Sleep, prayer, grief, and Jesus

A sermon for Palm Sunday: the Sunday of the Passion, 2022

While his disciples slept, worn out by grief, Jesus took their anguish upon himself, and prayed.

Cyril of Alexandria asks the question why, when Jesus knew what his death would accomplish, when he knew that resurrection would follow, when he knew the depth and height and breadth of God’s love that he embodied, would he be in anguish over what was to come. Ambrose of Milan answers that it is because his humanity demanded it: demanded that he take on not only mortality in the form of death but in the form of grief, and the fear of death, in order to redeem those also.

But there is more than that. 

We see it in Ukraine, in Bucha. We have seen it before. We have seen it across cultures and countries and conflicts. We are not innocent of it. We have seen it in the gospels, when the soldiers torment him, treat him with contempt, spit on him, blindfold him, beat him, terrorize him. The capacity for humanity to brutality, to inhumanity, to desecrate the image of God among us: was not this the cause of Jesus’ anguish?

He told his disciples, “Pray that you may be spared temptation,” because he knew the capacity even among his closest friends for self-deception, the corruption of the devil, the temptation to retribution, violence instead of protection, vengeance instead of reparation. When they drew the sword against his captors, he was ready still with healing. His anguish was the absorption of so much sin, such evil, such un-love as the world is capable of.

And while his disciples slept, worn out by it all, he prayed for us all.

He prayed because he saw how ingrained it is, how deep the roots of evil delve within us. He saw the antisemitism that would follow his death; he grieved for his people, and for their persecutors. He saw the racism, the parsing out of the image of God amongst peoples, and the blasphemy against the spirit of God, the giver of life, that would seek to split and scale the image of God as though some of us had created God in our own image, instead of the other way around. He saw the gender discrimination, the lack of imagination to reflect the expansiveness of God’s creativity among us. He saw the despair that it would engender, and he was deeply grieved by it, for those who suffer from the closed minds of others, and for those whose minds are blindfolded against the love of God.

He saw our pettiness, the self-doubt which we project onto others in order to punish them for our grief. And he prayed that it might be taken away. He saw the abuse that some of us have suffered, and he prayed that our wounds might be healed.

He saw our humanity, and the depths to which it had fallen, and in solidarity with us and our sinfulness, he prayed.

Jesus knew that he would conquer death and sin – he had told them over and again that he would rise – but he was grieved and frightened and anguished at the capacity of his human captors for violence. There is no contradiction here: it was from ourselves that he came to save us. That is why he advises his disciples, “Pray that you may not be tested.” 

I think that the question for us, rather than why Jesus would be anguished, is why, when he has done all of this for us, and with us, the harrowing of hell and the embodiment of suffering, why we are still like this, why this desecration of humanity is still happening.

Jesus came to save us from ourselves, and from sin and evil, and while that work was completed once upon the cross, it is still working, and working itself out, through us and among us. Every day we have a new chance to pray, “Lead us not into temptation. Deliver us from evil.” Because Jesus emptied himself, and took on the form of a slave, and dwelt among us and died among us; because he took our humanity upon himself, with all of its sin and suffering, grief and glimpses of glory; because of that we can live in solidarity with him, confident in the love of God even when we have little confidence in ourselves to live into the humanity that Jesus embodied, the love that he embodied. Because he became human, we can become and remain human, in the midst of the world’s inhumanity.

There is so much grief in this gospel. There is so much grief in our world. His disciples were worn out under it, and do we not feel for them. And Jesus prayed for them as they slept. He took their burdens upon himself, he took them to the cross, and he buried them there.

He freed us from death and sin and evil and violence to live instead a new life, if we will trust him, if we will follow him,  if we make his prayer our own, if we will let him pray for us, and say only, “Amen.”

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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