Icon of “Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane”

When I lived in Israel, my favourite “holy site” – by far – was the Garden of Gethsemane. Christian tradition holds Gethsemane as the place where Jesus heaved in gruelling prayer (even sweating drops of blood, according to the gospel of Luke) prior to being betrayed and arrested. Suitably, the episode is often described as “the Agony.”

Today, the site features a beautiful basilica whose grounds are dotted with eight olive trees. “Gethsemane” comes from the Aramaic meaning “oil press,” and the Garden’s trees are said to be around 900 years old. If not the literal trees which surrounded Christ in prayer, it’s likely these eight trees are their progeny. It was spine-tingling for me to be amongst such company.

In meditating on and preparing for Good Friday this year, a detail in the Agony according to the gospel of Matthew arrested me. In the synoptic gospels (that is, Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus withdraws from his disciples to pray, only to return and find them sleeping. They were likely not privy to his words by virtue of distance and slumber; the only reason we know what Jesus prayed is because he told someone himself.

Matthew 26:39 says “Going a little farther, he [Jesus] fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Three verses later: “He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”

Both prayers are bracketed with an intimate, opening address (“My Father”) and a willing, ultimate surrender (“as you will” and “your will be done,” respectively). The words evoke proximity and trust, a touching paraphrase of Jesus’ relationship to his (our) Father. Though the beginning and end of the two prayers are inspiring, it was the in-between that fascinated me this year.

Prayer is often a tidal experience between our desires and God’s. As is our nature, we are usually pulled first by our own longings. We begin by saying, along with Jesus, “If it is possible, may this be” – knowing the this we want and hoping only that God make it so.

Expressing our desires is a wonderful, important overture in prayer. It gets us into the flow of prayer, so to speak. Mysteriously, this flow (when endured) soon drifts us in a different direction, against our initial tide. Somehow, again along with Jesus, we eventually find ourselves saying “If it is not [emphasis added] possible…” We imagine what it would be like to let go of what we want. And this pushes us ever closer to an altogether new shore: longing after God. In other words, desiring God’s desires.

Jesus usage of the word “not” in his second prayer represents a subtle, momentous change of heart, wrought through the agony of prayer. It left him willing to drink the cup of suffering. Because of the “not” of Gethsemane, we have the “It is finished” of Golgotha (where Jesus was crucified). Only eight trees, or perhaps their parents, know the anguish of this one word. Thanks to Jesus’ disclosure of the movements of his soul in the Garden, we now know how terribly pivotal “not” can be in prayer.

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