But the ghosts that we knew will flicker from view / And we’ll live a long life
Mumford & Sons, “Ghosts That We Knew”
Throughout the month of February, I’ve been looking at the image of Jesus walking on water. I have a wall calendar at my desk, and the picture for February is an artist’s rendering of what Jesus walking on water must have seemed like. I love the way it is portrayed, with bits of yellow used to portray sparkles surrounding Jesus and his path toward the boat. The sky above is gray and the water a murky greenish-blue.
I have been spending a lot of time thinking about this particular passage of Scripture. God has been bringing it to my attention on and off for about the past couple months. As I was meditating on this passage about two months ago, I was struck by the following description: “Around three in the morning He came toward them walking on the sea and wanted to pass by them. When they saw Him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw Him and were terrified” (Mark 6: 48-49). Two parts of this passage stand out for me. First, Jesus intended to walk by them. Second, the disciples initially were afraid of Him, thinking He was a ghost. There is another passage of Scripture that I am reminded of when it says that He “wanted to pass by them”, but before I go there I think it important to attend to His being mistaken for a ghost.
Our society is obsessed with ghosts and thoughts of the paranormal. From popular TV shows Walking Dead and Ghost Hunters to paranormal books like Stephen King and Dean Koontz to vampire romances, the presence of the genre in our society is ubiquitous. I will try to refrain from passing judgment on whether this societal obsession is good or bad or even the (in)accuracy of the ideas presented. It is a potentially hopeful sign that our society is thinking so much about spirituality, death, and good and evil. However, I think so much emphasis on the realm of the paranormal has contributed to the view that supernatural occurrences need always be profound, dramatic or extraordinary. This keeps us from seeing the work of God and of other spiritual realities in our everyday experiences.
It may seem unusual, then, that I would want to focus on Jesus walking on water, one of the most unusual miracles in all of Scripture. And indeed, it is perhaps one of the more extraordinary passages of Scripture, perhaps even one of the more unbelievable. I do not wish to argue against this interpretation, as I do believe in it’s literal portrayal. In fact, the interpretation I am about to provide even presupposes the literal view. But I can’t help but reflect on the fact that Jesus, appearing as a ghost, isn’t somewhat symbolic of how we tend to view His presence in our lives.
The Irish group, Mumford & Sons, has a song which is partially quoted in the above epigraph. The song, “Ghosts That We Knew”, starts out about pain and suffering, about despair so strong as to suggest suicide. Unlike the ghosts in popular culture, we all have our “ghosts” in this life that haunt us. You know what your ghosts are. And we might do worse than to pray the following lyrics from the song: “So give me hope in the darkness that I will see the light / Cause oh they gave me such a fright”. For those who need something a little more Scriptural, such a prayer as “Lord, I believe…help me in my unbelief” might ring closer to home. As we do so, we might just begin to realize that the very things that haunt us are, in fact, Christ’s presence in our life. What the disciples thought was a ghost that frightened them was the very presence of God. And what we see as haunting us might very well be Christ’s presence in disguise.
Yet, we read that Jesus “wanted to pass by them”. In the twenty-fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, after Jesus has overcome death and been resurrected, He appears to two of the disciples (v. 13), although, like on the boat, they do not yet recognize Him. After He speaks with them and helps them to interpret the Scriptures (what, for them, would have been our current Old Testament as the books of the New Testament were not yet written) and how they all point to His fulfillment of them in His birth, life, death and resurrection, “He gave the impression that He was going father” (v. 28). Here, the disciples have reached the village to which they were traveling to and yet Jesus leads them to believe that He wants to “pass by them”. Yet, like their experience on the boat, their response convinces Him to stay. Or perhaps He planned to stay all along and is merely testing their faith when He does not seem to be present. Either way, He chooses to remain.
During the season of Lent, which began in February, we celebrate the events leading up to, and including, the passion of Christ on the cross and His death and resurrection. He came so that the ghosts which haunt us might no longer have power over us, but be redeemed by His resurrected presence. I’m convinced that as we pray such prayers as those above, responding as the disciples did to the circumstances in which we find ourselves, Christ will have mercy and reveal Himself to us in the midst of our ghost stories. We will begin to know the truth that the very things that frighten us are Jesus’ presence in disguise and we will rest in the knowledge that the “ghosts” that haunt us “will flicker from view / And we’ll live a long life”.