On Thursday of Holy Week, according to tradition, Jesus took his disciples late at night to Gethsemane to pray. He was preparing himself for what lay ahead; his pending trial, crucifixion and death.
Mark writes that Jesus was “deeply distressed and agitated” (Mk. 14:38). Matthew says that he was “deeply grieved, even to death” (Matt. 26:38). Luke states that “In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” (Lk. 22:44). Jesus himself said, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26: 41).
This short portion of scripture shows as clearly as any the human side of Jesus. Jesus was afraid. He was lonely. He experienced existential angst. When he most needed the support of his companions, they fell asleep. Three times. When he most needed the support of his faith they rejected him and were soon to call for his crucifixion. Later, he even felt abandoned by the one who had sent him. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he calls out from the cross, quoting Psalm 22.
This passage more than any other is where I most closely identify with Jesus. It is the place where he shows his most human side. Yet, at the same time, it is at the place where God comes closest to me. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, moved into our neighborhood and shared our anxieties with us.
As a human, Jesus gives us a way to deal with our moments of existential angst, fear and anxiety. At many crucial points in Jesus’ ministry, he withdraws at night to pray. Get away from it all, in the stillness of night, when most of the world is asleep, Jesus withdraws, as was his custom, to pray. Sometimes he went alone, sometimes he took his disciples with him, as he did on this occasion. And he gives his disciples these instructions: “stay, watch and pray.” This is great advice for dealing with existential angst. His disciples fell asleep. Is this how we deal with our own fear and anxiety?
Stay. Stay is often translated “abide.” “God is love,” states the writer of 1 John 4: 16, “. . . those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” Jesus was trying to abide in God’s love through his prayer. “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me,” he prays (Matt. 26:39b). He repeats this prayer three times. Feeling God’s presence is not often immediate. Sometimes we need to repeat our doubts, our fears, and our needs in order to become more centered, more focused on God than on ourselves.
1 John continues: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” Jesus’ fear abates somewhat as he repeats the prayer. After the second time, he states “your will be done.” After the third time, Jesus is ready to face what is ahead: “the hour is at hand.” His fear hasn’t gone away, but it has lessened as he senses God’s presence and abiding love.
Watch. Jesus also told his disciples to watch. Watch means being mindful, being on the lookout for the enemy, for the movement of God’s spirit among us. Being open to God’s presence wherever we are and in whatever circumstances. Jesus’ companions failed this test as well. They fell asleep. It is easy to criticize them for their lack of watchfulness, but how many of us sleep walk through life not noticing either the enemy’s distractions or God’s beckoning?
The passage in 1 John continues, “. . . as he is, so are we in this world.” Because Jesus experienced everything that we face, because he was fully human and struggled with the same things with which we struggle, we have little excuse for falling asleep in crucial moments.
Abide in God’s love, withdraw to pray and be watchful through the night. We do not have to let our existential angst overcome us. Jesus has led the way by his example, “for neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39). Amen.