They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was preceding them; and they were amazed, but those following him were afraid.
Mark 10: 32
At the heart of Mark’s gospel is the theme of the journey to Jerusalem. Jesus and his followers are always ‘on the way” to Jesus’ destiny in Jerusalem. Jesus often says that he “must go up” to Jerusalem, for it is there that his life and his call will be fulfilled. As he is impelled by his very being to undertake and live out this journey, so are those who follow him in both amazement and fear.
To understand the context for this mission of Jesus, we must enter the form tradition by which Jesus interpreted his life and his experiences. One of the most familiar of the pilgrimage Psalms, Psalm 84 begins:
How lovely your dwellings,
O Lord of armies!
My being longed, even languished,
for the courts of the Lord.
My heart and my flesh
sing gladness to the living God.
Psalm 84: 1-3, trans. Robert Alter
In his notes, the translator Robert Alter points out that the term yedidot, which he translates as lovely, “is associated with dod, lover,” and dodim, lovemaking,”and conveys a virtually erotic intensity in the speaker’s longing for the temple on Mount Zion.” Jesus’ journey into Jerusalem is the journey into the heart and core of his life and his destiny. It is the following of his deepest love and longing. To follow him is, for us, to live in this way. It is to seek the love for which we have been created and the love and passion that is our deepest desire. At the depths of our heart and soul we long and languish for the courts of the Lord. Our true life is a continual journey up the mountain to Jerusalem, where eternally our “heart and . . . [our] flesh sing gladness to the living God.”
To be honest with ourselves is to realize that aside from certain moments of infatuation or other peak experiences, as Maslow termed them, we live at a remove from our longing and languishing. Daily life, for the most part, can seem to be much more a case of meeting our responsibilities, doing our duty, and seeking somewhat enjoying and gratifying diversions from daily tedium. As Albert Camus pointed out, our “love, and work, and communal life” can be often not manifestations of our deepest longings or our very road to Jerusalem, but rather evasions of what we feel to be the absurdity of life.
Those who make a sincere and courageous choice for belief or unbelief do so in large part in response to a common experience. That experience is the great abyss between our longings and our daily reality. To be truly alive is to be willing to live with a longing that is a languishing, a love that is largely unrealized, a living amazement in the midst of the ordinary and the tedious, and a willingness to keep alive the longing in all the fear which it evokes. For Camus, that was the courage to be the rebel who refused to dull his or her existence in the face of absurdity. For the believer, it is the courage to be and to bear life in trust that her or his “home” is in Jerusalem which is the purpose an fulfillment of life’s journey.
To follow Jesus on the road to Jerusalem requires, for our part, a willingness to live with the amazement and the fear that living with openness to the passion requires of us. The depth of our hearts and of our longing never ceases to amaze us. Yet, that amazement contains within it discomfort and even fear. It can be difficult to reconcile the love for which we seem to be made and the nature and quality of our moment to moment daily existence. The tension of our longing on the one hand and our own and the world’s inability to respond fully to it often results in our attempting to dissolve the tension by suppression or repression. The epidemic of depression in the developed world may well be the result of the repression of these deepest human longings in us, of our fruitless attempts to satisfy them by innovation and distraction.
Faith is fidelity, a fidelity that manifests in our attitude towards our daily lives and loves. It is possible for this deeply amazing and fearful longing for God that we are to become the source and the energy that animates our self-giving in our relationships and our work. How is it that so often for many of us discouragement and resentment set in when our work, our attempts to serve, are ineffective and meet with refusal and failure, while some others can continue to pour out their lives mindless of the negative reaction of others or apparent lack of success? The great act of faith is to faithfully live out the moments of our lives; as Jesus tells the disciples in the gospel today, to be a slave to all. We are a capacity for a love that longs to empty itself in order to become who we are: the body of Christ. That longing is only fulfilled in emptying itself, not in an abstract way but into the service of the neighbor and the world in the present moment. As this love flows through us in our journey of life, we shall find ourselves both amazed and afraid: amazed at the power and strength of the love that moves us but also afraid of what it asks and what it it will cost us to give it away.
Fidelity must be a sharing in God’s own faithfulness to us. His love always outdoes ours. It is the source of our own faint-hearted faithfulness. Jesus is an oasis in the desert of our failures. Each manifestation of his care is a renewal of courage when we have lost hope for the umpteenth time. The faithfulness of Jesus can never fail us. Such is the overwhelming truth of redemption.
Time after time I forgot about being kind to those who envied me, who told stories about me behind my back, of being honest with those who lied to me and used me. I would plunge back into my own world of creature comforts and small concerns. I abdicated the wear and tear of daily faithfulness in common things. To my rude awakening, I found that giving up the path of fidelity meant losing my home in the loyal presence of Jesus.
A comfortable life outside shared loyalty with him becomes a bore. Sharing, no matter how little, in the faithfulness of Jesus is sharing in his loving participation in the Father’s will. It is to be lifted up with him into the fire of God’s eternal love, mirrored in the immense loyalty of Jesus.
Adrian van Kaam, The Music of Eternity, p. 31