During Lent, much of the emphasis concentrates on a metaphorical sojourn in the desert. Liturgical and devotional readings help place Christians alongside Jesus during His forty days of temptation in the wilderness. However, that time of testing is also a time of training, preparing for the greater travail and ultimate triumph marked by the sacred Triduum. Along with Lenten reflection on Christ in the desert, Christians can also reflect on events in the latter half of Holy Week.
Thus, one way to use Lent as preparing for the Triduum is to reflect upon a scene from Christ’s Passion. With the beginning of Lent, one exercise is to look at the beginning of the Passion, namely, the confrontation and arrest of Christ in the garden. Rather than identify with Jesus, Peter, or even the guards, consider the embarrassing plight of the young man who ran away naked.
What seems clear in one era remains opaque in another. Most modern biblical commentators on Mark 14:51-52 agree that the young man running away naked from Jesus’ arrest was none other than Mark himself. However, according to Edward J. Mally, in the Jerome Biblical Commentary of 1968, Church Fathers such as Ambrose, Bede, and Chrysostom identified the young man who ran away as John the Evangelist.
Further curiosity about how the Church Fathers understood those lines from the Gospel reveals a lack of interest in a patristic reading of them. For example, a conspicuous omission in the volume on Mark’s Gospel in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, published in 1998, is any patristic musing on Mark 14:51-52. For some reason, the editors passed over patristic interpretations of that text.
Still, the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture presents a recent and commendable endeavor in the tradition of the four-volume Catena Aurea, the Golden Chain. Compiled around 1263 by Thomas Aquinas and translated into English in 1841 by John Henry Newman, the Catena Aurea linked together patristic comments on the four canonical Gospels. For Mark 14:51-52, Aquinas briefly cited Gregory the Great, who in his Moralia identified the young man as John, and Theophylact of Ohrid, who said in his commentary on Mark that some exegetes took the young man to be James. Aquinas also quoted from Pseudo-Jerome and then quoted more extensively from the Venerable Bede.
Largely overlooked today, Pseudo-Jerome is the name scholars give to several now unknown medieval writers whose commentaries and homilies had long been attributed to Saint Jerome. One of the works now catalogued as being by Pseudo-Jerome is a commentary on the Gospel according to Mark. With reference to Genesis 39:12, he wrote, “Just as Joseph left his mantle behind him, and fled naked from the wanton woman; so also let him, who would escape the hands of the evil ones, quit in mind all that is of the world, and fly after Jesus.”
In the early eighth century, Bede also wrote a commentary on Mark. Referring to the fleeing young man, Bede observed, “That is, he fled from them, whose presence and whose deeds he abhorred, not from the Lord, for whom his love remained fixed in his mind, when absent from Him in body.”
As noted at the outset, Bede identified the young man as John, and from that identification Bede speculated on episodes not recorded in the Gospel. “For that he was a young man at that time,” Bede said, following a tradition that John lived into his nineties, “is evident from his long sojourn in the flesh. Perhaps he escaped from the hands of those who held him for the time, and afterwards got back his garment and returned, mingling under cover of the darkness with those who were leading Jesus, as though he was one of them, until he arrived at the door of the High Priest, to whom he was known, as he himself testifies in the Gospel. But as Peter, who washed away the sin of his denial with the tears of penitence, shews the recovery of those who fall away in time of martyrdom, so the other disciples who prevented their actual seizure, teach the prudence of flight to those who feel themselves unequal to undergo tortures.”
Given such limited patristic commentary on these two verses, here is another way of looking at them, remembering that the Church Fathers recognized that Scripture has historical and spiritual dimensions. While the historical sense of this passage is plain, even if the identity of the young man can be debated, the spiritual sense of this text allows for meditation beyond the comments of Pseudo-Jerome, Bede, and other Fathers.
What stands out is that the Bede and Pseudo-Jerome focused on the fact that the young man was running away from the guards. As Bede said, the young man was not running away from Christ, but we can say that he was running away from the beginning of Christ’s Passion. As with the other disciples who fled the scene, the young man was afraid when facing the path that was leading Christ to the Cross.
Just as intriguing is the historical detail that the young man’s garment was made of linen, as opposed to cotton, wool, or silk. Going by the Dictionary of the Bible, by John L. McKenzie, more than two dozen times the Bible mentions linen, often in the context of the Levitical priesthood or liturgical musicians or the curtains or veil of the Temple in Jerusalem. In keeping with that sacred use of linen, all four Gospels record that Joseph of Arimathea wrapped the dead body of Jesus in a linen cloth.
Moreover, mention of linen clothing calls to mind the Book of Revelation. In Chapter 18, verses 12 and 16, we read that part of the desolation of the fallen city of Babylon is that no more will it enjoy buying and wearing fine linen. In contrast, in Chapter 19, verses 8 and 14, linen enrobes the Bride of Christ, the Church, and it serves as the uniform of the armies of Heaven. Merely a commodity in the old city of Babylon, in the new Jerusalem of Heaven, linen connotes the burial and bridal aspects of the Lord. Whenever we run away from any aspect of Christ’s Passion, we let the powers of this world swipe away our heavenly inheritance, and all we are left with is our own carnal natures.