Beside Himself | Abby Hannifan

Mark 3:19b-35

This Christmas I reconnected with my Catholic roots by reading Story of a Soul, the autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a 19th century French Carmelite nun beloved in the Catholic Church for her “little way” of loving Jesus and others.

Instead of being encouraged by her example, I found myself disheartened. St. Thérèse was so holy, so aware of God’s presence, so unbothered by the inconvenience of loving some pretty unlovable fellow nuns… her grace, poise, and humility annoyed me. I found myself spinning conspiracy theories about why she was so holy, wondering if some people are just more genetically or psychologically wired to lead that kind of selfless life. In the end, I sighed a patronizing “good for her,” dismissing her character as unrealistic (and maybe a little weird), and moved on.

Mark 3:19b-35 has a lot going on. The verses that strike me most are v. 21-22, where Jesus’ friends and family seize him to remove him from preaching to the crowds because he is “beside himself.” They were probably thinking: Who would give up a sweet gig as a carpenter to live as a vagabond, to be chased around by people who are sick, bad, and threatening his assassination? And, most of all… who skips lunch?!

What blows my mind about their reaction is that they knew he was the Son of God. These are his nearest and dearest, ascribing lunacy to the Messiah who came to Earth to do exactly what he is doing when they cart him off: healing the sick, redeeming the broken, defeating death.

If my reaction to St. Thérèse’s “little way” is any indication, I’m not so sure I wouldn’t have patted Jesus on the head, too, and thought him a little nutty. Which makes me wonder… How thick are my beliefs if I believe in the cosmology of the Gospel, yet dismiss its application when I see it at work, either in my own life or in the lives of others?

It seems that the quick and easy way to deal with eccentricity is to call it eccentricity, instead of wrestling with the oddity of anything, or anyone, “set apart.”

So if Jesus’ family’s definition of insanity is off, what is the litmus test for crazy?

I’ve recently come to embrace this definition: Insanity is doing the same ineffective thing over and over again, expecting a different result. As parts of my heart still pay rent in the “house of the strong man” (v. 27) when I’m called to a “lavish banquet on a mountain” instead (Isaiah 25:6)—I’m the crazy one. When I commit the “chief sin” (v. 29) of undermining the work of the Spirit in my life or the lives of others by misattributing or dismissing it—I’m the crazy one. When I choose, in C.S. Lewis’s words, to keep making “mud pies in a slum because I cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at the sea”—I’m the crazy one.

I love that this Lectionary reading begins with the half-verse 19b—as Jesus is calling His disciples, the last person named is “Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.” My only hope to escape my own insanity hinges on this half-verse. Despite my tendency to naysay evidence of holiness in my own life and the lives of others, and to procrastinate in opting into my own sanctification, Jesus chooses me… a modern-day lady-Judas, with a crazy count of notches in my betrayal belt. The Gospel starts working in our lives when we can see the contrast between our character and the character of Christ, and its reflection in the lives of his saints, and then allow that contrast to change us. Jesus doesn’t call me in spite of my inability to change; He calls me, and I am changed.

Father, the definition of “eccentric” is something that has its own center, its own orbit. I pray that I would not just be a distant admirer of the life of Jesus (at best), but rather allow the gravity of the Cross to draw me into His orbit this Lent… That I would dwell so closely with God as to aspire for the world to sneer, “She is beside herself.”

Abby Hannifan is celebrating 4 years in DC and Advent this month. Her mom, her bed, her people, and those Blue Ridge mountains (in the morning, with a cup of coffee) are some of her favorite things.