At the beginning of the Palm Sunday liturgy is a reading of Jesus entering Jerusalem from Matthew's Gospel. We might notice that there is a tremendous amount of energy being expended by many people as He rides in on a donkey. It is almost like an outdoor street party: Jesus rides in to cries of "Hosanna" as people spread their cloaks on the ground and wave palm branches. There is a flurry of activity among His apostles, some of whom have gone to find the upper room and have it prepared according to His instructions. The other apostles are accompanying Him in this throng of people who seem to be "crazy" about Jesus. However, the scene shifts dramatically when we hear the Gospel reading of the entire Passion narrative, again according to Matthew. Now the scene is of the apostles at dinner with Jesus who is offering them His Body and Blood, in what seems like a long Passover meal. Late in the evening they follow Him out to the Garden of Gethsemane. As Jesus goes off to pray, taking three of His closest friends nearer to where He is, they seem to have trouble staying awake. After all of the activity of such a chaotic day and a confusing dinner, no wonder they were sleepy!
In the narrative we see that Jesus went apart to pray three times, and at the end of each very agonizing period of prayer He returns to find His friends asleep. Here He is, truly in agony over the path He is about to travel which will include every manner of suffering possible including the betrayal of all His friends, and they are asleep. How disappointing! Actually, I do not think He was disappointed in them at all. I think He was frightened and lonely as anyone who was facing what He was to face would have been. He is, after all, fully human. But He, more than any other person, would have truly understood their sleepiness because He is also fully God. He is mercy and compassion, and He is Love.
However, what struck me this year was that their sleep had a much deeper meaning than just an inability to keep their eyes open. Yes, they were tired and overwhelmed. They had no real idea of what He was talking about at the Last Supper. They were trying to wrap their brains around His talk of giving His Body and Blood for all of us, and of ‘not drinking wine until they were in the Kingdom of His Father.' They were upset about talk of betrayal and of denial. Their heads must have been spinning as the day began with hosannas and ended with talk of death.
Sleep can also refer to a fog we are in, such as when we say we were "sleepwalking"
through something. We function, but at a minimal level for whatever reason. The apostles were as if in a fog. Their minds could not comprehend what was going on when the scene in the garden was unfolding. They could only think of survival, and so they ran. They were asleep to the reality of what Jesus had foretold, of the realities of all that He had said would happen, especially that He would die and then rise. They simply reverted to instinct. Even Peter, who tried to follow along to see what was happening, could not think clearly and therefore denied Jesus three times. It was not until that cock crowed that he remembered and was awakened from his sleep. That is why he wept bitterly: he awoke to the truth.
We cannot judge the apostles harshly. We would have done what they did; we are all only human. Their sleep is a good lesson for us. We, too, have been asleep at times, and like them, we have to wrap our minds around the reality that Jesus died and rose for us. He suffered terribly so that we might have life to the full. But unlike the apostles, we do know that Jesus rose and we have the advantage of the entire New Testament and of many years of teaching about our faith. However, we still are asleep to the reality of it at times. We need the reminder every year given to us through the season of Lent that we can do better. This is why we repent, give alms, pray more, and go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We do it to wake from our sleep and to open our minds and hearts to the reality of the gift we have been given.
We struggle no less than the apostles, even knowing how the story turned out. (You will notice I am not saying "how the story ended" because His resurrection was a new beginning and not an ending.) We are human, and hence are weak and broken, but we are continually offered new life, healing, and wholeness through the graces of the Holy Spirit who became our new Advocate upon the death of Jesus. But the truly Good News is that each year when we embark upon Holy Week and hear the story of the apostles in the garden who could not stay awake with Jesus, we know that He will forgive us and in His mercy and compassion will lead us to new life. He will never stop offering Himself for us. We can use this opportunity to truly walk with Him on the way to the cross so that we can rise with Him at Easter as well.
May we enter into the mysteries of Holy Week with our eyes open and our minds clear! May we have the grace to walk with Jesus through each moment of His journey to the Cross! May we be freed of that which keeps us asleep and therefore which keeps us bound to our weaknesses! May we be near to Him when He needs us most, so that we may be aware of His nearness to us when we are most in need as well! May we come to understand more deeply the gifts Jesus gave us in His Body and Blood being given during His Passion! And may we have the courage to become more awake and alive in our faith, accepting the reality of the Cross so we can accept the gift of His rising at Easter! May we continue to meet in the Heart of our Lord who loves us so much that He gave everything He had to give us life! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The first painting is The Entry Into Jerusalem by Giotto. It can be found at http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/giotto/the-entry-into-jerusalem
The second painting is The Agony in the Garden by Andrea Mantegna (1430-1506). It can be found at http://www.katapi.org.uk/Art/Gethsemane.htm
The third is La Sangre de Christo, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. It can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/44-la-sangre-de-christo