22 March 2013


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 44

Sometimes bad timing is also good timing. It's clear to me that I will not be done reading Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week by Maundy Thursday, as I had originally hoped. But it's even clearer that this is a good thing: inasmuch as the last chapter of the book is on the Resurrection, it is actually more fitting to write about in Easter anyway.

Which means that Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week is turning out to be "the right book at the right time" in a deeper sense than I ever thought that phrase would be when I started applying it to my reading. Besides this, I love this book for itself in a way that I will be able to fully express only through gushing. And yet . . . I will be a little glad when this is over. I killed my old Catholic blog for a reason, you know! =P 

Chapter VI

Now we move from the upper room, a setting lost to us except in spirit, to the Garden of Gethsemane, a place which has been attracting pilgrims for two millennia. Pope Benedict mentions the present-day Church of Jesus's Agony--the second to be erected on the site, after the first was destroyed after the fourth century. Its foundation completely covers the ground, except one area: the spot near the apse said to be the very rock on which Jesus prayed.

This is one of the most venerable sites of Christianity. True, the trees do not date from the time of Jesus; Titus cut down all the trees within a wide radius during the siege of Jerusalem. Yet it is still the same Mount of Olives. Anyone who spends time here is confronted with one of the most dramatic moments in the mystery of our Saviour: it was here that Jesus experienced that final loneliness, the whole anguish of the human condition. Here the abyss of sin and evil penetrated deep within his soul. Here he was to quake with foreboding of his imminent death. Here he was kissed by the betrayer. Here he was abandoned by all the disciples. Here he wrestled with his destiny for my sake.

Was the use of the personal pronoun "my" startling? It shouldn't have been. =) Remember that Pope Benedict is writing about Jesus in order to help us develop a deeper personal relationship with Him. 

At the beginning of this chapter, the Holy Father unlocks the meaning of Gethsemane as a setting. I'd wax on about it, but the essential point is that Gethsemane is a garden of prayer--the place where we learn to pray as Jesus prayed. That is, the place where we have learned to pray as Jesus prayed. Don't you think that the two-thousand-year-old Body of which we are the latest members has already woven the Agony in the Garden into the great tapestry of Catholic prayer? But familiarity with great mysteries can render them invisible, and then we need a sensitive theologian to point them out to us again.

What new detail of an old truth did you see in this chapter? I particularly loved the continuity. To this day, we can use the same words as Jesus and we sometimes assume the same praying position. (Don't believe me? Check out the liturgy in exactly one week.) But as Pope Benedict points out, all this is not just continuity; it's also communion. Now, we don't absolutely need to have a Scriptural prayer memorised or to get down on our knees, in order to pray as Christians . . . but gosh darn it, isn't it just richer when we do?

Pope Benedict's exegesis of Jesus's use of the Psalms and His praying position are my favourite parts of the whole chapter, but they're hardly the main event. So let's continue to unlock the real mystery of the Agony in the Garden . . .

What does this mean? What is "my" will as opposed to "your" will? Who is speaking to whom? Is it the Son addressing the Father? Or the man Jesus addressing the triune God? Nowhere else in sacred Scripture do we gain so deep an insight into the inner mystery of Jesus as in the prayer on the Mount of Olives. So it is no coincidence that the early Church's efforts to arrive at an understanding of the figure of Jesus Christ took their final shape as a result of faith-filled reflection on his prayer on the Mount of Olives.

What follows is some pretty deep theology: after all, we're going head-to-head with heresies here. There was a time when I would have considered the highlight of this chapter to be the story of the Council of Chalcedon, but heretics no longer make me want to reach for a hammer. Besides, aren't the roots of all the prayers we grew up with, from the Eucharist to the most basic formula prayers taught to a child, so much more fascinating?

If we do this communion thing right, then we do not merely pray as we please, but pray with a High Priest at all times. And not just any high priest, but the Son of the Father. 

Question of the Day: What about your own garden of prayer? Share your favourite thing about your parish church!

Image Source: a) Church of Jesus's Agony, b) The Agony in the Garden by Giovanni Bellini

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