Gospel of John: Prayer in Gethsemane


Setting the Scene*

“. . . likewise, I in them.” Jesus had closed his eyes for a moment, his face raised to heaven, his arms poised in an upward arc. Slowly, he lowered his hands to his prayer shawl, lifted it from his head and brought it to his shoulders, his eyes deep and lustrous as he looked at each of his disciples. The others also shrugged off their shawls, solemn and silent. John, characteristically near the rabbi, stepped back and made room for Jesus as Jesus made his way through to the door, stepped out, and gestured for the rest to follow.

They walked with a pensive air, unconsciously following Jesus’ example. John looked for Peter, but his friend had fallen back to walk with Thomas and Phillip. John craned over his shoulder to see them whispering to each other. Normally, he would have been curious, but in this moment he felt strangely at rest, content to walk peacefully by Jesus’s side.

As they made their way, the cool of the night air refreshed his spirit, for many including John himself were stifling yawns and looking up at the moon to gauge the time. Movement kept him awake, and soon they were walking through the wadi of the Kidron, a channel cut by the flowing of water swollen with winter rain and melted snow. In the quiet, the sounds of their sandals kicking pebbles seemed magnified, the distant faint bleating of the occasional sheep, the rustling of leaves, night birds calling to each other all made a kind of music.

He knew where they were going. They had often met in the Garden of Gethsemane, nestled at the foot of the Mount of Olives, where Jesus would teach them, and they would pray together. Often the women had joined them, and the others who loved Jesus, those among the seventy whom Jesus had sent out two-by-two, Jesus’s beloved friend Lazarus, and his sisters Martha and Mary. Even Jesus’s own family had come there to be with them, when they had come up from Galilee to worship during the festivals.

It was an hour or so as they walked, passing through Jerusalem’s gates and along the wadi. But at last, they were there, moving to one of the small clearings in the olive grove which housed an oil press with benches nearby. By habit, the men arranged themselves on stones and benches in the small friendship pairings they usually sat in, but even as they did so, Jesus motioned for James. John was already by the Master’s side, and Peter had looked up from his conversation with Philip to nod at Jesus’s beckoning.

Jesus called out to the rest and said, “Sit here a while.” He waited a moment, then moved his chin in the direction of a small copse, just three or four low trees around a large stone, adding “while I go over there and prayer.” Then he waved Peter, James, and John along, the four of them walking deeper into the grove. As soon as they had left the others behind, John watched as Jesus’s shoulders began to shake, his fingers curl into fists, and his face tighten.

John would later remember how the Prophet Isaiah had written,

The Lord God helps me;
    therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
    and I know that I shall not be put to shame;

Isaiah 50:7 (NRSV)

When they reached the small stand of olive trees, Jesus said, “My soul is so deeply grieved, it is like death,” and asked is them to sit there with him as he prayed, then went to the stone and sunk to his knees.

It seemed moments later Jesus was shaking John, who startled awake, flustered, turning his head from side to side, wondering where he was.

“Could you not keep watch with me, you three?” John noticed beads of sweat had formed on Jesus’s forehead and trickled down the sides of his face, a rusty red in color, before disappearing into his beard. The rabbi’s hands were trembling as he reached for John’s brother, and for Peter.

“Stay awake and watch,” Jesus said, his voice hoarse with emotion, “And pray.” John could feel his own throat constrict, seeing his beloved teacher so overcome.

“Pray so that you will not fall into temptation.” Jesus looked up sharply as though he had caught something moving. They also strained their ears, but only heard the light sounds of men sleeping beyond them, the others who were still by the olive press.

Jesus looked back at them, his face drawn and grave. After some thought, he  murmured, “The spirit is ready and willing, but the flesh is without strength.” His eyes grew sad as he looked at them, then clouded over as though lost in another vision.

His words had stung John, and he felt he would be awake the rest of the night. John watched carefully as Jesus moved back to the stone and once again fell to his knees, his lips moving and his voice keening in anguish. “Father.”

It was an entirely different prayer than earlier, for now Jesus was prostrate over the stone, his head resting on its sharp edges, his hands gripping it tightly, knuckles white with tension. A stifled sob whispered back to John, who could see the Lord’s chest rise and fall with silent weeping. Time past as Jesus prayed too softly for John to hear, no matter how he tried. He rubbed dry eyes and bit his knuckles to try to stay awake, as Jesus had asked, and to watch.

“All things are possible to you.” John was sure Jesus had said this, however impercetibly. And then, many minutes later, “take this cup away from me.”

John watched as Jesus continued to weep, his arms and hands wrapped hard around the stone, his head pressed down, his chest heaving.

John could no longer resist the torpor of weariness that bore heavily upon him. He grew more disoriented, dreams and reality weaving together, but he thought he remembered the Lord say, “Yet, not what I will but rather what you will.”

And again, their rabbi was shaking them awake with trembling hands, turning to Peter and saying with such reproach “Simon, are you sleeping?”

But in spite of themselves, all three of them had fallen asleep once again, and almost instantly (it seemed) found themselves forcefully jolted awake to the sound of many hobnailed boots tramping, shouts, the crackle and sharp smell of torches, and their rabbi crying, “It is enough! The hour came! Behold, the Son of Humanity** is being handed over into the hands of sinners.”

And now the others had also been roused from sleep with cries of alarm, twigs were snapping, and the sounds of rough scuffling added to the ground shaking from so many pounding feet. It was as though Caesar’s armies had come to seize them.

And even as temple guards with lanterns and Roman soldiers brandishing their flares pushed their way through the trees, Jesus said with deadly calm, “Get up. Let us lead the way, look, the one who is handing me over has come.”

John turned to follow his gaze and his breath left him as he saw Judas walking towards them, the affray moving behind him.

Handed Over

The words “handed over” would appear again and again, eight times in all, in John’s account of these last hours. The Greek word is paradidomi, meaning to give or hand over to another and to be given or delivered up to prison or judgement.

This last had perhaps the most significance for John, as he made it clear that though Judas was the one who handed Jesus over to the earthly authorities of Caesar’s representatives and the temple elite, it is Jesus who handed himself over to judgment.

Because Judas did not have the power to hand the Son of God to anyone. Jesus was in full command of all that would happen. It was by the plan of redemption, written before the foundations of the earth, that Judas stood there now, and that Jesus would step forward.

In Jesus’s act would also come judgment on those who judged Christ.

Seen in this light, Jesus had already handed Judas over to the Father in an action the Apostle Paul also spoke of in the first chapter of his letter to the believers in Rome. Three times, Paul wrote, God handed people over to their own devises—the lusts of their heart to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, to a debased mind and unspeakable acts.


*This is my imagined scene, with quotes taken from Mark’s gospel, which is reportedly Peter’s account as recorded posthumously by Mark, the testimony Peter preached as he and John evangelized together.

**

The traditional way to translate this phrase from the Greek “uion tou anthropou” is “Son of Man.” This is because “Man” connoted “humankind” for a few centuries in the English language. Interestingly, in Middle English, the female version of “man” was “wimman” or “wifman,” our modern-day “woman.” The male version of “man” was “werman.” This left the word “man” as truly neutral, referring to male and female alike as humans.

However, at some point the prefix “wer” fell away, so that “man” came to mean both male humans and humans in general.

Today, being more sensitive to the implications of using the male version of human as standing in for all humans, more and more people are making the intentional effort to use more accurate language when translating. In this case, “anthropos” in Greek is the neutral term denoting humankind (like “anthropology,” the study of people). If a male term was desired, the Greek uses “aner/andros.”

[Jesus and the disciples in Gethsemane | The LUMO Project, http://www.freebibleimages.org]

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