Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’ But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death.
Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews, but went from there to a town called Ephraim in the region near the wilderness; and he remained there with the disciples.
Now the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover to purify themselves. They were looking for Jesus and were asking one another as they stood in the temple, ‘What do you think? Surely he will not come to the festival, will he?’ Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him.
“Well obviously Jesus is the best superhero” – here a nonchalant shrug – “but I think other than him…probably Iron Man is the best.” So announced my little cousin after a few moments of intense thought. Jesus still gets the top spot, despite not being able to fly like all the other good superheroes, because he does walk on water – which is, I was gravely informed, “still pretty cool”. It is easy to think of Jesus in a superhero role. This passage was preceded by Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and will be followed by his resurrection. He is the incredible human manifestation of an omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent God.
But throughout the bible we find evidence of his humanity. He weeps for Lazarus; he cries out in despair during his crucifixion. At its most basic, this passage can be read as the story of an organised threat to Jesus, to which he responds by running into the wilderness. The activity and scheming of the Pharisees takes 9 verses to describe; Jesus’ retreat only a single verse. Retreating from adversity, though, is not necessarily inactivity; nor is it weakness. It takes great strength to publicly withdraw from a challenge and opt instead for contemplation in security, when the temptation is surely to rush in and confront the issue head on.
Lent is a time where we try to reflect amidst the bustle of everyday life; we retreat to a wilderness from our busy life to think about the challenges that have gathered around us. To accept that we need to take some time to pause before getting back to action is a difficult but vital part of our reflections. We must accept, with R.S. Thomas, that ‘life is not hurrying on to a receding future, nor hankering after an imagined past’ (The Bright Field). This goes against the grain for many of us. Activity is our usual approach to life. Doing, fixing, confronting – these are worthy endeavours. Thinking, disbelieving, struggling, confusion – these are to be frowned upon. But withdrawal from the comfort of certainty to the wilderness of doubtful, questioning uncertainty is surely needed for an honest relationship with God and the Church. We may realise that, as is the case with Jesus, something altogether bigger requires our attention. Reassuringly, we don’t always need to get things right after all this thinking:
“‘Poor Don Camillo’, whispered the Lord tenderly. And Don Camillo spread out his arms as though he wished to say that he did his best and that if he sometimes made mistakes it was not deliberately.” (Giovanni Guareschi, The Little World of Don Camillo)
When we spend time trying to dig deeper into how we really feel about all the thorny issues that trouble us, it can seem that God has retreated from our challenge into his own wilderness, away from our pestering. At that point, it all seems to be a waste of time. In another poem (Folk Tale), R.S. Thomas writes of ‘prayers like gravel flung at the sky’s window, hoping to attract the loved one’s attention’. Persistence is possible only because ‘peering once through my locked fingers I thought that I detected the movement of a curtain’.
Sometimes the curtain stays still for a terribly long time. A very ill man who was suffering beyond my comprehension once told a fellow medic and myself that he was comforted by his faith in God. My friend looked at me thoughtfully as we left and quietly asked that rare thing – a question that was not, in fact, a statement.
“Do you see God in that?”
Do I now?
No. Certainly not Iron Man God.
A very still curtain.
A small child ran up to me on the paediatrics ward and dragged me to meet his parents. His mother gave me a hug and thanked me for keeping him occupied whilst he was in hospital. I got a badge from him saying “Awsum”.
The curtain twitched.
Shall we retreat to a wilderness away from all those pressing challenges of the moment? We will probably unearth bigger uncertainties. No Ironman God will surface, I suspect. But we will probably remember a few more curtain twitches.