It is Holy Thursday. The day Jesus ate the Seder meal with his apostles, washed their feet, then walked through the Kidron Valley to a familiar spot on the Mount of Olives, Gethsemane.
The Mount of Olives is aptly named for the many olive trees that grace its western slope. They are beautiful, knotted, twisted. With branches that flare and spiral upward into sprays of tiny green leaves. The olive tree is a symbol of peace and purification. The oil from its fruit has healing qualities, and the word “Gethsemane” in the Hebrew literally means “oil press.” Could there be a more appropriate place for Christ to work out the awful Atonement?
Allegory by Leslie Graff
The English author, Graham Greene, said this of Jesus’ Atonement.
“You can’t conceive, nor can I or anyone, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.”
It is appalling. What Christ had to feel in the Garden and on the cross, and all the hours in between. I made a list of the words used in the four gospels that describe how Jesus was treated.
He was blasphemed, reviled, railed on, spoken against, accused, derided, scourged, stripped, spit upon, smote upon, mocked, struck, platted with a crown of thorns, buffeted, crucified, and pierced.
It is appalling that any human being could be treated this way, but especially one who is divine and could have called down a legion of angels in his defense. Christ had power to give life and to take it. As a result, no one could take his life. He had to offer it. And that is the strangeness, the wonder of what He did. He gave His life willingly. He suffered so we wouldn’t have to, if we will come to him repentant and in need.
It is also appalling to think that Christ not only became acquainted with the grief of sin, but with every sorrow known to human kind – every loss, every physical and emotional pain, every aching hole.
A friend of mine with neuromuscular disease once said that when her husband died in a motorcycle accident she called her sister and told her in total loneliness,
“I only want to talk to someone who has lost her husband, is 32 years old, in a wheel chair, and has three children to take care of who are nine, seven, and five.”
Most of us have not had to negotiate the kind of challenges my friend Lisa has, but we understand what she is saying, don’t we? Sometimes we are so desperate to be understood. So full of longing to have someone feel what we feel, know what we know. I am remembering today that Christ is the only one who will always understand. The only one who can grieve the way we grieve, restore what we have lost, cast a lasting light over the shadows in our hearts. Sometimes I forget He is willing to walk the hard road with me, be my constant companion.
Truman Madsen wrote,
“Our all is required. But our all isn’t enough. It must combine with His. Only He can lift us to the full reaches of our potential. Much of our secular society says, ‘Oh yes I can. I can do it my way.’ But that is disabling vanity. Even the slightest need for repentance requires Christ’s purifying power. And for those of us near despair who cry, ‘Oh no, even with Him I cannot go through with this,’ he replies, ‘I can lift. I will heal.’”
While living in the Holy Land with BYU’s study abroad program nearly twenty years ago, my Mother was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Between two very invasive surgeries and radiation, she and my father came to visit. I have not experienced a sweeter reunion. One day we found our own little Garden of Gethsemane by slipping over a rock wall across from the traditional site. No one seemed to be aware of this place or mind that we were there. The olive trees grew wild and thick.
We sat down and read about Christ’s suffering in Mark.
“And he went forward a little, and fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him” (Mark 14:35).
We talked about Christ’s ability to heal just as He had healed in ancient times. Then my mother shared with us the decision she made soon after her diagnosis to turn her life over to the Savior. She honestly believed that whatever He chose to do with her life, would be right. She taught me the importance of saying what Jesus said, “Let this cup pass from me; nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.”
Five years ago, my Mom was diagnosed with a second tumor. She is currently beating the odds and we are grateful. But she faces an uncertain future, and she does so by trusting that God is in charge and He loves her. What else can I do, as her daughter, but get myself to that same place?
Allowing Christ to increase in our life, as John the Baptist wrote, means letting Him steer the ship. It is trusting that no matter what hardship and pain we have to face, He will cause it to work for our good. It is letting Him increase, while our ways and wants decrease. On this Holy Thursday, I am so grateful for the strange but everlasting gift of Jesus’ mercy.
Thoughts on the appalling strangeness of God’s mercy? Let’s express our thanks today for Jesus and His wondrous Atonement.