Gethsemane: Prayer and Arrest

Mark 14:32-52

Mark-Book of Kells They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, "Sit here while I pray." He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death," he said to them. "Stay here and keep watch." Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. "Abba, Father," he said, "everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will."

Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. "Simon," he said to Peter, "are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak." Once more he went away and prayed the same thing. When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. They did not know what to say to him.

Returning the third time, he said to them, "Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough! The hour has come. Look, the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!" Just as he was speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, appeared. With him was a crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders.

Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: "The one I kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard." Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, "Rabbi!" and kissed him. The men seized Jesus and arrested him. Then one of those standing near drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.

"Am I leading a rebellion," said Jesus, "that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest me. But the Scriptures must be fulfilled." Then everyone deserted him and fled. A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.
Commentary by Donald Senior, C.P.

Now the setting shifts from the upper room to Gethsemane, an olive grove on the outskirts of the city, and here in two major scenes the pace of the passion story quickens.

The specter of violent death hovers over Jesus and torments him. As he had done several times in the gospel Jesus gathers his strength in prayer. It is not a polite or heroic prayer but one that echoes the raw expressions of faith found in the psalms: "Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will." (14:36). So much of the spirit of Jesus is here: his tenacious and intimate devotion to God, his "Abba," the fierce struggles with the power of evil and death that marked his ministry in Galilee (see, for example, 5:1-20).

Mark informs his readers early in the Gospel that Jesus is the Son of God, one in whom the Spirit abides and one whose name God's speaks at the Jordan (1:9-11) and on the mount of Transfiguration (9:7). But Jesus is also genuinely human, wary of death and crushed by the thought that his mission was running aground. So Mark dares to present us with this scene, one that would be fixed in Christian memory forever: a wrenching prayer of faith and fear from the lips of Jesus.

Mark continues his method of presenting the disciples in stark counterpoint with Jesus. Three times he comes to find support in their presence, only to find them sleeping. The Gospel had already made clear that this "sleep" is not mere fatigue at the end of a long celebration. This brand of sleep could be deadly, it was the spiritual torpor of those who do not recognize the moment of crisis in history and do not prepare themselves to face it. Jesus had warned the disciples about this type of "sleep": "Watch, therefore, you do not know when the lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning. May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: 'Watch!' " (13:35-37).

That moment of crisis comes swiftly. Judas and an armed crowd break into the stillness of Gethsemane to arrest Jesus, the apostate disciple identifying Jesus with a treacherous kiss. Mayhem breaks out: they seize Jesus and arrest him, meanwhile a "bystander" (one of the crowd? one of Jesus' followers?) lashes out with a sword and wounds a servant of the High Priest.

Jesus faces that wall of violence and condemns it: ''Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs, to seize me? Day after day I was with you teaching in the temple area, yet you did not arrest me; but that the scriptures may be fulfilled... (14:49). How often has this scene been repeated in the centuries since Mark wrote: a nighttime arrest; the forces of violence seeking to destroy the voice of justice; violence breeding more violence; the lone heroic stance of the martyr who refuses to betray the spirit of God.

Again Mark contrasts the response of the disciples with that of Jesus. The crisis has come and they cannot endure it. All of them flee, abandoning Jesus, one of them so panic stricken that he tears away from the grip of his captor and flees naked. The disciples have left behind their dignity, their calling, and the one who gave them life.

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