32 Jesus and his disciples came to a place called Gethsemane. Jesus said to them, “Sit here while I pray.” 33 He took Peter, James, and John along with him. He began to feel despair and was anxious. 34 He said to them, “I’m very sad. It’s as if I’m dying. Stay here and keep alert.” 35 Then he went a short distance farther and fell to the ground. He prayed that, if possible, he might be spared the time of suffering. 36 He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible. Take this cup of suffering away from me. However—not what I want but what you want.”
37 He came and found them sleeping. He said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Couldn’t you stay alert for one hour? 38 Stay alert and pray so that you won’t give in to temptation. The spirit is eager, but the flesh is weak.”
39 Again, he left them and prayed, repeating the same words. 40 And, again, when he came back, he found them sleeping, for they couldn’t keep their eyes open, and they didn’t know how to respond to him. 41 He came a third time and said to them, “Will you sleep and rest all night? That’s enough! The time has come for the Human One to be betrayed into the hands of sinners. 42 Get up! Let’s go! Look, here comes my betrayer.”
The 'Alert' Heart
Three times Jesus tells his disciples to keep or stay alert. Four times we read the word sleep or sleeping to describe the disciples’ ‘short-comings’ at Gethsemane. Jesus has asked them to stay alert, stay awake, stay engaged in a time of despair and fear. Their response is to doze off into slumber. How many times have you fallen asleep attempting to pray before bed?
But Jesus is not calling them to a perfect state of mind or an unwavering regiment of spirituality. To be alert, is to be as Jesus is in this moment: open-hearted. Not without fear. Not without anxiety. Not without doubt. Not even without asking to be spared suffering. Jesus feels all these things. Jesus asks to be spared in his prayer. In fact, he declares that to be spared is no doubt in the realm of God-possibility. He can spare me this suffering . . . take this cup of suffering away from me.
All of you who have demanded of yourselves, or of others, perfect motives for the legitimacy of faithful action, have of course been sorely disappointed. We stay alert because we will be tempted. Our minds and hearts will never be clean of strange, dissenting thoughts; of stress; of doubt; of an instinct towards self-preservation—to say that this is what Christ demands is to deviate from the truth of his Words: The spirit is eager, but the flesh is weak. The flesh is weak. What is your choice amid this, however? Will you deny? Will you sweep everything under the rug? Will you cope dangerously in substitute comforts? Will you feign self-righteousness, be the hero, and play dishonest martyr: I will lose everything for you! Will you crumble into debilitating fear, or succumb to addiction? Or will you simply engage—in all your despair, in all your anxiety—engage honestly with Abba, Father and put all your heart out there for him to see?