Fr. Joseph Britton
1 February 2015
"What is this? A new teaching-- with authority!
He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him." (Mark 1)
This past week marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Perhaps you have seen photos of the notorious entry gate to that concentration camp, yawning like a medieval image of the gates of hell, with an opening large enough for the train carriages to pass through, carrying countless men, women and children toward their death.
For the commemoration of the camp’s liberation by the Red Army in January, 1945, a giant tent had been set up that enclosed this ghastly relic. In front of it were assembled hundreds of survivors—now in their 80s and 90s, but who were at the time only children and young adults.
A number of them were asked to speak of their memories, of the impact the camp made on their life, of loved ones who died there. One aged man in particular caught my attention: he spoke of how we tend to mask the full horror of what happened at Auschwitz and other similar camps by using words that keep a certain distance from the reality. “People did not just perish here,” he said, “they were murdered. They did not just suffer deprivation, they were starved. They were not just imprisoned, they were gassed and their bodies burned.” The truth, he wanted us to realize, is hard to say, much less to bear.
Ironically, even before I realized that this week marked such an anniversary, last weekend I picked up at the video store the movie, “Hannah Arendt,” which tells the story of her coverage of the Jerusalem trial in 1961 of Adolf Eichmann, who was charged by the Nazi SS to organize and facilitate the mass deportation of Jews to the camps. It was there that she coined the famous phrase, “the banality of evil,” in her attempt to explain how it was that Eichmann could simply explain away his actions as nothing more than a bureaucrat following his orders. Once again, the truth seemed too much either to say or to accept, and it became hidden under the platitudes of bureaucracy.
So when we hear the reaction to Jesus teaching in the synagogue in today’s gospel, it might set us to thinking about the nature of truth. His hearers immediately recognize that unlike the scribes, he speaks as one with authority. The scribes are those who know much but understand little of what God requires of them. Unlike the “truth and equity” of God’s commandments which are celebrated in today’s psalm, to the scribes the commandments are a means of manipulation and privilege. As Paul warns against in the epistle, they use God’s will as a way of lording it over the people, puffing themselves up rather than drawing together a community of love.
But then enters Jesus, whose commitment to the truth and reality of what God really asks of us causes even the unclean spirits to shudder in recognition of his authority. The spirits are afraid of him, because they know that he knows who and what they are—and there is nothing that evil and lies hate more than the specter of truth.
So just as Jesus calls the false spirits out, he also calls us to truth, to honesty about ourselves, to the fear of God that is the beginning of wisdom, as our psalm puts it. He calls us to an unwavering commitment to speaking clearly and without ambiguity about what we as human beings do and are capable of doing. The Jews did not perish, they were murdered. Or “extraordinary interrogation” is not a security technique, it is torture. Let’s call a spade is a spade, as the old saying goes.
The Anglican theologian Rowan Williams is especially attuned to the capacity of human beings for self-deceit, and especially in the language they use to talk about themselves. In trying to figure out our own sense of vocation and purpose in life, for instance, Williams warns against the rather self-aggrandizing view we often have of ourselves, and of the role we think we a most fit to play. We all think, do we not, that we are perhaps better suited to play the role of Hamlet than of second-grave digger? In a particularly striking sentence that I have pointed students to who are wrestling with their intended purpose in life, Williams defines vocation as “the residue that remains after all the games of self-deception have ceased.” (Repeat)
What that definition seems to suggest is that before any of us truly discovers who we are meant to be, we have a lot of work to do in discovering and then dismantling the fictions that we tell ourselves about who we are, and about our own importance. So here is a question for you to go away pondering today: What are the things you tell yourself that tend to make more—or perhaps less—important than you really are? Or if that question doesn’t grab you, what about this one: What are the things you tell yourself that excuse your own worst habits of envy, or lethargy, or cunning, or whatever your particular vice might be? In short, what is the truth about yourself?
Christian faith is about living in the truth—not just doctrinal truth about who God is, but also the experiential truth of who we truly are as human beings. In the liturgical calendar, today marks a turning point, when we begin to turn from the luxurious beauty of the cycle that stretches from Advent, through Christmas and into Epiphany, toward the harder realities which Lent and Holy Week will ask us to confront. Today, in other words, is a turning toward truth, and so it is no wonder that the lessons put before us at this moment these questions of truth and knowing.
Because now is the time to begin pondering in your own prayer and personal reflection: what truth is it that I need to face about who I am, and how might these coming Lenten days of naked honesty and unadorned truth-telling help me to do that?
Mark Twain, of local Connecticut fame, was himself a great theorist of truth. “If you tell the truth,” he said, “then you don’t have to remember anything.”
Or he also observed, that “truth is the most valuable thing we have. [So] let us economize upon it.”
Or yet again, Twain admonished us to “Never tell the truth to people who are not worthy of it.”
However much he might have joked about our relationship to truth, Mark Twain was a keen observer of the fact that we human beings have a difficult time with it. Indeed we have a whole vocabulary to describe that difficulty: we speak of being in denial, of maintaining plausible deniability, of having a selective memory.
But the gospel calls us to live into the honesty, the realism, the integrity that truth elicits. That is the authority with which Jesus spoke in the synagogue. It is the kind of truth that Jesus tells us in John’s gospel will make us free: the freedom of being able to see who we really are, when all the games of self-deception have ceased, and so finally to discover who we are meant to be.
© Joseph Britton, 2015