigured light of Jesus was closely associated with his death and with us, too, it is most often glimpsed when death is close. I have just recently returned from visiting my brother who is dying. Words spoken in such a situation are weighty to an extent rarely experienced at any other time. As my brother and I shared memories, they all appeared in a new light, a transfigured light, that was palpable; I felt we were on holy ground while sitting in a room in a hospice facility.

On the mountain, the disciples heard a heavenly voice singling Jesus out for special approbation. In his second epistle, Peter says the voice called Jesus his beloved Son. In Luke, the voice says that Jesus was chosen. The two are not exact synonyms but they come close. Jesus is chosen because he is loved; Jesus is loved, therefore he is chosen. The transfigured Jesus in his turn chooses and loves each one of us by comforting us in times of pain and loss and encouraging us to yearn for the deepening light to come.

On Giving Everything

“You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mk. 10: 21) These words of Jesus to the rich young man who says he wants to follow Jesus haunt us so powerfully that we all squirm and look for loopholes. Since few people have followed this advice literally, not even people who say they take the Bible literally, I guess I could say most of us have found at least one. My New Testament professor in seminary said that these words mean that we have to give up whatever it is that comes between us and the Kingdom of God That is pretty common loophole, but it also has much insight and doesn’t leave us off the hook altogether. As a Benedictine monk, I could self-righteously claim to have followed Jesus’ words since I have no legal title to anything, but the monastery I live in has possessions so I’m not so sure I follow Jesus’ words so thoroughly that I can look down on other people. On St. Benedict’s day, I think we can get a better idea of what Jesus’ words say us and how Benedict would have us understand them by looking at the other two lections for guidance.

Benedict models much of the Rule on the Bible’s Wisdom literature, especially Proverbs, often quoting or paraphrasing it, as in the admonition to apply the heart to understanding and call out for insight. (Prov. 2: 2–3) This suggests that understanding Jesus’ hard words requires commitment to know what they mean to us, no matter the cost. Speaking of cost, the Sage urges us to seek wisdom as we would for silver or hidden treasure. (Prov. 2: 4) The Sage seems to presuppose, as does Jesus, actually, that we tend to be greedy for riches and so the Sage and Jesus challenge us to desire wisdom at least as much as that. But why are silver and gold so desirable? They are desirable because they are desired. Other people want them so the rest of us want them too. Moreover, silver and gold are desired at the expense of other people. It isn’t enough to have some silver and gold; it is necessary to have more than the next person. Jesus, on the other hand, redirects us to the treasure in the field that is worth spending everything we have to obtain it. What kind of treasure is this? According to Proverbs, the treasure is “knowledge and understanding” (Prov. 2: 6). Any takers?

In writing to the Colossians, St. Paul would have us clothe ourselves with “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” (Col. 2: 12) As if this isn’t enough, and it isn’t, Paul goes on to tell us to bear with one another, and forgive as God forgives us. And as if that still isn’t enough, and it isn’t, Paul admonishes us to clothe ourselves with love “which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Col. 3: 14) Maybe that’s enough, but clothing ourselves with love takes all that we’ve got, or the cloak of love will be threadbare and cold. In any case, clothing ourselves in love leads us to “admonish one another in all wisdom,” which we are to treasure more than silver or gold. Wisdom is shown here to be a social quest, not an individual quest. We either grow in wisdom together, or we diminish into a bunch of fools. Rather than wanting more than others have, we value the well-being of others, even if it is at the expense of ourselves. Singing spiritual songs with gratitude is something Benedict expects his monastics to do all day. The Work of God (the Divine Office) is itself a great treasure, one that should be preferred above other treasures. To top all this off, we should “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col. 3: 17) Once again, we have to give all that we’ve got. That’s all Jesus is asking of the rich young man and that’s all Jesus is asking of us. Sorry, no loopholes here.

The Weakness of God (2)

The brief account of Jesus’ Resurrection that ends Mark’s Gospel has puzzled readers since the Gospel was written, judging by the two additions tacked on to it. Why would the inventor of the Gospel as a literary genre end the narrative with the women running from the tomb, frightened out of their wits? In a time when uncertain endings to literary works have been in vogue for over a century, we seem more able and willing to puzzle out the ending more sympathetically than earlier readers could. It also seems fitting that in another year when a pandemic has closed many churches from public worship and silenced the usual trumpets and choruses, we have a Gospel that discourages such celebrating.

In his provocative A Study in Mark, Austin Farrer suggests that the “young man” at the tomb telling the women to tell the disciples that Jesus is going before them to Galilee has a cyclical effect. Far from going in a circle, though, the return to Galilee and the beginning of Mark’s Gospel allows one to re-read everything in light of the Resurrection. With this insight, the ending isn’t quite the downer it seemed to be and maybe at least a muted trumpet can sound. It isn’t hard to see a foretaste of the Resurrection in the healing of the paralytic, one of Jesus’ earlier miracles. (Mk. 2: 1–12) The paralytic being lowered through the roof so that he can rise up on his feet, cured by Jesus, has the shape of Jesus’ descending to the grave and rising up. Many more foretastes of the Resurrection follow in subsequent healings and exorcisms with the raising of Jairus’s daughter being the climax. The two narratives of Jesus’ feeding a multitude suggest Jesus redeeming his own people and then redeeming the Gentiles, pointing to the mission that postdated the Resurrection.

This reading of the Resurrection into Mark works very well until we get roughly half way through the Gospel. This is where the power of Jesus turns into weakness, where Jesus fails to get his followers to understand him and, in the end, is nailed to the cross. Interestingly, Farrer didn’t try to read the Resurrection into the second half of the Gospel. One can see why. It’s hard to see the Resurrection in the misunderstandings and hostility that Jesus suffers. Before giving it up, though, let’s take a look to see if there are at least traces of the Resurrection in this less promising material. Since this is the point where Jesus had eschewed using authoritative power, perhaps this weakness has more to do with the Resurrection that we thought.

When Jesus predicted that he would be handed over and killed, he also said he would rise again. At the time, the disciples were too dismayed at the idea of Jesus being executed to think much about Jesus rising again. More seriously, the disciples react to Jesus’ predictions with fighting about who is the greatest. But when Jesus tells them that whoever would be first must be the servant of all (Mk. 9: 35) we have a glimpse of the resurrected life. Again, there isn’t any resurrection in the disciples’s trying to turn the children away, but we can see the resurrection when Jesus welcomes the children to come to him. We can begin to see the resurrected life as one of service in the midst of protracted misunderstandings and obtuse behavior.

What about the parable of the evil workers in the vineyard? This doesn’t look like Resurrection and it isn’t. But in the Parable, we have a distorted image of what the resurrected life should be like, where the owners and the workers all collaborate to yield a fruitful crop so that the multitudes of four and five thousand can be given food and drink. Surely there is no Resurrection when Jesus is nailed to the cross, but again, here is an inverted image of the risen life. Instead of a society uniting against a victim, as in the Passion narrative, the resurrected life is one where every individual is respected and nurtured as indispensable. And then, once again, a certain “young man” in an empty tomb sends us back to the beginning to try again.

These reflections suggest that weakness is fundamental to the resurrected life. Far from being about defeating others, it is about being defeated again and again. As we go through Mark’s story a third time, we see the acts of power and powerful admonitions to be the servant of all given out yet again to uncomprehending listeners. Perhaps we ourselves don’t understand very well and that is why we try yet again.

The Parable of the Sower (Mk. 4) is, among other things, a parable of the strengths and weaknesses of God. The Sower throws out the seed indiscriminately, not considering any place as unworthy of receiving it. For those who actually receive the seed, God can create a yield of thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold. What God apparently can’t do is make soil that rejects the seed yield much of anything, just as those who drive the children away or who gain up on the vineyard owner’s son don’t produce anything either.

But each time we re-live Mark’s Gospel, we can do the humble work of tilling the soil for ourselves and for others. This is what the resurrected life is about. This is a far cry from trumpets and joyous Easter hymns, but for those faced with people who act like workers in the vineyard, this can be the basis of hope. God is not finished with us yet. The risen Christ is right with us as we dig into the hard soil in ourselves and in others so that the soil will soften enough for the resurrected life to give yields of thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold for everybody.

The Weakness of God (1)

Singing the part of the crowd in St. Mark’s Passion on Palm Sunday as Jesus was mocked for saving others while he could not save himself really made me think about what I was singing. If Jesus could destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, then getting himself off the cross would be a cinch. And surely if Jesus was the Messiah, he could free himself of his predicament with no trouble. Such mockery hurts when one is reminded of one’s powerlessness. It hurts even more if Jesus did have the power but chose not to use it. Did Jesus have that power?

The Gospel of Mark starts out with Jesus casting out demons and curing serious illnesses right and left by exercising an authoritative power over both. At the climax of his ministry, Jesus feeds the crowds of four thousand and five thousand. Such exercises of power would suggest that Jesus did indeed have the power to bring himself down from the cross. If that is true, why did Jesus not do it? Let’s take another look at Jesus’ power.

Starting at roughly the midpoint of his Gospel, Mark switches from describing acts of authoritative power to stressing Jesus’ weakness. What kind of weakness? Not a weakness in healing or delivering or feeding, but a weakness in getting the crowds or even (or especially!) his disciples to understand what he was really about. Perhaps the acts of power were contributing to the misunderstanding. Right after Peter declared Jesus to be the Christ, Jesus explained that being the Christ meant being handed over to the chief priests and the scribes to be killed. Being the Christ meant denial of self and taking up one’s cross. This is a far cry from giving demons the boot. Jesus repeats his expectation of being handed over and killed two more times and the misunderstanding only gets worse. The disciples fight over who is the greatest and bargain for the best seats when Jesus comes into his glory. After a triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus does not perform more healings and exorcisms of the type he did in Galilee. Rather, Jesus seems to be trying a more fundamental exorcism of violence through parables such as that of the evil workers in the vineyard. Far from being exorcized, the Pharisees and chief priests only strengthen their resolve to commit the violence of killing Jesus.

It isn’t long before Jesus is hanging on the cross, dying. Do those mocking him really think Jesus has the power to shrug himself off the cross and use his power to send some lightning bolts against them to teach them a lesson? That is the sort of thing a real “god” would do, isn’t it? If the mockers really thought Jesus had this power, they probably would not have been quite so bold in mocking him. They see Jesus as weak, even crying out in anguish over being forsaken, so obviously Jesus is not the Messiah, not the Son of God or anything of the sort. If anybody is mighty and powerful, it’s God. But Mark’s Gospel has shown that acts of power do not bring on the kingship of God. What about weakness, weakness even unto death on a cross? Will Jesus’ death in weakness bring anything about?

Epiphany

Epiphany traditionally celebrates the universal dimensions of the coming of the Christ Child.

One of the most universal ways God is seen is through nature. However, nature in the past has often been mistaken for God, either by natural beings being worshiped as God or by nature as a whole taken to be God.

God has also been seen through moral introspection, where the yearning of the human will towards some sense of goodness has been taken to be inspired by a Supreme Being. Unfortunately, wrong and destructive actions obscure any sense of cosmic truth.

Sacrifices were also universal in early human cultures. These sacrifices were not normally considered revelatory as far as I can tell, but they did create contact with the deities.

Suspicions that sacrificial rites might be obscuring the truth of God appeared in many cultures, not least among the Jewish people whose prophets argued that both the sacrifices and even more injustice to society’s victims hid God from view.

Then there are those four odd documents that suggest that God has appeared in the form of a human being by actually being a human being. This person was born in obscurity, was not welcomed by the people, and died an ignominious death. While alive, this person was known to suggest that God can be seen in the lost, the rejected, and the forgotten.

Immanuel—God is With Us

When the angel assured Joseph that Mary’s child was conceived from the Holy Spirit, the angel said the child’s name was to be Jesus. Matthew follows this with a quote from Isaiah’s prophecy that a young woman was about to conceive and bear a son who would be called Immanuel. (Mt. 1: 21–22; Is. 7: 14)

So it is that two names are given to the Christ Child, The name Jesus means: “Yahweh Saves.” As the angel said, the child is going to save his people from their sins. (Mt. 1: 20) The name Immanuel means “God is with us.” One name refers to what Jesus does, the other refers to what Jesus is.

Of the two names, it is Immanuel, God-is-with-us, that I want to reflect on in this Christmas reflection. There is an old theological conundrum: Would God have become incarnate if humanity had not fallen into sin? In one respect, the question is mute because humanity did fall into sin and so the Incarnation was a rescue mission. Many theologians leave it at that. But there are some theologians, who suggest that the Incarnation was not a Plan B but was Plan A all along. God was going to take on human nature no matter what. Ever since hearing this line of thought, I have been intrigued by it. I like to think that God did not need to have a desperate predicament on humanity’s part as a reason to come and be with us. Rather, God is the sort of God who wants to be with us. Period.

Let’s say there is a family that has an Aunt Polly who comes to visit from time to time. Aunt Polly is a very competent person who is always ready and willing to help out. So, if there should be any problems in the family at the time of her visit, she will help solve them or at least make them better. But does she come just because there are problems to solve? Clearly Aunt Polly comes to visit because she simply wants to be with the family. If there are no problems to work out, so much the better. If Aunt Polly is motivated by sheer fellowship to visit her family, then surely God is motivated by fellowship to come and visit God’s people. Shouldn’t we take both comfort and delight that God wants to be with us?

The name Immanuel reminds us of the ultimate aim of creation; namely fellowship with God. Redemption is the means to that end once humanity had fallen into sin. Since God was willing to die on a cross to open up the resurrected life to us, it follows that God cares about us very much. So surely God cares enough to want to be with us without needing us to go bad to get God’s attention. If God were Superman, would God have a life if all the bad guys repented?

We might think we are not worthy of God’s presence, and we aren’t, but God thinks we are. Christmas is a good time to reflect on this truth. Before Jesus does anything in particular to save us, Jesus rests in the arms of his mother and feeds at her breast. All Jesus is doing is being with us. Let us do the same and spend time just being with God.