"sorrow to the point of death"

They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.”

Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. (Mk 14.32-35)

I've often thought a good test of our understanding of something is whether we can explain it in a clear, simple way. And I've found that kids give us plenty of opportunities to test our understanding like this.

Recently I was reading the story of Jesus in Gethsemene to my boy. But I balked at the story book's explanation for Jesus' extreme distress. Was I really going to tell him that God had been planning Jesus' death, and insisted on it, to satisfy God's demand for payment for the sin of the world? How can that be understood by a child? Especially when so many other stories have emphasized God's loving and forgiving nature. So I muddled through the story quickly, and thought about it later so I'd have a better way of explaining it by the time we got to the crucifixion.

The part of the traditional explanation that bothers me most is the way God seems so divided against himself. God insists on justice, but Jesus' self-sacrifice offers mercy. But is Jesus not God? Aren't they one? So if Jesus is sacrificing himself for us, is it not God who is sacrificing himself? That seems to me to be what is really happening here. Not Jesus suffering to satisfy God, but God suffering for us, to reunite us to himself. Now that sounds like the loving and forgiving God we hear about again and again throughout the bible.

But what is the cause of this suffering of God? How do I explain Jesus' distress in the garden, and his wish that "this cup" might pass from him? I think the cause of the suffering is the extreme rejection he is going to experience. He is going to be tortured and murdered by the people he loves.

What makes this necessary is not "God's plan" but that we sinful people often have to do our worst before we can see and admit how bad, how lost, we have become. Often the horror of our own actions is the only thing that can wake us up. I can see why God would not want to experience this horror with us, but would choose to do so anyway if it could possibly turn us back to him.

This seems simple and clear enough for even my five-year-old to understand, because he has experienced it to some extent already. When he sees how he's hurt us at times, he feels it, and is quick to say he's sorry. It's easy to see how the story of Jesus' suffering is repeated often in our lives, as the path to healing and reunion. It's not just a unique role in a predestined plan, but the suffering of our loving God, the suffering love we share when we "take up the cross" and follow Jesus.