This is a guest post by Casey Sharp.
“Please, no explanations inside the Church,” reads the poorly worded sign outside of the Basilica of Agony in Jerusalem. Located at the possible site of the Garden of Gethsemane and Christ’s final agonizing meditation before he submitted himself to die- the Basilica of Agony is not a place for explanations. The Italian speaking Franciscans living in the Church only wanted to urge the noisy tour groups to refrain from disrupting the serenity of a holy place by keeping their lectures on its history outside the sacred space, but the Friars unknowingly made a statement that could not be more appropriate for the Garden of Gethsemane.
According to tradition God wrestled with Himself in this place. God has a thing for wrestling- as with Jacob when he was renamed “Israel,” which means, “He wrestles with God.” According to the Gospels an Infinite Being condemned Himself to die. That makes no sense. There are no explanations. Why would we even include such a theologically contradictory story in our Bibles? When Pope John Paul II visited Auschwitz he called it “the Gethsemane of the modern world.” Like in the Gospel story, innocents had their final meditation before being condemned to an unjust death. Each murder of the genocide left behind a question about the possibility of continuing to believe in God. It is quite a glaring question mark. For many after the Holocaust, it was not possible to believe any more. As Elie Wiesel says of the Holocaust victims in their finals days- they became immortal. You see it in their faces in all the old photographs. Like Christ- they understood something infinite and terrifying in that final agony before they were condemned.
We have asked this same question forever- The Problem of Evil might be the most persistent theological question, and possibly the most important too. CS Lewis and others try to explain it away by looking to free will. They say God must allow us to do terrible things, but try telling that to mothers whose children died in the Holocaust. Tell their mothers that the free choice of Nazis is more important than the lives and continued free will that their children might have enjoyed if they were allowed to live. Sometimes it is unloving and therefore heretical to be too orthodox in your explanations. Then we get into natural evils- hurricanes, diseases, floods, ect.- and the list of what a loving God allows continues to amplify the awful question.
Though I appreciate CS Lewis’s view, it leaves us wanting, but CS Lewis wrote about evil in that way earlier in his career. Later in his life, after the death of his beloved wife, he adds a new element to the idea of evil in the world saying, “Sometimes it is hard not to say, ‘God forgive God.” Sometimes it is hard to say so much. But if our faith is true, He didn’t. He crucified Him.” All evil in the world exists under the watchful gaze of a loving God. Theists cannot escape this. The Creator knew what He created and permitted in his creation. Even Satan is God’s Satan at the end of the day. Positing an evil force in the universe only delays the question- it does not solve it. This is why the story of Gethsemane is necessary even though it offers no real explanations. Christ dies for OUR sins, but He also dies for the fact that HE allowed us to sin. He totally and completely reconciles Himself to everything He created and allowed, and reconciles Himself in the most agonizing way imaginable because only that would do. Though it makes no sense, we can say we affirm a God who relates to all unjust suffering in the most intimate way possible.
The nexus of this question is found in Gethsemane, or Auschwitz, or Rwanda, or the site of every school shooting. Turn on the news, and you visit Gethsemane. Inside the Basilica of Agony you will find traditional Byzantine Christian art, “the rock” where Jesus wept (according to traditions), and what you would generally expect in a Christian Holy site- except for one motif in the Church that goes to the very heart of Christian Existentialism. Above the beautiful altar and “the rock” where Jesus wept, you will NOT find a giant imposing crucifix like you see in most Catholic Churches and certainly most Christian holy sites. Instead of a crucifix, you see a mosaic of the scene in Gethsemane, and if you sit there at dawn in silence looking at the scene you might ask God about His goodness, and Jesus is asking the same question with you. You see no imposing figure of Jesus above the altar. Instead, you see a small and lonely figure collapsed on a rock surrounded by a moonless void of a sky. Far off to the right you see the apostles asleep, unwilling and unable to help Jesus carry his question. Way up in the top of the sky is an angel, but he is too far away to offer any consolation to Jesus. The angel is only a vague reminder of hope- all but lost in this scene. The Franciscans of the Basilica are right- you will find no explanations here.
After mass at dawn one morning the Friars allowed me stay in the Basilica for an hour before it opened up for tourists. Jerusalem was still sleeping like the Apostles, and I sat there in silence as the faintest light began to creep in the blue to purple colored stained glass, and I could hear birds outside in the Church’s olive tree garden (they call it the Mount of Olives for a reason). I stared at the lonely Jesus collapsed on his rock, and I walked up to the stone before the altar and put my hand on it- the only pilgrim in the entire holy site, which is a very rare occurrence in Jerusalem. Personally, I could not care less if this stone is not the ACTUAL stone where Jesus wept. The fact that pilgrims have come here and prayed, and wept, and remembered this story for nearly 2,000 years in this exact spot is enough for me. Their prayers and tears have consecrated the place. I stared up at Jesus and the unhelpful but hopeful angel far above Him. No explanations came, but maybe something more important. I realized I could only love a God who is willing to crucify Himself. I can’t worship a detached God who tells Holocaust victims that what is horrific has a purpose in the long run. I might theoretically acknowledge that idea, but I’ll never really be able to believe it. Luckily, I don’t have to theorize away all the suffering in the world. In fact, that would be unChristian of me. Instead I can look to Gethsemane. Without explaining the presence of evil, I sit inside the questions and the contradictions with my God. I am in good company.
I left the Basilica as the first tourists where beginning to enter- mostly adhering to the poorly (or appropriately) worded sign asking them to keep a respectful silence in the Church. Outside the church faces the Kidron Valley leading up to the Temple Mount, which is the physical symbol of all the hopefulness and eventual joy that is absent in Gethsemane. I do not know how to connect the Basilica of Agony and all its lonesomeness to the Temple Mount and all of its hopefulness, but like the “poorly worded” sign, there is a lesson and a paradox in the fact that a little valley separates the two. I may never be able to bridge that valley with my limited understanding, but as I look up the hill to the Temple as Jesus might have on that agonizing night, I like to think I find something better than an explanation. I find my God.
Casey Sharp is one of the founders of the Society for Humanitarian Archaeological Research and Exploration, or SHARE, a nonprofit that uses archaeology as a vehicle not only to unearth treasures, but also to promote dialogue among young people from Israel and Palestine. Sharp is currently living in Israel, working on a master’s in archeology from the University of Haifa, near the Lebanon border.