#36 Keeping Watch (Reflection on Holy Thursday)
Then they came to a place named Gethsemane,i and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took with him Peter, James, and John, and began to be troubled and distressed. Then he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch.”
He advanced a little and fell to the ground and prayed that if it were possible the hour might pass by him; he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will.”
When he returned he found them asleep. He said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”
This gospel reading is from Palm Sunday (in the Roman liturgy), but it is appropriate to remember on Holy Thursday. At tonight’s Masses, after commemorating the Last Supper by the washing of feet and the consecration and reception of the Body and Blood, the Eucharist was transferred solemnly to a secondary location. My mom, Mister (who’s celebrating the whole Triduum with my family this year), and I went to Mass at the parish where I grew up. In a recent tradition, the old parish now ends Holy Thursday liturgy with a procession across the highway to its beautiful but tiny stone chapel. The whole altar area was draped with golden cloth and adorned with exotic-looking flowers to suitably greet Our Lord.
Whatever secondary place a church chooses, and however it is decorated, it’s meant to symbolize the Garden of Gethsemane and recall Jesus’ anguished prayer there. There’s an old tradition, still kept by my dad, of visiting several churches in a sort of traveling vigil to pray with Jesus in each one’s little Gethsemane. After my dad and brother finished Mass at our new parish, they met us at the old parish and picked up Mister and me for church visits. We visited three other churches before ending up at our new parish. There, our side chapel really did evoke the feeling of a garden:
As I knelt in each of the five churches, I wondered what I could possibly pray to Jesus when he was enduring such fear and anguish on my behalf. This quiet vigil, keeping watch with Christ when it is He, not I, who will suffer so much tomorrow, reminded me of a few vigils I’ve kept as a friend.
Once, while we were on a retreat together, my friend Kate got a voicemail from a troubled friend of hers claiming she was about to commit suicide. When the friend didn’t answer her frantic return calls, we gathered our youth group and prayed the most heartfelt, urgent Rosary of our lives, until eventually Kate received word from her friend that she was indeed alive and the urge to harm herself had passed. That vigil was definitely one of prayer, and I wonder if it may have saved the girl’s life that there were so many of us gathered together, ready to storm heaven with pleas for her safety. Jesus himself prayed that he would be spared in the garden before recognizing and submitting to his impending passion as the Father’s will. But since we know what must come tomorrow, and it’s necessary to save our souls, we can’t pray with him that he would be spared this ordeal.
Other vigils I’ve kept have been more about listening. I considered becoming a counselor for a time because I tend to attract those in need of spilling their guts. Throughout my college years especially, my bed has served as a therapy room or confessional, my stuffed animals and pillows as unwitting Kleenexes when a friend’s levee of tears finally broke. These vigils (for they inevitably happen late at night) always engendered in me the same uneasiness of how to handle another’s suffering, when I do not suffer as they do.
One difficult night, a very dear friend called me in fear about an endoscopy the next day. He was anxious about the procedure itself and the possibility that it would give evidence of some form of cancer. There was nothing, nothing at all, that I could say to help with that. I went over to his dorm, I think we prayed briefly, and for a while we talked of other things to try to ease his mind. Finally, when there was nothing more to say, I curled up on the foot of his bed and slept there so he wouldn’t be alone. It was that image of myself, lying silently waiting for sleep to come to myself and my friend, that surfaced in my mind as I wondered what prayer I could bring to Jesus on this long, harsh night. I settled on the prayer of my silence. I could say nothing to him, not really. I simply knelt there, acknowledging his sorrow and anguish with love. It’s not mentioned in Mark’s account, but Luke states that in Jesus’ agony, “…to strengthen him an angel from heaven appeared to him” (22:43). When I wonder to myself, “what did that angel say or do?” I can’t help but consider how God and His angels exist outside of time. So maybe, just maybe, the angel strengthened Jesus’ resolve by showing him the many Christians who would devote their thoughts and prayers to that moment, all the things we’ve said to him in our minds and hearts about his Agony and Passion as we pray the Rosary, read the Scripture, or adore him in the Eucharist. Maybe I’m strange for thinking that my present prayer could be known to Jesus 2,000 years in the past. But if there’s even a remote possibility that my intense urge to comfort Jesus in his suffering could actually help his great need for comfort in that hour, then it gives my prayer all the more value. If not, I’m sure he appreciates the sentiment and that it is conforming my heart to his Sacred Heart in some small way.