When contemplating the selection from among the disciples of the Apostles, Luke records [6:12]:
Now during those days Jesus went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God.
Now this is an interesting proposition for prayer: the junior partner in the triune turning to himself for wisdom. Illogical, even bizarre? I can understand it only by assuming that Jesus was a pseudopod emitted from the Holy presence, not in possession of all his spiritual faculties.
Of course, as a demonstration it is instructive to read of the devotion and trust that Jesus invested in the Father. If he was moved to pray, how should not we as well? And conceiving of him as a man, I would not rue Jesus that comfort.
A common elaboration of the Crucifixion is that it was not just physically agonizing, but also spiritually devastating. We have the great heart-rending cry:
Eloi! Eloi! Lama sabachthani?
There was no answer, because there could be none. God took on flesh because it was only through flesh that evil could be healed. Once Jesus assumed that burden, it was his and his alone.
The angels cannot change their nature – it is the grace and curse of humanity to possess that capacity. Thus God testified to Cain:
Sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.
Jesus was the culmination of this seeking after strength. He arose out of a culture devoted to the seeking after purity, and chose to allow sin into his heart so that its consequences could be healed.
The bulk of the BIble demonstrates the difficulty of this accomplishment. The men raised to greatness always struggle with their frailty. Jacob’s lust makes him little more than a seed dispenser to two competing sisters and their handmaids, and his favorite Joseph leads monotheism into subjection to a polytheistic culture. David succumbs to desire, clearing the way for marriage by sending his friend into battle to die, and Solomon again opens the door to polytheistic practices.
This recidivism illuminates the challenge of loving unconditionally: to be merciful is to grant power to those lacking the ability to discipline their behavior. Every parent confronts this in the two-year-old and adolescent, but somehow we believe that grace given by God is proof against this corruption. To the wise, though, the recidivism of the Bible is the greatest possible proof of God’s compassion for us. He pursues the loving embrace even against the evidence of our unfaithfulness.
Of course, in demonstrating the infinite depths of divine compassion, the heroes of the Old Testament are problematical role models. This came to a head in Islam, which largely sanitizes the evidence of personal frailty. A Muslim scholar disputed with me over David’s betrayal of friendship, explaining that the sanitized history was enforced by Muhammed’s (pbuh) son-in-law, Ali, and justified in that opportunists used David’s behavior to justify their own lecherous license.
The consequence of this idealization of Biblical heroes is that the program of monotheistic escalation (the only God worth worshipping is perfect and infinite) extends to the heroes of the Bible. They are no longer human but gods themselves, immune to temptation and error.
So what of Jesus, absorbing the burden of human sin on the cross? We know that he showed reluctance and despair in the event. This supports my sense that divine love comes at the first possible moment. In the New Testament as in the Old, the manifestation of grace is subjected to pressures almost certain to destroy it. Among those are the unfaithfulness of those to whom salvation is offered. Returning to Nazareth early in his ministry, Jesus is astonished by their cynicism, which makes him unable to offer power in any great measure.
So I conclude: as monotheism is the pursuit of a truly human god, in that pursuit Jesus is truly our god, struggling against our sinfulness while healing us so that we may sin again. Paradoxically, as we approach more nearly to his grace, that struggle intensifies. The assault on his virtues are more focused, the wounds more intimate. As God cried out again and again in the Old Testament, would we not expect Christ to be tried by anger and fear?
Even perhaps, at times, to be overcome by human impatience and frustration?