There is a Catholic tradition to spend quality time (preferably one hour) before the Lord on Holy Thursday in churches throughout the world, where a place other than the Tabernacle is set up called the Altar of Repose, where we stay with the Lord in his agony in the Garden of Gethsamane. For Our Lord, that time spent in the Garden was when it was all falling apart. His closest disciples were heavy with sleep, and he went periodically to rouse them up, asking them to ‘stay with him’, but they couldn’t. Our Lord’s agony was a combination of human fear, aloneness, abandonment, betrayal, being misunderstood and desolation. Yet, what he did was extraordinary. He stayed there. He didn’t run away.
All of us at various times of our lives are faced with these emotions and fears. When we are ill, when we encounter failure, when we are victimized, when we are betrayed and when our loves fail us. Relying on just our own strength, most of us will run away and find some sort of escape. Our various addictions are often the results of running away or finding distractions from our moments in the Garden. After all, for many of us who are ‘out of our minds’ with pent up anxiety and an inchoate despondency, we will only think of saving ourselves.
There are various moments in Jesus’ Passion that are his saving actions revealed in ‘bit pieces’, and his staying in the Garden is, I believe, one of them. In staying resolutely in the Garden in his Agony in prayer, Jesus was truly able to get ‘out of his mind’ and into the mind of God, his beloved Father. When we are only in our mind, mired in our self-hatred, beating up ourselves, and feeling sorry for ourselves, we will run away. We need at that moment to ‘get out of our minds’ and live not in our narrow mindsets and get into the mind and heart of one who is has a bigger mind and heart. We must get to and stay in the heart of God.
Where do we get the strength to do that when ‘push comes to shove’ and when we are in the depths of hellish living? Perhaps it helps if we look at the chronology of what happened that night. Before Jesus went to the Garden, where was he? He was celebrating the Passover with his disciples, where he instituted the Eucharist.
Herein lies the key to being able to stay in the Gardens of our Agony. When we heed the words of Christ to ‘do this in memory of me’, we extend the saving action of Christ not just in participating at Mass, but bring it effectively outside of Holy Mass, where the Gardens of our Agony become an extension of Eucharist. Receiving Eucharist mindfully helps us at those crucial moments in our lives to stay in the Garden and not run away, and not fall asleep, heavy with sorrow.
This must give us all great encouragement and reason to spend a quality hour with Jesus at the Altar of Repose this Maundy Thursday night. And as we do this as a community, as a body of Christ, we will experience the presence and prayer of each other, comforting us in the same way that Jesus was comforted by the angel when he chose to stay, and not run away.