The mysterious gospel, according to Mark

By Austin Jacobs

Mark 4:35-41

35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. 37 And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39  And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. 40 He said to them, "Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?" 41 And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?" 

I don't know whether the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke had this account in mind when he sat down to write his poem "Night," but I'm going to suggest as much. Here's how the poem begins:

This night, agitated by the growing storm,
how it has suddenly expanded its dimensions—
that ordinarily would have gone unnoticed,
like a cloth folded, and hidden in the folds of time.

(The last line of this stanza, with its resonances of resurrection—“cloth folded”—and incarnation—“hidden in the folds of time”—is worth returning to!)

The persona’s anxiety about the storm's sudden growth might sound familiar. When calamities approach, our stress builds and our focus narrows. The immediacy of the moment blocks our field of vision, causing us to lose sight of our mission. The disciples’ question  “Do you not care that we are perishing?”  (Mark 4:38) exemplifies this growing tension in Mark’s account. How could anyone sleep through such a storm, they must think. How is Jesus not awake and fretting like the rest of us? Especially considering the power we’ve seen him display in the past, his silence is appalling!

If the first stanza of Rilke’s poem sounds familiar to those of us who have felt our own composure wane in the midst of an impending difficult circumstance, the opening lines of the final stanza capture the disciples’ mixture of anger and fear:

The lamps keep swaying, fully unaware:
is our light lying?
Is night the only reality
that has endured through thousands of years?

Rilke’s poem was originally composed in German. The context of the poem’s final stanza suggests that the persona intends the word lying to denote deception, as in the fumblingly prosaic, “Is our light being dishonest about the reality that darkness is all that exists?” However, reading the word lying alongside Mark 4:38 (and the poem’s previous line) makes possible an alternate interpretation of the poem, one brought about by a happy accident in translation to English: “The lamps keep swaying, fully unaware / Is our light lying down for a nap? How is it possible to sleep through something so violent?”

Jesus can sleep through the storm, but he can’t sleep through his disciples’ strained questioning.

39 And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?”

As readers, we know that the intended answer to Jesus’ question is “No, of course the disciples still have no faith.” If we’re not careful, however, we might overlook the fact that Mark intends the disciples’ next question, which is arguably more pivotal than their previous question that awoke Jesus, to have an equally obvious answer:

41 And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

For Mark’s readers familiar with their Scriptures, the answer is Israel’s God. Specifically, the answer is Israel’s God as he is portrayed in Psalm 107:

23 Some went down to the sea in ships,
    doing business on the great waters;
24 they saw the deeds of the Lord,
    his wondrous works in the deep.
25 For he commanded and raised the stormy wind,
    which lifted up the waves of the sea.
26 They mounted up to heaven; they went down to the depths;
    their courage melted away in their evil plight;
27 they reeled and staggered like drunken men
    and were at their wits' end.
28 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he delivered them from their distress.
29 He made the storm be still,
    and the waves of the sea were hushed.
30 Then they were glad that the waters were quiet,
    and he brought them to their desired haven.

If we can identify Jesus with Israel’s God, Mark has accomplished his goal. Recognizing Jesus as the God who quiets the waves has the potential to change the way we see chaotic circumstances, but each subsequent approach to this passage will lead us through the same progression. With the disciples, we’ll ask, “Do you not care that we’re perishing?” If our memories are sharp and we can recall the story’s resolution next time we read this passage, we might be able to identify even more closely with the disciples: Jesus has intervened before; we’ve seen it. But what about now? The lamps keep swaying, fully unaware.

Even Jesus himself asks this question.  As he hangs upon the cross, Jesus asks a startling question—one that Mark again records in order to point his readers back to the Psalms:

And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
    and by night, but I find no rest (Psalm 22:1-2).

The mysterious gospel, according to Mark, is that Jesus is the one who both calms the storm and calls out beside us in our suffering, Is our light lying?

If we don’t commit to returning to the text, to the table, and to each other, we heighten the risk that we’ll come to expect the worst as a default setting. Our feeling that we’re helpless in the wake of tragedy, such as the recent Charleston shootings, might trap us in a cycle of helplessness. Before long, our neighborly muscles will atrophy, and even in the proximate relationships in which we can be a part of Christ’s redemptive mission most readily and practically, our stress will build, our focus will narrow, and we’ll be paralyzed to act.

We meet together to spur one another on to good works, to undergo the process of remembering the Jesus we’ve forgotten, and to find that he stands beside us, our answer, questioning; our light, heretofore unnoticed, like a cloth folded, and hidden in the folds of time.