Jesus said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible.” – Mark 14:36 (NRSV)
A chiasmus is a reverse parallel of words or phrases. Here is one example of a chiasmus: “I meant what I said and I said what I meant.”
And here is another one: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” When Jesus said that, he was not pioneering a new literary technique. He grew up with chiastic structures in the Hebrew scriptures. They show up often in oral traditions because they help listeners memorize complicated ideas, like the biblical flood narrative that reverses ten plot components in a huge chiasmus that runs through four chapters of Genesis.
But I like the simple ones of Jesus the best, where if you give each segment a letter — “The sabbath (A) was made for humankind (B) and not humankind (B) for the sabbath (A)” — then you end up with what the grammarians call an ABBA chiasmus.
“Abba” was an intimate address, an appeal to God as “Father” that reflected the prayer language of Jesus’ day. Mark’s Gospel, written in Greek, deliberately preserved Abba in Aramaic.
How miraculous then, that so many centuries later in a language not my own, I know this word Abba. How wondrous to rediscover the ABBA chiasmus from grammar lessons past in the literary style of Jesus, whose words are forever unveiling themselves in new and ancient forms.
Nothing is out of bounds for you, Holy Spirit. You are always at work when we read your word. Amen.
Lillian Daniel is Senior Pastor at First Congregational Church in Dubuque, Iowa. She is the author of Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Belong To and When “Spiritual but not Religious” is Not Enough.