Which is worse – physical or psychological pain? And which is worse, going through a time of intense suffering, or the anticipation of that suffering – knowing for certain that it’s going to happen and being powerless to escape it; simply having to wait like a death-row criminal the day before execution?
On balance, I’d say emotional and psychological pain are often worse than physical, and that anticipation of unavoidable suffering is often a worse torment than the actual event. On either count then, Maundy Thursday evening may have been at least as bad for Jesus as Good Friday itself.
The sheer physical agony of the cross is hard for most of us to imagine or identify with, let alone share (though from my limited experience of watching childbirth, I’d hazard a guess that labour-pains might come close). But the emotional agony of Maundy Thursday is perhaps equal in scale, and it’s something we can more easily identify with.
First there’s the solitary anguish of anticipation, alone in the garden, begging for a fast-impending fate to be taken away, knowing deep down that it cannot be. Then there’s the pain of betrayal by a close companion, someone who you’ve shared all of life with for three years – and betrayal by a kiss, that bitterest of ironies. Hard on the heels of that, there’s being abandoned and deserted by all your other friends in your hour of need, and having one of your closest friends deny publicly that they ever knew you, just to save their own skin. And that’s all before the terrible travesty of a trumped-up trial, and the start of the mockery and brutality that will culminate in crucifixion. And all the way through, a terrible kind of total aloneness.
Jesus had known from the start how his ministry must end; had been preparing for Good Friday since his baptism in the Jordan. But maybe nothing could have prepared him for the night before; the night when, alone on his knees and sweating in torment of soul he prayed that the cup of suffering might be taken from him. Perhaps never was Jesus so clearly human as at this moment. Those who know the lightlessness of the dark night of the soul stand in the best of all company, for Jesus has known it too.
And in the end he could bring himself to utter that hardest prayer of all: ‘yet not my will but yours be done’. The die is cast; the betrayer approaches; the dark shadow of the cross has started to fall, blotting out what remains of the light.