Following the suffering Messiah

There is a sense in which the message of Mark’s gospel is about suffering. The Messiah must suffer and die, if you do not understand this you do  not understand what it is to be the Messiah. Indeed, whilst the readers of the gospel have been told that Jesus is the ‘Son of God’ in the first verse, the title is not used within the narrative by a human being until Jesus is on the cross. We misunderstand who Jesus is if we do not grasp that it led him to a violent death, and no amount of using abstractly correct language about him will help us avoid this uncomfortable truth.

If the Son of God himself can expect nothing more than rejection and execution, the same is true of his disciples. Mark is like a worked example in discipleship: we watch the disciples misunderstand and come to terms with finally what it means to follow Jesus on the way. As they go with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, they hear him speak of his coming death and, more darkly still, hear him intimate that they can expect similar rejection as the price of their allegiance to him. It is a reasonable conclusion that Mark wrote for Christians suffering persecution; that his gospel is structured so as to show them that, far from being a sign of their being rejected by God, their experience was an assurance of their fidelity.

To follow Christ is to suffer. History offers ample confirmation of this, and so Mark stands vindicated. Yet there is a temptation to misread this aspect of his message, in a way that makes the gospel complicit in misery (at best) or abuse (at worse). All too often we can slip from the recognition that discipleship involves suffering to the kind of spiritual masochism for which suffering is in and of itself good. This cannot be right, at
least not from the perspective of those reading the gospel as communicating the revelation of a God who wills that we flourish as human beings, whose gentle grace does not abolish our fragile nature. What then is the point about suffering?

“If you don’t love you will die”, wrote Herbert McCabe, “if you do love they will kill you”. It is the result of the world not being all it was created to be that discipleship and suffering go hand in hand. We have built a world of injustice and fear, for which the message of Jesus cannot be encountered as the euangelion, the good news, Mark takes it to be. Our call is not to suffer, but to do the works of the Kingdom and  proclaim the good news that it has come. It is just that, because of the kind of world we live in, we can expect this not to be welcomed. If you want a recent example of what faithful discipleship leading to suffering looks like, the life and death of Oscar Romero is a good place to look.

Even here there’s a danger of going wrong, of thinking that if people don’t like the way we live out our faith we must be doing something right. A more subtle masochism takes a suspicious amount of delight in being thought beyond the modern Pale. There’s a kind of joyful indignance that characterises a fogeyish Catholicism, for which every disagreement with secular modernity (and these are nearly always about sex, in some way or other) is a sign of divine favour. Mature following in the way of the Cross requires of us self-knowledge and honesty about our motives; it demands that we fearlessly proclaim the Kingdom, opposing those demonic forces which bind human beings today (poverty, exploitation, racism…), not seeking out persecution but simply proclaiming the joyful truth that the Strong Man has been bound and the Kingdom is upon us. If we’re faithful to that call, opposition will come without us having to seek it out.

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Mark’s demons

Sunday’s gospel introduces a new, but to the modern reader, troubling, theme in Mark’s gospel. Jesus has already been baptised, and has gone into the wilderness to be tempted. He has called the first disciples and commenced his public ministry, preaching, “The Kingdom of Heaven has come near”. Now he shows, in action rather than words, that the Kingdom is near by casting an “unclean spirit” out of a man.

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Unclean spirits, spirits that are somehow outside of the dominion of God – or “demons” to give them the more familiar, and altogether more Buffy the Vampire Slayer, name – are major cast members in Mark, as they are in Matthew and Luke who draw on him. As we’ll see, their being “cast out” of people is one of the ways that the gospel shows us the nature of Jesus’ mission. More than that, they seem to know who Jesus is  (in this passage, “the Holy One of God”). This is striking, since in Mark Jesus gives the impression of wanting to keep anything unique about his identity to himself. It is only on the cross that he is declared “Son of God” by the centurion.

Be that as it way, demons surely present modern readers with a problem. What are we to make of them? Aren’t they simply too alien to our ways of understanding the world for us to be able to get anything from the passages in which they occur? Don’t appeals to the demonic represent a more primitive way of understanding what we would now understand in terms of physical or mental illness, to be given a scientific explanation or remedy?

The temptation to dismiss this theme in the gospel as a relic from a pre-modern age is not only understandable, but often motivated by concern for the abuse that it continues to licence: demons and exorcism feature as concerns for a growing fringe of Christianity which does real damage to people, not least to those of us with mental illnesses. The idea that someone’s suffering is caused by, explained by, a non-natural being (possession of which might well be the result of personal sin) compounds the already difficult experience of illness. For those of us who rightly retreat from this view, this forces the question of how Christians can better understand mental illness.

Too often, though, the fundamentalist view that sees demons as a correct explanation of everyday suffering gets replaced by a liberal view that sees demons as simply an incorrect explanation of everyday suffering. The baby of Mark’s narrative gets thrown out with the bathwater of demonology and we lose a key theme of the gospel.

To get things right, we need to grasp how demons feature in Mark’s story.  For Mark the world is a kind of battleground between God – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who longs to set his people free – and the forces of chaos, tamed at the moment of creation. Jesus comes to decisively announce and make present the victory of God over those forces, to bring in the Kingdom of God. Like many of the prophets before him, his proclamation of the Kingdom is not simply a matter of words, but of actions, his great signs of power, or miracles. Amongst these, his exorcisms stand out as a practical demonstration that he has, as he will later put it, “bound the strong man”, that the Kingdom of God is triumphant over Satan. A cosmic battle is given expression in the relief of individual suffering.

Binding the Strong Man is the title of an excellent book by Chad Meyers which reads Mark’s gospel through a political lens. The political dimension of the Kingdom, the redemption of human community, sheds light on the need for speaking of the demonic in telling the story of the Kingdom’s coming. Like the demonic, the political ties in the global to the personal: the worldwide struggle against, say, racism, is played out in individual lives and suffering. It reminds us that we are caught up in things beyond our capacity to control, which pre-exist us, and from which we need redemption.

And that is as true today as it was in the first century.

 

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I have a curious liking for Ordinary Time, which I suppose has some relationship to the reasons I find Luke’s “the angel left her” speaks to me. Most of our lives are lived in ordinary time, liturgically and figuratively.

My last attempt at a blog series, on Marxism and Christianity, was a conspicuous failure, falling as it did at the hurdle of my health. Still, I want to try again, this time with a series of posts on Mark’s gospel throughout the Ordinary Time of this coming year. It will be a good discipline for me to think about this gospel, which we read on (most of) the Sundays of this year. In many ways it is foundational to our understanding of the Christian story, being used – as most scholars think – by Matthew and Luke to compose their own gospels, and inspiring a good number of critical and imaginative studies. Sometimes the series will look at passages, sometimes at themes, and sometimes at works about Mark. I will find it useful writing it; I hope somebody at least finds it useful reading it!

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Keeping faith with reason

Matthew’s story of the visit of the Magi is ripe for reflection: the topic of art and poetry, it can help to communicate central themes of the Christian gospel. Matthew himself almost certainly intended that the story speak of the inclusion of the Gentiles within God’s covenant and of the fulfillment of God’s promises to God’s people.

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Myself, I am struck by an aspect of the account which speaks to a contemporary need. The Magi (Greek magoi – the sense is of something intermediate between a priest, a magician and a scientist) are led by the sight of a star. I imagine these wise ones (the plural magoi doesn’t force an image of an all male group, even if that is what was intended in context) pondering maps, charts and books of lore in order to interpret the appearance of the heavenly body.

Unlike Luke’s shepherds, the Magi do not get a vision of angels. There is nothing obviously revelatory about anything that happens to them. Instead, their natural reason, their human capacity to reflect on the world around them leads them to Jerusalem.

One of the most appealing aspects of the Catholic tradition for me, and especially of the Dominican strand within it, is our high view of human reason. Even without access to God’s self-revelation as communicated in the Bible, our Church thinks, human beings can come to know things about God. Nor does possession of that self-revelation render human reason irrelevant. Rather, through our reasoning about and grappling with the content of revelation we come to appreciate it better. It is though we were both the shepherds and the magi at the same time. Needless to say, for me, the combination is most clearly seen in the Summa Theologiae.

I think that at the present moment there’s a tendency to retreat from our high view of reason. Partly that’s for understandable reasons – contemporary culture can have too narrow a view of reason, as something cold, bloodless, and discarnate, whereas we want to affirm that our religion is the stuff of emotion, ritual, and raw, animal, self-giving love. Rather than ditch reason as the sole preserve of Mr Spock types, though, we could reclaim a more generous understanding of reason. More challenging is the modern world’s relegation of religion to the sphere of the non-rational, or even the irrational. For many friends and foes of religion alike, faith is a matter of blind acceptance, where it starts reason stops. Upon passing the church door, one ceases to be a thinker. Whether or not one considers that to be a good thing is very much a secondary matter.

This is disastrous for all sorts of reasons. It effectively involves the abandonment of any claim that the Christian faith is saying anything true (the notion of a truth with which we cannot reason is nonsensical), so if it is intended as a maneuver to protect faith from criticism it is self-defeating. That aside, it is both dangerous and beneath our dignity as human beings to put our ability to reason to one side. The use of religion to further bigotry and violence ought to persuade us of this if more abstract considerations do not. Crucially though, and seasonally, in the Incarnation God has assumed and redeemed everything it is to be human – including our reason – the thoughtfulness of our engagement with our faith is not a pretension, or simply a pass-time, but a witness to that redemption, to the fullness of our redeemed humanity. It is therefore a matter of faith that we continue to reason.

Mary’s prayer

Apart from the obvious doctrinal associations with Christmas, keeping the 1st January as the feast of Mary, the Mother of God has the feel of placing the coming year under her patronage.

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I want to say something in favour of the idea of Mary as patron, as someone we cry out to when things are tough. I’ve fallen back myself on the kind of folk religion which whispers a Hail Mary or touches her icon, a type of prayer that an earlier, more sophisticated and more stupid, version of myself would have decried. There is something very human about claiming the patronage of Mary – we’re reaching out to one of us (and she is one of us, the sillier excesses of saccharine piety have never quite been able to hide the peasant women), asking for help. We’re reminded that we’re never alone; David Cameron’s pernicious ideological slogan “we’re all in it together” was not true of British society, it is true of the communion of saints. More than that though, because Marian devotion has flourished at a popular level, for all its many problems, it has had the capacity to preserve parts of religiosity underplayed by official theology and liturgy. A case in point is emotion – I don’t mean the soppy fake emotion of Victorian hymns to our Lady – I mean the fear and longing, the desire and the pain, of the anguished cry for help, all there in the words “Mary, pray for me”. That patriarchal society genders emotion as female means, I think, that in our present situation Mary is a uniquely natural recipient of this kind of prayer – before anyone supposes this blasphemous, remember that part of belief in the Incarnation is belief that Christ, as a human being, is limited, in particular he is limited by being male, but not female.

The patronage of Mary shows us to be fully human, with needs and emotions, and to exist in community with others. That is what we are called to be by our creation and redemption, and it is good to be reminded of it at the beginning of the year.

Rachel weeping for her children

The feast of the Holy Innocents adds a much needed dark side to Christmas, a reminder that from the outset incarnate Love was met with hatred by our race, unable as we so often are to cope with love in all its challenging purity. Today has, unfortunately to my mind, become in recent years an occasion for banging the drum about abortion laws. I have no intention whatsoever of dealing with that particular hot potato in this post. Suffice it to say, however, that even if you believe (as the Church has never authoritatively taught, and numerous figures in the tradition have denied) that an embryo is from the outset a person, the parallels between the aborted and the Holy Innocents are limited.

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The victims of Herod are honoured by the Church as martyrs precisely because their killing was an act of opposition to Christ himself. They were killed, according to Matthew’s gospel, as a political action by a leader wanting to shore up his power in his territory and . If you want parallels, I’m afraid you need to look no further than the contemporary Holy Land. Here Christian as well as Muslim Palestinian children are constantly on the receiving end of occupying power. A particularly alarming case has become prominent this Christmas.

As believers in the Incarnation, particular things and particular places matter to us because of their association with Christ’s earthly life. We can hardly then ignore the situation in Palestine, and Holy Innocents day is an excellent time to recommit ourselves to speaking out and to solidarity. For Christians to focus their activism on the wearily familiar issues around reproductive ethics and sexuality is, after all, safe: it involves no serious challenge to geopolitical power. Yet we are not called to be safe, and for the Palestinians safety is no option.

And the angel left her

For some time I’ve been fascinated by the final verse of this Sunday’s gospel. ‘And the angel left her’. This is when the hard work begins. I think for most of us the experience of life as Christians is often of living in the time after the angel has, figuratively, left us.

There are times when it all makes sense, where it is very easy to see the world and our lives in terms of the gospel, when we somehow feel all part of it and are very conscious of being loved by God and by others. There are other times when all of this is not there. And there are times, frequent for some of us, when the opposite is the case: when life seems as though we are not ‘favoured by God’, where nothing appears to make sense, and when we feel utterly abandoned.

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Amidst all the copulsory happiness that the well-meaning can inflict  on us over Christmas it is worth reflecting on the fact that the person the Church believes to be the foremost redeemed human being lived most of her life in the time after the angel left her. Without signs or obvious affirmation she persisted, that trust in God’s word, in spite of there being no sense how it could be fulfilled (‘how can this be?’) was how she lived out her fidelity to the covenant. Similarly, for many of us, that empty experience of sheer trust beyond comprehension, in the midst of life’s bleakness, will be how we live out the call of our baptism.

As is so often the case, T.S. Eliot captured this state well:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing

The point here is that the absence of clear vision has the character of a gift – we are safe from the idolatry of present experience or contemporary thought; we are in no danger of thinking that we have happened upon the Kingdom in its finality. I say that this has the character of a gift, because sometimes the angel’s leaving will not take the form of a gift at all, but of an evil we should resist blessing – my own episodes of depression would be a case in point here. Nevertheless, these occasions can be used by the God who turns the fallenness of creation into the stage of redemption.

Yet however the angel leaves us, leave he must. For unless the angel leaves we will never grow up.

Living in the future

The first part of Advent, ending on 16th December, looks forward to the Last Things, to Christ’s return in glory in fulfilment of the promise of the Kingdom. It is not a time of preparation for Christmas. Nor is it, on the other hand, a time of glum-faced refusal to participate in premature secular festivities, a mini-Lent of dismal world-denial amidst Mammon’s fairy-lights and mince pies. It is something much more interesting than either of these things, an opportunity to re-orientate our understanding of time towards the future.

The perennial call to put Christ back into Christmas, as though the incarnate Word were every absent from human fellowship or celebration, is a modestly irritating part of a much more general trend in Christian culture. There is a sense that things are on the back-foot, that in the West at least we’re on the decline. Wasn’t the past better? Isn’t there a temptation to want to Make Christianity Great Again? For Christians who go along with this line of thought (and if we’re honest, we have all done this at some point) the focus of our faith is the past – the past of a more flourishing Church and, of course, the past to which scripture bears witness, the life of Jesus and the history of Israel.

But the past ought not to be our focus. The Church, in whichever age, does not exist for its own sake, but for that of the Kingdom. And revelation, the past and completed nature of which I happily affirm as a Catholic, is not simply some kind of divine transmission of facts to make us better informed. It took place for our salvation. It too looks to an end subsequent to itself.

So if not the past, perhaps the Church ought to live in the present. After all, any number of spiritual tomes of varying quality can be found exhorting us to live in the present moment. Once we move beyond lightly baptised mindfulness however, the desire for contemporaneity can dominate church life very quickly. Are we up to date, relevant, modern? Is there anything about us that doesn’t sit comfortably with the prevailing climate? If so perhaps we ought to jettison it for the sake of our continuing place in a society which would otherwise find us irrelevant (notice how this liberal approach to time is every bit as based in fear as the conservative alternative; and again, we’ve all taken this position from time to time).

The problem with this gratuitously modern Christianity is that it quickly loses any capacity to be prophetic. It is too immersed in modern society to be able to subject it to any criticism (that this is a problem is less obvious than it should be because people have tended to assume that Christian criticisms of modernity will be about sex, rather than about, say, starvation or the threat of nuclear holocausts). It therefore fails to undertake one of the central tasks for which we were baptised.

It is only, I think, if our basic orientation is to the future, rather than either the past or the present, that Christians can have a relationship to society which serves the cause of the Kingdom. Not for nothing was the idea of an eschatological provisio, always holding existing structures to account, a key theme in Latin American liberation theology. Living in the world, yet alert to the coming Kingdom, we celebrate what is good without making ourselves too comfortable with the present. Our job is to be urging humankind forward towards the Kingdom we make present in our sacraments, and in the light of which we judge the present.

And, in spite of it not being a preparation for Christmas, if we see the first part of Advent like this Christmas will take on a new meaning. It will be no longer a nostalgic reminiscence of a long-ago baby, but the celebration of the intrusion into an unjust world of a still-active upsetter of all that stands between us and full humanity.

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Saying that Christ, the Lord, is King

Over this weekend a number of my non-Christian friends have been sharing links to a story about the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden on their social media accounts. These friends, secular leftists to a person, are generally under the impression that the Swedish state church’s appeal to its clergy to stop using the word ‘Lord’ or male pronouns of God is bizarre. And they are certainly right.

Whatever else makes a body of people part of the Christian tradition, a commitment to use, recall, and grapple with the scriptures is surely an essential condition. The Swedish strictures, if taken seriously, would make this impossible. If, as I suspect to be the case with the Swedish church, you think characteristic scriptural language about God is damaging to justice and equality amongst human beings then the honest thing to do would be to declare yourself  post-Christian. That is perhaps what the Church of Sweden ought to do.

 

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It would have been better though if it had never got into the kind of muddle over religious language that leads to this sort of censoriousness in the first place. Consider what the Swedish archbishop says,

Theologically, for instance, we know that God is beyond our gender determinations, God is not human

This is indeed true, but it only follows that one shouldn’t (for instance) use the word ‘he’ of God if one supposes that in doing so one is making an assertion that God is male. But that’s not what is going on with religious language. It does not, in the main, seek to describe the contours of divine reality (a very few uses of language, called by Aquinas analogical, do speak truly directly of God, but they are exceptions). Rather it points towards it playfully, pointing out the inadequacies of our words before God by placing contradictory and unsettling images before us. God is not only Lord for the books of the Hebrew Bible, but a woman in labour, a fortress, a rock, and a case of dry rot. If she is Lord, he is also a servant, a shepherd, a steadfast hope, and a vengeful judge. We do not, other than by covenanted grace, know where we stand with God. His thoughts are not are thoughts, we are creatures, she the creator.

The kind of liberal who thinks that in using the word ‘Lord’ (generally, in the Old Testament, a rendering of the tetragrammaton) one is saying that God is a celestial version of Donald Trump or Prince Philip, and that this is a bad thing, is simply the photographic negative of the fundamentalist who thinks that God is indeed the Top Bloke and holds this to be a very good thing. Neither party thinks about rejecting the fundamentally idolatrous understanding of religious language which they hold in common.

And that is where I would leave things were it not that I’m writing on the feast of Christ the King. For whilst the archbishop is right that God is not human as God, God is of course human as the man Jesus. And as a man we call him King and Lord. Now these uses of language can’t be so swiftly dismissed as metaphorical, can they? After all, don’t we believe that Christ does, and one day will more fully and completely, possess the foremost place in a human community, known as the Kingdom? What does someone like me, who thinks that human hierarchy and kingship has brought in its wake nothing but bloodshed and oppression, say about the fact that my Church invites me today to celebrate the fact (as it takes it to be) that Christ is the King?

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Just this, that the Kingship of Christ is an ironic, subversive, affair which undermines human institutions of domination through superficially assuming them. His crown is made of thorns, and his kingly life one of service. His reign is not over his subjects, but rather one which, through grace, his sisters and brothers come to share. If we affirm this man as our king, if we affirm that kingship looks like this, and that we too hope to share in it, then we can no longer have any time for anything less, for any structure that subjugates or dominates. If Christ is the King then Caesar is not. And what a strange kind of King Christ is.