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.

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  • 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.

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