Meditations on Aspects of Easter: 3. Anguish
Heb 12:2 Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame
(NB. I have added an additional note to the previous meditation to clarify chronology)
Because we want to focus on a number of issues surrounding the events of the Cross, we jump Wednesday and are now in what we call Maundy Thursday, although it may be that much of what we say about this Thursday was also true of what Jesus felt on the Wednesday. Maundy Thursday takes its name from the command to wash feet found in John 13:1-17 when Jesus washed the feet of the disciples at the beginning of the Last Supper.
We are going to focus in a moment on the feelings Jesus had near the end of this day but feelings don’t tend to come in separate blocks and I wonder, therefore, whether there was already an element of what Jesus expressed in the Garden of Gethsemane late in the evening, there in him earlier in the evening at the beginning of the Last Supper and, as we’ve already suggested, there with him on the Wednesday as well in some measure. I think the answer must be, yes, almost inevitably.
Stop and think for a moment how we view the future, anticipating some approaching event. Perhaps it is a major exam, perhaps it is a major operation, perhaps it is retiring from work, perhaps it is moving from your present home. These are all events that in some way or other are likely to conjure up negative emotions, perhaps even a feeling of dread or maybe of fear, and the nearer and nearer we get to the event, the stronger the feeling becomes. The point I am about to make is that in the late evening in Gethsemane Jesus expressed some very human negative feelings, but the makings of those feelings would have been growing within him over the previous days. Every step, every action within this week takes him a step nearer the Cross.
The fact is that very clearly Jesus knew what he had to do, he knew every detail of the plan of the Godhead, formulated before the foundation of the world: “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!” (Mt 20:18,19). There it was all laid out, each detail: betrayal, condemnation, mocked, flogged and crucified and then, the big faith event from the human standpoint, being raised from the dead. We often struggle with understanding the mix of the human and the divine in Jesus. The divine is seen in his ability to know his Father’s will and to do the miraculous. The human is seen in the fact that he got tired and hungry, and we are now about to observe his humanity at its strongest point.
Yet, as a human being, just like us, he would have these coming events in the forefront of his mind as the week wore on. Thus when we come to the early evening of the Thursday and they gather to celebrate the Passover meal together Jesus, almost perhaps to remind himself that this is not only the path he wants to lay before his disciples, it is the path he must walk. It is the path of humility and obedience. Now there is a thing about this and it is that so often when we face such things, we have doubts, we have second thoughts, is there some way to avoid this, am I doing the right thing, am I committed to this particular path, is it too late to change it? These are all the sort of things the human mind wrestles with when it faces potential pain – the pain of leaving, the pain of failure, the pain of the unknown, the physical pain, the emotional pain. All of this is involved at such times.
And so, reluctantly, we arrive at Gethsemane. The meal is over, some clear teaching has been given, some questionable things have been said, Judas has gone out, Peter has made strong declarations of loyalty – strong but unknowing – backed by the others, and then they had got up, left the house and made their way out to the garden area where Jesus wanted to pray, and as he does so, the reality of the situation presses in. He sits the main group down and going a little further, “He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” (Mt 26:37,38)
He confesses his sorrow to them and then prays: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (v.39) and then a few minutes later, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” (v.42) and a little later repeated it. Luke records, “being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” (Lk 22:44) Everything – every human thing – in Jesus, screamed out to avoid what he knew had to happen. There were, I suggest, three areas in Jesus thinking that caused him to have this depth of anguish.
The first area has to be the physical dimension. Jesus knew, as we’ve already seen, that death by crucifixion was at the end of this path, an execution thought to be one of the most painful and inhumane ways of putting a person to death devised by mankind. No one in their right mind would face that with equanimity.
The second area had to be a human relational anguish, the concern for his disciples, having to go through what they have to go through. After having been with the Son of God for three glorious years, watching miracle after miracle, now having to witness the events that are about to unfold, they are going to be devastated.
But the third and main area to be faced was separation from His Father. It had been bad enough leaving the glory of heaven to come and dwell in a tiny human form and be limited by the growth of that form all those years, experiencing the human experience, leaving the wonder of his Father’s glorious presence in heaven, but now something unique in the experience of the Godhead is about to happen. In a way that challenges our intellect, Jesus on the Cross was going to take on himself all of the Sin of the world, all of the individual sins of mankind that deserved to be punished, and so terrible was the experience that it seemed to shut out his eternal consciousness of the Father so the human cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46, Mk 15:34).
Sacrifice of the Lamb of God? Yes, this was what was involved in this sacrifice. The writer to the Hebrews wrote, “Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me..… Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Heb 10:5,9,10) The anguish of the evening of Maundy Thursday evening is both human and divine as the Son of God took the next step in the plan of the Godhead. Before the Cross itself, such anguish should give us pause to be still, be silent, reflect, and be thankful.