We’ve dropped into the fast-moving first chapter of Mark with the ancient Christian community of Rome as chaos swirls all around. It’s a mirror for their life and ours whenever circumstance propels us into the trackless wilds where the old is gone and the new is not yet come.
First John ‘appears’ as a wild man in a wild place who offers a cleansing ritual in open, moving water, wild water. People come out of their everyday lives to be washed of whatever they carry. Jesus of Nazareth is one and receives the direct personal revelation, “You are my Son the Beloved,” before the same Spirit drives him even further into the wilderness. This driving to wrestle with temptation seems an important prelude to his coming encounter with negative spirits and with clamoring crowds as he moves to ministry.
Revelation is a mixed bag. It blesses us – “Beloved!” – and then drives us with Christ into deep wrestling with all manner of spirits inside us and around: spirits of the over-culture in which we live, of the family and faith which forms us, and of our own personal wounding and humanity. All must be discerned as some align with the Way of God and some confuse or separate us from that life-giving intent.
In this opening chapter of the second ‘movement’ of Grace, Christ appears and the spirits pop out. “The whole city” gathers around the door at Sabbath’s end, illnesses and possessions in plain sight. Whatever feeds on the life of the people — whether in a place of religious gathering or in the intimacy of a home – is revealed. It cannot stay hidden. All manner of illness, dis-ease, and distortions of spirit are laid bare for healing and for freedom of individuals and community.
It’s good news embodied, and has to be unnerving. It simultaneously awakens hope (there’s release!); the potential for shame or blame (an unclean spirit in our midst?); and desperate need. We touch here the dance of hope and despair. As Thomas Merton described in A Message of Contemplatives to the World, “I have been summoned to explore a desert area of [the] heart in which explanations no longer suffice, and in which one learns that only experience counts. An arid, rocky, dark land of the soul… And in this area I have learned one cannot truly know hope unless he has found out how like despair hope is.”
‘Sleep’ narcotizes the pain of mundane life. Wake up to the deeper reality of God alive in our midst here/now and watch wonder, bottomless hunger, and all manner of mischief simultaneously erupt. Revelation is apocalyptic, literally in the meaning of the word and figuratively in the sense that good news shakes everything in an already shaken world. If we’re looking for things to go back to ‘normal’ this isn’t it. Mark preaches the good news of God’s nearness to a community being torn apart by the depravity of the Roman Empire. There’s no going back to a time before Nero’s blood-lust targeted Christian Jews for destruction. There’s only going forward. Can they endure it? Can we as we face into our own like times?
It helps to remember that the revelatory work of Christ restores and strengthens right relationship with God, self, and community, a gift especially needed in times of chaotic tearing. Taking the hand of Peter’s mother-in-law and lifting her up from her immobilizing fight with infection restores her to participation in her family and community. Hope is rekindled and a hunger for healing is awakened.
Healing work necessarily includes recognizing and casting out spirits that do not and cannot participate in this restorative activity. As in the synagogue, Mark’s Jesus is resolute in silencing such spirits because they knew him. Having come so recently from his own encounter with the Adversary he is unwilling to be seduced into public engagement. His period of testing took place in the deep long-term grounding of solitude, silence, fasting and prayer, which is a completely different environment. These spirits do know him, including perhaps his vulnerabilities. They draw public attention now because they are LOUD, direct, and carry some truth. It’s a dangerous mix, and he refuses to be seduced.* Mark’s Jesus simply commands these spirits to ‘be muzzled’ in the root meaning. It’s the same word used in his later address to the roaring of the stormy sea: “Peace, be muzzled.” Noise and clamor do not assist the work of grace.
Then, “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place and there he prayed” until his worried companions eventually found him. This passage occurs only in Mark, when the swirling chaos has the greatest power to derail. This Jesus, the community in Nero’s Rome, and we ourselves in chaotic upheaval must return often and with great intention to the depths of solitude, silence and prayer.
Why? Hope awakened can easily turn in a false direction. The disciples are hunting Jesus as are the townsfolk. They doubtless want him to come back and do more. He could stay in this one place the rest of his life meeting bottomless need. That’s not how God works; it would create a childish dependency. The God revealed in Christ seeks partners not dependents in healing and transforming the world.
Having re-immersed into prayer the way he immersed into the waters of the River Jordan, Jesus is clear. His response is this: “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” There’s no going back, and there’s no remaining in inertia. On this wild way of the second path, there is only going on, step by step, together, in trust that the wilderness through which we sojourn is Christ-with-us.
*I cannot resist noting how much this stance addresses our public life in the USA right now. What if we did not make ourselves available to the incessant, loud drumbeat of partial truths masquerading as public interest? Perhaps the practice in chaos is to refuse audience to what stokes fear, anxiety, and incessant outrage and polarizes us into either/or camps. Let us immerse instead into the depths of prayer. Mark Nepo says that to listen is to lean in softly with a willingness to be transformed by what we hear. May we grow in that life-giving capacity.