Christ’s prayer at Gethsemane, “let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matthew 26: 39), has been a point of contention for theologians for over a thousand years. How could Christ, as God, even waver? This question goes to the heart of our soteriology, anthropology and Christology. By the 6th Ecumenical Council (681) it was affirmed that Christ having two natures (human and divine) also had two wills (human & divine). The realization that unfolds is that Christ’s natural human will is transcended: its desire for self-preservation is eclipsed by its desire for the divine.
Ian McFarland, in his article “’Naturally and by Grace’: Maximus the Confessor on the Operation of the Will,” suggests that the fear of death, as a natural inclination—inherent to human nature, moved Jesus to want to pass the cup. It is the deified human will of Christ, that freely transcends its human nature in obedience to God, wherein lies the redeeming cosmic restorative action, fulfilling the purpose of the incarnation itself. McFarland suggests: “What defines the particularity of Christ’s existence as a human being is his being called and given the grace to accept the cup.” He concludes:
The divine will “moves and shapes” Christ’s human will which, in turn, accepts this moving and shaping in an act of obedience that both reflects and constitutes its deification. Moreover, the unswerving orientation to God, far from undermining the willer’s particularity, actually secures it: Christ is never more Christ than in his acceptance of the cup; and indeed, he would not be Christ apart from it. The deified will remains both free and distinctively human, because God draws the individual to God’s self not by cancelling or overriding human willing, but rather by giving the will the grace to desire an object that exceeds its natural capacities. In this way, the will is presented with an object that it could not desire on its own, but which by God’s grace it is able to accept as its most proper desire.
Diadochos of Photike (+500 C.E.) declares: “All of us who are human beings are in the image of God. But to be in his likeness belongs only to those who by great love have attached their freedom to God.” The activity of deification is a divine act, and a human “consent.” It is precisely in the deified human nature of Christ, made possible by the incarnation, that the human will, the conscience of man, is healed. Christ’s life as human is the reformation of human will. Through “great love,” Christ once and for all, as human, offers a “voluntary outpassing” of the natural will itself, divinizing human nature and opening the way for us to follow, the restoration of all creation. This is the true meaning of the “way of the cross” and the true fulfillment of human will.
In the wake of recent terrorist attacks in Brussels, France and Turkey, in the face of those who betray us, the shocking invitation to share His cup becomes all the more unfathomable. Surely, it is natural to desire self-preservation, perhaps even to strike at those who would strike us first.
Pray for me and those who respond in such a way with venomous tongues, waving fists, or swinging swords.
Lord, your betrayer is at hand, is it me? Give me the grace to drink from your cup.