mystical (adj. \ mys·ti·cal \ ˈmis-ti-kəl) – the experience of having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence that leads to union or direct communion with the divine.
Isaiah 40:1-5, 64:1-9; Mark 1:4-11; Luke 1:46-55
Holding out for a hero
My daughter had a full-on, fan girl ‘Eeeeek’ moment this past week. You know, one of those moments when a girl who is really into a book or band or movie finds out that one of her favorite movies/characters/books has something new coming out. I didn’t hear it, but I called my wife that morning and in the course of conversation asked her if Avery ‘eeek’-ed when the new trailer for the Avengers Infinity War film came out. By the time I had called there had been several ‘eeeks’, a few squeals, and a fair amount of jumping up and down. The truth is we love a good hero. Even though the comic book industry seems to be dying off, it has maintained a sales figure in the tens of millions of dollars every year from 1996 to the present and the overall sales figures for the Marvel film franchise movies in the United States alone is over ten billion dollars for the last fifteen years. If anything, this shows that we like a hero, especially a superhero.
This idea of a hero is nothing new. If anything, we have been creating superheroes for centuries, they have simply gone by other names: gods, demigods, adventurers, and so on. In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell writes,
“The hero, therefore, is the man or woman who has been able to battle past his personal and local historical limitations to the generally valid, normally human forms. Such a one’s visions, ideas, and inspirations come pristine from the primary springs of human life and thought.”
When such a person overcomes these obstacles of time and place, we give them a gift: the immortality of memory. Thus, we have the tales of Greek and Roman gods; Native American chiefs, warriors, and maidens; and those whose stories have been passed down from generation to generation for their great deeds and contributions to our civilization.
For the Jews living under Roman rule in the early first century, they had heroes as well. Great men and women of the distant past that filled the stories around campfires and at hearths; great leaders like Abraham and Moses, great prophets like Elijah and Isaiah, great kings like David and Josiah. There were also heroes of more recent history for them, the Maccabees. The Maccabees were a short-lived, dynastic family who led the Jews to rise up against their Syrian Greek oppressors after the ruler Antiochus-Epiphanies IV ordered a pagan sacrifice. Stories of great sacrifice and valor were born of these events, embellished as most stories of heroes are, and passed down to successive generations from the time of the Maccabees to the time Rome overthrew the Syrian Greeks, taking control of the land but allowing a certain autonomy to the Jewish rulers. Like many of those who came before them, Mattathias and his son, Judas Maccabee, held a certain title: Messiah in Hebrew, Christ in Greek.
The term that we often associate as the last name of Jesus is actually the Greek translation of a Hebrew title, Mashiach which means anointed and was used for the Jewish king who was known as The Lord’s Anointed. The idea of a future deliverer of Israel only came into being after the Babylonian captivity and was used to describe the Maccabees for a time. The trouble with the term is that there was no one idea of what the Messiah/Christ would be. Some saw him as a warrior-king, others as a supernatural cosmic judge of the earth, and still others as a priestly ruler who would offer authoritative interpretations of God’s Law. The expectations associated with this king can be traced to how the Jews of the time read and interpreted scripture. Notice this lament in Isaiah 64, written around the time of the return from Captivity, and see how it relates to the situation of Jews in the time of Jesus:
If only you would tear open the heavens and come down! Mountains would quake before you 2 like fire igniting brushwood or making water boil. If you would make your name known to your enemies,
the nations would tremble in your presence. 3 When you accomplished wonders beyond all our expectations; when you came down, mountains quaked before you. 4 From ancient times, no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any god but you who acts on behalf of those who wait for him! 5 You look after those who gladly do right; they will praise you for your ways. But you were angry when we sinned; you hid yourself when we did wrong. 6 We have all become like the unclean; all our righteous deeds are like a filthy rag. All of us wither like a leaf; our sins, like the wind, carry us away. 7 No one calls on your name; no one bothers to hold on to you, for you have hidden yourself from us, and have handed us over to our sin.
A case could be made, historically, for Israel feeling much the same in Jesus’s day, as they struggled to keep a socio-religious identity under Roman rule, despite a certain amount of Roman tolerance. People groups generally do not enjoy being ruled by another people group, especially one so different from their own. This is where we find the Jewish people as Jesus comes into the world.
In order to begin understanding the idea of Messiah in the New Testament, look at the documents themselves. The Gospel of Mark, the oldest of the gospel messages, begins with,
John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins. John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”
Some fifteen to twenty years later, the writer of Luke draws from stories told of Jesus’s birth and adds the dimension of one, not only anointed by the Holy Spirit to preach, teach, and do miracles in the name of God, but one who was born to do these things. In the Magnificat from chapter one of Luke, Mary says/sings,
“With all my heart I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior. He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant. Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the mighty one has done great things for me. Holy is his name. He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God. He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed. He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, just as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”
From these two passages, we see the messianic expectation of the Jews who would become Christians in the first century: that the Holy Spirit, the spirit of God, would be immersed into the lives of Jesus’s followers; God will use this messiah to scatter those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations; to pull the powerful down from their thrones and lift up the lowly; to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty-handed; to come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, just as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever. These ideas were part of a new understanding developed as the followers of Jesus tried to make sense of his teachings and experiences in relation to the Jesus they knew and had heard about as well as their understanding of the Jewish scriptures. In essence, it began as a way to acknowledge certain aspects of Jesus’s life, death, and ministry and from there began to incorporate aspects of the Jewish Messianic understanding.
A Mystical Christ
With these ideas in mind, let’s apply a definition of the word mystical that we will use throughout this series in order to help us understand the point of a messiah. The definition I would use is “the experience of having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence that leads to a union or direct communion with the divine.” So how does the messianic experience and understanding of Jesus lead us to the mystical, to that which has spiritual meaning or reality that is not apparent to our senses but leads us into communion with God?
As we look back at the two passages above, Mark 1:4-11 and Luke 1:46-55, we see some of those things which we can begin to understand as mystical in that Jesus leads us to his life and teaching to see these messianic ideas as things that he not only lived into but that we can also live into as well. Notice the things that the Messiah will do: champion the poor and their needs, call the powerful to answer for their actions, lift up those who are lowly in spirit. The mystical aspect is this: that we can live into these things and experience the divine communion with God that Jesus did, that we can be as Paul called it in Romans 8:14, sons and daughters of God when he wrote,
All who are led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons and daughters. You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear, but you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children. With this Spirit, we cry, “Abba, Father.” The same Spirit agrees with our spirit, that we are God’s children. But if we are children, we are also heirs.
In this Spirit of God, we enter into the messianic mission, the mission of those anointed for a purpose. What purpose? That of developing and living in The Kingdom of God on earth. The idea of a messiah is not just a story about a someone, it is a story about a something, an idea that transcends time and place to bring about change and transformation in Creation. I believe the awareness behind this mystical idea of anointing is one of seeing the need to change and leading others into change that corresponds to the life and teachings of Jesus, the one called Christ by his followers.
Campbell, J. (1949). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Carroll, J. T. (2007). The Existential Jesus. Berkeley: CounterPoint.
Ehrman, B. D. (2004). The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Ehrman, B. D. (2014). How Jesus Became God. New York: HarperOne / HarperCollins.
Ehrman, B. D. (2016). Jesus Before the Gospels. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Gunto, C. (2001). Nicene Christianity. (C. R. Seitz, Ed.) Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.
Irvin, D. T., & Sunquist, S. W. (2011). History of the World Christian Movement. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Jospehus, F. (1987). The Works of Josephus. (W. Whiston, Ed.) Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.
McGrath, A. E. (1997). The Genesis of Doctrine: A Study in the Foundation of Doctrinal Criticism. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing.
McGrath, A. E. (Ed.). (2007). The Christian Theology Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Tillich, P. (1964). Systematic Theology (Vol. 2). Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press.
Wright, N. (2011). Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters. New York: HarperOne Publishing.
 (Campbell, 1949, pp. 19-20)
 (Jospehus, 1987, p. 324ff), (Irvin & Sunquist, 2011, p. 11)
 (Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 2004, pp. 68-70)
 Mark 1:4-11
 Luke 1:46-55
 ‘To be immersed into’ is a literal definition for the Greek word baptizo, the word we baptize from.
 Romans 8:14-17