As we gather today, we do so with the discouraging news that the province is heading into another lockdown. Our Holy Week as a community celebration is being shrunk further—the Diocese sent out memos starting late yesterday afternoon outlining the new conditions. It’s going to mean even fewer people allowed to gather; and all the good work in setting up the reservations is now set aside, with apologies from the Diocese: you have to make new reservations, with even fewer seats available.
It’s not much of a consolation to the faithful; moreso for the clergy. Priests in rural and isolated parishes won’t find themselves alone Easter morning celebrating the Resurrection.
This is a bewildering time—hopeful news of vaccines mix with dire warnings of new and deadly strains of COVID-19; and then some of the vaccines prove not to be the panacea promised. For us as faithful Catholics, some of the newer ones are ethically very problematic, and you should read what is posted on our website to know of the moral compromises made to, for example, prepare AstroZeneca.
When I came to consider what I was going to say, to preach to you today, what had been drafted earlier in the week I found myself setting aside. I looked again at this story of Christ’s Passion, and in it I found some strange comfort for us who are finding our times difficult, confusing, befuddling.
One of the more enigmatic episodes within what we read and hear today, is one that leaves many scholars scratching their heads: it is the brief appearance of the naked young man.
The evangelist Mark tells us, “A certain young man was following Jesus, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.”
In my studies at seminary, at graduate school and as they continue less formally, I’ve encountered some attempts to make sense of this strange, out of place incident.
The best explanation, in my estimation, begins with the remembering that there were a lot of people, some you might call eccentric, who followed Jesus. That Jerusalem at Passover is a city packed with people: the population grew exponentially as pilgrims flooded in, filling every space in and around the city. And it would be time of natural religious fervour as any of us has seen when we ourselves have been to a pilgrimage site.
Religious enthusiasm knows no bounds, and the young man out in the night air underdressed could be accounted for in this category—someone burning with religious enthusiasm, the excitement of being spiritually awakened, and by his strange appearance manifesting some kind of piety that perhaps only he understood. There has been some suggestion that he had come to be baptized by Jesus, as a simple linen garment was the ancient vestment for those to be baptized.
We don’t know.
But the reason for the inclusion of this episode I think relies on the fact that the first readers and hearers of Mark’s gospel likely knew a great many stories about that night, and the following three days. There are hints throughout the text, references to people without further comment (like “Alexander and Rufus” who are mentioned with nothing further, as if we all know who Mark is talking about!).
They likely had a sense of the tense atmosphere from all that shared background, all the stories in circulation from which Mark made selections to communicate the essentials of the story: that just as Jesus’ enemies were beginning to circle in, so too were there people coming to see Jesus as their saviour, as the Messiah, and were equally intent on finding him that evening. This unnamed young man, then comes out into the night, perhaps aware that his chances of meeting Jesus were fast diminishing, of being baptized by him were shrinking. There may have been others waiting in the garden, beyond where the apostles kept their poor watch. There was excitement, fear, tension, and then the temple guard arrives along with a crowd of others armed with clubs, and panic ensues.
The young man running off into the night, naked and afraid, captures the sense of things as the disciple experienced it. The madness of that time, the terror of it.
I think that’s why Mark included it.
There is a famous monochrome painting by Picasso of the bombing of the city of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War that took place in the middle 1930s. The central image in it is not the dead and dying, or collapsing buildings, but rather a horse driven mad, and a blaring electric light that resembles a great menacing evil eye. That was the most vivid way for the painter to communicate terror; and it works for some strange reason that lies deep within our psyche—it is the image of fear and panic, of primal fear. So, too, then the image of those naked and fearful running into the night.
With what has happened, what continues to happen, I think we can’t help but identify a little with the young man. Longing to be near to Jesus, in a time of crisis, and just as we think we may be able to approach him, the police arrive, with little authority but with the threat of violence and carry him away. The coming of the temple guard, as Jesus rightly points out, is less a demonstration of power, and more one of fear of the people—they’ve come under cover of darkness, and by their largely unseen actions, panic the city, elevate the conflict with Jesus to a crisis, and so have the justification for extreme action.
And we flee from it into the dark, like the apostles, the other disciples, and some of us like the young man, naked and afraid.
If this was the spiritual state of the disciples, then how could we expect them to find the courage to defend Jesus, to mount a rescue? No, if you or I felt that way, the nakedness, although only in our heads and hearts, would keep us cowering in the shadows, staying indoors. We would not challenge the powers that be.
We would find ourselves as in this story, witnessing from a distance the humiliation, torture and murder of truth and love incarnate.
The importance of reading this today, of hearing this today, it be reminded that Christ’s disciples failed, and in fear and despair, feeling naked and vulnerable before the powers of the world, went and hid. This happens to Christ’s Church over and over again. But always, we emerge, into the bright light of Easter morning, to discover the empty tomb and know that whatever the world might bring against us, corrupt leaders, thugs, vicious lawyers, and craven hangers-on who taunt and jeer to gain the favour of the powerful, they cannot win.