Gerrit Scott Dawson

Here at the End of All Things: How to Deal with Change

“Well, this is the end, Sam Gamgee,” said Frodo to his dear companion. The Ring was melting in the fires of Mount Doom. Mordor was collapsing in ruin around them. For all they knew, the whole world was disintegrating. Lava rushed down the slopes. The quest was, beyond hope, achieved. The hobbits had done what they came to do, but they did not count on getting home. Frodo had given every drop of strength and will. He sat down and waited to die. This seemed to be the world’s, and his, last hour.

In those apparently final moments, Frodo’s only comfort was the sweetness of companionship. “I am glad you are here with me,” he said. “Here at the end of all things, Sam.” These words pierce me every time. I can see Sam gently holding Frodo’s wounded hand. “Yes, I am with you, Master . . . and you’re here with me. And the journey’s finished” (The Lord of the Rings, 950).

The great burden lifted, we can feel the relief. We may even tear up over the tenderness, our hearts breaking over Frodo’s resignation. He celebrates this utter triumph for Middle-earth only in terms of having his Sam with him in the brief moments before the end.

Brushes with the End

We may well experience events that make us feel the end of all things has arrived. Once, I was young and foolish enough to keep driving on the interstate in a snowstorm. Suddenly, my car flew off the road. Airborne off a hill, time slowed down. The very heart of me spoke, “I love Jesus. I love my family.” Surprisingly, I felt companioned in those milliseconds. This was the end, and weirdly I felt peace along with the adrenalin. Then the car landed in the snow, miraculously undamaged. Completely fine, I just drove back onto the highway like nothing had happened. Yet I would never be the same. I knew I could die anytime. I knew I was never alone.

That was not the last time I braced for death. In Louisiana, we know hurricanes. A few years before Hurricane Ida in 2021, we’d lived through major damage and repairs from uprooted trees crashing on our house. So this time, as Ida roared toward us, we waited for the worst. The power had already gone out. We moved to the family room, lest the neighbor’s fifty-foot tree should crush us in the night. We settled into our sleeping bags with the dogs, turned off the transistor radio, and tried to sleep. The end of all things — that is, life as we know it — might well be coming. It was good not to be alone.

“Jesus himself is the end, the purpose, the goal, the completion of everything.”

Or take last winter. My wife put tiredness aside and drove through the night when word came that her ailing father had suffered a stroke. She made it in time to spend a day with him at hospice. Her prayerful, loving presence brought peace to her family. But more, she felt the sweet companionship with her father, even though he was not awake. “It’s good to be here with you, Dad, here at the end of all the things we’ve known together in this world. Nothing will be the same, but these moments are ours.”

Life as we know it always stands on the brink of endings, both small and momentous. The curtain closes on the final performance, and the troupe will never be so close again. Graduation means now you can never quite go home. The divorce decree arrives, stamped and notarized; the book closes on all that life you once shared. The family business shutters after generations. It was on your watch. The song ends, the plates are cleared, and each day — the best and the worst — fades to night.

The world rotates and revolves relentlessly so that change, endings, always draw nigh. We look around and see who remains when nothing will be as it has been. Maybe a friend, a son, a daughter, a spouse. “It’s good to be with you, dear one, here at the end of all things.”

The World Is Passing Away

These personal tastes of the end remind us that the whole world, even the cosmos, will not remain in present form. Indeed, the conclusion of this age has already been set in motion. Peter writes, “The end of all things is at hand” (1 Peter 4:7). The completion of everything has drawn near. With the incarnation of the Son of God and his journey through death, resurrection, and ascension, this world has entered the last days. Of course, “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years” (2 Peter 3:8). The world may endure for centuries more, but the last day, as we know it, is now inevitable. Jesus will return.

This awareness changes how we view the world. We may be despairing of the future. The earthly powers bluster and threaten, posturing that they know the score and call the shots. The world insists that now is all. We’re prodded to accept that the way things are is the way things always will be. We can rush into our days filled with the dull but persistent anxiety that comes from hopelessness. We try not to think about the end. But when we gather around the word in worship with other believers, we see more clearly. The new age of the reign of Christ has begun. The old world in all its rebellion is fading away (1 John 2:17). The true purpose of every created thing will be made clear very soon.

Jesus declares, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Revelation 22:13). Jesus himself is the end, the purpose, the goal, the completion of everything. Apart from him, we find only the emptiness and abyss of being outside his purpose. Joined to him, we will find that everything gets resolved.

What Matters in the End

This higher view of where the world is going gives us hope. But it also presses on us the urgency of accountability. Every moment may be our last. So, Jesus told the parable of the complacent man who believed he had secured enough goods for a comfortable future. The man told himself, “Relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But then God said, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you” (Luke 12:19–20). Our personal endings can come at any hour. And then an accounting of our lives must be given.

That’s why Peter expands on the implications of his statement, “the end of all things is at hand.” He writes, “Therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:7–8). This life counts. This life could end in an instant. So, live with the end, the goal, the purpose in mind. Live for what lasts.

“This life counts. This life could end in an instant. So, live with the end, the goal, the purpose in mind.”

In his great love chapter, Paul concludes, “Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). Only what partakes of faithful trust in Christ and lovingkindness toward others will survive through the end into the new creation. Jesus both evokes fear and inspires hope when he says, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). Because we know what the end of all things will be, we also know what matters. Every present moment is charged with the future end of all things. And our personal ending could arrive any second.

So, we live with the end in mind.

With Us to the End

We cannot stop the ever-arriving endings in the world, or even in our personal lives. Endings come because change continues. But when we trust that the world’s true end is the day of Christ Jesus, we live in hope. We live for his mission. And he promises that we are companioned. “Go . . . and make disciples of all nations. . . . And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19–20).

We are not alone. We face these endings, even the endings of life as we know it, with one who has endured the end of all things, the plunge into the utter darkness of God-forsakenness on the cross, so that we do not face any ending, any nightfall, alone. And usually, in his mercy, he sends us a fellow believer, a Sam, to keep us company along the way.

So, Scottish pastor Alistair Maclean prayed, “Thou hast destined us for change, us and all things Thy hands have made. Yet we fear not. Nay, rather, we are jubilant. Hast Thou not loved us before the world began? What can change bring us but some better thing?” (Hebridean Altars, 89).

We Cannot Cancel Hell

Jesus warns us about hell precisely so we do not have to experience it! He became accountable for us as he engaged a life of sinless righteousness and love. At the end of his ministry, of course, his disciples did fail him. They betrayed, denied, and deserted their Lord. But Jesus took on the responsibility for their (and indeed our) failures. Jesus entered the fiery judgment for his people. On the cross, he endured the hell of God-forsakenness. 

I don’t want to go to hell. In some part of me, I don’t want there to be a hell. I became a Christian, at least in part, to escape the prospect of hell. And at times, I’ve intensely studied Christian theology, at least in part, to find a scriptural case for nobody staying in hell.
On the personal level, I’ve found assurance that, united to Jesus, my future is secure with him. But I cannot, with theological integrity, scrub out hell from the Bible. Nor can I ignore the witness of the church through the centuries that everlasting separation from the triune God remains a fearful possibility. My heart may at times want to be a universalist, but the word will not let me.
It’s vital that we do not avoid considering the reality of damnation. So, I’d like to make three observations about hell from Scripture that lead to one astounding hope.
Beyond the Dead
Hell is a place yet to be. As I read Scripture, prior to the resurrection of Jesus, when someone died, his spirit separated from the body and entered a shadowy nonphysical realm. Sheol (in Hebrew) and Hades (in Greek) express this state, or place, of the dead. It was a lonely, twilight kind of existence. It was devoid of experiencing the personal presence of the Lord in prayer or worship (Psalm 6:5). Both the evil and the faithful went there, though (it seems) to different parts. In the unfolding revelation of Scripture, however, we come to see Sheol/Hades as but an intermediate state for the human spirit.
With the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, we learn that Sheol/Hades is not a permanent state, either for believers or unbelievers. For those united to Christ, our spirits get to go directly into God’s presence (Philippians 1:23). For those not united to Christ, some traditions, following Hebrews 9:27, believe that these persons enter judgment immediately. To my reading, Scripture doesn’t give us enough information to say definitively what happens to the spirits of those who die without Christ. Sheol/Hades as an intermediate state may still be a possibility. What is abundantly clear, however, is that for every human spirit there is more to come.
With the return of Jesus at judgment day, all the dead will be raised (1 Thessalonians 4:16). As Paul writes, “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. . . . The dead will be raised imperishable” (1 Corinthians 15:51–52). Human beings don’t go out of existence. Our spirits live after death. Then, “at the last trumpet” (1 Corinthians 15:52), we will be raised into spiritual bodies.
This rising, however, is not as hopeful as it first sounds. We all will give an account. Paul writes, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10). Jesus chillingly clarifies, “An hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28–29).
What follows for those judged and found wanting is Gehenna, properly translated as “hell.” Gehenna is the same word in both Hebrew and Greek, designating the fiery place of everlasting punishment. Gehenna is a variation on the Valley of Hinnom, a place outside Jerusalem where children had been sacrificed in idolatrous rites (Jeremiah 7:31; 32:35). It later became a garbage dump, and its fires smoldered continually. By Jesus’s time, the name of this notorious valley had become equated with punishment in the afterlife, a condition to occur after the intermediate state of Sheol and after the day of judgment. Gehenna is what we usually think of as hell.
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We Cannot Cancel Hell: Finding Hope Through Final Judgment

I don’t want to go to hell. In some part of me, I don’t want there to be a hell. I became a Christian, at least in part, to escape the prospect of hell. And at times, I’ve intensely studied Christian theology, at least in part, to find a scriptural case for nobody staying in hell.

On the personal level, I’ve found assurance that, united to Jesus, my future is secure with him. But I cannot, with theological integrity, scrub out hell from the Bible. Nor can I ignore the witness of the church through the centuries that everlasting separation from the triune God remains a fearful possibility. My heart may at times want to be a universalist, but the word will not let me.

It’s vital that we do not avoid considering the reality of damnation. So, I’d like to make three observations about hell from Scripture that lead to one astounding hope.

Beyond the Dead

Hell is a place yet to be. As I read Scripture, prior to the resurrection of Jesus, when someone died, his spirit separated from the body and entered a shadowy nonphysical realm. Sheol (in Hebrew) and Hades (in Greek) express this state, or place, of the dead. It was a lonely, twilight kind of existence. It was devoid of experiencing the personal presence of the Lord in prayer or worship (Psalm 6:5). Both the evil and the faithful went there, though (it seems) to different parts. In the unfolding revelation of Scripture, however, we come to see Sheol/Hades as but an intermediate state for the human spirit.

With the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, we learn that Sheol/Hades is not a permanent state, either for believers or unbelievers. For those united to Christ, our spirits get to go directly into God’s presence (Philippians 1:23). For those not united to Christ, some traditions, following Hebrews 9:27, believe that these persons enter judgment immediately. To my reading, Scripture doesn’t give us enough information to say definitively what happens to the spirits of those who die without Christ. Sheol/Hades as an intermediate state may still be a possibility. What is abundantly clear, however, is that for every human spirit there is more to come.

With the return of Jesus at judgment day, all the dead will be raised (1 Thessalonians 4:16). As Paul writes, “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. . . . The dead will be raised imperishable” (1 Corinthians 15:51–52). Human beings don’t go out of existence. Our spirits live after death. Then, “at the last trumpet” (1 Corinthians 15:52), we will be raised into spiritual bodies.

This rising, however, is not as hopeful as it first sounds. We all will give an account. Paul writes, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10). Jesus chillingly clarifies, “An hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28–29).

What follows for those judged and found wanting is Gehenna, properly translated as “hell.” Gehenna is the same word in both Hebrew and Greek, designating the fiery place of everlasting punishment. Gehenna is a variation on the Valley of Hinnom, a place outside Jerusalem where children had been sacrificed in idolatrous rites (Jeremiah 7:31; 32:35). It later became a garbage dump, and its fires smoldered continually. By Jesus’s time, the name of this notorious valley had become equated with punishment in the afterlife, a condition to occur after the intermediate state of Sheol and after the day of judgment. Gehenna is what we usually think of as hell.

The Bible describes the suffering of hell in vivid terms. Jesus speaks of “the outer darkness.” “In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12). He also quotes from Isaiah in describing hell as a place “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). These images suggest an endless devouring from both inside and outside.

“Jesus warns us about hell precisely so we do not have to experience it.”

In his final parable, Jesus depicts the Son of Man saying to the wicked, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire” (Matthew 25:41). Hebrews speaks of “a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” (Hebrews 10:27). Revelation starkly describes “the lake that burns with fire and sulfur” (Revelation 21:8) in a torment that goes on forever (Revelation 20:10).

All this language is imagistic, but it is not imaginary. Taken literally, it’s hard to picture how one could be in the brightness of a burning lake and in the outer darkness at the same time. And would not such a fire consume our teeth beyond all gnashing? These descriptions seem metaphorical. But metaphorical doesn’t mean unreal. The true words of Scripture point to realities beyond description in this world. Scripture likens the experience of hell to horrors we can picture, but the actuality will be more terrible, not less.

So, Paul sums it up as he writes of those who reject the gospel: “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:9).

Beyond Myself

The reality of hell shakes us awake from the delusion of our own sovereignty. It turns out that we do not belong to ourselves. And we’re getting away with nothing! Hebrews tells us, “No creature is hidden from [God’s] sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13).

Similarly, Jesus warns his disciples of hypocrisy: “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light” (Luke 12:2–3). Nothing is lost in the past. Everything will be exposed for what it is. For God to set all things right, the stark truth about us must be told. Just as it’s supposed to, that thought terrifies me. Jesus continues, “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell” (Luke 12:4–5).

Lest we comfort ourselves that such words are merely for the notoriously reprobate, Jesus throws an easy-grace theology into a tailspin by linking our failure in works of love with the punishment of Gehenna. He says to his disciples, “I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment . . . and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell [Gehenna] of fire” (Matthew 5:22).

Metaphorically, Jesus directs us to cut off a hand or tear out an eye should either cause us to sin. For these painful extremes would be far better than to be thrown into Gehenna for our sin (Mark 9:42–49). Jesus uses the term Gehenna, then, as a kind of shorthand for what he describes elsewhere as the “eternal punishment” that awaits those who fail to do acts of kindness to “the least of these my brothers” (Matthew 25:40, 45–46). The word also encapsulates Jesus’s teaching on the exaction of the Father against those who do not forgive their brother from the heart (Matthew 18:35).

Jesus, more than anyone, declares us accountable to God for our lives. He does not spare even his beloved first disciples from moral, spiritual, and relational responsibility, nor from the consequences of failing.

Beyond Wildest Hope

Since Jesus’s words are the standard, then I can only agree with him that I am liable, deserving, due, and bound for the fires that ever burn. With David, I plead, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3).

Indeed. Yet, David anticipates, “With you there is forgiveness” (Psalm 130:4). How can that be? Because our judge is “Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10). Jesus warns us about hell precisely so we do not have to experience it! He became accountable for us as he engaged a life of sinless righteousness and love.

At the end of his ministry, of course, his disciples did fail him. They betrayed, denied, and deserted their Lord. But Jesus took on the responsibility for their (and indeed our) failures. Jesus entered the fiery judgment for his people. On the cross, he endured the hell of God-forsakenness. He underwent the fearful second death of Gehenna before he had entered the first death! He knew the utter darkness and the fiery lake. But not for himself. For us.

And so, for those joined to Christ, the fires of judgment get transformed. We will still stand before the throne. And surely we will weep when so many of our words and deeds are found worthless. As Paul says, “The fire will test what sort of work each one has done” (1 Corinthians 3:13). But we ourselves will be saved through our union with Christ. The fires will be cleansing rather than penal. Beyond all deserving or even our most daring hope, Jesus, who set the impossible standard, is also “Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10).

Hell cannot be excised from Scripture. But we need not go there. Joined to Jesus, we can experience the promise made through Isaiah in greatest depth: “When you walk through fire you shall not be burned” (Isaiah 43:2).

The Sweet Ache of Friendship: Braving Shadows and Chasing Heaven

I’d like to walk with you through the pages of a fairy tale about friendship and loss, shadows and beauty. You’ll know if you want to accept this invitation by considering the following moments of companionship, moments when I felt the extraordinary break into the ordinary.

We sat together on the roof shoulder to shoulder, talking about everything and nothing, just a bit giddy with being together. Then the wind picked up, blowing with the sunshine through her hair. Wisps of soft brown fell across her face. Suddenly, she was no longer just a girl from my school. She came from a realm beyond, from beauty and mystery. I was, and remain, entranced.

One late afternoon, I sat on the shore with a new acquaintance. Looking at the ocean, our conversation lengthened beyond expectation. The moon rose. Suddenly, he said, “Okay, this is what I really believe.” And when he finished, I said, astonished, “Really? Me too.” No filters. No hiding. Just the sense, “I know you — as if I always had. No matter what, now I know you, and you know me.” Years later, despite many spats and reunions, our conversation still pierces me with a sense of what heavenly communion will be.

Near nightfall, I looked up into the slowly darkening summer sky. Two birds, wing to wing, flew westward, chasing the sunset. They were together. But together they were alone against the dark, hurrying to catch the light. With a heart stab, I thought, That’s us, my love: flying together, trying to beat the darkness and make the day stay. We will fly as fast and long as we can, seeking home. The night will come, but it will last only until final dawn.

These earthly tastes of aching beauty in companionship come from somewhere else, from the place we most want to be. That’s the essence of George MacDonald’s 1867 fairy tale The Golden Key, along with all his other fairy tales. They are not allegories, but they evoke an awareness of a realm beyond the ordinary. They are not specifically Christian, but they are an on-ramp to God’s great story of recreating the world in Christ. C.S Lewis reflected that, while he was still an atheist, a MacDonald novel prepared him to receive the gospel as it “baptized” his imagination.

For many, MacDonald piques the longing for the Otherworld so profoundly that, after reading one of his stories, we feel as if our whole life points toward the quest to reach it. So let’s move into The Golden Key, considering three aspects of the story.

Companionship in Quest

Independently, two children find their way into a forest that is part of Fairyland. The girl, Tangle, comes to a cottage in the woods. There she is welcomed by a beautiful, ancient woman. The lady, who wishes to be known only as Grandmother, gently tends the “tangles” of neglect the girl has known.

Meanwhile, the boy, Mossy, has followed a sunset gleam of light into these same woods. There he finds a golden key lying at the base of a rainbow. Soon he too comes to Grandmother’s house. She encourages Mossy that finding the lock that the key opens will be the quest of his life. “You must look for the keyhole. That is your work. I cannot help you. I can only tell you that if you look for it, you will find it.”

Soon, Grandmother tells the children it is time for them to venture forth, urging Tangle to accompany Mossy on his quest to find where the golden key fits. So, “Mossy and Tangle took each other’s hand and walked away into the depth of the forest. . . . By the time they got out of the forest, they were very fond of each other.” Their days in Fairyland have passed as years in our realm. Tangle and Mossy are young adults as they leave the forest and begin to ascend the mountains.

As I enter this tale, I naturally wonder what the golden key might be. Finding the lock it opens seems a worthy life goal. Is the golden key the gift of a rare faith? An impulse to push beyond the ordinary for deeper meaning? Perhaps it’s a rallying to Jesus’s words, “Seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). Maybe the golden key is believing that God “exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). Either way, if we burn with that call to quest, we know how priceless it is to find someone who will quest with us. We gladly join hands with companions who will walk with us along that narrow path.

Upward Passion

As Tangle and Mossy climb, they find a long tunnel that goes through the mountain. They come out overlooking a vast plain surrounded by mountains.

When they descend into it, they discover that the ground is covered with moving shadows — all kinds of shadows. Leaves wave as if in a breeze. Myriad flowers appear amidst them. Birds fly from branch to branch. Yet as Tangle and Mossy look around, they see no trees that could make such shadows. No actual birds fly overhead. The plain is bare; the mountains sheer. From where do such shadows come?

As they walk across the plain, knee-deep in the mysterious shadows, the leaves fade, and different kinds of shadow forms appear. People, wild horses, mythic creatures — some “unspeakable beauty” — move across the ground. But these glorious, fantastic shadows still seem to have no source!

About midway across the huge plain, Tangle and Mossy sit down to rest, lost in their own thoughts. Then MacDonald writes,

After sitting for a while, each, looking up, saw the other in tears: they were each longing after the country whence the shadows fell.

“We MUST find the country from which the shadows come,” said Mossy.

“We must, dear Mossy,” responded Tangle. “What if your golden key should be the key to it?”

As they first set out, Tangle and Mossy’s quest was sincere but vague. Now it is intensely focused. From where do shadows come that are more beautiful than this earth? That’s the country they thirst to reach.

This scene sends me to the way Hebrews describes the faithful. “People who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. . . . They desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:14, 16). Their desire resonates with David’s: “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple” (Psalm 27:4).

As the years of questing faith have unfolded, my wife and I have found that our desire for God has both clarified and intensified. We were on the journey from the beginning. But now the beauty of Christ calls in even deeper parts of us. We have sat in the sea of earthly shadows and wept for the sorrow. We have encountered the heavenly shadows in prayer and worship and cried for joy.

Separation and Reunion

Tangle and Mossy spend the rest of this day (what would unfold in our world as many years) crossing the plain. By evening, the shadows grow deeper and more sinister. The night descends. The story takes a grievous turn. Suddenly, Tangle realizes she no longer has hold of Mossy’s hand. She cries out his name but hears no reply. Then “she threw herself down and wept in despair.”

For the rest of the story, until the very end, Tangle and Mossy must journey on without each other. They both persist in the quest through strange and fantastic encounters. They cling to love and the clarity of what they most deeply desire to reach together. As I interpret the story, both pass through death before they can meet again.

The closer we grow to a companion in the quest, the more searing the cut of parting before the final goal is reached. Paul had to leave Ephesus. He knew he would not see those dear believers again in this world. “There was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because . . . they would not see his face again” (Acts 20:37–38). This journey “further up and further in,” as Lewis described it, can be laced with grief.

Finally, Mossy finds a door that his key opens. Inside a great hall, Tangle has been waiting for him for years. Soon, another door unlocks to his golden key, and the two begin a now sure ascent to the world from whence the shadows fall. MacDonald concludes, “And by this time, I think they must have got there.”

At every reading, The Golden Key reawakens my desire to reach that High Country. Memories rise of when I felt its breezes blow into this world. I feel poignantly how precious, yet brief, are the steps of the quest walked next to a true companion. And I find hope that, in Christ, we cannot be forever lost to each other. The journey’s end is sure.

Faith in an Age of Unbelief: Breaking the Spells of Modernity

“Fake! Fake! Toy, toy, toy!” jeered Danny and Lynn as I showed them Big Dog, one of my stuffed animals. I was about six years old, so they were about ten and twelve. I had claimed that my animals were real. They told me to grow up and stop being a baby. My response was to fetch another animal, the one I called Big Bear. I figured if I told them enough about him, they’d have to believe me. They only taunted more, “Fake! Fake!” I can still feel the humiliation.

But I also remember my belief. Of course I understood my toys were not real, not the way the family boxer was real. But I also knew there is more to the world than what our immediate senses comprehend. I knew imagination and faith reveal more than what skeptics see. And in days when our culture clashes over what is reality and how to describe it, that matters.

‘No World but Mine’

The fight over what is real runs through a thrilling scene from C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair. English schoolchildren Jill and Eustace are sent to the magical realm of Narnia by the great lion, Aslan, to rescue the lost Prince Rilian. He has been captured by the Witch-Queen of the Underland, a dank, stale region beneath the beautiful lands and skies of Narnia. Just when the children have found Rilian and set him free, the Witch appears. But rather than subdue them physically, the Witch attempts to enchant them so they will never even desire to flee her dim, shadowy realm.

The Witch throws a magic powder in the glowing fireplace. She strums a stringed instrument with “a steady, monotonous thrumming.” Then she begins to define reality for them. The world of twentieth-century England (from which they came) was just imaginary. Narnia — with its talking animals, shining stars, bright sunlight, and vivid colors — was merely a fantasy. “There never was such a world,” says the Witch. The children repeat back her words. Then she asserts, “There never was any world but mine” (630). They parrot her again. They settle into the lie, and feel relief to stop fighting her spell. They are almost lost.

Modern Spells

“There never was any world but mine.” Is anyone casting a spell over you with these words? They tell you that your antiquated Christian beliefs place you “on the wrong side of history.” The thrumming enchantment makes you wonder, “What if that’s so?” The Witch-Queen calmly, but constantly, repeats her lies. She tells you what every educated and enlightened person knows:

The world was not created out of nothing by some personal God. With nothing above us, we determine our own meaning.

An embryo inside a woman’s womb is not a person yet. “It” is just part of her body and under her sovereign control.

The underlying motivation in every individual or group is power. If from the majority group, you can never stop being an oppressor. If from a minority group, you ever remain a victim.

You can, however, always determine your gender identity no matter your biological sex. To oppose any process of “transitioning” is hateful and leads to others’ depression and even suicide.

What I need is to be freed from any person, morality, or group that impedes my expression of me. I do not need to be liberated from myself; I need to be liberated into myself.

“These are simple truths,” today’s Witch-Queen says as she throws more powder on the fire. “Opposing them forfeits your right to speak, work, or advance. There never was any world but mine.”

On Aslan’s Side

Almost, the children and Prince Rilian succumb to the enchantment. After all, they cannot now see Narnia. Perhaps their memories are only remnants of dreams. But they have with them one more companion on the quest to rescue the prince. Puddleglum, an odd creature called a Marsh-wiggle, is, as his name implies, a rather dour realist. But his gloomy personality makes him more resistant to enchantment.

Just before it is too late, Puddleglum rouses himself with great effort and moves toward the fireplace. He stamps one of his hard bare feet into the flames. The terrible pain clears his head. He has also put out much of the fire, dampening the aroma of the magic powder. The Witch rages. But the children start to come back to themselves.

Then Puddleglum confronts the Witch-Queen with some of the great lines in English literature.

“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. . . . Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things — trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.” (633)

“Four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow.” What we see through the imagination of faith (grounded in the revealed word of Scripture) is far more interesting and wondrous than all the seemingly sophisticated posturing of the self-centered world.

Open His Eyes

Long ago, Elisha the prophet warned the king of Israel about the plans of the king of Syria. His supernatural knowledge saved Israel’s king from war and destruction. So, the king of Syria sought to capture Elisha. One night, his army and chariots surrounded the city where the prophet resided. Early in the morning, Elisha’s servant looked out upon the siege and panicked.

The servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” He said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. (2 Kings 6:15–17)

Earthly eyes saw only earthly things. Fierce Syrian warriors and chariots surrounded the city. But the eyes of faith, as the Spirit enabled, saw much more of reality. The Lord’s army, vast and powerful, protected the prophet in his city. God’s angelic host had chariots of fire! The king of Syria was not in charge of reality. Much more happens in the world than meets the eye. The sovereign God still reigns and works out all things according to his purpose.

Is that a fantasy? The eyes of faith, opened by the Spirit, see the greater picture. Hebrews 12:1 tells us that “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” all those who have gone before us in faithfulness. The supposed “real world” of today’s unbelief sags under a dull sameness and a tedious imprisonment to self. The vision of Scripture reveals a more glorious reality.

Grim Stories Licked Hollow

When we take our side with those saints who have gone before us, we may be shunned or scorned by today’s sophisticates. So be it. Think of the company we get to keep. Watching, cheering our path are Mary Magdalene and Athanasius, John Calvin and Christina Rossetti, and (still with us) Joni Eareckson Tada and John Piper.

Countless others through the centuries join us. All of us are connected by the testimony of faith in Jesus. This wondrous multitude licks hollow the grim story attempting to capture our culture. How dim, how lonely is any worldview that revolves around me as the center. God has so much more.

Why would I ever go it alone, pretending to be a sovereign self, spinning around nothingness? Rather, acknowledging God’s sovereignty, I am taken into the company of all the saints and all the glory of creation. We walk now by faith, not by physical sight. But the gift of faith opens us to the spiritual vision of God’s glorious reality.

I still have Big Dog. He sits on top of our dresser. Every now and then as I pass by, I pat him and speak to him. I know he’s not real. I also know that imagination and faith reveal sights that can’t be seen by this world. I know the God who entered the world in skin and bone, died utterly, and then rose again in this very world to an everlasting life.

The world may say, “Fake! Toy!” But I say, “True! True! Real, real, real!”

Break the Hardness in Me: A Holy Week Prayer for the Heart

The mother of a first grader asked me if she could have a minute. “I’m concerned about what’s going on in Sunday school.” I asked what she meant. “Last week my son came home and told me you’d been talking about the crucifixion of Jesus.” I nodded. “He told me the whole story.” Children retelling the Bible story to their families was just what we hoped would happen. What could be the problem?

“He cried as he told me,” she went on. “The cross upset him very much.” I wanted to be sympathetic, but I was too thrilled. The whole point of our program was to make the stories come alive for our students. Before I could stop myself, I said, “I wish I would still cry whenever I heard that story.”

Do you ever feel indifference during Holy Week? Perhaps the cross seems more like a formula than an event. A method for dispensing forgiveness rather than a horror our Savior endured for us. As a professional Bible-teller, I experience how detachment can set in during the most sacred of seasons. But I’ve found help in Christina Rossetti’s (1830–94) short poem “Good Friday.”

Impassive as a Stone

The poem, written in 1866, offers the relief of honest realism and an effective remedy for when I no longer connect to the sorrow of this day. Full of biblical allusions, it still speaks strikingly to us. Rosetti begins,

Am I a stone, and not a sheep,     That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss,     And yet not weep?

Here’s the truth. This week I will sing, “Beneath the cross of Jesus, I fain would take my stand.” But instead of my heart roiling with awe, shame, sorrow, and gratitude, I may well just go through the motions.

“I can stare right up at Jesus from beneath his cross . . . and yet keep my face, my life, as impassive as a rock.”

If I let myself reflect on this indifference, I take up Rossetti’s opening question: “Am I as cold as a stone to Jesus? Am I unable to reach even the level of a mere sheep?” Though lacking in courage and common sense, a sheep at least knows the shepherd’s voice and responds. Through Ezekiel, the Lord described us as having a “heart of stone” (Ezekiel 36:26). I feel the truth of the description even as one who now has, in Christ, a new heart. It’s not just that I’m distracted. I can stare right up at Jesus from beneath his cross, close enough to see his blood leave him, and yet keep my face, my life, as impassive as a rock.

Standing Among the Weepers

Rossetti convicts me, because I know how a stony callousness grows over my heart. But she also relieves me, because I see I am not alone. Her admission invites me to bring the shame of my apathy into the light. Sometimes, when I imagine Jesus on the cross, I just don’t feel moved. We read the passion story in worship, and I just want to get home and watch TV. There. I said it.

Rossetti keeps driving home the point, but as she does so, she also offers a remedy for my indifference. Her strategy is to take us to those characters who did weep. Perhaps we cannot summon deep feelings for Jesus in his passion. But we may be moved by the women and men who cried during those dreadful hours. We might feel for them, and in so doing rekindle our emotions for Jesus. So Rossetti leads us deeper into the biblical narrative, with three allusions to Luke’s account.

Not so those women loved     Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;Not so fallen Peter, weeping bitterly;     Not so the thief was moved.

HEARTBROKEN WOMEN

First, we’re directed to the “women who were mourning and lamenting for him” (Luke 23:27) as Jesus carried his cross toward Golgotha. The loud, inarticulate wails of a Middle Eastern lament eloquently declared, “This is not right! This is so sad!”

Perhaps you’ve been at a funeral for a young person. For many teenagers, this is their first loss of a peer. They cry openly and loudly, not yet having learned how to live with ongoing grief. Their fresh dismay makes the death all the more devastating. Yes, I remember the girl who sobbed in my arms, and I feel the death once more through her. So could sympathizing with the wailing daughters of Jerusalem connect me anew to Jesus?

DISLOYAL FRIEND

Luke’s simple, direct language about Peter’s denial cuts to the heart. “The Lord turned and looked at Peter. . . . And [Peter] went out and wept bitterly” (Luke 22:61–62). I remember telling one of our children I could not do what I had promised. The pain in his eyes just slayed me. I remember the disappointment in the look of a parent that cut me more deeply than any words. Worst of all, recalling the sorrow in my wife’s eyes from something cruel I had said devastates me still. I feel a bit of what Peter felt.

Could that lead me to see the pain on Jesus’s face from my participation in the world’s rejection of him? And then once again feel sorrow for him?

CONDEMNED CRIMINAL

Luke does not tell us of tears from the thief on the cross. But the criminal’s words connect us to Psalm 88, the most hopeless of biblical laments. This thief painfully knew he was soon to die. He was condemned by the Romans, but worse, felt himself cursed by God. He felt as the psalmist before the Lord: “like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand. . . . Your wrath lies heavy upon me” (Psalm 88:5, 7).

Fearing an everlasting separation, he called, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). I can connect to the sickening feeling of being past the point of no return — beyond redemption — and from there look over to the Son of Man about to die and know that his punishment is unjust. He will be vindicated by his Father. So might he carry me with him through death? My desperate hope opens a channel to Jesus’s sufferings.

While Sun and Moon Weep

In the third stanza, Rossetti imagines nature itself recoiling over the cruel cross. Luke reports, “It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed” (Luke 23:44–45). So she writes,

Not so the Sun and Moon     Which hid their faces in a starless sky,A horror of great darkness at broad noon —     I, only I.

Rossetti invests the heavenly lights with personality, though she knows, as we do, that it was the Creator who caused this unnatural occurrence in his world. The phenomenon reflected the contradiction that creatures had hung up the Creator. Slaves of sin assassinated the Sovereign. The reliable day went dark over our audacious assault on Christ.

Again, we have resonance with this from our experience of nature’s power. We jump when thunder claps simultaneously with the lightning. We fall quiet at a solar eclipse. We shudder inside when solid ground trembles in an earthquake. When the normalcy we take for granted shifts suddenly, horror rises at our precarious position. Can I now feel very nature’s shame at our murder of the Savior? By now, some passion should be returning to my muffled soul.

Surrendered to Indifference

Rossetti does not let up. She voices the isolation that continued apathy creates. “I, only I” remain indifferent while men and women, disciples and criminals, sun and moon weep for Jesus. This sin of benumbed attention runs perilously close to the loneliness of very hell.

So she turns us from reflection to ardent prayer:

Yet give not o’er,     But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;Greater than Moses, turn and look once more     And smite a rock.

“This sin of benumbed attention runs perilously close to the loneliness of very hell.”

Scripture never fails to jolt me out of complacency when I read, “God gave them up . . . because they exchanged the truth of God for a lie” (Romans 1:24–25). “All right then, have it your way,” the Sovereign seems to say. “I’ll just leave you to it.” Suddenly, like a toddler, I am running back to the Father, begging for him not to walk away. Rossetti’s prayer bleats out from the lostness of a wandering sheep, “Don’t leave me here. Come find me! I am your lamb! Please. Don’t give me over to me.”

Lord, Smite a Rock

The poet knows what power it will take to crack through a hard heart. She recalls the Lord’s instructions to Moses when his doubting people cried out for water in the wilderness. “You shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink” (Exodus 17:6). Paul builds on the episode to connect Jesus to the rock. When he was struck upon the cross, living water flowed forth to quench all who would drink in faith (1 Corinthians 10:4). But another blow, this one to the stony heart, must crack open indifference so that warm responsive faith in Christ may flow.

Rossetti longs for the great prophecy of Ezekiel to be fulfilled anew in her: “I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you . . . and you shall be my people, and I will be your God” (Ezekiel 36:26–28). But she knows that heart transplant must begin with a mighty interruption. “Smite a rock.”

Maybe, in the end, the remedy to our indifference in Holy Week comes down to such a stark prayer. Just crack open my hard heart. Smack this boulder of a soul. Take me to those who wept for you, and let my jaded heart be moved by their ardor. Turn me from a stone back into a sheep. Let me hear your voice that I may with fresh tears love you in your passion.

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.

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