“The Lonely Vigil”
Rev. Caroline Lawson Dean
Christ Church, Summit New Jersey
March 18th 2018
A reading from the Gospel of Luke Chapter 22:39-48
Jesus prays at the Mount of Olives
(This is Luke’s version of the Garden of Gethsemane narrative – this story is located between the Last Supper & the Arrest in the Holy Week narratives. The Garden of Gethsemane is at the foot of the Mount of Olives)
“Jesus went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’ Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw away, knelt down, and prayed. ‘Abba, Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.’ Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground. When Jesus got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and he found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, ‘Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come to the time of trial.’ While he was still speaking, suddenly a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him. Jesus said to him, ‘Judas is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?’
Let us pray: God of Love – guard us when we face the lonely night, when we face betrayal, when we bow in great suffering, give us your peace to sustain us and grant us courage to walk in the way of Jesus we pray – Amen.
VOICE #1: “Be Still and Know that I am God” Psalm 46
VOICE #2: “Let all the earth be silent before God.” Habakkuk Chapter 2 verse 20
“How does silent prayer or meditation deepen your faith?” We posed this question at our Women’s Retreat and I will never forget one of the answers, “Silence is the birthplace of faith.” This perspective took my breath away. In my vocation and from personal experience, I can attest to the transformative power of silence – but for my spiritual practice is it so critical? Is silence, stillness, & solitude indeed the birthplace of faith? And if so then where are the places of sacred silence in my life and in our communal life together?
Silence & solitude are certainly cornerstones in the life and ministry of Jesus. VOICE #3: Mark 1:35 reads, “Then Jesus got up early in the morning when it was still very dark, departed, & went out to a deserted place, & there he spent time in prayer.” Throughout Jesus’ ministry he continually sought solitude to counterbalance his public ministry. Nearing the end of Jesus’ life, during a time of great agony, he returned to this sacred practice. Jesus sensing the tensions rising, feeling the end near, he told his disciples that he was going off to pray. The disciples followed him, also sensing something ominous on the horizon. Jesus returned to a quiet place in nature, as was his custom, and depending on your preference – (PHOTO #1). you can imagine Jesus on the Mount of Olives overlooking a beautiful vista – the evening flicker of lanterns glowing in the Ancient City of Jerusalem. Or you (PHOTO #2) could imagine Jesus kneeling in a row of gnarled, ancient olive trees – in the Garden of Gethsemane. Those who just went to the Holy Land can certainly conjure these images clearly. (PHOTO #3)
Jesus asks the disciples to keep vigil with him (Spoiler alert: the disciples are not as well-practiced at holding the silent stillness. Perhaps the disciples know that something heavy is coming & the burden of that knowledge wears them out. They fall asleep in their grief). (Photo #4 – black screen)
After arriving at his spot, Jesus withdraws a bit around the bend – just a stone’s throw away from his followers and he prays. “Abba, Father, let this cup pass” (the cup of destiny, the cup of death – let it pass). His sweat falls like drops of blood. Facing his own suffering & death, Jesus asks for another way. “Nevertheless” Jesus prays “Not my will but your will be done.” After spending some time in this place, an angel appears to Jesus and gives him strength. Jesus rises and turns to his followers. If perhaps Jesus is initially comforted by the presence of his friends nearby, he is ultimately disappointed. His final interaction with his disciples is tainted with betrayal & grief. “Why are you sleeping?” Jesus asks. Suddenly a crowd interrupts. Judas arrives and calls out Jesus from the others with a kiss, the next among many betrayals. They arrest Jesus & whisk him away to be imprisoned.
The Latin origins of the word “vigil” are rooted in the image of a soldier keeping “night watch” guarding fellow troops through the vulnerable night. Theologian & mystic, Thomas Merton writes about fulfilling his duty, walking the halls of the monastery late at night to guard the building from fire. VOICE #1: Merton writes that the “Fire Watch” became “an examination of conscience in which your task of watchman suddenly appears in its true light: a pretext devised by God to isolate you, and to search your soul with lamps and questions, in the heart of darkness.”
In the garden, Jesus and his disciples are also on “Fire Watch.” They are alone with God, watching, waiting for the moment when the great suffering will come in its awful fullness. And the disciples, heavy with grief, fall asleep on the job. Jesus agonizes, sweating blood, and he bows in prayer. Foreshadowing the betrayals to come, and his ultimate loneliness on the cross, Jesus must face this path alone.
In Divinity School a friend once asked me, “What is the point of prayer?” It took me off guard because I had never been asked to articulate the power of prayer for myself. I wondered, how did Jesus pray? And I stumbled upon this passage.
In the garden, Jesus is alone with God. Jesus is alone with himself. And perhaps most importantly in the garden we can see Jesus’ vulnerability. We see his fear in full display. He faces death in the garden and he cries out in agony, begging for another way. So what if prayer is the space where we have permission to be fully human. In silence, in stillness, we name before God who we are: vulnerable, in need, grateful, grieving, & broken. We name our sin. We name our desire. We name our beauty & our brokenness. We ask for help. We come before God with every inch of who we are – the good, the bad and the ugly – our blood, sweat and tears. And we say “Abba, please, God help, let this cup pass!”
And yet Jesus also offers another movement in prayer. Another way to experience the divine in the quiet of the night. Jesus says, “Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr writes about the power of the spiritual posture captured in Jesus’ phrase “Nevertheless…” Sometimes in the human journey we get caught up in the idea that we can control our suffering. We believe the lie that we can manipulate our lives to avoid the death or suffering that is dealt our way. VOICE #2: Dr. King writes “May God grant that you will learn this one thing and that is to make the transition from “this cup” to “nevertheless.” This, you see, is the thing that determines whether you go through life devoted to an eternal cause or whether you go through life depending on your own finite answers which really turn out to be no answers. This is the thing that determines whether you can rise out of your egocentric predicament to devotion to a higher cause.” King writes that Jesus didn’t depend on friends, or money, or power, or escapism, he relied on God. Jesus trusted in the great mysterious hope that God’s love is bigger than his own suffering & death.
Dr. Kate Bowler is living in the long lonely night. She is an author, professor and expert in the American Prosperity Gospel. She has been living with stage four cancer for the past two years. Kate has written a book entitled “Everything Happens for a Reason: And other lies that I have loved.” She talks about the lies that we tell each other about our suffering and the truths that actually help us bear up under the weight of great suffering. VOICE #3: Kate writes about prayer in the midst of horrible times, “My decision to pray anyway is an intense theological reaction to my helplessness. It is hope in the midst of despair. I know – somewhere in my soupy self – that suffering will not be allowed to have the final word.”
So why silence? Why do we hold vigil for each other and for ourselves? Why do we pray to God “Let this cup pass!?” Why do we find power & peace in the prayer “not my will but yours be done?”
The truth is that I am a weary disciple like any other. I have Kate Bowler’s book on my bedside table & I can’t read it. Several times I have picked it up and read a page or two and proceeded to hide it away at the bottom of a stack of books. Kate has a toddler and she was diagnosed with terminal cancer at the age of 35. I am 34 and for some reason, birthing a little one into this world makes it all the more fragile to know that we both have to leave it one day. I am afraid of facing my own death. I am afraid of facing the loss of those whom I hold so dear.
I am also afraid of silence. It is indeed built into my job description to pray, to hold space for silence. But I confess in this new chapter called “Working Mom” a lot (if not all) of my prayer & meditative practices have been replaced with the modern “Holy Grail,” the eternal mysterious goal, this thing we call “work/life balance.” I called a friend this week with this confession on my lips, imagining a new commitment to meditative silent prayer practice that we could share together. Maybe together we could hold a sort of meditative vigil every week or so – to try to keep each other “awake.”
And so beloved, let us go out now, seeking the silent sacred places. Knowing that sometimes in our messy journeys we are the one who are betrayed, other times we are the ones falling asleep on the job, and nevertheless, God’s grace holds us in our weary grief. May we know that we will get stuck on the prayer, “let this cup pass oh God – let this cup pass – let this cup pass.” And may we trust that God’s grace is big enough to hold us in our stubbornness until we are ready to let go. In the end, may we release & rest in God’s mysterious peace knowing that God’s grace, is bigger than our own glory, and our own brokenness. Beloved may we go out in the face of great suffering, trusting in the enormity of God’s grace, over and over and over again. Amen.