Setting Out Deliberately

When the time for his being taken up was approaching, he deliberately set  himself to travel to Jerusalem. He sent messengers before him.

Luke 9: 51-2

In a footnote to these opening verses of the middle section of Luke’s gospel, Luke Timothy Johnson points out that the literal translation of the phrase he translates as “he deliberately set himself” is “he hardened his face to go” (The Gospel of Luke, p. 162). Luke is creating resonances between Jesus and the great Prophets, especially Moses and Elijah with whom Jesus had discussed “the exodus he was to fulfill in Jerusalem” at the Transfiguration. The Gospel tells us that Jesus “hardened his face” to follow his call; he steeled himself for what it would ask of him. It is not easy to know one’s life as a call, to seek to order one’s life in accord with that call, and to live it out responsibly.

One among many of the great tensions in our lives in formation is that our hearts, which are the core forms of our lives, take shape as both sensible and responsible. As sensible, our character and our life direction is formed by our receptivity to how the world touches us. We can only become compatible and compassionate if we attune to our heart’s potential to sensibly receive and be touched by what occurs around us. At the same time, however, our hearts must be responsible. We must learn to respond to life, to others, to the world out of the truth of our own unique call and destiny. If life is call, task, assignment, then we are here for something. We have a task and a duty to fulfill, if we are to serve the world in accord with the  Divine purpose of our lives. We are not to react merely unconsciously to the stimuli we receive from outside. We are to respond to the appeal of the other and the moment out of our own uniqueness and originality.

So, our heart takes form through the action of the “pulls” of sensibility and responsibility. These pulls, at their depth, are complementary and even congruent. Yet, in the moment, we often experience them as contraries and in conflict. As we read the gospel today, we are well aware of what this journey to Jerusalem is going to cost Jesus, that is ultimately everything. This is why fidelity to his call and to the journey requires of him to “harden his face to go.” The description that Luke gives is a provocative one. What does it mean to harden our face, and why is it sometimes necessary?

Human beings are somewhat wired not only for empathy but also for sympathy, not only for feeling into the life of the others but feeling with them. It is our faces that reflect those capacities. When we are confronted with another who is radiating joy or excitement, our faces quite automatically smile to reflect that. When, on the other hand, we stand before one who is sad and suffering, our faces will spontaneously express a sharing in that sadness. We consider it a sign of serious pathology if a person’s face consistently expresses the opposite sensibility of the person to whom he or she is present. In other words, we are, in good part, co-constituted by the persons and situations around us. Our need for each other and our need to belong are served by our vital capacity to reflect in ourselves the situations around us.

But what if the response of those around us is mistaken or lacking? What if the particular mode of excitement or sorrow or fear that has captured the sense of the crowd is somehow significantly incomplete or even false? If we are aware that we, as responsible, are called to correct a situation or to bring to bear something that the others are missing, then we well might find it necessary to “harden” our faces, to resist that in us that would conform to the impulses of the crowd or the group and to bring to bear the necessity that is missing. This is often what we call courage. It is acting “from the heart” when our impulses to conform make it not at all easy to do so.

The tension we are describing is one that is and always has been universal in its dynamics. It is not easy for us to “stand out” from the crowd, when our true call requires it. To set out on the journey to authenticity is to struggle repeatedly with the tension between the demands of sensibility and responsibility, between compatibility with the crowd and congeniality to our uniqueness. In an age of mass media, however, it becomes even more difficult to harden one’s face in the sense of achieving a responsible distance from the reactions of the crowd.

Following the horror of yesterday’s massacre in Las Vegas, our media today, in image and word, is summoning us all to a shared ritual of grief for those lost and of admiration for the countless acts of everyday generosity and heroism that such events always evoke. It seems that the purpose of almost every story is to increase our emotional reaction, and our sense of “unity” and “patriotism.”  We are told that “now is not the time to politicize” this event, but rather to somehow give ourselves over to the feelings of sadness, grief, and the somewhat illusory sense of shared purpose that these feelings create. We are told by our political leaders, of all stripes, to be touched by the courage of the countless ordinary heroes who risked their own lives for the sake of others and those who stood in line for over eight hours to give blood. Yet, those same leaders cannot summon the courage to do their work, to be responsible for their call and task to find ways to lessen the danger and so save the lives of future victims of such violence.

Our media and our politics would tell us at this moment that what we are called to do is to feel sad, to mourn what they term this tragedy. Yet, for those killed and injured this is not a tragedy in the sense of something they have by their own choice brought upon themselves. Yet, it well may be tragedy in the societal sense. Have we, as a society, been seduced to dissociate our sensibility from our responsibility? Do we allow those who lack the courage their positions as political leaders and journalists require to seduce us into allowing their ongoing refusal to “promote the general welfare” by their being enthrall to those for whom profits and power are a greater value than human life? The junior senator from Connecticut, Christopher Murphy, who represented Newtown in the congress at the time of the Sandy Hook school shooting, took to the floor of an almost empty senate chamber, to denounce his colleagues:  “”To my colleagues: your cowardice to act cannot be whitewashed by thoughts and prayers. None of this ends unless we do something to stop it.” To be responsible we must be sensible, we must “feel” in our hearts the reality of a situation. We can, however, lose ourselves and our call to serve the world, “to promote the general welfare,” in an excess of sentimentality. We can abnegate our responsibility through an emotional fusion with the collective.

As Jesus sets out on the challenging and difficult road to Jerusalem, he does not harden his heart, but he does harden his face. In his description of the Suffering Servant, Deutero-Isaiah writes: “Because the Sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame.” (Isaiah 50:7) We need each other. And yet, to do what God has given us to do will often require of us that we “harden” our spontaneous and unreflective reaction to the demands around us. We fail our ultimate responsibility if we are not able to stand out in service to God’s unique call to us. This will require of us to learn to bear the loneliness of such authenticity. As the journey begins, Jesus sends messengers out before him, and yet, we know that when the moment of truth comes he will be alone. It is not comfortable and easy to realize that we are separate as well as united. What is most distinctively ours to live and to give will never be fully known by any other. Fidelity to that call, and the courage that comes when we dare to live from it, will require an inner journey into a depth of solitude that is really the prerequisite for communion. The collective will always ask of us to compromise to some degree that truth and call. Community, in its true and deepest sense, will always be a place that supports and nourishes it.

In the realm of politics, we can become cynical wondering if there is anyone involved who cannot be “bought and sold.” Yet, this is the struggle in all of our lives. We may not sell ourselves for money, but we are always threatened by the seduction of acceptance, status, conformity. Crowds, mobs, and to a lesser extreme other kinds of clubs and associations take form out of shared sensibilities. There are those who put their lives on the line for the freedom of others, and there are those who share the cheap patriotism of feelings for a flag and an anthem. There are those who work to improve the lot of their families and communities, and there are those who make demands for the support and care to which they feel entitled. In its uniqueness, our life is a gift to be given away. There is loneliness and suffering, however, on the way to recognizing and realizing that gift. The collective cannot do it for us. Yet, the depth of peace and joy that the gospel promises is only known in our living from and giving away that unique gift that we are.

There is a solitude of space
A solitude of sea
A solitude of death, but these
Society shall be
Compared with that profounder site
That polar privacy
A soul admitted to itself-
Finite infinity.

Emily Dickinson, #1695

 

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