25th Sunday B – A Different Messiah
Autumn moves closer to winter and leaves are in freefall. Days of diminishing sunshine yield to chillier air and earlier dusk, and winterish winds blow through the big oak trees across the way and fail to stir their patience. Apologies for that, but nature speaks to my old age and seems to say things that are beyond the years. As a dyed-in-the-wool life-long Catholic, my vision of life is classically Christian – and very humanity-centered. Creation, nature – and what we call nowadays the whole biosphere – haven’t featured much in our spiritual tradition although we are related to everything existing in our universe. Yet the creation centered spirituality of the Celtic era and the spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi appear to be making a comeback as we await the slow ecological conversion of governments.
I watched Franz Zeffirelli’s 1977 film “Jesus of Nazareth” on YouTube the other day, the feast of the Holy Cross. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon. With a cast of classical stars from long ago like Laurence Olivier, James Mason, Peter Ustinov and Anthony Quinn etc., the story is complete and moves along masterfully. The portrayal of the death of Jesus on the cross is a compelling moment, when the eyes of faith suddenly see who he is. The meaning of the moment is brilliantly articulated in the words of Nicodemus, played by Olivier, who stands viewing the scene on Calvary and recites Isaiah 53: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned everyone to his on way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
“But they did not understand what he said….” These words reveal much of what’s going on in Mark’s Gospel. The disciples are portrayed as not really grasping who Jesus is. John Henry Newman said that one’s acceptance or belief in Jesus can be either “notional” (with the head) or “real” (with one’s head, heart, soul and strength). In the end, as Jesus died they fled Calvary. Their faith was more notional than real. Zeffirelli’s eye-popping moment, when Nicodemus finally recognises Christ as for the first time, was a moment that still lay ahead for the disciples until after the resurrection. The Spirit had not yet led them to recognise the depth of who he was, and any talk about his death was something that went in one ear and out the other, an unwelcome distraction. Their minds and hopes were elsewhere. And so they distracted themselves from the reality of Jesus by talking about the new kingdom and who might be what in it.
“If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all…” These words from Jesus must have thrown them for a loop. He is not who they think he is. He is not a ‘Messiah’ in the sense that many people were hoping for – someone who would put forth his arm in strength and set them free from their foes. Instead, this enigmatic Jesus takes a little child in his arms and says in effect “This little child represents the newness that I’m all about.” To hold a little child is to feel the freshness of dawn and taste the fountainhead of life. To look at a newly baptised infant is to glimpse the first sparkle of springtime. The compilers of Mark’s Gospel wanted to highlight the newness and originality of Jesus in contrast to the old-fashioned messiah that many expected. Compared to the traditional teaching of the scribes about the messiah, the disciples would discover in Jesus a fresh underground stream of living water. But first they would have to go with him through Calvary.
Fr. QQ – 09/15/2021
Let him Easter in us,
Be a dayspring to the dimness in us,
Be a crimson cresseted East…