From a certain corner atop the Temple Mount, there’s a good view of the Mount of Olives looking East, though the olive trees there are sparse and kind of sad.
It was a sunny summer day, and the Israeli sun can really beat down on you, but we walked from the Temple Mount, out the Golden Gate of the Old City, and crossed into the hills until we got to a Grotto, one of the claimed sites thought to be the Garden of Gethsemane.
To get into the little church there, you had to descend a steep set of stairs, carved into the cavern and leading to a small opening with maybe twenty chairs.
What struck me, even now as I think on it, was that the church was empty–no tourists or pilgrims. I sat down in one of the chairs and took in the cold, dry air of the grotto, which was a sharp contrast with the summer heat and a welcome break from it.
There was Latin graffiti on the wall, which translated, “Sit with me and keep watch,” Jesus’ words to his disciples just before they fell asleep in the garden, making his arrest imminent.
I sat there and kept watch but wasn’t sure what for. I thought of how the word “patience” is sometimes translated as “long-suffering” in older English texts. I thought it seemed a nice place to fall asleep and forget about your purpose and mission and just, well, rest. I thought I would be good at that.
Today I’m not in the place to claim Christianity the way I once did but neither am I willing to throw baby Jesus out with the baptismal water if the story once meant something to me, impacted my life in some meaningful way in the past. And some of those thoughts that came my way in Gethsemane have haunted me since. And especially now.
For as much as I find a lot of the Easter story rote, it’s easy to put yourself in shoes of a disciple who has been asked to stay, to wait, to keep watch. An enemy approaches and the best thing that can be done is what we’ve been asked to do: be patient and do nothing.
We aren’t good at that. I suspect no one is.
Asked to keep watch, we look the other way, grow restless, fall into a kind of slumber that’s near shameful–perhaps coaxed into it by a powerful force that needs us sedated in a time when a woke society is what’s demanded.
It wasn’t just sleep that’s tempting. Keeping watch, a vigil, is necessary usually because there’s a threat approaching. In Jesus case, it was a threat of death–literal Roman soldiers trespassing at night, armed and prepared for the inevitability of violence.
We have this tendency when talking about the Easter story to focus more on the actions of the Sanhedrin–a group of powerful Jews usually blamed for deciding on and demanding Jesus’ death while the Roman provincial governor “washed his hands” and got to play innocent.
The Biblical text fails to tell us what Josephus and other ancient writers do, as they described Pontius Pilate as having a kind of blood-lust for killing Jews, that kind that makes him into the first anti-semite.
We also have a tendency to give Jesus and his followers the benefit of the doubt, too.
We make this odd point to remind everyone that Jesus, the pacifist, steps in when Peter cuts off the ear of one of the Temple servants who have come into the Garden with soldiers to make arrests (Jn 18:10), but no one ever stops and asks why the hell Jesus was arming his followers with swords in the first place. Few make mention that there were “zealots”–a radical Jewish sect known for employing violence against the Roman state throughout the Jewish Wars–among Jesus’ disciples.
Picture it: a fascist Roman leader known for taking delight in slaughtering Jews pit against a charismatic Jew who speaks of his own rebellious anti-fascist coming kingdom, whose followers waltz around armed with swords, who has no problem showing up in the main marketplace and using a literal whip (Jn. 2:15) against everyday people who are there operating the equivalent of a corrupt, ancient bank.
Back to the Garden of Gethsemane, now that you have a little more context on what the disciples are being asked to do as they wait, it’s a bit of a jarring picture. Yes, in the end, Jesus tells them not to keep fighting but not before they’ve spilled blood–even if it was just an ear (and that ear is only healed in the Gospel of Luke).
The state wants you dead, and being ready to fight it–yes, perhaps with violence–cannot be outside the realm of possibilities. That’s not a call to violence or a sanction of it so much as it’s a call to preparedness.
That is probably not the Christian message you grew up with, largely because the state needed a pacified church asleep in the garden, co-opted by if no different really from Rome. A woke church like the one threatened by the empire would have been able to see the state for what it was and may have even posed a threat to leaders who preferred their power uncontested.
But I wonder if there are those now waking up, as the state mows us down over its failed response to a pandemic, as it steals our one democratic right, voting, or says we can do so at our own peril. I wonder if some Christians might discover, this Easter, that to be resurrected, is about more than simply rising from the dead but rising, also, to discover that some anger and some violence may, indeed, be righteous, and though we may stop just short of all-out battle, putting down our swords at the last moment, our power still lives in our collective threat and in our willingness to, together, rise up and say to the state, vehemently, “You can kill us all, but you won’t get through unscathed, and our martyrdom will create a movement you cannot stop.”
Or, Christians can do what they’ve always done too much of in this country, and just roll over and go back to sleep.