March 29, 2009
When it comes to the story of Jesus’ terrible agony at Gethsemane, I like the careful rendition of Luke, the highly educated physician, who cared for bodies and understood them. He knew what happens to bodies undergoing profound stress. He probably would not have known that tiny blood vessels near the surface of the skin contract while blood pressure rises dangerously, that epinephrine causes adrenaline to wash the brain, stop the digestion, speed up the heart, and engorge the large muscles with blood, and that norepinephrine causes dramatic changes in perception. But he would have seen and been sensitive to the results. Jesus, in this state of extreme anxiety the Gospel writers called agitation and agony, was falling-down fearful.
An opposite state afflicted his disciples. In spite of Jesus asking them to pray for themselves, they were heavy-lidded, and they slept. I can only think that these three good men did pray for themselves just before falling asleep, as I do on many occasions. And perhaps like me, they were accustomed to praying until they felt better. They believed, in the end, that all would be well. “All will be well,” they crooned to themselves. “God loves his son, and God loves us. All will be well.” Yes, but on a vast timetable that overreaches us yet today.
A mere stone’s throw away, Jesus prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me.” For me, this doesn’t begin to describe Jesus’ physical and emotional anguish, a son pleading with his father against the pain of the next few hours and days. But then Jesus gives himself back to God’s care, no matter what. “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.” I too would like to escape the pain of betrayal and the loneliness of abandonment. I especially would like to escape the insults to my body of scourging, the degradation of suffering in public, and an unjust, untimely, prolonged and hideously painful death. I am sure that I would abandon Jesus given these consequences of standing by him. What makes a person willing to suffer and die for the very frail and imperfect friends who abandon and betray him? That is, for me?
Luke continues. “Then,” he says, right after Jesus gives himself to God’s care, “an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength.” It was then, right after the angel from heaven gave him strength, that Jesus began to sweat drops of blood. This condition has a name – hematidrosis – and is actually sweat mixed with blood. It happens, and perhaps Luke would have known this, after a huge amount of stress is rather suddenly removed. All those tiny restricted blood vessels suddenly relax faster than the pressure of blood can be withdrawn, and they burst, releasing blood into the overactive sweat glands which bring it to the surface of the skin. Perhaps Luke the Physician uses Jesus’ bloody sweat to tell us something we need to know: Something happened when Jesus admitted his human fear and abandoned himself to God. An angel? From heaven? I try to imagine this presence, this intuition, this strong and comforting grace that took away human weakness and replaced it with heavenly strength.
I read this online the other day: “If God never gives us more than we can handle, he must think an awful lot of us.” Indeed. I believe God thought enough of Jesus to give him both extreme suffering and extreme strength. I picture him returning to where his disciples were sleeping (possibly God did not think quite so much of them) and waking them with this question: Why are you sleeping? Not, “Wake up, you faithless fools!” or “Curse you and your sons forever.” Why are you sleeping?
It’s a good question, one to which he surely knew the answer. The disciples had prayed too, just like I do almost every night: “God, take care of us. God, assure us once again that all will be well. God protect us and shelter us under your wing, and bring us peace. All will be well. All will be well.” And so they were sleeping. Luke knew that this kind of sleep can overtake those in denial, a kind of soporific sleep sometimes available to the hopelessly bereft. He says they were sleeping because of grief.
But Jesus had prayed differently. He did not deny his fear. In fact, it overtook him to a point I find hard to imagine. He fell down on the ground and prayed, “Please take this away.” Surely he knew what was waiting for him, and he allowed his imagination to take him there. What person, condemned to die, can allow their imagination to go full-forward to their own excruciating death? All of humanity, condemned to die, yet sleeps on under the spell of distraction and denial. All, that is, but Jesus.
I am sure that somewhere deep within me fear lies buried, and that’s where I like to keep it. But what if I, like Jesus, could recognize my deepest fear, express it, experience it, and then, also, turn fully to God? Might I not, too, be sent an angel from heaven? Might I not then step up from a childish dream of comfort into a fully awake, fully suffering, fully capacious humanity, full of strength and purpose, capable of facing the hour of darkness, capable of saying to violence, “No more,” and healing it? It’s a steep climb, that path, but it’s the path I believe we’re on. God thinks a lot of us.