Making of a Reader: Confirmation and Jesus
When I read the gospel of Mark, I feel as if I’m pushed off the end of a dock into the water without knowing if I can swim. Mark doesn’t particularly care about me, as a reader, in this regard. Lacking a formal prologue as with John, or a birth narrative, as in Matthew and Luke—Mark just takes off and we have to find our way. As I’m flailing about, trying to stay afloat, I confess, I actually like this approach. Without an introduction, it is easier to read remembering the first rule of becoming a reader: begin as if this were the first time you have read this! The poet, David Whyte, points toward this posture when he stands high in the Andes Mountains looking down upon an azure lake held among the peaks like a great baptismal font.
In this high place
it is as simple as this,
leave everything you know behind.
Step toward the cold surface,
say the old prayer of rough love
and open both arms.
Those who come with empty hands
will stare into the lake astonished,
there in the cold light
reflecting pure snow
the true shape of your own face. (Tillicho Lake)
“Leave everything you know behind” and prepare to be astonished. That’s the proper attitude of a reader approaching the biblical text.
And so we are astonished when we are pushed off the dock and onto a stage with a wild man, a bug eater who shouts, “Turn! Turn!” “Some one is coming! Get ready!” Not much to go on.
Before we even catch our breath and look about, the one who is “coming” is here! “…and as he was “coming out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from Heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (Mark.1.10-11).
Look first at the pronouns. Who sees the heavens? Who hears the voice? Who is the he? Oh, lovely and devilish ambiguity! We are given a privileged place because as readers, perhaps unlike others present at the river’s edge, we also hear this voice. And, since we are included in the scene we know that while this is a very personal moment, it is not private. Mystery abounds! But, no secrecy!
But, what does this pronouncement mean? Mark makes no comment. How does Jesus hear these words : “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”? How would we ever know? Why are we allowed to hear them? What can these words mean for us?
Certainly, something is initiated in this moment when water and word are joined as something meant to speak directly to the person. For Mark, the writer, the journey begins here, the plot, the direction of the narrative is charted from this place.
We read on. Soon a group is gathered to follow. We are part of this entourage because as readers we are also watching and listening for clues to where this is all heading. Mark does not give us secret information so we know something before we can know it. As in real living, we must listen and watch carefully to what unfolds before us.
And, we dare not sit in our seats while this drama is taking place on a stage other than the one we stand upon. We must get up out of the safety of observation, and into risks of active participation, as if the paths Jesus and disciples wander are the sidewalks of our own city and village.
The first part of this gospel is just this, it seems to me. We watch the life of this man unfold before our eyes, encounter by encounter, village by village, person to person, with the voice still ringing in our ears that the coming one is here, and is the “Beloved.” And so it happens that in each moment of encounter we are learning something of the person and his uniqueness. We set out on the path of our personal direction when we are open to and accept the uniqueness encountered in each person and respond with wholeness. Isn’t it likely that this learning is also taking place within Jesus, this same fundamental human process of living out the nature of who we truly are? If the divine nature is affirmed at the Jordan—“This is my Son!”, what of the human Jesus, the Jesus who is with us and one of us?
For nearly nine chapters we watch. Parables, storms, healing, feeding thousands, ‘asides’ to the disciples—all provide the warp upon which a tapestry of life is being woven. And then it happens—on one day, another man is brought to him, a man in need, a blind man. I do love this encounter. Read Mark 8. 22-26 carefully, and don’t forget to bring your desire for a good laugh. Twice, Jesus has to apply the saliva, since the first time merely allows the man to see people as trees “that are walking.” Even Jesus must ask, “How does it appear to you?” As ‘helper’, he is not clairvoyant nor a magician. Healing is a partnership. Perhaps this relational moment of partnership opens him to ask the question that has been growing within: “Who do people say that I am?”
It is a real question. In part, he wants to know what the gossip is. He wants some feedback from all the travels and the encounters along the way. He listens to the list the disciples have comprised and does not find himself mentioned. So he personalizes the question: “But who do you say that I am?”
It cannot be accidental that he asks this question as far away from his Jewish landscape as he can be, as far away from home and Jerusalem. The narrative has taken us to the farthest geographical limits from where it began. Jesus asks the question because he too wants to know where this is going. No doubt all the encounters since the Jordan are sculpting an image that is taking shape in his own heart and mind. James Sanders, in a brilliant article on hermeneutics for the International Dictionary of the Bible, suggests that the underlying question of all interpretation—of text or of one’s life—is: “Who am I and what am I to do?”
Peter replies that he is “the Messiah!” It is the first time the word is spoken in Mark. Messiah? The sound of the word carries various resonances, conflicting and troublesome, fraught with apprehension and hope within the Jewish world of Jesus’ day. It is an ancient word, rooted in monarchies and prophetic vision and the very sound of it must pluck some of the deepest strings within Jesus’ heart. There is resonance, a cord is struck, and he recognized the truth of it. No doubt, he had inkling. But this is not the kind of recognition that can take place solely within the person alone.
In his essay, “Distance and Relation,” Martin Buber clarifies this kind of moment and the deep yearning for—he calls it: “confirmation.”
Man wishes to be confirmed in his being by man and wishes to have a presence in the being of the other. The human person needs confirmation because man as man needs it. An animal does not need to be confirmed, for it is what it is unquestionably. It is different with man: sent forth from the natural domain of species into the hazard of the solitary category, surrounded by the air of a chaos which came into being with him, secretly and bashfully he watches for a Yes which allows him to be and which can come to him only from one human person to another. It is from one man to another that the heavenly bread of self-being is passed.
If Buber is pointing toward something that is vital to our own experience of life as human beings, then it must play out in the human Jesus who carries this same yearning. We cannot confirm ourselves. We are relational selves. We must take a step toward another and ask: “Who do you say that I am?” Consider his vulnerability as you remember the time you asked this same question of another.
No matter that Peter did not understand the terrible meaning that lay within his choice of words. There was confirmation and Jesus recognizes the ‘claim’ this will lay upon him. “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (verse. 31).
The entire plot now changes, intensifies, and shifts direction. We are no longer going out. Now begins the great ‘turning’ toward—toward Jerusalem. Jesus has been confirmed in who he is, and now must embrace the fulfillment of the work of his life. The time has come. The stage is set and waits. Poor Peter wants to take it back. There is always a risk of living from one’s true being. Peter will discover this later.