(Originally penned and posted on Christmas Eve, ARSH 2011.)
Christmas is about the Incarnation, and I think that the Incarnation is one of the most under-appreciated and glazed-over concepts in Christianity. God became a man. The Second Person of the Holy Trinity took on human flesh. Jesus is fully God and fully Man. Born in a manger. Sweet Little Baby. Angels. Shepherds. Wise men. Presents. Isn’t that nice? Moving right along . . .
Not so fast. In order to really enter into Christmas and shake the secular cultural disaster of consumerism and greed that it has become, one needs to ponder the Incarnation. Deeply. And it seems to me that the key to understanding the Incarnation, and thus Christmas, lies not in the manager in Bethlehem. No, the keystone that ties it all together and allows us to begin to grasp the infinite terror and majesty (yes, I use the word “terror” very thoughtfully) of the Baby laying in a feed trough is actually 33 years later in the Garden of Gethsemane. If you really want to understand what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown, look to the Garden. But I warn you, it isn’t happy. If you like Christmas as it is and just want it to remain a secular gift exchange with tacky sweaters and delicious baked goods, STOP READING. Because my intention is to plant concepts and images in your mind and soul that you will never be able to remove. Every time you see or hear anything that reminds you of Christmas, I want these seeds to flare up and burn your soul. Not all burning is bad. Burning purifies. Purification makes us better. If you’re not interested, STOP READING RIGHT HERE. Merry Christmas!
The key to beginning to understand the Incarnation, God becoming Man, is Christ’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. If you recall, after the Last Supper in the Upper Room, Jesus and the apostles, except for Judas who was on his errand of betrayal already, went to the Garden of Gethsemane. John tells us that Jesus went there with the apostles frequently to pray, and thus it would be one of the first places Judas would have known to look for Him. The wheels of the Passion are in motion. Jesus knows exactly what is coming, and that it is coming within a matter of hours. He withdraws a short distance from the apostles to pray, but close enough that they can still see Him. He asks the apostles to simply stay awake (because it is now the middle of the night) and to watch and pray. Jesus withdraws and begins to pray. But what the apostles see is horrifying. Jesus isn’t calmly and serenely kneeling in prayer. Jesus is literally laying on the ground, curled up in a ball, writhing in agony. Our Lord is a quivering, trembling, sobbing mess. Jesus is in such stress and agony that the capillaries in the sweat glands in His scalp and forehead are bursting, and there is blood in the sweat that is running down His face, mingling with His tears, and dropping on the ground. This is the first bloodshed of His Sorrowful Passion. Sobbing and shaking, Jesus BEGS the Father to let the events of the next twelve hours pass from Him if at all possible, but resigns Himself to the will of the Father. Reading this, some may be unimpressed with Jesus. Afterall, many, many men and women have gone to their torture and execution fully aware of what was coming, while managing to maintain their composure. Some men, especially, might be tempted to view Jesus and being somewhat cowardly in the face of His Passion, and thus be a bit turned-off by the whole scene.
Yes, Jesus is terrified. He is more terrified in this moment than all of the terror felt by mankind in all of history combined, rasied to the power of infinity. His terror is literally testing the limits of the human body. If any of us felt anything even close to the sort of fear that Jesus felt, we would drop dead. People can and have died purely of fright and/or intense psychological stress, usually by means of a heart attack precipitated by massive adrenaline production.
But the real question is, “What is He afraid of?” His terror and agony are NOT purely centered around the physical means of His death. He is not trembling and sobbing because he is thinking solely of the pain of being scourged, or the pain of being crucified. He is curled up in a ball crying so hard that He is sweating blood because He is thinking about WHO is going to torture and kill Him.
When God took on human flesh, He took on EVERY ASPECT of our existence. He experiences things the same way that we do – except with complete purity and at an infinitely amplified level. And that includes love. And being that He is also completely God, He is in Himself infinite knowledge and infinite love. In a nutshell, this means that Jesus went through His entire life on earth completely in love with every single person. Every person He saw or passed on the street He had known from all eternity; He had created that person atom-by- atom accordingly in the fullness of time; He had intimate knowledge of that person’s every thought, desire and deed; He was infinitely in love with that person.
Can you imagine what simply going into town and walking through the market must have been like? Every face He passed was His beloved. Every person who brushed by Him was a souce of simultaneous joy and the pain of unrequited love. Every laugh He heard was a laugh He wanted to share, and every whimper of sadness was sadness He wanted to share, every struggle was a struggle He wanted to help, and every bit of pain was pain He wanted to soothe. And not in an abstract, altruistic way. He wanted to engage these things personally, as we would with our intimate beloved. But He couldn’t. Can you imagine having all of that love pent up inside of you, with your beloved so near, and have to hold it all inside? Are we starting to get an idea of how terrible and wonderful the Incarnation is? Remember all of this.
Let’s go back to the Garden. Jesus takes a couple of breaks from His prayer to go back and talk to the apostles, who are His best friends. Yes, He loves everybody, but the apostles are different. They know, to a small extent, who He is. They have spent many days and evenings together working, playing, eating and just talking. Jesus has told them who He is, and He has told them in no uncertain terms that He loves them. And they have assured Him that they love Him too. Their relationship is not one-sided. Jesus – God Incarnate – has gotten to experience reciprocal human friendship and love with these men, infinitely lopsided though it may have been.
Jesus has just spent a considerable amount of time in agony a stone’s throw away from His beloved friends, and when He comes back to them, He finds them all asleep. He is dying. (My soul is sorrowful even unto death.) He asked them, His beloved best friends, to simply stay with Him, watch, and pray. And they couldn’t even stay awake. And this happened twice. Heart. Ache. This is the reality of the Incarnation.
Now here comes Judas. As with every other person, Jesus is loves Judas infinitely. Judas is the person Jesus loves most in the world (and that goes for every person because Jesus is God and thus has infinite capacity.) And Judas has sold Him out. It is one thing to be betrayed by an enemy. It is quite another to be sold for 30 pieces of silver (which assuming one ounce pieces would equate to just under $1000 today) by the person you love most in the world. And just to make it as terrible as possible, Judas has told the guards that the man he kisses, the man to whom he gives the gesture of FRIENDSHIP and LOVE, is Jesus. And so when Judas kisses Him and Jesus says to Judas, “You betray the Son of Man with a kiss?” there is agony there that can not be described. This is the reality of the Incarnation.
The guards. Every single one of them is the subject of Jesus’ infinite love. And they despise Him. Jesus could have stopped it all at any time, not by some act of miraculous violence, but by asking the commanding guard if he remembered that certain tree he used to climb as a child, or that certain toy. He could have frozen them in their tracks by simply reminding them of their own experiences and feelings – which He had already shared with them because He had been with them the whole time. But He didn’t, because He couldn’t. If He didn’t let them kill him, there would be no hope of ever being with them in heaven. Agony. This is the reality of the Incarnation.
Now before the High Priest Caiaphas. Same thing. Except Caiaphas, and the rest of the Sanhedrin, have been as their entire vocation and purpose in life, praying for the coming of the Messiah. They have been praying to Jesus (unwittingly) for Jesus (unwittingly). And Jesus has heard their prayers, and the prayers of all of the priests for generations past, and is finally, finally now standing in front of them. And remember, He loves them each personally. They look Him up and down and utterly reject Him. “No, no. You’re all wrong. You’re not what we want. We want a big macho-man king to vanquish the Romans and sit on the throne and then make us all rich by association. LOOK AT YOU. YOU’RE ALL WRONG. WE DON’T WANT YOU. Go to hell and good riddance.” Agony. This is the reality of the Incarnation.
Pilate. Selfish indifference. “Look man, I neither know nor care who you are or who you say you are, and frankly, I think you’re just another loon. I have a lot on my mind and I simply can’t deal with crap like this.” Agony. This is the reality of the Incarnation.
The Roman scourgers. Jesus was whipped and flagellated until most of His skin was gone by men whom He loved infinitely and intimately. Can you imagine how He felt as he walked to the pillar, turned and saw the faces of his scourgers, and seeing the face of every human being looking back at Him? Can you imagine being slowly and brutally whipped to the brink of death by the person you love most in the world? Say your spouse or best friend? It would be one thing to be whipped by a total stranger. But to be tortured by the person you love most in the world? Unfathomable agony. This is the reality of the Incarnation.
The crowds. Everywhere there were crowds of people looking on – the scourging, the trial, the streets he walked while carrying His Cross to Calvary. Every single face was intimately loved. And every single face, excepting Mary, John, Mary Magdalene and a few other women, were either viciously hostile or completely indifferent. I wonder which was worse? The reason I ask is because the opposite of love is NOT hate, as most would assume. The opposite of love is indifference. There is no greater blow that can be made to a human soul than indifference. How many people saw Jesus that day – locked eyes with Him – and honestly didn’t give a rat’s @$$ either way. “Live. Die. Whatever. Just don’t bother me. You’re messing up my plans. YOU’RE MAKING MY LIFE HARD. Now I’m going to have to go completely out of my way to get around You and this damndable mess You’re making.” This may have been the worst agony. This is the reality of the Incarnation.
Almost everyone treats Jesus with indifference to one degree or another. We are all inflicting that agony on Him. How, you ask? By sinning. We know that our sins hurt Him infinitely, but we commit them anyway. Few people sin because they actively HATE Jesus and want to hurt Him. A few do, but not too many relative to the broad population. No, most people are just indifferent. There He is at the pillar, and our sin is the next lash. And we do it anyway. CRACK! Because we’re indifferent. And again, and again.
“Live. Die. Whatever. Just don’t bother me. You’re messing up my plans. YOU’RE MAKING MY LIFE HARD. Now I’m going to have to go completely out of my way to get around You and this damndable mess You’re making.”
“But I love you. This is all for you.”
“That’s your choice, and your problem, Buddy.”
Agony beyond words. This is the Reality of the Incarnation.
That is why Jesus was sobbing in agony in the Garden. He didn’t fear the physical pain. He feared being utterly, completely and totally rejected to the point of toture, execution and the indifferent witnessing of this by the person He loved most in the world, which is YOU. And ME.
He feared not being tortured and killed, but being tortured and killed by the person He loved most in the world. And despite this, He still chose to go through with it all. He went all the way to the end, just so there would be a CHANCE that one day we might knock on HIS door and say, “I love You, too. Have mercy on me, a sinner.”
So while you’re opening your presents and unstuffing your stockings tomorrow morning, be sure to think about that Sweet Little Baby and the infinite agony of love that He has signed up and gone all-in for by being born in Bethlehem, because that is what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
“Fear not, for behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”