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Holy Week Reflections: Prayer in extremis

April 12, 2011

Here follows an excerpt from a manuscript I’ve been working on for longer than I care to tell.  It’s a personal commentary on the Gospel of Mark, a way of answering my question to myself, what kind of Christian am I, anyway?  I’d suggest you read Mark 14: 26-52 in advance, a turning point in “the Passion Story” of Jesus’ last days. 

The story of Jesus with his disciples—Peter, James, and John are named—in a place called Gethsemane, is deeply affecting. “My soul is in anguish to the point of death.  Stay here and keep watch,” he says.  Mark notes: “Going forward a little he threw himself on the ground.”  Albrecht Duerer’s image of Jesus prostrate in Gethsemane—an etching, allowing the artist to sketch in quick strokes—is profound.  An angel in the clouds, beyond, holds a chalice, and there, off to one side, the disciples doze.  (This image is dated 1521; an earlier etching has Jesus in Gethsemane kneeling in prayer.)  Mark tells us that he prays that “this cup might pass from him”—this sacred calling, this suffering, this “cup of salvation.”  Salvation means spiritual healing, health, wholeness, fulfillment.   We multiply words, but such powerful symbols as this contain many words.  We are struck by the humanity of this Jesus, one who is caught in a demand that he overcome his own frailty and fear.  And in this lies the double awareness of faith: that we too are called to overcome our frailty and fear in an act of final acceptance, and we are enabled to do so by casting our lot with him.  He is left alone by the dozing disciples; but they were not alone, and we are not alone, even in our final hour.

Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane is what I can only call the prayer of all prayers: “Abba, father, for you all things are possible.  Remove this cup from me.  But not what I wish, but what you wish” (Lattimore translation).   “Not what I will, but what Thou wilt” (King James Version).  Sometimes prayer is denigrated as a selfish begging.  But even begging need not be ignoble; it can be an acknowledgment of our human lack of self-sufficiency and need of one another. George Bernard Shaw’s character, Lina, says, “The poor do not pray, they beg.”  The poor call forth our compassion, and as people of faith we do not scorn the beggar at the gate, who is no more a parasite on the body politic than  we ourselves.

So prayer, in the first instance, is an entirely human and indeed, a humanizing act.  And in extrenis, as Jesus’ prayer bluntly reminds us, it is an act of acceptance, or perhaps we should say, “acceptance-in-faith.”  Death is a surrender of life.  Acceptance of death is a surrender of the will to live, in trust that this final loss is part of the will of God, a will that includes the good of all people and therefore also includes me.    The Lord’s Prayer, which does not appear in Mark, also says it: “Thy will be done.”

Jesus then finds and awakens the sleeping disciples—Sleepers, Awake! is one of Bach’s greatest oratorios—and rebukes them for failing to wait with him, as he bade them to do.  Whoever has been abandoned by friends knows the feeling; see, for instance, Jonathan Edwards’s “farewell sermon” upon leaving, involuntarily, his Northampton, Massachusetts church.  Jesus forgives them with one of his famously useful sayings: “The spirit is willing but the flesh  is weak.”  (I like Richmond Lattimore’s less passive translation, “the spirit is eager.”)  And even after this they doze off yet again, and again, until finally he must say, “Rise up, let us go; see, my betrayer is at hand.”

The story marks a turning point: he who always acted with utter independence is from now acted upon, “suffers” the will of others.  Now is the appointed hour.  This is the time of fulfillment, the kairos.   The Greek term, kairos, signifies a propitious or completed time, such as the time of harvesting a crop.  Another word, chronos, signifies clock time, duration.   Waiting need not be not passive, measured as chronos; it can be the anticipation of a kairos.  It can be a way of “inviting the day to come.”

Is “now” only a forever-fleeting present, or is it felt as decisive, a moment to which we are fully present, fully awakened?  Lines from Howard Nemerov:

In the saddle of space, where argosies of dust

Sail outward, blazing, and the mind of God,

The flash across the gap of being, thinks

In the instant absence of forever: now.

Samuel Miller recited the words of “testy old Carlyle, in all his flamboyance,” for the entering class at Harvard Divinity School.  It was a cautionary tale for aspiring preachers from our reflective and gentle Dean.  Said Thomas Carlyle, “That a man should stand there and speak of spiritual things to me, it is beautiful; even in its great obscurity and decadence it is among the beautifulest, most touching objects one sees on this earth.  This speaking man has indeed, in these times, wandered terribly from the point; has, as it were, totally lost sight of the point, yet at bottom whom have we to compare with him?  . . . Is there one worthier of the board he has? . . . Could he but find the point again!”

To find the point again, consider the single sentence, “And they all left him and fled away” (14: 50).  Jesus suffers not just death, but abandonment by his friends.  We who profess to be his friends are also forgetful, faulty, and desperately weak.  In order to understand the gospel we must place ourselves within its story.  We must read this text in the present tense, in the decisive now, “the instant absence of forever.”

“They” do not leave him and flee away, we do.  Without this acknowledgment, we remain like Nicodemus, wondering how a grown man can enter into his mother’s womb to be born again.  We have wandered terribly from the point.

All things must be transformed on their way to fulfillment, even ourselves.

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