JANUARY 9, 2007: HEBREWS 2:5-12; MARK 1:21-28
ALL WHO LOOKED ON WERE AMAZED. THEY BEGAN TO ASK ONE ANOTHER: ‘WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?’ In recent times especially, there has been a strenuous effort expended on understanding better the activity of reading a text. This entails a study of words, of grammar, of style, of history and even of the biography of the writer. Saint Augustine, for whom the study and teaching of language was his early profession by which he earned his living, made such study his life-long interest. He understood well that the act of reading a text involved a process of interpretation. This is the case even when the text is written in one’s own language. This principle finds a more particular application when it is the text of the Bible that is read. He explains why this is so in the course of a sermon to his congregation. There he affirms that "the things done by the Lord, have a meaning; they are, so to speak, like visible words that convey meanings." (Sermo 77.7, B.A.C. X, 262). As is clear from today’s Gospel text, however, acts in themselves are capable of more than one meaning. Like words they required to be interpreted. His statement expresses one of the fundamental principles for interpreting not only the Gospels but the whole of the Bible, Old Testament included. This is true because God is master of history as well as author of creation. That this was well understood already by the ancients is clear from the fact that they interpreted such happenings as the passage through the Red Sea as more than liberation from Egypt and its slavery; it is a word of promise that God is guide and protector of his people. St. Paul applies the same principle when he discerns in this same event a still deeper level of meaning: it signifies that God, by baptism, incorporated his chosen ones into Moses, and allowed them to drink from the spiritual rock that followed them as they went and that rock was Christ. (1 Cor.10.1-4) So too on this occasion when Jesus, in the synagogue at Nazareth, by a word of command, liberated a possessed man from the devil, the congregation felt deeply that this act conveyed a fuller meaning than appeared on the surface. As St. Mark puts it: by "ALL WHO LOOKED ON WERE AMAZED. THEY BEGAN TO ASK ONE ANOTHER: ‘WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?’"
This question was answered variously by those who observed this and other miraculous acts of Jesus. The common people saw in it a manifestation of God’s presence and care in their world. They concluded from it that Jesus had a specially favored relation to God. The officials were less willing to interpret such acts as revelations of divine favor and power by way of commending the person of Jesus to their faith. Some interpreted his acts of this kind not only as proofs of God’s favor but also as personal invitations to draw closer to the one who performed these wonderful deeds. These actions were perceived as a word of invitation; they were felt to be filled with promise of deeper meaning and accepted with praise and gratitude.
There have been many attempts to define the nature of our human race. Man is a rational animal, according to Aristotle; Plato held that the human being is a spirit, imprisoned in a body. Buddhists hold a similar view. St. Bernard taught that the decisive element of the human person is the capacity for free choice. In fact, every one, sooner or later, implicitly or explicitly has this in common that we live as humans only in so far as we give meaning to our life. Each of us, in practice, by our choice or refusal of choice gives meaning to existence. Some choose to believe that there is no reality beyond the material universe. In despair of an ultimate and absolute Good whom we know as the living God, they make the best of this world as they find it. This world view is being preached today with ardent conviction by prominent scientists and their followers.’
Though the evidence adduced in support of this belief is said to be scientific, in fact, it is but a new version of a very old philosophy. Already in the Book of Wisdom we read of men who say: "By chance we came to by chance we came to birth, and after this life we shall be as if we had never been. The breath in our nostrils is a puff of smoke, reason a spark from the beating of our hearts; put this out and our body turn to ashes, and the spirit melts away like idle air.(2:2, 3)"
In any case, as we live day by day, by conscious and deliberate choice, or implicitly, without adverting we, like those who witnessed Jesus’ words and acts answer this question that confronts every person, ‘WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?’ The Eucharist we celebrate at this altar is our response to this question. God has visited his people in the person of his Son. Jesus came that we might have life and have it more abundantly. We live to acknowledge his love with thanksgiving that we are destined for eternal life to the praise of His glory.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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