Luke 5: 12-16
“But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.”
All four of the gospels give us tell-tale signs of a distinct pattern in Jesus’s own rhythm of life: his withdrawal into solitary places for prayer. The word in Greek can mean to slip away quietly, to go back, to go aside: it literally means to vacate or make space down, perhaps a bit like how we say, ‘My schedule will free up in a few days.’ The word withdraw can have rather negative connotations in English: to take something away after it has been offered; or to stop supporting someone, like a political candidate. People go into withdrawal if they stop taking an addictive drug: the end result will be freedom from addiction, but in the meantime, great suffering is in store. To describe someone as withdrawn is not a positive assessment.
Luke’s gospel reminds us more than once that Jesus quietly but very intentionally slipped away from people, including his own closest circle, in order to pray. Luke’s Jesus knows how to balance competing demands by exercising the right amount of push against dominant social expectations. As the Spirit began to work in and through Jesus to bring the healing so many were desperately seeking, it is easy to imagine Jesus being physically pushed and pulled by the massive crowds clamoring for his attention. In the passage just before today’s reading, we’re given a vivid portrait of such a crowd: Jesus has to teach from a boat because the crowd is pressing in upon him. But it seems that even Jesus’s disciples were challenged by their Teacher’s unusual proclivity to seek solitude. At the beginning of Mark’s gospel, Jesus rises very early in the morning to withdraw and pray. In response, “Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ This momentary circumstance of distress also has an existential tone, brought home to me once by the King James Version, which reads: “All men seek for thee.” People aren’t just hungry and thirsty for good news. They’re desperate and despairing for meaning. Once some scrap of it has been sighted, panic can easily ensues if it seems to disappear for even a moment.
In a very different time and culture, we are subject to the same tension between withdrawal and engagement. The world would have us believe that productive, extroverted engagement is the entire story, until we “just can’t even” and have to sleep through our entire day off, or binge on Netflix until our eyes bleed! But as those who are sealed as Christ’s own in baptism, we are committed to seeking a balance that will require us to push against dominant social expectations. We are committed to seeking a withdrawal that makes space not just for numbed disengagement – the kind that can convince us to forget our inner life entirely – but for restorative engagement with God. Without some empty space, there will be no room for God to abide. In order to fully live out our callings, to make wise and inspired choices directed by God’s will, to become conduits of God’s healing, or to offer words that reflect Christ’s good news, we must come to know the withdrawal of Christ to the desert, if only from time to time. We must come to know the silence and darkness of night or early morning and the curtain of rest it gathers around us. We must come to know a space set apart for God to work in us, and to allow time for such work to unfold without our help or our surveillance. Otherwise, we are in danger of a bloated, blinding, loud, and supremely self-directed journey with God. Our choices will reflect our own will. Our words to others will be mere self-engineered problem-solving. Our words of good news will become platitudes and well-wishing. Our spirits will be stuck at noonday, and fluorescent bulbs will eclipse the flickering of candle or star.
The season of Epiphany celebrates the gradual, yet exhilarating revelation of God’s light and truth in the world. But without mystery – the irreducible mystery that is God’s nature and the mystery of our deepest self in God – revelation has no meaning, no place to come from, and no place to return to. Revelation awakens our love for a mystery that fills and fulfills us but always leaves us thirsting for more. Practicing meaningful balance between withdrawal and engagement helps us embrace and savor the gradual light of revelation, as it alternates with the pregnant pause or restful silence suffused with God’s mystery.
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