Sunday, June 26, 2011

Let This Cup Pass From Me

The Passover meal being ended, Jesus and His disciples walked across the city of Jerusalem, and descended from the Temple Mount deep into the Kidron Valley below.  Peppered with tombs of figures both famous and obscure, the dry riverbed received the blood of the sacrificial animals killed in the temple above it.  Though it was a festival night, and the moon shone full, the depth of the valley and its placement between two steep mountains ensured that it was always in shadow.  Jesus and His disciples were walking "through the valley of the shadow of death" (Psalm 23:4).

From there, they made their way to a place called Gethsemane (whose name comes from two Hebrew words, meaning "oil press"), at the foot of the Mount of Olives (Mark 14:32, Luke 22:39).  It was a place with which they were very familiar, for "Judas...knew the place, [because] Jesus oftentimes resorted thither with his disciples" (John 18:2).  Leaving most of the company at the garden's edge, Jesus took His dear friends and companions, Peter, James, and John with Him, and went further into the garden.  He pled with them to stay awake and pray, needing their companionship and love in this time of greatest sorrow, needing their witness at this time of greatest love. "And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt" (Matthew 26:39).

Latter-day Saint theology attributes rich meaning to the Agony of Gethsemane: we believe that Christ's Atonement began there, that in His prayer, Jesus struggled not only with fear of His impending death, but also with the weight of the sins of all mankind.  We understand that His suffering in Gethsemane was salvific, that the weight of the world, the heavy burden of the aggregate agony of the incompleteness of fallen man caused Him to sweat blood, and that in that blood, we are redeemed (Luke 22:44).

We also understand that in some way, incomprehensible to us, Christ experienced the weight, not only of our sins, but also of our sorrows, our ills, our infirmities.  This He did out of magnificent love, that He might be perfectly prepared to comfort and heal us in all things.  Alma prophesied that Christ would "take upon him [our] infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.  Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance" (Alma 7:12-13).  Here was the condescension of God perfected in lowliness and love, that Christ would suffer so that He might know by experience--according to the flesh--the depth of suffering of His creations, not only for their ultimate salvation, but also, most poignantly, so that He could succor His children according to their infirmities.  He experienced the depth of human sorrow, made suffering holy by taking it upon Himself, and learned according to the flesh every terrible truth of the human condition, descending below all things that He might be in and through all things, the light of truth (see Doc. & Cov. 88:6).

Christ's prayer in Gethsemane, next to the Our Father, is perhaps the most iconic prayer ever uttered. "Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done" (Luke 22:42).  I find this portion of the narrative singularly moving, for in it, I get a glimpse of the humanity of Christ. Up until this point, Christ had never experienced a distinction between His will and the will of His Father.  As a young boy He chided His mother, "wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?" (Luke 2:49). When questioned by the Jews, He insisted, "My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me" (John 7:16), and "I do nothing of myself; but as my Father hath taught me...I do always those things that please him" (John 8:28-29).

His agonized prayer that the cup might be removed from Him, then, represents the first time that Jesus experienced a distinction between His will and His Father's will.  He wanted something different from what He knew God wanted, and yet we believe that He was without sin.  This suggests to me an enormously reassuring doctrine--that it is not a sin to want something different from what God wants.  Furthermore, I am comforted to know that Christ experienced this difference of will, and the pain and separation from God that inevitably comes with it.  He thereby opened the gate so that mortals like me, who will readily admit a deficit of understanding of the divine plan and a difference of will, might still boldly stand in the presence of God and find peace in His grace. He was obedient in all things to the Father, but in this deeply human moment, where Christ was driven by the very human desire to avoid the wrenching pain that descended upon Him, I learn that "we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15).  I cease thinking of my Savior as ontologically different from me, as wholly other, and I understand that Christ fully embraced my humanity in order to give me His divinity.

Great is the Lamb.