Jesus Prays on the Mount of Olives
39 Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. 40 On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” 41 He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, 42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” 43 An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. 44 And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.
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.”
47 While he was still speaking a crowd came up, and the man who was called Judas, one of the Twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him, 48 but Jesus asked him, “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?”
49 When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?”50 And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.
51 But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.
52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders, who had come for him, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs? 53 Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour—when darkness reigns.”
It seems like an oddity of the lectionary that this passage comes up as the listed gospel reading a week before Christmas every two years. Tomorrow, the readings switch to parts of the gospels that are decidedly more in keeping with what we expect for the season. But today, we’re left with this reading, which is sort of a downer, so to speak. Every two years, I’m tempted to skip this reading and go on to something that’s a little more ‘Christmasy.’ This reading about the betrayal and arrest of Jesus isn’t exactly a reading to fill you with ‘Christmas cheer.’
But I can’t quite bring myself to skip this reading altogether. I guess I can’t shake the feeling that we can’t fully appreciate God’s decision to come into the world in human form unless we’re willing to face without flinching the reality of what it cost him to do that.
Our celebrations of his birth as the baby Jesus are pretty warm and sentimental. We get together with family and friends we might not see much the rest of the year. We have cookies and parties, we put up cheerful decorations and give presents. We picture the baby Jesus all snugly wrapped up and sleeping peacefully in a stable full of friendly animals.
And to share the joy of the season, we take part in special programs to reach out to the poor and the marginalized. We pack shoeboxes for needy kids. We drop money in the Salvation Army kettles.
And that’s all good. Not a thing wrong with any of those activities.
But there’s something missing from the celebration of the Messiah’s birth unless we stop once in a while during this season to think about the fact this child in the manger was the God who created a universe so vast that our brains can’t even process its size or its age. This baby in the manger was God in human form. And he chose to appear as a vulnerable infant in a world where people betray their friends and teachers. A world where those who come preaching a message of peace and love may be seized and murdered by a mob if they get to be inconvenient to those in power.
I always suspect I’m speaking heresy when I say this, but in spite of the common belief that God is “all-knowing,” I can’t escape the feeling that until the moment described in this passage – waiting in the garden to be arrested – God really didn’t know what human fear is like. The only way to really know what the agony of mortal fear is like is to experience it first-hand. I’m not sure God really knew what it felt like to be betrayed until one of his disciples showed up at the garden leading a gang of thugs with clubs and swords. I’m not sure God fully understood the pain of being denied by a friend until the moment the cock crowed, when he looked up and saw a horrified look spreading across Peter’s face.
This passage makes it plain that when Jesus was walking forward into his passion and death, he wasn’t doing it lightly. He wasn’t doing it with a calm and relaxed attitude, content that it would all be over in three days. This passage makes it pretty clear that Jesus approached his passion with the same sickening fear any of us would experience in the same circumstances.
So I suppose it makes it even more meaningful to remember that as a demonstration of his love for us, he swallowed that sickening fear and went to meet his horrible death with a courage that’s just about impossible for the rest of us to imagine.
Being born into a cozy barn full of friendly animals doesn’t demonstrate that much love. The way we think of it, it almost become a cross between a petting zoo and a slumber party. But being born into a world of people who behave like savage predators – that’s a different story altogether. That is a real demonstration of the depth of God’s love for us.
I don’t think we really allow the true meaning of Christmas to confront us unless we stop at least once during this holiday season and remind ourselves of just what a sacrifice it was for God to leave the beauty and safety of heaven to come down into this dirty and violent world. Because it’s only when we stop and remind ourselves of that sacrifice that we confront the truth of what a staggering love for each of us the incarnation represents.
Let’s pray. Lord, in this season of joyous celebration, help us to keep in mind that our celebration comes at great cost to you. In the midst of the sentimental moments of Christmas, remind us that your love was demonstrated through a staggering sacrifice on your part. Amen.
Grace and Peace,
(The other readings for today are Psalms 67 and 122; Isaiah 8:16 – 9:1; and II Peter 1:1-11.)