The last prayer
They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” 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.” He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. He came a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”
Mark 14:32-42 NRSV
I always dawdle when I reach the last few chapters of a gospel. Even though I know that Jesus triumphed over death, reading about his death never fails to be upsetting. Especially in Mark’s quick fire gospel, with all the “immediately” and “and’s” and the narrative moving rapidly through Jesus’ three years of teaching and preaching, the passion narrative feels very sudden, very close. You can’t look away.
It’s hard not to feel Jesus’ fear in our reading. It’s very palpable, and the climax of this story all the more disturbing because of the disciples’ apparent inability to realise what was happening – and then their abandonment. In this gospel, more than the others, Jesus’ cry of “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachtani?” cuts right to the heart, this last line of his last prayer.
But it’s not the last prayer; it’s just the ending of a prayer that started back in a garden late at night, while Jesus sweated blood and his disciples slept, oblivious: “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet not what I want, but what you want.”
This week we’ve been praying to move mountains, but even as we did that, we had to face – in the back of our minds – the reality that not all mountains will be moved, no matter how hard we pray, no matter how pure or strong our faith, and no matter how powerful our God. And we don’t really know why that is, to be honest; we don’t know why our sincerest prayers don’t stop the sting of pain and death in our lives, except for rote answers utterly inadequate in the face of loss.
In this sense I take comfort from the fact that God did not answer Jesus’ prayer. Surely if anyone’s prayer deserved to be answered, it was Jesus’? He was, after all, part of the Godhead – a Son. If answered prayer was determined by merit, Jesus’ prayer would have shot straight to the front of the line.
But because we know the rest of the story – as painful and miserable as it must have been for our Saviour – we don’t typically see this prayer Jesus prayed as going unanswered. Instead, we see enormous mercy fulfilled in Jesus’ death, power in his resurrection, salvation in his ascension to heaven. We see God at work, in every way but the way Jesus prayed for.
Sometimes our mountains will not move. They will not jump into the ocean on our say-so. But that doesn’t mean that our God isn’t moving; it just means we can’t see it yet.
Why bother, then? (We’ve come full circle.) If not even Jesus’ prayer was answered, and if God’s purpose was accomplished despite Jesus’ prayer, why should we pray?
You know where Jesus goes out to his disciples, finds them sleeping, and says, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak”? (Mark 14:38) Have we ever stopped to think that the spirit and flesh Jesus referred to wasn’t his disciples’, but his own? If we accept that, and we look at the rest of the passion narrative – Jesus enduring mistrial, racism, torture, death – would we still say that Jesus’ prayer didn’t work?
Even in praying for release, Jesus was strengthened to fulfil the task he sought reprieve from.
Prayer always moves mountains, I think, just not always the ones we’re praying for. And I think the mountain most commonly thrown to the bottom of the sea, its very depths, is our weakness. Perhaps this was why Paul could say (2 Corinthians 12:9) that in his weakness he was strong, because it’s when we are at our weakest that our prayers leave the most room for Christ’s strength.
Prayer inspiration: Psalm 22:3-5