On the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem, there is a patch of olive trees on a site traditionally believed to be the Garden of Gethsemane — the place where Jesus came to pray the night before he died. The olive trees themselves are about 900 years old, and the root systems may go back all the way to the time of Jesus. These small sacred grounds, tucked away amid the noisy, busy streets of modern-day Jerusalem, remain one of the few remaining areas in the city that give us a small glimpse into the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day.
I like to take pilgrims here because, when we draw near to these olive trees, we come in contact with something from the life of Jesus. We stand on the same mountain where Jesus began his passion, and we can begin to picture the place where he prayed in his agony. Entering the sites of Christ’s passion like this can be a profoundly moving experience.
Suddenly, we come to a deeper realization of how real our faith is. Jesus is not just a doctrine, a picture in my living room, an image on a crucifix, or a figure from a book written a long time ago. He is a real person, who made real choices and who came right here to this place to begin his passion and give up his life for me. I am standing where he stood — the God who became man. I am walking in his footsteps. He sweat drops of blood for me here. And he did all this, so I can be in a close friendship with him today. It can be overwhelming to take all this in all at once, and such an experience often sparks a renewed encounter with the living Jesus.
But we do not have to go all the way to the Holy Land to have such an experience. We can encounter that same Jesus through the inspired Scriptures whether we are in Sydney, Toronto, New York or small towns like Freemont, Nebraska and Atchison, Kansas. And that is what I hope to do in this book — bring you, personally, in closer contact with the living Jesus by entering deeper into the Gospel accounts of his passion and death. Think of this book as a biblical pilgrimage through the last hours of Christ’s life. We are going to walk step-by-step with Jesus on his journey from Gethsemane to the Cross, and unpack the biblical background — the history, the prophecies, and most especially, the ways Jesus is inviting us to walk more closely with him today.
In a sense, I want to take you in a “time machine” back to that first century Jewish world of Jesus. Many of us have heard about Jesus agonizing in a garden, being scourged at a pillar and nailed to a cross. But imagine if you had never heard these stories before. Imagine if you were a Jew in the first century hearing these stories for the first time. Imagine if you were Peter or John or one of the other apostles encountering these events as they originally unfolded. What would these experiences have meant to you?
A Biblical Minefield
As we journey with Christ through his passion, one thing we will quickly notice is how every detail in these Gospel narratives is there for a reason. Do not be fooled, thinking small points like the “hyssop” used to bring Jesus his last drink of vinegary wine can’t be very significant (see John 19:29). As we will see, that tiny reference would be huge for the Jews in the first century, recalling the hyssop their ancestors used in Egypt to mark their doorposts with the blood of the Passover lambs. John’s Gospel mentions the “hyssop” at Calvary in the context of the Passover feast in order to proclaim that Jesus is the true Passover lamb being sacrificed to save us. Similarly, do not think that the small points about Christ’s unbroken bones and his body being pierced in his side and then laid in a garden tomb are insignificant background details to the story. Each point brings to mind various prophecies in the Jewish Scriptures and the hopes that people had for what God would come to do for them.
Walking through the narratives of Christ’s passion is like walking through a biblical mine field. It is as if at every step of the way, Old Testament prophecies, messianic expectations, and connections to our Christian faith today, are wonderfully blowing up all around us. We will see that practically every word in these Gospel accounts of Christ’s passion is charged with great significance. Just the names of various places (such as, Mount of Olives, Gethsemane, and Jerusalem) as well as the names of various characters (such as, Barabbas, Joseph of Arimathea, Simon of Cyrene) give important clues as to the role they play in God’s larger plan of salvation. Even the mere mention of someone’s posture is important: The high priest standing up, Jesus falling down with his face to the ground, Jesus turning to look at Peter — each expressing key turning points in the scene and serving as windows into the soul of the person at that moment.
This journey will also give us a deeper appreciation of what Jesus endured for our sake, from his agony in the garden to his death on Calvary. We will also address some of the puzzling words Jesus speaks during his passion, such as:
“Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me” (Matthew 26:39)? (Was Jesus thinking of backing out at the last minute?)
“Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.” (Luke 23:28) (Doesn’t that seem a harsh thing to say to women who are compassionately weeping for him?)
“My God, my God why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27:46)? (Was Jesus really forsaken by the Father on Good Friday?)
“You have said so.” (Matthew 26:64) (What does that mean?)
Most of all, as St. John Paul II once said, the passion of Christ is “the culmination of the revelation of God’s love.” But this is not an amazing love that is simply meant to be admired from afar. Jesus does not want our applause. He wants our hearts. He wants to transform our hearts with this love. So, as we walk through Christ’s passion, we will consider how we can live his example of love in our own daily lives. After all, these are not just stories from a long time ago. Jesus wants us to make them our own. He wants to re-live the love story of his passion in us. For when we allow Christ to do that, we discover a greater love than the world has ever known. Indeed, as Jesus himself said,
“Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
This excerpt is from Edward Sri’s book No Greater Love: A Biblical Walk through Christ’s Passion