1 February 2015
We’ve all been sworn to secrecy at one time or another in our lives. You might even be keeping someone’s secret right now, there in your pew. Who’s taken you into their confidence and entrusted you with a special piece of knowledge? It can be a great privilege or a terrible burden to keep a secret. We feel a little thrill and a little apprehension when someone looks both ways, leans in, and says, “Promise you won’t tell a soul what I’m about to tell you.” Secrets have power, and like all powerful things, they can be dangerous.
The Gospel of Mark is famous for trying to keep a big secret. Well, the Gospel doesn’t try to keep the secret, but in the Gospel Jesus does. In this morning’s lection, we see Mark’s first hint that Jesus is very intent on keeping a certain secret from getting out. Listen again:
Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God." But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!"
I say this is the first hint because it’s not really clear at this point why Jesus wants this guy to be silent. Is Jesus just annoyed by anyone who interrupts him during his achingly poignant and skillfully delivered sermons, be they unclean spirits or noisy children? As profound as his teaching was, I’m sure, what, “with authority” and all, there’s another reason behind Jesus’ shutting this guy up. We see it explained a few verses after this little episode:
And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
This is the secret for which the Gospel of Mark is famous. It’s called “The Messianic Secret,” and it points to this desire on the part of Jesus to keep the details of his true identity under wraps. In Mark, Jesus doesn’t seem to mind people knowing that he can cure all manner of illness and that he has power over harmful spirits, but as soon as one of those spirits says the words, “Holy One of God” or “Son of God,” Jesus zips that right up. And it’s not just the demons Jesus wants to keep quiet. Later in Mark, he also “strictly orders” some of the disciples to keep it a secret when they see on top of the Mount of Transfiguration who their rabbi really is.
Jesus’ true identity isn’t something just anyone can perceive on their own. The people can see miraculous signs and wonders and still not know who Jesus really is. The unclean spirits perceive it from their somewhat privileged perspective on the other side of the veil. The disciples have it revealed to them in visions from on high. But as for everyone else in the story, Jesus is loath to let them in on the Messianic Secret. Why might this be? What’s the big deal? I mean, if Jesus is this long-awaited divine figure incarnate on the planet, why hide it? Why keep this thrilling bit of knowledge a secret from almost everyone? For all its excitement, I wonder if the power of knowing that the Son of God is right here in our midst presents some danger that not just anyone can handle.
“Have you come to destroy us?” the unclean spirit asks.
Tomorrow is an important feast in the life of the Church. Traditionally called Candlemas, Christians would bring their yearly supply of candles to church on February 2nd to be blessed at a Mass celebrating the Presentation of Christ, the Light of the World, at the Temple. The story of Mary and Joseph bringing the infant Jesus “up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord” is found in the Gospel according to St. Luke. The Gospel of Luke isn’t known for its secrets, per se, but in this story we see a similar dynamic at play where some perceive things about Jesus that others cannot.
When the Holy Family arrives at the Temple in Jerusalem, they encounter prophetic figures, old sages who have been waiting a long time for Jesus to show up. One of them is a man named Simeon on whom, the text says, the Holy Spirit rested. The story proceeds,
Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.
Simeon seems to be in on a secret that even Mary and Joseph are not. He’s seeing right through the circumstances, the kind of circumstances that any new parents are consumed by, into a hidden spiritual reality that isn’t visible through the conventional way of seeing. And in what he sees on the other side of the veil, the powerful secret about this child, is not only the thrill of enlightenment and glory, but a very real danger. Listen further:
Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I’m game for knowing that kind of secret. Isn’t Jesus supposed to bring love and peace, joy and happiness and healing into our lives? That’s why we follow him around and bring those we love who are sick and suffering into his presence. What’s all this about destruction and falling, about inner thoughts being laid bare and swords piercing souls? These are the images that come from those who know the secret about Jesus of Nazareth? Is this what it’s like to know that the Son of God is in our very midst? Is it possible that knowing such a secret might be our undoing, the end of business as usual?
If this is the case, it’s a pretty big deal after all. I wonder if it’s not out of great kindness and love on the part of Jesus that he is so intent upon keeping the Messianic Secret. He knows that most of us, if we were to fully encounter the Holy One of God, would echo within ourselves the sentiments of the unclean spirit, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”
So, unless you’re prepared to begin wreaking havoc on the status quo within yourself and in the people all around you, I’m going to have to ask you:
Promise you wont tell a soul what I just told you.