“Then, after singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.” Some translations say a psalm instead of a hymn. They do this because what is called the ‘Great Hallel’ is sung at the Passover Seder and includes Psalm 136. The refrain from this psalm comes from the prophet Hosea who has the Lord saying “I will betroth you to me forever. Yes, I will betroth you to me. In righteousness and justice. In loving kindness and mercy. And his mercy endures forever.” The refrain is sung throughout the psalm praising God for all his mighty deeds of deliverance. This sets the tone, the atmosphere for what follows. “Then after singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.” The Mount of Olives – Gethsemane, the place where Jesus’ passion begins. The passion that was just anticipated ritually in the words and gestures of Jesus at the supper with his disciples.
Gethsemane is the place, the entryway into a whole new dimension to the meaning of the word ‘God’. Who Jesus is and what he begins to undergo in Gethsemane, demolishes all human ideas and concepts of God. Whatever ideas of God we have must now pass through the lens of what Jesus now undergoes. Gethsemane stands at the heart of the Christian picture of who God is and who we are meant to be as images of God; as bearers of God’s likeness. And at the heart of Gethsemane stands the most unforgettable, poignant prayer ever uttered. A prayer that demonstrates what love really means; the loving exchange between Father and Son: “Abba, father, you have the power to do all things. Take this cup away from me. But let it be as you would have it, not as I.” Let’s be clear here. This is not about a conflict of wills. It is about love; self-donating, self-surrendering love. This is the full, honest interchange of love in which the eternal Word of God opens his human heart; lays before the Father the true condition of his perfectly God-reflecting humanity; a humanity that is now caught up in the work of lovingly bearing all the world’s pain and sorrow. God’s human heart is laid bare! Wide open for all to see. No human being, in whatever condition they find themselves in, can now ever say to God: “You don’t know what it’s like.” What Jesus’ prayer manifests in requesting the cup of suffering to pass him by is the natural human reaction to all the dark forces of corruption and death. It shows that as Jesus went to the cross, he was not doing it out of a distorted death-wish or a kind of crazy suicide mission. He continued to resist death with every fiber of his being. His very prayer to be rescued from it displays not a resistance to the Father’s will, but a resistance to all the forces of evil which result in death.
And so, I have a question for all of us - How big is your god? Is your god big enough to come and take on all the forces of evil and death by dying under their weight and power? There’s a hymn by David Mansell with a verse that begins with ‘Jesus is Lord! Yet from his throne eternal, in flesh he came to die in shame on Calvary’s tree.’ I want to take exception to the word ‘yet’ in this verse. It should be ‘so’. Jesus is Lord, and so, and therefore, he came into the world, came to his own people, came to the place of fear and horror and shame and evil and darkness and death. He came out of love, love for the Father, love for the world, love for you and me, brothers and sisters. This is what Mark’s Gethsemane account is telling us. This is what his whole gospel has been telling us. But it’s all here, in Gethsemane, in a nutshell.
The love exchange between Father and Son reaches out to this day. Today. The today of your life and my life. There are three insertions in today’s Eucharistic prayer which are unique to Holy Thursday and spell out what we are doing here today. The most sacred day on which our Lord Jesus Christ was handed over for our sake./the day on which he handed over the mysteries of his Body and Blood./On the day before he was to suffer for our salvation and the salvation of all, That is today, he took bread in his holy and venerable hands. When Jesus told his disciples to “do this in remembrance of me”, he meant his actions to be repeatable. And so, it has been throughout the centuries since then. Repeatable and yet always unique. To say that Jesus entrusted this Supper to the Church “as a banquet of his love”, which our opening prayer said, reveals the on-going, perennial nearness of that love as a real presence. And so, every celebration of the Eucharist is pristine. It is never a repeat performance but a re-presentation of the premiere. This makes what we do here to be both a tremendous consolation and at the same time an on-going challenge in the today of our own lives.
What’s at stake here in what we are doing is not the repetition of a pious ritual. It is the totality of Christ’s life and death given to us as food to be consumed at this altar table. And given to us as an example to be imitated, as he tells us to “Go and do likewise.” The love with which Jesus loves his Father is the same love with which he loves us. And it is the same love with which we are called to love one another. The great Amen of the Eucharistic liturgy is where we publicly profess our identity as other Christs, even as Christ’s presence in the Eucharist makes us so.
Let Saint Augustine have the last word. “If, therefore, you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to the apostle telling the faithful, ‘but you are the body of Christ and its members.’ So if you are the body of Christ and its members, it is your own mystery that has been placed on the Lord’s table; what you are receiving is your own mystery. You say Amen to what you are. You hear ‘the body of Christ,’ and you reply, ‘Amen!’ Be a member of the body of Christ in order to make that Amen true.”
The mystery of faith. The mystery of love. “Love one another as I have loved you.”