As Jesus and his disciples move closer to the event of Jesus’ trial and execution, which he seems to know is coming, but they seem to ignore, we, as readers of Mark’s story, begin to suspect that the drama of the narrative is about to reach its crescendo. Indeed, beginning in Mark 14, the narrative is pointedly focused on Jesus’ suffering and death, and one scene in particular captures the distress that Jesus faces in his last hours.
The scene in the Garden of Gethsemane in Mark 14:32-50 swells with imagery, betrayal, and treachery. There, we are witnesses to Jesus’ anguish, the disciples’ failure and desertion, and the handing over of Jesus to those who will judge him, beat him, and kill him. The event of Jesus’ suffering and death, about which he has spoken of several times, is now becoming a reality.
As readers of the story, we should not be surprised. Throughout the Gospel of Mark Jesus has been certain about this destiny. In fact, just before their move to the garden, when Jesus and the twelve celebrated the Passover Meal, Jesus spoke about the bread and the cup as symbols of his death. Jesus is sure that his death will take place, and he is determined to follow through with his destiny as that which will fulfill God’s purpose.
It is somewhat shocking then to see the anxiety of Jesus in the Gethsemane account. Not shocking in the sense that he is somehow above feeling anxiety, but shocking in the sense that up to this point in the story he has been so resolute. Never has Jesus demonstrated such anguish or grievance over God’s will for him to die. Yet, in the garden, Jesus struggles with what he has previously declared as his divinely mandated death.
Much could be said about this scene; too much for a short reflection. For one thing, it is a clear picture of Jesus’ humanity and his vulnerability as a human. For another thing, this scene is fraught with unanswerable theological questions concerning God’s character as that which wills violence and death. We certainly should not ignore either of these issues, and in any attempt to address them, we should be intellectually honest. But in this Lenten reflection, we might learn something valuable from Jesus’ prayer at his most vulnerable moments.
The prayer opens with Jesus’ direct address to God calling God Abba. It has been the consensus of most Jesus scholars that Jesus adopted this phrase from everyday use in family life, and that the term carried special meaning, particularly in relation to Jesus’ use of it in reference to God. To put things simply, in calling God Abba, Jesus affirms his close relationship with God and his trust in God’s benevolence toward him.
What is interesting is that this is the first time in Mark that we witness Jesus speak directly to God. In narrating Jesus’ direct speech to God, Mark may want us to remember when God spoke directly to Jesus, in the baptism scene at the beginning of the story. If this is the case, we are reminded, as Jesus remembers, of the loving declaration from God, “You are my Beloved Son.” In his most anguishing moment, when he is alone facing his impending suffering and death, Jesus recalls perhaps his most joyous experience, his baptism, and his intimate relationship to God, his Abba, the one in whom he entrusts his fate.
Jesus’ trust, however, is not limited to the benevolence of God. He also seeks to enlist the power of God to remove the cup of suffering from him. Jesus’ affirmation of God’s power to do all things prefaces what is his real concern, a relief from the suffering that is fast approaching. This is requested forthrightly by Jesus to the God in whom Jesus trusts for both love and power.
His affirmation that God can do all things clearly shows us that Jesus believed that the reversal of the divine will narrated throughout the Gospel is entirely possible. Though Jesus is not stating a universal principle, his prayer expresses his belief that God could take away the cup. Indeed, at this point, God is the only one who can deliver Jesus from the suffering and death that is upon him.
Yet, Jesus’ understanding of God’s loving care for him, combined with his belief that God can take away the cup of suffering, is what leads Jesus to affirm his submission to the divine will. He has been characterised throughout the Gospel as submissive to God’s will, and here, even in the face of his suffering and death, Jesus submits himself to what God desires, even as he calls on God to intervene. In a sense, Jesus’ intimate moments with God give him strength to face what is ahead of him.
In contrast to Jesus’ anguish that transforms into faith, the disciples are presented in the narrative as unconcerned about Jesus’ fate and their own faithfulness to him. Each of the three times Jesus finishes praying he returns to the disciples only to find them sleeping. He has commanded them to “keep awake”, but they are weak in flesh. Jesus contrasts their weakness in flesh with the willingness of the spirit.
We have wrongly interpreted Jesus to mean the human spirit, yet it seems more likely that Jesus means God’s Spirit. It is God’s Spirit that is willing to give these disciples strength, just as it is God’s Spirit that has strengthened Jesus.
As God is the only one to whom Jesus can turn during this time of anguish, so the disciples, and indeed all who seek to follow Jesus faithfully, can find hope in Jesus’ example of trusting in the willing Spirit of God to sustain us during times of anguish and suffering. God is the source of not only Jesus’ hope in the face of suffering; God is also the one to whom followers of Jesus must turn during times of doubt and pain.