It’s hard to believe in something that happened so long ago. We might romantically dream of being there in the pages of the Gospel ourselves: witnessing Jesus’ miracles, following him through the countryside, hearing the tenor of his voice. These are not only the thoughts of saints, but also of sinners, like the Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s most famous story, A Good Man Is Hard To Find. On an abandoned road in rural Georgia he holds the grandmother at gunpoint; she pleads with him to believe in Jesus’ resurrection and not kill her like he did her family. But the Misfit replies: “If I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.”
But even for the people who were there, who did follow him, it wasn’t easy. All throughout the Gospels Jesus has a knack for stressing people out.
Take the stories of Jesus feeding the multitudes. The first time five thousand people gather to hear his teaching, and they’re hungry as evening draws near. His disciples tell him to dismiss them to the villages, and he says, “You give them something to eat” (Mk 6:37). Awesome. Now they’re really feeling relaxed and confident about their next move. Soon enough he wows them all with the miraculous feeding, then, “He made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side” (6:45). No explanation, he just sends them off rowing. Then there’s a storm, and he decides to walk across the sea, no problem. Seeing him “they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they… were terrified” (6:49). Weeks later he feeds another crowd of four thousand, and they spend the boat ride home arguing about forgetting to bring bread, forgetting that he will always provide. He lays into them pretty bad, and finishes with saying, “Do you not yet understand?” (8:21). Cliffhanger. End of scene.
Then there are times when it’s Jesus who’s stressed. After his Transfiguration, he is approached by the desperate father of a demon-possessed boy: “He foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able” (Mk 8:18). Jesus cries out, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me” (8:19). Who is he angry with? The disciples, or the man, or the whole situation?
I’d guess it’s the last option. Jesus’ whole ministry just reached a major turning point with his Transfiguration, and now he sets his eyes on the approaching Passover, where he will perform the great work – dying and rising again. God’s kingdom isn’t meant to stay at the level of a traveling preacher who can cure the sick. Jesus is stressed because he yearns to establish God’s kingdom inside men’s hearts. Even the Incarnate One shows signs of impatience for something more than Incarnation for his people; he yearns for Pentecostal fire, when the Spirit will rush into men’s hearts and remain with them (Acts 2). Only then will his disciples minister in power and authority. Only then will the crowds no longer worship at the Temple, but worship as temples themselves “in Spirit and truth” (Jn 4:23). So on his way to Jerusalem, he says to his disciples in this spirit of holy stress, “How much longer must I be with you in this way? For I came to cast fire on the earth.”
Holy stress, then, comes in two forms. The first is that of the disciples, who are stressed by the demands of following the Lord. Following the Lord entails a continuous demand to change – which causes stress, but stress that’s worth something. Then there is the more perfect stress of Jesus – the anxiety to see God’s kingdom arrive. Disciples who persevere through the first stages also arrive here themselves, to share in Jesus’ own yearning for God’s glory on earth, ad maiorem Dei gloriam.
All stress — even ordinary, everyday kinds of stress — can be given to God. And even God can give stress as a part of following him, to try to help us grow. In her poem “Broken Cisterns,” Mother Mary Francis (of the Poor Clares in Roswell, New Mexico) says it best. She writes of the trials of being wed to Christ, the divine physician who wounds us in order to heal us:
They spoke with sighs of flowery cloister ways
And of His smile
Like satin songs of evening.
But not a word was ever said of how
His gentle eyes would flog away repose,
And no one mentioned how His voice would thunder
Down my cool-scented caverns of compromise…
No, no one even hinted at the swords of His demand
That part the flesh from bone, and leave the heart
Riven with a wild and white desire.
And no one knows except he once has heard
That loud, imperious call in his own heart
And left all padded satisfaction for the climb
That knows no peak. But this is all of joy.
Image: Edvard Munch, The Scream