Here’s another image from the events of Holy Week. Because there are so many great works of art on holy week subjects, we will get ahead of the calendar from time to time. As always, this page will be linked from the St. John’s Facebook page, where you can add your reflections. Click on this picture to see a larger, more detailed rendition.
Today’s meditation was inspired by Othmar F. Arnold, who writes a blog in English and German, called Ofradix. He draws inspiration from a series of ten early-15th century frescos in a Reformation church in Tenna, Switzerland.
This scene depicts Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, humbly praying while three disciples sleep carelessly nearby. The scene is described in Luke 22: 39–46 (Jesus on the Mount of Olives):
He came out and 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, knelt down, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done.” Then, an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength…When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.”
Despite its age, the fresco still retains much of its color and form. A fresco is a painting executed on freshly laid plaster. The paint, usually mixed with water, is applied directly to the damp wall and becomes an integral part of the structure. They were popular in antiquity. The church in Tenna was built in approximately 1350 and the frescoes have been well tended.
We can clearly see the figures of Christ and his sleeping disciples, as well as olive trees and the “cup” that Christ alludes to in the passage. We can also see the hand of an angel in the upper left corner, gesturing towards Jesus to comfort him.
I’ve always found this scene to be one of the most dramatic in the Passion. It’s the calm before the storm. Christ’s humanity shines through in his plea to be spared from a terrible fate, though it is one that he will willingly embrace. Maybe I identify with the sleeping disciples, who are unable to honor Christ’s request to stay awake with him, and who do not really understand what is about to happen. It’s the same way I identify with Peter, who is later driven by fear to deny Christ three times. It is in these moments, I ask myself, “What would I have done?”
Othmar Arnold brings this into a modern context appropriate for Lenten meditation. He asks us to think about the themes represented in this scene, including complacency in the face of struggle, our responsibility to others, and how those with the least privileges make the fewest demands on us. He notes that it is a blessing to share our burdens with each other. How often are we complacent, despite the fact that we see the burden that people carry all over the world? How can we be alert so we can offer our support to those when we see someone struggling?
To all of this, I would add one more lesson, which comes directly from Jesus in this scene. We can always turn to God in prayer in our most difficult times. We can pour our heart out, we can ask for the cup to be lifted, and we will be given comfort, even if it is not in the way that we expect.