During Lent I occasionally choose a gospel companion to guide me through the season. I slip in behind one character or another in the Passion narrative and walk with them on the road to Jerusalem. One year it was Mary of Magdala. Another, Claudia, wife of Pontius Pilate.
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This year I was drawn to Mark’s “certain young man”—the one who flees naked from the violence in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives (14:51-52), leaving behind his linen cloth.
Scholars vehemently disagree about who this young man was. Many deduce that it’s the writer of Mark’s gospel inserting himself into the story. Others say he is reminiscent of King David fleeing from Absalom on the the Mount of Olives. Or that he foreshadows the “young man” in a white robe who will meet the women at Jesus’ tomb.
Whoever he was, in the midst of an encounter with violence, this “certain young man” lost what thin protection he had and fled into the night, into the selva oscura, as Dante calls it, those “dark woods.” Toward what, we do not know.
AS THE HUMAN soul matures, we are confronted with moments that force us to let go of yet another thin veil of self-delusion. The “right road,” the moral high ground, sinks into a thicket of gray.
Two examples from this Lent: An American Army staff sergeant, with four deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and probable concussive brain trauma, allegedly pulls 16 unarmed Afghan civilians, including nine children, out of their beds in the middle of the night and shoots them. The thin cloth of protection that allows us to believe “if we weren’t there things would be worse” slips to the ground.
The U.S. attorney general explains in a logical manner why it is legal and lawful in some circumstances for a U.S. president to order the “targeted killing” of an American citizen. These deaths shouldn’t be called “assassinations,” the attorney general says, because assassinations are “unlawful killing” and, if the president approves it, then it’s not “unlawful.” More veils fall—“a person is innocent until proven guilty”; “intelligent people will make morally right decisions.” Our soul runs terror-stricken into the dark woods; our complicity with evil simply too much to bear.
THOMAS MERTON describes these moments as encounters with the Unspeakable. “It is the emptiness of ‘the end,’” Merton writes. “Not necessarily the end of the world, but a theological point of no return, a climax of absolute finality in refusal, in equivocation, in disorder, in absurdity ...” In the face of the Unspeakable, our nakedness is complete. All meaning is stripped away. Our carefully collected coverings lie in a heap. We are running into a silent, disorienting night.
Merton writes that the emptiness of the Unspeakable “can be broken open again to truth only by a miracle, by the coming of God.” This is the Easter story. This is our resurrection hope.
In utter exhaustion, we begin to feel the coolness of the night air chilling our exposed skin. The musty scent of olive leaves rises up from the ground. Moonlight uncovers a barely discernible trail through the woods. Night birds chitter in the branches, calling to one another for comfort. Ahead there is a campfire in the rocks. Still naked and bleeding we move closer.
Jesus turns his face to us. “Come. Sit by the fire. Let me get you something to eat.”
Rose Marie Berger, author of Who Killed Donte Manning? is a Catholic peace activist and a Sojourners associate editor.