Gethsemane

It will be done?

GethsemaneThe Pharisees who opposed Jesus implied that Jesus made use of a spirit-intermediary in what he did (especially in miraculous healings and exorcisms). They assumed that if he did so, it must have been a demonic spirit. Jesus, in reply, admits their general point – he is making use of a spirit. But he corrects their assumption – it is not a demon. Rather it is a divine spirit. He is not possessed by it. He owns it. It is his assistant spirit. It is the one who makes his prayers effective. 

In those days, it was accepted that a human being could influence a divine spirit and get it to do what he (or she) told it to do. He (or she) could do so by reminding the spirit of its role as an assistant spirit, or by threatening the spirit, or by addressing God directly and asking God to grant equivalently equal status with God and equal control of divine spirits and equal use of divine power.

In olden days, people lived comfortably with ideas like that. But there was something going on in Jesus that was more than that.

It is interesting that Mk and Mt say that it is not ‘a’ divine spirit that is there for Jesus, but that it is the Holy Spirit that is at Jesus’ disposal in these things. Luke however prefers to call it the finger (or hand) of God rather than the Spirit of God (a term he also employs). The original reference to the finger of God is to Aaron’s stick with which Aaron did miracles. It was the finger of God’s right hand. 

Just as magicians had control over divine spirits, Jesus seems to have claimed control – if it is not sinful to say it - over the Finger or Spirit of God, over which he had some kind of coercive power through his prayer. This would seem to indicate that Jesus was strong willed: whatever he wanted to do, he was able to do, not by getting help from God, nor even by asking for that help, but by telling the Spirit of God what to do. A request is not in point. An incantation or prayer of intercession or petition is irrelevant. Arrogance? Jesus is stronger than the Holy Spirit!

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I have begun with that thought, in order to look closely at the failure of will experienced by Jesus in Gethsemane and on the cross.

It would indeed seem, in the gospel narrative, as though Jesus was fully prepared for the passion and could bravely confront it. If he controlled the Spirit or Will of God, then all would be well in the end (and even on the road to the end). Self-confident? Strong? Resolute? Did I ask to be saved from this hour? No, this is why I came… (Jn)

But, in the gospel accounts of Gethsemane, Jesus is not like that at all. He cowers in fear and distress. He falls to the ground (Mk) or on his face (Mt), or simply kneels to pray – as Jews rarely did (Lk). [Some MSS of Lk add that he was in agonia, and so prayed more earnestly, until sweat broke out like great drops of blood falling on the ground].

What seems to happen is the sudden termination of his control over the Spirit or Will of God. The kind of persuasive coercion he has used all his life doesn’t work anymore. There is no immediate answer to prayer. Even recourse to a more polite approach gets nowhere. If it be possible, if you are willing…

There is a softer insistence there, but it is equally impotent. The Greek word used for this kind of prayer/request is parakaleo – be a present comfort to me….The Spirit itself is called the Paraklete. Can Jesus Paraklete the Paraklete? Can he trump an ace?   [He did not give in easily or quickly. He still wondered if he could demand and get twelve legions of angels…]

The trouble, so to put it, is not that someone (like God) says no. The trouble is that there is no response at all and indeed no respondent. There is no one who even says no. There is no one there at all. There is no one he can manipulate. There is no one.

His panic, his scream could be heard from Gethsemane to the other side of Gehenna (and I don’t just mean the Gehinnom valley) but there is no one, no one there to hear it. 

This is literally the crux of it. Some texts suggest that in the cry from the cross it is not clear that he is addressing God – it could be Elijah. Or, if you read the Gospel of Peter, it could be ‘my Power, my Power!!’ Almost any words are equally defective. I can understand why the gospel writers looked for an intensive way of suggesting that he was radically forsaken…and asking why? I don’t know how to describe it. But I suggest an answer to the question, to the ‘why?’… Silence.

There was no one there. There never had been anyone there. There never would be.

The challenge in front of Jesus, from Gethsemane to Golgotha, is to ‘accept’ that. I am not sure that acceptance carries the import of it. He does say, not as I will, but as you want, and give me whatever you want. Sounds beautiful. But in those words or others like them, he is still trying to talk to someone who isn’t there. He is still trying to get back to the way it used to be. How do you give in to a Will that has no Will, to a Spirit that does not Breathe, to – can I say it – to a God that doesn’t do God? What happens when you discover that you are not doing, and cannot do the Will of God because there is no such thing? You can’t settle for less, you can’t cut your losses and just try to live without religion. That is too dull for someone on the cutting edge of the real. You haven’t lost anything except your imagination of some presence that wasn’t. No one left you. No one withdrew anything or any power from you. This is neither submission nor desperation. This is the end of what never really began…..Don’t call it adoration, there is no one to adore.

The betrayal squad has come. Some temple police, a Roman cohort, twelve legions of angels if you like. Whatever. It is all over. 

The Weakness of Jesus

Mary gave Jesus two things that God the Father could not give him: a smile, and tears.
- Jean-Louis Tauran

The transition from Holy Thursday evening to Good Friday can look too abrupt. One way of seeing a continuity between them might be to think about the weakness of Jesus. It is there at the Supper, and it is there through Gethsemane into the events of Good Friday. As we read in Matthew’s account of Gethsemane, the spirit may be willing, but the flesh is weak. There is a real weakness in Jesus. In Latin texts, it is called infirmitas, fragilitas, miseria…

Like Paul, Jesus will not boast of anything but his weakness. It is then that the grace of the Father is sufficient for him. It is then that God’s strength will come through him. It is at its best in his weakness. It will be strong over him and strong in him. He will then accept his weakness, with the insults, hardships, persecutions, agonies, that he undergoes. For it is when he is weak that he can handle them. It is the constant biblical principle: God chooses what is weak in the eyes of the world to confound what pretends to be strong.

Paul said it in the ‘hymn’ of 2 Cor 5-10: ‘I will not boast about anything of my own except my weakness. If I should boast, I should only be speaking the truth, but I am not going to, in case anyone should begin to think I am better than he can actually see and hear me to be.’ Weakness is strange: it leads to humility, and in humility, God is there. 

To face death, you do not actually need courage: you need more than courage, you need humility. It is like a mountain climber. It does not matter how many mountains he has climbed, it does not matter how many times he has climbed the really big mountain, the highest of them all – he has never climbed the north face, right to the top. To get closer to that challenge, you need transparency. It is in weakness that we become transparent, and that we become able to receive God. It is then a favourable time. We are then in God’s hand. 

The coming day should not be called Bad Friday. We can look forward, we will not keep looking into a rear-vision mirror. Jesus is not old, this is not the autumn of life for him. He will die in his full springtime. He is, if I might say so, in his Advent, he is waiting in weakness for the Lord to do what he cannot. It is important for all of us wait, to wait for what we don’t know, to not-know where we are going, like Abraham when he first believed God. 

It is then, I suggest, that we begin, as Jesus did, to discover what poverty is. Happy the one who has the soul of a poor person, who lets self be critiqued and purified by what really happens and not by expectations, who accepts having others decide what becomes of you, who has lost any earlier ability to negotiate or compromise, who begins to know that God can, and will, ask all.   In that ‘happiness’ such a one renounces any previous idea of poverty. 

I think this attitude of weakness and waiting will go right through Good Friday into Easter itself. ‘This I know: that my Vindicator lives, and he, the Last, will take his stand on earth. After my awaking, he will set me close to him, and from my flesh I shall look on God. He whom I shall see shall take my part: these eyes will gaze on him and find him not aloof. My heart within me is sinking…’ Job 19, 25-27

In these holy days, Jesus can occupy us, we will be poor in the Poor Man of Calvary. Tomorrow, as you pray, he-in-you will be on the same cross…

Gethsemane