In this extract from The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book for 2013, Abiding, Ben Quash reflects on the capacity of Jesus to sleep through a storm
The story of Jesus’s capacity to sleep in the middle of a storm at sea is one of the most vivid moments in the Gospels. Like the moments when we are told that Jesus wept, or was moved to anger, or looked at the rich young man and loved him, all of which have a real, recognisable human naturalness to them, we are told in Mark 4 that Jesus fell asleep.
Sleeping is one of the things that creatures do, but which – in traditional ways of thinking – God doesn’t do. So, for example, right at the beginning of the Book of Genesis – as we are first becoming acquainted with what a human being is in the person of Adam – we see God causing a deep sleep to fall upon him (Genesis 2.21).
Adam sleeps. That’s because he’s a creature and God made him do it. God doesn’t need to. Perhaps we remember the great phrase from the Psalms – the one “who keeps Israel [i.e. God] will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121.4). So it is an amazing thing, then, to find Jesus, whom Mark’s Gospel is proclaiming as the divine Son, sleeping. It is an illustration of what God’s taking our human nature upon him actually involves.
The particular circumstances in which Jesus sleeps here are even more amazing – one might even say, bizarre.
A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!”Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. (Mark 4.37-39)
Jesus sleeps in the middle of a huge storm, whilst the disciples frantically rush around trying to keep afloat. We can be sure that they must have been very frightened indeed to behave like this. They were not novices when it came to boats, and to the behaviour of the weather. They were professionals – or at least several of them were: men who had worked around and on the Sea of Galilee for their whole lives. They were people with real experience and competence. Jesus curiously (on the face of it) was one of the least likely to know what he was doing – he was from Nazareth, much further away from any big stretch of water, and not a fisherman but a carpenter.
On the face of it, perhaps, he didn’t appreciate the dangers. He appears to sleep in blissful ignorance – like a child unaware of the fact that his parents’ world is falling apart. You can imagine such a situation: a mother being made redundant, or a father being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, and putting a brave face on it for the children, who sleep an unruffled sleep, while the parents lie awake staring into the darkness, wondering what on earth they are going to do…
Such sleep is the sleep of innocence, like that of Adam in the Garden of Eden – like that deep sleep which the Lord God caused to come upon him, in which he had nothing to fear. There was seemingly no chaos against which frantically to defend himself and safeguard his life. That was humanity’s first sleep – the sleep of a child. Adam slept secure in the knowledge that God was providing for him – that his deepest desires were things that God made it his concern to meet (for example in the creation of a companion – Eve – to share his life in the garden).
But what conceivable place can such sleep have in the fallen world we know and into which we have now “grown up”? Sleep like that has taken on a quality of naivety for us; it has to be paid for by other people’s vigilance and work. We have lost our innocence – the innocence of Eden, or the innocence of childhood. And insomnia has become almost the defining affliction of the modern age. It often feels to me as though a great part of the human race now lies awake at night, staring into the dark and wondering what on earth to do, or else for all its competence and technical ability, rushes about frantically trying to keep itself afloat.
The words on millions of lips and passing through millions of minds are the words of the disciples – the words of a lost innocence – “we are perishing!”. Today’s world barely sleeps. If it lets its vigilance slip for a single moment, it fears disaster. Never has there been a world so obsessed with surveillance. We watch the markets every second of every day and night; we put up CCTV cameras in every corner; we have 24-hour news channels and the proliferation of talk, analysis and information; we watch the Middle East; we watch the Chinese; we watch for the enemy within.
Never have we had so much technical ability and power of control. Like the disciples with their boats, we are competent. But never have we realised our own fragility so much; never have we had such a sense of lost innocence before; never have we slept so badly.
But Jesus did not sleep because of naivety, however much (superficially) that might seem to be the case. His sleep is not an expression of casualness; it is an expression of peace.
Jesus’s sleep was not the thoughtless sleep of one who depends on other people’s vigilance and work. Jesus was not under the illusion that he was still in the Garden of Eden. He knew the cost of being part of a desperate, fallen world. Later, in the Garden of Gethsemane, it was precisely he who stayed awake while others slept – staring into the darkness and wrestling with what it seemed he must do to keep the world afloat.
He stayed awake in order to look open-eyed into the face of the world’s fallenness, and to find there a task that only he, the obedient one, could perform – and that he would perform on human beings’ behalf. He stayed awake, then, in a way that only he could, accommodating his disciples’ inability to stay awake with him. He made it possible – in principle – for them to sleep trust-fully again. In his faithfulness he opened a way to a new life which gives his followers the blessed assurance that death and chaos will not prevail against it, and that they will not ultimately perish. He restored lost innocence.
So the episode in the storm on the Sea of Galilee can, I suppose, be read as an early sign of that new life to which Jesus has come to open up the way – a sign of what is being restored to human beings in his life, death and resurrection. It shows the second Adam reconstructing and displaying the paradisal blessedness of the first, for the sake of those who are being redeemed. It is a glimpse of the sleep of innocence which is promised to our insomniac age if we will trust the faithfulness of God and follow Christ. Christ stood in our place for us – he stayed awake that we might sleep. But here – in this little excerpt from Mark’s Gospel – he also sleeps for us. He gives us an example of how we are to sleep, in the light of our redemption. We are to sleep because God is for us, and because God is faithful – the God to whom the earth belongs, and all that is in it, and all who dwell therein. For it is he who founded it upon the seas, and made it firm upon the rivers of the deep (Psalm 24.2). His sleep on the Sea of Galilee is a proclamation of the peace which abides.
This is an extract from Abiding, by Ben Quash (Bloomsbury 2012), which was chosen as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2013. Ben Quash is Professor of Christianity and the Arts at King’s College, London
This article was published in the February 2013 edition of Reform.