In the gospel of Mark Jesus identifies himself as the Son of Man or more succinctly “the Human One” or “the Human Being”. Generally speaking, it has been understood that the Markan Jesus is using this term in specific reference to the prophesy in Daniel 7 that “there came one like a son of man” who was given dominion over the nations by the Ancient of Days. Yet following the actual narrative of Mark and Jesus’ use of the term can only serve to give us a deeper understanding of what the Markan Jesus is implying and indicating by referring to himself as such throughout the gospel.
Here, I believe, Thomas Merton can help us. He writes in his great work “New Seeds of Contemplation”
“To say I was born in sin is to say I came into the world with a false self. I was born in a mask. I came into existence under a sign of contradiction, being someone I was never intended to be and therefore a denial of what I am supposed to be.” (33-34)
Jesus begins his ministry with a call to repentance, a call for us to turn from our ways and follow him on the Way. Thus, the Way of Jesus and thereby the Way of the Human Being/One. It’s important to note that we lost this sense of human-ness when we ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. By detaching ourselves from God in order to do what we wanted to do we, in turn, became less than ourselves, we became less human. In essence, to be fully human is to be in full communion with God and such communion has been disjointed and disordered. The result of this is that we go looking elsewhere for value and for what is good instead of to God. We play into our sinful desires or as Merton wrote our false selves. The challenge is getting beyond this illusion of the false self. Again, Merton writes,
“All sin starts with the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real.” (34-35)
Jesus calls the disciples to follow him on the Way and on this Way he shows them what it is to be human which comes to its ultimate expression in his sacrifice on the Cross and articulated by his words in Mark 8 wherein he says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his own cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses it for my my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul.” While this is the Way that Jesus embodies and teaches to his disciples they have a tough time absorbing its value and truth. Their false selves almost seem impenetrable to the Way of the Human Being/One as indicated by their astonishment at Jesus’ rejection of the rich man, their argument over who is the greatest, their concern over who would sit where when Jesus came into his glory, their jealousy over those who cast out demons in Jesus’ name, their inability to understand Jesus’ talk of suffering, and their inability to stay awake in the midst of temptation. It wasn’t until Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion that the hollowness of their false selves were revealed, as Merton articulates so brilliantly,
“But there is no substance under the things with which I am clothed. I am hollow, and my structure of pleasures and ambitions has no foundation. I am objectified in them. But they are all destined by their very contingency to be destroyed. And when they are there will be nothing left of me but my own nakedness and emptiness and hollowness, to tell me that I am my own mistake.” (35)
Mark tells us that three days after the crucifixion Jesus’s female disciples arrived at his tomb to find it empty. In going the Human Way, the Way that was lost in Eden, Jesus was vindicated by the Creator having been raised from the dead. The angel who appeared to the women told them to tell the rest of the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee, where he was going before them. In other words, they were to pick up where they left off with Jesus. Where their discipleship journey all began and begin anew on the Way – the Way of the Human Being/One. This did not mean it was going to be any easier for them, rather it would continue the process of their shedding of their false selves where they would find the secret of their identity “hidden in the love and mercy of God.” By following the Human One they would become more human.
“Ultimately the only way that I can be myself is to become identified with Him in Whom is hidden the reason and fulfillment of my existence.” (35-36)
It’s easy to speak of the disciples as “they” but it’s important for us to remember that “they” are “us” and “we” are “them.” For their story is our story. Just as they followed Jesus on the Human Way so does that same call come to us today. That call: to embrace who we are. We embrace who we are by ridding ourselves of our false selves. As Merton beautifully wrote,
“But although this looks simple, it is in reality immensely difficult. In fact, if I am left to myself it will be utterly impossible. For although I can something of God’s existence and nature by my own reason, there in human and rational way in which I can arrive at that contact, that possession of him, which will be the discovery of Who He really is and of Who I am in Him.” (36)
As the Markan Jesus said to his disciples, “with man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”