What takes most of us a lifetime to learn Jesus seemed to embody in one night.
That night, that we call Maundy Thursday, commemorates two essential events in Jesus’ final days on earth—the Last Supper with his disciples and his retreat to the Garden of Gethsemane. It is the latter, those sobering moments that Jesus spent in prayer that I want to turn my attention to today.
I am struck by the brevity and simplicity of Jesus’ prayer and yet the lifetime that it takes most of us to get there. He simply prays, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22: 42)
For those who spend Sundays worshiping in a pew the words are very familiar. In the weekly recitation of the Lord’s Prayer worshipers repeat those familiar words, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
But as often as we say those words, I wonder if the profound impact of them ever sinks fully into our souls. There are so few words in the description of Jesus’ retreat to the Garden of Gethsemane, but there are just enough clues to know that Jesus must have experienced a visceral and profound sense of fear and trepidation. Three of the gospels briefly mention the event and two of them say that Jesus “threw himself on the ground and prayed.” Emphasis on “threw.”
Have you ever thrown yourself on the ground? These prayers are not the safe prayers that get recited before bedtime or the Sunday prayers of the worshiping faithful. These are the prayers that get poured out when you get the news of a loved one suddenly being ripped from your life. These are the prayers that cry out from the depths of your soul when a lifelong dream is suddenly shattered. These are the prayers that leave us in a heap of tears when we aren’t sure we can face another day.
These are the prayers of absolute and terrifying surrender.
Jesus throws himself on the ground in a moment that probably contained grief, terror and a heart pleading for mercy. And then, then when the terror had subsided he prayed the words of absolute surrender, “Yet, not my will but yours be done.”
I have been thinking a lot about surrender these days. In fact, every day it seems like I spend part of the day trying to hold onto a life I once I knew and the rest of the day surrendering to a future that I have little control over or say about. Half the day I insist on my own will and the other half I give myself over to God’s will, to the unfolding drama of Life, and to spiritual forces much stronger than me.
I remember during the years of working in hospice how important the act of surrender was. Many people associate hospice with death, but I don’t think that is quite right. My experience of hospice was that the transformative moment wasn’t the moment of death, it was the moment of acceptance and surrender. It was the moment the potential patient threw herself on the ground with visceral terror and turned her face skyward and cried, “I am not going to fight this anymore. I surrender to God, I surrender to Life, I surrender to death.”
That was the Big moment. Because after the moment of surrender the forces of Life took over. Families worked through age-old disagreements. Fathers and sons reconciled. Mothers and daughters clung tightly to each other. Stories were shared. Laughter replaced anxiety and fear. Repressed memories suddenly found their way to the surface. Albums of weddings, graduations, and vacations became the center of conversations.
The energy of the family shifted from fighting off death to celebrating life and love.
There are two events of Maundy Thursday. The second event in the Garden of Gethsemane is that gut wrenching moment when Jesus surrendered all of his personal dreams, deepest desires, and human wants to the greater forces of Life and the will of God.
The best modern illustration of this is the late Leonard Cohen’s song, “If It Be Your Will” sung by Antony. Listen to it and imagine Jesus pleading and praying at the Garden of Gethsemane. It does not take much imagination to think that Cohen’s words might have been very close to Jesus’ words.
Some will say this pandemic is about death. But it is not death that transforms us. It is the act of surrender.
Maundy Thursday blessings to you…
By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and MIssion, Presbytery of the Cascades