Today’s Bible reading
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to the disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and became anguished and distressed. Then he said to them, “My soul is deeply grieved, even to the point of death. Remain here and stay awake with me.” Going a little farther, he threw himself down with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if possible, let this cup pass from me! Yet not what I will, but what you will.” Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. He said to Peter, “So, couldn’t you stay awake with me for one hour? Stay awake and pray that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” – Matthew 26:36-41
More thoughts for meditation
When modern Israel wants to show contempt for the occupied Palestinians, they cut down their olive trees. No one cuts down an olive tree out of kindness, they are much too valuable, almost sacred. When Roman Emperor Titus laid siege to Jerusalem in 70AD, he cut down the olive trees in the suburbs to build the siege works. Many of those trees forested the Garden of Gethsemane, no doubt, the garden on the Mount of Olives where Jesus prayed before he was betrayed. Gethsemane was a popular spot outside Jerusalem’s walls to cool off, be seen and relax. The people who cultivate the rival sites of the original garden for today’s pilgrims to enjoy replicate the pleasure the grove might have provided Jesus, who often went there.
In today’s reading, Jesus prays alone in Gethsemane. He is dragged off alone from there. He is deserted by his disciples there. He leaves the muffled quiet of the olive trees to be nailed to a tree amid a forest of jeers.
It is significant that the Lord’s agony started in a garden. Archetypically, a garden is a place of delight, a place of love, a place to drink wine, a place where lovers meet in the moonlight, the place of intimacy. The garden is paradise. The Garden of Eden was Paradise. Adam was the first to inhabit it. Paul types Jesus as a “second Adam,” the first of us in the new creation. Jesus is a redo, a re-entry into Eden. Jesus tells the repentant thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Just before he is crucified, Jesus sweats blood in a garden as a lover. He is not the great King, full of pain because the sheep will not heed the shepherd; nor is he there as the great Magus, full of sorrow because nobody wants to pick up on the truth he has revealed; nor is he the great warrior, frustrated in his efforts to defeat the powers of sin, death, and darkness. These pains and frustrations mostly take place elsewhere, among the crowds, in the temple, in the desert. The garden is for lovers, not for kings, magi, and warriors.
It is Jesus, the lover, the one who calls us to intimacy and delight with him, who sweats blood in the garden. Jesus is alone, misunderstood, lonely, isolated, without support. We see his suffering as a lover; the agony of a heart that’s ultra-sensitive, gentle, loving, understanding, warm, inviting, hungry to embrace everyone, but a heart which instead finds itself misunderstood, alone, isolated, hated, brutalized, facing murder.
You have probably been falsely accused or cut off by a friend. I suspect Walter Wallace’s mother and wife feel alone in their grief, even though they are surrounded by supporters and media attention. Jesus knows that kind of isolation and loneliness. We see him in Gethsemane as a lover who’s been misunderstood and humiliated. He’s the upright man publicly accused of lying, now vulnerable and defenseless. He’s the sensitive woman who discovers someone has been telling a false story to her friends and they are all suspicious she was ever who she pretended to be. You may have been there and also prayed something like, “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me!”
Suggestions for action
It has been such a bruising year! If you’ve been following politics, you may end up exhausted and hopeless, wondering if there is anyone actually in the community to which you have been giving attention. If you hoped for societal change in the face of systemic, murderous racism, the tragedy still reverberating in West Philadelphia surely made you cry with frustration and pain. The virus comes into town like a cruel power to cut down our olive trees. Jesus is drinking that cup with you.
The isolated may isolate, but Jesus is isolated with them. Our loneliness may be an existential reality for us, but Jesus is with us there, too. [Sings Andrew Yang]