Summary: The young man who lost his linen cloth and ran away naked may be a wealthy person, depending on status; or Lazarus, living in the past, or Mark, caught in immaturity. But He who dropped another linen cloth gives life.
Not too many years ago, Easter was the day on which everyone trotted out new clothes. It was on Easter that spring dresses sprung off the racks for young girls, and starched collars irritated the necks of young men. I don’t miss the starched collars, but I do rather miss the elaborate display of feathery hats that used to greet the Easter morning preacher!
We may not dress for Easter in the way we used to. But we do send signals with our clothing. We do communicate what we feel about ourselves. We send signals about our self-image. Clothing sends a message.
Some wear uniforms so that we can easily identify their authority. If he wears a firefighter’s slicks, get out of his way so that he can do what he must. If she wears a nurse’s coat, let her take your vital signs and give your meds; she knows what she is doing. Uniforms proclaim authority. We wear clothes to tell others who we are and what we are about.
Some communicate with their clothes not just who they are but who they hope to become. In the wake of the “dress for success” idea, groups that serve jobless people offer them not just counseling, but also business suits and tailored dresses. That way when they go for an interview they can look the part. Some dress to communicate who they are and some who they want to become.
And then there are all those subtle things that clothes communicate. Clothes tell others that we are together and organized; or that we just don’t get it. My wife likes to tell about when she was a chaplain at The American University, whenever there was a public event, she tried to dress appropriately. She tried to be as fashionable as our budget would allow. But fate seemed always to dictate that she be placed next to the wife of the university president, who had a knack for flinging a simple scarf around her shoulders and looking absolutely fabulous. Clothes can even intimidate.
Or then there was the time I was to participate in an ordination service, along with a number of other ministers. I put on my most somber suit, as befits a solemn occasion, only to be greeted by one of my fellow pastors, who sniffed, “Gray? At an ordination?” I didn’t think his suit was that many shades darker than mine, but I was evidently not up to par! Now you know why I’m wearing this pulpit robe; clothes send signals!
There is an intriguing little footnote about that in Mark’s Gospel. It comes during that stormy scene in the 14th chapter, when in dark Gethsemane Jesus prayed alone, alone because His closest intimates would not stay alert. Only an instant later, Judas and a crowd of thugs approached Jesus. Then the betrayer’s kiss, the arrest, a brief scuffle, and – what poignant words! –“All of them deserted Him and fled.” All of them! But now the intriguing little footnote: “A certain young man was following Him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.”
After that, the narrative continues: trials and denials, prisoner releases and floggings, mocking and parading, and, in the end, crucifixion. Death. Dramatic death. Darkness and death. Terrible things that beg for more reporting.
So why does Mark waste his ink on this certain young man, wearing nothing but a linen cloth? Why tell us about a person who was almost snatched by the soldiers, but who pulled out and ran away naked? Who was this young man and what does this mean? Does his dropped cloth send a message to us?
It does. In fact it may send several messages. For just as clothing sends a message and what we wear sends out signals, so also what we leave behind marks out a new identity. What we drop off permits us to become something new.
Who was the young man whose bare behind we glimpse skittering through the olive trees of old Gethsemane? There are several possibilities, and each possibility represents a different way of understanding that dropped cloth. Each of these dropped cloths may fit some of us.
Some think that the young man may not be anyone we can name, but that he may have come from a well-to-do family. Linen was expensive, and so if he was wearing linen out there in the garden at night, when you might have expected informal clothes, that might suggest that he had wealth he wanted to show off. If this theory be correct, this young man came close to Jesus, and almost got caught up with Him, but he ran because he could not risk losing his money, his status, his station in life. He dropped his cloth, his fine linen cloth, and ran away naked.