It’s the evening of Jesus’ arrest. After supper with his disciples, he goes to the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives— a familiar place that all of his disciples (including Judas Iscariot) knew well. Jesus knows that Judas will lead a group of armed men to this place to arrest him and yet he goes there anyway, knowing that this is what God, the Father, wants him to do.
But this doesn’t mean that Jesus is in a serene or untroubled state of mind. On the contrary, Matthew’s Gospel tells us that he is frightened and sorrowful— indeed, to the point of death. Like so may readers of this story, I’m struck by the humanity of Jesus.
After all, what do you do when you’re scared? What do you do when you’re sad and grieving? You call your friends. You want your friends around you— ideally, in the same room with you. The last thing you want to do is practice social distancing. Jesus, in his humanity, wants precisely the same thing. He says to his disciples, “Sit here!” Then he moves on a little bit further, taking his three closest friends with him— Peter and James and John. He says to them, “Remain here and stay awake with me.” (Matt. 26:38)
But Jesus also needs his Father. Yes, Jesus is the Eternal Word of God through whom all things came to be (John 1:1-3) but he needs his Father. So he calls out to him in prayer. Then to further underscore his humanity, he asks his Father to spare him the cup of suffering and death that he anticipates drinking.
Speaking on a purely physical level, crucifixion is probably one of the most cruel forms of execution ever devised. It left one in immense suffering, slowly dying over the course of what could be days. So naturally, Jesus dreads it and says, “My Father, If it is possible let this cup pass from me” (Matt. 26:39). In other words, “Father, if there is any other way of accomplishing your will and purpose without this suffering, please let’s do that.”
But then he prays, “Yet not what I want but what you want” (Matt. 26:39). He makes his desire known and yet he possesses the courage to say, “Not what I want but what you want.” It reminds me of the prayer of his mother who, when she was told that she would be the bearer of the Christ child, with all the suffering and heartache that would entail, says, “Here I am, the Servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke. 1:38). She submits herself to the will of God. This is the prayer of Mary. This is the prayer of Jesus.
If you’re anything like me, you’re not fond of the prayer of Jesus and Mary. If you’re anything like me, your prayers consist of a lot of “I wants.” Perhaps good “I wants” but “I wants” nonetheless. There’s certainly nothing wrong with this. But maybe we need to cultivate the courage to pray more often the prayer of Jesus (“Not what I want, God, but what you want”) or the prayer of Mary, “Let it be with me according to your Word”).
At that point, Jesus returns to the three disciples— Peter, James and John— and he catches them napping. “So you couldn’t stay awake for one hour!” He exclaims” (Matt. 26:40). Then he says, “Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial” (Matt. 26:41). This, I believe, gets to the heart of today’s reading. Jesus wants his disciples— whether the ones from two thousand years ago or the ones from today— to stay awake and pray so that we may not be overcome by temptation. You see, there are forces at work— currents at play in our culture, in our society, in our very own hearts— that constantly threaten to tear us away from God and his good will. We’re tempted to be deceptive, to be vain, to take moral shortcuts, to do the things that are easy and expedient but not always right.
If we cut ourselves off from the lifeline— if we don’t remain with Jesus in prayer— those forces will eat us alive. But, if we go to Jesus and say, “Let your will be done and not mine” we will be able to stand strong. His very Spirit— the Holy Spirit— will come to our aid. That’s the meaning of that phrase, “The Spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41). The Holy Spirit is willing and able to uphold us, in all of our frailty and moral weakness.
So maybe, during this time of seclusion, you find yourself with a lot of time on your hands. Maybe, during this time of sickness and, yes, even death, you find yourself sorrowful, perhaps dreading the future. I can’t possibly imagine a better time to cultivate the discipline of prayer. I can’t possibly think of a better time to draw close to Jesus, remain in him and say, “Let your good will be done in my life.”