The Agony of God

In our church, right in the front behind the piano, there's a huge picture of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. In his classic pose, Jesus is kneeling beside a large stone, hands folded, with a light glow around his head and a spotlight from heaven shining down on him. Behind him sits the city of Jerusalem in shadows, ominously awaiting the dawn of the day of darkness, when Jesus will be taken by death in execution like so many others. But here in the garden, Jesus sits pristine in white garb. The light shines down on him as if to remind us (and Jesus) that the situation is all under control. Don't fret. God is with Jesus. Things could be worse.

Man, Jesus is lucky! Why doesn't a light shine down from heaven in my moments of despair?... well, I guess that's his privilege. After all, he's Jesus.  

But some Sundays I look at that picture and wonder what Jesus might think of it if he were sitting next to me looking on. Would he say, "yeah, I remember that. It sure was nice to have such assurance during such a hard time"? Or would he, like me, say, "wow, who's that guy? Why don't I get a ray of light during my moments of darkness?"

The image of Jesus in Gethsemane, according to scripture, is far darker and more disturbing than this image really communicates. There's no comfort from heaven. No light shining. No response from God in heaven to validate what Jesus is about to go through. There's just an uncertain Jesus, scratching for assurance, sweating blood while his God ignores him and his friends abandon him. That's the image of Jesus in the garden--not a holy and pristine saint, but a desperate and frightened man, "overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death," curled up alone and looking in vain for assurance, crying to a silent heaven. In Jesus, we see someone like us...

Like Peter, we try so hard to protect Jesus from suffering. We unsheathe our swords and our paintbrushes and we conjure the image of a Jesus without sorrow. We want a religion that will distract us from our despair, not a Jesus who reminds us of it and join us in it. But nevertheless, Jesus says "put away your sword" and walks right into the agony of the darkness of death. We want to protect Jesus from this place because we know how terrible it is and we can't bear to see Jesus go through it. We want to keep Jesus out of the agony because we don't want to look at our own agony. When Jesus enters that place, where the voice of God is silent and the light from heaven is nowhere to be found, then we are known in that place... and nobody wants to be known so deeply. Nobody wants that part of them--their vulnerability, their utter hopelessness--to be exposed. As Paul Tillich wrote, "We are known in a depth of darkness through which we ourselves do not even dare to look" (Shaking the Foundations, Chapter 6).

Jesus is with us and for us in the darkness when death threatens our being, when despair shouts in our ear while God remains silent. Jesus is not just for the ones who can keep the faith. Jesus is not just for the ones who can hear the voice of God in the garden, whose way is lightened by a light from heaven, who are lucky enough to receive comfort and validation when death is at their door. Jesus is for us too. Jesus is for those of us who wonder what it's like to hear the voice of God. Jesus is for those of us who pray in our deepest need and hear nothing but silence. Jesus is for us when God has abandoned us.

The mystery of Jesus' agony is that death does not get the last word. The Jesus who weeps in the garden, uncertain and overwhelmed by hopelessness, is the same Jesus who has resurrection for his future. When we see the agony and the crucifixion of Jesus we see the agony and crucifixion of the risen Jesus... even in the moment when resurrection is unthinkable. Because Jesus enters our deepest suffering, Jesus leaves no amount of suffering abandoned by and unexposed to God. The presence of Jesus in the darkness is the presence of "the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt” (Tillich, The Courage to Be, 190). The presence of Jesus in suffering mysteriously becomes the announcement of God's presence in Godforsakenness--of resurrection in death. The agony of Jesus is God's agony. The crucifixion of Jesus is the crucifixion of God. Our experience becomes God's experience and so God's future becomes our future. Resurrection swallows the monster of death which swallows us and has swallowed Jesus.

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.... Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? ...thanks be to God! God gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!"(1 Corinthians 15:54-57)