Jesus’s Momentary Desire to Step Back

Rembrandt, "Jesus"

Spiritual Sunday

As this is the week leading up to Easter, I share a poem by Denise Levertov which refers to several of the events that occurred in the days before the crucifixion and the resurrection. The title means “Savior of the World: The Way of the Cross,” and she is trying to imagine how her own image of Jesus–borrowed from the humanizing portraits of Rembrandt (perhaps the one above although she has several to pick from)–would look when faced with the agony of uncertainty. Even the greatest painters, she notes, never show Christ’s face “in extremis,” his teeth clenched.

She lists a number of the moments when Jesus might have grimaced–at Judas’s and Peter’s betrayals, during his moment of doubt in the Garden of Gethsemane, at his disciples for falling asleep, on the road to the cross, during the crucifixion. She imagines that at some point he must have wanted to step away from the task he had appointed himself and “to simply cease, to not be.” She understands a bit more about him by realizing that he would have had this very human urge.

In alerting us to that struggle between the human and the divine, Levertov alerts us to our own struggles to acknowledge our inner divinity, we who are far more fallible than Jesus. Essentially she shows us how to use the Biblical account as a guide for our own journey.

Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis

By Denise Levertov

Maybe He looked indeed
much as Rembrandt envisioned Him
in those small heads that seem in fact
portraits of more than a model.
A dark, still young, very intelligent face,
A soul-mirror gaze of deep understanding, unjudging.
That face, in extremis, would have clenched its teeth
In a grimace not shown in even the great crucifixions.
The burden of humanness (I begin to see) exacted from Him
That He taste also the humiliation of dread,
cold sweat of wanting to let the whole thing go,
like any mortal hero out of his depth,
like anyone who has taken herself back.
The painters, even the greatest, don’t show how,
in the midnight Garden,
or staggering uphill under the weight of the Cross,
He went through with even the human longing
to simply cease, to not be.
Not torture of body,
not the hideous betrayals humans commit
nor the faithless weakness of friends, and surely
not the anticipation of death (not then, in agony’s grip)
was Incarnation’s heaviest weight,
but this sickened desire to renege,
to step back from what He, Who was God,
had promised Himself, and had entered
time and flesh to enact.
Sublime acceptance, to be absolute, had to have welled
up from those depths where purpose
Drifted for mortal moments.

This entry was posted in Levertov (Denise) and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.
  • Sue

    Robin – Just these last weeks I’ve been thinking that perhaps the greatest (and maybe even only) temptation Jesus ever faced was to give up doing things as a human, to step back from what “God had promised himself.” At a Bible study yesterday we talked about what it meant for God to reconcile Gods self to humanity in not only helping us to become “god” but also for him to become us. And that part of becoming us was to only have access to what humans have. Of course, this includes the presence of the Holy Spirit who guides and empowers and enlightens us, but it does not give us any of the “omnis” – omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence. All these Jesus had to willingly lay aside and not take up again. This also puts the temptation in the wilderness in perspective. Jesus, knowing he was in a special relationship to the divine, being tempted to use that in selfish ways, or “cheating” the system.

    Thanks for alerting me to this poem.

  • Mr. Bates,

    This opens up so many personal memory envelopes about my life… It’s amazing… Yes, there were no artists that did portraits of agony, I guess anyway, from what we are told… One memory is an uncle that told me to bear down on a situation, and all… I feel this… Not that I was crucified… This gives me, as you said in a post about Romney, proof. This tells me, if your life right and all for all the right reasons take the beating life gives you, or envious folks… Because once it’s over, they’ll never be you, and the pain only lasts a while… and not only that you can’t depend on people fully, so that’s why that saying is true, if you want something done right do it yourself… at least you knew or your tried the best you could. Also, don’t get your hopes up, and don’t aim to high, this way disappointment doesn’t be a splinter in your spirit, that no eye and words can take away… Great post… Thank you, much appreciated…

    Good Day-


  • AVAILABLE NOW!

  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete