I remember once visiting the local library of the town I used to live, in Buckinghamshire, England. I was curious to see the new library that had moved to a newly built shopping centre. I walked across the entrance hall and proceeded to the lifts. It was the beginning of summer and sunny, which in England is not always the case, so I was in good spirits. It is amazing what light and warmth does to our mood. Anyhow, in the lift I started making conversation with the man who was making the short trip to the third floor with me.
— ‘Are you here to study?’, I asked. The rude reply which followed shocked me.
— “I have a PhD! I’m a lecturer and could teach you about everything you know!”
I was in disbelief! How sad that in his learning he did not learn about goodness. Politeness had, obviously, also been bypassed by his research. A few years later I still think it was some kind of bad joke on his part.
As children we grow up being told to be good. If you are good, you will have this or that, if you are good you will be liked. By being good we hope to get what we expect, therefore at an early age, we understand that successful human interaction is based on met expectations. What are wars, political crises, family break-down, anger after encounters in library lifts, and even depression, if not reactions to unmet expectations?
As our unmet expectations materialise before our eyes, we enter into the dark and colourless realms of hopelessness. The knowledge encountered in our disappointment drains away any hope we may have. Indeed, in times such as ours, when the world lives through an unprecedented pandemic which threatens not only human life, but also the very economic and political systems we have devised, our expectations of a happy, healthy and affluent life vanishes.
Where is God? Why is this happening?
Just yesterday, talking to an American friend, he told me he had just lost his job. Something he prayed about and came as a blessing now gone, directly linked to the impact of Covid19 on the economies and businesses worldwide. Another friend in England posted an emotional text on social media on how the small business she has worked so hard to start is at risk. Why?
In answering, and its my most common answer: I have no idea! What I do know, however, is something I learned in the most painful times of my life, when the ideal of the perfect marriage never came, when parenting was impossible, when I found ministry hard, or I felt hopeless. The truth I learned is this: God (often), does not meet our expectations.
To understand this truth (it is at least a truth to me), we must look at the life of the poor carpenter from Nazareth.
First century Jews had hoped for their messiah for a long time. They expected him to arrive in the likeness of a king who, being the Anointed One, would free them from their rulers and reestablish an independent nation, sitting on David’s throne. In the manger, in a lowly, smelly and poverty-stricken stable somewhere in Bethlehem, their expectations were shattered.
Years later, when Jesus starts his public ministry, he begins preaching not the political liberation message people desired, he spoke of what people needed. His message was controversial, subversive of the system, and focused on an all-together different kind of liberation. The liberation from self and sin, and reconciliation to God and others.
As for me, the last thing I want to hear in hard times is that I need to accept God’s will. I want to know and understand, and I want answers! In difficult times I want to fight back, action is required, force be used if needs be, and a stand must be taken. As an activist, ashamed as I am to admit, in times of hardship, it irritates me when people tell me to pray. What will prayer achieve in times such as ours? I do not need to pray! God knows it already.
Then, if we take the time to look at Jesus in his darkest moment, which starts in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46) and explodes with the joy of Easter Sunday, that is exactly what he does – he prays. For him, it is not about knowing, it is about hope. Because hope, the powerful thing that moves humanity and summons greatness into existence, is a child of the unknown.
“The ages of great terror are also the ages of great hope; it is to the captivity of Babylon that we owe, with the second part of Isaiah, those pictures of the future which have not yet ceased to charm the of man; Nero’s persecutions gave us the Apocalypse of St. John, and the paroxysm of the twelfth century the eternal Gospel.” (Life of Francis of Assisi, Paul Sabatier, p. 81, Kindle Edition)
There is no hope in what is known. Hope is a treasure buried deep in that which cannot be fathomed by the human mind. It is a mystery which compels humankind to worship and submission in hope for the Day of Revelation, when the kingdom of God fully comes. It is in the ‘here but not yet’ that the gift of hope is given. That is faith.
You know, in times of crisis as Christians we can react in three ways: (1) we can fall asleep, negating the seriousness of the situation like the disciples with Jesus that night in Gethsemane; (2) we can attack, like Peter, taking up our weapons and go about cutting a few ears; or (3) we can pray and submit to the Father, not knowing but hoping, after the example of the Nazarene.
The word Gethsemane is deeply significant. The word in its original is believed to mean: “oil press”. The place where olives were brought in sacks, stacked up and pressed by a heavy beam. The more pressure, the more oil. Do not the current times feel like we have all have been stacked together and placed under a huge beam? It is a time of huge pressure as it was for Jesus in that lonely night.
The ‘Garden of Pressing’ places before Jesus a very hard choice: Will he submit to the will of the Father or do something else? The “Garden of Pressing” shatters our expectations of a glorious king, it breaks away the ‘terms and conditions’ we have asked God to submit to, it challenges our human scales to measure goodness. It reveals the the anointing of the the Anointed One is forged in the pressing of hardship. The ‘Garden of Pressing’, the Holy Cross, and in fact the invitation to submission, is not what our minds perceive as liberation or hopeful.
It only takes five minutes browsing through social networks to see so many either sleeping and denying the gravity of the moment humanity is facing, or cutting ears off left, right, and centre. But if we are to learn with our Lord, the stand we need to take is one which requires us to drink, in prayer, from the bitter cup of submission. Not submission to fear and passivity, but to the will of God himself.
Jesus in Gethsemane, to use Paul’s terminology, unlike the first Adam (1 Corinthians 15), does not chose to eat from the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ (Genesis 3). It does not seem important to him to ask question such as the ones I ask: why? Unlike the the first Adam, he does not lean on his own understanding – he leans on the hope which God gives to those who trust and believe.
The cup from which he must drink is not made less bitter, the cross not less painful, but Easter Sunday is particularly sweet. When we choose to believe God’s promises and, in hope, prayerfully endure the Via Dolorosa, we experience the joy of resurrection. In times when we are threatened by a worldwide pandemic, as Christians let’s choose Jesus’ stance in his dark hour. It may require that we bend our knees, though.