Spiritual Reading for Liturgical Cycle B

I was given, as a gift, a copy of Michael Casey's Fully Human, Fully Divine (Ligouri Press, 2004) by someone whom I meet with, regularly, in spiritual direction. He claimed he found the book a remarkable resource for his own prayer and reflection. Casey, a Trappist monk in Tarrawara, Australia, is, indeed, a gifted writer. But, a decidedly added plus for me in this book, especially at the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012, is the way it delves systematically into the gospel of Mark which forms our continuous gospel reading for this coming year as we go through liturgical cycle B.

Fully Human, Fully Divine finds much solace in Mark's so human Jesus (who admits there are some things he does not know; who shows strong human emotions, including anger; who expresses compassion from his very bowels; who from the cross cries out--note: the Greek word Mark used there means something closer to " bellow out like a wounded bull"). Casey comments: "We cannot emphasize enough that the humanity assumed by the Word was not the untainted boldness of Adam before the fall but the shriveled vulnerability we all share. As Bernard of Clairvaux reminds us, 'Nothing so demonstrates God's positive attitude toward the human race as embracing my humanity, I repeat, my humanity, and not the flesh Adam had before the fall. What manifests God's mercy more clearly than that he would embrace such misery?'" The danger is that we project on Jesus a kind of perfection that is, in fact, incompatible with humanity. In Casey's view, " much dubious Christology derives from the fact that many of us have trouble accepting the spottiness of our own concrete humanity, and loving what God has thus fashioned."


Casey's study alternates chapters between his treatment of segments of Mark's gospel (the baptism; the temptation; Jesus' exorcisms; Jesus as teacher; Jesus the Sower; Nature miracles; Jesus with the Syro-Phoenician woman; the transfiguration; Gethsemane; the cross and the empty tomb) with parallel chapters, drawing on the wisdom and spirituality of the great monastic writers, such as Julian of Norwich, Bernard of Clairvaux, John Cassian, Isaac of Stella, Gregory the Great. As Casey knows: "Outward observance, however holy, cannot take the place of personal encounter with the living God."

He has clearly done his exegetical homework. Thus, in his chapter on the temptation of Jesus, he points out that the Greek word used in Mark implies that the spirit "violently and immediately" drives Jesus into the desert. The same verb is used there as the one employed for the expulsion of demons. The other synoptics present the temptation as a kind of unequal debate between Jesus and the devil. In Mark, the wild beasts and the angels are there together all the time. In the other synoptics, first come the beaats, then the angels appear to minister to Jesus. Casey assumes that Mark's version reminds us that Jesus was not just tempted once and for all. Similarly, Casey notes that after his encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman, Jesus journeys in Mark more consistently into Gentile terrain. He suggests that Jesus actually learned something (about the mission to the Gentiles) from the woman.

But the book is not really dry as dust exegesis. The alternate chapters take up themes such as the recalcitrant body; contrary imaginations in our tempatations; concupiscence; dealing with ambiguity; engaging a trust in providence; finding a quiet mind; undergoing genuine confession and contrition. These chapters have the virtue of taking the Marcan text to our own terrain, struggles, our encounter with God. These chapters set the book apart from other more exegetical works, good as they are (for example, John Donahue S.J. and Daniel Harrington S.J.'s The Gospel of Mark from Liturgical Press, 2002 or the remarkable study of Mark by W. R. Telford, The Theology of the Gospel of Mark from Cambride University Press, 1999). These other books are better for exegesis, for a careful reading of the text and putting it into its first century setting. But reading them seems more like study than prayer. Casey's book invites to prayer, a pausing to consider and a slower, more meditative, reading.

Casey also dips, judiciously and well, into psychological literature. He suggests, for example, that Jesus knows he is dying when he flashes out in anger, cursing the fig tree so it withers and confronting the hostile authorities. Casey wonders whether such--in the case of the fig tree, for example-- 'over-determined' anger was part of the process of dying, involving anger, which the psychologist, Elizabeth Kubler Ross, suggests is a decided pattern among the dying. Dealing with temptation, Casey notes its shadow side. " Often enough the images that shout for our attention point to neglected elements in our own depths."

A gifted writer, Casey supplies us with some excellent throw-away lines to ponder. Treating of Jesus, the teacher, he remarks: "Teaching is for Jesus a formative relationship and not a tenured position." In dealing with confession, he reminds us: "healthy human living demands of us the capacity to regret, to apologize, and to admit to being wrong and doing wrong." In a chapter on Jesus, the Sower, dealing with Jesus's resort to parables, Casey notes that he--and we--needed to move into similes and metaphors because "divine intervention in human affairs can be described only obliquely by allusive language, poetry and similitude."

Casey follows the Greek Fathers' tradition in asserting that God became human so that we might also take on elements of his divinity. As he says in one remarkable throw away line: "Christianity is not a matter of being good but becoming God." Yet, as in Jesus the human and the divine commingled, so for us, too, "we are divinized to the extent that nothing of our humanity is denied, despised or ignored, when nothing of what makes us human is lost or left behind."

I have been working up a presentation about the distinctive theology of Mark's gospel. The danger in the various liturgical cycles is that we will hear the gospel only in and through its Sunday gospel snippets and miss its characteristic theology. But, as exegesis is absolutely necessary to mine the theology of each gospel, it is never sufficient to turn that gospel into a living word. I have a sense I will be returning often to Casey's remarkable spiritually profound well for refreshment, imagination and a deeper pause for prayer.

John A. Coleman, S.J.

Cross posted with "In All Things"

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