Saturday, October 29, 2016

"It's a Ghost"

One of the pleasures of reading the Gospels in particular are those moments when, following the sequence from one day to another, one notices things which remain obscure as long as one’s exposure is limited to weekly or even daily Mass.  One reads slightly larger chunks, one reads them in order without omission, but also at a slow enough pace—unlike those marathon Lenten do-the-whole-Bible-in-forty-days sessions—

Which are helpful in their own way.

—that one is able to actually absorb the connections between the various scenes.  Last night’s portion, for example, involved the following ghost story (just in time for Halloween!).  At the end of chapter 13 of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus has just concluded a series of parables about the nature of the kingdom of heaven with an encounter with his dubious neighbors in Galilee:

they were scandalized in his regard. But Jesus said to them: A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house.  And he wrought not many miracles there, because of their unbelief. (Matt. 13:57-8)

Chapter 14 opens relating how Herod hears of Jesus, and how he reacts:

At the time Herod the Tetrarch heard the fame of Jesus. And he said to his servants: This is John the Baptist: he is risen from the dead, and therefore mighty works shew forth themselves in him.  (Matt. 14:1-2)

Notice the rich irony here.  Jesus’s own former neighbors have just finished “wondering” at (i.e., doubting) him (“How came this man by this wisdom and miracles?  Is not this the carpenter’s son?”, 13:54-5); he can work few miracles in Nazareth because they doubt the report of his miracles elsewhere, because they know who he is—though not the full truth of who he is.  Herod, on the other hand, does not know who Jesus is—indeed, completely misidentifies him—because of his belief in the reports of the miracles.  The superstitious king has in an odd way more “faith” than the presumably religious neighbors.

Thus far the parallel is merely ironic.  But as chapter 14 continues, the parallels grow richer.  For the entire chapter turns out to be a flashback to the time of John’s death.  Having noted Herod’s fear, Matthew continues:

For Herod had apprehended John and bound him, and put him into prison, because of Herodias, his brother’s wife.  For John said to him: It is not lawful for thee to have her.  And having a mind to put him to death, he feared the people: because they esteemed him as a prophet. (14:3-5)

Here begins the whole sad story of John’s eventual beheading at the hands of Herodias, using her daughter Salome (14:6-11).  At the conclusion,

[John’s] disciples came and took the body, and buried it, and came and told Jesus.  Which when Jesus had heard, he retired from thence by boat, into a desert place apart, and the multitudes having heard of it, followed him on foot out of the cities.  And he coming forth saw a great multitude, and had compassion on them, and healed their sick. (14:12-14)

Humanly speaking, this is not a good day for Jesus.  I am not trying to be humorous: his cousin has just died; we know their mothers were close, and presumably the boys were close as well, although John’s reaction to Jesus at his baptism can tend to obscure that probability.

 Close, no?

Jesus does what anyone would do at such a moment: he “retires,” goes “apart,” to process what has happened (again, speaking on the human level), and undoubtedly to pray.  But “the multitudes … heard of it,” and follow him even in this time of mourning.  So as must often have happened with Jesus (think now of every such person in a ministerial position, from Mother Teresa to your humble parish priest), he has to turn around and extend compassion to others, when feeling most in need of it himself.

Since Jesus has tried to “retir[e] … apart,” he and his disciples have inadvertently led the multitudes into “a desert place”; evening falls, and the disciples urge him to “send away the multitudes, that going into the towns, they may buy themselves victuals” (14:15).  This is the cue for Jesus’s miraculous multiplication of the loaves and the fish, a corporeal extension of the compassion he has been showing to the multitudes all day, since he heard of his cousin’s death.

Only once the meal is over does Jesus dismiss the crowds—AND his disciples—and “[go] into a mountain alone to pray.  And when it was evening, he was there alone” (14:23).  At this particular moment—I hope it’s not too impious—I think of my own mother, and every other mom I’ve heard, talking about that moment when ALL THE CHILDREN ARE FINALLY IN BED.  “He was there ALONE.”  Thank goodness.

Meanwhile, the poor disciples—like so many children with nightmares and coughs?—are having a bad night of it: “the boat in the midst of the sea was tossed with the waves: for the wind was contrary” (14:24).  So Jesus, like any good mom or dad, eventually comes to check up on them: “in the fourth watch of the night, he came to them walking upon the sea” (14:25).

Here, I have to tell a story of my own.  My father used to have—they are, alas, long passed from this world—a pair of red pajamas.  We also kept a nightlight burning, either in our bedroom or the hall or both, for many of the years when I was young.  One night, I remember distinctly my father appearing, unexpectedly, in those red pajamas and illuminated by the light.  This was where my brain went:

My mother used to make the most wonderful 
deviled ham biscuits around Easter time ...

And I shrieked.  Yes, my poor parents.  Anyway, keep that moment in mind; because the disciples’ reaction is similar …

And they seeing him walk upon the sea, were troubled, saying: It is an apparition. (14:26)

Douay Rheims, you don’t usually fail me: the word in the Vulgate is phantasma: apparition, spectre, phantom … But the real chill of the moment is better captured if we use the word we would employ colloquially today: It’s a ghost.

Does this sound familiar?  It should.  Remember the beginning of the chapter:

Herod: “This is John the Baptist: he is risen from the dead …”
Disciples: “It’s a ghost.”

We’ve come full circle.

And they cried out for fear.  And immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying: Be of good heart: it is I, fear ye not.  And Peter making answer, said: Lord, if it be thou, bid me come to thee upon the waters.  And he said: Come. And Peter going down out of the boat, walked upon the water to come to Jesus.  But seeing the wind strong, he was afraid: and when he began to sink, he cried out, saying: Lord, save me.   And immediately Jesus stretching forth his hand took hold of him, and said to him: O thou of little faith, why didst thou doubt?  And when they were come up into the boat, the wind ceased.  And they that were in the boat came and adored him, saying: Indeed thou art the Son of God.  And having passed the water, they came into the country of Genesar.  And when the men of that place had knowledge of him, they sent into all that country, and brought to him all that were diseased.  And they besought him that they might touch but the hem of his garment. And as many as touched, were made whole.  (14:26-36)

Thus the chapter concludes, and we come full circle to the sort of miracles of which Herod hears and cries out “This is John the Baptist: he is risen from the dead.”  And those words of Herod’s lend a further clue to the whole chapter.  It is not only a beautifully-crafted self-contained story (speaking as a human writer) but, like so many moments in the Old Testament and the Gospels, a foreshadowing of the Passion narrative as well.  Here in chapter 14, Jesus, heavy in heart at John’s death, feeds multitudes miraculously, goes up to the mountain alone to commune with his Father, and comes back when his troubled disciples least expect it, only have to disabuse them of the notion that he is a ghost; Peter’s leap of faith follows.

By comparison, in the final chapter of Matthew’s Gospel—chapter 28, perhaps not coincidentally the double of chapter 14?—we find a similar conclusion to a similar story.  The Passion has been led up to by a similar series of parables as led up to chapter 14; while the parables in 13 focused on the kingdom of God, inevitably concluding with the Last Judgment, the account of the Judgment in chapter 25 is more explicit and threatening .  Chapters 26 and 27 contain a history of the Passion.  Here, once again, Jesus, heavy in heart—now at the knowledge of his own impending death—feeds his disciples miraculously, with a yet greater miracle; goes up the Mount of Olives and eventually Mount Calvary alone to commune with his Father, and comes back when his troubled disciples least expect it …

It is only fair to add that the full account of Jesus’s appearance to his disciples through closed doors, and Peter’s second leap of faith, does not appear in Matthew, or for that matter in Mark.  It is only in Luke that we get the conclusion of the story, in which Jesus must disabuse the apostles of the notion that he is a ghost:

Jesus stood in the midst of them, and saith to them: Peace be to you; it is I, fear not.  But they being troubled and frightened, supposed that they saw a spirit [spiritum].  And he said to them: Why are you troubled, and why do thoughts arise in your hearts?  See my hands and feet, that it is I myself; handle, and see: for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as you see me to have.  And when he had said this, he shewed them his hands and feet. (Luke 24:36-40)

And it is only in final chapter of John that the parallel is fully complete:

After this, Jesus shewed himself again to the disciples at the sea of Tiberias. … they went forth, and entered into the ship: and that night they caught nothing.  But when the morning was come, Jesus stood on the shore: yet the disciples knew not that it was Jesus.  Jesus therefore said to them: Children, have you any meat? They answered him: No.  He saith to them: Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and you shall find. They cast therefore; and now they were not able to draw it, for the multitude of fishes.  That disciple therefore whom Jesus loved, said to Peter: It is the Lord.  (John 21:1, 3-7)

Not “it is a ghost”—they’ve moved past that point now—but “‘It is the Lord’ … And none of them who were at meat, durst ask him: Who art thou? knowing that it was the Lord” (21:7, 12).  Like Herod, but also much unlike him in his superstition, they now know: this is not a ghost, but a man who has risen from the dead.  And Simon Peter takes his second, more successful, leap of faith, followed by a meal of bread and fish, reminiscent of the multiplication in Matthew 14.

(Interestingly, John omits the ghost line from the upper room scene—see John 20:19-23—so you really do need a harmony of the Gospels to get the full story.  BUT John’s version of the upper room scene IS the one where Jesus bestows the Holy Ghost.  So, there is still a “ghost” in the room … Alright, I’m done now.  But how much cooler can the Holy Spirit’s work get?  C’mon, even the gospels’ order—the ghost business starts in Matthew, and concludes in John?  I only wish my novels showed that much attention to structure …)

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