Translation Tony Dickinson
What is this young man doing in this relentless narrative where every detail carries meaning? Further on, at the empty tomb, another young man appears. Or is it the same one? He was naked; now he is clothed in light. What has changed for him… and for us?
Nothing goes right, according to Mark’s Gospel, on the night of Gethsemane. The disciples fall asleep when they need to keep watch. Jesus is overcome with doubt and anguish; he does not answer his accusers, he remains silent before Pilate. As for Peter, he denies and he weeps. Later the gospel of John corrects this story a little. John shows a hero sure of himself, of his God, of his mission, who does not tremble, who speaks with confidence.
This strange episode is found only in Mark, a tiny marginal detail censored by the others: a young man in scanty clothing who stayed close to Jesus, was caught by the soldiers who came to arrest him, and ran away naked. We can understand the lack of interest in this story shown by the other redactors. But why then did Mark retain it? For some, the one who had this inglorious experience was somebody close to the editor, if not the author himself. But would the evangelist have returned to this episode if it did not have its place and its meaning in the implacable unfolding of the drama?
Nudity is a sign of shame for Jews. The garment identifies the personality, the social role of the wearer. Here it is just a sheet, but its wearer is still young, in the making. To strip a man of his clothes is to take away what protects him and at the same time defines him, it is a sign of social death or of death itself. It’s a common nightmare for those who lack self-esteem to find themselves naked in the middle of a crowd. A few hours later, Jesus himself will follow the same path of shame and death and will find himself naked on the cross.
But let’s look further into our gospel. First, the body of Jesus taken down from the cross is wrapped in a sheet (the same word as before, which also means shroud). If the young man dressed in a sheet found himself naked in the night, the unclothed Jesus is here dressed in a sheet before being laid in the tomb.
After that, here is another “young man” (Mark 16.5). Again the same word is used, and there is no other use of it in the Gospels. Another… or is it the same one? This young man is “dressed in white”, dressed in purity, in light. This time, it was the women who came to embalm the body of their master who ran away, gripped by fear. Fear of what? Of his appearance, but also of his message, which nevertheless seeks to be reassuring: “Do not be afraid! He has come back from death!” Fear of this dimension of life which opens when death is overtaken, fear of whiteness, purity, of the dazzling newness which upsets the evidence, fear of this fault-line which opens in the mundane inevitability of existence. Is this young man the same one? For us the symbol is open either way. He went from shame to glory. He went through death to be reborn and to announce to others a living power that nothing can destroy. He left the shame of his nakedness and the too scanty sheet which was only a shroud to put on a garment of glory and light. Going through death to be reborn was also the sign of baptism, of the white garment that some old traditions made the neophyte wear. But above all it is the sign that always, everywhere, all rebirths are possible, that it is possible to recover from any defeat, that no failure, no shame, no death will have the last word, the sign of a door opened toward another horizon, the sign that the wind of life still passes even through closed tombs, the sign of the creative and regenerating Spirit which will blow until the end of time.
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