Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Wednesday after Epiphany

Readings: 1 John 4:11-18; Psalm 72; Mark 6:45-62

One sentence in Mark's account of Jesus walking on the water is omitted from the parallel accounts in Matthew 14 and John 6. 'He meant to pass by them', Mark tells us (6:48). Strange that this would be the sentence that seems strange in an account of a man walking on water through a stormy sea!

The fear of the disciples is not connected with the weather conditions but rather with the strange fact that Jesus appears to them on the water. 'Take heart', he says, 'it is I, do not fear'. Ego eimi is the phrase translated 'it is I', the divine name so important throughout John's gospel ('I am') but not given as much attention when it appears here in Mark. Except to note that the Lord of the seas is God the creator, the one who sets their limits, populates them with creatures, and has the power to divide them, dispel them, or cause them to erupt in the desert.

This is another incident in which it becomes clear, it is revealed, that God is present in Jesus. It is another Epiphany then. Matthew supplements it with the story of Peter asking to imitate Jesus by walking on the water. John concludes it briskly by having them all magically transported to their destination. But Matthew and John use the same Greek phrase as Mark: 'take heart, it is I, do not be afraid'.

So within this strange story we find a sentence so strange (at least for some readerships) that it is omitted by Matthew and John, 'he meant to pass by them'. It seems that this is the sentence that tests credulity most sharply, the lectio difficilior which has a claim to being original precisely because it is a more difficult reading. Whatever weird and wonderful things the Incarnate Word got up to, however he decided to disport himself in relation to creation, there is something scandalous, it seems, in him walking past the disciples. It seems to mean ignoring them, having plans and purposes that for the moment do not include them.

Is that what is shocking, scandalous, bizarre in this surreal story? That the Son of God, the Incarnate Word, would have plans and purposes beyond the concerns of his immediate disciples? That his mind might be elsewhere, so to speak? Some interpreters get down to the task of trying to explain away the plain meaning of the text, to bring it round again to show that Jesus couldn't possibly have been intending to ignore the disciples.

The best explanation, though, is that this phrase belongs with the other phrases and characteristics of this incident that make it a theophany, a revelation of the presence and glory of God. The most famous 'passings by' of God in the Old Testament are those in which he reveals himself more fully to Moses (Exodus 33:22) and Elijah (1 Kings 19:11). Paradoxically, then, the 'passing by' of the Lord means a more intense and intimate presence of the divine mystery, that in passing by God comes closer. In coming close God also becomes more mysterious since it can only be in His nature as God that he comes close and that means in His nature as mysterious, infinite, in comprehensible. So Moses sees only God's back and Elijah is aware of God in the sound of fine silence.

The disciples are, appropriately, terrified, not because of the weather conditions but because of the one walking on the waters. But he turns to them, re-assures them, speaks to them, and gets into the boat with them. Here is a new reality, that the One who is, the Lord of the waters, in passing by, and so coming closer in the mystery of his nature, is now accessible and available, has a face and a voice, can be in the boat with them, is there to be touched and seen and heard, in the person of Jesus.

So Mark, with this strange comment, is more faithful to the language of divine theophany than are either Matthew or John who let it drop out. One of the finest texts in the Bible in which the glory of God is sensed in its passing by is Job, chapter 9. Putting it alongside the text of Mark read today we see again how in Jesus God answers Job's questions and in doing so draws us into deeper mysteries:

... how can mere mortals prove their innocence before God?
Though they wished to dispute with him,
    they could not answer him one time out of a thousand.
His wisdom is profound, his power is vast.
    Who has resisted him and come out unscathed?
He moves mountains without their knowing it
    and overturns them in his anger.
He shakes the earth from its place
    and makes its pillars tremble.
He speaks to the sun and it does not shine;
    he seals off the light of the stars.
He alone stretches out the heavens
    and treads on the waves of the sea.
He is the Maker of the Bear and Orion,
    the Pleiades and the constellations of the south.
10 He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed,
    miracles that cannot be counted.
11 When he passes me, I cannot see him;
    when he goes by, I cannot perceive him.
12 If he snatches away, who can stop him?
    Who can say to him, ‘What are you doing?’ ...

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