When I served as a pastor, the Maundy Thursday worship service was my favorite of the year. It was wrapped in darkness, silence, and somber contemplation. The readings, prayers, sermon, and singing took on a slowed pace as we attempted to understand the vulnerability of God in Jesus Christ, in and through whom Gethsemane recapitulated, reversed, and triumphed over Eden.
Whereas the serpent taunted, tempted, and circled about Adam and Eve, striking venom into their hearts and minds, the religious leaders circled about Jesus as he taught in the temple during the days before his arrest—like a pack of hungry wolves waiting to pounce upon their weakened prey. As the week went on, the gospel narratives indicate that the power of the void—the nothingness that sought to undo God’s good creation, to return it back to nothing—became more and more palpable. Jesus’ emotions were on the surface. One moment he was weeping bitterly for Jerusalem and the next foretelling God’s judgment upon her. He cursed an unfruitful fig tree and warned his disciples to be on alert for the coming days of dread.
In Eden, Adam and Even turned to mutual recrimination and blame. Shame closed then off to each other and God. They attempted to protect themselves, turning inward in the most harmful of ways, becoming invulnerable. Yet Jesus kept his heart open. With the utmost intimacy, affection, tenderness and devotion, he served his disciples a meal, knelt before them, and washed the grime off their feet. The crowds who had praised him and eagerly listened to his teaching; the disciples who communed with him for the three years; and the one who pledged his unswerving loyalty: all were about to forsake Jesus. Knowing this, he still chose love. He remained vulnerable.
In Mark’s account of Gethsemane, Jesus cried out, “My soul is sorrowful to the point of death.” He felt half-dead with anguish. Fear seized him, and he fell to the ground. He was struck with horror (as John Calvin put it) by the fate that awaited him. Being fully human, he desperately needed his friends in this hour; yet they failed him. They lacked the emotional and spiritual stamina to stay by his side. As the weight of the void (sin, death, and the devil) pressed down upon Jesus, he wrestled with God: “Take this cup from me; nevertheless not my will but thine be done.” Adam and Eve’s hiding from God now became Jesus’ persistent prayer even as God’s presence increasingly became distant, unreachable, and silent. Faith now triumphed over fear.
Yet this triumph had the appearance of its opposite: defeat. Jesus began to sweat and to sweat blood—blood, sweat, and tears. Hematidrosis is a medical condition brought upon by acute distress. The capillaries under the skin dilate so much that they burst, causing blood to ooze through the skin along with sweat. It makes one’s skin tender and fragile, painful to the touch. The kiss of Jesus, betrayal in the guise of affection, likely caused emotional, spiritual, and physical pain. Jesus’ blood, sweat, and tears in the Garden of Gethsemane harkens back to Garden of Eden, where the original turning away from God yielded blood, sweat, and tears. For Eve, there would be the bloody anguish of birth; for Adam, physical labor that brought sweat to his brow; for both, tears of sorrow as they lost their peaceful union and communion with God and each other.
In Gethsemane, though, God is the one who bleeds, sweats, and grieves. Here the power of the void entered into the personal existence of the Incarnate Word. “He who knew no sin became sin.” He bore sin and death so completely that he took it into his own being; so that by his dying, it too would die. Our anguish became God’s anguish; our alienation, God’s alienation; our shame, God’s shame; our death, God’s death. Of course, on this side of Gethsemane, contemplation of this somber reality creates awe and gratitude, for Christ’s alienation has become our reconciliation. We receive (again and again) the gift of faith in place of fear and inseparable unity with God and each other.