Gerrit Scott Dawson

Christmas and Our Longing to Belong

A young Scottish man left his coastland home and went to sea. He left quickly, without family closure. His wanderlust made him heedless of how such an abrupt departure might hurt his parents.

One cold winter night, his ship sailed north into a fierce and freezing headwind. The gale drove the boat perilously close to a rocky shore. As a pale sun rose, the ship was so near the headland that the young sailor could see the fire in the hearths sparkling through the windows of the few houses on the cliffside. Suddenly, the lad recognized his own home! Then he recalled it was Christmas Day. His parents would be by the fire, talking of the son who was gone, “a shadow on the household” festivities. “A wicked fool” he felt himself to be, as his very proximity to his childhood house heightened his distance from his loved ones.

Robert Louis Stevenson concludes his story-poem “Christmas at Sea” by saying,

But all that I could think of, in the darkness and the cold,     Was just that I was leaving home and my folks were growing old.

Yearning for Home

Like no other time of year, Christmas stokes this home fire in us. The season ignites the hope, no matter how cynical we have become, that we may sit joyfully around a table with people we love and have it feel right. In spite of the disappointments, arguments, loneliness, and distorted dynamics, something in our heart stubbornly grasps the memories, no matter how fleeting, of feeling deeply known, accepted, and safe. We distill these moments to the magical tastes of joyful love. Every Christmas, we’re hoping to savor another drop. But it’s a daunting quest.

“Since we forfeited the garden, humans have been pierced with a home-longing.”

Since we forfeited the garden, humans have been pierced with a home-longing. We leave home looking to find home. Yet it always seems to elude us. It’s never the same if we go back. Our own new relationships still leave us with the ancient yearning. The Welsh use the word hiraeth (hee′-ryth) to describe the powerful, unassuageable cry for home. Hiraeth evokes the stab the roamer feels upon at last arriving back: this isn’t it. There’s yet a farther shore more home than even this cherished place. We can dream of it, but we don’t know how to get there.

I’d like to suggest this Christmas that we allow this hiraeth to draw us to the manger. For there our true Home arrived to gather us back. He who is our heart’s homeland took up residence within the broken, ruined land of our lonely exile. The Son of God came to get us and bring us back to communion with his Father and the Spirit.

Follow the Golden Thread

Even as an infant and young boy, Jesus was magnetic to those who longed to know God and see his glory, whether they were shepherds from the nearby fields or the wise magi from far eastern lands. To the eyes of faith, the baby in swaddling cloths was journey’s end. For those early worshipers intuited what they probably could not express: in the incarnation, the eternal Son brothered us by taking true humanity as his own (Hebrews 2:11).

“In Christ, we can taste home now, even knowing we will still pine for a full arrival.”

The child means that the triune God refused to be without us. He wants to be known, related to, and loved back by those who see in Jesus just how utterly he loves us. As Mary holds Jesus close, we stand amazed that the Son of God so joined himself to us. He came to gather us that he might present back to his Father those joined to him by faith. So, from his first arrival, this Jesus was “bringing many sons to glory” (Hebrews 2:10). In Christ, we can taste home now, even knowing we will still pine for a full arrival.

Undergirding this astounding event of incarnation is the promise God made to his people from the beginning. Even before we were expelled from Eden, the triune God had planned how to bring us home. From Genesis to Revelation, there runs a covenant promise of steadfast love: “I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Leviticus 26:12). You can follow this golden thread through a cascade of passages (including Genesis 17:7; Exodus 6:7; Jeremiah 31:33–34; Ezekiel 37:27; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Hebrews 8:10; Revelation 21:3). In ever more intimate and redeeming ways, the triune God proves to be our home-maker until finally we dwell directly with him, where there is no more sighing or pain, but only life everlasting in communion.

At Home in Our Hearts

God answers our cry of hiraeth through the centuries with the arrival of Jesus in the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4). The Son of God wanted to be with us so much that he took up flesh and blood and “pitched his tent” among us (John 1:14). Each time the news is told and believed, the Holy Spirit pours into a heart a home-cry that now has a name. “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Galatians 4:6). We get to taste his presence now even as we anticipate our full arrival. It’s as if the triune God says to us, “I am your God, and you are my child. You will come home to me, no matter where you are or what you are going through. For in the end, I make all things new.”

This Jesus, who arrived in our midst at Christmas, grew up to be the man called a “friend of sinners” (Luke 7:34). They meant it pejoratively, but we know it as a precious title of our Redeemer. Jesus, our brother in shared humanity, is yet the friend “who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24). Because he is also the heart of our own heart. The true home-maker.

This Advent, we can imagine this child, this God with us, and how much he must love us to bring elusive Home down to us. Then, we can pour our hearts more fully into the carols we sing. We can love him more as we worship him more. We can read all the great Christmas texts. We can follow the golden thread of his home-creating promises. We can be moved to offer him the Christmas present of our enthusiastically wanting to keep his word day by day. These are the ways into a magnificent promise Jesus made: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23).

Our Homecoming Song

The hiraeth will cry for home through us all our earthly days. But when we know where that cry directs us, our pining does not leave us bereft. For we know we have a friend, our brother Jesus, who has secured our passage home. His Spirit sings through us right now. The hiraeth is a homecoming song and unites us to our fellow travelers in a communion deeper than we may ever have known before.

Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man! Home has come into the ruin and opened the garden to us once more.

Jesus, Only Jesus: What ‘Christ Alone’ Really Means

It’s just Jesus. In Christ is all we get from God. Nothing more. Nothing other. He is the answer to our every need.

Does that disappoint you? Were you hoping for something newer? Or easier? Or cooler? Sorry, it’s just Jesus. He is who God is and all God gives us comes in and through him. Maybe that seems like dull news. But as we consider the great Reformation motto “Christ alone,” I hope to thrill you.

This one man who walked the earth long ago still lives. He interacts with us. He lifts away the blanket of guilt and blows the breeze of forgiveness. He fills in the yawning loneliness with a warm presence that will not leave us. He directs our wandering lives to eternally meaningful service. He calls us out of our endless self-loop to an abundant life of love. Just Jesus is a sky full of stars more than we can count. We can never reach the end of the beauty and mystery that awaits exploration. There’s always more.

Recovering Christ

The hallmarks of the Reformation are often expressed in five solas, five “only’s” that needed to be recovered to get Christians reconnected to the Savior. The first sola is Christ alone. All of our salvation, including our justification, comes from Christ Jesus, not from anyone or anything else.

“‘Just Jesus’ is a sky full of stars more than we can count.”

The Reformers labored to express what Christ alone meant in the context of the heavy-handed, burdensome requirements of the medieval church. The church had bottled Christ like a commodity. They had hidden him from the view of ordinary believers. But the recovery of Christ alone as the free gift of God for our justification cracked through those barriers and gave Jesus back to his people.

Of course, the Lord’s own people in every age are always prone to shade the searing light of Christ alone. So let’s consider now three aspects of what Christ alone might mean for the twenty-first century Western situation in which we find ourselves. Christ alone means God gives us Jesus in particular, only Jesus, and all of Jesus.

Jesus in Particular

Good mentors continually pressed this truth into me: There is no god behind the back of Jesus. God is nothing other than who he is toward us in Jesus Christ. Jesus “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3). God is not an angry “Old Testament God” toward us one morning but then a sweetly accepting “New Testament God” toward us the next. When we see Jesus, we have a clear window into the triune God.

Jesus himself said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). There’s not God the Father over there and then God the Son over here (with the Spirit floating around somewhere). There’s only “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 14:10). In Jesus, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:19). As this specific man, who stood so high and talked in this distinct tone of voice, who walked with this unique gait, and with a scent like no one else’s, God incarnated. Indeed, there is a reason only Christians worship the human founder of their faith. Because, wild as it is, we declare that precisely this Jesus, of all the humans who ever lived, is God come to us in flesh and blood.

Some have tried to avoid this scandal and seeming foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:22) by separating Jesus from his beloved title Christ. A liberal theologian once said, “There is more to the Christ than we meet in Jesus.” Another wrote of a “universal Christ.” Christ would thus be a principle or power that Jesus embodied — a principle we also can embody if we live authentically. As if!

Still others ask the question, “Who was Jesus before the church made him out to be God?” Their idea is to find the real Jesus by scrubbing away as inauthentic all his claims to be the Son of God. Couldn’t we just get back to the humble, wise rabbi from Nazareth who lights a path, among many, to the one God? No, Christ alone means this Jesus of the Gospels is uniquely the fully human, fully divine Savior.

Only Jesus

This second aspect reveals a distortion that even good Reformed Christians make. We know that Christ alone means there is no other person or path that can make us right with God. Paul wrote, “There is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:5–6). Final salvation relies on the righteousness of Jesus as its sole basis. Only Jesus saves us for eternity.

That’s our deeply held confessional theology. But in our daily working theology, we may well rely more on what kinds of rightness we can generate. We can, often unconsciously, develop some self-salvation systems. No, not for final salvation, but for the immediate sense that we are doing well with God today. These are ways we reassure ourselves that we are okay. We can expose the futility of these soothing strategies by hearing how it sounds to substitute some of them for the riches of Christ alone.

In Ephesians 2, Paul reminds the church how alienated from God they had been. They were strangers to his covenants and promises, children of wrath, stuck dead in their trespasses. Then came an intervention: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4–6).

We were dead, but God made us alive through Christ alone. There’s no more relieving and joyful news. But the truth is, I rely on other stories to comfort me. How silly they sound when inserted into this salvation:

But God, in reviewing your résumé, was so impressed that he raised you with Christ.

But God, when he noticed how great you looked after changing your diet and working out regularly, raised you with Christ.

But God, because you got his attention by your acts of creative compassion, raised you with Christ.

Ridiculous! All my reliance for rightness based on self-generated worthiness gets incinerated in the fire of only Jesus, every moment as well as into eternity.

All of Jesus

Finally, Christ alone means God has nothing else to give us than what he gives us in Jesus. But getting Jesus is getting everything. Joined to him by the Holy Spirit through faith, we receive all that Jesus is for us. So Paul could exclaim that God has relocated us into “Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30).

This glory overwhelms the eyes; we struggle to take it in directly. We get a glimpse of what it means to have all of Jesus by looking at the benefits that flow from our union with him. We return to the treasury of Ephesians, specifically 1:3–14. Paul writes that in Christ we receive:

every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places
the joy of being chosen before the foundation of the world
the promise of being made holy and blameless
the eternal adoption to himself as sons
redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses
the lavishing upon us of the riches of his grace
the gift of knowing the mystery of God’s will: his purpose to unite all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth
an inheritance in heaven
the blessed Holy Spirit in our hearts as a seal and guarantee

“In giving us all of Jesus, the Father makes us jewels in his crown of glory.”

In giving us all of Jesus, the Father makes us jewels in his crown of glory. We become reasons for the triune God to be praised.

Christ alone means just Jesus. But this particular man Jesus is God incarnate. He only is our righteousness and our salvation, not just in eternity, but now as we live and work, needy for a sense of rightness. He gives us nothing less than himself. Christ alone. Just Jesus. That’s everything we need.

When Death Does Us Part: Last Words of a Long Lost Love

When it works as it should, marriage is a tragedy.

I have seen the quiet courage it takes for a widow to walk to her pew as the funeral begins. Once she entered the sanctuary as the radiant bride, and all eyes were upon her in her glory. Now she enters as the bereaved, and all eyes are upon her again, watching to see how she will hold up. I have seen the children of the widower worry as their dad made his precarious way to his funeral seat. Once he was the beaming groom watching for the first sight of his bride. So proud, so strong, his life before him. Now he shuffles. But he has resolutely rejected that blasted walker. He’ll go unaided, once more, for her.

What a grievous plight! A couple cleaves together for fifty or sixty years. They learn to know each better than anyone else. They communicate often without words but still with clear understanding. For some twenty thousand days and nights, they have given themselves to each other, died for each other, and lived for all the life that came from their love. Then, just as nerve fails and frailty rises, one of them dies. One is left to carry on alone, just when the deceased is most needed. One endures, heartbroken but resolute to live from love and vows pledged so long ago.

As Aragorn tells Arwen in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, “There is no comfort for such pain within the circles of this world.”

Aragorn and Arwen

I don’t remember reading the appendix of The Lord of the Rings before I was married. The saga of destroying the Ring and setting right Middle-earth had been enough for me. But early in our years together, Rhonda and I read the trilogy aloud. We didn’t want it to end. So I paged through the extras and stumbled on the history of the relationship between Arwen, the undying elf princess, and Aragorn, the rugged Ranger who was heir to the throne of Gondor.

Tolkien pierced me with beauty and sorrow in places of my heart I didn’t even know I had. I still can’t read those few pages without, at some point, popping tears. But neither can I stop returning to this story so filled with not only the sorrow, but also the choice and the hope of every enduring love. Following it will lead us to a set of the most beautiful and true sentences ever written.

The Meeting

As a young man of 20, Aragorn walks one evening in the woods of Rivendell, one of the fair realms of the elves. He sings as he wanders, taking up the ancient lay of Beren and Luthien, a man who dared to love an elven princess and she who gave up immortality to marry him. Just then, he sees Arwen walking among the birch trees. Smitten by her graceful loveliness, Aragorn feels he is living inside the song. For Arwen is the daughter of Elrond, the elf lord who rules that land. With confidence beyond any renown he has yet earned, Aragorn approaches Arwen. His heart is hers.

But the future appointed for them seems a block to any relationship. Though young in appearance, Arwen has already lived the years of many human lifetimes. Her destiny is to sail at the end of the age with her father and kin to the undying lands of the West. Aragorn has yet to win his way through the battles with the Shadow and undertake the near-hopeless quest to see the Ring of Power destroyed. Elrond will permit no talk of union with his daughter until Aragorn has proved himself faithful and victorious.

Decades pass. Then it happens that in Lothlorien, another edenic woodland of the elves, Aragorn comes again upon Arwen under the trees. This time, she loses her heart to him, seeing him grown into the fullness of manhood. For some days, they walk and talk together blissfully. Yet both know that the Shadow of Sauron deepens. His malevolence threatens the world. Great struggle lies ahead. Victory seems unlikely. Choices must be made. Will Aragorn forsake the war, withdrawing with his beloved as long he can? Will Arwen choose to depart for the West, mysteriously referred to as the Twilight, safe from war but never able to return to Middle-earth except in memory?

The Choice

In the moment of choosing one another, they also pledge their lives to the desperate struggle for the renewal of the world. “And the Shadow I utterly reject,” says Aragorn. Arwen replies, “And I will cleave to you . . . and turn from the Twilight [though] there lies . . . the long home of all my kin.” Their lives together will be in the mortal realm, where evil must be fought and a kingdom built through faithful service.

The more Rhonda and I have personally pressed into the depths of living from Christ and for Christ, the more we have realized our call to fight the evil one through our love. Trust in Jesus’s promised future fuels us to live in hope, even as the days seem to grow darker. We realize our marriage is a weapon against the unraveling of the world. Fidelity, forgiveness, hearing one another, giving grace — these are militant choices for love.

“Our marriage is a weapon against the unraveling of the world.”

In cleaving together as Christians, we renounce the Shadow — understood as living for ourselves, merely to consume what we can of the good life. We also decline the Twilight — understood as withdrawing from the struggle and snatching as much peace alone together as we can afford. Of course, challenges to this vision enter every life stage. The time of our parting will, no doubt, nudge our faith toward despair. But courage can be found in the rest of Aragorn and Arwen’s story.

The Hope

Against all odds, Aragorn wins through. On midsummer’s day after the Ring is destroyed, Aragorn and Arwen marry. They have more than a century together while the kingdom flourishes. But at last, the time comes for parting. Though long lived, Aragorn still has to face the doom of men. On his deathbed, he says to his beloved the words already quoted: “I speak no comfort to you, for there is no comfort for such pain within the circles of this world.” Only long and joyful love could grow such sorrow.

It seems a rotten system. This sorrow can tempt us to give up. To curse God. To be cynics. To declare love only an exercise in futility. The pain in parting becomes the fiercest challenger. So Aragorn continues, “But let us not be overthrown at the final test, who of old renounced the Shadow and the Ring.” All love in this world still languishes under the “futility” of our mortality and our ever-more-apparent “bondage to decay” (Romans 8:20–21). The choice for hope takes continuing effort. The vocation of committed love to bless the world demands renewed engagement of the last enemy’s challenge, especially when strength fades. Right in the teeth of the pain ahead, we look death and evil and sorrow straight in the face and nevertheless renounce selfishness and sin. We reject withdrawal into the shadows, and choose to love to the very end.

“Only long and joyful love could grow such sorrow.”

So we come to Aragorn’s beautiful sentences: “In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory! Farewell!”

Within the world we experience, nothing now can remove the pain when two so interconnected must part. But that is not the final word! Reality is not limited to this world of time and space. We go to something more. Something more than oblivion, that awful emptiness of the atheistic future. Something more than a shadowy existence, that underworld the ancients perceived as the realm of the dead. Something more than merely living on in another’s memory, or as an impersonal part of the vast universe. Rather, something more real, more us, than ever before. Something founded on the rising of Jesus, who burst through these mortal constraints into an embodied and relational eternity.

Beyond the Circles of the World

Tolkien detested allegory and eschewed any one-to-one correspondence between the characters in his fiction and the people we meet in Scripture. Yet his faith undergirded all he wrote. Tolkien explored these underpinnings in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.” He wrote that great stories fully acknowledge the sorrow and the failure in the world, and even the fear that these will be all that’s left. Yet the Christian story “denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat . . . giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

For Tolkien, this hope flows from the veracity of Jesus’s resurrection. Christ has conquered death and so altered the future of the world. “The story begins and ends in joy. . . . There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true.” This great turn toward joy against impossible odds is the enduring beauty in The Lord of the Rings, and on his deathbed, Aragorn became the spokesman for the faith that joy wins out. We cling to this.

How much did Tolkien believe his character? How deep did his faith run that in the world he created he was rendering truths from Christ’s redemptive reality? Ronald and Edith Tolkien share a headstone in Wolvercote Cemetery in Oxford. I think it’s quite telling that under her name is etched “Luthien.” Married 55 years, she was his elf princess, his Arwen and true love. Under his name, “Beren” is carved, for he won her heart and proved his troth through the decades. Now they know that we are not bound forever to the circles of this world. Beyond them is more — oh, so very much more.

Agony in the Garden: What Jesus Suffered in Gethsemane

ABSTRACT: In the garden of Gethsemane, as Peter, James, and John slept, Jesus engaged spiritually the forsakenness of the cross before he was actually arrested and crucified. He faced one final temptation to flee from the path of the cross and let the world face judgment instead of himself. And through his earnest prayers, he made the agonizing decision to say, “Not my will, but yours, be done.” He embraced the cup of wrath he did not deserve; he chose to pass through death and hades so his people might pass over them safely.

For our ongoing series of feature articles for pastors, leaders, and teachers, we asked Gerrit Scott Dawson, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to describe the meaning of Jesus’s agony in Gethsemane.

“I’m not sure I should have heard that.” That might be an understandable response to hearing Jesus pray in Gethsemane. It’s the same feeling I had when my brother was in crisis midway through college. My strong, smart older brother agonized over the direction of his life. He was in his room with my mother when I heard him cry. Not sniffles, but yelps. Piercing, involuntary, plaintive cries. This rocked my world. It felt urgent and important, and also embarrassing. Should I know about this? Should I be listening? His struggle was so intensely personal that I felt ashamed for overhearing. Yet I longed to know what was happening and what it all meant. Similar reticence and attraction run through me as I open my heart to listen to the accounts of Jesus’s agony in the garden.

In Gethsemane, Jesus engaged spiritually the forsakenness on the cross before he was actually arrested and crucified. “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Matthew 26:38). Jesus knew he would lose his bodily life on the cross. But first, he would lose what was more precious: the sense of his Father’s good pleasure. Prior to his capture, Jesus envisioned what was to come as a cup he would have to drink (Matthew 26:39, 42). The goblet was filled with the wrath of God against sin in all its destructive and distorting power (Isaiah 51:17). As Jesus pressed forward into the events of his passion, he would perceive his Father as moving backward, away from him. In his prayers in Gethsemane, he engaged the final temptation to turn from that horror and let the world perish instead of himself.

Jesus knew he had to choose willingly to become a curse, to become sin, for us. Just later, when the guards come to arrest him, Jesus will say, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53). No power could force Jesus into forsakenness and death. Only his intentional embrace of the triune will, as planned from eternity, could move forward his redemption through his suffering. The encroaching grief of losing awareness of his Father’s cherished presence pressed Jesus to the ground, on his face, in brokenhearted revulsion.

In the sorrowful intensity of this hour, not even Jesus’s closest disciples could remain attentive (Matthew 26:40, 43). And perhaps that’s as it should be. The witnesses overheard only the essence of his struggle. It might be inappropriate, not to mention overwhelming, for us to see and hear it all. So as we walk through several aspects of Gethsemane, I want to keep this sense of reserve. We tread on holy ground.

Why Gethsemane?

During the Passover supper in the upper room, Jesus offered himself through the bread and the wine. “This is my body. . . . This is my blood” (Matthew 26:26, 28). Following the meal, he and his disciples left the house in Jerusalem and went across the Kidron Valley to a place on the western slope of the Mount of Olives (Luke 22:39), specifically known as Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36). John’s Gospel adds some important information. Gethsemane was a “garden” (John 18:1), a word used for any place with cultivated shrubs and trees. The place still exists. Gethsemane is an orchard of ancient olive trees. The fruit of these trees remains vital for an oil used in cooking, heating, lighting, and even healing.

Intriguingly, John’s Gospel tells us, “Jesus often met there with his disciples” (John 18:2). Jesus was from Nazareth, far to the north. Yet he knew a place in Jerusalem that he loved to frequent. We know Jesus came to Jerusalem for Passover when he was twelve (Luke 2:41). As devout Jews were supposed to gather in the holy city for sacred festivals, that visit was likely not Jesus’s only trip to Jerusalem before his ministry began. I imagine a small-town guy like Jesus loved the clean air and peace of a long-tended orchard. Finding an oasis of space and quiet amid the hustle of city life refreshed Jesus. So in going to Gethsemane to pray, Jesus sought a place where he had known solace before.

The name Gethsemane means “olive press.” In the midst of the orchard was a device used to squeeze the olives until they yielded the precious oil. The base of an olive press is a huge stone basin. An enormous millstone fits in that bowl. A system of ropes and wood poles allows the user to roll the stone around the basin. When the great rock bowl gets filled with olives, the grinding stone is rolled over them, crushing the olives with such weight that the oil seeps out. The meat and skins of the olives get truly pulverized to release every drop.1

In Israel, high priests were anointed with oil for office (Leviticus 21:10). Kings of Israel would also be anointed as a sign of God’s selection of them to reign (e.g., 1 Samuel 16:13). And the prophet Elijah anointed his successor, Elisha (1 Kings 19:16). In these cases, the oil represented the very Spirit of God. Just so, the word Messiah, which in Greek is Christ, literally means “anointed one.” The long-awaited Messiah would be the saving representative of the Lord who was anointed by the Spirit to be the savior and ruler of God’s people. Indeed, the Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism, empowering him for messianic ministry (Matthew 3:16–17). Peter described that “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good, and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him” (Acts 10:38).

“Jesus had to enter the olive press, where the weight of the world was upon him.”

So Jesus as Christ would fulfill all three offices of prophet, priest, and king. But now, in Gethsemane, as Jesus drew near to completing our salvation, Jesus the Messiah would himself have to be squeezed. Jesus had to enter the olive press, where the weight of the world was upon him. His own soul was crushed by the burden of our sin. Jesus would have to make a deliberate choice to move into the darkness, despair, and death of bearing the sin of the world upon himself. Remaining faithful to his mission, Jesus in Gethsemane accepted being pressed down unto death on the cross. His blood would be squeezed from him in order to redeem us.

Crushing of Heart and Will

Now, let’s dive deeper into Jesus’s prayer struggle. Isaiah 53:12 describes the suffering Messiah: “He poured out his soul unto death and was numbered with the transgressors.” This spiritual struggle was an essential part of his sacrifice. I wonder which psalms came to Jesus’s mind as he sought words for his agony. How apt Psalm 6 would have been! Imagine Jesus on his face in Gethsemane, praying to the Father, who felt increasingly distant to him.

O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger,     nor discipline me in your wrath.Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;     heal me, O Lord, for my bones are troubled.My soul also is greatly troubled.     But you, O Lord — how long?

Turn, O Lord, deliver my life;     save me for the sake of your steadfast love.For in death there is no remembrance of you;     in Sheol who will give you praise?

I am weary with my moaning;     every night I flood my bed with tears;     I drench my couch with my weeping.My eye wastes away because of grief;     it grows weak because of all my foes.

David wrote vividly of crushing trouble: soul’s suffering, body’s pain, heart’s cries, and floods of tears. Death appeared as but the end, where all praise of God would be lost in the muffled darkness. It all felt like the anger of God falling fully upon him. David’s striking poetic language would reach through the centuries to give words to an agony far deeper than his own. His lyrics would help Jesus give voice to his lament for a forsakenness far beyond David’s worst experience.

Raniero Cantalamessa considers Gethsemane to reveal the “interior aspect of Jesus’ passion: the death of the heart, which precedes and gives meaning to the death of the body. . . . Gethsemane signals the deepest depression in the passing of Jesus from this world to the Father.”2 What kind of sadness is that? Perhaps for Jesus it felt like this: To be pressed down with grief like an olive under a millstone. To have the weight of the world on his back, knowing he will be crushed by it. To fear, despite earlier predictions otherwise, that he will never get up again — and knowing that if he does not rise, neither will the world. All will have been in vain. All will be lost. All he wanted, all he prayed for, worked for, and yearned for will be gone. All the power he expended to heal will be for naught. All this world that he tasted with such joy will become ashes in his mouth. Everyone and everything he loves will be lost. Forever.

But worse, far worse, the presence he had always known is evaporating. The comforting assurance of his Father’s love in his heart, felt since youth, is being taken away. Jesus feels that he is becoming repugnant to his Father. God, it seems, turns away his face. Such emptiness horrifies. The solid sense of everlasting arms underneath gives way to yawning abyss. Nothing awaits but endless darkness.

Hebrews takes us to the heart of Jesus’s struggle in a passage with particular relevance to the event of Gethsemane:

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him. (Hebrews 5:7–10)

Jesus recoils from what lies ahead. Any other man would quit in despair. But Jesus, on his knees and on his face, still speaks the cry of his soul directly: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). In other words, “Get me out of this! Save me. Don’t leave me. Do this another way. The horror is too much to bear. Abba, take this cup from me.”

His Decision

Luke the beloved physician describes the physical effects of Jesus’s suffering as he struggles to accept the cup obediently. “Being in an agony, he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44). Here we may encounter what came to be called hematohidrosis,3 a rare but documented physical reaction to extreme stress: the bursting of the capillaries under the skin so that blood comes through the pores. Jesus was in extreme psychological contradiction. His holy soul was being asked to accept as his own the full extent of human sin.

We are so jaded and compromised that we can hardly imagine such a conflict with sin in our person. As Hebrews tells us, “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Hebrews 12:4). We are used to being sinful. But Jesus would have shrunk in horror from the cup of heart-venom, the soul-slime of humanity, he was asked to drink. While all his days he had lived for his Father’s will, now the divine will demanded that he become what he and his Father hated: sin itself. As Paul writes, “He made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

The body’s reaction to physical pain is to scream in our brains that something is wrong. We must move away from the source of pain; we must seek safety; we must end this threat. It takes extreme concentration based on preprogrammed knowledge of what leads to life and health to move into pain when a bone is reset or a wounded muscle stretched. It takes willpower based on an informed promise to put the burning drops in the eyes or accept the chemo treatment that will nearly kill us. Jesus moved into a pain unspeakably greater — the shame of the cross, the abhorrence of becoming a curse — because of what he knew to be ahead: the joy of saving us and sitting down at his Father’s right hand (Hebrews 12:2). A joy he grasped from afar.

When all feeling of God’s favor was gone, Jesus leaned on the Scriptures. He leaned on the sacred record of what his Father had done in the past and promised for the future. He recalled his baptism and the Father’s voice. He recalled his mission. He recalled, though he could not feel its full force, the love that had passed between Father and Son from all eternity. He claimed their shared determination to save the world that had gone bad. “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). He prayed in that moment the very words he had taught his disciples to pray: “Our Father . . . your will be done” (Matthew 6:9–10).

The fate of the universe turned on this adamantine will of fidelity. We can imagine how the powers of sin and evil howled at Jesus’s soul. The accumulated rebel shout of every human heart, “Me! My way!” clamored for him to forget us and save himself. Yet Jesus silenced that roar with what might have been no more than a hoarse whisper: “Nevertheless.” The lone human voice of faithfulness reverberated through the cacophony of our rebellion all the way back to Eden. At infinite cost to himself, Jesus answered his Father rightly for us.

“In Gethsemane, Jesus made the choice to drink the cup of wrath he did not deserve.”

In Gethsemane, Jesus made the revolting choice to drink the cup of wrath he did not deserve. The light of the world consented to be extinguished into the deepest darkness. Christ our life stepped into the waters of death and forsakenness in order that we might pass over them as safely as passing through dry land. Our innocent Passover Lamb gave himself to be sacrificed for us. The sinless one clasped to himself the contradiction of being made sin. He entered fully the olive press of Gethsemane.

Remarkably, after the titanic effort of consecrating his will in Gethsemane, Jesus seemed to shift from being troubled to being at peace. Though excruciating death awaited him, Jesus presented perfect equanimity before the chief priest, the Judean king, and the Roman governor. He had crossed the line between active temptation of choice and the peace of resolution. The agony would persist, but it would be clear that Jesus was master even of the powers that bound him.

What Can We Do for Him?

In Gethsemane, Jesus asked Peter, James, and John to “remain here, and watch with me” (Matthew 26:38). Of course, each time he returned, Jesus found them asleep. How the sad reproach must have pierced them with every memory in years to come: “So, could you not watch with me one hour?” (Matthew 26:40). Christ’s disciples through the centuries have felt their own similar weakness. We were not asked to carry the weight of sin or endure the cross, only to stay awake and keep him company. But we could not. Still, we yearn to. Just reading these accounts, we are attempting to watch and pray with Jesus, to enter his agony and somehow share it in a way that would bring him comfort.

C.S. Lewis captures the true affection of those who love the redeemer in a scene from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. The great lion Aslan has offered his life in exchange for the petulant schoolboy Edmund, who had betrayed his siblings. On the night before Aslan is to be slain at the Stone Table, the two girls Lucy and Susan follow behind him, watching him, longing to comfort him. Filled with sadness, the lion allows the children to accompany him awhile:

Forward they went again and one of the girls walked on each side of the Lion. But how slowly he walked! And his great, royal head drooped so that his nose nearly touched the grass. Presently he stumbled and gave a low moan.

“Aslan! Dear Aslan!” said Lucy, “what is wrong? Can’t you tell us?”

“Are you ill, dear Aslan?” asked Susan.

“No,” said Aslan. “I am sad and lonely. Lay your hands on my mane so that I can feel you are there and let us walk like that.”

And so the girls did what they would never have dared to do without his permission, but what they had longed to do ever since they first saw him: they buried their cold hands in the beautiful sea of fur and stroked it and, so doing, walked with him.4

The Messiah, the Anointed One, went to the olive press to be squeezed under the great stone of the world’s sin. He went to unravel the fundamental error in the human heart. In this stage of his descent, he fell on his face in an agony of realization, experiencing his Father’s repulsion to sin. In the garden of Gethsemane, the place of soul crushing, with his Father’s presence receding and his own disciples fleeing, Jesus said, “Nevertheless, your will be done.” He willingly entered being crushed under the weight of the world.

“Jesus passed through death and hell that we might pass over both safely.”

What can we do for him? In one sense, absolutely nothing: this is Jesus’s work alone to save us. But in another sense, everything. We can do for him what he has been longing for since the beginning, in Eden. To keep him company. To stay near him. To place our hands on his hair and his shoulders. To anoint him with our tears at what it cost him. To abide with him. To love him who loves us so, who went so far into lonely forsakenness that we might not be alone. He passed through death and hell that we might pass over both safely.

Just the few words we have describing Gethsemane horrify us. We feel like intruders overhearing Jesus’s intensely personal agony. We do not have an account of all that Jesus prayed for. But what we do have, we receive with fear and trembling that such a holy sight should be revealed to us. So this Holy Thursday, we keep vigil with Jesus, cleaving to him in adoration as we once more behold him on his face in prayer. And by our attention, we love him.

God in Skin and Time: Jesus as the Beloved Son

Few experiences are more wonderful than holding a newborn. Your heart melts with loving wonder. “You’re so beautiful. Just perfect!” Even amidst that gentle marveling, fierce-protective instincts arise. “I would give my life for you against all comers.”

How much more so for Mary as she held Jesus. In his well-loved Christmas song, Mark Lowery asks, “Mary, did you know . . . when you kiss your little baby, you’ve kissed the face of God?” Though she would have to ponder the depths of it all her days, the angel had indeed told her, “The child to be born to you will be called holy, the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).

This is one of the first and greatest titles given to Jesus. But what does it mean? “Son of God” comes layered with meaning.

Human, Hebrew, King

In giving Jesus’s genealogy, Luke tells us that Adam was the “son of God” (Luke 3:38). He was uniquely created, but he was also the father of the human race. So there’s a sense in which we are all sons of God. Paul affirms this universal sonship by quoting a Greek poet: “We are indeed his offspring” (Acts 17:28).

But Scripture gives us another sense in which the chosen and called people are collectively God’s son. “This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son” (Exodus 4:22). God birthed his people in redeeming them from slavery in Egypt. Centuries later, beginning with David, the kings of Israel were considered to be the sons of God. This was a sonship by divine anointing that led to a special intimacy: “He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation.’ And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth” (Psalm 89:26–27).

Jesus fulfilled all three of those biblical meanings of “son of God.” (1) He was born of Mary and so was (and is) truly human, a descendent of Adam and Eve, one of the image-bearing offspring of God, just like any of us. (2) Jesus was also truly a Hebrew. Luke reminds us that he was circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 2:21), marked as part of Israel, the son of God. But more, Jesus was the first of the new Israel, the founder of a people redeemed by grace and joined to him through faith. (3) Jesus was a descendent of David, and hailed as the true heir to David’s throne (Luke 1:32). Anointed by the Holy Spirit at his baptism, Jesus is the Christ, the son of God who is the everlasting king of his people.

Eternal Son in Skin and Time

However, a deeper, older, more profound sense emerges in which Jesus is the unique Son of God. Thanks to John’s Gospel, we have the privilege of overhearing Jesus’s personal prayers to his heavenly Father shortly before his arrest. We learn the extent of this intimacy between them.

Father, I desire that they also, [the people] whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. (John 17:24)

The relationship between the Father and the Son is eternal. Before the creation of anything, the Father loved the Son and the Son loved the Father — all in the personal, flowing bonds of love, the communion of the Holy Spirit. Though this mystery bends our minds, we glean that relationship is at the very heart of the being of the triune God. The child in Mary’s arms was the eternal Son of God taking up our humanity in the particular person Jesus. He has been the divine Son of God forever, and now is Son of God in skin and in time.

“Before the creation of anything, the Father loved the Son and the Son loved the Father.”

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus pulls back the curtain on this deep mystery and gives us a peek into eternity when he declares, “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27). Knowing is more than factual knowledge; this knowing is relational intimacy. It includes a continuing exchange of love between Father and Son (again, in the Spirit).

Father and Son are so close that no one and nothing can get between them. This relationship precedes all things. This knowing is the foundation of the central Christian affirmation, “God is love” (1 John 4:7). In Jesus, we witness the relationship that undergirds all creation appear before our eyes in particular flesh, blood, posture, and vocal tenor.

Sons in the Son

The marvel deepens when we realize that the incarnation means God is opening up this utterly unique relationship to include us. This passage from Paul makes for a fabulous Christmas text:

When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. (Galatians 4:4–7)

“The triune God desires to adopt us into his eternal relationship of love.”

In Christ, the triune God adopts us into his eternal relationship of love. He makes this possible not only legally, through the forensics of atonement, but experientially, through the sending of the Spirit of his Son. The eternal Son brought his relationship with his Father among us in the incarnation. Now that he has returned to heaven, he brings us into his relationship with his Father by the gift of his own Spirit within us. We don’t just get information about redemption. We cry out as the Spirit vocalizes within us, “Abba! Father!”

All believers — whether men, women, boys, or girls — are sons of God in being joined to the one eternal and incarnate Son of God, Jesus.

Fellowship with Father and Son

We may well wonder if we truly are to be included in such love. Am I one of those “to whom the Son chooses to reveal him”? What a comfort then, to read the very next words out of Jesus’s mouth: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Jesus wants us in on his relationship with the Father.

In his first letter, John says that he writes so that his readers “may have fellowship with us.” Then, he explains what that means: “Indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). Jesus is uniquely Son of God in a way no mere human, nation, or king ever could be. Yet he desires to share that sonship with us, that we might be taken into the very life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

And at Christmas, of all times, this mystery, now revealed, resounds in our hearts,

Silent night, holy night,Son of God, love’s pure light.Radiant beams from thy holy faceWith the dawn of redeeming grace,Jesus, Lord at thy birth.Jesus, Lord at thy birth.

The Death of Gandalf: When Tolkien Pierced My Heart

“Fly, you fools!” he cried, and was gone.

These are the last words of Gandalf before he slides into the abyss beneath the Bridge of Kahzad-Dum. In all my fourteen years, no words had ever pierced me so.

Our junior high teacher read The Hobbit to us as an after-lunch treat. We loved it. But he challenged us that the really good stuff was to be found in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In ninth grade, I took up his challenge. At first it was quite a slog. There were all those long songs, and so much talking! “The Council of Elrond” was the thickest chapter I had ever attempted. It took me days. But when at last the Fellowship engaged the quest to destroy the Ring, things picked up.

‘Fly, You Fools’

One Friday night, I skipped my usual ABC sitcoms and just read on the couch. The watcher in the water outside of the Mines of Moria terrified me. I had to read on.

I stayed with it all through “A Journey in the Dark.” It wasn’t a school night, so my parents didn’t send me to bed as I started one more chapter. The future writer in me was thrilled when the company finds a decaying book in which the deeds of the dwarves in Moria were recorded until their last hour. The scribe’s writing trails off with the ominous “They are coming . . .” My heart pounded as the Fellowship realizes they are trapped like the dwarves of old and will have to fight their way out.

Near disaster follows upon near disaster. Even Frodo is stabbed with a spear that should kill him. But his hidden shirt of mithril silver turns away the lethal point. This is how it’s supposed to go. Against impossible odds, heroes still triumph. So when Gandalf faces the demon Balrog on the last bridge out, I felt sure he would win. It seemed like he had. Three times the wizard commands, “You cannot pass.” Then Gandalf’s power breaks the bridge right where the Balrog stands, and the demon falls into the darkness below.

“Yes!” I shouted silently. Then, “Noooo!” For the plummeting Balrog swings its whip and snares Gandalf’s legs. Tolkien writes, “He staggered and fell, grasped vainly at the stone, then slid into the abyss. ‘Fly, you fools!’ he cried, and was gone.”

Wounded by a Sentence

I was totally shocked. Stabbed. My favorite character had died (so it seemed). It cut. It hurt more than I imagined a book, a single sentence, could make me feel. I wanted to howl. Yet, at the very same time, I loved it. I didn’t know one could experience this depth of emotion from reading. So terrible and so beautiful. Gandalf slid into the abyss. Gandalf was gone. I could hardly stand it.

I was only newly awake to Christ, so I felt, but did not consciously notice, the gospel implications in this scene. Through the following years, Tolkien himself would teach me some deeper meanings of this sentence.

Sorrow follows wherever sin remains.

In The Silmarillion, Tolkien laid the foundation for his entire legendarium. In this mythic world, the Creator, Ilúvatar, brings the world into being through themes of great music. But
one of the Creator’s angelic beings, Melkor, wants to create music of his own.

Seeking his own glory, Melkor begins to sing a theme contrary to the music of Ilúvatar. Discordant notes bring turbulence to the good creation. Ilúvatar allows this chaos to rage for a long time until it seems beyond repair. Then Ilúvatar rises and declares another theme of music. This new music is “deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came” (The Silmarillion, 1977, pp. 16–17). The Creator weaves disharmony into more wondrous music. The new song incorporates sadness.

“Sin sank the arrow of sadness into the very heart of all that is.”

We feel this sorrow underneath all the goodness we love in this present world. Sorrow flows through the deeps of creation because created beings sought glory of themselves over against the Creator. In short, sin sank the arrow of sadness into the very heart of all that is. I’m reminded of the days of Noah, when the Lord beheld the wickedness of man. “The Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Genesis 6:6).

The sadness that struck me that night as I read of Gandalf’s fall partook of this primal sorrow. My heart cried first, It’s not supposed to be this way! The good and wise are not supposed to be overcome by evil. And second, It didn’t have to be this way! Gandalf had already defeated the Balrog. But evil never concedes. The Balrog’s whip could so easily have missed. Instead, evil once more begat sorrow.

Our freely chosen sin over time hardens into malice. The result is loss and harm that weaves a song of lament woven through everything. Even our God feels it. That night I tasted its bitterness.

Sacrifice often breeds redemption.

Gandalf descends into the abyss. Grief dismays the company. They don’t know how they can go on. But they do. The story does not end with this shocking loss.

The wizard’s gruff but affectionate final words rouse the Fellowship from the paralysis of horror. Even as they weep, they dash safely out of Moria. Gandalf’s sacrifice has opened the way for them to escape and to carry on the quest. But more: his gift now impels them to find courage beyond grief, to kindle hope in the darkness ahead and to hold to the cliff’s edge of faith until the very end. The remaining eight members go on to sacrifice mightily for one another.

“Suffering in love for another is redemptive. Evil does not have the last word.”

One’s giving his life for many is the heart of our faith: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). This sacrifice is meant to change the course of our lives, for “he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves, but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:15). Suffering in love for another is redemptive. Evil does not have the last word.

The evil chance of the Balrog’s whip snaring Gandalf does not void the wizard’s sacrifice. Gandalf’s giving of his life bears the immediate result of the Fellowship’s escape. But that leads to the whole redemptive resolution with which The Lord of the Rings concludes, a victory for which Tolkien would coin a beautiful word.

In the end, expect eucatastrophe.

I would have to read on to learn of Gandalf’s return. And go further still to see the Ring destroyed, the rightful king enthroned, and Middle-Earth restored. But the sacrifice of Gandalf, in all its shocking, piercing sadness, yet laid down a hope in me. This seed of love buried in Moria’s abyss would yield the fruit of life. I had to believe that.

Tolkien used the word eucatastrophe to express the sudden reversal in a story that leads to a longed-for but unexpected happy ending. This is the resolution against all odds that stirs hope in the human heart that the world’s destiny will not be the death and destruction toward which it appears to rush. Tolkien wrote in a letter to his son that the eucatastrophe in a story

pierces you with a joy that brings tears. . . . It produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature . . . feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back. It perceives . . . that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our souls were made. . . . The Resurrection was the greatest eucatastrophe possible . . . and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one. (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 1976, p. 100)

The hope I felt even as I was stabbed with grief at Gandalf’s fall foreshadowed the great reversal of the entire story.

Gandalf Rose and Laughed

Delightfully, we see this deepest truth in the humble simplicity of Sam Gamgee. After the Ring is destroyed, Sam awakes to see Gandalf smiling on him. He exclaims,

“Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?”

“A great Shadow has departed,” said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land. (The Return of the King, 1976, p. 988)

Reading of Gandalf’s fall that night struck me with the full force of the deep truth in every story of redemption. Each one is a shadow of the one true Story. Christ died. He entered the full stop of being lost in the abyss. And then he rose, changing everything.

When Gandalf fell, though I could not say it then, my heart was struck with the sorrow of man in his death and ruin. But the Fellowship carried on. I would read on. The Quest was not thwarted. Gandalf would rise. So will we. In a world restored, where everything sad comes untrue.

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