by Fr. Jack McArdle
Jesus is like a many-sided prism. No matter from which angle you look, you always see something new. Because he is both God and man, he is Everything in himself. He is totally human, while being profoundly mystical. A mystic is someone who seeks through contemplation and self-surrender to obtain union with the Divine; someone who believes in spiritual apprehension of truths beyond our human understanding. I believe that Jesus was both God and man, but I'm not sure that he himself was always aware of that fact. Using our humanity as his base, and with the openness of the pure of heart, he journeyed towards the experience of the Deity. I believe this journey to be possible to anyone who is redeemed from bondage, who is not weighed down, and held back by human weaknesses, and all the burden of our fears, anxieties, guilt, and selfishness. Jesus certainly encountered all of this. 'He was like us in all things but sin.... He was tempted in everyway like we are, but did not sin.' Paul tells us.
I think of Jesus as suffering enormously from loneliness. This was not just because he was among us as an exile, removed from his Father's home. Effectively, the Father's home is everywhere, so that would not have been the problem. The loneliness he would have experienced would have been 'the loneliness of the long-distance runner'. Deaf people must often be lonely, because communication is a life-line for most of us. Hence the phenomenal growth in telecommunications. Giant steps are being made to facilitate communication, possibly at the risk that everybody ends up communicating, and there's nobody listening anymore! Mary was a very unique and very special human being. She was the only person on this earth who could enter Jesus' world, and, somehow, understand. It is significant that she was not blinded by the myopia of original sin and selfishness. 'Blessed are the pure of heart, they shall see God.' The world of Jesus had no boundaries, with an infinity of possibilities. He came that we should have life, and have it to the full. It is reasonable, therefore, to expect that he himself was totally alive, and fully vibrant. As he walked the countryside, he would have been completely alert, to see and hear things that his companions, preoccupied in their own little world, would have totally missed.
Life has brought me into personal contact with a few artists and a few poets. I thoroughly enjoy their company, because of their heightened awareness. I spoke in an earlier chapter of how I often ask myself: How asleep am I? It is scary at times to become aware of the areas of one's being that are dormant, and non-productive. The mystic is involved with mystery and awe, and there is a constant sense of discovery and of revelation. The very word 'revelation' comes from the Latin re-velare, or the French reveiller, which implies wakening up. From this we get our word vigil, which involves being on the alert. It is significant that on the Mount of Transfiguration or in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus had to waken up his apostles, who kept falling asleep. I don't believe that God wants us to be deprived of sleep, at least that much sleep needed to function in a healthy way. What I do believe, however, is that, when not actually asleep, we should be awake!
Again and again in the gospels there is reference to Jesus going off to be alone, and spending all of the night in prayer. I wouldn't dare intrude on the sacredness of such moments, but I can see a great deal of purpose in all of this. Jesus never said anything unless the Father told him. It was necessary, therefore, that he listen to the Father, so as to have a message to pass on. At such times he opened his heart to be charged with the energy of the Father's love. With his humanity alone, he could never have kept going. He had put aside his own divinity, but, like any of us, he still had full access to the Divine. He had joined us on our side of the Red Sea, but he kept his mind and his heart focused on the Promised Land. His going aside at nighttime was to strengthen that umbilical cord with the source of his life. 'My very food is to do the will of Him who sent me'. Jesus had no other reason for being on this earth than to fulfil the mission entrusted to him by the Father. It is not too far-fetched to imagine the vast amount of time spent by a country's ambassador being in touch with the home country. It might well be the first thing to be done each morning, and the last thing at night. It is central that a life has a purpose, and not become some sort of meandering, meaningless existence. Jesus was a man with a mission, a person fully enthused with zeal for that mission.
We are all familiar with the concept of getting away for a while 'to take time out, to have some time for ourselves'. In very non-theological language, these night sessions were Jesus' lifeline to sanity. The gospels are replete with his message being questioned, his word being misinterpreted, his mission under threat of being hijacked. In this was the loneliness. Others insisted on trying to make him become something that he wasn't, and that he never wanted to be. Misunderstanding can be acceptable and excusable, but the deliberate attempts of the religious leaders to twist what he said, to hear only what they wanted to hear, and to be completely deaf to the simplicity of the message being offered; all of this must have brought endless frustration, and deep personal loneliness. As someone who could heal the deaf, and restore sight to the blind, it must have been deeply offensive to meet so many who were determined neither to hear nor to see.
I have studied the paintings of several artists of their impression of Jesus alone at prayer. I like most of them, probably because anything that helps me visualise what it might have been like is welcome. No artist would ever attempt to capture what was really going on, of course, because that was of a depth and a width that was so much greater than any canvas. It was a question of absorption, of being totally enveloped by the awe of the Divine. Every sense, every pore, every extremity is open, alert, and fully tuned-in. Jesus is at home here, and he feels at home here. This was his time to report back, to reflect, and, above all, to listen. His whole purpose was to do the will of the one who sent him. He never said anything unless the Father told him. His faithfulness to the Father's will was infinitely more important than any human successes or failures he might have with his followers the next day. He would accept full responsibility for his role, and the others would have to do likewise. Later he told his apostles 'If they do not listen to you, shake the dust of their town from your feet, and move on...'
We speak of the Father, Son, and Spirit as the Trinity, three persons in one God. I can have a cup of water, a snowball, or a bowl of hailstones, and yet all I have is water in different dimensions. The whole story of Redemption involves each member of the Trinity. The Father initiates it, as it were, when he sends Jesus. Jesus carries out the plan, and the Spirit comes to complete it. It is not possible, of course, to point to a particular moment, and say 'Here's where the programme for our redemption began', but there is one very significant moment that must surely be a high point in the process. Jesus went to the Jordan to be baptised by John the Baptist. This caused a strong reaction in John, who knew, of course, that Jesus didn't belong in the kind of people who flocked out to him. John couldn't understand, of course, that Jesus was coming here on behalf of all sinners, because he had come to take away the sins of the world. Jesus was not, as it were, flying solo in what he was doing. He was never alone, even though, on the cross, he had a very real sense of aloneness and loneliness. As he came up out of the waters of the Jordan, the Spirit was seen to come upon him in visible form, and the Father's voice was heard to call out 'This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.' In other words, They were in this together. Jesus was the hand of God stretched out to sinners, held out in welcome, and in friendship. It was necessary then, for Jesus to be in constant contact with the Father and the Spirit, so that, together They might complete the plan.
Using human language, with all its limitations, it is as if Jesus were on his own for the first thirty years. He did his own personal novitiate as a human being. He had walked the walk, before attempting to talk the talk. He experienced what it was to be 'like us in all things but sin.' His human experience was totally human, and not some sort of masquerade or pretence. In fact, he was so ordinary that, later on, when signs and miracles began to accompany him, his neighbours and acquaintances of many years were absolutely amazed. It is not too far-fetched to suggest that it was during those years that he himself discovered his origins, his potential, and his mission. After all, surely a lot of this happens to all of us as we travel the journey of life. How many people set out on the journey, already in possession of all the answers? Life is a mystery, and it unfolds at each turn of the road. I can easily imagine Jesus' life being one of constant discovery, discovery about who God is, about who he is, and about who we are. As a child I often thought of those thirty years being a total waste of precious time that could have been put to much better use! Obviously, I don't think that way any longer. I now consider those years as the foundation on which was built all that was to follow. In simple words, after thirty years of living, listening, and reflecting, Jesus knew all he needed to know to be able to begin his mission.
From his very infancy he had travelled the Hebrew journey back from Egypt. It is significant that, while still a child, he actually travelled that journey back from Egypt. He had seen enough of oppression, possession, and depression to believe that these people needed a Saviour. It was evident to him that humanity did not have within itself what could redeem it, and it was fidelity to the Father, and a profound determination to obey the Father in all things, that persuaded him to accept the role of Redeemer and Saviour. Knowing our condition, and all the ramifications involved in becoming entangled with human beings, he knew it would cost him everything. He also knew, however, that he could trust the Father totally. The original sin was one of disobedience, and it could only be set right by a supreme act of obedience.
The mystic has no horizons. The mind, the heart, and the soul become as big as the great outdoors. It is like looking at the earth from a space shuttle, where everything becomes relative to what we have known up till now. Contemplation is exploration, and reflection is prayer. Jesus arrived at a point where there were no barriers, no partitions, no divisions. He could look to one side and see humanity exactly as it is. He could turn towards God and see the Deity in relationship to the universe. This is the goal of the mystic, the way of the hermit, and Jesus had arrived. He was in that unique go-between place where he could stretch out one hand to the Father, and the other to me. His role was to bring both hands together, resulting in the eternal union of the Father with his children. He passed on to us everything the Father told him. He assured us that there was no hidden agenda. 'They who hear me, hear the Father; they who see me, see the Father.' Grief is the price we pay for love. If I don't want to cry at a funeral, then I should refrain from loving anyone. Jesus had an extraordinary capacity for love, and, therefore, he had every reason to cry. We know of times when he cried as he overlooked Jerusalem, or when he visited the tomb of Lazarus. I certainly believe that he must surely have cried at night when he was alone with the Father. This may seem strange, but I believe it makes a great deal of sense. He never said anything unless the Father told him. I could imagine Jesus saying these, or similar words, 'Father, I told them the story of the Prodigal Son, but they don't believe me. They're still afraid to come back to the Garden. I told them the story about the Pharisee and the Publican, but they still cling to the letter of the law, and they equate goodness with observance of the law. I told them about the birds of the air, and the lilies of the field, but they continue to worry as much as any of the pagans. Father, they don't believe a word I tell them.' No wonder, Jesus said 'The sin of this world is unbelief in me', and 'When the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on this earth?'
I can see ways in which the mystic can be a lonely person, but I can see many ways and many reasons why the mystic should also be fully human and fully alive, with a vibrancy that is impossible to the burdened. The cage door is open, as it were, and the lark can soar, the seagull can glide. Many of us spend much of our lives in prisons of our own making. Some people who are severely physically limited may well feel themselves imprisoned in their bodies. A young woman who was totally immobile, with but a tiny movement in her big toe, with which she managed to press the keys of a specially constructed typewriter, wrote the following lines: 'You ask me if I'm sad or bored, or if my life it is abhorred; and I tell you I am not, that I can now accept my lot. I remind your sadly-shaking head, it's by body, not my mind, in bed.' Of such it is said that they are never less alone than when alone. Most of the loneliness Jesus experienced would have been in the middle of the pressing throngs. A couple can be in bed together, and yet be thousands of miles apart; while another couple could be many miles apart, but experience a great closeness to each other.
There were times when Jesus wanted human company more than at other times. In Gethsemane, he wanted the comfort of the apostles' presence. He asked them to remain alert, to watch and pray. And yet they kept falling asleep on him. In summary, this is something that happened in so many ways, on many another occasions. The only one who was fully alert, beside Jesus, was Judas, because he had a personal investment in what was going on. It can be frightening at times when we glimpse human selfishness at close quarters. There is a sense of the obscene when we compare the openness of the mystic with the cunning alertness of the manipulator.
Jesus was human through and through. It was as if he left his humanity to one side for the present. Because of what he did with his humanity, and because of his total openness to the Divine, is it possible that he could have raised his humanity to the level of the divine, being totally absorbed into it? The only limits to his life and his living were set by those around him. They were always ready and willing to pull him down, and to remind him of his humble origins in Nazareth. The mystic is able to lift his eyes to the mountain, to see above and beyond the boundaries, to hear things not possible for the human ear. Yes, indeed, Jesus was alone. That was the pain in his cry on Calvary 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' At that moment, it appeared as if even the Father had deserted him, and he was totally alone. Death is something I have to do. It is not something that another can do for me. Even if the room is filled with family and friends, the person in the bed has to face death alone. For one brief moment, Jesus experienced a sense of complete abandonment. It didn't last, because he was not abandoned. With his final breath, he offered his spirit into the Father's hands, and he bowed his head in obedience. The mystic had returned from his painful and lonely exile, and the process of resurrection for Jesus, and for all of us, was now to be completed.
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'Jesus: The Man and the Message' copyright © 2004 Fr. Jack McArdle. All rights reserved.