Poet Theodore Roetke once wrote: “In a dark time, the edge is what we have.” In a dark time we also have prayer.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, as he sweated the blood of loneliness and misunderstanding, Jesus dropped to his knees in prayer: “ ‘ Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Let this cup pass; yet not my will, but yours be done,’ And coming back and finding his disciples asleep, he returned and prayed even more earnestly.” From Jesus’ prayer in the garden, we can learn how we too should pray in a dark time.
What are the key ingredients in Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane? Among other things, five elements might be highlighted:
- Childlike intimacy with, and reliance upon, God as a great, all-loving, all-powerful parent who can make everything okay:
Jesus begins his prayer with the words: “Abba, Father.” Abba is a word which, at the time, a child would use affectionately for his or her father, roughly equivalent to our words “Daddy” or “Papa.” Obviously it connotes a deep connection, an intimacy beyond even friendship, a certain daily familiarity. But it also implies more, namely, the simple, childlike hope one’s father (or mother) can fix what’s wrong.
Some years ago, a mother described to me the horror of watching her teenage son die of a gunshot wound. They were in their house when someone shot her son through a window. The boy, stunned, muted and dying from the gunshot, stumbled into the room in which she was sitting. He was unable to speak in words, but his eyes spoke the clear, simple plea of a child: “Mum, make this okay!” Of course she couldn’t and he died in her arms.
Jesus’ opening words in his prayer in Gethsemane say roughly the same thing – and prayer in a dark time invites us to make this kind of plea.
- Trust in God, despite overpowering darkness and chaos:
“All things are possible for you.” Despite his aloneness, his betrayal, the hatred and madness around him, and the fact that darkness, not light, appears to be triumphing, Jesus prays in trust, trusting that the centre still holds, trusting that, despite every indication to the contrary, God is still solidly Lord of this universe.
In essence, his prayer is saying: “Father, I believe you are still master of this world, still more powerful than all of these forces, and your truth and light are still worth giving everything for, despite the fact that right now everything seems to belie that.”
Jesus trusts God not just when truth seems to be prevailing, but also, and especially, when falsehood seems to be triumphing.
- Radical honesty and boldness in expressing fear:
“Let this cup pass.” In Gethsemane, Jesus lifts mind and heart to God. He doesn’t tell God what he thinks God wants to hear; nor does he tell God where he, Jesus, would like to be in terms of maturity. No, he tells God where in fact he really is at, cringing, frightened and reluctant before bitter duty.
There’s no denial or pretence in his prayer. His humility expresses itself with childlike clarity.
Iris Murdoch once wrote: “A common soldier dies without fear, Jesus died afraid.” His Gethsemane prayer reflects that.
- The willingness to give God the space within which to be God:
“Yet not my will, but yours be done.” Despite everything in him that cringes before the implications of saying yes, Jesus still consents to give God the space within which to be God. His prayer gives God a blank cheque to fulfill his purposes, even if, for a time, that purpose is grossly misunderstood.
- Repetition, repeated prayer:
“He returned and prayed even more earnestly.” Scripture promises that faith and prayer will move mountains, but it doesn’t promise that they will move them immediately.
Sometimes for prayer to be effective, it has to be prayed many times ─ over and over. Jesus does this in Gethsemane. Only after repeated efforts does an angel finally come and strengthen him.
St. Monica prayed for her wayward son, Augustine, for many years. Eventually he converted and became one of the great saints in history. Gethsemane teaches us this lesson – prayer needs to be repeated.
C.S. Lewis once said, “The harshness of God is kinder than the softness of man, and God’s compulsion is our liberation.” The prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane, the model for all prayer in a dark time, illustrates that great truth.