The events of this Holy Week happened so fast, things changed so quickly, the hours were so tumultuous, it is no wonder our first three gospel writers recount the stories of this week a little differently.
For example, all three tell us the story of how Jesus prayed in the garden before he was arrested. However, while Matthew and Mark call the place “Gethsemane,” Luke refers to it as “the Mount of Olives.” Matthew and Mark write that when Jesus and his disciples arrived at the place, Jesus told the disciples to sit while he went and prayed, but then took Peter, James and John with him. Luke writes that he asked the disciples to pray and then withdrew from all of them.
These differences are not unusual, for most all of the events told by the gospel writers differ in some small manner or another. However, what I believe is unusual is that all three gospel writers remembered and recorded the exact words of Jesus’ prayer that night. All three tell us that Jesus asked specifically for his cup to be removed. They all remembered that Jesus prayed: “Remove this cup.”
And maybe it should not be that surprising considering the many times an image of a cup is found in the Psalms which were certainly very familiar to the gospel writers.
One image is found in the 23rd Psalm. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows” (NRSV). Here the Psalmist is using the imagery of the cup to express how, even in the presence of our enemies, God anoints us, comforts us, strengthens us, and fills our hearts full of joy.
Several weeks ago, I visited with a woman who was dying in the hospital last. At her memorial service this weekend, I said that even as she faced life’s final enemy, even in the shadows of death, she was at peace, she was full, satisfied, hopeful, her cup was running over.
In the 116th Psalm, the Psalmist writes: “I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord, I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.” Here, like the 23rd Psalm, the cup is a “cup” of joy, a cup of salvation.
Now contrast those images with the images that we most remember from the New Testament. They appear to be strikingly different.
Just before Jesus goes into Gethsemane to pray, we read that “Jesus took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it” (Mark 14:23). And then we hear his prayer in Gethsemane, the one that each of the gospel writers remember, “Remove this cup from me.”
During this Holy Week, I believe it is important for you and me to ask, “Exactly what was in this cup that Jesus wanted removed?”
First of all, like the cup at the first Lord’s Supper, the cup contained Jesus’ blood. But this time it was not a symbolic sip of wine. This cup contained Jesus’ death. And what may be worse, it contained Jesus’ death, and Jesus knew it. Many people have told me that although losing someone you love to death is always tragic, it may be easier to lose someone instantly than to know that death is inevitable and you must wait for it. People, who have sat so lovingly beside their loved ones hospital beds during the last stages of cancer; people, who have sat in the ICU waiting rooms as their loved one lay in a coma from a heart attack—people, like these have told me that waiting for death, and knowing it was the right around the corner, was the hardest thing they ever had to do. Jesus was going to die and he knew was going to die. Death was in that cup.
Loneliness was also in that cup. Loneliness was in that cup, for you see, soon after Jesus prayed for his cup to pass, Judas betrays him with a kiss. Jesus also knew that Peter would deny him three times. And after Jesus was arrested, the disciples fled for their lives to leave Jesus alone. The disciples were always there when Jesus healed the sick. They were there when he gave sight to the blind. The disciples were there when he fed the multitude. They were there on Palm Sunday when he made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. But after the arrest of Jesus, the disciples left Jesus alone to die between two criminals. Loneliness was in that cup.
Humiliation was also in that cup. Crucifixion upon a cross was the most degrading and humiliating experience that a human being could ever encounter in the Roman world. It was so degrading, so dehumanizing, that Roman Citizens could not be crucified. That is why tradition has it that the apostle Peter, a Jew, was crucified, but the apostle Paul, who was a Roman citizen, was beheaded. Crucifixion was only used for the worst kind of criminals. Before Jesus went to the cross, he was stripped and beaten. This was a common part of the crucifixion: a beating that was so merciless that many died from its effects. Jesus was then mocked, spat upon, and ridiculed. After this, Jesus’ naked body was nailed to a cross right outside of Jerusalem for all to see and humiliate him more. Humiliation was in that cup.
Abandonment was also in that cup. As Jesus hung on the cross, Jesus was not only abandoned by his disciples, but Mark tells us that he felt abandoned by God. Mark writes that at 3:00 on that Friday afternoon, Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “My God, My God, Why Have you forsaken me?” Like all of us feel sometimes in our own lives, Jesus felt abandoned by God. Like you and I sometimes ask, sometimes loudly, oftentimes silently, Jesus asked “Why?” “Why did you leave me God? Why did you leave me all alone to suffer so? Where are you God? O God, where are you when I need you the most?” Abandonment was in that cup.
What was in that cup? What was in that cup that Jesus prayed for God to remove? Death, loneliness, humiliation, and abandonment were in that cup. If Jesus was truly the Son of God, why didn’t God honor his request when Jesus prayed in agony for his cup to be removed? What kind of God would not remove those things? The answer is the paradox of Christianity. What kind of God? A God who loves us.
A God who loves us so much that he emptied God’s self and became like us. A God who loves us so much that God sought to fully and profoundly identify with us, to understand our sufferings, to know our fears.
What was in that cup? For all who come face to face with the harsh reality of death; for the family who is watching their loved one die of cancer; for the wife who sits at the bedside of her dying husband; for the man who discovers his own death is imminent, there is understanding in that cup. There is love and compassion in that cup.
What was in that cup? For all who have sunk into the depths of loneliness. For the homeless alcoholic who lives on our streets; for the widow who lives all alone without family and friends; for the elderly who have to live out their remaining of their feeble days in a nursing home, for the lonely widower who lives only with his grief. There is understanding in that cup. There is love and compassion in that cup.
What was in that cup? For all who have experienced degrading humiliation; for minorities who have been the target of racism and discrimination and homophobia; for children who are bullied at school for being different; for the pregnant teenager in the church; or for others who are degraded by self-righteous people in the church for past mistakes and sins, there is understanding in that cup. There is love and compassion in that cup.
What was in that cup? For all who have somehow felt abandoned by God, felt like God has somehow left them alone; for the family whose loved one suffers from Alzheimer’s disease; for the parents who have lost one of their children from an illness or an accident; for forsaken women who are abused daily by their husbands; for forsaken children who are abused daily by their parents; there is understanding in that cup. There is love and compassion in that cup.
You see, that cup that Jesus wanted to pass contained much more than death, loneliness, humiliation, and abandonment. And that cup is not different at all from the cup found in the 23rd and 116th Psalms. For in that cup there is grace and forgiveness. In that cup there is salvation. And, in that cup there is over running joy. Salvation is in that cup for all who believe that God loves us so much that God became one of us. Became one of us and suffered and died for us.
What was in that cup? There is strength in that cup. There is power in that cup. And there is hope in that cup. The gospel writers remembered Jesus’ prayer it because there is good news in that cup. Good news that we must share with everyone we know who has experienced death, loneliness, humiliation and abandonment. And if we do this, we will share the good news with everyone we know, because through the death of Jesus, through that cup, God has identified with each one of us.