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A secret Messiah

'Head of Christ'
© Public Domain

21 Mar 2023

Yr B, 13th Sunday of the Year

It is very strange that Jesus should order the family of the girl whom he had just raised from the dead not to tell anyone about it (Mark 5: 35-43). Mrs Cohen next door must have known the girl was dead. She must have had a heart attack when she saw her playing in the street that evening. There are some things you cannot hush up, and raising someone from the dead is definitely one of them. There are many other occasions in St Mark’s Gospel where Jesus tells people not to tell anyone about something amazing he has done, and usually the instruction is unrealistic, as here, or, if not unrealistic, unexpected. He heals a deaf man, and a blind man, and a leper, and always he tells them, and those who had witnessed the event, to keep quiet about it. When, by some spooky intuition, demons confess that Jesus is the holy one, Jesus rebukes them and tells them to be quiet. It is very strange for a messiah not to want people to know that he is messiah, especially when he goes around doing spectacularly messianic things. Jesus himself never says that he is Messiah – except on one occasion. That is towards the end of St Mark’s Gospel when he is brought before the Sanhedrin and the High Priest asks him point blank: Are you the Messiah? and Jesus says: I am.

This is the key to the strange secrecy motif in St Mark’s Gospel. Before the Sanhedrin Jesus can at last state that he is Messiah, because he knows that this admission will now bring him not celebrity but a death sentence. That is his idea of messiahship, and no one now can misunderstand it or imagine that miracles tell the whole story of Jesus’ role as Messiah. Rather:

We hid our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not

That is the whole story; the rest you could have dug up from pagan literature about miracle-workers and superheroes. When Peter at Caesarea Philippi confesses Jesus to be the Messiah on the basis of the spectacular things he had witnessed, Jesus rebukes him (‘Get behind me, Satan!’) and tells him that his way of thinking is not God’s way of thinking, but man’s.

It appears that the Christian community for whom St Mark wrote his Gospel were experiencing severe persecution for the first time. Their Christian faith was beginning to cost them dear. Many paid for it with their lives

Brother will deliver up brother to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake

so Jesus tells his disciples in a later chapter, giving them a preview of what will happen to them after his death ‒ that is, a preview of what was actually happening to Christians at the time St Mark was writing. St Mark is telling his community: What you are going through now is exactly what your faith in Jesus was all about. It was never about Jesus Christ Superstar. Jesus offers no celebrity status, no glamour, no earthly success, no feel-good factor, no quick fixes either, when he is looking for genuine faith. He offers only God’s way of thinking. St Mark wrote his Gospel to encourage believers to become believers. It’s what St Peter also, in his first Epistle, was to tell some other Christians who were also experiencing persecution for the first time:

Don’t be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something alien was happening to you

And if this is the same St Peter who had got the wrong end of the stick at Caesarea Philippi, he has learnt something important in the meantime. It often happens that Christians lose their faith as a result of some sudden personal anguish, perhaps some painful bereavement, some apparent collapse of God’s care and providence in their lives. For such people we should feel only compassion and understanding. For we are all in this together. Who knows how we shall react when our faith is challenged ‒ I mean, really challenged? Who knows whether we shall hold on to our faith?

On the other hand, to be honest, what did we expect? What did faith mean to us while we still had it? Perhaps we remained in the comfort zone of the first half of St Mark’s Gospel where our Messiah works miracles, and perhaps we never imagined for one moment that we would ever be called to accompany him into the second half, where all the props are kicked away. But Christian faith is precisely that: trustingly embracing God’s perspective even when all human prospects appear to have come to an end. To relinquish faith when the props fall away is to stop believing just when it was time to begin. We must ask God to give us a very mature faith. We must learn to let go of ourselves in small things, all the time. After that we must put all our trust in God. We will learn that Messiah does indeed work miracles; really does bring us something amazingly glorious and beautiful. But not in the way we expected.

Fr Tom Deidun

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