Jesus' disciples make a poor showing in the stories of Jesus' passion and death. After the Last Supper, which must have baffled them as well as fed them in a way they could not have named, they accompany Jesus to Gethsemane. There, while he prays in the agony of decision, his three chosen companions, Peter, James and John, fall asleep, not once but three times--just as Peter, later in the wee hours, will deny him three times (Matthew 26:36-43, 69-75). Are we to read their sleep as denial? After Jesus' arrest, they all "left him and fled" (Matthew 26:56), though Peter hung around for awhile on the fringes of things. Are we to read their flight as cowardice?
Perhaps their sleep was denial, but perhaps it was not denial of their association with Jesus. Overcome with confusion, pain, indecision, have you never chosen to blot it all out in sleep? If not physical sleep, the kind of sleep of the spirit kindly provided by alcohol or escapist entertainment or a thousand other anodynes ready to hand in our pain-denying culture? At the supper, they had heard him say in various ways that his death was at hand. They had followed him from the familiarity of home into the strange waters of a new world promised; they had revered him as their rabbi, perhaps even as the Messiah, perhaps even as something more than that; they had, presumably, loved him. They had never really, it seems, expected him to fail, never mind to be put to death. It was all too much, surely. Can you fault them for sleeping? I can't, having all too often slept myself in one way or another when the world has become more than I could face.
Perhaps their flight was cowardice. John clearly thinks so. In John 20:19, he says they were hiding behind locked doors "for fear of the Jews". They had good reason to be afraid if they thought the authorities were out hunting for the followers of the so-called messiah they had put to death on Good Friday. The gospels give us no reason to believe that the authorities cared one way or another, beyond making sure a guard was posted to keep those followers from stealing the body and claiming resurrection. The synoptic gospels give us no reason to believe that the disciples were hiding, either. Perhaps on Thursday night, they were afraid they too would be arrested. But perhaps they were also afraid of what they would see if they stayed. If the three, at least, fell asleep in the garden because they couldn't cope with the imminence of his suffering death, perhaps they all fled because they couldn't cope with the prospect of watching the trial, the torture, the execution carried out. Charles Dickens has painted an immortal picture of Madame deFarge and her company of ghoulish women knitting at the foot of the guillotine in order not to miss the glorious sight of aristocratic heads rolling, but the heads did not belong to their beloved friends. Have you always been willing to stick around to watch a loved one endure anguish, shame, torment, even death? Even if you've chosen to stay, haven't you sometimes gone for a walk to escape for awhile the sight of a suffering you could not prevent? If the thought of that suffering sends us to the nearest drugstore for something to make us sleep, doesn't the reality sometimes have the same effect? It isn't fear but love that sometimes demands that escape.
We do the disciples, and ourselves, a disservice if we turn them into cardboard figures, capable of only a single reaction in every case. They were the same complex human beings we are. In the previous posting, I posited Judas as a mirror in which we can see the faces of our own betrayals. If we allow the disciples their full humanity, they become a mirror in which we can see our own ambivalence. Sometimes, maybe, the cross strengthens and comforts us. But sometimes, maybe, it overwhelms us with dread or sends us running in fear. The disciples came back. We will too. Jesus forgave them their moments of weakness and entrusted them with the gospel. We needn't be ashamed of our own moments of weakness. They don't negate our discipleship; they simply make it real.
©2008, Abbey of St. Walburga