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I recently had an appointment with someone at The Old Palace in the city, and being a little early I wandered down to the river by Copenhagen Street car park and sat on one of the benches for a while. I was opposite the boat house with the steps leading down to the water’s edge, and as I had often seen before, there was a great multitude of swans, seagulls and other birds congregated there.
Upon the arrival of two people on the steps with large sacks of what I supposed was bird food, the mayhem of activity vastly increased with much throbbing of wings accompanied by loud squawking and acrobatic gulls. Suddenly, on my side of the bank, a young cygnet, still displaying his grey down, came gliding past quite slowly in the opposite direction of all the activity, seemingly un-interested in what all the fuss was about. I almost sensed that it was all a bit too much for this youngster and he felt better off by himself.
This scene made me wonder about why all the birds on the other side reacted in the way they did. Was it hunger? Probably. Was in instinct? Very likely. Was it greed? Absolutely! ‘Not so different to the rest of the animal kingdom then’ I thought, and in that I counted myself and the rest of humankind. For we all hunger at one time or another, we are all needy, although so often we do not know what we need, and we all have the capacity to be greedy.
What of the lonely cygnet then, what were his needs, what drove him to be alone? For me it immediately made me think of another need that we often have, the need to withdraw sometimes from the busyness of the world, and of how often Jesus would do this himself. Many of us miss the importance of Jesus spending time in solitude and silence, and every one of us needs to learn from Jesus’ example of intimacy with God. When I got home, I had a closer look at this and how often Jesus would engage with this need, and particularly in relation to St Mark's Gospel. Jesus continually withdrew from people, daily life activities and the demands of his ministry to be alone with the Father to pray.
This priority for Jesus is everywhere in the gospels. It is how he began his ministry. It is how he made important decisions. It is how he dealt with emotions, like grief. It is how he coped with the constant demand on his ministry and cared for his own soul. It is how he taught his disciples and how he prepared for important events in his ministry. It is how he prepared himself for his death on the cross. Jesus’ solitude is how he went deeper in his relationship with God and we are invited to join him.
How could we miss the significance of Jesus’ solitude and silence with the Father? How do we think we can live well or even love well without following Jesus’ example?
Mark doesn’t miss it! Even the gospel writer can be un-hurried but we have to look for it. Many biblical scholars have said that Mark’s account of the Jesus story is “the gospel in a hurry”. Indeed, his favourite expression, used about thirty-nine times in his gospel is ‘immediately’ or ‘at once’. He even skips the stories around Jesus’ birth in his excitement to get the details of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection out to us, and when you encounter these phrases you feel almost like you have been jump-started into the next event.
Mark isn’t really in a hurry - except to get to the cross (see Mark Chapter 10 verse 32 when Jesus was in a hurry to get to Jerusalem, where the cross was waiting, walking ahead of the disciples). Mark may be breathless with enthusiasm to share the Good News that Jesus has made the Kingdom of God available to us, but repeatedly he pauses to give us glimpses into Jesus’ solitude and silence with the Father.
My lonely cygnet, unhurried and unconcerned with the frantic activity on the other side of the river served as an important reminder for me, that the need to be still often helps us to be more effective when there is the need for activity. In this way Mark invites us to join with him and be unhurried with Jesus. Unhurried with Jesus - it can be your way of life too.
Your parish priest and friend,