Monday, July 14, 2014

Countdown to the Cross

39 And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. 40 And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” 41 And he withdrew from them about a stone's throw, and knelt down and prayed, 42 saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” 43 And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. 44 And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. 45 And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, 46 and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Lk 22:39-46).
i) Theologians find this disturbing. Jesus blinks. He hesitates in the face of his impending ordeal. Is seeking an out.  
The plan of salvation, devised in eternity, centuries in preparation, with every preceding event in the life of Christ bearing down on this outcome, yet at the last minute, a moment of weakness. 
Mind you, even in his extremity, he is explicitly and ultimately submitted to the Father's will. There's no possibility of his going rogue. 
Perhaps there are depths to this which we cannot probe, but it may be worth trying to understand as best we can. 
ii) At this juncture, Jesus is vulnerable. There's an obvious sense in which a vulnerability is a weakness, yet a vulnerability can be both a strength and a weakness. A vulnerability can be a virtue. A person might be a worse person without it.
Smiley's People is a Cold War thriller by John le Carré. The quarry is Karla. Karla is a shadowily figure high up in Soviet intelligence. He knows everything. He's dangerous to the free world, but he's dangerous to the Soviet Union. If he could be flipped, if he could be coaxed or forced to defect, the damage to the Soviet Union would be irreparable. He's the prize. 
So the challenge is to find a chink in his armor. Some point of leverage. That's quite a challenge, because Karla is a fanatic. Utterly devoted to the Revolution. At one point in his career he faced execution by his own side. But even though his side was disloyal to him, he remained steadfastly loyal. 
He's not the kind of man who will break under torture. He doesn't care about himself. He can only be reached, if at all, through another. 
Turns out, Karla had a daughter by a mistress. A daughter who's mentally unstable. Karla is prepared to sacrifice almost everything for the cause, but his daughter is the one thing, the only thing, who means more to him than the cause. He takes risks to protect her.
That's his fatal vulnerability, which Smiley exploits. Although it's his only weakness, it's his only strength. The Revolution is not quite enough to live for. And even though he's utterly ruthless, this is one remaining vestige of his humanity. A residual common grace virtue. He's better for it. If he was completely unreachable, he'd be completely evil. 
iii) To take another example, in "Who monitors the birds," an episode from Space: Above and Beyond, Hawkes volunteers for a very dangerous mission. If successful, he will receive an early honorable discharge. 
Hawkes is an In Vetro. Genetically engineered humans, specifically bred to be soldiers. They don't have parents or siblings. They don't grow up in families. They mature in artificial gestation chambers. They receive a subliminal education through a neural interface. They are awaked, full grown, at 18. 
Not surprisingly, they lack typical social skills when interacting with normal humans. For they are outsiders. Far more isolated than orphans.
Hawkes's comrade is killed during the mission. It's up to him to complete the mission.
He's all alone on a strange, hostile planet, risking his life for humans for whom he has no natural empathy or rapport. The closest thing he has to a family is his unit.  
It's situations like these that can drive home the realization of how alone we really are. Situations like these that prompt some soldiers to question there mission. "What the hell am I doing out here? Why am I risking my life for strangers who don't even care whether I live or die? If I die in the line of duty, I will be quickly forgotten. My life means nothing to my superiors."
iv) When you think about it, Jesus is uniquely socially isolated, because he's so unique. One of a kind. The Incarnation was an unprecedented and unrepeatable event. There was never anyone like him, before or since. Only one God-man in the history of the world.
As the Son of God Incarnate, we might think he's invulnerable. But perhaps that creates a different sort of vulnerability. 
He was always an outsider. Human, but more than human. He never quite fit in. Sinless. Impeccable. Divine. Both like us and unlike us. So there's a sense in which he's dying for strangers. They will never understand him. Related to him on his own level. 
v) Not only was he isolated, but he must have been alienated. A holy being immersed in the moral ugliness of human depravity. Frankly, we're not worth it. 
vi) Unlike you and me, Jesus always knew when he was going to die. We know that sooner or later, we will die. But that's an abstraction. It lies in the indefinite future. 
With Jesus, it's different. He knew the precise date. Divinely speaking, there was never a time when he didn't know the date. Humanly speaking, he became aware of the date in his precocious childhood, when he become mature enough to be cognizant of such things.
So he lived with that foreboding all his life. His life was a countdown. He knew exactly how and when it would end years in advance. That day was always in mind. Living forward, but counting backwards from that ominous end. 
Not knowing our future is often a mercy. A shield. 
But Jesus could see it coming from afar. Mentally marking days off the calendar.
When we are born, if we have a normal lifespan, we start out with decades, then years, then months, then weeks, then days, then hours, then minutes, then moments. Like watching a hourglass. The pace quickens towards the end. 
Like caring for a dying relative. You can see that you are losing them. You can see them slipping away. The remaining time is compressed. The less time remains, the more precious the remaining time. Each remaining day or hour is concentrated. 
Jesus could foresee the gains of sand lower and empty. Foresee the steadily accelerating rate of decline. The fated moment drawing near–like clockwork. The inexorable climax. 
His strength is his weakness. His weakness his strength. 
Would it be more meaningful had he found it easier to confront the Cross? To the contrary, would that not make it less meaningful? The fact that it's a struggle makes the sacrifice more meaningful. 

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