Mark 6:53-56 – They Recognised Him

We continue our lectio by praying with the next few verses of Mark’s Gospel…

MARK 6:53-56


The extraordinary events which have taken place on the water and the disciples incredulity is immediately left behind when the little boat reaches the far side, at Gennesaret, and ties up.  These few verses, while in themselves providing just a simple narrative conclusion to the larger section and a link to the next section, still invite us with a serious question: the people who were waiting there  on the other side recognised Jesus and responded.  We are confronted in no less a way – recognition and action

How on earth did these people recognise Jesus?  No images disseminating, no social media, no Facebook, no Instagram ….  And yet, they recognise him.  In other words, they know him, in some way.  Recognition brings with it the implication that tell-tale signs are present and, seen and interpreted, lead to conclusions which indicate that this is the person who fits the description.  In fact, we are never really told what Jesus looks like.  There is no pen-portrait which provides a visual guide to his appearance, his height, build, distinguishing features, hair colour….  These are considered, in a way, unimportant for the evangelist.  Jesus is recognised – known – in some other way.

It has always been considered that the burial cloth known as The Shroud of Turin and accepted by so many as Christ’s burial cloth gives an astonishing testimony to a man and his death.  It seems to speak both eloquently and mysteriously about a reality which still defies exhaustive explanation and, for the faithful, invites a step beyond the need for a final piece of evidence which will convince.  Benedict XVI, visiting the Shroud in Turin in 2010, had this to say:

“One could say that the Shroud is the Icon of this mystery, the Icon of Holy Saturday. Indeed it is a winding-sheet that was wrapped round the body of a man who was crucified, corresponding in every way to what the Gospels tell us of Jesus who, crucified at about noon, died at about three o’clock in the afternoon. At nightfall, since it was Parasceve, that is, the eve of Holy Saturday, Joseph of Arimathea, a rich and authoritative member of the Sanhedrin, courageously asked Pontius Pilate for permission to bury Jesus in his new tomb which he had had hewn out in the rock not far from Golgotha. Having obtained permission, he bought a linen cloth, and after Jesus was taken down from the Cross, wrapped him in that shroud and buried him in that tomb (cf. Mk 15: 42-46).

This is what the Gospel of St Mark says and the other Evangelists are in agreement with him. From that moment, Jesus remained in the tomb until dawn of the day after the Sabbath and the Turin Shroud presents to us an image of how his body lay in the tomb during that period which was chronologically brief (about a day and a half), but immense, infinite in its value and in its significance.

This is the power of the Shroud: from the face of this “Man of sorrows”, who carries with him the passion of man of every time and every place, our passions too, our sufferings, our difficulties and our sins Passio Christi. Passio hominis from this face a solemn majesty shines, a paradoxical lordship. This face, these hands and these feet, this side, this whole body speaks. It is itself a word we can hear in the silence. How does the Shroud speak? It speaks with blood, and blood is life! The Shroud is an Icon written in blood; the blood of a man who was scourged, crowned with thorns, crucified and whose right side was pierced. The Image impressed upon the Shroud is that of a dead man, but the blood speaks of his life. Every trace of blood speaks of love and of life. Especially that huge stain near his rib, made by the blood and water that flowed copiously from a great wound inflicted by the tip of a Roman spear. That blood and that water speak of life. It is like a spring that murmurs in the silence, and we can hear it, we can listen to it in the silence of Holy Saturday.” 

Benedict XVI, Meditation before the Shroud, 2nd May 2010

The Shroud carries images which are unique and striking.  A man, shortly after what appears to been a very violent agony and death, given to us both from front and back, covered in a plethora of wounds.There is barely a square inch of the man’s body – torso, head, legs or arms – which does not bear a witness to incredible barbarity and suffering.  The images of the Shroud speak – they tell us about a man and how he died.  And much of what we see there is suggested by the words of the Gospels and the tradition of the Church and believers concerning Christ’s death.  Still, as far as we know, how the image came to be imprinted in its extraordinary fashion cannot properly be ascertained, save that an incredible burst of energy left the imprint – astounding in its details – of the dead man’s corpse and features on the cloth.  Attempts have been made, according to what some think methods used in the Middle Ages, to simulate the Shroud image, but only very scant mimicry has been all that was possible.  

So, who might we recognise here, on this ancient cloth, now more likely than ever thought to date from Jesus’ day?  The recognition of features is useless – we have no authoritative likeness of Jesus’ face.  And yet recognition here is based on something else – an awareness of the mystery of his passion, death and resurrection.  For those who accept these truths of faith the Shroud can be a wonderful aid to meditation and encounter with Christ who died and rose for our salvation.

And this touches the very centre of our recognition of Jesus, and more than that, the Jesus whom we are invited to come to know.  As with any person, to come to know someone means and implies a privileged sharing in a person’s life which allows us a deeper insight into their personality.  To know Jesus, as those in the Gospels knew him, brings us to a new level of encounter.

We can say, for certain, that those whom we have met so far in Mark’s narrative and who have experienced the authoritative exercise of Jesus’ power and mercy in their lives, have come to know him really.  This is, indeed, an important aspect of the accounts of the miraculous healings and feeding which we have seen so far.  These people – sick, possessed, withered, rejected, helpless, lifeless, shunned and despised – have all drawn close to Jesus and, by him, have been drawn indescribably closer.  He has entered into their lives in an entirely unheard of way, and transformed them in a way which they could never have imagined.  They know him as one who has saved them, and all of this within the context of the exercise of faith.  And so it is no mistake that the evangelist tells us about all of the many sick who are brought to him, from all around, hoping even to touch the fringe of his cloak – because that meeting, that encounter, will ultimately allow them to know this Jesus for who he is.

If we want to come to know Jesus, at some point in our lives we must respond to the invitation of grace to give ourselves over entirely to him for the healing which we all both desire and need.  And that real conversion, real turning to him, must be complete and exhaustive – we are not asking him simply for some little need: we are asking Jesus for the restoration of our real lives, lives born of the truth and the Holy Spirit.

Two passages remain definitive in our journey to recognise Jesus in our midst and so come to know him through our brothers and sisters.  The first is that passage which we know as the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12).  In these verses, which give the very heart of the Gospel message in the most serene way, two things are given us.  Firstly, we could say that Matthew offers us a pen portrait of Jesus: each of these marks can be said to be realised perfectly in him – he is utterly and absolutely all of them!  But it is when we meet them in our brothers and sisters, and even coming to life in ourselves, that Jesus is to be noticed and welcomed.  Blessed Guerric of Igny, remarking on the two comings of Christ, in the Incarnation and at the end of time, notes also that there is a third coming which takes place when Christ is formed in us when we live the life of virtue, a life lived shaped by these two passages:

“And so we are right in saying that between the form of the flesh and the form of the Word, like a bridge between the two, another form can be distinguished in Christ, spiritual in its nature yet showing itself clearly in the flesh; the form, that is to say, of the life he lived in his body in order to convey his message to those who were to believe in him.  And when Christ has been formed in us according to this form, according to the pattern of virtuous life he manifested in his own person, then we shall be capable of seeing not only the form which has been formed for us but even that which formed us.

Yes.  Christ has taken one form in the flesh; shows another in his conduct; is begotten from eternity in a third by way of knowledge.  He is our brother according to the flesh, our teacher by his conduct, our God by his generation as the Word.  He accepted his fleshly form to accomplish the mystery of our salvation; he manifests himself in his life as our example; he will reveal himself as the eternally begotten as our reward.  Then even to look upon his bodily form upon which the angels desire to gaze will not be the least part of our glory.  And the man who will be so blessed is he who in this present life has become a lover of the form which is proposed as our example, for the man who seeks to pry into that other form which is stored up for us as our reward will be dazzled by the brightness.

The Gospel is sent to us from there (Jerusalem), in which a more beautiful portrait of Christ has been revealed; the form, that is, of life and doctrine which he has passed on by his teaching and shown in his person by his example.

To know Christ now in this form is loving service for Christians; to know him in the form of flesh was scandal to the Jews; to know the divine form is the complete happiness and joy of the angels.” 

Guerric of Igny, Sermon 52

What a beautiful invitation for us who wish to come always to a deeper knowledge of Christ by seeing him, welcoming him, adoring him present by the virtuous life of the Gospel which can be ours!

The second passage is framed in exactly the same way, and occurs towards the end of Matthew’s Gospel.  Known as the Parable of the Last Judgement (Matthew 25:31-46) it also gives a stirring call to arms for those who would live discipleship of Jesus perfectly by embracing a life of virtue and service.  Again, this is a coin with two faces: Matthew is presenting a portrait of Jesus in each of the persons outlined; but perhaps even more striking we are called to see him and come to know him, embrace him, in each of the categories which Matthew presents.  Each of these people – hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, imprisoned – taken both as literal categories of persons but also as those who in any way can be said to be marked by these characteristics, incarnates the Jesus who keeps coming into our midst, who is never lost from our gaze and presence, who is touching the fringe of my clothes so that I might turn round, notice him, recognise him and, in the compassion and mercy which means that God is living in me, reach out and come to know him.

Concerning this passage, and launching the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis wrote:

“We cannot escape the Lord’s words to us, and they will serve as the criteria upon which we will be judged: whether we have fed the hungry and given drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger and clothed the naked, or spent time with the sick and those in prison (cf. Mt 25:31-45). Moreover, we will be asked if we have helped others to escape the doubt that causes them to fall into despair and which is often a source of loneliness; if we have helped to overcome the ignorance in which millions of people live, especially children deprived of the necessary means to free them from the bonds of poverty; if we have been close to the lonely and afflicted; if we have forgiven those who have offended us and have rejected all forms of anger and hate that lead to violence; if we have had the kind of patience God shows, who is so patient with us; and if we have commended our brothers and sisters to the Lord in prayer. In each of these “little ones,” Christ himself is present. His flesh becomes visible in the flesh of the tortured, the crushed, the scourged, the malnourished, and the exiled… to be acknowledged, touched, and cared for by us. Let us not forget the words of Saint John of the Cross: “as we prepare to leave this life, we will be judged on the basis of love”

Francis, Bull of Indiction Misericordiae Vultus

And in the paragraph before this the Holy Father indicates that these works – the corporal works of mercy, and the spiritual ones also which complement them – should be woven into the very fabric of our lives, becoming the ordinary manner of our behaviour:

“It is my burning desire that, during this Jubilee, the Christian people may reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. It will be a way to reawaken our conscience, too often grown dull in the face of poverty. And let us enter more deeply into the heart of the Gospel where the poor have a special experience of God’s mercy. Jesus introduces us to these works of mercy in his preaching so that we can know whether or not we are living as his disciples. Let us rediscover these corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead. And let us not forget the spiritual works of mercy: to counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish sinners, comfort the afflicted, forgive offences, bear patiently those who do us ill, and pray for the living and the dead.” 

Francis, Bull of Indiction Misericordiae Vultus

It should come as no surprise that the Cistercian Fathers knew precisely how to seek a certain union with Christ, specifically in our own experience of suffering, and in the communion which we can share by bringing our sufferings to Christ’s.  Commenting on a verse in the Song of Songs (Song 2:14) – that exquisite wedding song expressing ineffable love between spouses and taken as the song of love sung between Christ and the Soul – Guerric of Igny says this:

“Blessed is he who, in order that I might be able to build a nest in the clefts of the rock, allowed his hands, feet and side to be pierced and opened himself to me wholly that I might enter “the place of his wonderful tent” and be protected in its recesses.  These clefts, so many open wounds over all his body, offer pardon to the guilty and bestow grace on the just.  Indeed, it is a safe dwelling place, my brethren, and a tower of strength in the face of the enemy, to linger in the wounds of Christ, the Lord, by devout and constant meditation.  By faith in the Crucified and love of him a man keeps his soul safe from the heat of the flesh, from the turmoil of the world, from the attacks of the devil.

Go into the rock, then, man; hide in the dug ground.  Make the Crucified your hiding place.  He is the rock, he is the ground, he who is God and man.  He is the cleft rock, the dug ground, for “they have dug my hands and my feet.”  Hide in the dug ground from the fear of the Lord, that is, from him fly to him, from the Judge to the Redeemer, from the tribunal to the Cross, from the Just One to the Merciful, from him who will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth to him who inebriates the earth with the drops of his blood, from him who will kill the godless with the breath of his lips to him who with the blood of his wounds gives life to the dead.

Rather do not fly only to him but into him, go into the clefts of the rock, hide in the dug ground, hide yourself in the very hands that were cleft, in the side that was dug.

Rightly then the dove of Christ, Christ’s fair one, for whom his wounds have provided clefts so safe, so good for the building of a nest, sings his praises everywhere today with rejoicing.  Now you, my brethren, have built your nests the more deeply within the clefts of the rock the more secretly you live in Christ and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”                                                                         

Guerric of Igny, Sermon 32

How to recognise him and know him? St  Luke, toward the close of his Gospel, gives a remarkable account of the Risen Jesus’ joining two disciples as they flee Jerusalem, Clopas and his friend.  The road to Emmaus has been made famous by their few hours spent in Jesus’ company.  Like so many, they did not know who this stranger was, despite the fact that they are quite deliberately referred to as believers.  What stopped them from seeing Jesus right there with them?  Were they expecting something else, a different sort of Jesus to be with them?  Had they entirely forgotten his explicit teaching about his own death and resurrection?

Over the course of the encounter two very important aspects shape the entire story.  Jesus chooses to reveal himself to the two disciples in their hearing him relate the words of Sacred Scripture to them, and its relevance to the death and resurrection of the Messiah, namely himself.  Secondly, the great moment of realisation on the part of the two disciples comes when Jesus breaks bread for them and with them – in that sublime eucharistic moment, when he takes the bread, says the blessing, breaks it and hands it to them, all doubt, all blindness, is removed from them, and most especially from their frightened hearts, and they see him – they know him, really,  by their experience of him.  The disciples, overwhelmed by all this, exclaim:

“Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?” 

Luke 24:32

Perhaps it is already in the most obvious moments and places which we have taken for granted for so long that Christ waits to be known, and above all, in the sacramental life which is given to us.  If we cannot come to know Jesus in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and in the Eucharist, the supreme gift of his Body and Blood, then all our other searching will be in vain and pointless.  Even the Word of God will dry up for us if it is not celebrated and welcomed in the context of a life of grace: our blindness can stifle the work of salvation and keep Christ at a distance.

Of course, this is the very point of these few verses in Mark’s Gospel with which we pray now.  Who was it that the crowds recognised?  There is no suggestion in the passage that they know Jesus as Son of God or Messiah – no acclamation, no profession of faith, no shouting out which might betray a true realisation.  They have come to know him as a man – a very powerful man – who exercises an authority the source of which cannot be verified, but which exudes a power which heals.  And there’s a sense in Mark that this is widespread – villages, towns, farms, all over the countryside and wherever he goes (and this passage is not just about the little space on the shore where Jeswus has alighted from the boat).  But the disappointing, weary words which closed the last passage still apply – their minds were closed.

Do we see Jesus in our lives?  Do we recognise him as someone who makes a difference to our lives?  More than this, can I say that I know him and acknowledge him as Son of God, Second Person of the Trinity, Redeemer and Saviour?  If our lives and belief depend always on the last little piece of proof being put in place, a last piece of the jigsaw when we can already see the entire picture before us, then nothing will really convince us.  Faith will have been in vain, hope will lose its taste, and charity will have no purpose except philanthropy.

-Part of our continuous lectio divina on the Gospel According to Mark-

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