On Sunday I preached on the Garden of Gethsemane, one of the darkest and most psychologically intense passages of Scripture, as Jesus looks into the face of death, pleads with the Father to take away the cup of judgment, and then resolutely decides “Yet not my will, but yours.”
As I was preparing for it I remembered the powerful scene in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince where Dumbledore drinks the potion of despair.
I vividly recall the moments when I first read that chapter of the book. I’m not really one for teen fiction, but there was something so gripping about that chapter, that I couldn’t put it down. I remember reading it in the passenger seat of a car, late at night, by torchlight, as my friend who was driving and had already read the book was eagerly waiting for me to reach this particular scene so we could talk about it. I still maintain that this small section is the best bit of writing ever to have come forth from Rowling’s pen.
The film adaptation didn’t really do justice to the internal torment expressed in the book, but if you’re not familiar with the scene, here it is:
I think one of the reasons I found it so moving was the apparent Christ parallels and the similarities to the Gethsemane story.
- In order to defeat evil, a cup must be drunk. There is simply no other way around it.
- The cup brings intense pain upon the drinker.
- There are twelve cups-worth of liquid (in the book she makes a big point about this) perhaps pointing to the disciples, or to Israel.
- Harry offers to drink the cup, but Dumbledore sacrificially drinks it in his place.
- Having drunk the cup, Dumbledore is struck with a deep and unquenchable thirst and declares, as does Christ on the cross, “I thirst”
- Then as the fire rages (not shown in the clip above) Dumbledore experiences a kind of resurrection and defeats the flames, saving Harry.
In many ways it is a powerful scene, laden with symbolism straight from Gethsemane. And yet, as I revisited it, thinking about the sermon, I also noticed that in one quite major way it is really a gross distortion of Gethsemane.
You see, the one who drinks the cup is not ‘the chosen one’ but an elderly man who considers himself ‘much older, much cleverer, and much less valuable.’ But knowing the pain that would come upon him and knowing that the cup ‘might paralyse me, cause me to forget what I am here for, create so much pain I am distracted, or render me incapable in some other way’ he asks Harry to pledge that whatever happens, he will force him to continue drinking.
And so the scene is actually a brutal one, in which the chosen one force-feeds the potion of despair to a weakening old man, who pleads and begs him to stop.
Not so Christlike now huh?
Now of course, that doesn’t stop it being a powerful scene, and I also have no idea to what degree J.K. Rowling was attempting to conjure up associations with Gethsemane anyway. But it did remind me of how easy it is to misrepresent the cross and to fall into the trap of portraying it in ways that render God cruel.
Many object that, in ways resembling that scene from Harry Potter, atonement theology presents God like a cruel and malevolent being, inflicting wrath upon an undeserving son. Against his will. Ignoring his cries for mercy. What could be good news about that?
But what strikes me about Gethsemane and other surrounding passages is the active participation of the Son. He chose the cross.
- He rejected the temptations of the Devil to take the Kingdom by means other than through self-giving sacrifice (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13)
- He rejected the similarly ‘devilish’ temptation from Peter, when he tried to dissuade him away from the way of the cross (Mark 8:33)
- In Gethsemane he asked God for another way, but through wrestling in prayer he concluded ‘Not my will, but yours’ (Matthew 26:39, 42)
- When Judas arrived for his arrest, there was no shock. Jesus told him “do what you came for, friend” (Matt 26:50). He even called his betrayer ‘friend’!
- He told Peter to put away his sword when he fought to defend him, saying that if he wanted he could call a legion of angels at a moment’s notice, and yet he chose not to (Matt 26:52-53)
- He claimed to be the good shepherd who lays down his life of his own accord – nobody takes it from him. He has the authority to lay it down and take it up (John 10:11, 17-18)
- When standing before the crowd who were about to condemn him, Jesus didn’t shrink back in fear, or try to remain inconspicuous. Rather, he took the initiative and, ‘knowing all that was going to happen to him, he went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?”“Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “I am he,” Jesus said.’ (John 18:4-5)
- In the midst of mockery and brutality, Pilate said to Jesus ‘“Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above”’ (John 19:10-11)
This is no cowering man, having a cup thrust to his lips against his will. The terror he faced was very real and completely unique (check out my sermon for more on that) but he personally chose to face it head on. He drank the cup when there was nobody around to offer help or encouragement; they’d all fallen asleep or deserted him.
Jesus chose the cross.
As Martyn Layzell puts it in his song ‘Lost in Wonder’
You chose the cross with every breath
The perfect life, The perfect death
You chose the cross
A crown of thorns you wore for us
And crowned us with eternal life
You chose the cross
And though your soul was overwhelmed with pain
Obedient to death You overcame
I’m Lost in wonder
I’m lost in love
I’m lost in praise forevermore
Because of Jesus’ unfailing love
I am forgiven
I am restored