Close friends and family can disappoint us. Many of us know the pain when others fail to attend to our needs and many of us can think of times where we have failed others. This seems to be a part of the (broken) human condition. Knowing this, however, does not make it any easier to deal with when it happens.
Last week I was thinking about this when I visited the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem. Overlooking the city of Jerusalem on the other side of the Kidron Valley, the Garden of Gethsemane sits at the base of the Mount of Olives. If you have not been to Jerusalem or the Holy Land, it’s hard to imagine how close so many of the sites are to one another. Gethsemane, for example, is only about a fifteen-minute walk to the Temple Mount or the Haram esh-Sharif, one of the holiest sites in Judaism and Islam.
As a group, we celebrated Mass in the Church of All the Nations—a relatively new building from the 1920s, which contains the bedrock that Catholics believe marked the site where Jesus agonized on the night before his execution (Mark 14: 2-42; Matthew 26: 36 – 46; John 18:1-11).
After Mass in the chapel, our group was privileged to have an hour in a quiet walled-off section of the Garden of Gethsemane, adjacent to the busy pilgrim and tourist site. The 100 pilgrims were invited to spread out for prayer on benches, on the dirt, and near some trees—including a few very old olive trees that were present at the time of Jesus.
The story of Jesus’ agony in the Garden is powerful and much can be said for these last moments of our Savior’s life before he was betrayed, arrested, detained in an inhumane cell, and executed by the authoritarian state. For many, the most powerful part of the agony comes with the famous line from the Gospels where we see Jesus fully aware of the suffering and trail that he is about to face:
“Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will.” (Mark 14:36).
Here we can see a foundational belief of Christianity. Rather than being some distant, emotionless deity, Jesus Christ feels and desires companionship and support. Like all of us, he seeks the support of friends in a time of need. We see this very clearly in the garden accounts. Before going off to pray by himself, Jesus tells his friends: “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch” (Matthew 26:38)
Jesus, as Christians proclaim, was both fully human and fully divine. The Gospels tell us that he felt, he celebrated, he cried, he shared, he agonized, he loved, he prayed.
Sadly, his three close friends that he invited to support him in this difficult moment seemed unable or unwilling to feel the pain of their beloved teacher and friend. Whether by fear, selfishness, or stupidity, Peter James, and John could not stay awake. Jesus selected these three apostles to be with him in this very intimate and his painful moment, yet they were somehow indifferent to the suffering, fears, and emotions of their friend and teacher. A few hours later they would again fail him by abandoning him at the cross.
Can you imagine going through a difficult moment in the face of enormous suffering and your close friends are unable to stay awake? Do they care? Do they bother? Pope Francis frequently draws our attention to the sin of indifference. We get so caught up in our own fears, selves, and desires that we are blinded by the plight of our brothers and sisters. Simply put, we end up unable to feel the fullness of the pain experienced by the other. How terrible for Jesus, who preached a Gospel of love, to face this indifference before his arrest and execution.
Sitting in the Garden of Gethsemane overlooking Jerusalem, I was moved by the disappointment and abandonment that Jesus must have felt in those agonizing moments. But then I was consoled by an experience that I might not have gotten elsewhere. As I sat in quiet prayer, I began to notice the life that was around me. There were the olive trees; red firebugs crawling on clover; there were ants and bees going about their business; and a variety of birds were singing. In contemplating these moments in the lift of Jesus, we often forget the garden setting.
In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis describes the beauty of creation as reflecting the Creator’s “boundless affection for us…everything is, as it were, a caress of God” (no. 84). Like any Garden, Gethsemane is teaming with life during my visit. God’s love was palpable in the life around me. This would have also been true at the time of Jesus. How often in considering this story do we consider that Jesus sought consolation and prayer in a garden?
In the Gospel of John, we are told that “Jesus had often met [in the garden] with his disciples” (18:2) Jesus, a man who often used elements of nature (e.g., seeds, birds, flowers) to speak of God’s Kingdom, surely would have been aware of the abundance of life in this place.
While tradition holds that Jesus was alone in his agonizing prayer with his Father, we know he was not. God was present in multiple ways including thorough the abundance of life on the Mount of Olives. This, I find comforting. Even when we think we are abandoned, even when our friends disappoint us, God is with us and this is a profound truth that many of us who are suffering should try to recall.