Agony is defined in the dictionary as â€œextreme physical or mental suffering,â€ and â€œthe final stages of a difficult or painful death.â€
Agony certainly emerges during Lent if we are at all following the story of Jesusâ€™s path to the cross. It is certainly a part of the experience of Jesus as he was being crucifiedâ€”the horrific, slow death. Some say it is quite possibly the most painful death ever invented by humankind. The English word â€œexcruciatingâ€ comes from the word â€œcrucifixion,â€ a form of very painful and very slow suffering that ends after anywhere from six hours to four days in death. This kind of death was caused by suffocation and exhaustion. The shoulders must support the weight of the body and it becomes harder and harder to breathe, not to mention very painful. Along with this would be the nails pounded into the flesh. Agony is a word that covers this.
Contemplating the horror and pain of the crucifixion is deeply sobering and difficult, in and of itself. But. I think there was more to the agony of Jesus. Backing up in the story to the death of Lazarus, I find Jesus in another experience of agony, some anguish of the soul.
Anguish is defined in the dictionary as â€œsevere mental or physical pain or sufferingâ€ or â€œto be extremely distressed about something.â€
Jesus was extremely distressed about Lazarus dying. The story recorded in scripture is that when Jesus approached Bethany and was met first by Martha and then Mary and saw first-hand their sorrow over the death of Lazarus, he was â€œdeeply moved in spirit and troubled.â€ This is repeated and it is also recorded that Jesus wept. He wept over the death of Lazarus and the sorrow of his sisters and friends, even though Jesus knew he would be raising Lazarus back to life very shortly. Still, he wept.
I think there are several parts to this response Jesus had. One is his great empathy and compassion for these people he was close to and loved. But another aspect of this is the sorrow Jesus felt that death had ever been allowed to enter our world to begin with. Death was the great enemy; the result of Satanâ€™s lies and attempts to hurt and destroy. This troubled Jesus. Death and the pain it caused everyone was so wrong. And so, Jesus wept. There was anguish.
A little farther on in the story, as Jesus gets closer to his actual death by crucifixion, he gets near to Jerusalem and the festival of the Passover and finds himself talking to some Greeks who have arrived for this event. Jesus speaks of â€œthis hourâ€ that he is in, saying: Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? â€˜Father, save me from this hourâ€™? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!â€ His soul is troubled. More anguish. But his resolve is firm. This will be echoed in the Garden of Gethsemane, but first Jesus has a final meal with his disciples, and again scripture records that: Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, â€œVery truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me.â€ Jesus had anguish over the betrayal of his friend, Judas.
And then we come to the garden on the night he was betrayed. The agony in Gethsemane, as it is often referred to. And here we see a crescendo of agony and anguish. Jesus sweats blood. It is a condition called hematohidrosis and can happen when someone is under extreme stress. The many blood vessels around the sweat glands that are sort of like a net, constrict under the pressure of great stress. This is what was going on with Jesus in the garden. And once again, he thinks about not going through with it. Should he ask the Father to save him from this, to â€œlet this cup passâ€? But he does not, in the end, do that. He instead yields to the will of the Father. His resolve is firm. He gives himself up to death, with betrayals of various kinds all around him. No one has a clear understanding of who he is and what he is doing. Agony. A troubled soul. Anguish.
Jesus is facing death. It is lonely. It is unjust. The death will be horrific. Jesus will willingly spend time separated from the Father for this first time. It will hurt. It will be crushing, horrible, excruciating.
He could get out of it—in so many ways, at so many different points along the way. But he chooses agony and anguish. Why would he do that?
I see at least three reasons. One would be to fully and completely, inarguably identify with us in our suffering. It is impossible to say that he did not suffer. Another strand of his agony, I believe, had to do with his empathy. In the death of Lazarus, I think Jesus saw the suffering of humanity. In the betrayal of Judas, he saw the terrible choices of humanity and it gave him pain. He empathized and he agonized. Finally, I think this was about love. He decided, with the Father, that he would pour himself out in sacrificial love. He would die to make a way for us. He would love us in as deeply a self-giving way as he could to demonstrate the depth of his love for us. He would lay it all down. Agony poured out for our sake. It is a stunning act and worthy of much contemplation in these days of Lent.
When I reflect on this, I pull some phrases from a hymn we use in this season:
O Sacred head now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down now scornfully surrounded with thorns thine only crownâ€¦
â€¦Oh, mine was the transgression, but thine the deadly pain
What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend?
For this thy dying sorrowâ€¦Oh make me thine forever and should I fainting be, Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to thee.
This is the sixth in a series of Lenten reflections. The reflections previously posted are: â€œRemember You Are Dust,â€ â€œBright Sadness,â€ â€œTemptation: The Little Lie,â€œ â€œConfession,â€ and “Forgiveness.”
About the author:
Carrie Bare is married to a pastor and mother of two grown sons. Though she is permanently based in Spokane, Washington, she is currently dividing her time between Spokane and Boulder. Carrie has been with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship since 1975, currently serving as a spiritual director, while also serving on the Faculty Ministry Team and as chaplain to the national leadership team for Grad Student and Faculty Ministry in Inter Varsity. She has always loved reading, especially fiction.