Savoring Gethsemane Places

Based on Mark 14:32-42; photo credit: Sheila G. Hunter, used by permission.

they went out to the place of olives

where wind-wearied trees
bear bitter-hard fruit–
flesh crushed, pressed, poured out
until savory, saving

balm for broken bodies
light for tenebrous tabernacles

“My soul is sorrowful unto death.”

they went out to the place of olives

where fickle sleep
betrays with
beguiling lullabies

“Couldn’t you keep watch”

they went out to the place of olives

where the (w)holy human one
whispers up through ancient branches

“Let this cup pass from me”

crushed, pressed, poured out
savory saving salve of gilead

“Your will be done.

She stayed up all night on the eve of Samuel’s birth. She wanted to see him into the world. Hear his borning cry. Peer into his face as he opened his eyes for the first time. She kept vigil for him then—still does sometimes—as though her sleeplessness might serve as some sort of down payment on his safe slumber in a world gone crazy.

When have you kept watch? Thought that if you could just keep your eyes open, the dreaded thing would not, could not, happen?

Maybe you have sat vigil as a beloved one neared death. Or perhaps you have stood in the streets through the night to preach or protest with your candlelit presence.

Jesus asked them to keep vigil while he prayed. But they just couldn’t do it. It can be hard to stay awake to someone else’s Gethsemane. It can be hard to stay awake to approaching death. To humanity’s horrors. To injustices that never seem to end. It can be hard even to stay awake to the wounds of our own lives.

And yet, life brings us to vigil-keeping places. Not just once or twice but often. Life brings us to places where all we can do is be near. Wait. Stay with. Even unto death.

That is where life took them—Jesus and the disciples—that night. The Gospel writer paints the picture. Jesus throws himself onto Gethsemane ground. He soul-searches. Pleads. Weeps. Surrenders. Jesus faces his humanity. His mortality. No triumphalism. No facade of power. He prays as humans pray, hoping beyond hope. And that makes Gethsemane a painful place for Jesus and for his closest disciples—believers, even—who just couldn’t keep their eyes open, just couldn’t stay awake to the inhumane humanity of it all.

Yes, Gethsemane wakes up pain, but Gethsemane also births bittersweet beauty. It is a garden after all. A place that cultivates creation’s creative cycle. Birth, death, decay, rebirth, growth again. Gethsemane is intimate with these garden rhythms. You see, olives are birthed by wind-gnarled trees who persevere season after season, year after year. Olives from those trees–crushed and pressed–become savory oil enlivening sun-warmed tomatoes, salving oil rubbed into broken bodies, anointing oil crossed onto baptized foreheads. The word “Gethsemane” means “oil press.” Gethsemane midwifes agony. Gethsemane also midwifes the balm of Gilead.  

This, I think, is one of the ways God calls to us in this Holy Week story. Mark won’t let us see Gethsemane as a place isolated to a particular time or person. No, Gethsemane is each and all of us. Gethsemane is life itself.

Gethsemane is gunshots in a high school and economic devastation in Venezuela.

Gethsemane is Flint and Ferguson and every fight we take up against racism.

Gethsemane is three churches in Louisiana and Notre-Dame de Paris.

Gethsemane is Mother Emmanuel and Moral Mondays.

Gethsemane is a hospice bedside. A cold prison cell. A breakfast table with no food.

Gethsemane is a lifetime of struggles against injustices of all kinds.

Gethsemane is us. Gethsemane is the town or city where we live. Gethsemane is life itself.

Jesus stays in Gethsemane. Through the pain. Through the doubts. He doesn’t run away. He stays with what he believes to be true about his life and about God in his life even though living what he believes leads to his death. And by staying in Gethsemane until his hour comes, he becomes fully himself–the anointed one who anoints death with life.

We gather around a table this week as Jesus did with his disciples on that Passover night. God’s call to us today is not unlike God’s call to them. When the bread has been broken. Blessed. Eaten. The cup poured out. Then—God calls us to go out. Into places where souls are being crushed. Into places where lives are being pressed. Into places that steal people’s dignity and do violence to hopes and dreams. God calls us to go out to Gethsemane. Then—by God’s grace as revealed through Jesus—here and there, now and then, we wake up to the truth of life and faith and become fully ourselves–the body of Christ. The balm of Gilead.

May God’s will be done in our lives. Amen


  1. I kept vigil at the altar of repose from 1AM to 2AM on Good Friday morning. Earlier in the evening as the Maundy Thursday Mass was ending, there was a huge, boisterous protest in the streets nearby the church over the very recent police shooting of an 22 year-old black woman in a car with her boyfriend, mistakenly identified as the suspects of an armed robbery. A cell phone video showed the policeman running up to the car and just firing 12 rounds through the window. No chance given for the woman to even speak for herself. There were no weapons found in car or on their persons. She is in serious condition in hospital.

    When I returned for my shift those few hours later, the streets around the church were closed off by the police and I had to park a several blocks away and walk. It was not an easy walk, people were still out and angry. I sat in the Lady chapel with the Blessed Sacrament, surrounded by many flickering candles and sweet flowers. I prayed for the woman, the protesters, the police, the city, for peace. Unease grew as the building creaked, as sirens almost continually wailed, closer then far away again, and voices outside yelled. The doors of church were wide open so that anyone could come in, and I was alone. The psalms of Good Friday Lauds that I prayed startled me. Gethsemane never felt so real.

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