EXERCISE 27: Self-giving – Jesus’ Agony
Most of us are familiar with the story of Jesus death by crucifixion. In fact, we’ve probably heard it so much that it’s lost its power to fill us with respect. And how many of us have struggled to make some sense of the often-quoted statement that “Jesus died for our sins,” whatever that means!
In this Exercise, we will try to recapture something about Jesus’ own determination to see his mission to the end.
We need a few words of introduction to get us where we want to go. If one reads the Gospels carefully, following contemporary Biblical scholars, a picture emerges of a man who knew full well what he was doing: he was challenging the values of the occupying Roman Empire as well as those of the ruling priestly classes. He spent most of his time in rural areas because that was where the most suffering was (wealthy urban landowners were building up their wealth by buying up or confiscating land that peasants were no longer able to keep because of outrageous taxation practices and exorbitant lending rates). He knew, however, that he needed at some point to take his message to the religious and political centre of the country, Jerusalem. He also knew that, the moment he brings his message of non-violent resistance to the capital, his life would be in peril.
This Exercise (okay, I’m cheating: it’s really three Exercises!) will have us visit three moments in this ultimate confrontation between the Jesus of “peace through justice” and the authorities who believed in “peace through victory.” I invite you to be a witness to Jesus’ provocative entry into Jerusalem; then we will catch Jesus in a solitary moment when he reflects on the probable outcomes of his next moves; finally, we will stand by the cross with him.
a) Entry into Jerusalem:
After you have become quiet and centred, read Mark 11: 1-10. Try to imagine the scene. This has often been called Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. Recent scholarship draws a different picture: Jesus is deliberately being provocative: he is mocking the other procession occurring on this day: that of Pontius Pilate arriving from his vacation residence – Caesarea Maritima – to keep a watchful eye over the Jewish Passover celebrations. He is arriving with much pomp – cavalry, soldiers, standards and flags, the works. Jesus chooses to enter on a donkey – uncomfortable, unfriendly, difficult to ride, in short, a ridiculous sight, deliberately designed to provoke.
See if you can appreciate the courage it must have taken to perform this protest gesture, knowing you were going to get some very important people pretty upset…
b) The Garden of Gethsemane:
After you have quieted yourself, read Mark 14: 32-42 . This has usually been known as the “Agony in the Garden.” Jesus has just said good-bye to most of his disciples in a final meal, typically called “The Last Supper.” He knows he has raised the anger of a lot of prominent folk in Jerusalem – both the Roman authorities and the important high priests. He knows why they’re upset: he has challenged many of the institutions that have been created in Jerusalem to accommodate the Roman occupation. It was a delicate balance in order to “live and let live,” and Jesus has been going around upsetting this because the accommodations have been disastrous for the poor. He knows they are coming for him soon. He knows that what awaits him will be profoundly unpleasant.
We don’t need to ask the question as to how the writer of the Gospel knew what Jesus was praying, since Jesus surely died before he could provide autobiographical data! Let’s just say that what is written surely reflects what Jesus would have been saying, since he had spent his life trying to do what he thought God would have wanted him to do. This moment of prayer is essentially all about a rededication: not my will but God’s.
Imagine that you are facing a difficult situation. You could walk away from it if you wanted, but you know that a lot depends upon you doing the right thing. Where do you get your strength? How do you continue doing what you have to do even though it will bring you pain, even death?
c) The crucifixion:
Crucifixion was the common torture which the Romans inflicted on criminals and terrorists and dissenters, to keep the rest of the population in check. It was brutal, ugly, slow and painful. And it was public. So everyone could see, be appropriately “grossed out” and reminded of how to behave under Roman rule.
Again, let’s not get too caught up in actual historical details. We will never really know for sure exactly how the story unfolded.
But we can use the Gospel stories for our purposes: a meditation on how to give up one’s life for those we love; a meditation on trust – that, in the end, despite the apparent failure, God will vindicate what we’ve done; a meditation on hope – that despite the apparent desperateness of a situation, there are always surprises.
So, once you are centred and still, read Mark 15: 15-41. Try to imagine yourself in this horrible scene. What are you doing? Who else is there? Who is not there? (Where are the disciples???) How do you feel? How do you feel about the man hanging there in agony on the cross? How do you feel about yourself?
For each of these meditations, note your experiences in your journal.