The shadows of the garden: Maundy Thursday 2021

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Then cometh Jesus with them unto a place called Gethsemane, and saith unto the disciples, Sit ye here, while I go and pray yonder.  And he took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be sorrowful and very heavy.  Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me.

 And he went a little farther, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.

And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep, and saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour?  Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.

 He went away again the second time, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done. And he came and found them asleep again: for their eyes were heavy.

This is one of the most sombre moments of the Passion narrative, the story of Jesus’ suffering and death.  Our Maundy Thursday service brings us to Gethsemane, where the Gospels tell us Jesus prayed, and his disciples fell asleep.  There is something claustrophobic and unsettling about this part of the story.  After coming to Jerusalem earlier in the Gospel, Jesus enters the garden of Gethsemane, and then chooses one particular spot in the garden, telling his disciples to sit elsewhere. Smaller and smaller spaces, and less chance of escape.  We can almost feel things closing in on him – if we know the story beforehand, we know that there are already soldiers coming to the garden to arrest him. 

I’ve said “garden”, and I’ve mentioned the space closing in, because I think the space where all this happens matters.  John’s Gospel calls it a “kepos”, a garden, and the others call it a “chorion”, an estate, perhaps for farming olives.  This is why we call it the Garden of Gethsemane in Christian tradition.  And that garden matters, because it gives us a hint of the scale of what is taking place here.  In Genesis, humankind lived in the Garden of Eden in bliss, and the first sin exiled them from that garden.  Here, at the other turning point in human history, Jesus comes back to the garden.  Not because he has sinned – he hasn’t – but in order to bear that sin which has kept humans from Eden, and from the life lived in love and harmony with God. 

That, I think, is why the garden feels so hostile and strange in this passage.  It is no longer a joyful place for humans.  Here we have to face our own failures, our own selfishness and violence.  The ways we turn away from God.  We can even see this re-enacted in the small betrayal of the disciples falling asleep whilst Jesus is struggling.  He asked one thing of them, and they did not do it.  The echoes of Adam and Eve are still in the garden.  When the soldiers arrive, Peter will even draw a sword to keep them out, as if claiming the role of the angel with the flaming blade which Genesis says was set to guard Eden.  He has not understood who he is in this garden.

But there is also the difficult, almost incredible, act of Jesus in his prayer.  The self-sacrifice, the self-denying obedience which shows us the root of the atonement.  “not as I will, but as thou wilt”, Jesus prays.  At the heart of the garden, one human offers their will to God, knowing how high the cost will be.  As God, Christ is betrayed.  As human, he is obedient.  The whole drama of Jesus’ purpose and his work is shown in the shadows of the garden. 

In these shadows, everything begins to change, because of what he did.  Coming to the garden, we are confronted with our own falling short, the ways we have betrayed and the ways we have turned away.  But what is said there has a familiar sound – “my father”, “thy will”, “into temptation”.  Jesus himself taught us how to pray; let us join him, and watch and wait with him in the garden, saying after him:

Our father, who art in heaven,

Hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,

On earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread

And forgive us our trespasses

As we forgive those that trespass against us,

And lead us not into temptation

But deliver us from evil,

For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory

For ever and ever

Amen.