THE DEATH OF JESUS
We sometimes turn Jesus into a magician by the way we imagine him floating through his life with never a shadow of doubt or anxiety falling across him. He must have known everything from the beginning, we feel, because he was divine. But this image of him owes nothing to the New Testament; there he is seen as “one like us in all things but sin.” To cling to the magic image of him would be to allow his divinity to swallow up his humanity. If he was like us in all things except sin, then the future must often have been a dark mystery to him, as it is to us. Moreover, the Scriptures say that he “increased in wisdom and in years” (Luke 2:52); he was then a 12-year-old boy, but if he was capable of increase at all he must have continued to increase throughout his life.
The gospels open a chink through which we can see into his mind and know his feelings as “his hour” approached: his impending death. “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour” (John 12:27). His anxiety was not theatrical, it was real. Later in Gethsemane he would perspire with fear, but his Gethsemane is starting already.
He had said once in a parable (and perhaps many unrecorded times) that the word of God is like a seed that falls into the ground. He, the Word of God, now applies it to himself: he is to fall into the ground and die if his life is to bring a rich harvest.
Many followers of Jesus have made this their rule of life; others have spectacularly failed to do so. If a disciple of Jesus – or indeed anyone – is to do good, he or she must be willing to fade out of the picture. The way of truth leads along a humble path. Every real path is a humble path: it is along the ground. The live or try to live by the truth is to “lower the flag of the ego.” The phrase “to lay down one’s life” is very telling: we use it to mean sacrificing one’s life in one heroic act of martyrdom, but it also suggests placing one’s foot on the ground – the ‘here and now’ – and putting one’s whole weight on it. That is the way that a far greater number of Jesus’ disciples lay down their lives. They give themselves fully to one another, to their families, to others, holding nothing back. The ego is always blindly gathering in a store for tomorrow, for security against the future, because it doesn’t know how to give itself away, it doesn’t know how to love.
John the evangelist loved to play on the ambiguity of the phrase “lifted up.” Jesus will be lifted up in shame on the cross; but that shameful lifting up will be transformed by God into a lifting up in glory at his resurrection. It is the one lifting up, but the glory will appear only after his death. Any disciple who looks for glory before death is practicing a different religion from that of Jesus.