We continue our lectio by praying with the next few verses of Mark’s Gospel…
Just a few verses, but so much comes into our prayer as Christ asks us to reflect with him on the value of signs in our lives.
The Pharisees are really not very happy people! Almost nothing satisfies them and they continually hanker after something more. It’s a way of life and an outlook on life which is doomed to be characterized by perennial disappointment. More than that, it lacks the wonder and awe which is the mark of those who know that they have the possibility of encountering mystery at every moment. An awareness and anticipation of mystery – for the follower of Christ, of course, God’s presence as mystery – invites us to walk through life with our eyes and ears open in expectation: every moment becomes a pregnant revelation, a theophany, a God-glance in which he looks at us and asks us to do the same to him.
Thus, the infantile demand for a sign from heaven can easily be understood to produce Jesus’ reaction. Heaven has already broken into their reality and lives, in the Christ who stands before them. Their lives are brimming with signs – and confirmations – that God is not a half-measure God, but is fully involved.
This extraordinary poem – In No Strange Land, and sometimes known as The Kingdom of God – is by the English poet Francis Thompson, best known, perhaps, for his long poetic reflection The Hound of Heaven. Thompson’s enormous tragedy was the collapse of his own life, destitute at this stage, and an opium addict, but united to all that suffering the eye and ear and heart which knew God present – Thompson, as one who is witness to his own mystery-encounter speaks and writes and witnesses as a mystic. The poem goes to the centre of the experience of the always immanent God, a God who reveals himself in the very concrete experience of our lives and who inhabits, in a way, all that we encounter. This is God who delights in revealing himself, who belongs in our present day and moment. Thompson’s references to London places – Charing Cross and the Thames River – are not arbitrary: these were places where he himself eked out his miserable life for the first three years of living in that metropolis, and where he slept among other addicts and homeless.
Thompson, as did his contemporary Gerard Manley Hopkins, marvels at the presence of God, startling yet unmarked, in the very place that we inhabit, and more than that – his calling to attention the example of fish and eagle and even angel are to say to us that they know and accept and rejoice in their natural domain – they live it to the full and it allows them to live their lives fully. And for humankind our natural “domain” is to live and thrive in the presence of God – he is the place in which we spend our lives.
For Thompson that domain of God’s presence was, at that moment, the pitiable existence in those places in London. And he leaves us in no doubt by planting in our midst Jacob’s vision of the ladder stretching between heaven and earth (Genesis 28:10-22). As Jacob, in his dream, sees this stairway reaching up, with the angels of God going up and down, he hears God, standing over him, and who says: “Be sure that I am with you.”
“Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Truly, the Lord God is in this place and I never knew it!’ He was afraid and he said, ‘How awe-inspiring this place is and I never knew it! This is nothing less than a house of God; this is the gate of heaven!’”Genesis 28:15-17
To see everything as a place which touches us so deeply that we feel awe in the presence of God; that we see everything as the place of God’s dwelling; that every encounter with the divine-touched nature which surrounds us is already the gate of heaven! Thompson could and did see it.
Return, then, at this moment, having considered the above, to the Pharisees demand for a sign from heaven. In the context of this Gospel, there has been no shortage of signs – Mark emphasises this by placing the encounter with the Pharisees between the second miracle of the loaves and Jesus’ admonishing of the disciples who, like the Pharisees in fact, are unable to grasp the significance of the signs which he has given. The signs are not, of course, mere pointers; they do not simply indicate; they are not markers along a way. The signs are already the new reality.
What do we mean by this? The Pharisees are asking for something which will give an indication that the God whom they recognise as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – a God who is very much part of their history but not immediately knowable – is with Jesus. In other words, that this God is the origin of all that Jesus does and says. So, the nature of their sign, the type of sign that they demand, is already a flawed thing. They want something which points away, to the God who, after a fashion, is still a distant God – and that is, by and large, the God whom they prefer to know. If such a God is their God, then he will remain, so to speak, in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem, and they can continue to promote that which he has given them – the Law – by their own teaching and example. In this sense we come close again to what Jesus criticises most in the lives of the Pharisees – a lip service instead of the integrity of a life lived in holiness, a life which has been overtaken by God’s presence, which has surrendered to the insistent and incessant invitation which God makes to them to walk with him.
The sign is screaming at them! It is Jesus himself, the reality of God’s presence.
The reality is, indeed, the Kingdom of God made present in Jesus and in his work and words. Such a parallel will assume its finest presentation in the Gospel of John – really, the Gospel which most completely gives us the teaching on and through signs. For John, the signs are the miracles which Christ performs – and he needs to recount very few of them, in fact, to make his point – the signs make present; they bring about a new reality; they alter the present experience of God, transforming it into a true experience and encounter. We can bear this in mind in the Synoptic Gospels also – the signs/miracles specifically bring about the presence of the kingdom, which is truly and fully present in the person of Jesus Christ. Now perhaps we can see the short-sightedness of the Pharisees’ demand for sign. Or perhaps more precise than short-sightedness – blindness.
Jesus’ disappointment at the demands being made by an unaccepting generation is communicated to us by his sighing: the rather poor translation in the Jerusalem Bible tells us that the sigh “came straight from the heart”. In fact, the Greek leaves us in no doubt about this sigh – it tells us that Jesus “groaned in the spirit”. This is the disappointment of God which confronts us – the very spirit of God groans. Something similar is offered to us by St Paul in his Letter to the Romans (8:26). Here, in teaching us that our weak prayer is not useless, Paul lets us know that it is the Spirit of God who prays in us:
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words (literally, “with unutterable groanings”)”.Romans 8:26
So, this sigh which Jesus makes is the Spirit, his own Spirit, the Spirit of love between him and the Father, being heard. It is always the Spirit which is the bond of communion and love, the Spirit which is ever-creative, always grace bearing, and here witness to God ignored. The Spirit is already present in the signs, and is, in a sense, the author of the signs which Jesus gives. His presence already indicates heaven sent grace.
Turning this passage toward ourselves, we have to confront the fact that Jesus, who transcends the bounds of time and who is always the yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8) is speaking about our own present generation. And lest we imagine that we are, in some way, separate from our brothers and sisters, we too are counted in “this generation”. We, too, are the ones who seek signs. It can be a common enough side step on our part to argue that we really don’t know where we’re headed in life and need some more direction from God to let us know where we should be going and what we should be doing. It is, perhaps, part of the prevarication which marks our age: many of us now draw back from making decisions which might bind us too definitively – most people baulk at the idea that they could give a commitment which would bind them for life!
It’s very easy to say that God has, in some way, proven deficient – he hasn’t given us the definitive signs which would smooth our path to decision making. But we seem to forget that God, unlike ourselves, never stops communicating with us – he is the one who keeps the lines of communication open when we allow them to close. A great part of this lost sense of communication and presence is the simple fact that we, perhaps more than ever, demand things on our own terms. This has far reaching consequences, in all our decision making, great and small, even to the point where we have decided that life, and death, are to be realities constructed by ourselves and predicated on our own terms. When that sort of narcissism frames our way of thinking and behaving, we don’t in fact need signs from God – we don’t need any signs at all!
With this said, because we who are in this lectio prayer are, in fact, serious followers of Christ who are seeking God, we should turn our attention to the signs present in our lives, how we interpret them, and how they both support our life in the Spirit and stretch us. Undoubtedly that famous phrase used by Vatican Council 2 should command our attention:
“To carry out such a task, the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other. We must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live, its explanations, its longings, and its often dramatic characteristics.”Gaudium et Spes 4
“Scrutinizing the signs of the times”. The Council brought forth this groundbreaking phrase, honing the attention of the Catholic world and presenting a challenge in her last document, the great pastoral constitution. However, it is a phrase commonly misunderstood and willfully misinterpreted. The Council did not intend that the Church should mark the rapid changes of the world around her and respond to these changes by ‘climbing on board’, as it were, allowing societal and political and economic change to do likewise with the Church and her teachings. On the contrary, the signs of the times indicating rapid change were to be read through the only absolutely guaranteed hermeneutic – the principal tool by which we make proper interpretation – which the Church possessed – the Gospel. This makes the demands of the Gospel and the practical living out of the Christian life that much more difficult – to continue to be a witness to the life-giving Gospel of Jesus Christ in the midst of hitherto unknown global change is the great task which is set before us.
The signs of the times are always a challenge to the Gospel, and the Gospel must always provide a challenge to these signs. Signs always indicate. They point to a reality, partly realised and yet waiting to be fully delivered. The signs of our own times, in terms of the human person’s relationship to the world, one’s neighbour, God and oneself, are very different, and no less difficult, than they were 50 years ago when the Council fathers promulgated Gaudium et Spes. But the Gospel has not changed, because the truth of the Gospel – Jesus Christ – does not change. In this sense, it can become misleading to respond to a difficult situation with the question “What would Jesus do here?” He asks us what we should do, having learned from him. That plants a faith response firmly in our laps.
For the Catholic, sign will always be associated with sacrament – the sign by which Christ makes present the fullness of his reality. There is always an invitation to us to keep reclaiming our personal experience of sacramental signs. It is not a matter, as Pope St Paul VI pointed out, of some sort of transignification (in this, he was speaking specifically of the mystery of transubstantiation in the Eucharist – Mysterium Fidei 11). The sacrament expresses fully the complete presence of Christ, as he wills, and not simply as we are able to do. It is Christ who makes present, reveals his presence, communicates his grace, and enters into the life of the believer. As such, we step into an altogether new arena in the matter of “sign” – not pointing now to something else, but presenting the reality. In much the same way, the use of sacramentals by Christians – realities made sacred by a prayer of blessing and consecration, and set aside for a specific sacred purpose – wait for us to reclaim them and put them to use. In this regard, it’s good to recall that, over a century ago, the German theologian Romano Guardini provided a really wonderful series of short reflections on just this exaltation of the ordinary by consecration in his volume Sacred Signs. It’s worth taking up for the profound enrichment which it offers.
And in all this we seem to have come back almost to the beginning of our lectio – the consecration of the ordinary so that it always stands as a means of approaching the God who wants – and waits – to be noticed!
-Part of our continuous lectio divina on the Gospel According to Mark-