Watch and Pray

I deleted the Facebook app on my phone this week. 

My account is still active; I just don’t have easy access at my fingertips to pull up Facebook any time I want. I’m trying to eliminate the mindless scrolling that just takes up time, occupies the top part of my brain, raises my stress level, and provides a distraction from connection with others. I have to seek it out, do it purposefully, seek connection rather than disconnection. 

I suspect that we are all dealing with increased stress or anxiety in one way or another right now. We all have questions at the backs – or at the fronts – of our minds: will someone I know get sick? How bad will it get? Will someone I know die? Will someone I love get sick and die? How many people that I love might get sick and die? Am I doing enough to protect myself from this pandemic? Am I overreacting? Will I get sick and die? 

The questions go on and on, to the point where it can feel like it’s spinning out of control. And so we look for some kind of reassurance – any kind of reassurance – that we’re doing the right thing, that we’re taking adequate precautions but not turning into doomsday preppers who lose all trust in society and government, no longer trusting our neighbors.

And for those of us who work in essential industries right now, there are added stressors. I can speak for healthcare, but I’m sure the same is true in law enforcement, grocery stores and food service, utilities and maintenance, transportation and government – any industry that requires us to leave the house and go to our places of work, where we try to practice social distancing in workplaces that are often open to the public, sometimes to the very sick. The question of whether we are doing enough takes on new urgency as we face guidelines on increased hand washing, when and how to interact with patients or customers and visitors to our workplaces, and relaxed dress codes to promote wearing clothes that can be easily washed, rather than dry-cleaned. My first action when I got home from work used to be to greet Rebecca and the kids, if they were home, or to get the dogs out of their kennels and take them outside; now my first action when I get home is to wash my hands, praying the Lord’s Prayer to make sure I take at least twenty seconds. Relaxing into the rituals of homecoming has been replaced by concerns about the safety of my loved ones: what might I be bringing home to them?

It’s in this context of heightened anxieties and fears that we read this year about Jesus praying at Gethsemane, accompanied by the three disciples. Jesus asks one thing of them: he asks them stay by his side and stay awake while he prays. He is grieved, he tells them, even to death; he is agitated, and wants the company of his closest companions while he faces his imminent betrayal. 

His prayer reveals his agitation and his distress: the first time, he prays, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” He seems to be saying, “I know this is the plan, God, but I don’t want any part of it – not if there’s a way around it.” He is grieving, perhaps over losing these relationships he has come to value so highly that he asked these three friends and followers to come with him to the garden to pray; perhaps over the the suffering he knows he will endure; perhaps over the betrayal that he knows is coming, or maybe over the pain he knows his mother will be in, or over the denial Peter will issue, not once, not twice, but three times. In his distress maybe over all of these things, and maybe over even more than this, he cries out to God to give him a pass on this one.

The thing about grief or distress, even about something that that we anticipate coming in our own lives, is that it comes in waves. Our psyches can’t hold up indefinitely in the face of suffering or anguish; we have to have a break from it some time, some sense of return to normalcy, even if it’s a “new normal.” And I think the same thing is true for Jesus; after he prays, he goes back to Peter and the sons of Zebedee, and he finds them asleep. 

Who knows what it is? Who knows whether their sleeping bothers him because he wonders how they could relax so much at a time like this, or whether it feels like an abandonment of him in his hour of need, but their sleeping seems to upset Jesus: “Couldn’t you stay awake for one hour? Try again, and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” That old chestnut. And then he leaves them to go pray again.

Whether his resolve was strengthenedin the face of what he saw as his own weak flesh, or whether it made him angry that they fell asleep, or whether his return to prayer was unconnected with the disciples sleeping, we don’t know. But we do know that Jesus prays again. This time, he steps it up: “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” If I must, I must, he seems to be saying. 

When he returns to the disciples a second time, he finds them sleeping again. But this time he doesn’t wake them; he doesn’t give them a hard time; he just lets them sleep. And when he returns to prayer a third time, Matthew tells us he prays the same prayer: “If I must, I must.” And he returns to his friends again, and this time he wakes them up, chiding them. “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand…” 

Jesus asks only one thing of his companions: their presence with him in his hour of sorrow. And they don’t, or can’t, provide that for him. Maybe they don’t fully grasp what is coming next. Maybe the enormity of it is just too big for them to comprehend, or maybe they don’t totally believe it. Maybe they are distracted with their own concerns, or maybe they’re just tired. We don’t know what keeps them from being present with him when he needs them.

But this story resonates. Have you heard the stories about patients in the hospital who are about to be intubated and put on the ventilator, whose nurses take just a moment beforehand to tell them to call and say goodbye to their loved ones? The people who see their loved ones over FaceTime, knowing full well that it might be the last time they see each other? Maybe they’re wondering, what if this doesn’t work? What if we don’t come out on the other side of this? What if this is the final goodbye?

As we enter into Holy Week this year, this story-within-a-story of Jesus’ fears and grief seems timely and appropriate. We know how Jesus’ story ends – and we know, too, ultimately how our stories will end. And there’s a temptation to rush through Holy Week and wake up on Easter morning to find the empty tomb, to find the Risen Lord awaiting us. 

But maybe this year, even more than most years, it is appropriate to sit with the pain and uncertainty, the grief and agitation. This year, more than most years, we pray with Jesus, “Let this cup pass from us.” This year, more than others, I find myself singing the words of the Taize chant based on Jesus’ entreaty to his disciples at Gethsemane: “Stay with me; remain here with me; watch and pray; watch and pray.” 

As we transition from Lent to Holy Week this year, what is being driven home to us in new and very real ways is the importance of being present with each other. We are learning again that sometimes, what it means to be the presence of Jesus to another person is just to sit with that person in the doubt and fear and uncertainty. We are learning again that we all need to feel the presence of God – the peace that passes understanding that we find when we are truly connected with another person – a person who stays with us, watching and praying, through the long dark nights of our souls. 

And we are reminded that, in this way as in many other ways, Jesus was fully human. He, too, longed for someone to be present with him – watching with him, praying with him, and simply reminding him that he was not alone. Jesus is with us in our suffering, because he knows what it means to suffer. Jesus is with us in our fear, our anxiety, our uncertainty, because he knows what it means to be afraid, anxious, uncertain. Jesus is in the midst of our relationships with each other, because he knows what it is to care deeply for another person. He is in the midst of our comforting and reassuring each other, and also in the midst of our watching and praying with each other. 

As we enter into Holy Week – this strange week in which we will not be gathered together around the table to celebrate the Eucharist, or to hear again the story of the Master washing the servants’ feet, instead doing these things from afar. This strange week in which we will not gather to hear the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, grieving and hoping and believing together.  This strange week in which we will keep time in different ways, in which some of us may mark the Easter vigil with vigils for friends or loved ones. It is ok to dwell in that grief and distress. We are reminded this morning that Jesus knows what it is to suffer; Jesus has experienced suffering and grief, and he loves us enough to sit with us in our own suffering, whatever form that takes. Easter is coming, but it is not here yet. And until it comes, we are not alone. We remain with each other, watching and praying. And Jesus watches and prays with us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s