Reading the Gospel of Mark is a bit like reading a set of Cliff Notes—and a paired down version at that. It is a fast moving Gospel, details are spotty, and years worth of events get packed into a few sentences. In this opening chapter to Mark’s Gospel we go from the Messianic Predictions of Isaiah to John the Baptist and Christ Baptism, His wilderness temptation, the launch of His Galilean Ministry, the calling of His first disciples and immediately into a series of healings and miracles. These opening 45 verses to Mark’s Gospel gives us a sweeping overview of Christ life and ministry. Reading it is like watching a movie trailer to an action packed adventure. Even those great beings who devised our Revised Common Lectionary seem to understand there would be much to unpack in this core narrative of the Good News. There are a total of six Sundays in Epiphany. However five out of six Sundays give us Gospel lessons from the first chapter of Mark.
Todays lesson brings us to Capernaum, where we find Jesus teaching in the synagogue. And in the middle of His discourse He is interrupted by a deranged man yelling out at Jesus. The text paints the picture of a demon possessed heckler who is no longer in control of his own body. The evil spirit is now speaking through the man. But we are given the fewest of details and I find myself wishing to know a few more facts to better understand the story.
1. Why was this man in the synagogue? Demon possession was a sure sign that you are unclean, impure and not worthy of presenting yourself in the synagogue. In the first century those who have mentally lost it lived out by the tombs, in the cemeteries or in the desert wilderness. Most of the demon possessed people that Jesus encountered during His earthly ministry dwelled in one of these “outer” places. In fact these were the places feared and avoided at all cost. When it was time to bury the dead you got in and out of the cemetery as quickly as possible. If you lingered your chances of encountering an evil spirit increased. Or worse yet, you may pick up a demon who goes back home with you.
2. What kind of evil spirit did this man have? What was it nature and character? It isn’t made clear to us what the mans unnatural or pathological state was. Did he suffer addictions or was he bi-polar? Was he completely schizophrenic or did he still have some hold on reality? Was he a victim of abuse? Did he come from a broken home or a loving home? Did he know he was lovable and loved in God’s eyes? Had anyone ever taught him to have self-compassion?
Or maybe it was something simple and far more common—something experienced by all of humanity. Did he suffer from the non-stop commentary, those internal voices of on-going negativity and judgement, running in his head. The Church Fathers called it Sin. The Church Mystics called it Brokenness and The Human Condition. It is the universal fate we have all been born to. Quite possibly our deranged heckler was traversing the dark night of sense and his outcry was more of a cry for help. Edvard Munch’s classic painting of an impressionistic landscaped with a lone dark figure standing in the foreground whose hands cover his ears as if to say stop the inner voices, with mouth wide open is a painting of both stunning beauty and stark reality. The painting is simply titled “The Scream.” And it is a painting that we have all found ourselves living in at some point in our lives.
The Scream - Edvard Munch - 1893 - National Gallery, Oslo, Norway
Our questions could go on. The list of unanswered details are endless. Mark did not write with the agenda of giving us a complete picture. Instead he leaves us with an open invitation. An invitation to write the details of our lives into the story. If this is the story of the “good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” then it must be a story we can write ourselves into. It must be a story we can identify ourselves in.
Not that long ago as a green and “wet-behind-the-ears” novice I posed a question to my Novice Master in a novitiate class. I asked “where have all the demons gone?”. The response was a quizzical look, as if to say “what are you talking about?”. Well, in the life and times of Jesus and in the life and times of the early Church there seemed to be a strong focus on Satan and his minions—the demons. But in our post-critical age of scientific enlightenment we don’t talk much about demons. Respectable Anglicans can go decades without experiencing a good smiting of the devil. We don’t even seem to poke fun at the devil in our culture the way we did in times past. Long gone are the days of comedian Flip Wilson and his character “Geraldine” and that classic line “the devil made me do it.” Long gone are the days of Dana Carvey’s “The Church Lady” from Saturday Night Live who week after week had the recurring epiphany “Could It Be Satan?”.
But maybe our consciousness is changing. Earlier this week I was asked by a Princeton Seminarian student if we as a Monastic community ever experience a sense of being up against forces of darkness, principalities and powers that push against us in our ministries. And if so, how do we fight against these forces. (With questions like this you know why we brace ourselves when we have seminarians come for a visit. They’re wonderful and they keep us on our toes.) The truth is the dark forces are never that far away. Our modern day demons include: alcoholism, drug addiction, prejudice and hatred, fear, depression, jealousy and envy, loneliness and isolation, materialism and a drive for power, even boredom and meaninglessness, acedia. These demons do not point to something that has taken hold within us. It would be more correct to think of these demons as pointing to a LACK of something within us.
Jesus did not take something out of us to make us good. The good news is that he came to make us aware of something inside...truth, love, forgiveness...our central core of goodness.
Jesus came to the synagogue well equiped to deal with evil spirits. He had just spent 40 days in the desert facing down his own demons. The image of Jesus as exorcist is an image of someone who has experienced his own demons. It is the classic image of the wounded healer. Jesus faced three temptations. They are the 3 temptations of the false self. They are the 3 temptations that we all face in our broken humanity: our twisted needs for control, power and affection. To dismantle the programs of control, power and affection is to dismantle the false self. And when you have dismantled the false self you have authority when the devil, or when life, tries to knock the wind out of you. Jesus only had to speak two words to take authority over the evil spirit. Be Silent, sometimes translated Be Still. They were the same two words He used to calm the raging sea. It has been said that silence is God’s first language. Everything else is commentary.
“What is this? A new teaching—with authority!” Absolutely right! Jesus not only teaches in parables in the synagogue but He IS the parable of God. From this first chapter of Mark and all throughout the Gospels he appears as an enigma wrapped in mystery. What He actually says seems straightforward enough, at least on the surface. Yet sufficiently cryptic to tempt and tantalize us to be drawn in deeper.
We are also left without the details of where our deranged heckler went next. What happened to him? What became of his future? His story never recurs in Marks narrative. And once again we are left with the invitation to write in our own story and become the living Gospel.
Today we are the ones who come to temples, synagogues, churches, houses of worship, and even monasteries seeking transformation. And in two words Jesus becomes our boundary-breaking, demon-dashing, law-transcending Lord commanding us to “be silent, be still.”
Through His healing silence we go forth with restored meaning to our lives. Through God’s silence all the evil spirits that are wrapped up in our control, power and affection issues are dismantled leaving us in the wonderment of being filled with God’s love. Through the realization of the fundamental woundedness of our humanity is where we discover healing, freedom, transcendence.
Through Jesus’ own woundedness of battling satan’s temptation in the wilderness he healed this man in the Capernaum synagogue. His woundedness took him all the way to the cross fulfilling Isaiah’s prophetic words, “by His wounds we are healed.” In the woundedness of Christ He became the source of life for all of us—even for you, even for me.