I’m beginning to feel a bit self-conscious about writing so many blogs. Do you think I’m mad? I bet you all think I’m a tad unhinged.
Well, hard cheddar. Here comes another. I shouldn’t be writing it – it’s already 9.20 and I have to go into town and pay my tax (Not the 47million of JK Rowling) and then go on Skype and then talk to an editor about my book and then decide if I can face three days in studio… and all those ‘and then’s’ are crowding in, malevolently, like nasty old rooks lining up on a fence… bright eyed, hard beaked and demanding…. but some things can’t wait. Some things bubble up and over and you just have to give in. Like blogs.
I heard a question in a Christmas message, two years ago, “Who could imagine a God like this?” . It’s a fabulous question from a sharp mind, and I keep returning to marvel at the thought, to wonder at the answer. What man in his right mind would imagine a God like Jesus? I mean, seriously, GOD, the God who rules supreme over time and eternity, space and … erm, no space…. who could imagine that God, who made the oceans and the cosmos and life itself, showing Himself to the world as a poor man, in the dusty near-primitive Middle East, in an occupied land, heading inexorably to an early death in shame and agony? What writer in his or her right mind would dream up that scenario? Can you imagine the reaction of a Commissioning meeting, as they listened to the impassioned pitch of a writer? “So, let’s get this right, you want to tell the story of the God of all creation who comes into the world, and lives this short primitive obscure life and ends up beaten and defeated by swaggering bully-boy Rome and the sneering contempt of his own religion… and all his mates abandon Him….”
An eager younger commissioner leans forward “But then all his followers rise up and rescue him and he leads them into victory like Henry V at Agincourt? We could get Daniel Craig…”
“No,” see the poor writer, sensing this is not going to be easy , “then He dies.”
Why am I burbling on? Well, I read John 17 this morning. Think about the man Jesus Christ. Flesh and blood and emotions just like you and me. Imagine the scene: it’s happening. The purpose of His birth is right now. Tomorrow He will be executed.
He’s saying a lingering farewell to his small group of followers, but they’re blind to the significance of this night. He’s seen Judas slip away to betray Him, He knows that, from this moment on, the wheels are in motion. Judas is scurrying to the temple, and soon the armed guard of the synagogue will be on their way, and He knows that this is it. It’s happening. It’s a set-up darker and more dangerous than any Sopranos episode, more treacherous and more heart breaking. He looks at the people He loves, longing to impart all the wisdom and faith and trust they’re going to need. He knows that most of them will be put death, that there will be persecution and disgrace and beatings, that they will have huge troughs of doubt and great peaks of faith, that each life will be hard and brutal without Him. He knows that tonight He will be torn from them. He will lose them and they will lose Him.
Does He hold His mother’s hand for just a few seconds longer than she expects? Do His eyes fill with tears of affection as He sees Peter bickering with James, and when He sees one of the women smiling at Matthew? Does He slip into a reverie as He looks around at that noisy table? How His heart must break at the thought of leaving them all. Do any of them notice? Surely His heart must quicken at the thought of the execution ahead? Does His hand shake? Does anyone wonder at His quiet distraction? Or is the evening, preparing for Passover, just too busy, their nonsense just too engaging, for anyone to see His quiet distress?
Then they leave and walk across the Kidron Valley towards Gethsemane. No one, it seems, wonders why. Then He heads off into the olive trees to pray. No one, it seems, wonders why.
Jesus Christ was walking into the night to pray and this wasn’t a remarkable thing to any of His followers. It was a normal thing to happen. Jesus lived a life of prayer, it was the weft and weave of His life, they saw and heard Him pray day after day, heading into the wilderness, walking the hills, going into the temple, devoted – always devoted – to prayer. As they sat at that last supper He prayed, amazing prayers of love for His followers and for us. For us! And when they had finished supper He walked out into the night to pray some more!
No one said “Hey, our Master’s praying a lot more than usual tonight.”
He was a man of prayer. A God of prayer. On the brink of the most terrible death, He was full of loving prayer.
So, there they go, walking across a small dark valley, this small group of men, stepping between stones… did His ankle twist on a boulder, did His feet slip a little on a patch of scree? Did He reach out to touch an olive branch as He passed by, the symbol of peace? Did Peter drape his arms across the shoulders of Jesus Christ as they walked? Did their voices lilt and sway in the heavy night air? Was Jesus aware of all this, and more? Were there stars in a clear sky and did He look up, up into infinity? Was that night precious to Him? The heartbreak and the loss, was it locked in His aching heart, too terrible to share?
Jesus had held the hands of simple men and women. I love the thought of that. That’s the single thing I miss most with my husband dead, the feeling of a hand in mine, of my hand in his. Jesus knew the feeling of another hand in His. In Mark 5, where we read about the daughter of Jairus being brought back to life , ‘He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha koum!’ (which means ‘Little girl, I say to you, get up!’). Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around (she was twelve years old).” Imagine, just imagine, Jesus taking you by the hand. What I would give for that!
Jesus knew the comfort and the reality of a hand in His. And He knew the pain of losing a hand in His. He knew the sorrow of parting, the emptiness and longing of loss.
He was man and God. Wholly man. Wholly God. As man, like you and me, He knew what it was to hold a hand in His. And He gave that up for me.
Read John 17 when you get the chance and maybe think about the word ‘anguish’. In the Catholic Church, as I grew up, there were meditations on Christ’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. The terror and dread of Jesus as He contemplated His death, there among the olive trees, His heart breaking. But I have never, until now, understood that His prayers as the disciples ate that last meal with Him, were already full of anguish and longing – an agony in their own right – a desperate desire to protect us, you and me, and to extend to us the love of God the Father. In the other gospels we have the vivid, visceral image of Christ breaking bread and saying “This is my body”. What an image! What a terrible, awful, wonderful image. This man, breaking bread to show us how His body would be broken, what a message. How the thought of that, the reality of that image must have seared into His mind, must have caused Him pain and sorrow.
But then He walked towards it, praying, for me.
It amazes me. The love of God amazes me. It will never end and it has no beginning. It’s all consuming, all enveloping, all powerful, all joyful.
Prayers of longing, passion, desperate need, complete submission, absolute trust, selfless petition.
Who would imagine a God like this?