In a recent interview, Demi Lovato, popular teen rock star, talked about what it is like to deal with crowds. She said, “I would come off stage in front of 18,000 people and suddenly be alone in a hotel room. I’d come crashing down and would try and find a way to recreate that feeling to stay up.” Confronted with rumors that she had used cocaine, she talked about her need to sustain the high of performing in front of the crowd and then said, “It’s something I don’t really want to talk about. What I can say is that I was depressed.” If she does use cocaine to help her through those depressed times, she is not alone. Any search through news articles about celebrities will turn up a library of reports that celebrities have problems dealing with life in front of thousands of fans, they have problems dealing with the letdown when the fans are not around, and their meltdowns include episodes with drugs, violent outbursts, self-destructive behavior and suicide. It isn’t easy to be a celebrity.
The gospel of Mark is filled with references to Jesus’ celebrity status as he began his ministry. Today’s reading could have been pulled from a news article about any twenty-first century celebrity. “Many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” (Mark 6:31) When we see what happens to contemporary celebrities as a consequence of dealing with crowds of fans, we quickly notice that Jesus was different. Jesus never did melt down.
The story in Mark 6:30-34 takes place after the disciples return from their first missionary outing. You may recall that after Jesus was rejected in his own home town, he sent his disciples out to do what he was doing – to proclaim the same message Jesus was preaching, “The kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.” From our vantage point two thousand years later, we can see that the disciples were practicing for their work after Jesus’ resurrection. They were also learning how to serve without becoming mere celebrities.
Today’s reading reports what happened when they came back. They wanted to talk with Jesus about their experience. He wanted to hear about their experience. But they could not engage in that conversation because of the constant crowd of people surrounding Jesus. Jesus knew that the disciples needed to talk with him, and they needed rest. He tried to set up a retreat, but like today’s fans, the fans of Jesus were alert to his every move. They figured out where he was going, and they got there before he did. They were waiting for him when he arrived. There was no retreat. There was only the constant “coming and going, and they had no leisure.”
Jesus did not react as some famous celebrities have done. He did not scream in rage or shove the fans away or surround himself with bodyguards and scuttle off to a hiding place. Jesus “had compassion for [his fans].” He put off rest and relaxation for himself and for the disciples, because he still had something to give to the people.
The second text in today’s reading is very similar to the first. Jesus and his disciples got into a boat and went across the lake to another location. Mark doesn’t say that they intended to retreat for conversation and rest, but it seems reasonable to assume that this hope was in their minds. Yet as soon as they reached the new spot, someone recognized Jesus. The word spread, and everyone rushed in with the sick and the hopeless for Jesus to heal. There was no possibility of any peace in this environment.
When Demi Lovato is bombarded by crowds, the energy of the crowds makes her feel good. Almost anybody feels good when it seems that everyone loves her. Lovato says that she actually feels let down when the crowds go home. If you ever had a house full of company for Christmas, you might recognize that feeling. You got tired of the crowd before they went home, but you missed them after they were gone. For Demi, and for other celebrities, the letdown is dramatic. If Demi is tempted by drugs as an antidote to the emptiness, then maybe that is the explanation for others. If Jesus had been only a man, then Jesus would have been tempted to react the way other celebrities do. The constant stress of being in the public eye, whether the public loves or hates, is destructive.
Jesus was more than just a man. Jesus was God in the flesh. God incarnate. When people pressed in on Jesus, he was both intimately aware and completely shielded. He knew when people drew something out of him, as the woman with an issue of blood. He was shielded, however, from the destructive impact of emptiness when the crowds went away. Demi said that leaving the stage and the energy of performance left her depleted, and she needed something to fill up the emptiness or to take away the pain of the emptiness. Jesus, on the other hand, was not needy. As God incarnate, he needed nothing. As a human being, he felt the same pain any other human feels, he felt the same emptiness any other human feels, but he was not needy. He, the infinite and eternal God, still had something to give.
Why can’t we all be just like Jesus? The truth is that we can. Every baptized believer receives the indwelling Holy Spirit, God in the person of the Holy Spirit. We can have the full, rich presence of God to fill up our neediness and comfort us when we feel pain. Jesus the fully human celebrity was able to handle the problems that go along with celebrity status because he was also fully God. We may or may not be celebrities, but no matter how popular we are, or aren’t, we all experience both neediness and pain in our relationships with other people. When people have those experiences, even people who are not celebrities may turn to drugs, violent outburst, self-destructive behavior or suicide. If we are living in relationship with Christ, we can address our pain and neediness by remembering that we, unlike Christ, cannot fix it by ourselves. Our living relationship with Christ is sealed by the presence of the Holy Spirit who can and will help us to deal with the neediness and the pain without destroying ourselves and others.
The Psalmist knew about neediness and pain:
I am poor and needy, and my heart is pierced within me. Psalm 109:22
The Psalmist knew where to go for help:
Help me, O Lord my God! Psalm 109:26 a
The Psalmist knew what could help and heal:
Save me according to your steadfast love. Psalm 109:26 b
Jesus was able to survive being a celebrity without going into meltdown because he was God incarnate. God indwells each believer in the person of the Holy Spirit. In our times of feeling abandoned and hurt, whether or not we are celebrities, we can turn to that same power to fill us and heal us and go with us through all our troubles.
They shall name him Emmanuel, which means, “God is with us.” Matthew 1:23