Archive | December, 2008

The Christ of the Valley- Luke 9:37-50

26 Dec

Mountaineering presents several challenges, especially concerning the necessity to properly acclimatize to changes in altitude before attempting to scale the world’s highest peaks. Climbers begin a regimen of repeated ascents into thinner air, and progressively longer stays at the higher level, followed by descents to a lower camp, weeks prior to reaching the summit. Persons who live in high-altitude urban centres have been studied for their adaptation to lower atmospheric pressure; these people have been found to have elevated red blood cell counts, hence more concentrated hemoglobin, which enables greater efficiency of oxygen exchange and transport in the bloodstream. (1)

Fatigue, particularly under physical exertion, may result from a rapid transition to higher elevations. By May of 2008, I had been living in Cali, Colombia, for over four months, and had become accustomed to the warm, oxygen-rich air about one thousand metres above sea level. Then, I accompanied a Basilian seminarian over five days in Bogotá, the world’s third-highest national capital city at 2 600 metres. A picturesque colonial-era district, la Candelaria, is downhill from Casa Annonay, our Community’s house in Bogotá. Therefore, I found the return climb, though only moderately steep, quite strenuous because of the altitude and, relatedly, the colder and drier climate than that of Cali. During a visit to another Basilian house in Medellín, a city spread over three mountain ranges, my experience was similar to that in Bogotá. The ascent on foot to Medellín’s monument of the crucified Christ, El Cristo, had left me both out of breath and amazed at the endurance of the seminarian with whom I had visited that city.

In my reflection on my time in Colombia posted in May of this year, I constructed a metaphor between Colombia’s mountainous terrain and our own spiritual lives. St. John of the Cross described a similar concept of spiritual topography in his untitled poem that begins with the phrase, “I went out seeking love.” In the quest to find love, St. John said that we must sink “so low, so low.” In the depths, one encounters the Lord, the experience of whose presence John of the Cross wrote, “I flew so high… that I took the prey.” (2) God, St. John implied, is both Love and lover, and while He is the sought-after prey on high, God is to be found in the lowlands, where He has come to meet us as a servant and as a human being.

St. John of the Cross’ poem highlights the paradox that is the contemplation of eternal life, which words fail to express adequately. However, St. John’s use of vivid contrast between high and low is part of tradition dating back to the early Church. Notably, all three Synoptic Gospels both precede and succeed Jesus’ Galilean ministry with references to the Palestinian landscape. The public ministry of Jesus is introduced by the proclamation of John the Baptist, who quoted from the prophet Isaiah:

A voice crying out in the desert:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight His paths.
Every valley shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ (3)

Likewise, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all conclude their Galilean ministry narratives with the passage between the Transfiguration and Jesus’ decisive turn toward Jerusalem. In all three Synoptic Gospels the relation to Israeli topography is present there, though more subtly than in the preparatory exhortation of John the Baptist. After the Transfiguration, Jesus, Peter, James, and John decended from the mountain and were met by “a large crowd.” (4) Therefore the reader is taken by Matthew, by Mark, and by Luke from a place of prayer, or of teaching in St. Matthew’s Gospel specifically, into a setting of service. Although the Matthean, Marcan, and Lucan accounts all include the descent of Jesus and of the three Apostles from the mountain following the Transfiguration, they provide different amounts of detail about and attach divergent meanings to the discussion that took place as the four men retuned to the valley below. The Gospels of Mark and of Matthew show the disciples questioning whether Elijah ought to have come again before the Anointed, as the scribes had taught according to a long-standing view in messianic Judaism. (5) While Our Lord’s Transfiguration had foreshadowed His Resurrection, that event had more importantly foretold Jesus’ death also. The disciples, though, focused on Christ’s Resurrection such that, according to Matthew and to Mark, Jesus reminded them that firstly “the Son of Man… must suffer and be treated with contempt.” (6) As with Elijah, the Jewish authorities would do “with [Jesus] whatever they pleased, as it is written.” (7)

Fear does not enable Peter, James, and John to interpret the first prediction of the Passion and the Transfiguration completely. Consequently, Jesus’ explanation of the prophecy about Elijah’s second coming is only partly understood as an allusion to the recently-executed John the Baptist. (8) The Passion of Jesus, ahead of the Resurrection, will fulfill that which had been written about both John the Baptist and Elijah. None of the Synoptic Gospel writers mention the disciples’ fear as they descended the mountain, but it is clear that the previous events had clouded their judgement and comprehension of the unfolding circumstances. God had enjoined Peter, James and John to “listen to [Jesus],” His “chosen Son,” (9) but these three most prominent Apostles were incapable of hearing the Word fully, because they were so intensely afraid of Jesus’ eventual suffering and death.

Unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke does not place the fear-driven discussion between the Apostles after the Transfiguration, but transposes this story to his post-Resurrection narrative. On the road to Emmaus, the disciples would recall Jesus’ teachings as they realized the presence of the Risen Christ among them: “Were not our hearts burning within us while He spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” (10) Only at that point, with the purpose of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem accomplished, did the fear of the disciples begin to be transformed by Our Lord into faith and strength, just as death had been changed into life by His Passion and Resurrection.

St. Luke also tends, more than the other Gospel authors, to specify the passage of time at important junctures in Jesus’ life. For example, eight days pass between the Nativity and the circumcision and naming of Jesus. (11) Our Lord is twelve years old when He is found in the Temple (12), begins His ministry at “about thirty years of age” (13), and spends forty days in the desert, during which He is tempted by the devil. (14) The Transfiguration, Luke writes, occurs eight days after the first prediction of the Passion. (15) Then, “on the next day,” Peter, James, and John “came down the mountain” and were immersed in the multitudes of people. (16) A single day would have been little time for them to adjust to the tremendous effects of Jesus’ Transfiguration and of His prediction of His Passion. Rendered silent by the simultaneous joy and sadness of these events, the three Apostles must not only descend a physical mountain to be met by a “needy world” (17) that will not allow them to rest, but their negotiation of the mountain, in the spiritual and emotional senses, also requires proper acclimatization.

Compared to Mark and Matthew, Luke usually takes more time to relate important stages in the life of Christ, but before Jesus begins His final journey to Jerusalem that Luke spreads over almost ten full chapters, the author of the third Gospel in Canonical order tells of four separate  incidents in only fourteen verses, and he omits details found in Matthew and in Mark. (18) In an accelerated fashion uncharacteristic of Luke, Jesus’ friends are taught four critical lessons about discipleship, all of which are related to the mercy of God and to the Cross, the ultimate manifestation of that Divine mercy. (19) According to Scripture commentator Fred Craddock, discipleship depends upon our reconciliation with the Cross as a necessary part of the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ. (20) The four stories in this short section of Luke’s Gospel- the healing of the boy with an evil spirit, the second prediction of the Passion, the teaching about who is greatest in God’s Kingdom, and the foreign exorcist- involve four separate instructions about the essential features of a Christian disciple, all qualities shown to be lacking in the Twelve as they were about to set out for Jerusalem. Craddock writes:

The four subunits are really vignettes in which the disciples are revealed as lacking in power (vv. 37-43a), in understanding (vv. 43b-45), in humility, and in sympathy (vv. 49-50). No wonder Luke devotes over nine chapters to the journey to Jerusalem: preparation of the disciples, including the reader, will take time. (21)

From the perspective of a teacher of Holy Scripture, Fred Craddock incisively connects the four parts of this transitional passage of Luke’s Gospel to the reader. We are as much disciples of Jesus as those who were written about in the Gospel. This form of spirituality is somewhat common; some religious orders, for example the Jesuits, are renowned for their training of Biblical readers to picture themselves in the passage they are reading. We become in such exercises integrated into the Scriptural narrative at the same time as God’s word becomes an inseparable part of us. This method of learning the Scriptures may be enormously beneficial, although one must not approach Biblical role-play too proudly.  Temptation exists, especially for professional interpreters of the Sacred texts, to put ourselves in the position of the teacher instead of in that of the student. Therefore, Craddock warns us:

The tendency among us who share these texts with others is to assume the place of Jesus for ourselves and to place our listeners in the role of disciples. That is, we speak Jesus’ words of correction, reprimand, encouragement, and instruction to others rather than listening to them in the role of disciples. (22)

Our first lesson, then, as disciples of Jesus is to rely entirely on God in times that we experience our own powerlessness. These occasions, as in the Lucan context of the healing of the boy possessed by a demon, are unavoidable. The day after the Transfiguration, a man approached Jesus from a great crowd of people. His son was worn out by recurrent convulsions. He had been screaming and “[foaming] at the mouth.” (23) The father pleaded desperately with Jesus, “I begged your disciples to cast [the demon] out, but they could not.” (24) Jesus’ reaction to the man’s predicament probably surprised those who were present: “O faithless and perverse generation, how long will I be with you and endure you? Bring your son here.” (25)

Luke does not specify the object of Our Lord’s exasperation, unlike Matthew, in whose Gospel the disciples are privately chided for their lack of faith. (26) In the Gospel of Mark, the father of the demoniac child is on the receiving end of Jesus’ stern admonishment, although he is not entirely faithless but admits, as we ought also, to his struggle to trust fully in God. He then asks for God’s assistance, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” (27) Luke’s phraseology is both more eloquent and no less ambiguous than that of Mark. In the Lucan Gospel, Jesus’ challenge to believe in His power is directed more at us as Christian disciples than at any of the first-hand witnesses to the healing of the sick boy. (28)

Although the three Synoptic Gospel authors essentially agree that a spirit was responsible for the child’s symptoms- the belief in demonic possession was common in first-century Palestine- discrepancies exist between the Matthean, Marcan, and Lucan accounts. Matthew, for instance, writes that the boy was a “lunatic”, while he refers to demonic possession only later. (29) This indicates that the child’s condition, probably epilepsy, was not only culturally associated with evil spirits but also with the phases of the moon. (30) The word ‘lunatic’ appears only twice in the New Testament, both times in the Gospel of Matthew. (31) An explicit challenge of the disciples’ faith- Jesus said to His followers that even faith the size of a mustard seed would have sufficed to cure the boy- is also unique to the Matthean Gospel. (32)

Mark’s depiction of the epileptic boy’s healing begins with the disciples, tired, confused, and saddened by Jesus’ first predictions of His death, surrounded by the multitudes and arguing with the scribes. (33) The placement of this episode immediately after the Transfiguration and the ensuing discussion about the meaning of rising from the dead are thematically consistent with the preceding series of events. Mark portrays the cure of the young demoniac as more of a resurrection from death than strictly a healing of one who is ill. Jesus cast out the malevolent spirit and commanded it never to return to the child. Mark describes the demon as “deaf and mute,” (34) a possible allusion to those on the verge of spiritual death who cannot hear the word of God or who are silenced by fear so deeply rooted that it disables faith. Therefore, this exorcism served also as a warning to the disciples in the early Church not to allow fear of death to dull their faith in the Resurrection.  This current runs throughout the Marcan Gospel. When the Risen Christ appears to the Eleven, some of them have still not believed “those who saw Him after He had been raised” (35) that Jesus had indeed been restored to life. Moreover, Mark is the only evangelist to observe that many of those who saw the exorcism of the demoniac child thought that “he [was] dead,” because he had become “like a corpse” before Jesus “took him by the hand, raised him, and he stood up.” (36)

Jesus also underscores the importance of prayer in driving out the demon: “This kind can only come out through prayer.” (37) Similarly, we ought to pray for the dead and for the severely ill. Our Lord’s Passion began with prayer in the Garden. We should follow Him in praying that God’s will be done over our own. (38) Our Father’s will that permitted Jesus to die on the Cross also raised Him from death. Through Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, Satan, the lord of demons, has been cast out, but our path to salvation began especially with the Son of God at prayer in Gethsemane.

St. Luke stresses the significance of prayer, too, although in this Gospel Jesus did not directly associate the exorcism of the epileptic with the need to pray, as He did as per St. Mark. Instead, according to Luke only, Jesus was at prayer during the Transfiguration itself. (39) The disciples descended from the mountain into the valley, a place of service in Luke’s Gospel. As such, Luke distinguishes himself from Mark and from Matthew by his heightened level of human concern.

Like Matthew, Luke challenges the faith of the disciples more than that of the father of the ill child. St. Luke alone adds the word “perverse” to Jesus’ criticism of His generation’s disbelief. (40) This adjective refers to Israel’s ongoing faithlessness from the Mosaic era, hence Moses’ injunction against the “fickle”, “perverse and crooked race” of Israelites in Deuteronomy. (41) The same human infidelity will result in Jesus’ death, therefore Luke’s diction in 9:41 functions as a flashback to Israel’s deliverance under Moses and, more pertinently, as a flash forward to our deliverance from our own listless faith by the power of Jesus Christ. (42)

Death is a prominent theme in the story of the healing of the epileptic in the Gospel of Luke, as it is in the Matthean and Marcan Gospels. However, as he makes the literary transition between Jesus’ Galilean ministry and His journey to Jerusalem, Luke accentuates the human nature of Our Saviour. As the ideal human being, Jesus is best shown by Luke to be the most empathetic toward humankind. Only Luke identifies, in the words of the epileptic’s father, that the boy is the man’s “only child.” (43) Jesus thus relates especially to the boy whose father pleads with Him from among the crowd of people. Our Lord, hidden by the multitudes, is once again singled out as the only Son of God the Father.

For a second time in Luke’s Gospel- the first had been the raising of the widow’s son at Nain- Jesus raises the only child of a desperate parent from death or near-death. (44) Perhaps the strongest allusion to death in the Marcan and Matthean narratives of the healing of the young demoniac is the reference, omitted by Luke, to the seizures that cause the boy to fall into fire and water. (45) Although such an interpretation is speculative, St. Luke may not have mentioned the fire and water, possibly suggestive of the afterlife, or of hell and of Heaven, respectively, in the ancient Jewish understanding of the universe, since he wrote to a Gentile audience that would have been less aware of  Hebrew cosmology of the time. (46) Nevertheless, our knowledge of “how the heavens go” (47) is subordinate to our call to love and mercy toward others, in keeping with Jesus’ teaching in His Sermon on the Plain, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (48)

In His mercy, Jesus raised the epileptic child and, in a Lucan addition to both Mark and Matthew that again highlights God’s love for humanity, He “returned [the boy] to his father.” (49) Jesus’ act brings to mind His own Resurrection, as well as our own; we also hope, because of the saving mercy of God, to be returned to Our Father in Heaven. The rising of Christ to life, then is the greatest of all miracles and the sum of all God’s great works. (50) Because of His Resurrection we, too, have a chance to be raised from death. We must, though, remain attentive to the instruction of the miracle worker instead of becoming infatuated with the works themselves, as was a temptation of the first disciples and is for every Christian to the present age.

For that reason, in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the priest welcomes the congregation and introduces the epistle reading with the exclamation, “Wisdom! Be attentive!” (51) Jesus prefaced the second prediction of His Passion similarly: “Pay attention to what I am telling you. The Son of Man is to be handed over to men.” (52) The disciples, Luke writes, failed to understand Jesus’ words, and they reacted fearfully. (53) When Jesus had spoken about His Passion and Resurrection for the first time, no explicit mention of fear nor misunderstanding on the part of the Apostles was made by St. Luke. (54) Prior to His entrance into Jerusalem, Jesus would again refer to His upcoming death, but the Twelve would show none of the fear to be expected of them considering the temporal and geographical proximity of the events of which Our Lord would speak. Luke says of the Apostles at the third Passion prediction only  that “they understood nothing… and they failed to comprehend what He said,” (55) but their fear is conveyed openly ten chapters earlier.

At the beginning of Chapter 9 of Luke’s Gospel, the twelve disciples had been sent out by Jesus. Their first attempt at work away from the physical presence of their Master had been successful, as “they went from village to village proclaiming the good news and curing diseases everywhere.” (56) Peter had been able to vocalize the Divine revelation he was given as to the identity of Jesus, the “Messiah of God,” (57) but by then the conversion process from disciples to Apostles was underway. The Twelve, perplexed by two predictions of the horrific death of the Son of Man, the first without reference to His Resurrection (58), were to be broken under the weight of their own powerlessness and lack of understanding. They could no longer bear their daily cross attentively (59); all their human wisdom was for naught. The confidence of the Twelve was shattered by the prospect of their Lord’s suffering and execution in the worst way possible. In their weakness, the Apostles looked for a scapegoat among themselves, instead of accepting their share in the humiliation of Christ. In response, Jesus placed a small child before them, a symbol of the humility expected of a Christian. (60) He then instructed us, His disciples, with a message shared by all four Gospel writers:

Whoever receives this child in My name receives Me, and whoever receives Me receives the One who sent Me. For the one who is least among all of you is the one who is the greatest. (61)

Jesus was preparing His Apostles for a time when they would face ostracism and persecution. He had already been run out of his hometown, Nazareth, for His preaching in the synagogue to which the people had reacted angrily. (62) Our Lord had entered our human exile, a world where the innkeeper had turned Him away before His birth, yet the shepherds had joyfully received their King, born in a lowly stable. (63)

Later on, Jesus took a child from the crowd and placed it among His disciples. Then a foreign exorcist came to John’s attention. This man, John argued, did not belong to those closest to Jesus, although he was able to cast out demons in Christ’s name as were the Twelve. (64) Jesus responded thus to John’s exclusivism, “Do not prevent him, for whoever is not against you is for you.” (65) St. Luke, writing to a Greek-speaking Gentile audience, again shows his inclusiveness in a time when the early Chrisitans were both dying at Roman hands and being excluded from the Jewish synagogues. St. Matthew substitutes the story of the foreign exorcist with that of the payment of the Temple tax (66), but the message is essentially the same: the disciples will come to be considered outcasts. Therefore, anyone who does the work of Christ should be actively welcomed into our community of believers. Following Fred Craddock’s paradigm for interpretation of this section of Luke’s Gospel, the last of four teachings to Jesus’ followers between His Transfiguration and journey to Jerusalem is on Christian sympathy- we ought to regard ourselves as foreigners, in the footsteps of the Redeemer who leads us forth from the manger over high and low lands to Jerusalem and to the Cross.

Lord Jesus, You called Your Apostles into the valley from the mountain on which You were transfigured. May we learn Your way of service and accept our physical, emotional, and spiritual low points so that You may raise us to the height that is the Resurrection. Through our work in Your name, may the valleys be exalted and the mountains of our pride be made low. As we celebrate Your birth among us as a human being and await Your coming in glory, grant us, Lord, Your power, understanding, humility, and sympathy as we work for the good of all Your people and promote the growth of Your Church. Amen.

God’s blessings to all in this Christmas season and a Happy 2009 to all!