Engraving by Gustave Doré (1832-1883)
Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray. When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded.
Jesus intended to pass them by?! The words leap out of Mark’s gospel story. Words as frightening as the ferocious wind that was threatening the lives of his disciples. And we can’t help but ask “why.” Why did Jesus intend to pass by his disciples and leave them to the mercy of the Galilean storm?
It’s clear from the previous sentence that Jesus had seen the trouble his disciples were facing and that he was coming to them. We assume he was coming to help them in their “straining at the oars against an adverse wind.” Why, then, would he intend to simply continue on his way and ignore them in their peril? Was he so eager to tend to the needs of people on the other side of the sea? Had he become caught up, perhaps, in deep contemplation of the dark beauty of the terrifying wind and waves? Was he annoyed with them for their reluctance to help feed that crowd of 5,000, and had decided that they needed to “pay” for that reluctance?
Or was Jesus, perhaps, intending to pass them by in order to teach them something more of the deep mystery of God? Of the incomprehensibility of God’s ways? Of the often silence of God? Intending to help them learn, perhaps, something of God’s presence even when God might seem most absent?
I recently read Shūsakū Endō’s Silence (the book upon which Scorcese’s movie is based). In the book, Sebastian Rodrigues is a Portuguese Jesuit priest who traveled to Japan in the early 17th century to help Christians there during a time of intense persecution that had driven the church underground. He is welcomed by numerous Japanese Christians who have struggled to keep their faith alive. But he is not welcomed by the authorities who capture him, imprison him, and force him to watch the brutal deaths of peasants who refuse to denounce their faith in the Christian God. He is also forced to watch the deaths of peasants who are killed because Rodrigues himself will not renounce his own faith.
Over and over and over again, Rodrigues cries out to God for help and for an understanding of why God doesn’t act to stop the brutality. Why Jesus seems to pass him by. Why he hears only silence. “Why are you silent?” he asks God. “Why does this stillness continue? This noonday stillness. The sound of the flies—this crazy thing, this cruel business. And you avert your face as though indifferent. This—this I cannot bear.”
His cry into the emptiness echoes what the disciples must have felt on that storm-tossed sea. Echoes the fear of our own hearts when we experience turbulence in our lives or watch victims of violence around the world and hear only the silence of God in response to our cries for help. Where are you, God? Why the silence? Have your forgotten us? Why do you pass us by?
Jesus himself experienced this silence of God as he hung on the cross surrounded by taunts and jeers. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Why have you passed me by? Where are you? Why am I so alone in my agony? Silence, the only response.
Silence. Stillness. God passing him by.
Or so it seemed. But somehow, somewhere, in the stark loneliness of those endless hours of his suffering, Jesus must have experienced something of God’s “thereness” with him. For as he breathed his very last breath, he spoke these words, “Into your hand I commit my spirit.” Words of profound trust that he was not alone in his dying. Words of confidence that the Father was somehow, somewhere, with him in the silence of his suffering.
A clear and decisive answer to the “why” of Jesus intentionally passing his disciples by we’ll never have. To the why of Christian persecution in Japan in the 17th century. To the why of our own suffering and difficulties. To the why of brutal horrors through the centuries and around our troubled world today. But, I do believe that if we listen to the silence long enough, if we listen hard enough, if we listen deeply enough, like Jesus himself, we will become aware that we are not alone. We may not find an Answer. But in the silence of the darkest of nights without stars, we will come to know that the stars really are still singing, and that the One who called them into being, the One who called us into being, continues to be ever with us and ever for us. A holy Presence.
A holy Presence working out God’s purpose in the vastness of time and space. A holy Presence working out God’s purpose in each tiny moment of our everydays. A holy Presence assuring us that we are enfolded in a Love that is ever “coming towards” us.