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Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Binding the Strong Man (B10O)

I think most of us who are in the church music biz keep records going back several lectionary cycles so that, for instance, each time the 4th Sunday of Easter, Year A, comes up, we can see what music we've done in the past to get our creative juices flowing and to cut down on "reinventing the wheel." For me at least, liturgical music is kind of a "if it ain't broke don't fix it" thing. You've worked hard over many years to choose the best songs in the repertoire for your community for this particular Sunday, so if there's not some better ones (or a better one) that have come along since last time, I at least tend to go with some of those songs I used last time, or use the best of what I've done for over the last nine years, with an addition or two of something maybe new, or an older song I've discovered, that might fit the Sunday better than things I've used before.

I bring this up today because, as you'll notice from my doing a new "Sundays" post for the 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, that I realized a few weeks ago that I don't have any records of music or liturgy texts that I've used before for this Sunday. That's because we haven't had a 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, in this century! The last one was in 1997, before our church was built. The year I started keeping all my files on my computer for each year was, you guessed it, 1998. Ergo, all the usual prayers and notes I keep for the parish will have to be written anew from scratch this weekend. This is why many people are atheists.

What I do have from The Last Year B archive is an article I wrote from a series of articles I was writing at that time for Today's Parish magazine, which I think was published by Twenty-third Publications. (If so, it goes into a long line of institutions for which association with me has brought ignominy and/or extinction. That list includes the high school seminary, novitiate, and college which I attended, the original Composers Forum for Catholic Worship, the Corpus Christi Center for Advanced Liturgical Study, Modern Liturgy magazine, the North American Forum on the Catechumenate, and possibly the United States of America, though the jury is still out on that one. And that list is by no means exhaustive.) This little article had a one paragraph reflection on the day, my usual dose, with a few music selections, but it pointed me again to Ched Meyers’ tome Binding the Strong Man, reminding me of how influential that book has been on my thinking about the first gospel. For Meyers, the passage we hear this Sunday is a central text for the whole gospel, hence his title. In it, he says, Jesus “declares ideological war” on the temple establishment, and I made the point in my notes that in the Genesis reading, God declares ideological war on Satan. Of course, it turns out to be the same war, but we need to be careful about underestimating and localizing “Satan,” lest we think this cosmic battle has little to do with us. More below on this.

For Girardian exegetes, the "Satan versus Satan" narrative is a core scripture. Satan in the earliest narratives is the Accuser, and only later becomes the Evil One. As Satan assumes both roles in the mythology, we begin to see how the Accuser is the one who accuses the Evil One, creating the Satan versus Satan scenario. This is a central theme of Rene Girard's The Scapegoat and certainly of his work, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. As one author puts it, "when Jesus asks, seemingly rhetorically, 'How can Satan cast out Satan?', Girard essentially answers, 'It happens all the time. In fact, that’s what human culture is founded on. Our anthropology can be summarized by the phrase Satan casting out Satan.'" The murderous blood sacrifice of the scapegoat is used to appease the desire of the murderous crowd. The only way out of this spiral of temporarily sating violence is the act of Christ, the Forgiving Victim, innocent, who comes back from death to rewrite the myth from the perspective of the victim. When God finally speaks definitively about sacrifice, the answer is, "Are you kidding? No thank you. Let's get on with building life."

It's good to get back to St. Mark's gospel, and dig into the great story that the author says is just "the beginning of the evangelion of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." We're getting more accustomed to the vocabulary of Roman civil religion being used in the story of Jesus, starting with that word evangelion which has a specific meaning related to news of an imperial victory. We hear the stories of  the entry into Jerusalem in that light, the name "Legion" given to the demons that are cast out and into a herd of swine that jump off a cliff into the sea, we might even hear an echo of a Roman imperial procession in the language of the story of Bartimaeus, and his "eleison" shouted from the roadside to the approaching king, here, however, a "son of David." And just this past Sunday, in the narrative of the Last Supper, we get reminders of the subterfuge and hints about the extent to which Jesus and the disciples have to go to keep under the radar, resorting to passwords and secret arrangements for the last supper. Sometimes, to be subversive and stay alive, you need to go underground. Or at least under whatever passed for the radar in the first century CE.

The message of Jesus has enemies in the imperial cult, but it also is at odds with the temple cult, both because of his message itself and because both depend on the maintenance of a status quo to keep the peace among the people. Have-nots mustn't try to become haves, people outside of the power circle mustn't try to usurp the power structure, and generally speaking, outsiders shouldn't try to become insiders. The story in Sunday's gospel is sandwiched between two mentions of one kind of insider-outsider groups: Jesus's family, who are outside his house and think he's crazy and want to stop him, and Jesus's discipleship group, his family of choice, who are "outside" the status quo group in his society of actual family, but are nevertheless inside his house, and are the ones to whom he offers his attention and allegiance. Between these two slices of narrative "bread," a meaty battle of wits goes on between Jesus and the scribes. While the inside-outside dialectic plays out in the "family-house" event, a more cosmic one is being addressed between Jesus and the scribes, and at stake is the honor of Jesus, the source of his authority and power, and the balance of authority between the status quo symbolized by the scribes and temple cult and the subversion of that status quo by the preaching and ministry of Jesus. Placed between the two pieces of the "in-out-family" narrative, the battle with the scribes become the core of the lesson, an inclusio, so we need to pay attention.

This is just chapter three of Mark. We've just heard of Jesus forming a band of disciples, a resistance group against the prevailing theologies of temple and state. The scribes in this story, agents of the temple rulers, do what ruling hegemonies always do to those who challenge their authority: they demonize him. Here, they do so literally, saying "it is by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that he casts out demons." He is possessed, they allege. Jesus's response will echo his (and even more certainly Mark's) audience's experience in watching the collapse of Herod's kingdom, first that of Herod the Great's being divided into a tetrarchy, then the complete collapse in the 60s with the war against Herod Antipas when he divorced the daughter of Nabatean king Aretas, who then defeated Antipas in war. "A house divided against itself will not stand." (3:25)

Jesus's parable about the strongman is another tactic of subversion, hiding truths in plain sight so that his followers might understand, but not the attackers. The "master of the house," the strong man, is Satan. In fact, the Aramaic name Beelzebul means "master of the house." Jesus has come, he says, to "bind the strong man," and take back what belongs to the reign of God, that is, the human race, starting with the Jewish race. His discipleship community, ministry of healing and exorcism, parables, and teaching are all oriented toward that: releasing those bound by the power of fear and murder, and sapping the strength of the myths that keep them bound. By myths here, I mean the structures of behavior and ways of thinking that keep oppressed people oppressed, the shrinking options that seem to be available to those under domination by others. Jesus is pretty clear in Mark that what he is about to do is "plunder the strong man's house," put an end to the rule of Satan by unleashing the reign of God upon the world. The scribes cannot see it, and yet they are God's agents, the ones whose role is supposed to be keeping the Torah alive in the community. As Ched Meyers puts it in Binding the Strong Man (page 167):
Imperial hermeneutics, ever on the side of law and order, will of course find this interpretation (i.e., the liberation and rescue of the captives of tyrants) strained, offensive, shocking. Yet Mark drew the image of breaking and entering from the most enduring of the primitive Christian eschatological traditions: the Lord's advent as a thief in the night.
Then Jesus announces that all kinds of sin will be forgiven except that of the ones who accused him of being empowered by Satan: blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, that is to say, calling the actual work of liberation and wakening the children of God to who they are "demonic possession." If you can't see the work of God right before your eyes, he is saying, you've missed the bus to the reign of God. You're going nowhere, and you're already in hell.

Which leaves us with the inside family and the outside family in the gospel. We should be grateful that the lectionary compilers left this whole pericope intact when including it in the reading for Sunday, so that we get everything that's going on here. All the labels: family, believer, baptized, circumcised, Jew, white, straight, American, Christian—all the labels have to go. Being "inside" the reign of God isn't a matter of claiming to be there by some birthright or self-oriented entitlement. Being inside the reign of God is participating in Jesus's project of liberation with him, doing what he does, giving everything for the sake of others. The goal of the insider is to tell the outsiders that everyone is actually inside already, and there aren't any outsiders, unless one chooses to be out there.

Gee. Are you having as hard a time as I am trying to figure out what this has to do with us?

Maybe it's the damage we do by identifying law with actual morality, by not repenting nationalist euphemisms like "manifest destiny" and working to first acknowledge and then undo the horrific legacy of the Indian wars and treaties. Or maybe repenting the sin of slavery and its enabling mother-sin of racism, and working together to undo the systems of injustice and prejudice that flourish in our time, not to mention the enabling of racist and white supremacist rhetoric under the guise of "freedom of speech."

It's important to keep remembering that the tactics and strategy of the reign of God are peaceful and non-violent, but they are urgent. They require non-cooperation with evil, putting all of the danger and risk on us who believe with Jesus that death is meaningless to God, but that we are God's children, and he counts each of us, and all of us together, with unimaginable love that risks everything even before we do. We, disciples, are part of the confederacy of subversives for the new order, the reign of God. Let's be careful not to let ourselves be aligned with or sucked into the strategies of the status quo, blaming the victims of injustice rather than calling out the perpetrators. As in Mark's day, as in Jesus's day, there are two religions with competing altar calls. One is the voice of imperial religion, promising peace through force, naming insiders and outsiders, saying that it's always expedient that a few (or a lot of) others die so that we can keep things the way we want. The other is the voice of the reign of God, promising peace through justice, naming everyone as inside the circle of divine love, with a strategy of healing, equal protection, and table fellowship. The altars are on different horizons. To choose one, we need to turn our backs on the other.

What we're singing Sunday at St. Anne's:

Entrance: In Christ There Is No East or West (John Oxenham)
Kyrie: Kendzia ("Lead Us to the Water")
Psalm 130: With the Lord there is Mercy (Modlin)
Presentation of Gifts: Turn Around (GIA, Cooney) I chose this song because of one of the later stanzas, stanza 6, which uses the "break-in" imagery of the gospel:
Good news for he comes like a thief in the night
To take back his own from the enemy's might.
And like a small seed, or the yeast in the dough,
God's justice in silence will grow.
Eucharistic Acclamations: Mass of Joy and Peace (Alonso) I'm trying this again after introducing it in winter OT. I'm trying it in the key of C for a while. When I switched it at daily mass, the singing improved by (literally) 100%. I think the tesitura is a little high on the "Hosanna" passage and the "Amen," and this seems to fix the issue. It's not that the mass isn't singable. And one size doesn't fit all. Just giving it a shot.
Communion: Faithful Family (Cooney) (link is to yesterday's blog post on this song)
Sending Forth: Lover of Us All (Schutte)