We continue our lectio by praying with the next few verses of Mark’s Gospel…
AT THE BOTTOM OF THE MOUNTAIN
From the ecstatic peace of the mountain we descend, with Christ and the three disciples, into the usual melée which is the backdrop to life on the ground. For all of us it can be so appealing to want to remain in the thickness of the cloud, removed, as it were, from one reality to be able to experience real reality in the undiluted presence of God. But this cannot be, and is not the case: our call is to live with Christ and one another in the thick of the mundane, and see, albeit at times with difficulty, God present in that.
The scene which greets the returning Christ is one which is repeated again and again in many contexts, and cultures and ages: religious dispute, and the insistent clamour about what is right and who is right. Mark is not just speaking about this moment – he invites us to experience the Church which he knew, a place of dispute and argument and disagreement, and the Church which we know, still in argument, within and with the secular world which it inhabits. And we are faced with a very stark assessment by Jesus: if you lack faith the kingdom will not be made present and its power will not be felt.
This is a complex and multi-layered gathering, consisting of individuals and groups, all of whom have their own very specific identity and role. Christ himself, of course, stands at the centre of the goings on; then the scribes, upholders of the tradition and no doubt goading the disciples; the disciples themselves, undoubtedly embarrassed by their failure in front of so many, and secretly hoping that Christ could come quickly and deliver them from their discomfort; the crowd, always watching, always demanding, always commenting and commentating; and lastly, the father and the son, the ones in such great need and yet receiving help from no one, scribe or disciple.
A first point, however: the crowd is amazed at seeing Jesus. Something lingers about him from the mountain revelation, which Mark leaves unsaid except to express it through the crowd’s reaction to Jesus’ reappearance. But it is not long lasting – the crowd quickly reverts to its previous grumble and the scene is set for the question around belief. But the amazement is important for Mark. Throughout his gospel he is concerned about the inability of persons to recognise Jesus and to come to know his real identity, an inability which will persist right to the passion and death. He notes for the reader or listener that indications are given throughout Jesus’ ministry and teaching. Again, the question asked about those contemporaries of Jesus is a question posed to ourselves: why do we miss, and misread, the evidence about the Christ?
The state in which the boy is found is wretched indeed – Mark allows us, through the father’s description, to be made uncomfortable by the suffering on show here. Undoubtedly the boy suffers from epileptic seizures, and they must have been as frightening for both sufferer and onlookers then as they can be now. Mark leaves it to us to wonder if he knew that the disease from which the boy was suffering was also known in the ancient world as the “sacred disease”, a punishment sent by the gods which produced the symptoms of epileptic seizure. Certainly he does not use the word for demon when describing the power overcoming the boy, but rather “spirit” (pneuma). If it were the case that he knew this, and expected us to know it, then he constructs a scene in which false gods are pitted against the one who has just been revealed as Son of God: Mark continues to build Jesus’s identity before our very eyes, and before the eyes of the crowd and disciples. Needless to say we cannot pass over the fact that we have just come from being embraced by the intimacy of Father and Son on the mountain, in a moment which is meant to strengthen after the first prediction of Christ’s passion and death, and now, far below, find ourselves witness to another father and son, locked in suffering, but in a suffering which means nothing in itself except that it will reveal Jesus for who he is!
Mark asks us to consider this foundational relationship, that of father and son. It is definitive for our understanding of Jesus and his identity because it is the central word of God the Father about the one who has been sent as and is revealed as Messiah. And the juxtaposition of these two scenes – transfiguration and healing – invites us to consider the centrality of this relationship as revelation. In fact, while the Father’s voice is heard revealing Christ as Son, the pivotal moment of address and confirmation from Christ about the Father will come in Gethsemani, the place of Christ’s fullest revelation of humanity and dependence and of the deep intimacy which he shares with God: Abba!, he says (Mk 14:36) – Father!
Sacred Scripture uses the rich imagery of the relationship of parent to child to great effect, and often in the unique setting of the intimacy between mother and child. In particular writings in the book of the prophet Isaiah draw this closeness to our ears:
From the beginning I have been silent, I have kept quiet, held myself in check. I groan like a woman in labour, I suffocate, I stifleIsaiah 42:14
Does a woman forget her baby at the breast, or fail to cherish the son of her womb? Yet even if these forget, I will never forget youIsaiah 49:15
At her breasts (Jerusalem’s) will her nurslings be carried and fondled in her lap. Like a son comforted by his mother will I comfort youIsaiah 66:12-13
The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is given to us as one who, although the sacred writers trawl their own deeply felt experiences to paint as full a picture as possible, always exceeds the written portraits which are naturally confined by language itself. And yet it is vitally important that we come to know that God is one who reaches out to us in the vast arena of our experience and lets no experience go without filling it with meaning and significance for our response to him.
This can be, as we know, immensely difficult for a person who wants to be in conversation and relationship with God: not all of us, indeed so many of us, have suffered in one way or another through a relationship with a parent which has been less than healthy or helpful. And because that relationship is so formative, and should be irreplaceable, scars from the wounds of broken relationships with a parent or parents can be the most difficult to heal. If that is the case with our human parents, how then can we hope to find a new relationship, and one which is supportive, encouraging, affirming – in a word, loving – with the God who wants to parent us?
These questions are worth investigating for each of us on a personal level, and they represent the sort of personal work which has no fixed or easily transferable solution. Each of us stands in need of many different things in our relationships, because each relationship contributes to who I am, and that can never find a mirror image in who someone else already is. And yet, Christ in Scripture introduces us to his Father, and a Father who is loving, and saving. Precisely in the frustration and human limitation which this human father in Mark’s story represents we see the limitless love which the Father of Christ Jesus has for those who are his children. We do not speak in terms of what is possible or impossible for God our Father – everything is possible, and done in favour of his already and always loved children.
This man is extraordinarily candid with Jesus. He has nothing to lose and nothing to hide – he realises the littleness of his own faith – whatever that might mean – and hands himself over to the one who is the subject of faithful living. Is it desperation, a man at the end of his tether, with no other possible solution for his sick son? Or rather is it realisation that Jesus is the answer that he has been searching for and waiting for and now is the time to ask? Certainly, his plea to Christ and his own admission are startling – he expects Christ to do something.
What does it mean to us, however? Everything is possible for anyone who has faith. The disciples are, indeed, presented to us, neither for the first nor for the last time in this gospel, as faithless. And their lack of faith made nonsense of what had to be done. But where did their faith lie? Perhaps this is it. It lay fairly and squarely in themselves. Just a short while before this (Mk 6:7-13) the disciples had gone out on mission and achieved great things – casting out devils, and anointing the sick and curing them. So, what has changed? They have forgotten, it seems, that Christ is the power who works these miracles, and for this to happen they, in humility and obedience, must allow their faith in him to be the vehicle for the work of the kingdom to be brought to completion in the lives of men and women. For as long as they believed that they were the ones who could change this situation effectively their work would come to nothing. The father himself is a portrait of the antithesis of this: his faith lies not in himself but in Jesus, who alone has the power and authority to bring about transformation here. And he expected the disciples – representatives of and co-workers with Christ – to be able to work in the same way. In a sense this is where Christ’s final comment comes into play: This is the kind (of spirit) that can only be driven out by prayer (and another ancient manuscript adds, and fasting). If the right work has not been undertaken by the disciple in terms of preparation the disciple’s work will bear no fruit. If the disciple believes it is only himself who is at work here then he will fall short. It is always Christ, and can only be Christ.
Perhaps continued prayer with this wonderful passage might best now be prompted by some questions:
How do I allow debate about and within the Church to divert me from essential Gospel work and witness?
Can I identify moments and experiences which place me among the various personae who act in this passage: the scribes; the disciples; the crowd; the father; the son?
How do I now take time to begin to identify this relationship which God wishes me to embrace with him, child to Father?
Does this ask me to reflect upon, or work at my relationships with father, mother or others who have been intimately woven into my development?
How have my human relationships helped or hindered the shaping of my relationships with God as Father, and Christ as his Son?
In the area of faith, does the littleness of my own faith hold me back, or prompt me to search for Jesus as the source and encouragement for deeper faith living?
How is my faith nourished and expressed so that it is a living and graced experience for me and others?
Do I ask Christ to accompany me in the Gospel work which I undertake or do I make it, too often, a solo effort?
What are the deaf and dumb spirits in my own life, blocking my fuller hearing of God’s word and stifling my speaking his Word?
-Part of our continuous lectio divina on the Gospel According to Mark-