Jesus was supposed to be King Arthur and he was supposed to be on his way to Camelot. I suppose people then, like people now- despite being jaded and worldly wise- are oddly open to the fantastic hope that the boy can pull the sword out of the stone, find the magical powers and gifts for authentic leadership, and finally throw off the evil overlords that have oppressed our people for centuries… Someone who will lift us out of the misery of wretched poverty, and open the dawn on a new day. We are half hoping, as we stand along the crowded boulevard, to get a glimpse of a knight in shining armor that we can cheer on to victory on our behalf.
I’ve seen it twice in feint relief. When John F. Kennedy was inaugurated president and he rode in an open-air limousine down Constitution Avenue in a tux and tails. At one point he stood and tipped his hat to the crowd. In a very odd way, we were actually hoping, though no one ever said it, that he would be Arthur, that somehow a new day would dawn in our lifetime, and that we would be in the presence of something that was bigger than life.
Then again, when Prince Charles married Lady Diana, and they were presented just outside Westminster Cathedral, bedecked and surrounded by all the costumes of royalty, riding in a horse drawn carriage through the streets of London. We were oddly hoping, though no one ever said it, that she would be Cinderella, and that a new graciousness would infuse the Royal Court, and we would be in the presence of something bigger than life.
People wanted that of Jesus. They wanted a hero like Ben Hur. They wanted the Moses of Cecil B. DeMille’s wide screen version of Exodus, replete with nature defying miracles, direct and unambiguous communication with the Almighty. They wanted someone who could lead them out from under the boot of the Roman legion and usher in a new day where every man could sit under the shade of his own fig tree and there would be taxes no more.
All of you last minute filers can understand this hope just now.
The people had hoped for a great coronation but that is not what we get. We do not have Bishops in Miters, in the finest vestments, filling the room with their censors, blessing the Anointed One in a packed Cathedral of hushed awe. Instead it is an ordinary woman. Luke says she was a sinner. John suggests that she may have been a prostitute. She anoints Jesus on the head and on his feet. It is a strange coronation… and from what the disciples would remember later, it would also be an anointing for death and burial. We hoped for a way out. Jesus instead leads on the way through.
It was not the coronation we wanted. Neither do we get the Royal Ball in celebration of the anointed one. We do not get the great ice sculpted centerpiece, the rows of violins playing gently, the ladies in long evening gloves, the choice wine from Bordeaux, the sumptuous veal cordon bleu, the Belgian chocolates top it all off.
No, Jesus takes his motley collection of disciples for a simple meal of bread and wine. There are no after dinner toasts, no call to dancing. There is no round table. There are no knights pledging loyalty by placing their swords in a circle. There is no wise counsel or hearty laughter. Jesus gives them a simple prediction that one of his closest confidants will be the person to hand him over to the Roman authorities.
Jesus does not ride home in the limousine, elated from the wine and the conversation. He does not have the driver stop and look out over the reflecting pond at the glorious evening lights. From his last supper, he retreats to Gethsemane to pray. Gethsemane means “the place of the oil press” and that is figuratively what he does in that place. His soul gets pressed into its concentrated essence. He prays, “Lord, let this cup pass from me”. He prays very hard, so hard that Luke says, he “sweated blood.” It may have been a profound night but it is not a night you would ever look forward to living through.
You can still go to this place where Jesus prayed. There are still olive trees there. Some of the local people will tell you that some of the trees were there in biblical times. I do not know if that is true but olive trees do indeed live a very long time and have an ancient look to them. It is right outside the city walls. To this day, it is a quiet place of refuge.
Michael Knowles is right. He says that we all have our Gethsemane’s. “It is not our Galilee, the place where we learn and grow, the place of preparation to which we may one day return in triumph. It is not our Golgotha, the place of ending and death. Gethsemane is somewhere in between. For Jesus, for his followers, for you and me, Gethsemane is that place in your life where you finally know that death, inescapable death, is on its way.” It has many faces.
For some of us, it is our passion, our whole way of life. I saw a documentary of a family of farmers in the Midwest that were struggling to keep their farm alive. Third generation farmers on this same piece of land. It wasn’t just what they loved what they did, it was simply who they were. For a variety of reasons they were on the edge of bankruptcy.
Night after night, the Mother of the farm family would return to her desk after the kids were in bed. She was punching a calculator. She did the math. She frowned at the paper. She did the math again. She would go talk to some people. The next night she would come back and do the math again. At one point, it is late at night, she pushes her coffee back, holds her business plan in front of her. Her husband crosses the room and stops. She looks at him. He looks at her. They shared a Gethsemane moment in silence.
“Gethsemane is that place where you know the end is coming, where death and failure and darkness lie in wait for you, and you wish, so much like Jesus, that there were some other way. You know you’re there when you can’t tell the difference between numb and empty. You know you’re there when you find yourself, like Jesus, face down on the ground.”
Gethsemane is a place where your soul gets pressed and our essence is distilled. It is a time for spiritual inventory. In the face of impending death, our perspective changes. Suddenly, some of our shallow attachments dissipate, our petty concerns fade away. Suddenly, we are frightfully aware of how much time we have wasted, how much idle diversion we let pass for living. Suddenly, we want to be profoundly connected to our loved ones. Sometimes we can amaze ourselves at the degree to which we have taken these relationships for granted, lo these many years. Now they have a felt gravity of importance.
And we find ourselves giving voice to the wider, deeper questions of meaning. In the short time we had on this earth, what is it that you will leave behind that is really significant? Was your life really worth living? And what were the things that made it so? What was it that you were really proud to have done?
It is not a bad idea for us to spend some time in reflection on these questions during Holy Week, when the end is not upon us. I was reminded of this reading a letter to the editor in the New York Times in reaction to an article describing the changing work ethic on Wall Street, how more and more young people are bucking the tradition that traded total immersion, total commitment in exchange for big money and big perq’s. More and more people are starting to ask for a more balanced life. One woman wrote to observe that time is an irredeemable commodity and the one thing most threatening in the working culture of financial services are people who will not be bought.
She makes an important point. We don’t get a do over.
Whatever your commitments- and many of us are deeply committed in time and energy to something specific-… whatever that commitment is, make sure you believe in it and that it reflects you. Every time you have a pensive moment and you think to yourself, “this phase will all be over in a few years and then I will be able to really do what I want to do, then I will be able to really start living.” Every time you think that make a spiritual note about it. You are on risky spiritual ground. Be careful. Time is irredeemable. And when you get to your own Gethsemane, those spiritual trades will all come due.
And I’m not talking about some angry God calling your life into judgment. I’m talking about coming to grips with yourself, your conscience, and your soul. It is the big questions that you pose to yourself, “what made your life worth living?”
No, in Jesus, we do not get King Arthur. No one comes to save the day for Jesus. We do not get Camelot or triumph. Instead, in the events of Holy Week, Jesus turns to face his own death. No band of Angels come to rescue him. Instead, he is left alone with his thoughts and his fears. He prays.
He comes face to face with the question of his own integrity, his own spiritual purpose. No one can really do that for him. No one can do it for you either. At the end of the day, it is our spiritual integrity and spiritual purpose that will see us on through. Possessions will fade. Position will fade. Even our friends and loved ones will fade away. In the end, spiritual integrity and authentic purpose are the only things we take to the grave.
Robert Mansfield was a white man, the headmaster of a white school in South Africa in the 50’s. In an era when such a thing was not done, he took his athletic teams to play cricket and hockey against the black schools until the department of education forbade him to do it anymore. So he resigned in protest.
Shortly thereafter, Emmanuel Nene, a leader in the black community came to meet him. When they were face to face, Mr. Nene said “I’ve come to see a man who resigns his job because he doesn’t wish to obey and order that will prevent children from playing with one another.”
Mr. Mansfied responded, “I resigned because I think it is time to go out and fight everything that separates one people from another people. Do I look like a knight in shining armor?”
“Yes, you look like a knight in shining armor, but you are going to get wounded. Do you know that?”
“I expect that may happen.” Said Mr. Mansfield.
“Well you expect correctly. People don’t like what you are doing, but I am thinking of joining with you in the battle.”
“You’re going to wear the shining armor, too?”
“Yes, and I’m going to get wounded, too. Not only by the government, but also by my own people as well.”
“Aren’t you worried about the wounds?” asked Mr. Mansfield.
“I don’t worry about the wounds” said Mr. Nene. “When I go up there, which is my intention, the Big Judge will says to me, ‘Show me your wounds?’ and if I say, ‘I haven’t any,’ he will say, ‘Was there nothing worth fighting for?’ I’m haunted by that question.” Amen.