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The Sign of the Cross

Sheldon Vanauken once wrote these words describing the aftermath of his decision to follow Christ:

Forty days after: The decision made, one begins to act on it. One prays, goes to church, makes an incredibly meaningful first Christian communion. One tries to rethink everything one has ever thought in this new Light. One tries to subordinate self—to make the Sign of the Cross, crossing out the “I”—and to follow Christ, with something less than brilliant success.

I invite you to meditate with me, during these few moments we have together, on what enabled Jesus to go to the cross on Good Friday. I think a good portion of what made that move possible was Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane on Thursday night. Listen for God’s word to you from Mark 14:32-42….

They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33 He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. 34 And he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” 35 And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36 He said, “Abba,[a] Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” 37 He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? 38 Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial;[b]the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 39 And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. 40 And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. 41 He came a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 42 Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”

To say, “Not what I will, but what you will,” is to cross out the “I”. Jesus, in a sense, crossed out the “I” of himself when he prayed in the garden. He made a deliberate choice to give himself for our sins upon the cross.

In his humanity, Jesus did not want to die such a death. That is why he prayed, “Take this cup from me.” The cup he referred to, it was the cup of suffering.

However, as the perfect human being, and also fully divine, Jesus chose to unite his human will with the divine will of the Father and go to the cross for us. He who had no sin became “sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

It is hard for us to imagine the suffering that Jesus endured in the garden, on trial, and on the cross, but C. S. Lewis describes it this way:

It is clear from many of His sayings that Our Lord had long foreseen His death. He knew what conduct such as His, in a world such as we have made of this, must inevitably lead to. But it is clear that this knowledge must somehow have been withdrawn from Him before He prayed in Gethsemane. He could not, with whatever reservation about the Father’s will, have prayed that the cup might pass and simultaneously know that it would not. That is both a logical and a psychological impossibility. You see what this involves? Lest any trial incident to humanity should be lacking, the torments of hope–of suspense, anxiety–were at the last moment loosed upon Him–the supposed possibility that, after all, He might, He just conceivably might, be spared the supreme horror. There was precedent. Isaac had been spared: he too at the last moment, he also against all apparent probability. It was not quite impossible… and doubtless He had seen other men crucified… a sight very unlike most of our religious pictures and images.
But for this last (and erroneous) hope against hope, and the consequent tumult of the soul, the sweat of blood, perhaps He would not have been very Man. To live in a fully predictable world is not to be a man….

Does not every movement in the Passion write large some common element in the sufferings of our race? First, the prayer of anguish; not granted. Then he turns to his friends. They are asleep—as ours, or we, are so often, or busy, or away, or preoccupied. Then he faces the Church; the very Church that He brought into existence. It condemns him. This is also characteristic. In every Church, in every institution, there is something which sooner or later works against the very purpose for which it came into existence. But there seems to be another chance. There is the State; in this case, the Roman state. Its pretensions are far lower than those of the Jewish church, but for that reason it may be free from local fanaticisms. It claims to be just, on a rough, worldly level. Yes, but only so far as is consistent with political expediency and raison d’├ętat. One becomes a counter in a complicated game. But even now all is not lost. There is still an appeal to the People—the poor and simple whom He had blessed, whom He had healed and fed and taught, to whom He himself belongs. But they have become over-night (it is nothing unusual) a murderous rabble shouting for His blood. There is, then, nothing left but God. And to God, God’s last words are, “Why hast thou forsaken me?”   

Can we even comprehend such agony as this? We can meditate upon it. And well we should. But we can never fully comprehend the suffering of Christ which he underwent for us and for our sins. When Jesus prayed, “Not what I will, but what you will,” he was crossing out the “I” and he was doing it for us.

But the movement in the great dance does not end there. Now our crucified and risen Savior turns to us and asks us to “cross out the I”. The same Jesus who prayed in the garden, “Not what I will, but what you will,” also instructed us, his disciples, to pray saying: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

That crossing out of the “I”, that praying of “Not my will, but yours be done”, that saying no to self and yes to Christ, is not just something we must do, once for all time, at the beginning of our Christian life. It is something we must do all along the road of the Christian walk. We read in Mark 14:39 that Jesus “once more went away and prayed the same thing.” If our perfect Lord and Master had to pray twice, surrendering to the Father’s will, how much more do we, his weak and sinful servants, need to pray the same prayer, over and over again.

Of course, one of the hardest times to pray, “Not my will but yours be done” is when surrendering to the Father’s will involves the acceptance of some suffering for ourselves or for those we love. My mother wrote the following many years ago about the birth and life of my sister Alissa:

In September 1959 Alissa Gayle was born. I had problems with her from the beginning. She had a convulsion when she was a few weeks old. The doctor at the local hospital didn’t know the cause, but she was bleeding internally, in her head. She seemed to recover and he sent her home. We were strengthened during this time by the Word of God, “Yea though I walk through the vally of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me.” There are rich treasures to be had in the dark hours, blessings that the light can never reveal. At home the sickness intensified. I took her to Portland for treatment. The staff explained her symptoms: fluid was building up in her head. I got my hands on a medical book and looked up the problem. I was sure she had hydrocephalus, water on the brain. Today, that disease can be cured but in 1959 it still mystified the medical profession. We shuttled her to Portland for seven operations, but they didn’t help. She lost her sight, then her hearing.

Up until then we had prayed asking the Lord to give us back our little girl, but I remember kneeling at the side of her empty crib and softly asking, “Not our will but thine be done.” Sweet peace filled my heart. I knew that whatever ou loving Father decided would be acceptable.

We could not keep her with us, she was too sick, so we placed Alissa Gayle in a hospital. No words can tell what it was like to lay our baby in another’s arms, somehow knowing we were not to have her again here on earth. On our way home from the hospital our eldest son expressed all our feelings when he prayed, “Dear Lord, thank you for letting us have Alissa Gayle for a little while…”

Jim was away, attempting to break through to kids in Harlem at this time. It became clear he was going to be based in New York. We needed to be pulled together as a family. It was time for another move. The doctors told us it would be best for the baby, and for us, if she stayed in Oregon. It was heartbreaking. Although she did need care, she didn’t need us. I had a husband and four other children who did.

When we left Paradise Ranch, Alissa Gayle was under the hospital’s care and the watch of friends who visited her often during those painful months. Then she died and went to be with him who loved us so much that he gave his son.

I believe the only way we can truly pray, “Not my will, but yours be done,” is if we know God as our loving heavenly Father. It is only as “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose,” (Romans 8:28) that we can surrender our lives to him and trust him to do what is best.

Furthermore, I believe the only way we can know God as our Father is by coming to him through his crucified and risen Son, Jesus. When Jesus prayed in the garden, he called God, as he always called him, Abba. Abba is the Aramaic equivalent of Daddy. Jesus was the only person in all of Scripture, up to this point in time, to call God Abba. That just wasn’t done by other Jews in Jesus’ day. Jesus knew God as Father in an intimate way and he can introduce us to the same kind of intimate relationship with God. Writing to the Christians in Rome, Paul said, “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heris with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” (Romans 8:15-17)

Can you call God Abba? Have you come to him through Jesus Christ his Son? Do you trust the One who prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done” and thereby obtained for you and me salvation full and free? Do you trust him enough to pray the same, even in your Garden of Gethsemane? Are you trusting him to help you cross out the “I”?


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