Into the Woods is a musical by Stephen Sondheim. If you’re not familiar with it, read a brief synopsis here.
The fairy tale characters of Into the Woods are changed by their experience in the woods. Their perspectives change; their lives change; some characters don’t even make it out of the woods alive. And this of course wounds those who are close to them. And those who do make it out of the woods leave that place scarred.
The ending of the musical is not what I would call a “happily ever after” ending. But I would call it a “good” ending, because it’s honest, real, and formative.
The witch character spells it out for us when she sings:
I was perfect.
I had everything but beauty.
I had power,
And a daughter like a flower,
In a tower.
Then I went into the woods
To get my wish,
And now I’m ordinary.
Lost my power and my flower.
I view the stories of Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels in a very similar way. The characters in the Gospels who choose to follow Jesus also go into the woods, so to speak. But once they’re in the woods with Jesus, people find out that their perspectives and experiences are very limited. They think they know who Jesus is and who they are, but they don’t. In Mark’s telling of the story, the journey of Jesus and his followers is a journey of identity formation. I think that Jesus was a person who expressed full humanity; like anyone else, as he aged and matured and experienced the world, he formed an identity. His identity was also shaped by people, places, and experiences. So it was for his followers.
And so it is for us.
Mark’s Gospel, you see, is very different from the other three. No Jesus birth story; no resurrection story either in the original text. Mark is the shortest Gospel and first one written; it’s a no-nonsense story without much theology or church doctrine inserted. Action is what drives the story forward.
And Mark is really concerned with identity questions: who is Jesus, who is he not, and who are those who follow him? Mark’s Gospel portrays Jesus as much more human than the other Gospels. Jesus shows emotions. He is called “the carpenter” as anyone else would be defined by his/her vocation. He falls asleep on a cushion while the disciples steer a boat. And at the end of his life, the Jesus of Mark suffers great physical, emotional, and spiritual pain.
And finally, the Gospel of Mark contains various references to what scholars call the “Messianic secret.”
What the heck is that? Good question.
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is a mysterious figure. He intentionally tells people to shut up about his identity. He heals people and then says don’t tell anyone about it. As a storyteller, why does Mark portray Jesus in this way? Well, the writer of Mark already knew about various images of Jesus or beliefs about him in the 1st Century. The identity of “Messiah” for some meant “miracle worker” or “political leader” or “the Son of God”…or you fill in the blanks.
But Mark makes it clear that Messiah means:
Son of Man or Son of Adam and Messiah means suffering servant who dies.
Sounds a bit macabre, but that’s Mark’s interpretation of Jesus of Nazareth.
But I also tend to agree with some historical and Biblical scholars who see this Messianic secret thing in Mark as a demonstration of just how much people tried to give Jesus an identity that he never actually gave to himself. While the other three Gospels in the canon often over-emphasize that Jesus was and is the Messiah and miracle-worker, Mark’s Gospel has Jesus shush any notion to that effect.
You see that in this particular scene is Mark 8.
Jesus asks his followers: Who do people say I am?
The followers say: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets.
Jesus: But who do YOU say that I am?
Peter: The Messiah, of course!
Jesus: Ssshhhhhh….the son of man suffers and dies.
Peter: No way, Jesus!
Jesus: Peter, Shut yo mouth!
The “son of man” reference is from the OT prophetic book of Daniel. The son of man figure is a human who has a great and lasting impact on people and the world.
Clearly, we have an identity crisis here.
Think about it—if Jesus were not the Messiah that the disciples were looking for—then that would mean they were on a dangerous path that could lead to suffering, rejection, and perhaps even death.
Peter and the other Jesus followers saw the miracles as most important and they also wanted a religious and political Messiah, too; but Jesus was on another path.
Jesus’ journey was one of servanthood–giving one’s life out of love for others. That is why Mark focuses intensely on the symbol of the cross. Taking up one’s cross would have meant something to the people of the 1st century. It was a human journey to death, to suffering. It was a reminder of the religious and political powers of society that oppressed people.
I’ll admit it’s a misused phrase and probably it has caused more harm than good.
Take up your cross has been used to make people feel guilty or to coerce them into accepting needless suffering or abuse.
But that’s not what the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel is saying.
Instead, it was an invitation to stand up against the injustice and oppression; the false religious piety; the imbalance of the world; the hatred and selfishness of human beings. Taking up the cross meant walking an uncomfortable path into the woods and not looking back.
It may seem harsh to you how Jesus rebukes Peter in this scene, but people have to understand what they’re walking into, don’t you think? This path of seeking justice and loving others to the point of giving one’s life is no walk in the park.
It’s a journey deep into the woods.
On this journey, if you spend all your time trying not to lose people and things, you’ll end up losing it all [and your own life] anyway.
The invitation, then, is to stop trying to save everything and everyone and instead to dedicate your life to being Good News for others; in this way you might truly live.
This journey is not one of fame or power or status or comfort. It is brutally honest, too, and requires all masks to be removed. It’s a journey that recognizes suffering and rejection because that’s what happens when you stand up against status quo authority or oppressors.
And the journey is about letting go of fear in order to discover yourself as you truly are.
This motif underlies the story of Into the Woods, because the life lessons that the fairy tale characters learn come at a great cost. Happily ever after isn’t the way it works. The baker and his wife, in wishing for a child, encounter a curse and even death. Cinderella finds out that her prince isn’t as dreamy as she imagined him. Little Red Riding Hood discovers that the forest can be a dangerous place where wolves prey on the innocent. Jack loses his mother and his best friend, Milky White. The witch loses her daughter and also her beauty. But amidst all the tragedy, heartache, and disappointment, wisdom is gained; identity is formed; and the characters learn how to serve each other.
Consider what the baker’s wife sings:
There’s something about the woods.
Not just surviving.
You’re blossoming in the woods.
At home I’d fear
We’d stay the same forever.
True, the path of going into the woods is difficult.
But something blossoms in the woods; people even thrive.
I think it’s because the woods expose everyone’s fear of being themselves—truly human.
In fact, there is this quote by Frederick Buechner which states:
What we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else.
I think that’s true. We all want to be accepted and known as we truly are, but we’re also scared out of our minds to show that true self to others…and even to ourselves.
But I think we can learn something from the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel: he is human. Intensely human. And also, it’s not wise to define people [or ourselves] based on the past or nostalgia, or even what we wish for the future.
The discovering of our identity should happen in the present—where we are.
In this present moment, we should walk through the woods. We should not fear the crosses or heavy burdens of the world. As the characters sing in the musical:
Though it’s fearful,
Though it’s deep, though it’s dark,
And though you may lose your path,
You mustn’t stop,
You mustn’t swerve,
You mustn’t ponder,
You have to act!
Yes, we should act. We should notice be good news for people. We should be honest and human and…ourselves. We should go into the woods, “where nothing’s clear, where witches, ghosts and wolves appear. Into the woods and through the fear, we have to take the journey.”
Because along that journey lies wisdom, acceptance, and fullness.