Monday, August 05, 2013

Learning from Jesus' Grief

Check out today's gospel for a minute:

When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist,
he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.
The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns.
When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd,
his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick.
When it was evening, the disciples approached him and said,
“This is a deserted place and it is already late;
dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages
and buy food for themselves.”
He said to them, “There is no need for them to go away;
give them some food yourselves.”
But they said to him,
“Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.”
Then he said, “Bring them here to me,”
and he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass.
Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven,
he said the blessing, broke the loaves,
and gave them to the disciples,
who in turn gave them to the crowds.
They all ate and were satisfied,
and they picked up the fragments left over–
twelve wicker baskets full.
Those who ate were about five thousand men,
not counting women and children.  (Mt. 14:13-21)

Don't let that first sentence pass you by, because the Church scoops it into the context of this miracle, which in turn prefigures the institution of the Eucharist, and hence Calvary, the source and summit of all our life.

Jesus hears of the gross injustice which has been done to His cousin John, the prophet, whose head was "sheared off like a rabbit's and given as a present to a dancing girl," to quote Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth. The news strikes Him, and He goes off by Himself.

What was He doing? Well, as the Church prays, Jesus is "like us in all things but sin." The news of the death of a holy man, a relative, a prophetic forerunner, certainly grieves Jesus. I think He goes off to process that grief, to pray, to be with His sense of being shaken. But I see something else in that besides an attempt to "get over it." He is also discerning a call, a signal from His Father.

John was to prepare the way, and suddenly He is gone. His work is done. Yes, there is a grief, but that grief is not without purpose and fruit for Jesus; it is to open up a new time, a new space in Jesus' heart.

He had His time of solitude on the boat. I wonder how long that would have been. Certainly not the months and months that I have needed after some "death of John the Baptist" type news! But right away when He steps out of that boat He sees needy people, and His heart is moved by them, and He responds to their needs with what He has, namely, power to heal. But He also responds with His power to form His disciples. He sees that the need is bigger than even what He personally can do, as one human. He sees that the disciples need to learn to cooperate in His miraculous power, and that even the companions and family members of those in the crowd who were particularly the suffering ones also need basic needs met.

This intrigues me. The loss of one person to whom Jesus was close certainly does not make Him cave in on Himself, nor does it put Him in this mode of focusing on one other individual. He is not trying to address His own human needs here. Apparently, He took care of that in His solitary boat ride and His communing with His Father.

No, instead He allows the pain to hollow out in Him a new womb of ministry. It is all laid out before Him. Now, He gives all to those He sees, He prepares His followers for their primary future ministry of feeding the multitudes with what He Himself provides, and He prefigures the handing over of His own body to death.

Lord, teach me to handle grief this way. Teach me how to be alone in that boat with you for as long as is necessary. But give me also the hope that a greater and deeper purpose lies ahead. And thank you, Lord, for my having been blessed to know John the Baptist in the first place.

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