Journey into the dark
A reflection on Mark 5:1-15by Emily Anne Hedrick
Perhaps we should learn to venture into the dark places so that people will know they’re not alone.
When I was little, I was scared of the dark. There were many reasons for this. First, who knows what could be hiding in the dark? I knew that monsters lived in my basement. I also knew they loved the dark, and when the lights were off, it was only a matter of time until they came to get me. Second, the world changes when you turn out the lights. All of a sudden everything has different colors, darker colors, scarier colors.
As we turn into adults, we get to the place where the dark isn’t so scary anymore—at least not the kind of darkness we were scared of as kids. But there’s another kind of darkness that shows up. It’s the darkness that comes from those parts of our world we don’t like, the things that scare us, the things we don’t understand. So we pretend they don’t exist. Things like war and poverty, depression, doubt, disbelief, rejection, immorality and corruption.
As Christians, we often find ourselves scared of the dark. We already have all the light we need in our lives provided for us by our faith in God and our desire to follow Jesus. If we venture into the dark, we may lose our light, and then what would we do? Why would we bother going into the dark if we have this light?
We can cling to the light all we want, but the dark will still exist and it will still be a part of our lives and other peoples’ lives, a part of our journeys. If we want to bring the presence of Jesus into peoples’ lives, we have to acknowledge the dark. Instead of trying to restrain or get rid of the dark in the world and other people, perhaps we should learn to venture into the dark places so that people will know they’re not alone.
Mark 5:1-15 is a story about a journey into the dark. Before this point, Jesus’ ministry included lots of healing and teaching, a few incidents with demons and a fair amount of calling for disciples—all in Jewish territory. Then evening comes, and Jesus says to his disciples, “Let’s take a trip across the lake.”
Up until this point, Jesus and his disciples had been hanging out with Jews, but the shore they were heading for on the other side of the lake was a Gentile shore, a place of unclean people with unclean practices and unclean livestock, evidenced by the herd of pigs mentioned in our text. For the disciples, this is a place of darkness. This is somewhere they do not want to be at all.
But that’s not the end of it. Jesus and his disciples arrived on the shore of this Gentile town in the dead of night, and the people of Jesus’ culture believed that evil spirits were stronger and up to more mischief at night. The general belief was that it was not a good idea to go out at night. If you do have to go out at night, just make sure you stay away from woods, gardens, vineyards and especially desolate places and tombs. These are apparently the favorite haunts of demons.
Where do Jesus and his disciples end up? Right outside a cemetery.
Picture this: You’re a disciple, you’ve just come to land after experiencing a terrifying storm. It’s dark outside, really dark. You know that evil spirits are lurking everywhere in the dark. You’re already a little confused as to why Jesus decided to bring the whole group to the other side of the lake. You’re in Gentile territory. You wouldn’t want to be there in the day, let alone in the night.
As you step out of the boat, you get an eerie feeling. You shouldn’t be here. You see a series of caves known to hold the tombs of dead soldiers. It is rumored that the ghosts of the soldiers haunt these hills. You can picture the ghosts roaming the caves, tormenting any living human being that crosses their path.
Terrifying? Yes. Dark? I’d say so. Suddenly a crazy, demon-possessed man comes running out of the tombs, straight at Jesus.
The rest of this story isn’t so shocking. Jesus has healed demons. He can calm an angry sea. Calming the soul of this man won’t be a problem.
But why did Jesus take this journey into the dark? Why would he bother going to the creepy tombs in the first place? What is the point of Mark including this story in his Gospel? Healing demon-possessed people is not a new thing for Jesus. He doesn’t have to cross the lake of Galilee to a creepy set of caves and hang out with the Gentiles to make that happen. Why did he bother?
One reason might be that Mark wanted his Roman, Gentile readers to know that Jesus desired his message of hope and freedom to spread to the Gentiles as well as the Jews. When the previously demon-possessed man asked to come back with Jesus, Jesus sent him out into the Ten Towns to tell his story instead. What a great way to bring hope to the Gentiles!
The second is that this was a wonderful way for Jesus to help his disciples conquer their fear of the dark. This is a great way for Jesus to say, “I’m stronger than that. You don’t need to be afraid.”
I’d like to put a word in for the man of the tombs. There’s something so incredibly human about the pain and torment this man was going through that I cannot help but empathize with him. In comparison to the other demon-possessed individuals we’ve met so far in his Gospel, Mark gives a personal, heart-wrenching description of this man’s life:
“This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him any more, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.”
This is a physical description of how I felt emotionally as I struggled with depression one year in college. All of a sudden, it was as if someone turned the lights off. My world became darker, and often a legion of thoughts plunged me into deeper torment and pain. I isolated myself in my room and often felt bound by religious chains thrust upon me by some of the Christians I knew. It often seemed the place I was at wasn’t valid. I couldn’t be sad or upset because God loved me, and if I couldn’t feel that love, something was wrong with me. It felt like I needed to make a journey I wasn’t strong enough to make to get to Jesus.
There is hope in this story in Mark for people in that kind of darkness. It is OK to be where you are. You don’t need to fix yourself. Jesus took a journey in the dark of night and crossed storm-infested waters to get to a Gentile town, to arrive at an unclean cemetery full of scary evil spirits that were stronger at nighttime, to interact with a man even the unclean Gentiles chained up and left behind. Jesus will go on the journey in the dark to meet you where you are to give you hope.
But what of those in the light? What of the church, “the body of Christ”? Are you willing to go on the journey into the dark to give people hope? Or will you be like the people of the town, protecting your light so defensively that you end up flinging chains in the direction of anything dark that crosses your path? How can we choose the journey into the dark instead of the chains that isolate us from our fellow humans and ourselves?
There is more than one type of darkness, more than one journey and more than one type of chain. There are three types of darkness that show up in the story of the man of the tombs: emotional (his legion of evil spirits), social (the fact that he was a Gentile) and physical (the nighttime and the cemetery he inhabited).
Emotional darkness is probably one of the scariest forms of darkness and one of the hardest to deal with. It’s a darkness inside of us and takes over our world in such a way that our reality shifts. From my experiences with emotional darkness, I’ve observed that if you venture far enough into its depths, the darkness becomes real. God doesn’t exist. Evil becomes stronger. The darkness overpowers the light.
How can you minister to someone in a world that is so dead? How can you keep from shackling them with concepts of God’s love and the hope we have for the world?
Emotional shackles occur when we say, “I don’t want to understand your pain because I don’t want to experience it. What if I go so far into the dark with you that I can’t come back?” Then we cling to the light we have and refuse to let it go.
It’s important to validate people where they are, and sometimes we’re too busy being Christians and spreading the good news of how God loves us and wants to be in a relationship with us to actually be in a relationship with other people. How do you minister to someone in emotional darkness? Ask her her name. Ask her what her story is. Let her know it’s OK for her to be there, that her feelings are legitimate.
Part of being able to do that is admitting to yourself that you have darkness within you as well, that it is real and that it’s part of being human. We’ve all had experiences in the dark. While those times are not pleasant, they are real, and they are necessary in our lives. We need to be willing to embrace those darker experiences.
The day I began my journey out of my emotional darkness was when, in a state of depression, I walked all the way over to the fitness center at school to try to exercise out my emotional pain, only to find that it was closed. The effort it took me to get out of my room and actually make that journey across campus weakened me to the point where I couldn’t hide myself as well as I normally did, so I unexpectedly wandered into a close friends’ dorm room and burst into tears. It was the first time I had ever let anyone be with me when I was in that state. Having her there, telling me it was OK for me to be upset and letting me cry was my first step to healing, and that wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t know from my previous relationship with her that she would be a safe person to turn to.
Social darkness is a bit more subtle and trickier to handle. Who are the Gentiles in our Mennonite culture? Who do we try to distance ourselves from? Who are we repulsed by? Who isn’t allowed? The first group of people that comes to my mind is people of different sexual orientation. This is a relevant issue for our denomination right now as we try to figure out how best to respond to the rising number of openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered individuals in our world. It’s controversial; it makes people uncomfortable; a lot of us would like to pretend this issue doesn’t exist. That sounds to me like social darkness. Regardless of our beliefs about this issue, how can we spread the message of God’s love to these fellow human beings walking this journey of life with us? Too often people respond to social darkness by pulling out their shackles, saying, “I don’t want to understand you. I don’t want to know your stories. I don’t want to be associated with you. Stay away from me. You scare me, and I don’t want to be anywhere close to where you are.” Instead, we should be saying, “You are a valuable human being, and I want to get to know you. You are unique, and I want to know your story. Let’s be friends.”
Homosexuals are not the only group of people from whom we separate ourselves. As a religious group, we are often scared of people from other religions. Are we willing to create relationships with the growing Muslim population in our country?
Or even closer to home, will you adults create relationships with the younger generation in your congregation? Youth, are you willing to consider becoming friends with the adults?
Many things separate us from each other. We get scared when we don’t know what to expect. We like to have control over our experiences.
Lastly is this realm of physical darkness—danger, poverty, war, pain, disease. When we stand back and pity those in physical darkness, we are saying, I’m glad I’m not you. Instead of pity, we need to take that journey into the dark to be with them. Father Damien, a catholic priest, traveled to one of the Hawaiian islands called Molokai in 1864 to live with a leper colony that had been quarantined and isolated from the rest of the civilized world. He could’ve kept them at arm’s length, certain not to catch their disease, but he realized that to communicate God’s love to them he needed to live as a part of their community. After 16 years of ministering to the emotional, spiritual and physical needs of this leper colony, Father Damien joined them more fully in their darkness. He contracted the disease and died of it. He is revered as a saint in the Catholic Church, and his ministry of love to the physical outcasts of society is still honored today.
Instead of being afraid of the dark, we as Christians are called to embrace it, to journey to the places no one else wants to go so that we can give people hope. Just as Jesus took the journey into the dark to reach the man of the tombs, so should we be willing to take journeys into the emotional, social and physical darkness of our world to spread God’s love to people who need it. We need to learn how to build relationships instead of chains, validating people for who they are and where they are instead of isolating them in an effort to cling to the light we have.
It’s so easy to forget as human beings that we are on this journey together. It takes love, compassion and strength to be able to say to those in the dark, I don’t understand you, but I know that if I had been given a different set of experiences, a different environment, a different culture, I could easily understand you. I could be doing what you’re doing, living the way you’re living, caring passionately about what you care about. You are part of who I am as a human being, and you are important to me.
Emily Anne Hedrick is a student at Goshen (Ind.) College.
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