The Gospel narrative that we have just heard starts in a garden, called by the other gospels the Garden of Gethsemane. Last October, I went on a pilgrimage led by Bishop Steve to the Holy Land. When we came to the Garden of Gethsemane, Bishop Steve said: “put away the cameras, the iphones and the other gadgets, and place yourself in the quiet presence of Christ”. I remember feeling the peace of this holy and ancient place, amidst olive trees that had stood since the time of Christ and earlier. And then I looked up, as Jesus would have done, to the imposing Temple Mount of Jerusalem opposite, where the two centres of institutionalised might would have stood: the Jewish Temple and the Roman fortress. Jesus knew that their combined might would bring him suffering and death. And then came Jesus’ repeated words to me: “not my will, but thy will be done”.
The agony and death of Jesus convey one of the most fundamental truths about human existence: that suffering and death are an intrinsic part of all life. The onslaughts that Jesus faced in his last hours are but extreme versions of the challenges that we all face. He faced the betrayal and disloyalty of those whom he had trusted, loved and supported, just as we have. He was struck, scourged and pierced with thorns: in our lives we experience hurtful words, discouraging remarks, especially wounding when they come from people whom we have tried to serve as best we can. Jesus saw the suffering of his mother and the beloved disciple: perhaps our deepest torment comes from knowing that our loved ones are suffering because of our own pain. And then came the moment we shall all face, when he bowed his head, and handed over the spirit.
The challenge that the gospel presents to us today is twofold: (1) to accept the truth that suffering and death are an intrinsic part of all life; and (2) to try to make meaning of our own suffering and the reality that we shall die. How best do we do this?
Our readings today show us the way forward in the person of Christ. Pervading all that he says and does is his quiet dignity. He does not attempt futile escape, he does not argue, and yet he does not compromise. He holds onto who he is and what he stands for, and he knows his suffering and death have meaning:
I told you that I AM. Shall I not drink the cup that the Father gave me? My kingdom does not belong to this world. I came into the world, to testify to the truth.
Viktor Frankl was an Austrian Jewish neurologist and psychiatrist. In 1944-45, he was placed in the Nazi concentration camps as a slave labourer. He endured and witnessed unspeakable suffering. His wife, mother and brother were mercilessly killed. He later wrote of his experiences in the book Man’s Search for Meaning, and said:
If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.
There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life. There is much wisdom in the words of Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how”.
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behaviour in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.
Jesus chose how own way. As I knew in the Garden of Gethsemane, his way gives meaning (a why) to our suffering and our death that lie ahead.