“Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.” Mother Teresa
About a week ago, I saw the above image – Photoshopped from DaVinci’s famous painting of the Last Supper – of Jesus practicing social distancing while dining virtually with his disciples.
I thought it was hilarious and made sure to share it on Twitter.
As I continued to reflect on it, however, this image began to point to something more than just a funny anecdote. I believe it illuminates something deeply theological and personal about the life of Jesus—his loneliness.
We often talk about Jesus’s habit of getting away to solitary places to pray. Going alone, late at night, to a deserted hilltop where he could spend focused time in conversation with his Father. But, there is a marked difference between being alone or finding quiet space to pray, and utter existential loneliness.
Perhaps it is this utter loneliness we have missed in our reflections on the life of Christ.
Here are three observations on the loneliness of Jesus during his last week leading up to and including his crucifixion:
1. The Loneliness of Purpose (or not being understood)
This might be the least considered form of loneliness—the felt isolation of not being understood or not having someone “with” you as you walk through suffering. It is the classic and peculiar form of suffering that Job endured at the hands of his so-called friends—where they gave words and answers, Job needed empathy and understanding. I think we have all experienced this form of loneliness. It can be exasperating. It can leave us anxious and depressed. It can make us feel alone and hopeless.
I believe this form of not being understood was the heavy loneliness Jesus carried with him when he set his face like flint and journeyed toward Jerusalem his final week. He knew God’s plans for him. He knew he was walking step by step toward his purpose, which would result in brutal death.
Luke writes specifically of Jesus’s communication of his purposes to the disciples saying, “Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, ’We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; they will flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.’” And, shockingly, their ignorance of his meaning, “The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.” Luke 18:31-34
Not only did the disciples fail to grasp Jesus’s march toward martyrdom, what’s worse, they peppered him with all the wrong questions. As Jesus carried his burden alone on the road to Jerusalem, James and John came to him and asked for a favor—that they would sit on Jesus right hand and left. Jesus’s response, “You don’t know what you are asking.” (Mark 10:38)
Jesus’s disciples, for all the years of teaching and training by Jesus, seemed to have been caught up more with the potential for earthly greatness than the inevitability of Jesus’s suffering. Thoughts of their experience or gain meant Jesus’s loneliness.
Jesus was surrounded by friends, followers, and even masses of people, but he was fully alone.
2. The Loneliness of Suffering
On a recent trip to Jerusalem, I visited what archeologists say is the home of Caiaphas the high priest who brought Jesus before an illegal gathering of the Sanhedrin to condemn him for blasphemy.
It was a big and beautiful house back in Jesus’s time prominently situated just a few hundred yards south of the temple mount with a stunning view of the Mount of Olives.
In the basement are the ruins of a makeshift prison-of-sorts where people would have been held for various crimes (the religious authorities of the day also acting somewhat as a form of government responsible for keeping the peace in Jerusalem and around the temple complex). The large stone pillars in the underground cellar or basement are fitted with metal rings toward the top where prisoners would have been shackled or bound. It was here, the night of Jesus’s betrayal, that he was held and where he was first beaten.
Jesus endured physical abuse and torture at the hands of those who were supposed to be of common faith and culture. The disciples had dispersed in fear, though Peter ventured briefly into the courtyard above to sit by a fire before denying knowing Jesus. All the while, Jesus was isolated, alone, and suffering unjustly.
When we close our eyes, we are strangely familiar with the bitter taste of this kind of loneliness. There is a loneliness to suffering that we all somehow know. While our pain and felt first-person experience might be similar to the experience of others, it is uniquely ours. Family, friends, and loved ones sitting with us and listening to our experience can help, but the pain of loneliness is deep and sharp and vile. It threatens to undo us.
How bitter it must have been for Jesus to experience the utter loneliness in the garden when the disciples fell asleep while he prayed, leaving him fully by himself. Have you ever felt completely alone in your pain, abuse, or mental anguish? Jesus was there.
3. The Loneliness of Utter Rejection
As Jesus was hanging on the cross, he cried out in the words of Psalm 22: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
Being left in your aloneness. Being separated, in this sense, even from the face of God, is a kind of dark pain and isolation few people know or experience.
There are parallels in our lives—being neglected, betrayed, left behind, given up on, discarded or used up–that tie into this form of pain. The pain of intentional isolation and rejection that leaves us crying out and wondering where God is.
Jesus endured extreme loneliness at times. He was well-acquainted with the pain of rejection.
What does this mean to us as those who are following the way of Jesus?
Paul the Apostle was famously neglected and alone toward the end of his life. He wrote intimately about his experiences and betrayals in his letter to Timothy,
“Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me… When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments. Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done… At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them,” Paul concludes, “ The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” 2 Timothy 4:9-18 (excerpted)
Adding to Paul, Peter was crucified alone and upside-down outside of ancient Rome. Mark was believed to have been martyred alone and at a distance while taking the gospel to the nations.
These are rather bleak examples of suffering and loneliness, but they point to the fact that we should arm ourselves with the knowledge that if we pick up our cross and follow Jesus, we too as his disciples may become acquainted with the deep and existential forms of loneliness Jesus himself experienced.
Maybe the Photoshopped version of DaVinci’s Last Supper coincides with Good Friday more than the original version.
Maybe, also, this is partly what the New Testament writers mean by sharing in the sufferings of Jesus. Hebrews chapter 11 talks at length about the lonely and persecuted prophets of the Old Testament. The encouragement is, “since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”
Jesus walked forward enduring the cross, scorning its shame and loneliness, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. “For the joy set before him.” Jesus fixed his eyes on the glory, the fellowship, the joy on the other side of trial. We are encouraged to do the same—to see see righteous joy and glory emerging on the other side of trial — as a means of walking in the loneliness and suffering that can come through faith and in this life. “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:1-3 adapted)
Listen to Paul, “For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.” And, “if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”
To you who are lonely.
To you who have no one who fully understands your purpose and calling.
To you who are forgotten or neglected by friends, just when you most needed them.
To you who are alone in your pain and anguish.
And to you who feel like God has hidden his face from you, who are being crucified, who know nothing other than sheer rejection: take heart.
Fix your eyes on the joy set before you.
You are not alone. Christ knows your suffering and has overcome this world.