Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 14, 2005
Gethsemane's transformation awaits us
By FR. RON ROLHEISER, omi
There's never a good time to die, to bid final good-byes, to lose health, to have a heart attack, to be diagnosed with cancer, to lose friends, to be betrayed, to be misunderstood, to be humiliated, to have to face death and its indescribable loneliness. That's why there's a powerful resistance inside us towards these things.
We can take consolation in knowing that this was the case too for Jesus. He didn't face these things either without fear, trembling, and the desire to escape. In the Garden of Gethsemane "he sweated blood" as he tried to make peace with his own loss of earthly life.
The Garden of Gethsemane is, among other things, liminal space.
Anthropologists use that expression to refer to special times in our lives when our normal situation is so uprooted, it is possible precisely to plant new roots and take up life in a whole new way. That's usually brought about by a major crisis, one that shakes us to the roots of our being. Gethsemane was that for Jesus.
It's significant that Jesus didn't go straight from the Last Supper room to his crucifixion. He first spent some time readying himself.
What's incredible in his story is that he had only one hour within which to do this inner work.
Imagine this scene: You're relatively young, healthy and active. You've just enjoyed a festive dinner with close friends, complete with a couple of glasses of wine. You step out of the dining room late at night and you now have one hour to ready yourself to die, one hour to say final good-byes, to let go, to make peace with death. Sweating blood might be a mild term to describe your inner turmoil.
And so it was for Jesus. That's why his liminal time is often called his "agony in the garden."
What's interesting too is what Scripture highlights in his suffering in Gethsemane. As we know, it never emphasizes his physical sufferings (which must have been horrific). Instead it emphasizes his emotional crucifixion, the fact that he is betrayed, misunderstood, alone, morally lonely, the greatest lover in the world, with God alone as his soulmate.
And what's burning up his heart and soul in Gethsemane?
Jesus, himself, expresses it in these words: "If it is possible, let this cup pass from me!" His resistance was to the necessity of it.
Why death and humiliation? Couldn't there be some other way? Couldn't new life somehow occur without first dying?
In the garden, Jesus comes to realize there's a necessary connection between a certain suffering, a certain humiliation and the very possibility of coming to new life.
Perhaps Job put it best: "Naked I came into this world and naked I leave it again."
We are born alone, without possessing anything: clothing, a language, the capacity to take care of ourselves, achievements, trophies, degrees, security, a family, a spouse, a friend, a reputation, a job, a house, a soulmate.
When we exit the planet, we will be like that again, alone and naked. But it's precisely that nakedness, helplessness and vulnerability that makes for liminal space, space within which God can give us something new, beyond what we already have.
There are times when we sense this, sense its necessity, and sense too that one day, perhaps soon, we will, like Jesus in the Garden, have to make peace with the fact that we are soon to exit this life, alone, but for our hope in God. That's Gethsemane, the place and the experience.
Our own prayer there, I suspect, will be less about necessity than about timing: "Lord, let this cup be delayed! Not yet! I know it's inevitable, but just give me more time, more years, more experience, more life first!"
To feel that way is understandable and, if we're young, even a sign of health. Nobody should want to die or want to give up the good things of this life. But Gethsemane awaits us all.
When that does happen, it's helpful to know that we're in liminal space, inside a new womb, undergoing a new gestation, waiting for new birth - and that it's okay to sweat a little blood, ask God some questions and feel resistance in every cell of our being.
(First in a seven-part Lenten series)
Couldn't new life somehow occur without first dying?