The Maundy Thursday service at my home church was always one of my favorite services of the year. We held it, every year, in the Chapel, a space at the back of the building, behind the communion table, big enough for only a few dozen. We would lay out cushions on the floor, light candles along a plain and simple wooden cross; no microphones were necessary. It was quiet, contemplative, meaningful. We would sing, read, and pray.
This year, being away from home means I am missing that service. But instead, when the start time came around today (7pm in England, 2pm here in North Carolina), I retreated to my room, to my Bible and to a time of prayer with my Father.
Maundy Thursday is often the day of Easter that non-Christians don’t know much about when I speak to them. They know of Good Friday, and of course of Easter Sunday. Maundy Thursday is not as well-known. But to me, it is the day of Holy Week that makes me think the most.
This afternoon, as I prayed over the scripture that tells the story of that night in Jesus’ journey to the cross, I prayed – and journaled – through four points of Jesus’ humanity.
Jesus was afraid.
When Jesus goes to Gethsemane to pray, He is not skipping there with a joyful heart. He walks there slowly, His feat heavy, His shoulders heavy, His heart heavy with the task ahead of him. I can’t know what Jesus was thinking, but if I had to guess, I don’t think it was “Wa-hey, I’m off to the cross. I can’t wait!” He is afraid. He is struggling.
…he began to de deeply distressed and troubled. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death…” – Mark 14:33-34
In each of the four Gospels, we see that Jesus is feeling troubled, distressed, sorrowful, overwhelmed. He was in anguish.
Throughout the year, people often focus on Jesus’ divinity, on His being the Son of God. But on Maundy Thursday, I see instead His humanity. Jesus, Son of God, completely human, was afraid.
We all have our own experiences with fear. Mine are many! I am fearful – and made fearful – by the darkness of depression and the stranglehold of anxiety that has been with me for many years. I am fearful of the dreams I have never being fulfilled. I am fearful of being inadequate, of being rejected because I am not enough. I am fearful of failing God. It’s a fundamentally human thing, isn’t it, to be afraid? We all feel it, and so did Jesus.
But when Jesus was afraid he turned to prayer. There is a challenge there. What do you turn to when you are afraid? Do you turn inwards, to your own thoughts? Do you turn outward, to food or the comfort of others? Or do you turn your head upwards, like Jesus did? Do you lift your spirit up and bow your head down in prayer?
Jesus was afraid. So Jesus prayed.
Jesus wanted his friends with him.
We have seen Jesus afraid. Now we see him lonely, in need of comfort. And Jesus does that most human of things: He asks His friends to be with Him.
“Stay here and keep vigil with me.” – Mark 14:34
I have some amazing friends. Friends who have been with me through dark times and through celebrations. Friends who have cried with me, and who have been happy for me. Through all of the ups and downs, they have stayed with me. And that’s all we can ask for in a friend: to be there.
Jesus’ friends were His disciples. His disciples were His friends. In His fear and His struggle that night, Jesus simply wanted them to be with Him. He didn’t want to be alone. Just an hour, He asked them, just stay here with me for an hour. Stay awake, for me, be present while I pray. It’s not much to ask, is it? Just one hour.
Sometimes friends ask a lot of us, and we ask a lot of them. But it isn’t always the grand gestures that make the most difference. I have a great friend. She is younger than me, and we fondly call her my little sister. As a ‘big sister’ I take seriously the responsibility to watch out for her. Several years ago, when depression hit me with a blow so strong it knocked me to the ground, to a place of tears and isolation that I did not escape from for several months, I was no longer the strong one. I didn’t see many of my friends or church family for several weeks, and I remember vividly the Sunday I went back to church after that long time away. I spoke to the teenagers whose youth group I had led, my little sister among them. I told them that I had depression. It was not an easy conversation. They asked what they could do to help. I told them they could smile, say hello, be kind and patient with me. Because that is what makes a friendship – kindness, patience, a smile.
Those amazing teenagers did just what I asked. They were kind. They smiled. They did not treat me like there was something wrong with me. They were patient with me. That same Sunday, a little later as I stood in the back room of church where people were laughing and drinking coffee and where I felt nervous of the hustle and bustle, I felt an arm around me. My little sister had snuck up behind me and stayed there. She put her arm around me, silently. She knew I was nervous, and she came to stand with me. I felt protected and no longer alone. That is what a friend is: a solid, comforting presence letting you know that you are not on your own. That’s the biggest, and most important, thing a friend can do for you. And that is what Jesus wanted – needed, even: for His friends to be there, present with Him. They didn’t need to say anything. Sometimes the presence of a friend is more of a comfort than any words they can say.
Jesus, human like us, just needed His friends.
Jesus’ friends failed Him.
He came back and found them sound asleep. He said to Peter, “Simon, you went to sleep on me? Can’t you stick it out with me a single hour?” – Mark 14:37
Jesus needed his friends. He asked them for a simple thing: to stay awake with Him.
But they couldn’t do it.
He had asked them once to leave everything behind and follow Him. They did that. He had asked them to believe in Him, to recognize Him as the Son of God. They did that. But stay awake for an hour? They did not do that.
I’m sure we’ve all been there, when we’ve asked a friend to do something and they fail and you’re left saying to them, ‘All I asked is that one little thing, and you couldn’t do it?!’
Imagine how Jesus feels here. He is afraid, perhaps the most afraid He had ever been, and He desperately needs His friends. He asks them to stay awake with Him for just an hour, while He attempts to pray to His father and come to terms with the task ahead of Him. He returns, and the friends He was relying on are asleep. Do they not realize how much He needs them? Do they not see how much He is struggling? Do they not see how much He has done for them and how little He now asks of them?
We all know what it is like to be disappointed. It’s easy to think, as we read of the disciples falling asleep in these verses, at this crucial time, how they could do it, how they could be so weak?
In that moment, Jesus’ disciples fell short. They failed Jesus, their friend, their master. But how often do I do that too?
When I think of all the things I have asked my Lord for – health, miracles of healing, fulfillment of dreams, impossible actions, comfort and peace and strength and power – I am embarrassed that sometimes I, like the disciples, fail to give Him just one hour. Jesus asks only of me to stay with Him, to be present and alert and not fall asleep while God is at work. But I am not always successful in this. Sometimes, I fall asleep. Sometimes, I fall short.
Sometimes, I fail too.
And oh how sorry I am.
Jesus, though He prayed for another direction, ultimately trusted God to lead the way for Him.
When Jesus prays that night, He asks His father to take the weight of expectation from Him. May this cup be taken from me, He prays. In that last part of the journey, Jesus begs His dad to change His mind, to make it so that He does not have to suffer.
Going a little ahead, he fell on his face, praying, “My Father, if there is any way, get me out of this.” – Matthew 26:39
I’ve been there. When I was making the move to the States last year, I was so excited. It had been my dream for so long, and I was about to make it happen. But that didn’t stop me, as I went to sleep that last night in England, being afraid. What have I got myself into? I thought. This is too scary. Maybe I could just stay here.
Jesus knows what His task is. He will do it. But that doesn’t stop that moment of humanity, where He pleads with His father, Please do make me do this Dad. In fact, He pleads twice. I can almost hear His voice. Please Dad, you don’t really need me to do this, do you? Yes I do, His father answers. But really? Are you sure? I mean, it’s okay if you want to change your mind. I can picture His father giving Him that look that parents do, the look that says ‘stop trying to get out of it, you’ve got a job to do so do it’.
In the end, after that pleading and that pain, Jesus accepts His father’s direction. There is no other way.
“My Father, if there is no other way than this, drinking this cup to the dregs, I’m ready. Do it your way.” – Matthew 26: 42
God gives us hard things to do, things that we get excited about and embrace with open arms, but then right at the last minute think Wait a minute. This might be too hard for me, God. Can you just ask someone else? I’m actually not sure anymore.
God asked Jesus to go to the cross. That was the cup he gave Him. The cup he gives me is small in comparison. If Jesus can take His cup, than I can take mine. It’s a small act, really, for the one who loved me enough to die.