By Elisabeth Rain Kincaid
Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.
Mary Oliver’s haunting poem, “Gethsemane,” contrasts the faithfulness of elements of nature to watch with Christ in the Garden with the failure of the disciples who succumb to sleep. The cricket, the stars, the wind, the lily, the rose, even the green grasses wake and wait with him. Even beyond the Garden, elements of nature succor and support him. “The lake far away, where once he walked as on a blue pavement, lay still and waited, wild awake.” It is only the disciples, “slumped and eye-shut … so utterly human” who abandon their Lord and master in his spiritual desert.
Throughout Holy Week, we are given the chance, over and over, to confront our sins and our moral failures. We join with the crowds on Palm Sunday, welcoming Jesus in his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, waving our palms and shouting “Hosanna, Hosanna.” Then, in the course of a single Passion reading, we join the crowds again in calling out “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” In this swift turn, we confront our fickleness, our love of false spectacle instead of truth, and our desire that anybody except ourselves should suffer. Sitting with the Sanhedrin, we are reminded of our quest for power and the power of our fear of those with power, whether mob or emperor. Why should not one man suffer for the sake of the people? Standing with Peter as he lies in the courtyard, we see the failure of our love in the face of fear. And of course, with Pilate, we confront our own temptation to sophistry, rationalization, and our craven desire to please others at any cost. As we live out each of these moments of sinfulness and failure, we are reminded that we depend completely on Jesus to rescue and redeem us from the power of sin in our lives.
In the Garden, as we struggle to stay awake along with the disciples, we confront not just our sins, but our finitude. The problem is not only that we desire and choose wrongly. Rather, in the failure of the disciples to watch with Christ in the Garden, we encounter the limits implicit in our very humanity that at times make it impossible to choose well. This lesson is probably more challenging to children of modernity in the majority world such as ourselves, than it was to the disciples. Despite all the hard lessons of the last century, we still hope, on some level, that we can rescue ourselves from the limits inherent in our own humanity. If we can only get the science right, the system right, the structures right, then we can break free of the power of the world and the flesh (the world of late modernity of course does not have much room for the devil). On a more individual level, we see the perfect treatment, the perfect diet, the perfect wellness or lifestyle routine in order to overcome the ways in which our own bodies consistently let us down.
Looking forward, past Friday to Sunday, of course, we see that this human-driven erasure of limitations is not the ultimate goal. Rather, the Easter promise is that humanity itself is transformed. The human body of the resurrected Son of God has no limits. Not the rules of the physical universe, the restrictions of space, or even the power of death itself can restrain it. The promise of redemption is not only rescue from our failures, but rescue from our finitude — as we are given the opportunity for sharing in the very life of Christ himself. In another Holy Week poem, “Barnfloor and Winepress,” the great Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins describes the result of the crucifixion and resurrection:
When He hath sheaved us in His sheaf,
When He has made us bear His leaf.
We scarcely call that banquet food,
But even our Saviour’s and our blood,
We are so grafted on His wood.
This Maundy Thursday, therefore, let us not only offer up our failures, but our limitations. As we receive the gift of the Eucharist and prepare to watch in the Garden, we can take hope that all is truly being made new.