“There is only one way to put an end to evil, and that is to do good for evil.” That cryptic phrase from Leo Tolstoy can serve as a key to help understand the real drama that Jesus underwent in Gethsemane.
The blood he sweated there, as lover, was not just the blood of the romantic lover, the obsessive pain of elusive love, the bitter pain of love gone sour, or the crushing pain of having to give up romance for fidelity. Jesus suffered these in Gethsemane, but there was something more. He also had to sweat the blood of the lover who is willing to absorb the tension inside a community so as to transform it and take it away. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus sweats the blood of the lamb who takes away the sins of the world.
Jesus is the lamb who takes away the sins of the world. That’s the central piece in the Christian notion of salvation and it’s also the ultimate icon inside of our faith. It has a variety of expressions, but always the same meaning: “Jesus’ suffering takes away our sins.” “We are washed in the blood of the lamb.” “By his stripes we are healed.” “Jesus’ sufferings reconcile us to God.” But how are we washed-clean and reconciled through the blood of Jesus?
Scripture expresses this in metaphors and we must be careful, precisely, to not turn metaphor into literal understanding here. Jesus did not die to appease a God whose anger at humanity could not be placated by anything humans could do. God didn’t need to see Jesus suffer horrific pain and humiliation in order to forgive us for sin. God doesn’t have to be appeased; though, granted, that’s what the metaphors and icons of the “lamb of God” can suggest.
Jesus took away sin, not by placating some anger in God, but by absorbing and transforming sin. How?
In ancient times, there were “scapegoat” rituals, liturgies intended to take tension out of a community. When tensions within ran high, communities would gather and symbolically invest those tensions onto a goat or a sheep which they would then drive out into the wilderness to die. The idea was that this animal, the “scapegoat”, took the tension and sin out of the community by leaving the community and dying.
Jesus does this, but in a radically different way. He takes the sin and tension out of the community, not by dying and going away, but by absorbing and transforming it into something else. How does he do this?
Perhaps an image (sadly, more mechanical than organic) might be helpful: Jesus took away our sins in the same way as a filter purifies water. A filter takes in impure water, holds the impurities inside of itself, and gives back only the pure water. It transforms rather than transmits.
We see this in Jesus: Like the ultimate cleansing-filter he purifies life itself: He takes in hatred, holds it, transforms it, and gives back love; he takes in bitterness, holds it, transforms it, and gives back graciousness; he takes in curses, holds them, transforms them, and gives back blessing; he takes in chaos, holds it, transforms it, and gives back order; he takes in fear, holds it, transforms it, and gives back freedom; he takes in jealousy, holds it, transforms it, and gives back affirmation; and he takes in satan and murder, holds them, transforms them, and gives back only God and forgiveness. Jesus takes away the sins of the world in the same way a water-filter takes impurities out of water, by absorbing and holding all that isn’t clean and giving back only what is.
This isn’t easy. To do this, without resentment, means sweating blood, a lover’s blood. Jesus walked into the Garden of Gethsemane as the archetypal lover, but also as one tempted, just as we are, towards bitterness, fear, resentment, and self-protection. He was haunted by all the same proclivities that beset us. But, and this is the point, in Gethsemane, he transformed rather than transmitted those temptations. He didn’t simply give back in kind, letting the energy simply flow through him. He purified the energy and took the tension and sin out of it by absorbing them. It cost him his blood, his life, and his reputation. He had to sweat blood, but he emerged from the Garden the truly generative lover who, at the price of giving away everything, gives back peace for tension and forgiveness for sin, absorbing in his own person the tension and sin so as to take them out of the community. The giving over of that kind of blood really does wash away sin.
And, in doing this, Jesus doesn’t want admirers, but followers. The Garden of Gethsemane invites us, everyone of us, to step in, and to step up. It invites us to sweat a lover’s blood so as to help absorb, purify, and transform tension and sin rather than simply transmit them.