At seventeen I read Jim Bishop’s book, The Day Christ Died. It offers helpful insights into the tenor of the times when Jesus lived, describing the antagonistic factions within Jewry, as well as the customs, people, and powerful institutions arrayed against Christ. Bishop also describes in ghastly detail the reality of death by Roman crucifixion. For years these images of Christ’s excruciating suffering and death haunted me, as did the unfathomable cruelty that engineered it.
At some point I realized that as literally asphyxiating as was Christ’s physical pain, his inner torment would have been even more devastating. Unrelentingly the horrible onslaught of mankind’s sins flew in Christ’s face, snarling, mocking, as each shipwrecked soul coursed through his consciousness to become his own. Simultaneously the grim hatred of dark powers ruthlessly bludgeoned Christ’s psyche. All this tormented him more than any physical pain the Roman government, uncharacteristically aligned with the Jewish elite and its rabble, could orchestrate.
This year as I considered the early stages of Christ’s Passion, when, before his arrest, he felt “sorrowful, even unto death” (Matt 26:38), it gave me pause.
I have always thought that in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus was wrestling with his imminent cataclysmic battle and was worried, apprehensive, perhaps even fearful. This could be true; Jesus was a human being, and as a human being he not only needed to accept his Father’s will, but also to embrace as his the bloody, violent cross. However, we are talking about a man who, since the age of twelve when he tarried in the temple because he felt compelled to be in his Father’s house, had been devoted to following his Father’s will, consumed with doing his Father’s work. A final, decisive alignment of Christ’s will with his Father’s was probably humanly necessary, but I think something much deeper than personal foreboding or, as some even suggest, human self-doubt, intensified his sorrow in Gethsemane.
The battle against the powers of sin and darkness that Jesus came on earth to fight was his since Adam’s fall. John tells us outright: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). Christ’s humanity was forged in this furnace. Even though he knew it would demand every ounce of his faithfulness and power, I doubt Jesus sorrowed over or feared the battle itself. What was at stake burned in his bones, beat in his blood. It was his very raison d’être.
During the Last Supper Christ suggests a pain more grievous and eternal that lay before him. He says to Peter, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:31).
Here Christ’s focus is decidedly not on himself; it is on the battle that will rage that very night in Peter’s breast. Jesus expresses unflinching confidence that Peter will come through; he knows that his own willingly spilled blood offers Peter victory over fear, lying, unfaithfulness, despair. Even the devil’s manhandling of Peter cannot prevent his turning to Christ.
In Jesus’ next words to Peter, he exposes a heart-breaking burden of his own suffering. He already knows that Peter will come through, but for what reason? So that he will strengthen his brethren. And what about Christ’s own victory over death? Will that allow him to also strengthen his brethren? Our strengthening stands as Christ’s eternal task – that we are freed, truly liberated, from the darkness that repeatedly destroys us and our relationship to God, our Father.
Christ’s sorrow that is “unto death” is just this: his sorrow over those who will not allow him to strengthen them in their own battles against the powers of darkness. Think about it. Christ offers us everything: eternal life; days filled with faith, hope, joy; the incredible ability to care for others – and we can turn our backs on it all. Or on particular aspects of it that do not sit well with our iron-clad principles. Isn’t our insistent independence the most harrowing pain for Jesus, whose profound love continues to cry out from Golgotha? Will we, like Peter, humbly turn and grasp Jesus’ victory as ours?Comments
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