As Jesus and his disciples enter the Garden of Gethsemane, he tells them: “Stay awake, watch!” The implication is that they’re about to learn something, a lesson is to be taught.
But, as we know, they didn’t stay awake, they fell asleep, not because the hour was late and they were tired after a long day, nor even because of the wine they’d drunk at the supper. They fell asleep, Luke says, “out of sheer sorrow”. They fell asleep because they were disconsolate, disappointed, confused, depressed. And, because of that sleep, they missed the lesson they were supposed to learn from watching Jesus in his prayer. What was that lesson?
Jesus, himself, explains it three days later on the road to Emmaus when, in speaking of his suffering and death, he asks: “Wasn’t it necessary?” What the disciples were supposed to see and grasp in the Garden of Gethsemane was the intrinsic connection between suffering and transformation and the necessity, in that process, of being willing to carry tension, disappointment, and unfairness without giving into despair, bitterness, recrimination, and the urge to give back in kind.
We fall asleep out of sorrow whenever we become so confused and overwhelmed by some kind of disappointment that we begin to act out of hostility rather than love, paranoia rather than trust, despair rather than hope. We fall asleep out of sorrow whenever we sell short what’s highest in us because of the bitterness of the moment.
And this is one of perennial temptations we have in life, to fall asleep out of sorrow. Most times when we give in to weakness or commit sin we do so not out of malice or bad intent, but out of despair. For example: A number of times, I have had friends who gave themselves over to periods of sexual promiscuity even though they knew better. They weren’t so naive nor rationalizing to believe for a minute that what they were doing was either life-giving or morally right. So why did they do it? Flat-out loneliness, inchoate depression, practical despair. They were asleep out of sheer sorrow. Unspoken in their actions were these words: “Given my life, my practical situation, that’s the best I can hope for. I’ll take second- best, even fifth-best, because for me there can be no first-best.” Their action was simply compensatory.
The same often holds true too when we give into bitterness, anger, jealousy, hostility, and the urge to give back in kind. Why are we sometimes so petty? Why are we sometimes less than the gracious, understanding, and forgiving persons we would like to be? Simply put, we’re biting in order not to be bitten. Some deep disappointment has rendered us asleep to what’s highest inside of our own selves and some depression has rendered us powerless to our own goodness.
It’s not easy to stay awake to the lesson Jesus was trying to teach in the Garden of Gethsemane.
*Whenever we feel so weak and overcome by disappointment that we give into actions that we know are not good for us, but seem to be the best we can do given our practical situation, we have fallen asleep out of sorrow, just as the disciples did in the Garden of Gethsemane.
*Whenever the unfairness of life so embitters us that we cannot resist the urge to give back in kind, anger for anger, recrimination for recrimination, pettiness for pettiness, we have fallen asleep out of sorrow, just as the disciples did in the Garden of Gethsemane.
*Whenever the complexity of life so confuses us so that we no longer feel any obligation to take care of anyone beyond ourselves, but only want to protect ourselves, to hide, and to find a secure place of shelter, we have fallen asleep out of sorrow, just as the disciples did in the Garden of Gethsemane.
*Whenever we feel so overwhelmed by the fact that God seems silent, withdrawn, and unwilling to intervene and clean up the world that we can no longer imagine the existence of God, we have fallen asleep out of sorrow, just as the disciples did in the Garden of Gethsemane.
*Whenever we feel like a minority of one, so alone, little, and despairing before the powers of chaos and darkness that we believe that Christ is no longer Lord of this world, we have fallen asleep out of sorrow, just as the disciples did in the Garden of Gethsemane.
We’re all familiar with the popular song: Help me make it through the Night. Its chorus gives us, in effect, a dictionary-description of practical despair: “I don’t care what’s right or wrong; I don’t try to understand, let the devil take tomorrow, because tonight I need a friend.” That’s exactly the kind of sorrow that overwhelmed the disciples in Gethsemane and drugged them into sleep, numbing them both to what Jesus wanted them to see there and to what was highest inside of their own ideals.