The readings from a couple of weeks ago have kept cropping up in my mind. Jesus is teaching in the synagogue and all eyes are fixed on him. He speaks with such authority that everyone is amazed. Maybe in their minds they begin to wonder “Who is this man? Where does all this come from?” These questions are the beginning of something. These ponderings might lead to discipleship. However a man cries out “I know who you are!” and immediately all eyes turn from Jesus to the man. Do the questions change to “Let’s listen to this man … He knows. He can tell us.”?
Jesus at this point commands the spirit controlling the man to be quiet and to leave him. Eyes shift back to Christ and their wondering begins again at this sign.
There is much in this passage about Jesus’ authority. Our faith stands or falls on who Christ is. If he is not the Son of God, part of the Trinity, then we have nothing to stand on. This gospel passage is there to illustrate the point that Jesus had authority that just wasn’t seen in the ordinary preachers and teachers. It is re-enforced by the sign of commanding the evil spirit.
It also says something about the spiritual life. So often my eyes can be focused on Jesus. In my head and in my heart, I ponder on what I read or experience. The pondering might bring new insight or a deepening of my faith. I might find myself being amazed at the nature of the Incarnation. Then something will distract me. Whatever that something might be, my eyes will switch from Christ to the distraction; something inside me, something I read, something that presses all my ‘buttons’. I find, in my life, that this can often leave me confused. If my eyes have been off Jesus for a long time, I feel as if I am in the middle of a storm. Over the years, describing such situations to my spiritual director time and again, I began to recognise a pattern. I know that I have to return my eyes to Jesus and the storm dies away, as he becomes my focus once again.
There is an Ignatian term for this process: spiritual consolation and desolation. When I have my eyes on Christ, I experience spiritual consolation. My soul is consoled by gazing on his face and often there will be feelings of peace that accompany this. However, consolation is not always comfortable. We are coming up to Lent, when we are invited to walk with Jesus through the desert and up to Jerusalem, where he will die. This is a difficult place to be, particularly as we draw closer to Holy Week. Yet all the time we have our eyes on Jesus, we are in consolation. Our ponderings and questions maybe ones that unsettle or challenge us but in facing them we draw closer to God.
When my eyes move off Jesus and onto the distractions around me, I am in spiritual desolation. Sometimes, like me in my storm, there will be feelings of confusion or feeling down. Sometimes spiritual desolation can be the easier route. Rather than living with questions, we might find someone who seems to offer easy answers. Sometimes it is easier to sit with our feet dangling in the water of the Jordan, than follow Jesus into the desert. Sometimes it is easier to join the crowd in shouting for Barabbas than to stand with Mary and John at the foot of the cross.
The gospel brought me back to an awareness of where I am looking. I know that Lent is always a challenging time for me. Do I allow myself to gaze on Jesus, when it brings me peace and when it is painful to do so? Or do I allow my gaze to go everywhere but my Saviour? Do I allow easy answers or the roar of the internal storm to confuse and upset me? Now, I cannot tell. Like the people in the synagogue my eyes may shift from Jesus to distractions, backwards and forwards time and again. Like them I hope, despite everything, my gaze is drawn back to him, where I can marvel again at who this man is.