Robert Duvall as Mac in Tender Mercies.

We can’t always trust happiness

  • April 30, 2014

One of the most gifted actors I’ve observed is Robert Duvall. From fearless napalm-loving Lt. Col. Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, to shy retired Cuban barber in Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, or mild-mannered consigliere of The Godfather, he gives life to an astonishing array of characters.

A prime Duvall moment is so simple it’s unforgettable: Mac in Tender Mercies. In cowboy hat and jeans, out in his vegetable garden in rural Texas, he jabs his hoe into the ground. Having been to the bottom, through it and out the other side, against all likelihood, after drunken rages and divorce and shame, having found a loving wife and stepson, he’s had a new tragedy hit his family.

“See, I don’t trust happiness,” he tells his wife. “I never have, I never will.”

A wise man, Mac.

I wonder if the disciples felt that way, watching Jesus “disappear from their sight.” Again. There at Bethany, after the Good Friday darkness, the Easter dawn, the wondering, heart-opening encounters beyond death, beyond hope.

They’d lost Him before. Indeed, they’d abandoned Him, stripped and beaten, condemned and scorned as He was. At His arrest and execution, all their happiness in His presence was taken from them. And more: they’d proven unable to keep their promise to stay with Him no matter what.

This Gospel acknowledgement of the disciples betraying Christ has always struck me as peculiar. If I were trying to establish an organization or a movement, I wouldn’t feature on our web site the leaders’ worst failures. Political campaigns usually play up leaders’ strong moments, not the times they gave in to panic and selfishness. The Gospels’ writers think differently: why? Why not hide, excuse, at least minimize these betrayals — instead of blazoning them across the climax of every Gospel, as the evangelists do?

I don’t know what exactly the disciples ran away from, that searing night. I know what I mostly run from. Pain. Shame, conflict, accusation, wrath. Fear, anger. My own selfishness. I can run even from love when these things threaten, even from happiness. These disciples must have been frightened terribly, to run from the one whose love had reworked their lives. Wherever they ran, they couldn’t outrun themselves.

On the third day, the women found Jesus’ tomb wasn’t filled with death and decay. And the disciples, somehow, were raised from whatever hell of self-loathing, loss and misery had buried them. Like the tomb, they were emptied. The Gospels hold no record of Jesus punishing them, or even awaiting an “I’m Sorry.” They ran; they were met by love and peace; their eyes and hearts were opened; once again, their lives were radically changed. Joy found them.

They became apostles — witnesses to the Resurrection — because they saw and witnessed Christ in the flesh, victorious over death. And because He met them, sin and all, with peace and mercy. If sin means choosing nothingness over life, running away from the One who gave us life, then these disciples became living evidence that sin, like death, is overcome.

Mac recognizes happiness because he’s been through sin and anguish, loss and death. And recognizes that happiness is winsome and elusive. But God’s “tender mercies” are everywhere, in the earth he’s digging, the son he plays football with, the daughter he lost and the love he’s won.

Did the disciples feel and see differently by the time they watched Jesus “taken up before their very eyes” (Acts 1:9), out near Bethany, having received Him back beyond death and betrayal, sin and decay, happiness and grief? How could they let Him go again? Definitively, this time: He was “soon hidden from their sight in a cloud,” and they couldn’t take their gaze from the spot where they’d last seen Him. Who could?

It’s a moment of infinite loneliness, I should think, when finally they turn away from the bright cloud, back to the earth and one another. Loss and separation, again. Here’s the question: is separation from God really the inevitable end of the story? We stand here with all humanity, at the feast of the Ascension. We know separation; we know loss; we can accept those, even rely on them. But we’ve beheld the Resurrection; we’ve had love poured out upon us. Can we rely on this? Is love, like happiness, a will o’ the wisp? Or a force, powerful, persistent beyond all telling?

Does Christ ascend out of sight because heaven is, after all, beyond our reach? Or because Earth is so full of Him and His Spirit that we don’t need to look up at the sky to find God?

With the disciples, we turn back to the earth that Mac digs up, our eyes dazzled by glory, back to ourselves with knowledge of our capacity to sin and betray, back to one another, with mercy written into our DNA, the power of sin and death broken before us, and pick up the football and the hoe.

(Marrocco can be reached at

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