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.’
This scene is a precursor to the infamous moment when Peter denies Jesus three times. It sets the mood as our journey through Lent reaches its climax. It invites us into our own moments of soul-searching.
For the first time, Jesus is starting to feel disconnected from God, a creeping sense of dread which fully realises itself when he cries “My God, why have you forsaken me?” on the cross (Matt 27.46). He asks for an alternative path than the one laid out before him. Jesus undertakes a night of prayer asking the disciples to join with him. Three times he finds them unable to do this; on the first occasion he directs his questioning at Peter.
The scene draws us in and provokes us to make us ask hard questions of ourselves. Are we like Peter and the others – enthusiastic one moment, but unable to stay focussed another? Do we associate with Jesus for our own reasons, ready to withdraw when better options present themselves? Or are we prepared to accompany him during this time of agonising prayer?
But, gentle reader, we will also find ourselves in our own Garden of Gethsemane. We will have to face agonising times of prayer, desperately seeking a way forward which avoids suffering, a time where even our closest friends may not stand with us. But hopefully one lone figure will stand out amidst the gloom – the silhouette of Jesus Christ who surely “took up our pain and bore our suffering” (Is 53.4).
Lord Jesus Christ, thank-you that we don’t travel this Easter road alone. You trailblazer the path ahead for us. You travel with us, even when our companions sometimes desert us. Please grant us the strength to endure the path that you have mapped out for us. Lead us to the joy of the Resurrection morning. Amen.
The Rev’d Daniel Harris (Minister with the Rochdale, Bury and North Manchester Missional Partnership)