Gethsemane presents a new situation. Before this Jesus would retire from the multitudes, and also from his disciples to be apart. He sought out solitude to be with God. Three times in the first chapter of Mark’s gospel he seeks to be in solitary places with the God he calls Father. Gethsemane, however, for the first time, reveals a new pressure. He appears to be at odds with the purpose the Father is guiding him towards.
And he was withdrawn from them about a stone’s cast and kneeled down and prayed, Saying, Father, if thou be willing remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.(Luke 23.41-42)
What he most longs for is in opposition to what is being imposed upon him by God from which it is clear the only way out is that he must die. This may puzzle us, simply because, we understand from all the gospels that Jesus is preparing himself and his disciples for the inevitability of his condemnation to death. We must allow, however, there to be a difference between the vision of an inevitable future and that future become present.
Does Jesus fear death? Perhaps, being human, he has to know that fear in particularly terrible form:
And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling to the ground. (ibid. 22.44)
But the story of Gethsemane moves from distress and agony to resolution. Through soul-wrenching prayer he has accepted what God has required of him; he stirs the sleeping disciples, for now, he is ready to face his captors.
Has Jesus, however, had for the first time to glimpse aloneness?- the possibility, not only of being apart from the rest of humanity, but also separate from the beloved Father? Perhaps the early stages of Gethsemane show what will become much more so on the Cross, leading to the cry: Eloi, Eloi lama sabachthani? or My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me? (Mark 15.34).
Here Jesus’ plight on the Cross, a sufficiently barbarically cruel punishment in itself, is increased beyond measure by the sense that he is abandoned, the God who has always been faithful to him seems no longer present to him; or, at least his purposes seem unfathomable. What he is suffering seems beyond any sense of purpose.
What are we to make of this? Does Jesus’ life end in defeat after all? True,in Luke, he is recorded as later saying:
“Father into thy hands I commend my spirit” and having said this he gave up the ghost. (Luke 23.46)
and in John “It is finished”. (19.30).
But in Mark the agonised question is made the final utterance. And is this not something sceptics, like Albert Camus, have latched on to? Jesus’ ministry ends in defeat. He has been proved wrong.
Step back! Consider Auschwitz, holocaust, genocide, slavery -ships. Think of the children Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov speaks of suffering unspeakable cruelty. How we might ask, can Christians dare to preach a gospel of hope knowing of such examples of people suffering abandonment and torture? The message should be strangled in our throats before it could be uttered, unless we have faith that the Crucifixion and the forsaken Jesus were not the end of the story.
For hope can only be uttered because Jesus knew what the crushing sense of abandonment really means. Ultimately without that cry on the Cross Jesus could not be the saviour of all the abandoned and tortured because, for them, there are levels of pain that he might not be seen in his own life to reach.
A small group of disciples, many of them women, watched him on the Cross. For them, Calvary, would be a scene of defeat-a great enterprise ending in disaster. But if that were the case these words would never have been recorded in print. There would be no good news , no gospel. The disciples, by whose witness the words of Jesus’ ultimate loneliness were transmitted to the world were those who, miraculously supercharged with purpose, were able, following the Resurrection, to say, “Look abandonment and death does not end it all. We are not in the end alone and abandoned. Christ is risen! God is, after all, faithful”.
But Christians cannot sound naive or unrealistic in their preaching and spreading of the good news because they know so many are suffering that ultimate loneliness and to them we can speak in knowledge of the Saviour abandoned as well as the Saviour risen.