November 30, 2014
Year B -9
The lectionary cycle changes now at the first Sunday in Advent.
We move to Year B and we encounter the gospel of Mark.
I want to share some of what I know about Mark's gospel because I believe it is important to have some background information about him. The gospel of Mark was written around 70 CE (Common Era) to a Christian community living in a Roman city somewhere in the Mediterranean region.
The people of Mark's gospel thought like first-century Mediterranean people and not like modern day Westerners.
This meant that they believed there was a Spirit world which was as real to them as the physical world.
These two worlds were closely interrelated. What happened in the Spirit world affected the physical world. Good fortune or ill was the result of the spirits. These spirits saturated the air that surrounded human beings.
Misfortune or ill health was the result of evil spirits that penetrated the human body. So, for example, what looks very much to us like epilepsy was regarded by the people of the ancient world as an action of the evil spirit.
The only way to be protected from these evil spirits was through the use of magic, the action of a healer or miracle worker, or through an appeal to one who had power over the evil spirit. (The practice of Shamanism in Aboriginal culture.)
Marks audience then were these people influenced by spirits and this background is necessary for understanding the activity of the spirits in the gospel of Mark and for interpreting the many stories which presume a spirit world. Sensitivity to this world ensures that we do not read Mark's world as though it were our own. I suggest that we would understand the gospel of Mark at two levels, the level in which it was written and interpreted to make sense in our world today.
Mark's Jesus is presented in the first chapter as an agent of God.
Jesus fits in to the spirit world above the spirits and hence Jesus has more power than the spirits. This is a pyramid, a hierarchy, with God at the top and then Jesus and then the spirits and then humans and then other creatures. Mark has many stories of Jesus exorcising a person possessed by an evil spirit and of course the spirit recognises the power of Jesus and this allows the person to be liberated and made whole.
Mark came from a well to do family. His mother Mary was a friend of the apostles. Some think Mary's home was the place of the last supper. It was definitely the place where the Christians gathered to pray and to wait for the release of Peter from prison. And it was where he came when he was set free. (Rhoda) Mark's gospel has no birth narrative and no account of Jesus' early life. Rather, Mark concentrates on Jesus public ministry.
What is worth noting is that Mark explains Jewish customs and this indicates that the gospel was intended for a non-Jewish audience. The other gospels direct there work toward the Jewish people trying to convert them over to Christianity which had a direct impact on anti Semitic thinking and it still does to this very day. Mark is the only gospel that attempts to present the disciples as less than perfect. Mark's stories represent the dynamics of what it must have been like to follow Jesus both when he was alive and after his death. Mark is the only writer that consistently tells women's stories in a positive light and particularly at the end of Jesus' life when women were the only ones left at the cross and at the tomb.
Need I say that Mark is my favourite writer, the gospel I like the best is this one. And so as we look at Mark and the other Gospels, in particular John, as his Gospel is interspersed with Mark’s gospel, from now till next December. Perhaps we could sometimes focus on the spirit world and how that has affected our lives because there will be remnants of that world that is still with us.
I have just come from Bhutan and Nepal where the spirit world is talked about with ease and with a sense of hope. People are Buddhist and Hindu, hence there is a strong sense of spirit and also a strong notion of the next life. In both religions there are many deities both male and female, and these deities play a role in the lives of the people. There are many major festivals, and we also have major Christian religious holidays, such as Advent which begins today.
Jan Richardson says that the season of Advent is like that. It is like waiting for something to come and we cannot quite imagine what that will be like. It is not possible to keep it from coming, because it will. That's just how Advent works. What is possible is to not see it, to miss it, to turn just as it brushes past you. And you begin to grasp what it was you missed, like Moses in the cleft of the rock, watching God fade in the distance. So stay, sit, linger, tarry, ponder, wait, behold, and wonder. There will be time enough for running, for rushing, for worrying, for pushing. For now, stay, wait. Something is on the horizon. As we light the candles and as the Advent days pass we will piece together the story of Christmas.
As I have grown both spiritually and faithfully, I have gained an appreciation for how many ways there are to tell a story. Take the story of Christmas.
We can tell it as the story of an unwed mother who dared to enter into partnership with God/Spirit to bring forth a new life; we can tell it as a political story about a revolutionary, or as a tale about a love that longed so much for us that it took flesh, formed in the dark womb of a woman who shared her body and blood to bring it forth. We can tell it as a story about darkness giving birth to light, about seemingly endless waiting, and about that which lies at the end of all our waiting.
Any story can be told innumerable ways, for example Mark doesn’t have a birth story at all, Matthew and Luke tell very different stories about the birth, and we tell the story not simply according to who does the telling, but to where the person is on the journey. As my life unfolds, and my perspective changes, I realise that each telling of the story reveals part of the whole, but does not contain the whole story in itself. The stories we tell are continually shaped by our changing understanding of events, conversations, feelings, and influences, which grows out of our relationship with the people around us and of our own selves and our experience. The understanding of our past continues to change according to the experience of our present. With each telling of the story, more of the story comes to light, even as the Advent candles progressively leads us closer to the full blaze of Christmas.
I carry with me the awareness that many people find that this season brings not tidings of comfort and joy but of frustration and grief. I have sought to acknowledge the shadows of this season as well as the light and to describe the ways that I find they dwell together.
And so I believe it is important to offer Old Testament and New Testament readings, but also something from the present day possibilities of writings.
Oriah Mountain Dreamer, from her book called, “The Invitation,” offers good questions for us to reflect on in this season of Advent. Questions like:
- What is it that our heart longs for?
- What are our wildest dreams and how will we fulfill them?
- What is it that our heart desires the most?
- When will you shout to the full moon, and what will you shout about?
Oriah takes us outside the box and asks us a different set of questions. She strips away what we have always considered important and asks us to consider a new set of questions. These are questions that inspire us, and challenge all of us who long for intimacy and joy in our lives. She gives us the opportunity to stop and think about whom we are and what is that we really care about. Advent is a time for indwelling, a time to allow the story to emerge in ways that will empower, heal and renew.
This week I invite you to think about this season of Advent and what does Advent mean for your life. Can you take the time this Advent season to set time aside to sit and reflect?