Where to begin? We are in Luke 22:39-53, leading up to Jesus trial and death. In this passage alone we move from Jesus’ prayer to his Father, to Judas betrayal and the arresting officials, the nameless disciple who strikes off the ear of one of them, Jesus’ rebuke that he is taken in the night, and his compliance and arrest. That is enough for volumes of spirituality and theology. So where to begin?
Jesus prays a lot, and usually alone. One exception is the High Priestly Prayer in the Gospel of John, perhaps more public to teach the disciples, who were near him. But normally he goes up a mountain, or out to the dessert in the case of his forty day period of testing after his baptism by John. This brings up a whole host of theological questions. How much did Jesus know and feel? Jesus the man suffered. Jesus the man also needed the wisdom of his Father as he discerned his vocation as the Christ. But if he was and is God, didn’t he already know? Even separating his two natures has been the subject of heresies. And more theology and spirituality ensued. But in this passage it is hard to see Jesus as already all knowing. Incarnation was tricky, even for God.
Looking at this reading we have a visceral description of Jesus who prays until he is dripping with sweat. What does my Father want of me? Am I sure? As so he goes alone and prays, perhaps in a bit of desperation, even fear. Take this cup from me. And his Father is quiet, as that voice of God often is. Fear? In the Son of God? But if Jesus had not experienced the whole of human experience, the mocking, scourging, and the terrible death on the Cross, and wrestling with doubt, was he really one of us? He is twisting and turning as he discerns at this eleventh hour not only the fullness of his mission, but how it must play out. Jesus is undergoing vocational discernment. The extra mile. The last mile. The total commitment to the will of his Father, no matter the cost.
And he stumbles. And finally his Father grants support as an angelic being bring new strength and Jesus once again is uplifted. Uplifted enough to pray with such desperation that again the sweat poured out of him like gouts of blood. For he is not yet ready to hear his Father and to reach his resolve. That same resolve with which he set his face on his way to Jerusalem. It is so much more real, suddenly, the path to the Cross, that even the Christ pleads with his Father before he has to commit to this terrible journey. And finally submission; the Father’s will be done.
We are told a lot more about prayer when Luke tells us that it was Jesus’ custom to go to the Mount of Olives. Cited several times in the Hebrew Scriptures, this mountain east of Jerusalem started as a place of idol worship. It was one of those high places where a stone altar and a tree represented a high god and his wife, a practice which perhaps carried over to the Jewish people. King Josiah destroyed the pagan artifacts and appropriated the place as a place of worship of the Holy One of Israel. King David fled up this mountain. And Jesus went to it often “as was his custom” to pray. A version of Jesus’ prayer and the ensuing arrest appear in all three synoptic Gospels. On the Mount of Olives, or in Gethsemane, the garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives, Jesus went a short distance from his disciples, and fell down or knelt in prayer.
Luke’s version is the most condensed and terse of the three. In the others Jesus dialogues with Peter and warns of the time of trial, the flesh being weak, although the spirit is strong. This echoes the temptations of Satan in the desert. In Luke we only get the cryptic warning “Pray that you may not come to the time of trial,” and, when he returns from his passionate prayer, he says the same thing again as he arouses his sleeping disciples. Interestingly, here they are sleeping “because of grief.” Is that a form of flight, an attempt to avoid the sorrow and the inevitable outcome of their Master’s actions in those last days? The other twin of denial, fight, comes when the arresting party arrives and someone, possibly Peter, pulls a sword and attacks not the high priest, not Judas, but a slave. In Matthew and Mark the disciples are chided for their lack of loyalty for being asleep at this hour when the Son of Man would be betrayed. The Lucan text is somehow more forgiving, as if he is willing to understand that these companions of his are taking the human way out, not facing God in prayer, but escaping the horror to come in sleep.
How often do we avoid the consequences of our action in sleep or distractions? We sin by what we have done, but also by what we have left undone. How often do we pray with such passion when stuck for a decision regarding a great or small matter in our lives? And when the passion is spent and all that is left is an exhausted silence, even then do we dare to submit, finally hear and obey the will of God? It may not be the road we intended to take, but we are led somewhere we didn’t expect, and often somewhere we don’t want to go. But we asked, and God answered, and now we must obey. As Jesus did.
But we are in Advent, the time of waiting, expecting, the time of contemplation and meditation and prayer. What we can learn from this reading is that prayer is not empty or useless. It is the dynamic communication we have with our God. And we are his. And in his love our Creator is our Abba, our Father, and he cares for us very much, however confusing that care is, and often seems to hurt more than heal. We are tested. We often come to the time of trial. And we flail around, with sweat pouring from our souls, withdrawing into sleep or escape, striking down the nearest vulnerable slave. But in the end, peace only comes from waiting patiently for God’s answer. As Jesus did, and in doing do, saved us all.
Why is Jesus’ prayer more important than Judas’ betrayal and the rigged trial before the temple elite and the Roman governor? Because once Jesus is clear about his mission, all the rest falls into place and unfolds, and, since the Father’s mind is higher than ours, even the Incarnate Son will struggle with the fullness of his sacrifice. It is here, alone, in prayer, that the world changed. How can our Advent time in prayer change us and our world? O Come, Wisdom from on High.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.