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Praying in Gethsemane

A Palestinian prays in the shade of an olive tree
A Palestinian prays in the shade of an olive tree
Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images

As we approach Holy Week, beginning this Sunday, we are invited to contemplate the passion of Christ. One of the most notable scenes in this narrative takes place in the Garden of Gethsemane. Here we find the crisis that precedes the heroic act of obedience that Jesus completed on the cross.

Following the Last Supper, Jesus asked Peter, James and John to accompany him into the garden of Gethsemane so that they could support him with their presence and in prayer. At that point, Jesus had begun to experience deep distress and anguish, anticipating his impending trials and crucifixion, and after asking these disciples to keep vigil with Him and to pray, He withdrew to pray alone.

As He prayed in His agony, the disciples, rather than praying and keeping with Jesus in spirit, fell asleep. In sleep, their presence could not bestow any comfort. The fact that they could sleep while Jesus was in such desperate distress indicates spiritual insensitivity- In the most intense experience of suffering Jesus had encountered thus far, they slept, peacefully ignorant of that hour of anguish.

When Jesus found the disciples sleeping, He addressed Peter specifically, calling him by his old name, ”Simon” (Mark 14:37). Using this name, rather than the new name Jesus had given him, signifies Peter’s spiritual state which, in Gethsemane, more closely resembled the “old man” rather than the “new man,” transformed by Christ. This picture of Peter shows him asleep in sin, rather than awakened in Christ.

Jesus prayed, in part, so that he would have the strength to carry out His Father's will and overcome the temptation to avoid suffering, and he urged His disciples to pray so that they would not succumb to their own temptation, namely, the temptation to desert and disown their Lord. “Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation” (Matthew 26:41). Jesus had already told them that they would all abandon Him. They rejected this assertion, Peter most emphatically, and instead had faith in themselves and did not pray for strength against that temptation.

Jesus interrupted His own prayer three times to return to Peter, James and John, and all three times He found them sleeping. This parallels a scene later in chapter 26 where Peter disowns Jesus three times: For each of the three times Jesus found him asleep instead of praying, Peter would succumb to temptation. After that long night of trial and anguish, prayer and obedience, Christ withstood temptation. Conversely, the disciples slept instead of preparing for the trials to come, and each one's will dissolved in the moment of truth.

In matters of spiritual sensitivity, it is necessary for us to ask God to give us the grace to remain alert. Our hearts so easily veer away from God and we become like the disciples, unconscious and insensible to Christ. The conviction the disciples experienced is ours as well, but during this upcoming Holy Week, we have a fresh opportunity to awaken our hearts to Christ.

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