The Gaze of the Logos
What happens to your soul when you gaze into the eyes of one who greatly loves you?
Maybe it was your mother; maybe your eyes were full of tears one day when you shared a disappointment and she met you with her understanding eyes. Maybe it was your beloved on that day when you gazed at each other as you stepped into the realization of your mutual love for the first time.
What happens to the soul in such moments? One is fully known. Fully loved. Fully seen. Fully safe. Protected. Valued. Affirmed. Pulsing with life in the sight of your beloved.
Well, what would it have been like to gaze into the eyes of Jesus himself? What kind of love would that gaze have transmitted? What kind of knowing? What kind of safety? What kind of adventure? What kind of life?
The Rich Young Man
I was thinking about this because I came across an interesting story this week. The encounter, in Mark’s Gospel, of Jesus and the rich young man. You know the story.
Mark 10:17-22. A dutiful, young man comes up to Jesus. He is well dressed, probably handsome. A person of distinction. He runs up to Jesus. Runs – so he is a man with purpose and confidence. He drops to his knees – so he is a person who recognizes Jesus’ authority.
He says: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus tells him. Keep the commandments. He names them. The young man confidently replies that he has kept these commandments since his youth – so he is an earnest child of the Jewish faith.
Then we see this pearl of beauty. One of the gems of Mark’s Gospel. This line:
“Jesus gazes upon him deeply, loves him and says to him: ‘You lack one thing. . .’
You probably know what that one thing is, but that’s not my point just yet. What strikes me is this phrase that precedes Jesus’ articulation of the one thing this man lacked.
In the Greek, this is what we read: Ἰησοῦς ἐμβλέψας αὐτῷ ἠγάπησεν αὐτὸν καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ. . .
Translation: Jesus gazes on him deeply, loves him and says to him. . .
This is no surface glance. This is no surface affection.
A Gaze Full of Love
ἐμβλέψας is a deep gaze. A seeing in the Spirit, a looking into the soul. It’s the same word used to describe John the Baptist’s gaze on Jesus when he said: Behold the lamb of God. It’s the same word that was said of Jesus when he gazed on Peter early in their relationship and said: You will be Kephas, Rock, leader of the disciples. And, equally importantly, it’s the same word that describes the gaze Jesus rested upon Peter in the courtyard just after he had denied Jesus for the third time. Jesus gazed upon Peter and loved him, even in his betrayal.
ἐμβλέψας is a gaze into the soul. If anyone has ever met a holy person, you know the kind of gaze I’m referring to. That look deep into your eyes. Deep into your soul.
Then there is the mention of agape, the word that refers to God’s love. Not philos; not affection. But agape. Jesus gazed on him, ‘agaped’ him, and then spoke . . .
In other words, what Jesus says to this young man springs from a deep knowing and from the highest form of love, a love that is not affection, but agape.
Why all this trouble over a single phrase? Well, I believe the phrase is a signature of the rich young man himself. Here’s what I mean.
Both Matthew and Luke tell the story of the rich young man (Mt 19 and Lk 18) but neither mentions this detail of the gaze and the love from which Jesus’s demanding response springs.
This is the phrase that followed the gaze and the love of Jesus. This is what the young man was lacking in his search for the highest good: “Go sell what you have,” Jesus said, “give it to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me.”
Only Mark points out that, before Jesus says this, Jesus gazes on the young man, loves him and then issues this word.
The End of the Story
My theory (and I am not alone here) is that Mark is that rich young man. He noticed the gaze and tells about it in his Gospel because that gaze and that love was directed to him. Jesus’ gaze met Mark’s eyes. Mark saw the love in Jesus’ eyes and walked away, never able to forget.
He experienced the paradox of a call that seemed heavy at first but which, when he later carried it, seemed light. Seemed a privileged path unto love itself.
On this reading, Mark would have left Jesus that day, because he had many possessions. He was not ready to love Jesus with his whole heart.
But in time he would reconsider. He would keep following Jesus, first at a distance, then, gradually, from vantage points increasingly close.
Later, we see a second curious phrase that also only appears in Mark’s Gospel. This is Mark’s second signature. His second self-portrait in his Gospel.
This one is found in the scene of Jesus’s arrest. His closest disciples were gathered with him at Gethsemane. Judas leads the soldiers to the scene. They descend and lay hands on Jesus. The disciples flee but the soldiers seize one of them, a young man, dressed in a fine evening gown. This was the type of gown distinguished citizens wore in the evening, just a single garment covering the whole body. The soldiers seize this young man wearing the fine garment; but he squirms free, and, in the process, is stripped of his garment (Mk 14:51-52).
He runs away naked.
It’s an entirely unusual detail and it only appears in the Gospel of Mark. Not a single other gospel reports this detail. It would seem to bear little weight upon the story of Jesus’ arrest. So why does Mark put it there?
Could it not be Mark’s spiritual self-portrait? The young man not willing to let go of his possessions early in his relationship with Jesus is, at last, by the unfolding of his relationship following Jesus, stripped of his finerie. A disciple left with nothing.
Somewhere in his writings, St. John of the Cross writes that we are unable, of our own choice, to take up the true cross in our lives. Given a choice, we always choose goods and comforts that we can see, over a spiritual good that we cannot see and cannot understand. So, he says, our true crosses must be chosen for us. He says this is the mysterious hand of God working through suffering and loss. Thus, he says, experiences that seem at first to be misfortunes can become, through grace, a means of our human and spiritual growth.
That’s what I see in this story of the rich young man in Mark’s Gospel, as well as the disciple who is later stripped of his finerie. The way I think of it, this is Mark’s story. It could also be ours.
What Am I to Make of This?
Do I create space in my life for Jesus to rest his gaze upon me, as he did to Peter and to Mark? Is there a suffering in my life that I am willing to re-examine; could it be that the loss is an invitation to a deeper blessing, to something that, right now, I am missing?
Lord, I accept your gaze upon my heart. I will not run away. Help me to hear what you want to say to me.