Many churches will have set up an altar of repose ready for the end of the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper at which feet will have been washed as a reminder of the ‘mandatum’ the ‘new commandment’ to love. After communion the priest will carry the Sacrament through the church to the place where it will be reserved ready for the Liturgy of the Day on Good Friday. It’s a solemn procession – well, depending on where you go to church. It’s the opportunity to have two thuribles, (if you have two and two people able to swing them), lost of taperers with their candles and three sacred ministers dressed in white vestments. It’s a rich moment in the liturgy before the extreme austerity which follows as the altars are stripped and the candles extinguished and everything removed that can be removed from the liturgical space. This is the drama of Holy Week, the drama of the Triduum, these Great Three Days that begin on the evening of Maundy Thursday.
So, a chapel or space may have been set aside where a little Gethsemane has been created. We have a tradition at Southwark Cathedral that after the liturgy a group of our younger adults go on a walking pilgrimage around the City of London and the local churches on the south bank seeking out the Altars of Repose and spending time before each of them in prayer. Because this is the evening of the ‘Watch’.
All the gospels tell us something about what happened in the garden after Judas had left the Upper Room to do what he had to do and Jesus with his remaining friends left the city, went through the gate in the wall and crossed the Kidron Valley to the Garden of Gethsemane. They were all exhausted. Since the entry into Jerusalem just four days before they had been on an emotional roller-coaster ride. Jesus had been unequivocal in his challenge to the authorities, overturning the tables of the money changers in the Temple, scattering the animals and birds being sold for sacrifice, disturbing everyone who had a vested interest in the way things were. He was clearly not there to make friends.
But, thank goodness, there were friends around who understood what he was doing. Mary, Martha and Lazarus who lived on the other side of the Mount of Olives knew. They stayed faithful unlike so many ‘fair-weather’ friends who had been happy to shout and sing as he entered the city but who now melted away when things were getting tougher.
And then, what should have been a familiar meal was turned into an unfamiliar experience as Jesus took the bread and took the wine and gave it to them – ‘My body’, ‘My blood’. They ate and drank but without understanding. Then the row with Judas happened and here they were, crossing the Kidron, exhausted, just wanting to sleep in the cool night air away from the heat and clamour, the oppressive atmosphere of the city.
They settled among the old olive trees and Jesus said to them
‘Sit here while I go over there and pray.’ (Matthew 26.36)
But every time he returns they’re asleep.
‘So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ (Matthew 26.40-41)
So, in our churches, in the little Gethsemane’s we create, amongst the daffodils or lilies, the branches of Pussy Willow, or fresh leaves, amongst the candles that have been arranged to create a sense of place, a sense of holiness, the only bright pool in a dark church, we sit and watch and pray and wait with Jesus, tired, disciples, just like then, but now. And until ten, or midnight, or dawn or until the Liturgy of Good Friday begins we keep the watch and try to do better.
At Southwark Cathedral we keep the Watch until midnight and as the clock chimes I always kneel before the sacrament and say
See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. (Matthew 26.45)
We then scatter.
While I was spending six weeks in Jerusalem last autumn I spent a few hours sitting around the Garden of Gethsemane. It is a great place to people watch. The ‘one-way system’ around the ‘garden’ by the side of the Church of All Nations which enshrines the rock against which Jesus is supposed to have prayed, is necessary because of the sheer number of people trying to see the place for themselves. Inside, the church is dark and atmospheric and the mumbles of pilgrims and worshippers mingle in the gloom. But I was on the quest of what I was calling ‘the hidden and holy’. And I found it.
Just across the road from the Garden and the crowds is the tomb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Many pilgrims will never notice it because to get to the entrance involves going down a series of steps which are arrived at after making your way through an unofficial taxi park and a gathering of souvenir sellers who are ready to make a quick getaway as soon as a police car appears. But if you get down the steps you find yourself in the forecourt of the church. It’s well worth visiting the church but not on this occasion. Instead, go right of the church. There is a little alley between the wall of the church and a stone retaining wall. At the end you can see a doorway and on the lintel is carved ‘Grotto of Gethsemane’.
You may be the only one in there if you venture down the alley and through the door. What you discover is a little chapel inside a cave. The rood of the cave is painted with beautiful Byzantine flowers – it is a place in which Christians have worshipped for a long time. The tradition is that this was a place to which Jesus came when he needed space, to pray. But it is also said that here was where he met Nicodemus who ‘came to Jesus by night’ (John 3.1). That same Pharisee would turn up again during the passion and speak for Jesus, but with no effect. But was it to this significant and known space, this place of prayer, that Jesus came with his closest friends, Peter, James and John before his arrest? In the middle of one of the busiest spots on the pilgrim trail this hidden and holy place becomes the place of Watch.
Whilst we are still commemorating the centenary of the First World War it’s good to remember a poem by Rudyard Kipling called, simply, ‘Gethsemane’.
The Garden called Gethsemane
In Picardy it was,
And there the people came to see
The English soldiers pass.
We used to pass—we used to pass
Or halt, as it might be,
And ship our masks in case of gas
The Garden called Gethsemane,
It held a pretty lass,
But all the time she talked to me
I prayed my cup might pass.
The officer sat on the chair,
The men lay on the grass,
And all the time we halted there
I prayed my cup might pass.
It didn’t pass—it didn’t pass-
It didn’t pass from me.
I drank it when we met the gas
Whether amongst the trees or in this known cave, Jesus prayed that the cup would pass. But like that soldier in another Gethsemane the cup would not pass from him and Jesus finally prayed
‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.’ (Matthew 26.42)
Today, the first of these Three Great Days, we watch and pray.
my spirit is willing,
but my flesh is weak,
yet not what I will
but what you will.
May I have the courage