The Cross of Confusion

Mark’s Gospel describes the growing numbers following Jesus in Galilee as he begins his ministry, listening to him and amazed at the works he does. But there are also growing numbers who find him hard to understand, the gospel says.

VATICANCRUC

The scribes come from Jerusalem and say he has a demon, the Pharisees begin to plot with the Herodians, the followers of Herod Antipas about putting him to death. When they hear about him in Nazareth, his relatives say, “No, he doesn’t have a demon. He may be out of his mind,” and they come to bring him home.

Besides the leading elite and people from his hometown, ordinary people begin to distance themselves. They seem to be the people in Mark’s Gospel today who question him “Why do the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” (Mark 2, 18-22) Not only Jewish leaders and scholars, not only his own family and his hometown, but many ordinary people of Galilee found him too much for them.

Jesus brought change, radical change, and change can be hard to accept. Many who heard him weren’t ready for new wine, they preferred the old.

Commentators describe Mark’s gospel as a Passion Narrative with a prelude. In other words, the early stories in Mark’s gospel announce the last story of his Passion and Death and Resurrection. Jesus dies alone, forsaken by many ordinary people who flocked to him at first.

Commentators also see Mark’s gospel written to help the Christians of Rome who suffered a brutal, surprising persecution by Nero in the mid 60s. Rome usually struck Christian leaders in times of persecution, but this persecution seemed to strike at ordinary Christians as well. The senseless, arbitrary persecution left Roman Christians confused and wondering what this all meant. Mark’s account reminds them that all who follow Jesus must follow him, without always understanding.

Confusion and lack of understanding are part of our world today, aren’t they? We are living in a time of rapid changes. For many, the old wine, the “old days” are better.

The Cross of Jesus may not come as hard wood and nails. As in Mark’s Gospel, it can come in the form confusion and lack of understanding. A Cross hard to bear.

Living Nanoscope

Christ Pantocrator, Cathedral of the Transfiguration, Cefalù, Sicily, 12th century. Licensed by Andreas Wahra under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Saturday of the First Week in Ordinary Time (Year I)

Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 2:13-17

An eye for microscopic detail, a steady hand, and ultra-fine motor skills are required of surgeons in the operating room. Cataract surgery or blood vessel repair demand technical finesse and expertise.

Medicine has advanced by leaps and bounds in the modern era as studies of the most intricate anatomical structures have reached the nanoscopic scale, even to mapping the entire human genome.

If the life of the body (bios) is complex, how much more delicate must be the life of the spirit (zóé)? What kind of scalpel or nanoscope divides and heals the thoughts and intentions of the heart? 

A surgeon’s scalpel is a non-living tool that divides living tissue, but the divine scalpel is a “living” (zaó from zóé, divine breath of life) and “active” (energés, energetic) personal being who is all eye and light. Nothing slips from this all-seeing, razor-sharp eye because all things are contained in it.

Indeed, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart. No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account.

Hebrews 4:12-13

The “word of God” is first of all Scripture, post-patristic commentators point out, critiquing the Fathers for misapplying the Johannine Logos to Hebrews.1 However, lectio divina (sacred reading) is not only a study of words in a book but encounter with the living God. Receiving the word by ear and heart unites the hearer to the Word himself by divine, energizing grace. 

The Spirit of God transports human persons from the word to the Word, from the eye to the “I AM,” and from the ear to the silent Voice in the depths of God.

“What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard,
and what has not entered the human heart,
what God has prepared for those who love him,”
this God has revealed to us through the Spirit.
For the Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God.

1 Corinthians 2:9-10

The sword of the Spirit makes our spirit one with his by cutting away all that is alien to divine grace. Delicate incisions between soul (psuché) and spirit (pneuma), “joints and marrow” of our inner being purify our nature for divine communion. Thoughts, reasonings, intentions, images, forms, dreams, concepts and ideas are all illuminated by the Spirit.

But whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 1 Corinthians 6:17

The transformation from the psychological (psuchikos: animal, sensuous) to the spiritual (pneumatikos: of the Holy Spirit) is the work of God.

Now the natural (psuchikos) person does not accept what pertains to the Spirit of God, for to him it is foolishness, and he cannot understand it, because it is judged spiritually. The spiritual (pneumatikos) person, however, can judge everything but is not subject to judgment by anyone.

1 Corinthians 2:14-15

The human person is the new temple of the Holy Spirit, of the same nature by grace as Jesus the great high priest who has severed the curtain between humanity and the Father.2

From henceforth all children of the Father are one in the Son of God. All are one in the priesthood of Christ:

But you are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises” of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 1 Peter 2:9

Untouchables, pariahs, “tax collectors and sinners” are all loved and welcomed by our high priest and humble shepherd.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.

Hebrews 4:15-16

-GMC

1 Examples of this critique can be found in Meyer’s NT Commentary and Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges.

2 Mark 15:38; Matthew 27:51; Luke 23:45; Hebrews 10:19-20. 

Beyond Descartes

Friday of the First Week in Ordinary Time (Year I)

Hebrews 4:1-5, 11; Mark 2:1-12

The aim of the Christian life may be expressed in many ways: union with God, communion in the Trinity, deification (theosis), the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, returning to the Father’s house (the heavenly Jerusalem), or in the words of the author of Hebrews, entering into God’s Sabbath “rest.” The seventh day is unending peace and joy in the Lord, according to Rabbinic glosses, because unlike the first six days of creation there is no mention of evening. The sun never sets on the glory of God (Revelation 21:23; 22:5).

And whoever enters into God’s rest, rests from his own works as God did from his. Therefore, let us strive to enter into that rest…

Hebrews 4:10-11

How are the people of God to “enter into that rest?” The author of Hebrews calls our attention to the faculty of hearing, for failure to “enter” resulted from a failure in listening:

Therefore, let us be on our guard while the promise of entering into his rest remains, that none of you seem to have failed. For in fact we have received the good news just as they did. But the word that they heard did not profit them, for they were not united in faith with those who listened.

Hebrews 4:1-2 (New American Bible Revised Edition)

Original manuscripts differ concerning the second verse. The alternative reading is exemplified by the Revised Standard Version which reads:

For good news came to us just as to them; but the message which they heard did not benefit them, because it did not meet with faith in the hearers.

The basic message is the same in either version: listening was not accompanied by faith. The hearers did not listen as did their leaders Joshua and Caleb, and the message failed to be received with faith in the heart.

“Oh, that today you would hear his voice: ‘Harden not your hearts.’”

Hebrews 3:7-8; 4:7; Psalm 95:7-8

When faith is alive, the voice of the Lord awakens the heart of the beloved:

The sound of my lover! here he comes
springing across the mountains,
leaping across the hills.
Let me see your face,
let me hear your voice,
For your voice is sweet,
and your face is lovely.

Song of Songs 1:8, 14

Almost 1500 years after the bitter desert wanderings, the Bridegroom appeared and called the attention of his Bride to the vital connection between hearing and the heart:

This is why I speak to them in parables, because ‘they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.’ Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says: ‘You shall indeed hear but not understand, you shall indeed look but never see. Gross is the heart of this people, they will hardly hear with their ears, they have closed their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and be converted, and I heal them.’

Matthew 13:13-15; cf. Mark 4:11-12; Isaiah 6:8-10

Seeing and hearing are our windows onto reality, are they not? “All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason,” Immanuel Kant tells us. “There is nothing higher than reason.” Yet according to Jesus, something far surpassing seeing and hearing is required to “understand with the heart.”

The biblical language of the “heart” is foreign to empiricism and rationalism, but it is the key to “understanding,” “conversion” and “healing.” 

The heart is the dwelling-place where I am, where I live; according to the Semitic or Biblical expression, the heart is the place “to which I withdraw.” The heart is our hidden center, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others; only the Spirit of God can fathom the human heart and know it fully. The heart is the place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives. It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter, because as image of God we live in relation: it is the place of covenant.

Catechism of the Catholic Church 2563

The spiritual heart is the hidden center of union and communion in the Trinity, the Sabbath “rest” of God. 

Johannes Tauler (c. 1300-1361), one of the greatest German Dominican mystics, wrote some of the most striking statements about the interior “Promised Land.”

The Image of the Blessed Trinity rests in the most intimate, hidden, and inmost ground of the soul, where God is present essentially, actively, and substantially. Here God acts and exists and rejoices in Himself, and to separate God from this inmost ground would be as impossible as separating Him from Himself… And thus in the depth of this ground the soul possesses everything by grace which God possesses by nature.1

“No path of the senses will ever lead you there,” Tauler writes. “Within this ground the Heavenly Father begat His only-begotten Son.”2 This union of created and uncreated natures (theosis) surpasses sense perception, images, forms, words, thought and reason.3

The very being (hupostasis) of the Father and Son spoken about in Hebrews 1:3 is found in the heart and “ground” of every human person united to God by grace. 

You were more inward to me than my most inward part; and higher than my highest.

St. Augustine, Confessions, 3.6.11

Faith is the key to entering the Promised Land. 

For we who believed enter into [that] rest.

Hebrews 4:3

The faith of four friends circumvented every barrier between their paralytic brother and Jesus, and made a way where there was no way.

When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven… I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.”

Mark 2:5, 11

There is more to God than meets the eye (or ear). 

May sight and sound 
give way to
Light in the ground
By faith in the heart
beyond the mind of Descartes.

-GMC

1 Sermon 29 from Johannes Tauler, Sermons, trans. Maria Shrady, Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1985), 105.

2 Ibid., 106. 

3 Sermon 37 from Ibid., 126. In different words, the testimony of an imageless, formless “eye of the soul” (spirit, heart, nous, ground) has been present from the time of the ancient desert tradition. 

www.ourchildrenpray.com

As I’ve contributed over the years to this blog, “The Victor’s Place”, I’ve thought about its aim and its readers. The aim of this blog is to provide others with a taste of our Christian prayer tradition found in our liturgy, its readings from scripture, its feasts and seasons and its celebration of saints. It’s “daily bread” for daily life.

This blog is followed by adults from all over. But what about children? They need the “daily bread” that comes from prayer and reflection too.

Here’s “OurChildrenPray”, a website for helping children to pray. Its aim is “offer support for those helping children to pray and thus to begin their relationship with God. It provides short explanations from the Catholic tradition for the ordinary prayers we say and introduces children to the seasons of the year we celebrate.”

If you are a parent, grandparent, godfather, godmother, or someone guiding children take a look at this site. Children thirst for God from birth. Teaching them to pray is one of the greatest things we can do for them.

Believing for Others

The healing of the paralytic told in today’s gospel from Mark is a great story.(Mark 2: 1–12) Four friends bring him to the door of Peter’s house in Capernaum but the crowds are so dense that they can’t get in to see Jesus so they climb up on the roof, cut a hole in it and lower him down before Jesus. Was the paralyzed man conscious, or half conscious? We don’t know.

What ingenuity! What nerve! What determination on the part of his friends! Think of the logistics involved in it all. The pictures here show the ruins of Peter’s house now enclosed in a shrine and a picture from the shrine looking down into the house–possibly just where the man was lowered down.

We know Jesus forgave the man’s sins and then healed him completely, so he left the house carrying the mat that once bore him. The gospel wants us to recognize that Jesus the healer is Jesus who forgives sins. But some who heard his words of forgiveness that day were shocked by this action which they rightly judged was divine.

But I’m led back to the four friends who had a part in this miracle. Let’s not forget them. They believe and their belief makes them go to extraordinary lengths to  help another .  We believe for others as well as for ourselves. Faith reaches out; it doesn’t remain within.  Believing prompts us to do daring things.

Back to Peter’s house. Did Peter look up that day and say, “Who’s going to pay for that hole in the roof?” The story of the paralyzed man is a wonderful story. But it also has an ominous part to it. Scribes, sitting in judgment, call him a blasphemer for pronouncing sins are forgiven. Opposition to Jesus begins to build that leads to his death.

Restoration of the Heart

Russian icon, The Mystical Supper (early 14th century). Fresco in Vatopedi Monastery, Mt. Athos.

Thursday of the First Week in Ordinary Time (Year I)

Hebrews 3:7-14

Therefore, as the holy Spirit says: “Oh, that today you would hear his voice, ‘Harden not your hearts as at the rebellion in the day of testing in the desert, where your ancestors tested and tried me and saw my works for forty years. Because of this I was provoked with that generation and I said, “They have always been of erring heart, and they do not know my ways.” As I swore in my wrath, “They shall not enter into my rest.”’” 

Take care, brothers, that none of you may have an evil and unfaithful heart, so as to forsake the living God. Encourage yourselves daily while it is still “today,” so that none of you may grow hardened by the deceit of sin. We have become partners of Christ if only we hold the beginning of the reality firm until the end.

Hebrews 3:7-14

Israel’s forty years of wandering and grumbling in the desert is a figure of the meandering heart. The divine speaker and the human (non-) listeners are at odds with each other, fragmented, divided, and disjointed. In such a state, God is treated as an object to be “tested,” “provoked,” and angered. 

By the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, the human heart is restored to oneness with the divine heart through Jesus Christ, stamp of the Father’s very being and substance (hupostasis, Hebrews 1:3).

We have become “partners” (sharers, partakers, metochos, μέτοχος) of Christ if only we hold the beginning of the “reality” (hupostasis) firm until the end (Hebrews 3:14). The Greek word hupostasis appears in both Hebrews 1:3 and 3:14, with a constellation of meanings culminating in the sense of substantive reality, objective ground, and unshakeable firmness. Other biblical translations of hupostasis in Hebrews 3:14 include confidence, assurance, and conviction.

The patristic commentator Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350-428) took a more mystical approach to this verse and reflected on humanity’s deification through sharing in Christ’s very nature:

He says that those who have believed and shared in the Spirit have become partakers in Christ’s “hypostasis” in that they have received a certain natural communion with him. Now there remains the task of preserving this foundation with a pure resolve.1

The voice of the Spirit calls “today” (eternally) in the depths of the heart, not as an outsider or intruder to our inner being, but as our very own being in union and communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In the image of the Trinity, every human heart is a heavenly abode where all persons divine, angelic, and human dwell within one another in the eternal “dance” of perichoresis.

-GMC

1 Theodore of Mopsuestia, Commentary on Hebrews 3.12-13, from Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Hebrews, Erik M. Heen and Philip D. W. Krey, editors, and Thomas C. Oden, general editor (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 57.