Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Covid and its accompanying lockdown have had all kinds of effects on people in relation to others. Living alone or with someone who needs a lot of care, some have been very isolated and lonely. We heard a lot about families with children struggling in flats with no outdoor space – all crammed in and restless and unable to find time to be alone.
Many introverts enjoyed lockdown in a way, because they enjoy solitude – being by themselves – that isn’t to say they enjoyed the terrible reality of what was happening beyond their front door. Extroverts tended to struggle as it was no longer possible to thrive on company and physical contact. Others muddled along between these extremes.
And of course, there were those who had to be ‘out there’ in schools and hospitals, medical centres, shops and other essential services, who dealt with the crisis on a daily basis – like Jesus and the disciples in today’s gospel reading, often becoming exhausted and stressed.
Jesus, we are told, took his disciples away to a deserted place to rest. I became interested in this word ‘deserted’ as some translations had ‘deserted place’ and others said ‘desert’. So I did a bit of research and went back to the original text of Mark’s gospel written in ancient Greek and found that the correct translation was a ‘desolate’ – Jesus took his disciples to a desolate place.
Then, I found that the spaces outside villages and towns and cities at that time were regarded as chaotic places – they were avoided if at all possible. The parable of the Good Samaritan, although a story rather than a factual account, gives us clues about the dangers of this chaotic space beyond the safety of ordinary life. We feel the same way about town centres and secluded places after dark – these are not safe places to be and we avoid them if at all possible.
So Jesus took his disciples away to a place which was to be avoided – a desolate and potentially dangerous place. But the crowds worked out where Jesus was going in his boat, and rushed away to the intended destination; by the time Jesus and the disciples arrived the crowds were there, ready and waiting, drawn by Jesus’ ability to heal people and by his teaching.
They were like sheep without a shepherd, we are told. To me this, very movingly, shows how much Jesus loved and served the ordinary people who were struggling with illness and tragedy, feeling lost and uncared for, looking for hope in difficult times.
But, like all of us, Jesus needed to rest sometimes. This is the meaning of the ‘incarnation’ – something we normally think about at Christmas – God coming to us as a human being. Incarnation means ‘in the flesh’. So Jesus knew all about tiredness and exhaustion, the need for peace and quiet – and he did his best to provide this for his friends. On this occasion he didn’t succeed but we know that at other times he went away by himself to pray and to be alone.
In fact, today’s reading is a selection of verses from Mark’s gospel. The bit that has been missed out is the feeding of the five thousand which we will read next week in the account from John’s gospel. But for today we have been given leave to consider the human need for rest, for peace, for quietness, which Jesus shared with us.
Introverts need no-one to tell them of the need for solitude – space to be alone, think things through, unwind, and to shed the stresses of living in a world full of extroverts. I think introverts know the difference between loneliness and solitude; although they can become lonely – and many have been during covid – they may cope with lack of human contact better – indeed, many introverts thrive on this. But still, introverts need to remember that there’s a difference between solitude and loneliness. And introverts need to ensure that they do find space to be alone with God – in prayer, or simply being aware that they are in God’s presence. It’s amazing how many excuses you can find to do something else – for me it’s reading – putting off time to pray until it’s bedtime and too late!
And extroverts? Well, they feel less need for solitude as they thrive on company and hustle and bustle. I imagine it’s even harder for extroverts to make time for solitude – time for prayer, for being with God. But this is something we must learn as Christians – time for rest, time for peace, time for prayer.
But I’m still drawn back to those words ‘desolate place’. Like it or not, metaphorically most of us will encounter such places in our lives, perhaps most particularly in illness or bereavement, in loneliness and isolation, in financial hardship or in the troubles of family life and sometimes from sheer exhaustion, as many NHS staff have found in the last year. In desolation, we are inclined to forget about God. In desolation we feel forsaken and alone. Today’s reading shows us that Jesus shares our experience of desolate places. And even if at such times God feels absent, we can know that Jesus is familiar with desolate places. He experiences them with us and alongside us.
So, where will your solitude be this week? Seek it and use it well. Amen
Rev’d Dr Anne Morris
Vicar St. Oswald’s Knuzden