It happens every time I’m in mountains with people in better shape than me. We start skiing or hiking or climbing and once we’re in a rhythm on some steep uphill slope, they start asking me questions: about family, faith, sport, politics. They want conversation; I want to breathe! They’re faster than me, and I know that my presence is holding them back because when they say things like, “Yeah, when I was on Mt. McKinley for the fourth time last spring…” I’m trying to ski up 800 vertical feet without fainting, and they’re recalling their exploits on Mt. McKinley? “What am I doing on the same snow with this person?” is what I ask myself. When I say, “Mt. McKinley eh? 18,000′ of elevation gain? 100 mile an hour winds meant you couldn’t light your cook stove to melt snow for the tea water you needed because you’d just thrown up due to altitude sickness? Wow! Well you know, the last time I hiked in the Alps with a day a pack and had to gain 3000 feet in six hours, I was so thirsty that wished I liked beer, but since I don’t, I needed to settle for an iced lemon drink with the schnitzel and strudel they cooked for me and served….Outside on the deck – of a spectacular hut – while yodelers sang. It was super challenging.”
“You. (huff huff) Go on. (huff huff huff) ahead.” I say to mountaineering friend. “I’m tired of feeling inadequate” is what I don’t say, but want to. That’s when said friend says (and he means it) that he’s not hiking with me because he wants to be challenged. He’s hiking for the fellowship. Three days later, when my pulse has dropped to under 100 bpm, I dawns on me that this event is picture of what John 1:14 means: “the word became flesh and dwelt among us” Jesus held back, as it were, in order to be with us. The full glory of his being was shrouded during his time on earth so that he, the ultimate faith mountaineer, seemed to dwell in the foothills with us, as the disciples sucked air trying to follow him, day after day. “You feed them” Jesus says his disciples regarding some hungry people who have no food. “Storm, calm down” he says when his disciples wake him, terrified that they’ll perish because the waves are sinking the boat, and Jesus is sleeping through it all. He forgives condemned people. He heals lepers. He stays up all night building a following, and then when the whole city’s at the door, he slips away to the next town without creating a mailing list. He’s the consummate faith mountaineer – and he’s holding back in order to be with us.
But this week, holy week, he walks ahead – alone. He told his disciples that he was going to heading away to somewhere they wouldn’t be able to follow. They couldn’t understand, didn’t yet see that this whole time he’d been holding back in order to hike with them. But then he prayed, in the garden, and its so intense that he sweats drops of blood. His followers? Asleep. Next comes the betrayal by one of his, one he’d invested in faithfully for three years greets him as a means of outing him so that he’ll be arrested. His disciples? One of them foolishly tries to take on the Roman army with his meager sword. When he cuts a guy’s ear off and Jesus, having just been arrested, takes the time to perform a little miracle and heal him, all his followers know the game’s up and split every which way. Done.
And Jesus is suddenly alone, on ahead of us up there, going where we can’t, and won’t go. While he’s enduring mocking, an all night trial, some beatings, and carrying his cross through the city before being executed on it, his disciples are busy being paralyzed with fear and doubt, hiding, and denying they ever knew him. When Jesus said he was going to a place they wouldn’t be able to follow, he didn’t just mean the cross. They couldn’t follow him to the summit that is the cross because all the resolve and self-discipline in the world evaporates when what’s asked of us is to willingly die so that someone else can live. That’s Jesus territory, and his alone.
This week we watch through recollection, and see the One who did what was needed in order to break the curse that so obviously hangs on our world. He went the distance, all the way to the summit, and died there, while his most vocal followers fled.
To the extent that I enter in to the story, I find myself identifying with Jesus disciples more than Jesus. I want to follow wholly; to lay down my life; to serve others joyfully by putting their needs above my own; to go the second mile; to turn the other cheek. I want to be that person who’s life smells like Jesus, want to be the consummate faith mountaineer. I want to – but I also don’t. Ambivalence. I like my autonomy. I like taking a nap when I’m tired, even if it’s in the garden when I’m supposed to be praying with my best friend. I like thinking of my money, sexuality, free time, vocation as my own. I like being master of my own fate, even though Jesus, the one I say I follow, said that his will, authority, judgement, power, and life weren’t his own – they belonged to his Father. I like the notion of climbing McKinley or Everest. I just don’t like it enough to actually go there.
So this holy week, as I look at Jesus, I’m in awe of the one who can go it alone, and will go it alone if I’m not willing to follow. The mystery of this season though, isn’t simply that he went it alone FOR me, though that’s profound enough. He went it alone so that, rising from the dead, he could join my journey and go the distance WITH me, enabling me to achieve summits I’d never achieve otherwise.
The first time I stood on the summit of Mt. Rainier, it was because someone went WITH me. I couldn’t, wouldn’t have gone it alone. This holy week we celebrate the one who has gone it alone so that when our time comes for sacrifice, self-denial, suffering, loss, we can turn to the one who paved the way and discover he’s not on the summit cheering us on, but right there with us, and even mysteriously in us, empowering us to reach our own summits, embrace our own crosses. There’s no adventure in the literal mountains that can even come close to this kind of beauty, intimacy, and adventure.
That’s what I love about holy week.