Posted February 7, 2021
5th Sunday of the Year, Yr B
There are eighteen miracle stories in St Mark’s Gospel. Most of them are packed into the first half of the Gospel. When, halfway through the Gospel, St Peter, at Caesarea Philippi, blurts out to Jesus: ‘You are the Messiah!’, it is doubtless because he has been impressed by those miracles. But Jesus rebukes him, telling him that his understanding of ‘messiah’ is a million miles from God’s way of thinking. It is only after Caesarea Philippi that Jesus, gradually, leads Peter and the others to a right understanding of his destiny: the cross. On the cross Jesus is no longer a miracle-worker. No one comes to the cross to tell him: ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ Even God, he feels, has forsaken him.
The single overall lesson of St Mark’s Gospel is that the place where Jesus brings us to God is not miracles, but the cross. In a sense, then, today’s Gospel passage is setting us up: setting us up for a shocking reversal. The townsfolk gathered in St Peter’s front garden looking for miracles. But we need to read St Mark’s Gospel backwards to understand that religion must be something other than faith in miracles. Which is just as well, for the Jesus of the first half of St Mark’s Gospel seems not to be around any longer. Where was Jesus the exorcist at Auschwitz? Where was the miracle-working Jesus during those eight years when a loved-one of mine died a slow, pitiful death? Where are Jesus’ miracles in today’s world where countless innocents are suffering horrendous deprivation, with no prospect of relief? Where are those miracles now when more than two million people worldwide have died of Covid-19 in the space of a year – of whom, more than a hundred thousand in the UK alone?
If religion means faith in miracles then religion surely runs the risk of becoming irrelevant. Faith consists not in the quest for miracles but in – how shall we put it? – it consists in making your home in another world. That is the understanding of faith that we find in St John’s Gospel and in St Paul’s epistles. I find hints of what it means in a book by Viktor Frankl, entitled Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl was a neurologist and psychotherapist, a Jew, a survivor of Auschwitz. His wife, his parents and his brother were murdered in the concentration camps. Through all his experience of Auschwitz Frankl made his home in ‘another world’. What was that ‘other world’ that enabled him to rise above those horrendous circumstances? It was his wife. Throughout all the hell of Auschwitz he continued at every moment to converse with his wife. He didn’t know if she was alive or dead. ‘There was no need for me to know’, he writes. ‘Nothing could touch the strength of my love, my thoughts, and the image of my beloved. Had I known then that my wife was dead, I think that I would still have given myself, undisturbed by that knowledge, to the contemplation of her image, and that my mental conversation with her would have been just as vivid and just as satisfying.’ Frankl describes a particularly horrid incident that occurred during the forced trudge of prisoners to Auschwitz. It distracted him for a few minutes. But ‘soon my soul found its way back from the prisoner’s existence to another world.’ And in that other world he found meaning. Through all that nightmare he never lost his faith in life’s meaning.
The lesson I learn from Frankl’s experience is that there must be some seed of warmth and security that comes into its own in such circumstances; some ‘sure and steadfast anchor of the soul’, as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it. When that other world is real to you, real, that is, in your experience, then your soul will always find its way back to it, however black the night and however far away God seems to be.
I wonder, though, if even the contemplation of one’s beloved would be enough to sustain most people in faith. Certainly, our loved ones will be part of that other world, but it must be a surer, more enduring world, a world that can sustain us even through the loss of our loved ones: some indelible prior experience of God such that you can sense him, touch him, even when he is no longer there; something to sustain your conviction that, notwithstanding all appearances to the contrary, and in spite of all contrary thoughts and feelings, God is there, and the (albeit oh so distant!) future will be bright, and in the end ‘all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.’
For us this ‘other world’ can only be the prior intimate experience of Jesus and that other world. Growth in faith comes from making that experience our own, from day to day, so that it becomes second nature to us. That sublime other world must become a kind of screen-saver set to minimum delay in our day-to-day consciousness, as vivid as Frankl’s other world. Our daily task is to come close to Jesus and savour his presence, eager at every moment to embrace his dying-and-rising. It’s what St Paul meant when he wrote: ‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.’ That is faith: and it’s a bit different from hoping for miracles.
In today’s Eucharist we gather in St Peter’s front garden, asking for a greater miracle. In the midst of our present fear and perplexity, and in all the world’s sufferings, we ask to be taken unforgettably into that other world, if only for a while – but then again and again. Then, in all our sufferings, and even when God seems to be absent, our souls will always find their way back to that other world. And in that other world we shall find meaning, and a joy that we could never have imagined.
Fr Tom Deidun