There’s a bouncy feel to the rhythm of Mark’s story-telling. I can track the Gospel of Mark on a chart in terms of highs and lows:
The highs are the remarkable, miraculous, inexplicable even sensational events witnessed by story-tellers. Beginning with the baptism of Jesus in the first chapter (v.9-11) — voices from heaven, clouds parting, dove descending.
Then, mid-way through the Gospel Jesus goes atop a mountain and turns into this divine, ethereal being before the disciples’ eyes (Mark 9:2-9). Giants from Hebrew history — Moses and Elijah — appear out of thin air, clouds roil and again a voice from heaven. And, in the last chapter (16:9-20), of course, the brief but significant mention of Jesus’ glorious resurrection from the dead. These are definitely ‘highs’.
The lows are a bit more tricky. They represent the down-side of Jesus’ ministry — the temptation after forty impoverished days in the desert, the scrutiny of the Pharisees, all culminating in the Passion of Christ: his betrayal, arrest, torture, crucifixion, death and burial. Some original manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark end on a ‘low’: “So [the disciples] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (v.8).
Talk about bouncy, like what often happens with the outdoor temperature when seasons change!
These lows are tricky, because, as we shall see, they are not really ‘lows’. At least, they are not the final word in the story of faith. There is always an upside past the low. The troubling truth is that the high will not happen without the necessary, preceding low. In other words, before we rise we must know to fall.
I told this story already once before but it bears repeating. It illustrates the point rather well. And it is a summer-time, water-play story — and my imagination goes there frequently at this frozen time of year.
I was learning to water-ski. In fact, it was the first time I ever tried it, at age thirty. Jessica and I visited with some friends who had a cottage on a small lake nestled in the Bruce Peninsula north of Owen Sound.
It was a good lake to learn on. Few cottagers, even fewer boaters. A quiet, round lake. And my friend, John who drove the boat, assured me that we would just circle the lake a few times and when I wanted to stop, just to wave my arm and he would bring me close to shore.
John’s family, gathered with Jessica at shore to watch me. They assured me that it was normal to fall the first time on skis. In fact, they said they didn’t remember anyone ever being able to lift up and out of the water the first time without falling, when the boat accelerated. I think my friends were getting ready for a long afternoon of fits, stops and starts.
Well, were they in for a surprise. Including myself. Well, not really. Because, darn it all, I would employ all my strength and stamina NOT TO FALL!!!!
I was sitting with my skis submerged in the water, when John hit the gas and I felt the first tug. I gripped the tow rope handle with all my power and pulled myself out of the water, and voila! I was skiing! I briefly heard the cheering of my friends on the shore behind me before we were out on the open water and the waves were peeling off the sides of my skis. I enjoyed it for a few minutes.
But then, my back started cramping up, and my thighs began to seize up. We were around the lake a dozen times before I fully realized I was in some incredible pain. But I never wiped out once! It wasn’t until afterward that I came to the conclusion — after impressing everyone, I think — that I never relaxed into the experience. I was so tight because I didn’t want to fall.
And yet, I needed to fall. I needed to just let go into the water to know how it felt. My enjoyment of the experience was dampened because of an unrealistic, and inhuman (I might add) expectation of myself. Even though I never fell waterskiing that first time, even though I was ‘perfect’ at it — have I ever wanted to go again? No.
When I recall, as a child, those times that I truly enjoyed playing in the water — it was those times whenever a huge wave caught me off balance and threw me head over heels onto the beach. Those were the times I jumped up and ran back in with glee. It’s the same thing with water slides, and why we will run back up the steps all afternoon long. There is something important about sliding under the surface of the water, losing control, falling into grace, letting go into the sometimes tumultuous waters of our baptism.
This is the first movement of anyone’s true, journey of faith. The pull of the current is downward. Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, writes: “How surely gravity’s law, strong as an ocean current, takes hold of even the smallest thing and pulls it toward the heart of the world … This is what the things can teach us: to fall, patiently to trust our heaviness” (cited in Richard Rohr, “Falling Upward”, Jossey Bass, San Francisco, 2011, p.153).
What I am learning over time is that we are the cause of our sinning more than anything or anyone else. Because it is natural to fall, from time to time. But we don’t allow ourselves, give ourselves permission, to do just that. We resist, deny, suppress this movement downward. Part of the Lenten journey, I believe, is to reflect on why it is we don’t allow ourselves to just let go into the arms of God, and simply trust.
Admittedly our human nature is such, that we would rather avoid the low and shoot straight for the high. I get that. It is also true, we are up against a giant. We build our lives up against the fear of falling. We are a success-oriented culture. We construct our fortress of security, we incessantly compare ourselves to others and measure our self-worth against some notion of success plastered on the front covers of magazines and echoed through the voices of our sports’ heroes and business tycoons. We are an upwardly mobile culture, valuing even yearning for this trending in our own lives. ‘Up’ is the only way to go! What else is there to do?
So, beware of this prejudice against falling before we start! I ask you to consider all these real and important concerns we have in our culture against falling — whether they are physical, emotional, spiritual — and hold them before you, carefully, during the coming “down” season.
The glorious, divine vision of Jesus is hard to explain. It is a miracle way beyond human understanding. We may say that this event was meant to encourage and empower Jesus for his coming journey to the cross. We may say that we need to be reminded again of the divine nature of Jesus. We may say that what this text tells us is to be obedient, and “listen” to, Jesus, the Holy One of God.
But I like how the story ends. Mark, in his brevity nonetheless, does take intentional note of the movement of the disciples with Jesus “down the mountain” (v.9). This is the sounding bell for Lent. We are now ready to begin the journey downward, into the valley. We are now on a downward trajectory.
And the real question is: What will we do with that? Will we distract ourselves even more? Will we intensify our addictive behaviour and buy more toys to keep the pain at bay? Will we pretend that ‘all is well’ when it is not?
Or, will we face our fears, confront our internal poverty and our crisis, with courage? And I say, with courage, because there is reason to hope when we stand on the edge of the abyss. There is reason to persevere through the fall.
In Matthew’s version of the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration (17:1-8), describing with even more detail than Mark all that happened in this incredible mountain-top scene, the disciples who go with Jesus to see this heavenly vision and hear the voice of God from the bright, overshadowing cloud — what do they do? “When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear” (v.6). They fall to the ground. And not only that …
Jesus’ lets them. He doesn’t scold them for falling down by saying something like, “Hey, buck up; you are standing on holy ground before Elijah, Moses and my divine being! Don’t fall down and grovel in the dirt! Pull yourself together! You’re my disciples, after all! Show some respect!” No, he doesn’t.
Instead, Jesus let’s them be humbled before his divine presence. If but for a short moment, Jesus allows them their humanity. And then he says with encouraging, inviting words, “You don’t have to be afraid, get up” (v.7).
I hope you can join me in the coming Lenten journey, taking great comfort in the Good News of Jesus. I can almost hear Jesus’ loving voice whisper in my ear, next time I risk getting on water skis again, “It’s okay to fall, you know. You don’t have to be afraid.”