Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Week 4 Tuesday (Year 1)

Readings: Hebrews 12:1-4; Psalm 22; Mark 5:21-43

'Talitha koum', 'little girl, arise'. It is one of the places in the New Testament where we find Aramaic words. There are a number of these places, especially in the gospels, and particularly in Mark's gospel. It is believed that Aramaic was the mother tongue of Jesus. It is a language still used today, for example by the Christian communities struggling for survival in Iraq.

We can speculate about why these words and phrases survive in the New Testament. There seems to be no scholarly consensus about why they are there, and why they appear at precisely the places where we find them. The following seem like the three most importance occurrences of Aramaic words in Mark's gospel: the passage we read today in which Jesus says 'talitha koum' to the little girl, the passage from Mark 14 which tells of Jesus' agony in the garden and where he prays to his Father as 'Abba', and the words spoken by Jesus from the cross as recorded by Mark, 'Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani'.

What is common to all three is death. In all three moments Jesus is confronted with death. They are all times when faith or trust in God is put to its most extreme test, when Jesus engages with death, the final and ultimate enemy, the last weapon in the arsenal of the kingdom of Satan. And death seems like the victory of that kingdom. Having shown that he has power over illness and  demons, over sin and the forces of nature, what about death? What can the Messiah do in the face of death? He proclaims that the kingdom of God is at hand, a kingdom that is about life, the fulness of life, eternal life. How does he fare in the battle with death? Will his kingdom be able for that?

We have been reading the letter to the Hebrews for the past few weeks and hear this morning about the cloud of witnesses who bear witness to faith, gathered round Jesus who is the 'leader and perfecter' of our faith. Chief among these witnesses is Abraham who believed even in the face of death. He believed that God was able even to raise the dead and so Isaac was given back to him, saved from the jaws of death, as a symbol of God's power to raise the dead.

With Jesus this raising of the dead really begins. We can imagine that the Aramaic words survive because these encounters with death are the most intense, emotionally, of Jesus' ministry. We know from his reaction to the death of Lazarus how profoundly moved he was at the power of death. It is easy to see that Gethsemane and Golgotha are the most emotional moments for him personally, the times of deepest struggle: will he remain faithful even in this deepening darkness? We can imagine that he was angry at the reaction of the crowd when he arrived at the house of Jairus.

Here is a common factor, then, in what seem like the most significant uses of Aramaic words in Mark's gospel: they are recorded where Christ clashed with death. They are used in times of high emotion. As if for the witnesses who record these encounters the experience was also deeply emotional, so that actual words and phrases, in the Lord's mother tongue, were seared into their hearts, minds and memories.

It is a speculation, a meditation, but it is at least interesting. And perhaps a lot more than interesting, because it raises the key question: how does faith fare in the face of death? My faith? Your faith? The faithfulness of Jesus? Our trust in him? Do we continue then to believe, to hope, that with God all things are possible?

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