Lets face it this is a passage which has essentially two themes; the over whelming authority of the man Jesus and his exorcism of an evil spirit. Male authority? The healing of mental illness through exorcism? Maybe we should just give up now!
The first thing that strikes you is that Mark is desperate to show that everyone was amazed by Jesus’ authority but reading this in England in 2018 it is difficult to be impressed by a man showing authority and status.
It feels like we are going through a time of great change in our understanding of authority, of status, of hierarchy. When I was little I knew that across the world they celebrated Australia day and I felt in a comforting kind of a way that this might be a nod towards the British Empire and my own country and monarchy. But when I opened the paper on Saturday I discover that 60,000 marched through Melbourne calling it ‘Invasion Day’ and that the protests were joined by a huge group of ‘Queer Activists’ making parallels between LBGT oppression and the oppression of the indigenous population by the British. It turns out, unsurprisingly that not everyone celebrates the anniversary of the 1788 arrival of the First Fleet of British ships at Port Jackson, New South Wales and the raising of the Flag of Great Britain at Sydney Cove by Governor Arthur Phillip.
I do understand and affirm this rage – I am not one of the new Right trendies who think this is Political correctness gone mad, but I still feel a little bit in transition from one world to another. As if narratives of what it means to be human are being newly created and I am a bit behind the curve.
I was delighted by the rage about how woman have been treated in Westminster over the years, delighted that the behaviour at the so called ‘Presidents Club Dinner’ last week was condemned. But I also got that sense of being a new place where things that had been accepted where now being condemned. I think its because I remember living and sharing in a culture which joked about or spoke disparagingly about women or individuals who were LBGT. A kind of uneasy feeling that I had been part of the problem, that I was still in transition to this new place.
This new world which we are now inhabiting tells a new story about equality and inclusivity but it is a story which can make us cynical of people who seem to represent any kind of authority or status or hierarchy. I really don’t think it is enough for us to say ‘Hey kids, look at Jesus he was really cool, always standing with the outsider and the marginalised, he supported women and if he’d known he would have loved LGBT folk too’.
No, the whole thing about amazement at Jesus’ authority leaves me cold. But what does excite me, because it runs counter to this tired ‘Jesus as a sandal wearing good guy’ narrative is the spiritual nature of this story, the supernatural element. Did you notice how Jesus doesn’t talk to the man who is ill he talks to the spirits? And when the spirits say ‘I know who you are, you are the Holy one of God’, Jesus rebukes him saying ‘Be silent and come out of him’.
Jesus calls for silence, a silence which is partly about rebuking God’s enemies, but also the first strike in the spiritual battle which is ever present in Mark. The whole notion of spiritual battle is can make us feel uneasy, but ‘spiritual battle’ can be a way of describing the engagement with hidden and negative powers both in ourselves and in the community which need to be overcome. This is not me saying that we all start having to be obsessed by the spiritual as some hidden realm that we as Christians have special access to. What I mean is that there is more to life than we see, that realty is bigger than we can perceive, that we need humility in the face of a world we don’t fully understand.
But the silence is also the beginning of another huge theme in Mark, that of Messianic secrecy. That Jesus in Mark’s Gospel wants to keep secret who he is, that he is God’s son.
What is exciting about Jesus rebuking the spirit with the command to be Silent is that it is about Jesus maintaining the mystery surrounding his identity. Throughout Mark’s Gospel there is a demand for silence alongside a total failure of everyone around Jesus to understand what is being said.
It seems to me that the great changes taking place in our society today. The huge changes in relation to the status and respect for women – something that I as the father of three women am eternally grateful for. The huge changes in relation to LBBT rights – again something that I am grateful for as so many of those who I dearly love are part of that community. But also the moving on from the division between ‘Identity politics’ and so called ‘real economic’ politics – the fact that now we see the link between development economics and questions of gender, race and sexuality.
So looking again at this passage and seeing my initial disappointment that this was Mark’s story about people being amazed at his authority and status – something that didn’t seem so amazing or exciting to me – Now, I read it and see something different. I see a Jesus who places himself as the heart of a narrative about the mystery of his identity and invites me to enter into a conversation about the mystery of my identity. An invitation that begins with a questioning of old authorities, even a silencing of old authorities in the face of the new, the alien, the divine.
At evening prayer this week we had that verse from the letter to the Colossians which always confuses me, where Paul says: “in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the church”. It confuses me because it seems to suggest that I have to kind of ‘top up’ Christs sufferings with some of my own. But what the verse really means is that we are all ‘In Christ’, that is, in the suffering and pain of being human we are with Christ. Being Christian is not about avoiding pain and suffering but rather about sharing in it with Christ.
We share too in the mystery of identity, of what it might mean to be human, to be part of the changing narratives of how we relate to and love each other. About how we can, despite our many failings, our many past and present prejudices and past and present wounds and dysfunctionalism, still be seeking to be made whole both as individuals and as the community of the Church.
Maybe all of us need to start by being silent, that we might better enter an examination of ourselves as people called to participate in the divine life, a life where status finally gives way to a unity and an inclusivity which is beyond our present imagining. Amen.