“He would not permit the demons to speak because they knew him.”
It's a rather curious passage. If you've been with us on Wednesday nights, studying Mark's Gospel together, you've heard me say that this is characteristic of Mark's Gospel, where Jesus is always telling people and demons not to speak about him. And it reminded me this week of a sculpture that I saw at the Meadows Museum last month. It was part of an exhibit of the work of a 16th century Spanish artist who did sculptures and carvings for churches in Spain. This particular statue--you might have seen it on billboards for the Meadows Museum if you didn't go in person--was really cool. It was about three feet tall and it was of a man carrying a child on his back. The sculptor did this incredible job of showing the man sort of straining and turning back toward this child with a look of strain and suffering as he struggled to carry this child on his back.
The statue depicts the the legend of Saint Christopher, which is part of what I like to think of as the Jesus Christ expanded cinematic universe. The story of Christopher belongs to the legends that are probably not real or are based on something very different. Christopher meets a young boy as he's about to ford a river on foot and the boy needs a ride so Christopher picks him up and carries him out into the water. Then he starts staggering under the weight of this child, the child gets heavier and heavier to the point where Christopher the man is just going to get sunk under the water and drown. “Who are you,” Christopher wonders, and it turns out the child is Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ is carrying the weight of the world on his back. In picking him up, Christopher has taken the weight of the world onto his own back. This is why he was the patron saint of travelers. The name “Christopher” means Christ-bearer or Christ-carrier. He is remembered as the one who carried the infant Jesus across.
Now I love this story of Christopher and I love this sculpture that depicted it so much because it highlights two aspects of who Jesus is for us. First, it shows us that Jesus is hidden in his ordinary humanity. There is nothing about Jesus to look at him that indicates who he is and what power is contained within him. He is an ordinary person of the land as,they were called at the time. He was a peasant from Galilee. Even his physical appearance was apparently so ordinary that no one writing about his life thought to record any detail of how he looked. No one, to the eyes of human understanding, would see anything special in this person. And so he approaches humanity unguarded and unaware. The second thing about the story of Christopher that appeals to me is that it shows Jesus Christ carrying the weight of the world.
So we have a Messiah who is in some sense hidden to human understanding and yet who is at the same time carrying the weight of the world on his back.oday in Mark's Gospel we see this unfold over one day.
I'm always saying that in Mark's Gospel things are happening immediately, one after another after another with no break. Last week we heard about the morning synagogue service where Jesus speaks, where he heals someone and his fame begins to spread. Today's reading is from that afternoon, that same afternoon of his first day of public ministry in Capernaum, he goes to Simon Peter's house. He heals Simon Peter's mother-in-law and then it's katie bar the door. Everybody from the city, when the sun goes down and the sabbath ends, comes to him to heal their infirmities and cast out their demons. Because the word is going out to the point where Jesus forbids the demons to speak. He forbids the demons to be the ones who proclaim him.
And early the next morning, he wakes up before anyone else in the household and he goes out into a wilderness place--the place recurring over and over again in the Scriptures, where humanity encounters God in an unmediated and powerful and even dangerous way. Where John the Baptist goes out into the wilderness to call the people of Judea and Jerusalem and the countryside to him; Moses out in the wilderness encountering the burning bush; Elijah the prophet in the wilderness hearing the voice of God.
And so Jesus follows this pattern. He goes out into a deserted place. It's a very human thing to do when the world's obligations are weighing heavily on us, when the expectations placed upon us are so unrelenting. There is a part of us that needs to get away from it and put ourselves in a different environment where we can exist for our own sake or for the sake of God. And while I do not want to say that Jesus somehow needed a break that he needed to “recharge,” because he is after all fully divine and he does not need things, he does not grow faint and grow weary as we do, all the same Jesus goes out to a deserted place to pray and be apart from the people who are seeking him in order to do something.
And here he reaches a decisive moment. He can remain in Capernaum where he is already a local celebrity. He can be the holy man, the teacher, the healer who is sought not only by the people of Capernaum, not only by the people of Galilee, but by the people of all Judea and Samaria and eventually the whole world will find out. People will come beating a path to his door, asking him to heal the infirmities that no one else can heal, asking him to cast out the demons that will not go away, asking him to unfold for them the secrets of the kingdom of God.
He can live there safely and securely and it can be the world's burden to come to him.
Or he can accept the weight of the world that is already gathered around his feet and he can go out into the fields, and the roads, and the villages and towns. He can go out and accept the sins of the people to load them onto his back. He can accept the battle with the demons that he will put on his own back. He will accept the conflict with the civil and religious authorities of his world that he will put on his own back. He will go forth and accept the weight of the world rather than making the world come to him.
Paul, in his words to the Corinthian church today, reflects this in his own way. Looking on his career as an apostle, a messenger of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, he says that he has become all things to all people so that by all means he may save some. He has expanded his own humanity, not to be a fraud, not to deceive anyone, but to come to people on their own terms: to speak to Jews as a Jew, to speak to those outside of the law as one who is outside of the law, to speak to the weak as one who is weak himself, to embrace and to bring all of this humanity into himself so that he can speak to anyone who comes his way. Not that he might win them all, but so that he might win some. Jesus was hidden to him in his church when Paul was persecuting them, and Jesus was revealed to him in that vision on the road to Damascus.
And now Paul has found that this has become a burden that he could not have anticipated, that he did not invite, and while it is it is a joyful burden, it is a burden all the same of carrying the Gospel to those who have not yet heard it. You can hear the strain in his words if you read his letters. This has taken everything from him and yet he counts himself exceedingly wealthy and blessed to share in this work.
Next week, Peter on the mountaintop will confess that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. And as Lent begins it will bring us all the way to Good Friday, where the weight of the world will come down finally and fully on Jesus of Nazareth and he will die on a cross. The centurion in Mark's Gospel who witnesses this death on the cross will say, truly this man was God's son and the hidden Jesus will be revealed at the moment of his death. And there are times when this experience of Saint Christopher and Paul the Apostle of carrying the weight of the world--in the person of Jesus, in the ministry of Jesus--when that burden will fall to us when we will have to speak a word that someone needs to hear. When we will have to act in charity when no one is demanding it of us except our God. When we will have to carry the infant Christ across the water to the other side.
But what we are told today in those early morning hours in Capernaum is that Christ already took that burden upon himself, and that those burdens we cannot carry, including the burden of our own lives, he has picked up and put on his back. He has borne the weight of the world already across to that other side. As it was in Galilee so long ago and as it is at every river dividing now from then, we are along for the ride.