As we approach the heaviness of Holy Week, we will begin the great mother of all liturgies of the Holy Triduum by participating in the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday night. In all churches throughout the world, this Mass will precede the placing of the Blessed Sacrament at the Altar of Repose, where the faithful are invited to spend time with the Lord, like the way Jesus himself invited his nearest and dearest disciples to stay awake with him in the Garden of Gethsamane. There seems to be some traditions extant in some cultures to get busy with church visitations, hopping from one church to another, but this has never been the intention of leaving the church open till midnight on this day. It is primarily to allow us to really spend (at least) a solid hour in prayer before the Lord, staying with him in his agony.
But as the disciples failed and fell asleep, so too do we in life. In Luke’s gospel text, we are told that the reason they fell asleep was ‘due to sheer grief’. We’d probably understand it better, and perhaps even relate to their sleeping better, if we were told that they slept due to fatigue, or due to extreme tiredness. After all, when we are tired, that is what our bodies tell us to do – sleep. But to sleep for sheer grief? What gives?
This may be seen as a metaphor for our collective unwillingness to really face what needs to be faced in life. What did the disciples experience prior to this Gethsamane outing? They were at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, where he gave them his body and his blood – where he literally gave them himself. It was not just the Passover that they celebrated. It was something truly groundbreaking. Their beloved master Jesus just gave them himself, and not just that, he gave them a great order that they too, must give themselves and break of themselves in a similar fashion. They probably knew that the coveted Jer 31:31 verse that all Jews were waiting for to happen was unfolding right before their very eyes, but they little did they know that this new covenant was going to be something they themselves were to perform and live out. This realization could well be the source of their ‘grief’. This was, and is, going to be hard.
When baptism is only seen as something that is received by a convert to the faith, it is rather easy to accept. Baptism then becomes something that is done ‘to me’, where all I have to do is to bend my head over some water font, and let the water trickle over my head. Nothing grief-rending there. And yes, it can be something that is rather ‘feel good’.
But it is when the converted disciple comes to the realization that this is now something that requires a constant response of a dying to the self; of choosing the more difficult task; of a call to greater generosity; of a need to be more selfless; of the demand to give more than one receives in life, one will sooner or later, feel the grief of the real Christian challenge.
We don’t often come to that realization in our everyday living. Most of us are far too busy with our lives and families. Sometimes, when the Church recommends pathways to spiritual greatness that may require of us to put aside some of our plans and ideas, it is, understandably, very easy to not want to respond positively, and think that the Church, or even God, is simply idealistic. I believe this kind of realization comes when one is faced with the weightier matters of life, and knows that real love has a price to pay.
Examples of this are when one is faced with the reality of accepting a special-needs child to the family, or having a suddenly handicapped or bed-ridden family member to look after; or when one is faced with a tragic failure in life. The grief of needing to respond to this with the attitude of being Eucharist can be mind numbing and one can escape through wanting to sleep. Of course, it is far more than just the physical act of going to sleep. The ‘sleep’ can be seen in refusing to talk about the matter; finding ways to escape the challenge to love at hand; to just do the bare minimal or just brushing off any possibility of going deep.
I believe that we must want to choose to spend that hour with the Lord in the Garden of Gethsamane on Holy Thursday night. And we do not do this alone. In fact, when we do that, we stay there consciously with the broken world, which in millions of ways has chosen to sleep rather than stay awake. On this night, it is not the prayers that we can mouth that are important. Rather, it is the choice, out of love, to just stay there with the Lord and with one another that can transform and strengthen.
The confidence to do this must come from the fact that like that night at the first Holy Thursday, the Lord is just a stone’s throw away from us, kneeling down and praying.