Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity (Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost), 2018.
Our verses from Saint Mark give his account of Saint Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Christ and then the first teaching in Mark’s Gospel from Jesus about His death and resurrection, which is followed by Our Lord’s memorable description of true discipleship. These verses directly precede the account of our Lord’s Transfiguration on the high and holy mountain, which we reflect upon twice every year: the Sunday directly before Ash Wednesday and Lent, and the feast devoted to the event in August. And then the verses directly following give the Saint Mark’s account of the healing of a boy with a mute spirit, such a debilitating possession that the disciples are unable to cast out, which becomes the occasion for Our Lord’s teaching that “this kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.”
I summarize these forty odd verses because these three groups of verses demonstrate a pattern we see throughout Mark’s gospel—his use of what scholars have playfully but usefully called “the Markan sandwich.” Just as any sandwich is named by what is between the two slices of bread, a Markan sandwich is interpreted by the middle, second passage, an interpretation which then sheds light on the first and third passages, and in general invites us to a deeper consideration of the Gospel of Jesus and robust prayer.
Everything here hinges on how we regard the Transfiguration, and I have said before on the Feast of this extraordinary event that Peter, James and John saw in Jesus a glimpse of His eternal, unborn, divine nature so as to begin to fall truly in love with Jesus, His image ever-imprinted upon their hearts. It was an event that began in prayer, and can only be interpreted by our prayer. Prayer is the only way Christians have to grasp the inner realities of truth, the only way Christians have to grapple with God’s invisible and spiritual grace. By grace, it is prayer itself, then, and only prayer, that transfigures our experience of the world.
It was only in and through prayer that Peter was able to properly identify Jesus as the Messiah, although perhaps Saint Peter deserves a bit less credit than some might give him, because the title of Christ or Messiah was used for kings, teachers, warriors, and judges. That Peter’s prayerful understanding of Jesus was not deep enough is witnessed only a couple of verses later, when he in effect puts himself in front of the person, Jesus, who he is supposedly to be following.
This, then, is the occasion for Jesus to provide food to deepen His disciples’ prayer life. A true disciple must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Jesus. And furthermore, He taught that whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for Jesus’ sake and the gospel’s will save it. Undoubtedly the disciples had to ruminate upon this seemingly contradictory teaching, and even whether it was a teaching at all.
The best interpretation of this I think is found in a story told within the within Buddhist religious literature. It goes like this: a university professor went to visit a famous Buddhist master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor talked about Buddhism. The master poured the professor’s cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. “It’s full! No more will go in!” the professor blurted. The master replied: “This is you! How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?” We must surrender ourselves to God, willingly and completely be empty before Him. It is only then that He can in all things direct and rule our hearts. This is at the heart of bearing our cross. To empty ourselves is to do what Jesus Himself did on the cross, He who emptied Himself for our salvation.
To empty ourselves, that we might be filled with Jesus—filled with His life, His teaching, His example, His love, His grace—is why the People of God through discipline participate in the continuous rhythm of the Church’s religious life of Holy Eucharist, a twofold daily Office, and devotion according to personal needs and abilities. This religious pattern was only revealed at the Coming of the Holy Ghost on Pentecost. At this point in Mark’s Gospel, this pattern had yet to be revealed to the disciples. This is why they were unable to heal the boy with the debilitating spirit. It is only through disciplined prayer life as it was revealed at Pentecost that a Parish can truly be a healing agent to the local community and the world.
Let us then take to heart our Lord’s teaching about what is necessary in order to heal those possessed by demons. Doing such exorcism might sound exotic, but the Gospels all describe casting out demons in others as a primary mode of our devotion to Jesus, central to evangelism and therefore Mission. It is not exotic because exorcism is nothing other than healing itself. God’s redemptive grace to be agents of His healing to the world flows through those who willingly embrace the disciplined life of prayer and fasting. God works through those who empty themselves in humble surrender before Him.