Gethsemane, Presence and Prayer

This evening we were reflecting on Gethsemane in our housegroup, thinking about the visceral reality of the moment as it is depicted by Matthew. A short paragraph from the notes helped me to summarise what I thought about it (though in a kind of opposite way!)

There are at least 2 potential resources Jesus was drawing on when facing this time courageously. The first being the presence of his friends; the second being that of prayer to his Father.

You see I’m not sure about that. I think the point Matthew is making is that both seem to be failing Jesus in this moment.

His friends are physically inhabiting the space nearby to him, but are they present in any way? No, they’re not even conscious! Let’s not be too hard on them, it’s been a long week, lots to see and do, lots of teaching. It’s been a long day, a long evening, a difficult one. They’ve had a big meal that weighs heavy in their stomachs, they’ve had a couple of drinks. But most of all, they haven’t really understood what is about to happen. They’ve been told, of course, but they’ve not taken it in at all. They don’t believe that anything is about to happen, so they don’t realise that this isn’t Jesus’ normal meditation in the garden on the way out of the city. They don’t see what’s happening because they’re not present.

But Jesus’ prayer caught my eye too. This is not the prayer of a man who has received an answer of any sort. Jesus prays three times, each time pleading for an answer either way – ‘God, I’ll take your way whether it’s easy or difficult, jut tell me something, just be here with me!’ If God had been answering Jesus, saying ‘just be strong and do it’ then the second and third prayers would have been different – ‘maybe you could reconsider?’

Eventually he returns to the disciples and tells them that time has run out, Judas is on his way. No support from his friends in his hour of need, no reply from God in his desperation. In faith he goes towards the lights, knowing what will happen.

It seems to me that in Gethsemane, Jesus began to experience the radical aloneness that would come to a head on the cross – not just his friends but even his God, his Father. This existential abandonment is the paradox that sits at the heart of the key story of the Christian gospel as well as in the centre of our own experience of suffering. Our experience of aloneness causes the greatest pain, yet our faith in the God who seems to have deserted us drives us deeper into it, because without it we cannot experience new life.