They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, "Sit here while I pray." He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, "I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake." And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, "Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want." He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, "Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. He came a third time and said to them, "Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand."
I can't help but think the women were awake. First, they would not have had as much to drink at the Passover meal. Instead, they would have been negotiating with merchants for last minute items, preparing the food, shooing away animals, soothing children awake past their bedtimes, and finally clearing away the debris of the meal and sweeping the borrowed space. Perhaps they came to the olive grove late, walking by themselves along the Kidron valley in the moonlight.
By then it may have been too late to convince Jesus to rouse himself and walk with haste across the Mount of Olives toward escape in the desert. By then Jesus may have already thrown himself to the ground in agony, sweating blood, weeping in mortal torment. Perhaps this was part of Jesus' plan. He had to face alone the coming contest with evil. Even Judas knew the women would stay behind to clean up. He knew the women would not have obediently let Jesus pray alone in danger, but argued with him to stop fussing and get a move on.
Nevertheless, the women and common sense remained in Jersualem until too late, leaving Jesus alone in his agony.
Was it the kind of death he was going to die? He's not about to drink hemlock surrounded by admiring friends hanging on his every word. He faces the most obscenely cruel torture perfected over centuries by the cleverest people on earth, devised to maximize terror not only for the victim but for the populace. Seven last words? Barely able to breath he will have just enough air to stay alive and suffer.
Did he believe he would redeem humanity by the offering of his body, by the shedding of his blood? Did he believe he would harrow hell and rise from the dead? Or, did he sense the silence of God and wonder whether his mission had been yet one more messianic illusion? Let this hour pass from me. Remove this cup from me. In these prayers, did he mean his death or something even more torturous, dangerous, difficult, and mysterious?
Sit here while I pray... remain here, and keep awake.
Padre Pio writes, "How many hearts in the course of the centuries have responded generously to Thy invitation...May this multitude of souls, then, in this supreme hour, be a comfort to Thee, who, better than the disciples, share with Thee the distress of Thy heart."
When a friend suffers in agony, it is enough to be present and say nothing. And so, we do.
A Thought for a Lonely Death-Bed
If God compel thee to this destiny, To die alone, with none beside thy bed To ruffle round with sobs thy last word said And mark with tears the pulses ebb from thee,-- Pray then alone, ' O Christ, come tenderly ! By thy forsaken Sonship in the red Drear wine-press,--by the wilderness out-spread,-- And the lone garden where thine agony Fell bloody from thy brow,--by all of those Permitted desolations, comfort mine ! No earthly friend being near me, interpose No deathly angel 'twixt my face and thine, But stoop Thyself to gather my life's rose, And smile away my mortal to Divine ! '
-Elizabeth Barrett Browning 1806-1861
Agony in the Garden, Fra Angelico,
Meditation One Praying with Jesus
O Jesus, how many generous souls...have kept Thee company in the Garden, sharing Thy bitterness and Thy mortal anguish...How many hearts in the course of the centuries have responded generously to Thy invitation... May this multitude of souls, then, in this supreme hour, be a comfort to Thee, who, better than the disciples, share with Thee the distress of Thy heart, and cooperate with Thee for their own salvation and that of others. And grant that I also may be of their number, that I also may offer Thee some relief.
-Padre Pio 1887-1968
Meditation Two In our weakness
The grass never sleeps. Or the roses. Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.
Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.
The cricket has such splended fringe on its feet, and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body, and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.
Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did, maybe the wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn't move, maybe the lake far away, where once he walked as on a blue pavement, lay still and waited, wild awake.
Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not keep that vigil, how they must have wept, so utterly human, knowing this too must be part of the story.
-Mary Oliver Thirst
Meditation Three Praying with others
By your heaviness and fear in Gethsemane, comfort the oppressed and those who are afraid. By Your loneliness, facing the Passion while the Apostles slept, comfort those who face evil alone while the world sleeps. By Your persistent prayer, in anguish of anticipating, strengthen those who shrink from the unknown. By your humility, taking the comfort of angels, Give us grace to help and to be helped by one another, and in one another to comfort You, Jesus Christ. Amen.
-Frances Caryll Houselander 1901-54
The Last Word
If the tears on my cheeks can achieve nothing, O, then take my heart! But for the streams, when wounds do gently bleed, let it also be the sacrificial cup.
-from the Saint Matthew Passion by J.S.Bach, libretto by Picander (Christian Fredreich Henrici)