Jesus chose to die.
He could have ducked the authorities. Skipped town with Mary Magdalene. Maybe the two of them could have made their way to Egypt, rented a humble apartment, set up a little carpentry business, had a few kids, and eventually retired contentedly in obscurity.
Sometimes I wonder if that’s the sort of thought that passed through Jesus’ mind in the Garden of Gethsemane. Dreams of what life might look like if he chose to walk away.
Facing torture and execution, Jesus struggled mightily with other paths he might follow. “For you all things are possible,” he said to God. “Remove this cup from me.” (Mark 14:36) In other words, “I want to live.”
Linger on that powerful desire for a moment. Take it seriously. No less than you or I, Jesus wanted to live. On a day-to-day basis, few of us feel our drive to live with burning intensity. We take living for granted.
But people who have faced the real prospect of death—whether from disease or car accident or combat—frequently report a heightened sense of life’s sweetness and its fragility.
One afternoon I was sitting at the bedside of a young man dying of AIDS. We had grown close during the course of his illness and spoke openly about his impending death. His breathing had become increasingly thin and labored. And I asked him if there was anything he wanted.
With a faint smile he held up his hand and measured an inch-long space between his thumb and forefinger. “Just a little more time.”
He was not afraid of death. But in the midst of his dying he was experiencing the profound goodness and beauty of his life. Later that night, he died.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, I imagine that Jesus’s throat clenched as he remembered the laughter that he had shared with his friends. The fragrance of the surrounding flowers had never seemed quite so intoxicating. The starry night sky. The breeze rustling through the leaves. The song of night birds. The world was teeming with a new intensity.
He wanted to live. Of course he did.
And in that moment. He decided to live. To live the only kind of life worth living. Frederick Buechner put it this way:
The life you clutch, hoard, guard, and play safe with is in the end a life worth little to anybody, including yourself, and only a life given away for love’s sake is a life worth living. (from Listening to Your Life)
Again and again Jesus told his disciples that to seek to save your life was to lose your soul and to lose your life for the sake of love is to live in the true and eternal sense. Take up your cross, he said, and follow me. Later the Apostle Paul would tell the Philippians, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” (2:5)
It is in dying to the narrow life that we can make for ourselves by accumulating and achieving and consuming that we will truly tumble into the kind of life that God wants for us. Letting go is the first step in falling utterly into union with the divine.
Contrary to what so many think, God did not send Jesus to die. God sent Jesus to live. And to show all of us how to live.
Jesus chose to die. And by dying, he entered a new, inexhaustible, unfathomable way of living. And when we take up our cross and follow him, we too tumble into life eternal.