Words on the Word
12. Sunday C
Zechariah 12:10-11, 13:1: They will look on the one whom they have pierced.
Galatians 3:26-29: If you are Christ’s, then you are heirs according to the promise.
Luke 9:18-24: Jesus was praying alone in the presence of his disciples.
Today’s Gospel reading sets out from a strange affirmation. St Luke tells us that ‘Jesus was praying alone in the presence of his disciples’. We normally say someone is alone when he or she is not in the presence of others; it is the absence of others that constitutes aloneness. We can feel alone in company, of course. We can feel marginalised, isolated, unaccepted. If we bear a secret, or some intimate soul-pain, being in company can sharpen our sense of being surrendered to ourselves. This, though, is a matter of subjective perception. It reveals how I experience myself in relation to others. What the evangelist says of Christ is different. The New Jerusalem Bible translation is, as usual, paraphrastic, but does render the sense of St Luke’s words: ‘And it happened while [Jesus] was praying alone that his disciples were with him’. Christ was alone, yet was not. How are we to understand this?
In this passage, we are touching a crucial truth about Jesus. Devotional literature likes to remind us how near the Lord is; how, if you and I reach out, we can touch him. I am not saying this is false. The Lord is near, nearer to us than we are to ourselves. When we are reconciled, in communion with the Church, we are incorporated into Christ. When at Mass we say ‘Amen’ to his Body and Blood, the life of Christ flows into us in spiritual transfusion. This isn’t make-believe. It is real and effective. It is what enables us to live, love, and flourish as Christian men and women. But do we sufficiently remember how different Jesus is? Do we remember what immense gaps are bridged in him?
We believe that Christ is true God and true man: ‘consubstantial with the Father’, yet ‘born of the Virgin Mary’. To admit these claims as equally true is hard. Even keeping them in mind at one time is hard. It is so hard that the early Church fought an intellectual battle for the best part of six hundred years to uphold this apparent contradiction in the face of the simpler, more reasonable formulas of the great christological heresies. God made heaven and earth, all that is, out of nothing. He totally transcends creation. He is unbounded, immaterial, without beginning or end. Yet in Augustus’s reign, he ‘became man’, drawing divine and human life together as one. If it is difficult to imagine what this means, what must it have been to incarnate the union of created and Uncreated being, of real flesh and pure Spirit? This is where we approach the mystery of Christ’s solitude.
Recently, I heard a wise monk say something important. He remarked that it is possible to live the monastic life in a purely human way, horizontally. Living thus, we can get by tranquilly. True, we’ll be missing the point of what we came to the monastery for, but we’ll be undisturbed, and fairly comfortable. If, however, we let the horizontal axis of natural life intersect with the vertical axis of supernatural life, we shall know the cross. We shall know its pain. We shall also know it as the saving, life-giving sign by which ‘joy entered the world’. This truth holds, not just for monks, but for every believer. It gives us a faint intimation of the incarnate life of Jesus. What extremes that life contained! What contradiction Christ knew, humanly speaking! In communion with the Father through the Spirit, in communion with mankind through the flesh, his earthly life culminated in a cry of dereliction that rent his heart within even as, outwardly, it was pierced by a lance.
The contemplative tradition of the Church, not least in the monastic Order, has always recognised this solitude as a feature of Jesus’s life from the beginning. In this sense there are authors who call Christ crucified right from his conception in Mary’s womb. This language is at once symbolic and concrete. There is nothing macabre about it. It does not stand for some perverse obsession. It simply spells out the meeting, in Jesus, of integral life on the human plane and the life that is of God. It reminds us that, here, in the constraints of earthly existence, wounded by sin, this meeting is not always one of sweetness and light. It can express itself as darkness, pain, and terrible loneliness.
St Luke presents Jesus alone as praying. Emerging from prayer, he asks his friends, ‘Who am I?’ He asks the same of us. If we know, want to know, who Jesus is, we, like they, will be told the way to come to know him better. ‘If anyone wants to follow me, let him take up his cross’. To know Jesus is to know the cross. It is to reach for, to follow, the vertical pull of ascent. We cannot remain as we were before, among the dwellers of the plain, restricted to horizontal living. Our heart must be pierced, like Christ’s was. The world will look on and mock. At times we will carry this Christian condition simply as loss. Yet in faith we shall know that new life is born in what seems like death. For the cross Christ proposes is in fact a royal gate, a passover into a fullness of being that makes this world of time seem like an exile. The glorious cross draws us upward, outward, in longing that can only be stilled by God himself. May the mystery of our Alone Saviour be a guiding star on our earthly pilgrimage, reminding us where we are bound. No wonder our soul can feel out of place, out of kilter, here below. It is made for eternity. The solitude we sometimes know is but a reminder that we are not yet home but on the way, in via.