In May of 2007, just after finishing divinity school, I went with a group of about fifty classmates and a few professors on a tour of Israel and Egypt. Seeing the places where so many of the stories I had read in the Bible took place – some of them very little changed by the passage of centuries – was powerful stuff. My mind always returns there at this time of year. This is what I wrote in my travel journal the day we visited Gethsemane:
“There are certain churches that when I walk in, I feel the need to cross myself. This is a holy place. A priest is giving communion a few feet away, in a chapel where a piece of the rock is kept on which Jesus may have knelt in prayer. In spite of all the people around me, and the noise of the traffic outside, I feel the holiness of the place, the nearness of God. Some of the trees in the garden have root systems over 2,000 years old. They were there, keeping watch with Jesus even as his disciples fell asleep. The garden is fenced off now, so you can only look at it, not walk through it, sit and pray in it like I wanted to do. So I’m meditating and praying a little inside the church.
Dr. Canoy read to us from John’s account of Jesus’ arrest. He showed us the city gate the Roman soldiers and priests led by Judas would have come through. Gethsemane is at the foot of the Mount of Olives, across the Kidron Valley from the city, so that we were looking up at Jerusalem. That’s not how I had imagined it. Dr. Canoy said that the winding path down would have been easily visible to Jesus, the torches the men carried in the night looking like a fiery snake. He reminded us that this snake was coming to lead Jesus to where he would undo the curse that began with another snake, another garden, another man’s choice.“
Holy Thursday may be the night that I feel closest to Jesus. He had a goodbye dinner with his friends, one of whom would soon betray him and all of whom would soon desert him, at least for a time. Then he took a few of them with him to the garden. He needed time alone with God, but he wanted them close by, even though they were so exhausted they couldn’t keep their eyes open. Jesus was exhausted too, worn out with grief and fear. It may sound blasphemous to say it, but that was the thought that kept running through my head when I was in Gethsemane: This is the place where God in the flesh was alone and afraid. He could see death coming through the gate and down the hill, and he didn’t want to die. After that, Jesus experienced things I can’t imagine — the mockery of a trial, the public beating, the agonizing walk to Golgotha, and execution on a cross — but it isn’t hard at all for me to imagine what it was like there in the garden.
Alone and afraid of what the future holds is a feeling I know very well. That God chose to participate in such a dark experience of human existence — something we all face at one time or another — speaks volumes to me about the mystery of the Incarnation, and God’s love for us all. My prayers for myself, my loved ones, and the people I meet as a hospital chaplain would be very different if the One I believe is listening had never put himself in our place, even the worst of places. Jesus never took the easy way out, never chose safety and comfort over completing his mission. “Go to Dark Gethsemane” the hymn says, and the past few months, in the darkness of depression, I feel I have spent a lot of time there. But what I remember on this night especially is that because Jesus was there alone, I never have to be. Thanks be to God.