The Tail of Two Comets: Vespasian and Jesus of Nazareth (Mark 8:27-38)by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund on September 2, 2021
The Tail of Two Comets: Vespasian and Jesus of Nazareth (Mark 8:27-38)
On Sundays at St. Liz, we’re coming to the end of chapter 9 in our modified Mark lectionary, but since it’s been so long since I’ve written on Mark here, I want to backtrack a bit and look at a pivotal passage in one of Mark’s middle chapters. At the end of chapter eight, one of Mark’s macro-level narrative structures is close to the surface. Mark portrays Jesus’ ministerial campaign as the life-giving inverse of the military campaign of a Roman general named Vespasian. Today, I want to show how Mark does that and how it might matter for us. But first, let’s talk about the comet that caused the meteor shower last month.
- The Swift-Tuttle Comet
In the summer of 1862, two astronomers discovered a comet. The astronomers’ names were Swift and Tuttle. They were working independently of each other, so when it came time to name the comet, they each got credit, and to this day, the comet is named the Swift-Tuttle comet.
The Swift-Tuttle comet orbits the sun in a long, elliptical orbit, and it passes relatively close to the earth around every 130 years. It was close to the earth when Swift and Tuttle discovered it in 1862, and the last time it was close to earth was 1992. It won’t pass so close by us again in our lifetimes.
Like all comets, Swift-Tuttle is a big mass of dust and ice and rock and other stuff. Its core is about 16 miles wide, which makes it far and away the single largest object to pass closely by earth repeatedly. As Swift-Tuttle zips through space, it leaves this incredibly large tail of debris in its wake. Everything from microscopic bits of dust to little flakes of rock the size of rice grains to slightly bigger chunks of space rock the size of marbles.
Even though the comet itself is only in our orbital neighborhood less than once in a lifetime, the comet’s tail is always there. Every year, when earth passes near the Swift-Tuttle comet tail, some of that debris enters our atmosphere and burns up.
When that happens, we get a meteor shower. That meteor shower is called the Perseids, and it happens every August. Because Swift-Tuttle’s comet tail is so big and all those little space crummies are moving so fast, the Perseids meteor shower is usually the biggest, brightest, and most reliable meteor shower of the year.
It’s odd to think about: once in a lifetime a comet the size of a city passes close to earth, and the trail of debris it leaves behind is so immense that it forever changes the calendar. The power of the comet is so great that even generations later, tiny, marble-sized remnants of it can light up the night. Every August, we enter the comet’s tail and see flashes in the sky.
There are some figures in history who are like that: their influence is so great, that generations after them are always passing through their wake. People decades later are still either sifting through or marveling at the debris. We’re going to look at two figures like that today. The Roman General-turned-Emperor Vespasian, and then Jesus of Nazareth.
I don’t pair Vespasian and Jesus arbitrarily. The way Mark tells the story of Jesus, it’s possible that he is deliberately shaping the plot of his narrative so as to differentiate Jesus from Vespasian. Mark shows Jesus doing similar things precisely so as to show how Jesus is different.
It all hinges on the town of Caesarea Philippi. A stop at Caesarea Philippi is a midway point for Mark’s Gospel. It’s also a midway point for Jesus’ ministry on earth and Vespasian’s conquest of Jewish territory.
In the summer of the year 67, a Roman General named Vespasian completed his conquest of the northern Israelite territory of Galilee and entered the city of Caesarea Philippi to rest with his troops and be received by the local king. The strategy had been simple: subdue Jewish resistance in the north of Galilee first; then, once that’s finished, take a break and march south to conquer Jerusalem. The march south and the conquest of Jerusalem would be easier with Galilee conquered because there would be no threats at Vespasian’s back (to the north).
Vespasian was of humble origins but rose quickly through the ranks of Roman society by ingratiating himself with the aristocracy and emperor, and by distinguishing himself in battle. When Jews in the critical Roman provinces of Galilee and Judea began to revolt, Vespasian is sent as the general tasked with quelling the rebellion.
Despite Rome’s might, this was no easy task. Previous generals had failed because they underestimated the fervor with which Jews were willing to defend their homeland. So, Vespasian brings no fewer than three full legions with him to reconquer the territory. Vespasian’s campaign is methodical and brutal. He starves out cities in siege, attacks right before dawn when city guards are most exhausted—the whole nine yards.
In the eyes of Rome, Vespasian is a rising star. The debris and destruction in the wake of his army is total. In the eyes of many Romans, Vespasian’s path is inevitable: he’s going to become emperor one day.
Vespasian’s fame is so great that miraculous stories about him begin to multiply. There are rumors that he once gave a blind man back his sight by using his spittle and touching his eyes. There’s another in which he restores a man’s withered hand.
Vespasian conquers the northern regions of Galilee and withdraws to the northernmost point of the region to the city of Caesarea Philippi to rest. And it’s around this time, probably in August of 67, that Vespasian learns of a prophecy made, or at least recorded, by one of his Jewish prisoners of war. The prisoner’s name is Josephus, and Josephus says that Vespasian will be “ruler of land and sea and the whole human race.” This happens while Vespasian is on Jewish soil.
Notice what that means: Vespasian’s might is so total, that even one of his Jewish prisoners of war seems to be wondering (perhaps for reasons of self-preservation) whether a figure like the promised Messiah who will emerge from Jewish soil is actually Vespasian, a Roman general and soon to be emperor. If so, resistance is futile. Vespasian grows in popularity in the more pro-Roman big cities of the region. (For the history and geography nerds, if you find an ancient map, more pro-Roman cities in the area are places like Tiberias and Sepphoris.)
To tie all that up: after conquering Galilee, Vespasian rests with his armies for a while at Caesarea Philippi, the town at the far north of Jewish territory. It is here that Vespasian learns of a prophecy that he’ll be ruler of land and sea and of the whole human race. It is in Caesarea Philippi that the question about who Vespasian is and will be emerges: is he just a victorious general, or is he to become emperor? Is he even the Messiah of the world? It is from Caesarea Philippi that Vespasian will begin his long march south to Jerusalem to confront the rebellious Jewish forces once and for all.
Two years later, while still on Jewish soil conducting his military campaign, Vespasian is hailed as emperor by his troops.
- Jesus of Nazareth (according to Mark)
Sometime around the year 30—maybe it was in the summer, we don’t know—Jesus of Nazareth came from Galilee to be baptized by John in the wilderness.
Jesus was of humble origins, and never gained any real popularity amongst the powerful people of his day. He did, however, gain fame for his teachings and deeds of power, usually done in the synagogues in Galilee, where he was from. When so many other Galileans take arms against Rome, Jesus and his movement refrain. Jesus consolidates his forces, not with generals, but with disciples and apostles who are given power not of this world. The demons themselves flee before them. The strategy is simple: rural folks like Galileans are the ones most often ignored by folks in power, so Jesus starts his ministry there.
Despite Jesus’ popularity, this was no easy task for his followers. Previous grass-roots movements had underestimated Rome’s power and reach. Some had convinced themselves that a usual kind of worldly, military success would once and for all solve their problems. So, Jesus is careful to make it clear exactly what folks are getting into by becoming his disciple: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it” (8:35). His campaign is life-giving and unexpected: where Vespasian attacked at night just before dawn, when guards were most likely to be dozing off, Jesus calls tax collectors and fishermen in the full light of day. Where Vespasian starved cities out, Jesus and his disciples feed thousands.
In the eyes of the Galilean populace, Jesus is a rising star. The bread crumbs and leftover fish in the wake of his movement are remarkable. In the eyes of Galilee, Jesus’ path is inevitable: he’s going to liberate them from Rome.
Jesus’ fame is so great that miraculous stories about him begin to multiply; the way Mark tells it, they sound eerily like the stories that spread about Vespasian. People hear that Jesus once gave a blind man back his sight by using his spittle and touching his eyes (8:22-26). Jesus restores a man’s withered hand (3:1-6).
Jesus’ popularity and the expectations surrounding him are staggering. Jesus has traveled through most of the rural towns and small places of Galilee, and word of his power has spread far and wide. This is the man who stilled the stormy sea, after all. People are starting to ask, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (4:41). The parallel phrasing to Vespasian’s “ruler of land and sea and the whole human race” is plain. And like Vespasian, Jesus travels to the northernmost point of the region in the city of Caesarea Philippi (8:27-38). Peter finally says plainly what so many people are starting to think: “You are the Messiah” (8:29). This happens on Jewish soil, but it’s no longer just Jews who are seeking out Jesus. Jesus heals a man with a Legion of Demons in a Gentile neighborhood, remember (5:1-20)? A Syro-Phoenician woman begs him to heal her daughter (7:24-30).
Notice what this means: by refusing the violent guerilla tactics of his more zealous countrymen, Jesus’ non-violent and life-giving campaign spreads into Gentile territory, potentially ignoring arbitrarily drawn Roman provincial lines. And unlike Vespasian, Jesus does this without ever entering the largest Galilean cities. (Places like Tiberias and Sepphoris).
To tie all that up: after eight chapters of ministry in the regions of Galilee, Jesus comes with his disciples to Caesarea Philippi, the town at the far north of Jewish territory. It is here that the question about who Jesus is really emerges: is he John the Baptist? Is he Elijah? Is he one of the prophets? Is he the Messiah? Peter, one of his disciples, names him the Messiah (8:29). From Caesarea Philippi, Jesus will begin his long march south to Jerusalem to confront the forces of darkness and sin once and for all.
At the end of the Gospel, when Jesus dies on Jewish soil occupied by Rome, Jesus is declared the Son of God by a Roman centurion (15:39).
To sum up the parallels: both Vespasian and Jesus begin their respective campaigns in Galilee, consolidating support, and then they go to Caesarea Philippi. While there, things escalate and shift: Vespasian’s prisoner of war says he’s the messiah; Jesus’ follower Peter says the same about him. From Caesarea Philippi, both Vespasian and Jesus march south to Jerusalem, their respective ‘armies’ following behind. Vespasian will destroy Jerusalem and be hailed as emperor; Jesus will be crucified in Jerusalem and hailed as the Son of God.
Both men are impossibly powerful and popular, in their own way, and both will become kings after they leave Caesarea Philippi. They’re both like comets: you can see strung out behind them the trail of debris they’ve left behind. Behind Vespasian, there are the ashes of Galilean towns and the starving bodies of Galilean Jews, a trail of destruction haunted by demons. Behind Jesus, there are the crumbs of leftover bread and extra fish, people healed, people with full bellies, a place cleansed of its demons and people in their right minds.
We always live in the overlapping tails of two comets. In the wake of Vespasian, we see all that’s worst in us. Greed, violence, seeking the friendship only of those in power, twisting the vulnerability of others to our own benefit. All the violence and ice and terrible fire of space rocks crashing randomly through protective walls of atmosphere.
In the wake of Jesus of Nazareth, we see the goodness God has given us. Generosity, peace, truth-telling, seeking the friendship of those on the periphery, forgivenss of sins, prioritizing the vulnerability of others as we make our own decisions. All the beauty and wonder and celestial brilliance of a meteor shower sprinkling light at the darkest hour. The tail left behind his earthly life still marks our calendars: Christmas, Easter, Ascension.
Every generation feels that its historical placement is a unique hinge point. Maybe that’s true; maybe that’s human arrogance. At the risk of perpetuating the cliché, it does feel true of our own time and place. I don’t just mean the pandemic; I mean all of it. It’s been a lot for a long time, both as individuals and as a society. I actually know multiple people who are struggling with a mysterious and persistent fatigue. No clear medical diagnosis, no instigating change in personal life or medication or anything. Just worn out, it seems, by the past couple trips around the sun.
The thing about gravity is that it works whether or not the massy object in question wants it to. Bits of space rock, dust, detritus from a city-sized comet: gravity works on them all regardless of their inclination for or against. There is both grace and danger here. The grace is that we can be drawn into the wake of Jesus of Nazareth regardless of our conscious choice to be so drawn; the action of God is the action of God, with or without us. The danger is that, if we are not careful, we can be pulled into the wake of other comets, too. Ones more like Vespasian.
Our lives have spiritual inertia. This is not good or bad. It just is. It’s what makes repentance so hard and so powerful: repentance can be a massive inertia shift, a slingshot around the sun. What’s more, the trajectory of our lives today will mark the calendars of generations to come. We leave debris in our wake, too. This also is not intrinsically good or bad. It just is.
So, years from now, when future generations look to the heavens in the depths of their own night and remember us in this epoch, the lights that flash in their skies—will they see evidence of where Vespasian has been, or will they see followers of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, and only rightful ruler of this universe? In whose orbit are we living? Whose tail is this?
I confess it’s not always clear to me, and maybe sometimes it’s both.
Still, what if it’s true, you crazy diamonds, that we Christian people are bits of sacred debris stretched out through time and space behind the only Son of God, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith? What if our only job is to become his meteors? What if our only job is to live lives worthy of looking to, lives that flare up like holy fire both now and in the memories of future generations when they need it most? What if our only job is to become saints?
I do not necessarily mean the kind of spiritual heroes we’re used to hearing about— Elizabeth of Hungary with her miraculous roses, or Francis of Assisi taming the Wolf of Gubio. I don’t mean folks like that, though I’m grateful for their witness. More ordinary paths of holiness are probably our own. After all, a meteor is not a meteor because of supernatural composition or miraculous birth or anything else. A meteor is made of the same dust you and I are. It just follows and moves between heaven and earth in a certain way. Ordinary rock becomes heavenly fire.
As we continue through whatever great shake-up we’re all in the midst of, a good question for us might be something like this: years from now, when the present struggles are behind us and our vision is wider, when we turn to look back at where we’ve been, what do we hope to see? If we follow our own trails through the sky, to which comet will our lives testify?
Who will people say that we are?
Keep looking up, and God’s Peace,
 For this section, see Stephen Simon Kimondo, The Gospel of Mark and the Roman-Jewish War of 66-70 CE: Jesus’ Story as a Contrast to the Events of the War. (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2018), especially the introduction and chapters 4-5.
 See Kimondo, 148. In another chapter, Kimondo also takes up the pivotal question of how trustworthy Josephus is as a source.