The Gospel according to Mark gets things rolling in a hurry. Just twenty-eight verses in there have been four quick cuts for a total of five scenes plus a prologue averaging just five verses a scene. But what’s hitting me this time around is how Jesus is identified and introduced. The reader knows that Jesus is, “[the] Christ, the Son of God,” because that’s the first thing the narrator tells us. Then four individuals identify him. These four are God’s prophet, God, Satan, and one of Satan’s minions.
- John describes him as “one more powerful than I.”
- The voice from heaven calls him “my Son, the Beloved.”
- Satan marks him as one to be tempted in the wilderness and then,
- a being described as “an unclean spirit” identifies Jesus as “the Holy One of God.”
Though Jesus’ fame is quickly spreading, no one else knows what to do with him. People are astounded by him. He fits none of their preconceived notions about how things should be. They don’t know what to call him.
One might imagine that Jesus would be somewhat pleased that at least his enemy knows. One might imagine a Jesus who hears the unholy spirit’s call, turns to the onlookers and says something like, “See! That’s it there! That’s who I am.”
But, Mark tells us, Jesus denies the spirit a voice. He commands him to be silent.
I think that this exchange is our way of seeing that Jesus knows the power that comes from naming. This unholy spirit is trying to take charge of the situation by sticking a label on Jesus. It doesn’t matter that the label is accurate. Jesus won’t let the spirit define him. He won’t give the spirit that power.
Frequently, we operate in the opposite fashion. We know that something is wrong. We’re afraid, or ashamed or distressed. We’re grieving or frustrated or angry but we stop short of naming the thing that is going on. Sometimes it’s because we imagine that if we do so, if we put a name to what’s gotten control of us, the admission that comes with the naming might make it more real or more powerful.
This dynamic in human culture is so widespread that when the Harry Potter books introduce “He Who Must Not Be Named,” every reader knows that this one must be the worst of the worst. A curse is placed on the name to supercharge the threat, and just the utterance can summon the villain’s armies.
Some things are better left unspoken.
Yet, other aspects of our lives tell us a different truth. To name one is to establish a relationship with them. Names are given; they’re much less successfully taken. We give nicknames to those who are close to us. Self-declared nicknames ring false, even pretentious.
To name someone is to call them. To name something wrong is to call it out, to call it out of the hiding secrecy where it harbors its power to do damage.
When we find the courage to do so, we begin to find the way to put it where it belongs.
This can feel dangerous – names have power – but we can engage in such dangers as ones who have a name that is more powerful than that which threatens. We have the name of Jesus. He has given it to us. The name of Jesus always brings honor and forgiveness which cannot be undone or denied.
So, in the face of threats that try to name us as failures, worthless or shameful, we can with Jesus say, “be quiet and get out here where I can have a look at you.”
I find that when I face my fears and those things that get me down, they’re very often the shadow-side of something good. I fear rejection because I value belonging. I fear failure because I want to be a success. I fear death because I love life. When these good things are in their right place as blessings from a generous God, my fears are manageable. When these good things are so important that they feel like the most important thing ever, then my corresponding fears grow in power to oppress me.
Calling them out and taking a good look at them helps me define them for what they are and put them where they belong.
In the name of Jesus.
Feb. 3, 2021
Rev. James A. Wetzstein serves as university pastor at the Chapel of the Resurrection at Valparaiso University and takes turns writing weekly devotions with University Pastor Katherine Museus Dabay.