Maundy Thursday: Watch and Pray

Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.

Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”

When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.

Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”

—Matthew 26:36–46 NIV, emphasis added

LOOK: Agony in the Garden by Fra Angelico [HT: John Skillen]

Fra Angelico_Agony in the Garden
Fra Angelico (Italian, ca. 1387–1455), Agony in the Garden, ca. 1450. Fresco, 177 × 147 cm. Cell 34, Convent of San Marco, Florence.

This fresco is from one of the forty-four cells in the Dominican convent of San Marco in Florence whose walls Fra Angelico and his assistants painted with religious scenes in the mid-fifteenth century. The friars who lived at San Marco—of which the artist, whose nickname means “Angelic Brother,” was one—used these paintings for private meditation.

Here we see Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane pleading with God the Father to let the cup of suffering, held out by an angel, pass him by. As he prays in agony, his disciples James, John, and Peter nod off just a stone’s throw away. Jesus had asked them to stay awake and pray with him, but their tiredness gets the better of them. In their friend’s hour of deepest need, they fail him.

By contrast—and this is unique!—Mary and Martha, two sisters from Bethany who are also followers of Jesus, are awake and alert under an open loggia, diligently praying and studying God’s word. Perhaps Mary points, in the book in her lap, to the passage of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53, recognizing Christ in it, or to the book of Exodus, where the Israelites celebrate their first Passover by smearing the blood of a lamb over their doors. Perhaps Martha prays that the Father would grant Jesus discernment of his will and the strength to follow through with it—that he would sustain him all the way to the cross and beyond.

While the male disciples on the other side of the wall fall asleep, heads in hands, the women watch and wait through the night, exemplars of faithfulness. They trust the prophecies and keep vigil, supporting their Lord in his suffering.

LISTEN: “Stay with Me” by Jacques Berthier, 1984 | Performed by the Taizé Community Choir on Songs of Taizé: O Lord, Hear My Prayer & My Soul Is at Rest, 1999

Stay with me
Remain here with me
Watch and pray
Watch and pray

The words from this Taizé chant come from Jesus’s words in Matthew 26:38, 41 (cf. Mark 14:34, 38). He and his disciples have just finished the Passover Seder, and with full bellies, three of them follow Jesus up to an olive grove, which was perhaps a favorite prayer spot. But they neglect his instruction to stay awake and pray with him.

How can we remain with Christ this Maundy Thursday?

To “keep vigil” this night is to be fully present to Christ’s suffering and spiritually awake to his will and way.

This song is on the Art & Theology Holy Week Playlist.

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