A Runner’s Meditation on Holy Saturday

When I think about Saturday mornings, I think about running.

Last Saturday morning, I ran a 10K. By the time I was half an hour in, my quads were tight and my lungs were burning, but I tried to keep my focus on the task at hand. I was able to imagine the discomfort quarantined to those parts of my body and remind myself that the rest of me was still all right. The handful of spectators cheering runners up the last couple of hills provided a bit of an emotional lift and helped me keep pushing to the finish.

Exactly 6 months ago this Saturday morning, I had a much more intense experience running a marathon for the first time. After three hours of running, I started to notice weird aches in several distinct locations on my body—knees, thighs, ankles, lungs. As my muscles exhausted their glycogen reserves and I “hit the wall,” these sensations merged into an undifferentiated mass of pain. In this fatigued state, I was still aware of sensations from the outside world, but nothing seemed to register emotionally. Instead, there was only a strange numbness. I saw the hundreds of fans lining the final miles to the finish and heard the racket of dozens of cowbells, but I felt no excitement. Seeing friends along the course cheered me for a moment, but the glow faded instantly once I passed them by, and I tried to blink back the darkness hovering around my peripheral vision.

These two very different experiences make me think that it must not be pain alone that breaks a person; it’s fatigue too. Human beings are capable of enduring surprising levels of suffering as long as they have hope and willpower to get through it. If some part of your body (or your life) hurts, it’s possible to isolate it and marshal the strength remaining in the rest of yourself to keep going, even enjoying the rest of what you’re doing. But throw exhaustion and fatigue into the mix, and it seems you are no longer able to distance yourself from the pain. Since you cannot distinguish what is hurting, you begin to feel pain everywhere, waves of pain that seem to be drowning you.

Nineteen hundred-something years ago this Saturday morning, the Son of God lay dead in a tomb after hanging on a cross for three hours the previous day. As silly as it is to compare the pain of finishing a 10K to that of finishing a marathon, it would be more foolish to compare even the most grueling race to what Jesus endured (this essay notwithstanding).

Although the pain experienced by victims of crucifixion was infamously intense (the source of our word “excruciating”), they actually died from fatigue. Simply taking a breath required great effort when hanging in such an awkward position, and victims simply suffocated when they became too exhausted to continue. In the face of this physical pain and fatigue combined with both psychological and spiritual torment, Jesus was no doubt sorely tempted to give up. In anguished anticipation, he had asked his Father again and again if there was any way to avoid the “cup” of suffering he was about to drink (Luke 22:42). But the answer came back that there was not.  And so he not only drank the vinegar offered by his executioners as a final gesture of cruelty and injustice; he drained the cup of God’s wrath to the last drop too.

In that moment, Jesus as a man had no hope of getting through to better days. He knew the pressure of God’s wrath on him would only continue to increase until it consumed him. The pain really was going to suffocate him, both physically and spiritually. His heart raced faster and faster as fluid accumulated around it, like a runner in dangerous distress at the end of a race (John 19:34). Then he gave up his spirit, finally surrendering to the onslaught of torment, like a drowning person watching the surface of the water slip away above them.

To love someone is to share in their suffering, and Jesus suffered to the last because he loved us to the last (John 13:1). The author of Hebrews tells us Jesus can sympathize with our weaknesses because he was tempted in every way, just as we are (Hebrews 4:15). The fact that Jesus did not succumb to any temptation despite his pain does not diminish his ability to relate to our temptations and hurts; instead, it deepens it. Just as the runner who finishes the race despite the discomfort ends up suffering even more than the one who gives up before the finish line, the person who resists a temptation faithfully to the end feels its pull even more strongly than the one who gives in. Whatever level of suffering we experience in our lives, Jesus felt that and more during the course of his hours on the cross.

But this fellowship of suffering in love goes the other way, too: part of how we grow to love Jesus is by learning to join in his sufferings. The Apostle Paul taught that those of us who belong to Jesus will share in his sufferings as well as his glory (Romans 8:17), carrying around his death in our bodies (2 Corinthians 4:10), so that we actually come to know him through his sufferings (Philippians 3:10).

But the life of most people who call themselves Christians in America does not look much like suffering. We read of believers in Egypt being murdered by terrorists in the middle of Palm Sunday worship, and then we go to our own church services in comfort, donning nice spring outfits and preparing festive Easter meals. Talk of following Jesus with an instrument of torture strapped to our back (Matthew 10:38) seems far-fetched. As uncomfortable as it is, I would do well to meditate on those words more. But perhaps there is also something we could gain by sharing in some part of our brothers’ and sisters’ sufferings as they share in Christ’s, identifying ourselves with the powerless, persecuted, or oppressed.

I know close friends and family who have experienced the torment of overwhelming pain and fatigue, whether physical or mental. I’ve seen the terrible pain and confusion it can inflict in their lives, but I’ve never really felt it firsthand. While it’s not a fair comparison to real-life suffering, my experience in the marathon is the only way I can even find a category to sympathize with the sense of weakness, numbness, or despair some of these people must be going through. I’d like to think having briefly tasted the sensation of despair that accompanies total exhaustion makes me a little more compassionate and understanding towards other’s struggles.

Yes, Jesus knows what it is like to suffer to the end, even all the way to the point of death. And yet his suffering was not in fact the end. Just as the runner’s pain instantly begins to abate the moment they cross the finish line and receive their medal, the moment Jesus crossed the finish line with his last breath, crying out in triumph, “It is finished!” (John 19:28-30), he sat down on the victor’s throne in heaven (Hebrews 12:2).

Tomorrow, on Easter Sunday, millions of Christians will come together to commemorate Christ’s victory over sin and death yet again. The hope of joining the victory celebration in person one day is what inspires us to persevere through—even to embrace—the sufferings of this life without losing heart, because we knew that future glory would far outweigh them (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).

(And then on Monday, thousands of athletes will come together to commemorate the world’s oldest marathon yet again, and the hope of joining them in person one day will inspire me to persevere through—even to embrace—another hot and humid summer of running, but that is not a story for this day…)

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