Chapter 5

The Passion of Christ: Gethsemane

An aura of disquiet overhung the last week of Jesus' ministry. In the stark realism of Mark's account there is first of all the prophetic anointing of Jesus by an unknown woman. She, and by imputation he also, was castigated for wasting so much money on a costly perfume which could so much more profitably have been spent on feeding the poor. But Jesus understood the deeper significance of her action: a love that was preparing his body for the torture ahead of it and the burial that lay at the end of the passion. It was also preparing his soul for the dereliction it was to undergo when even his disciples would separate themselves from him and he would be regarded as a creature of vile loathing. It not uncommonly happens that when we are about to undergo a particularly testing experience, those closest to us fail utterly, whereas a stranger may give the word or make the gesture that strengthens us and lightens the darkness ahead. In this way our relationships are extended, and those who have taken us for granted are both exposed in their superficiality and jolted out of their rut of complacency to enter a deeper realm of intimacy and self-knowledge.

The poor, as Jesus remarked, will always be among us - indeed we are a part of their company - because they are unaware of their privilege of being human and therefore do not bestir themselves to fulfil their potential as children of God. But Jesus was soon to leave this world, not as a lamented saviour but in the form of a rejected false messiah crucified between two common criminals. In the same way beauty and human dignity are not to be sacrificed according to the expedience of the common purse. It is by them above all else that the imagination of the common mind may be lifted to spiritual reality, to the end that people may become more aware of truth. In this way their actions may ascend the scale of values from mere sensual stimulation to a concern with the world and all who live in it. In this way alone can the poor be effectively encountered and their degradation remedied.

And so the love of the one who remains unknown prepares the body and soul of Jesus for the ordeal ahead of him. At the same time one of the Twelve, Judas Iscariot, probably the most intelligent of the apostles, is so disgusted that his already subterranean disapproval of his master flares up into conscious revolt: he betrays him to the chief priests, who already had enough reasons to hate Jesus because of his immeasurably greater spiritual authority and his capacity to see the truth of a situation with unerring accuracy. Jealousy allied to fear is an especially lethal combination, for it convinces those in power of the absolute necessity of eliminating the troublesome person in terms of the public interest; in this concern their naked jealousy can be convincingly presented as pious rectitude.

Then comes the preparation for the Passover meal. The disciples are to seek a man carrying a jar of water, who will show them a large room upstairs set out in readiness for the supper. Water plays an important part in the work of Christ, not only signifying the purification of baptism but also the downpouring of the Holy Spirit. In John 4:13-14, Jesus says that everyone drinking the water from a well will be thirsty once more, but whoever drinks the water that he provides will never suffer thirst again. Indeed, in the miracle attending the marriage at Cana-in-Galilee, Jesus turns water into wine, a symbol of the transformed potency of material things in the hands of the Lord of life. And so the Passover meal is endued with a spiritual potency of a magnitude that is to make its advent the precursor of a new sacrament of redemption of the whole world from darkness to light, from death to resurrection.

During the most fateful meal that has ever been eaten Jesus speaks mysteriously of the one among the disciples who is about to betray him, and all of them turn to him in incredulous concern but there is no explanation. Then comes the momentous institution of the Eucharist, whose mysterious part in the world's redemption is still to be understood. Jesus says that never again shall he drink from the fruit of the vine until the day when he drinks it new in the kingdom of God. He has indeed completed his earthly work; foreboding is aligned with authority, relief with dread. His mastery is established among a small group of disciples who hang on his words, yet no one understands him. His loneliness, always overwhelming despite his constant mixing with all classes and types of people, is now absolute; a gulf of spiritual intuition separates him from all his disciples as he leaves the upper room, with the sound of the great Passover Hymn echoing in his ears, and leads them in the crisp chill to the Mount of Olives.

There he tells them that they will fall from their faith, for it is written, "I will strike the shepherd down and the sheep will be scattered". But nevertheless he assures them of his later resurrection, after which he will go before them into Galilee. They are all anxious to proclaim their loyalty, none more so than Peter, who nevertheless is told that he will disown Christ on three occasions that very night. And so they reach a place called Gethsemane where Jesus bids them sit, while he takes with him the three closest disciples - Peter, James and John - as he goes further on to pray silently. And then the cosmic battle commences.

At once the calm, melancholy mastery of Jesus, who embraces within himself a humble human frame and the Sonship of God, is enveloped in darkness. He descends precipitous into the void of unseeing chaos out of which the cosmos was created by himself, through whom all things were made. The Lamb of God slain before the foundation of the world - inasmuch as the creation is the form of his perpetual sacrifice, his ceaseless giving of himself for the sustenance of all he has created, the maintenance of the cosmic order for which he is responsible in a perpetuity that proceeds until his final coming in glory - is now cast down to the prince of darkness, so that he may be discountenanced and all his work brought to nothing. And who is this prince from whom the darkness proceeds? He is the created one of God who has used his will perversely to dominate all that is, in order to devour it and make it his own. But in this assimilation to evil intent of all that is, the creation becomes dismembered, destroyed and utterly annihilated. And so the cosmos returns to the chaos out of which it was formed by the self-giving love of God. Jesus descends into the void of annihilation where his mastery and foresight are all submerged and rendered impotent. His very identity is obscured so that he does not know himself in his fullness, while at the same time being excruciatingly aware of his existence. The agony increases as the heart is torn from the body, at least symbolically, as the soul is dragged from the personality that encloses it.

The darkness of the chaos of non-identity is not simply the result of the deprivation of light, the light of understanding and meaning. It is also a powerful and positive force of absolute negation, just as deliberate cruelty is something apart from the removal of love. This would leave a blank indifference, so that the creature would be at the mercy of any harmful outside agency and a helpless victim to its own inherent processes of decay and death. The positive act of cruelty aims at the humiliation of its victim so that it cries out in agony to the God who is not there, and once registering the fact of that absence, begins to curse loudly in its agony and to die. But is God in fact absent? Certainly no apparent trace of him can be detected in the black, foul stench of total chaos, and yet the very malice of the evil one seeking to destroy all that he encounters makes visible the presence of God. For there is no positive action that registers awareness of another creature, no matter how full of hatred that action may be, that does not manifest something of the divine nature. This is why a positive hatred is closer to God than a blank indifference, which is ultimately the most terrible form of denial of love. What I hate I still acknowledge; what I dismiss I leave to the attention of and destruction by the elements of nature. The agony of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane embraces both active destructive hatred and an indifference that leads to neglect, isolation and disintegration. Thus evil is, in the end, a complete denial of love, the power that not only heals, but also brings life into the cosmos and promotes its growth to fulfilment.

Did Jesus have any knowledge of all this before the time of his agony? I believe that he did, but essentially on the level of intellectual acceptance, to which was added, no doubt, a strong intuitive insight. Job, after he had been brought low to the point of physical disintegration, admits to his three comforters, "Every terror that haunted me has caught up with me, and all that I feared has come upon me" (Job 3:25). Job was undeniably attached to the things of this world, especially his family and his reputation; the prospect of them being taken away was more than he could bear, until their removal from his life actually happened. Jesus was attached to nothing on a purely personal level, since everything on earth was spiritually his own by virtue of his act of universal creation in the world of eternal value. But he did love his Father in heaven. Indeed, the love of Father and Son in the world of universal creative impulse brings forth the Holy Spirit who is the Lord, the giver of all life. The Creator Spirit enables the Word of God, the Son, to do the eternal creative work, inasmuch as by him all things are made. And yet in the context of Gethsemane even the union of Father and Son is undermined so that, at least on a manifest level, it appears to be broken.

The identity of Jesus is inseparable from that of his Father: "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father", and again, "I am not myself the source of the words I speak to you; it is the Father who dwells in me doing his own work" (John 14:9 and 10). And now apparently the collaboration is disrupted, the union dissolved. The terror of the Gethsemane experience is not so much the threatened obliteration of the personality and the denial of the integrity of the soul, but the meaninglessness of all existence deprived of the supreme identity which is God. It therefore follows that only a saint can know this most terrible spiritual experience; the taking away of the God of faith and intimate communion so that the person is entirely on his own in an ocean of black meaninglessness and overpowering hostility. Jesus was later to articulate this realization when, on the cross, he cried out, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34). Now the very fact that this cry is also the first verse of Psalm 22 indicates that the awareness of blinding isolation in a whirling vortex of indrawing forces moving towards total annihilation was not unique to Jesus at Gethsemane. But as the psalm ends on a note of relief and praise to God, so the experience of the common man is fortunately of limited duration. Then there is victory. But how is this victory won in eternity? Who is he that triumphs over the evil of the cosmos, that challenges the terrible indifference that presages total annihilation?

Jesus survives the onslaught of the evil one, who brings all things back to the chaos of meaninglessness, by his power of prayer. This is indicated in Luke's account of the agony especially, where it is stated that angelic forces sustain him in his travail. This is indeed the ultimate test of holiness: to persist in faith when all sources of faith have evaporated and to continue in love when there is apparently total destruction with nothing left to love. In the earnest round of spiritual conversation this sounds clear and laudable, but in the darkness of real life it is tantamount to clinging onto an illusion, to grasping a support that does not exist. And yet the supreme faith based on love causes it to exist.

This may indeed be the basis of what we call a miracle. To collaborate with the known God in the general round of good works is the privilege of the man of virtue. To collaborate when God is no longer there is the vocation of a saint. The progress from virtue to sanctity depends upon a stripping of all intellectually held belief, and a casting of oneself into the unknown. And this sequence cannot, indeed must not, be initiated by a direct act of will, for then the ego would subtly supersede that divine direction. The result would be a self-imposed martyrdom which could disastrously mislead those who follow. The movement to holiness is directed by God, whose burning presence replaces all previously held beliefs with a faith so clamant that it can indeed move mountains. But none of this is visible to the one struggling in the Gethsemane experience; its fruits are available to those who follow rather than to the victim himself. Furthermore, there is the ever-present possibility that the victim may give up the ghost on a mute note of failure. It was not a pre-ordained certainty that the mission of Jesus had to end on a peak of resurrection; he could easily have fallen prey to the temptations of the evil one during any part of his ministry: self-inflation or despair depending on the circumstances that presented themselves in his life. Did not Job's wife tell him to curse God and die? Just as it was Job's sense of perspective and gratitude for all the things granted in the past that bade him persist, so it was Jesus' supreme love of all created things that led him onwards through the blinding chaos of destructive forces to the silent path of death in absolute acceptance.

Why was Jesus' heart ready to break with grief as he descended into Gethsemane? And for what purpose did he bring the three chosen disciples with him? The grief was the immediate effect of the psychic darkness of hell upon him; he felt, and indeed was, one with all who suffer in the anonymous, indifferent hell of dereliction of which physical death is the outer manifestation, at least to those who have not penetrated more deeply into their own inner being and seen the way beyond bodily dissolution to survival of the personality in a broader milieu of eternal life. The psychic darkness is the effect of accumulated sin since the dawn of creation. It is the fodder of the powers of evil intent on dominating the world prior to its destruction. I have little doubt that the prospect of death, an event in store for all who inhabit a physical body, did not itself weigh heavily on Jesus. It was the collective darkness that has to be confronted at the time of death, the accumulation of the world's debris of sinfulness, that descended physically upon him and nearly broke his heart. He is, as St John says, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). He bears it in his radiant innocence, but the impact is almost too terrible to conceive. The sin cannot be dissipated from a distance; on the contrary, it has to be confronted directly and borne in agony. Only then can it be brought out of the darkness of chaos into the light of God's love where it may be accepted, healed and transfigured. Sin corrupts all that is noble and beautiful, in the same way that dry-rot undermines the structure of a building until its walls collapse and its architecture disintegrates.

The darkness of Gethsemane consists both of the accumulation of sin in the universe and the power of the forces of evil who batten on all that is fine and upright, as they did on the body of Jesus itself. But the helpless body, filled with the power of love, can redeem all that was lost and bring light into the void of darkness. The three disciples were there initially to support their Master in the uncharted depths to which he was obliged to descend. Human solidarity is a wonderful support in times of spiritual darkness, but how many people do we know who can remain with us in a terrible descent into hell? Certainly the three with Jesus were of no manifest help, though perhaps their bodily presence was of some strange reassurance to him even when his sight was obliterated in the darkness of corporate evil, of cosmic despair. Though the disciples thought highly of themselves during the period of Jesus' triumphant ministry, they had no spiritual depth to stay awake and support him in his period of agony. Their consciousness was as yet entirely self-centred: the spirit is always willing, but its work in our life is to raise up the flesh from its primeval animal coarseness and sensual demands to a spiritual height that can see beyond the limits of self-gratification to world service. An earnest prayer is brought to the notice of the dull, uncomprehending disciples: that they may not be put to the test, that they may, at least at that moment, be spared the ordeal. This clause has been included in the more composite Lord's Prayer, that we may not be led into the temptation of either self-inflation or despair, until we are at least ready for the supreme trial: few there are that can accompany a soul on its journey along the road to Gethsemane. Soon the disciples are to know Gethsemane in their own dejection as their Master is killed, and they have to proceed onwards with whatever inner sight they still can call upon, whatever faith they can muster.

Paradoxically, we can often see more clearly in the darkness than in the light, because the inner eye of the soul is activated by the cloud of unknowing when the superficial eye of reason is dimmed. As God said to Samuel in the affair of the anointing of David, "Men judge by appearances but the Lord judges by the heart". It is the consciousness of the heart that distinguishes spiritual vision from intellectual judgement. The ultimate prayer of Jesus comes indeed from his heart, "Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; take this cup away from me. Yet not what I will, but what thou wilt." This prayer of petition finds a climax of belief in obedience to a Father who has effectively hidden himself in the darkness that surrounds his Son. As Job said in a not altogether dissimilar circumstance, "If he would slay me, I should not hesitate; I should still argue my cause to his face" (Job 13:15). Even the apparently inevitable death of the holy one will not dampen his trust in God's providence, even the providence of a God who seems to have absented himself from the world he has created. This is the depth of the experience of Gethsemane. It transcends the intellect and enters the heart of existence.

Chapter 6
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