Thursday: Naked and Unashamed
Here’s the really strange thing about Maundy Thursday: in our scriptures appointed for today we don’t even read about one of the most important events that happened that night.
The name for Maundy Thursday comes from the Latin mandatum, meaning commandment, and refers to what Jesus says in the text we do read from the Gospel of John.
Right after the footwashing, Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
The footwashing comes in conjunction with the institution of the Last Supper. These are hugely important parts of what happened on Thursday night, but they’re not the whole story.
What we’re missing from our readings is the Garden of Gethsemane.
This is the hinge point of the story, the bridge between the Last Supper and Jesus’ arrest in the early darkness between Thursday night and Friday morning.
We don’t read about Gethsemane on Good Friday either, because we always read the crucifixion account from the Gospel of John on Good Friday, and John only has one sentence about Jesus in the Garden: “Jesus went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a Garden, which he and his disciples entered.”
Nothing about Jesus’ tears and prayers and frustration and grief.
Jesus is the Cosmic Word in John, always in control, always all-knowing, always smooth and unruffled and divine.
John as a gospel writer is not really interested in Jesus’ vulnerability.
And it seems like we aren’t either.
We don’t read about Gethsemane on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, when it actually happened.
The only time we actually read about it in church is on Palm Sunday, within the wider crucifixion account.
At that point we’re safely almost a week distant from Jesus’ breakdown, and it’s very easy to distract ourselves from it amid the noise and clamor of palms and processions and passion plays.
I don’t think we want to deal with it either, because we don’t want to face a Jesus who is in crisis, a Jesus who does not know if he can do what the Father has asked of him, a Jesus who is afraid and weak, tired and scared.
If we do commemorate the Garden of Gethsemane at all, it is in a Watch Night in the Garden tradition, often with an Altar of Repose, where we keep the church open all night and pray in shifts, trying to watch and pray for one hour as Jesus asks of us.
Even then, we keep things private and out of sight, avoiding talking publicly about Jesus’ hour of doubt.
Why do we do that?
It gets right to the heart of what we are most ashamed of about ourselves.
We don’t want to see weakness in Jesus because we don’t want to confront it within ourselves.
But we need to.
In fact, we are not fully entering into Holy Week and its significance unless we do.
Jesus knew that he could not go to the Cross until he had had it out with God in the Garden.
He knew that he would not be ready to give himself over to suffering and death to save us until he acknowledged the truth that he was afraid he didn’t have the strength to do it.
And Holy Week is above all else about solidarity.
The central meaning of the crucifixion is Jesus refusing to turn his back on us no matter how bad things get, our God proving that God will allow God’s own heart to be broken beyond repair, allowing God’s only Son to die, because God loves us that much.
We can never repay this gift given to us, and God is not asking for us to try.
But what we can give is our attention, our hearts and minds and souls to stand here and be with Jesus as he goes through these awful trials.
That is the point of Holy Week: to stand fast with Jesus because he stood fast with us.
And that includes the crisis in the Garden.
This crisis is sometimes called Jesus’ Temptation in the Garden, and sometimes called his Agony in the Garden.
The interesting part about it being framed as his temptation is that whatever temptation exists comes from within Jesus himself.
Satan is nowhere to be found, unlike Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.
As I said, Jesus never doubts in John, but Matthew, Mark and Luke all agree that Jesus asks God if he can be spared what is coming.
“And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want,’” Jesus says in Mark.
This story turns on the fact that it takes place in a Garden.
What other story about facing temptation do you know that takes place in a Garden?
The story of Adam and Eve.
In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve sin and disobey God by consuming the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is trying to gain the strength to consume the cup.
Jesus begs God to let this cup pass from him.
What is in this cup that Jesus is so afraid to drink from?
Perhaps is it wine of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, all of the sin that came after the Fall distilled into a bitter draught and given to Jesus to take within himself and transform.
What began as a beautiful fruit on a beautiful tree in a beautiful Garden, became the fruit of the Fall and the cup of poison that will kill Jesus.
But he will transform it within himself until it becomes his own blood, which returns to us in the chalice we drink from tonight.
But we have a long way to go before we get to that point.
As the drama in Eden unfolds, the story begins with Genesis saying, “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.”
This is part of what makes our encounter with Gethsemane so important.
In this story, Jesus is naked and is not ashamed.
He bares himself completely to us, shows us his true feelings, tells us he is deeply grieved unto death, begs us to stay awake and pray for him, throws himself on the ground, his sweat like drops of blood.
He hides nothing of himself or his vulnerability from us.
He is naked and he is not ashamed.
And he enters into his temptation naked.
He gathers no power or protection around himself, either to confront his fear and doubt within himself or the mob with swords and clubs approaching even now.
And the result of the crisis in the Garden is the same.
Adam and Eve are cast out of the Garden to a life of pain and toil, lonely for God in a cold and uncaring world.
The same thing happens to Jesus.
Jesus reaches out to God for comfort, for a last chance, for some way to be strengthened, but does not receive it.
Not because God is cruel and unfeeling, but because the process has already begun of God turning God’s face away from saving God’s only Son from suffering and death.
And Jesus realizes it.
Somehow he finds the strength, all alone, to affirm that he is still on board, that though he is so afraid, he wants to do God’s will.
This may be Jesus’ greatest moment of glory, asking God to spare him, hearing nothing, and committing himself to the pain in front of him out of love for us.
This is the crisis in the Garden.
Adam and Eve at least get a sign of God’s love and care for them before they are cast out. “The Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them,” Genesis says.
Although they can no longer stay in the Garden, they will not be sent out without resources.
God wants them well-protected and equipped, wants to show them that God loves them even as God sends them out on this perilous journey.
Jesus receives no such assurance.
He leaves the Garden as naked as he entered it.
His disciples have failed him, falling asleep over and over again, and God’s response to his tears and cries has been silence.
And both stories end with swords.
The flaming sword at the East of Eden will keep Adam and Eve and anyone else from reentering the Garden.
The sword urges them on their way, and each step they take is away from its deadly purpose.
Jesus leaves the Garden and finds swords in front of him that he must walk directly toward.
The soldiers are waiting for him and he must allow himself to be pierced by their nails and spears.
Here is where we get to what we perhaps want to avoid the most in the story of Gethsemane: that the Garden is the unavoidable crisis before we get to the Cross.
We all know that we will be dragged to Golgotha at multiple points in our lives, the circumstances that batter us bringing us to the foot of the Cross, when we finally hurt enough to reach out and cling to it and the suffering Savior it holds.
But that is life.
That is the human condition.
That is not a choice that we make, that is the simple reality that life contains suffering.
Going to the Garden is a choice.
We have successfully avoided it as a church in both our readings and our liturgy.
But Jesus knew that he had to confront his doubt and fear and articulate them honestly to God before he bore the Cross.
Jesus tells us that we must take up our Cross and follow him.
Well, to take up that Cross with full integrity means having the courage to name our fear, having the faith to name our doubts, and that means going to the Garden of Gethsemane with Jesus tonight.
Naked in the Garden, the temptation to say, “No, thanks, I’m just not up for this,” dangling in front of us just like it did for Jesus, is perhaps a more difficult position to be in even than Calvary.
On Calvary, outside events and forces have taken over.
It is a grand drama, the fight between cosmic good and evil. All we have to do is be there to witness and be carried along by the story.
But in Gethsemane, all the other noise and distractions fade away and we have to choose to see what really lies within us, all the parts we are proud of and all the parts we wish we could hide from God and from ourselves.
The hardest truth about the Garden is that we have to go there alone.
No one can fight the battles we all must wage within ourselves but us.
For some of us, those battles will be with addiction. Others of us must face grief, depression, shame, regret, or infidelity.
Those are the hardest battles we will fight, and like Jesus, we must fight them alone.
That is the reason why we do not want to acknowledge the necessity of the Garden of Gethsemane.
But we have two important advantages, two sources of strength to carry with us into the Garden.
First, Jesus has gone before us and done it first.
He did not hide his struggle from us.
He let us see his doubt and fear and anger at God for what he had to endure.
He fought through it and came to the other side, ready to walk forward toward the Cross.
We know we can do it because we are Christians, and Christians follow Jesus. He will lead us through our own Gardens of Gethsemane.
Our other source of strength is each other.
Although no one can fight the lonely battle of Gethsemane for us—we are alone in the rugged inner landscape of our hearts—there are people waiting for us on the outside, waiting and praying, just as Jesus asked.
The first disciples fell asleep and then ran away in fear.
We do not need to fear that that will happen to us at St. Luke’s and St. Thomas.
Whatever battle it is that you have to fight within yourself, whenever you come to your Gethsemane, you can rely on these dear people you see sitting around you here tonight to be waiting and praying and loving you outside the Garden, ready to welcome you back when you emerge.
So what is your Gethsemane?
What difficult road lies before you that, like Jesus, you not only do not want to walk but are not sure you have the strength to walk?
We cannot defend ourselves against the truths that define us and our lives, even and especially when those truths are doubt, fear, disappointment, faithlessness.
The only way to enter the Garden Gethsemane is like Adam and Eve, like Jesus, naked and unashamed.
Then naked and unashamed, we discover with Jesus that along with the fear and the doubt, there are things within us we never imagined: fierce courage and stubborn endurance and faith that the fight is worth giving everything, even our tired bodies and our faltering souls.
Gethsemane is a lonely battle, but we choose to fight it because we know we are needed to do God’s good work in the world.
Just like Jesus, we go to Gethsemane not just for ourselves, but for each other.
We enter the Garden alone, but we leave together, together walking toward the Cross.
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