Life outside or beyond this life is unimaginable. That is why we hold on to life. That is why the smallest death, even the road kill swept into the gutter, is a reminder of our own. We see the spilt blood, the unravelled viscera, the private parts, the tubes and compartments inside us that go about their business pumping life and maintaining health, and we privately offer thanks that this death is not ours. Not yet.
There were no corpses on the road that night. Not yet.
Jesus led them out of the house and through the winding roads of Jerusalem to a garden at the edge of the city called Gethsemane.
No one spoke. Even the moon was shrouded by dark cloud and it was hard to see the path ahead. Somewhere in the distance an owl hooted.
One of them stumbled and nearly fell. Everyone laughed. For a moment the tension eased. The fire under the kettle went out. The shrill, insistent whistling stopped. Jesus, too, turned round and smiled. These men, in whom he had invested so much, stared back at him grinning stupidly. He had laboured with them so long, but they comprehended so little. Only love could save them now.
The fire re-ignites. The water boils. The whistling resumes. People put their fingers in their ears. They pretend that this is how it is meant to be. Life goes on. Unchanged. Unconcealed.
When they got to Gethsemane, Jesus took Peter, James and John to one side. He had done this before. They were the three that he particularly trusted. He said that he was going to pray, and asked them to watch and pray with him. He seemed anxious, even agitated. It was as if some weight was bearing down on him, and that he was being given something to carry that was hard and heavy.
He left them in the corner of the garden by a large spiny hawthorn bush and walked a few paces into the centre, about a stone’s throw away from them. The heavy blossom of Spanish broom and acacia hung in the night air: the long-stemmed flowers of the broom and the round fleecy spheres of the acacia formed a yellow canopy that he walked under into a clearing in the centre of the garden. Wild gladiola, yellow daisies and purple thistle peppered the grass. Like a sailor lost at sea, he looked up into the gathering blackness of the night sky, searching out the position of the moon or the familiarity of a star, scanning the horizon for something that could give him a bearing. But there was nothing. His grip on life was loosening. The once steady compass of his faithfulness was spinning wildly inside him. Fear seized him, and he fell to his knees on the dry, unforgiving earth. The blood of Abel cried out for vengeance; and he too cried out, saying to God, if it is possible take this cup away from me.
This was the darkest moment: his pleading with God that there might be another way. He knelt down on the cold ground and wept like a child; and he cried out as a child might cry to his mother, asking for something that it first believes can be given, and then slowly realizes must be withheld, not because there is no love, but because this is what love requires. The words that he had said about walking second miles and turning other cheeks and giving enemies a drink, they were now focused into these moments of foreboding, for now he had to prepare himself (if preparation is possible) to do what he had said.
He turned to look for the support of his friends, to lean upon their good wishes and their prayers, but they were fast asleep. The turmoil of the day and the gentle irrigation of the wine had overtaken them. They hid from their fears in the comfort of sleep, and were able to give him no comfort.
Jesus stared at them. For a brief moment, the frustration and the agony inside him boiled into fleeting anger. He shook them awake and reprimanded them. ‘Could you not even stay awake one hour?’ They rubbed their eyes and offered excuses. They made a few more promises they would never keep. With sobering resignation, he remembered why he was here: to confront these failures and their dreadful consequences. Why be surprised? The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. So he urged them, ‘Try and stay awake. Please pray with me.’
The temperature was dropping. Days in Jerusalem are fearfully hot, but the nights are stone cold. A cool evening breeze, and the late hour, and the approaching deadness of the night brought an added chill. Jesus returned to where he had been kneeling and looked again into the sky. For a few moments the clouds parted and the full face of the full moon beamed upon him, filling the night with soft, milky light. Behind the moon the astonishing, dazzling panoply of space. This frightening, fragile world is very beautiful. Its wonders unending. Its joys supreme. He stood there as the glow from long-dead stars washed over him, reflecting in the liquid white of his brooding eyes.
It was impossible to imagine death. Dying, yes, and its concomitant agonies, but the ‘not-being’ of death itself, and the emptiness of centuries that would not hold the possibility of life, this could not be imagined, though the starlight that beamed upon him was the last bright flash of that star’s death.
He turned again, and looked towards Peter and the others. They had already collapsed back into sleep. Their breath was as heavy as his heart.
He was alone. Alone with the night and all its challenges; and waiting alone for all that lay beyond him in the morning.
He cried out again: ‘If it is possible, let this cup pass from me. If it is possible, take this away.’ But now he was shivering with fear as well as cold.
Hadn’t he already tasted it? Wasn’t that what he was saying earlier with the bread and the wine?
Wasn’t that why he had rebuked James and John when they had asked for places at his left and right, and said that they could drink his cup? Because he knew what was in it, knew its purpose and its taste?
His flesh could be bread, and like bread must be broken. His blood could be wine, and like wine must be poured out: this cup of suffering, this cup of faithfulness that only he could drink, it was being lifted to his lips. He could smell its thick odour; he could anticipate its taste.
It had always been waiting for him. From the moment he had gone down into the waters, and John had said, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God’, this day had been coming. He didn’t know quite how it would work out, or how it would end, but this much was clear: he had to take this cup and drain it to the dregs.
With this bitter conclusion, his whole body convulsed and he prayed all the more fervently, no longer asking for the cup to be removed, but for the strength to drink it. Like the servant Isaiah had spoken of, he now prayed that he might be the faithful one who waits and suffers, the one who even in anguish might see light, and even wounded might make others whole. He didn’t know how. He only knew what he had to do; and as he prayed the sweat fell from his body like great drops of blood. This was his final prayer: ‘Your will be done, not mine.’
When he returned to the disciples, they were sound asleep. His abandonment was almost complete. ‘Are you still sleeping? Are you still taking your rest?’ he said to them.
They stirred, looking at him blankly. They didn’t know what to say and they didn’t know what to do. But knowing what was nearly upon him, hearing other noises in the garden and the sound of urgent footsteps on the path, he said to them, ‘See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.’
And while he was still speaking, Judas arrived; and with him a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. All of a sudden they were around him, cutting him off from his friends. He felt their hot breath on his face.
Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, ‘The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.’ So he came up to Jesus and bowed before him, but he wouldn’t look him in the eye. Not yet. ‘Greetings, Rabbi!’ he said, and kissed him. Jesus froze for a moment as he received that kiss. For this is not how kisses are meant to be. That which denotes friendship and affection, that which is reserved for intimacy and passion, that which is the sign of love and love’s intent, was now a cheap and nasty thing, a sign of love’s betrayal. The traitor’s lips only brushed his cheek, barely touched his flesh, but their resolve was slick and plain, their wetness still enough to stain. This was the man who had walked with him, who had sat at his feet and learned from him. This was the man he had trusted, the man whose feet he had washed and who shared his bread. Jesus looked at him with an aching sadness, for he still loved him, even though this was now the beginning of the heavy price of love, all the things he was about to carry. He knew it was for such as these – for moments like this and for people like Judas – that he had come: those who got it wrong; those who rejected and betrayed; those who received bread but were never filled; those who chose to be hungry because they were still hell-bent on commanding others; those who could never let go, and who could never let anyone else in; those who because they knew how to control others had forgotten how to love them. In fact, they couldn’t love anyone, especially not themselves. So Judas kissed him, and Jesus said to him, ‘Friend, do what you are here to do.’
Then they were upon him. They knew which one to take. They seized him. They laid their strong hands on him. They dug their nails into his flesh. They arrested him. But Peter was indignant; the sap of his rage was rising. He moved from slumber to vengeance in a single bound. He rushed forward, and drawing his sword struck out at the slave of the high priest and cut off his ear. It was a horrid, grubby little moment of stupid and savage violence. In fact, it was like every act of violence– unnecessary, senseless and shocking. It happened because people are stupid, and as much because they cannot love themselves as because of their failure to love others, for if you despise yourself enough you will quickly accrue the courage for violence. Without knowing it you will have already deemed yourself eligible for reprisal. You will value no one. You will just want to stamp and rage and have things your way, though, sadly, you will not even know what your way is, except the downward spiral of violence and revenge, of hatred and more hatred and death. It was into this furious whirlwind of violence that Peter so easily stepped. And it was to hang at the heart of the whirlwind and extinguish its powers with love by drawing it all to himself, that Jesus came that night to do what he had to do, to drink the cup of suffering and to do the Father’s will. His wrath would be turned on wrath itself. His vengeance would be on the cruelty and deceit of death. His battle would be with sin and all its bloody, violent horror. And he would do it with patient suffering and with exhausting and inexhaustible love.
Those in the crowd reached for their weapons. For a moment it seemed there would be a blood bath. But Jesus shook himself free and took command. He stepped a pace forward, also furious, but with a righteous indignation that would not strike out: the very power of love. ‘Put your sword back into its place,’ he said to Peter angrily, bravely, ‘for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.’
Then speaking to those who were holding him he appealed to them: ‘Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I was with you in the Temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But let the scriptures be fulfilled.’ And as he said this the disciples turned and fled. They no longer wanted any part in this fulfilment. And they were terrified.
Those who were around him, held him again, only tighter, and with a fearfulness and dread. What was this fulfilment he spoke of? He was to them, on the one hand, just another false prophet, an empty vessel to be crushed. But also something else. Like the line of a melody you cannot quite remember, but whose beauty haunts you; they knew and they didn’t know who he was, and they couldn’t forget him, nor put him away easily, even though he gave them no resistance.
All the disciples were gone. The night was cold and dark.
Peter followed at a distance. Most people do. When questioned later, he claimed he didn’t even know Jesus. He wasn’t really lying. Most people don’t know him.
A certain young man, I think his name might have been Mark, still followed. They caught him, but he slipped from their grasp leaving them holding nothing but the linen cloth he had been wearing. He ran off naked into the night.
Jesus too was now falling and blending into the night, into the arms of darkness. He was alone with his destiny. There was one more thing he had to do.
‘Who is this that comes from Edom,
from Bozrah in garments stained crimson?
Who is this so splendidly robed, marching in his great might?’
‘It is I, announcing vindication,
mighty to save.’
‘Why are your robes red,
and your garments like theirs who tread the wine press?’
‘I have trodden the wine press alone,
and from the peoples no one was with me;
I trod them in my anger
and trampled them in my wrath;
their juice spattered on my garments
and stained all my robes.
For the day of vengeance was in my heart,
and the year for my redeeming work had come.
I looked, but there was no helper;
I stared, but there was no one to sustain me.’