Luke 22:45-46 (NIV)
45 When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow. 46 “Why are you sleeping?” he asked them. “Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.”
The disciples are found sleeping. Jesus finds the disciples sleeping and I wonder what Jesus made of the situation. Was he disappointed or angry when he said, “Why are you sleeping?” Was he in disbelief, unable to comprehend how they could sleep in the midst of this horror? Was he aware of their frailty, their tendency to drift? Was that what prompted him to state, “Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation”? And again, was he angry when he said it?
Or was Jesus aware of just how much this small group had already given? After all, they’d left families and jobs to follow him, and now they are here. They’ve journeyed with Jesus into Jerusalem and they’ve witnessed so much. They’ve seen him teach and walk around the city. And this very evening they have eaten with Jesus as he has shared of himself, spoke again of a death to follow.
And now? Now they find themselves in a garden at night while their beloved friend and leader withdraws again to pray alone again. There role in the garden has been to watch, to hold back and to pray that they might not fall into temptation. And in this moment Jesus has found them, ‘exhausted from sorrow’.
These disciples, so utterly torn apart by sorrow that all they have left is sleep. For some, they have already seen their dreams die. The walk into Jerusalem and the days that have followed have shown to them that this Jesus that they serve is not the man who will overthrow the powers. There will be no worldly revolution.
For others, they have been tasked with keeping watch by their closest friend, a friend who has already informed them that he will die. Just what are they watching for? Why are they still here? What is the point of this show?
No wonder they are ‘exhausted from sorrow.’ What else could be expected? Here they are, making their last journey with a friend. If this was today, they might be preparing to see the life support machine turned off, to see the ventilator shut down, to watch the doctor’s scrubs be removed. They have been told to “keep watch” while the hospital bed is wheeled frantically into ICU, a scramble of doctors and nurses easing the passage of the bed into the crowded ward.
The unspoken pain of this scene is the journey of the days counted down to get to this point. To move from a cough and temperature, to the need to rest, to a call to the doctors, to a test, to a panic as it seems the disease is taking hold, to an ambulance journey perhaps, to a stay on a ward, to a movement to intensive care, to a point where it seems life is ebbing away.
To a realisation that the journey is coming to an end.
The disciples are, ‘exhausted from sorrow.’ Sorrow for what has been, sorrow for what is happening, and sorrow for what lies ahead.
The disciples’ lament is not verbalised, it is not a spoken prayer. Their lament is one which will lead to the drawing of swords, but one that ultimately finds its truest expression in a bodily collapse. In which the heart, soul, mind and strength have reached a uniformity of exhaustion and that all that remains is the quiet abyss of exhausted sleep.
As we journey through Holy Week each year, we journey with Jesus towards the cross. We witness the excitement of Palm Sunday, the fury of the temple and the terror of the cross. This year, in the heart of this pandemic, perhaps we are called to journey with those who accompany Jesus. To journey with and as the disciples as they walk from joy to terror and finally into exhaustion.
At my ordination as a priest the Bishop of Birkenhead gave all the assembled deacons a copy of some words from Richard Baxter. These words quietly sit in a black frame in my study: they are present as I try to live out my vocation.
“Keep me O Lord, while I tarry on this earth, in a serious seeking after you, and in an affectionate walking with you, every day of my life; that when you come, I may be found not hiding my talent, nor serving the flesh, nor yet asleep with my lamp unfurnished, but waiting and longing for you.”
Baxter writes of not wanting to be found asleep with his lamp unfurnished - clear references to the return of the bridegroom. But while we are always waiting for the bridegroom to return, perhaps, in this moment, we should not worry too much about letting our talents be hidden if our well-being requires it of us. And perhaps at least a bit of, ‘serving the flesh’ might be okay in this moment?
While we may soon want to revisit Baxter’s words, perhaps in this moment, we too may lie down as the disciples did, ‘exhausted from sorrow.’