A meditation for a Labyrinth Quiet Day, portion of which were adapted as my Palm Sunday sermon this week.
To the best of my knowledge, the story of the garden of Gethsemane never comes up in the Sunday lectionary on its own. It may show up in the year we read the passion according to Mark, depending upon what version you’re using, but in that case it’s a precursor to the crucifixion, so there’s no chance to really sit with it as its own story.
But if there is a story in the Gospel about my experience of prayer, this is it. And it’s a story I need to hear again and again.
I spend much of my priestly ministry being positive. Of course God hears your prayers. Of course spiritual growth is possible. I know sometimes it feels like you’re spiritually dry and distant from God, but just because you don’t feel it doesn’t mean that God is not there, waiting for us to reach out in a different way.
Gethsemane allows me to give in to all the bleakness that—sometimes—undergirds the (very real) joy I experience in my ministry as a Christian.
Jesus is with his friends, then he leaves them to go alone further into the garden, and he prays. And there is no answer. And then he returns to his friends and they are useless, asleep, not able to do the one thing he asked of them. And then he moves back to his place of prayer, and prays the same thing he just prayed; he is frightened and alone and does not want to face the betrayal and cross that he knows is imminent. And there is still no answer. He returns to his sleeping friends one more time, and then back to the place of prayer for the third time. He prays again, ever fervent. And still no word of comfort, no miracle, no hint of God. And then he gets up, wakes up his friends, and heads out to meet Judas.
That absence of divine response is disturbing. It’s so disturbing that in the window showing the Gethsemane scene in this chapel, the artist has depicted Jesus at prayer with an angel hovering over him. He couldn’t really just be praying alone, with no answer.
The movie The Passion of the Christ takes the same discomfort and turns it in a differen direction. Jesus goes to pray, only once, and his prayer is met by Satan. There is no back and forth with the disciples; but Satan debates with Jesus, and then when a snake slithers away from Satan towards Jesus, he stomps triumphantly on the snake’s head and kills it.
If only evil were so easy to identify and vanquish. And if only our prayers were met with such direct response, even from Satan, where we can debate and argue and clarify our thoughts and prayers and take action. When Jesus is tempted by Satan in the desert, he answers him—and vanquishes him. Gethsemane is perhaps parallel to the temptation, but it is different. Jesus is still having three specific trials, but instead of being with Satan, they are with nothingness.
It’s one thing to be confronted by evil. It’s another thing to be confronted by absence, or at least the palpable experience of absence. This week for our adult education class we read The Sunflower, Simon Wiesenthal’s exploration of forgiveness and reconciliation based upon his experience in concentration camps during the Holocaust, and in it he clings to a statement by another character that “God is on leave” during their suffering. In Madeline L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time books, the great evil, the Echthroi, which means “enemies”, attempt to bring beings and the world into nothingness. They do not try to convert good people to evil, they “Ex” them out, un-name them, reduce them to un-being.
Jesus is confronted with the absence of God both here at Gethsemane and on the cross—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Where Gethsemane speaks to me of the labyrinth is in terms of the repetition of the same journey while searching. We walk in to the holy place, we don’t get what we think we want or need… we walk out again… and then sometimes we do it again. It’s almost like pacing. And here I see pacing not as just a nervous habit—though it can be that—but as the way we, when feeling spiritually stuck, can try to jump start our spiritual lives through movement. It’s intentional pacing, a pendulum swinging, the physicalization of the search. But it’s also movement that is interspersed with periods of stillness. Walk, then pray. Walk, then pray.
We follow the same path in search of God over and over, and we often do it alone. Friends can only support us in our spiritual journey so far. Gethsemane is just a brief foretaste of the disciples’ abandonment of Jesus to come. But abandonment is part of the faith journey too—we fall asleep. We don’t do all we can to support Jesus. But that failure does not make us worthless. That failure and the ability to repent and return to faith make us the very people on whose shoulders the Gospel rests.
I’ve watched some friends go through tough times, and it’s hard to be that inner circle. It’s hard to know when to stay awake, when you need to sleep, when you should tell Jesus that you will not wait at a safe distance but that actually you’re going to go with him deeper in the garden so that he will not be alone. We need not only identify with Jesus in this story—the disciples are also on a journey with him.
Gethsemane prods us into contemplating the questions we bring to our prayer journey. Most of us don’t have the grace to pray what Jesus prays: ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’ Our prayers are more like “Please please please please I will do anything just so long as you let this cup pass from me.” Most of our prayers are, “I want.” The hardest prayer any of us may ever pray is “Not what I want.”
Gethsemane takes away the self-help aspects of Christianity and modern churchgoing—come to church and your life will be better! You’ll feel more centered! You’ll be a better person! And challenges us to have faith not because of what we are going to get out of it in the short term, but because it is the path to which we are called.
The unanswered question for me is if the silence means that what God wants is for his son to go to the cross. Many years ago, a young man at this church told me that he had been praying the same prayer for 17 years and God still hadn’t answered it. I must have been tired that day… but I answered—too bluntly—“Maybe God has answered and the answer is no.” He didn’t come back to church. But both the young man’s question and my answer assumed that God’s answers to prayers are binary: yes or no. God may be more subtle. I wonder what God’s response to Jesus’ prayer today might be, if it were articulated in words; the character of the God I believe in would not say to his son, “I want for you to drink the cup of crucifixion and suffering.” Perhaps, “The cup is not the cup I want, but it is the cup that is necessary because I love you.” As a parent, I do find myself in these positions sometimes, where my son wants me to do something that will help him and I have to say no—because he needs to learn how to do it on his own, or because I realize that suffering is part of the human condition and he needs to learn to experience it and keep going.
When Jesus has made this journey, the next one begins. Even when we are stuck, and feel like our questions haven’t been answered the way we want and we are unsatisfied with the quality of our prayer, our mission and our witness still lies ahead of us. It is good to keep going back to the center and seek the answer. But that search is not infinite. And that search is not some sort of orderly preliminary to further spiritual life. You don’t have to graduate successfully from Gethsemane to go to the cross; It’s not a video game level to be won so that you can unlock the next task. The next task is still there, and it takes perhaps even more courage and faith to move on without the assurance of completion of the prior experience, but sometimes we are called to do that. My call as a Christian is not dependent upon my clarity, my certitude, my ability to hear the voice of the divine, my capacity for spiritual pyrotechnics.
That's the good news of Gethsemane. The journey continues.
So get up. Let us be going. Our next journey is at hand.