The heat of the desert is giving way to a biting cold as evening descends. Peter wraps his clothing tighter around him as he approaches the garden with Jesus and James and John. They are Jesus’ closest friends, but he finds no comfort or pride in that now. They’ve just come from the Passover meal, and the words of Jesus are echoing in his mind. Words like “death” and “betrayal” and “before this day is ended, you will deny me three times.” The taste of the bread is still in his mouth and it tastes like crushed dreams and disappointed hopes. This is not what he expected when they entered the city on a path of palm branches to the shouts of “Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”.
The darkness of the olive grove is heavy around them, and the gnarled trunks provide no place to rest. Jesus whispers, “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Sit here while I go and pray.” Something in Jesus’ voice and eyes is startling; is that fear? How can Jesus be afraid? The knowledge of it shoots through Peter’s heart like an arrow, and he searches the faces of his friends for something more familiar than this, but there is only terror and confusion. He feels the strength draining from his limbs like water as he watches the one he loves walk a little distance from them and fall to his knees.
He hears little ribbons of Jesus’ prayer. He hears him praying that if it were possible, the awful hour awaiting him would pass him by…that the cup of suffering would be taken away. And then he hears the words, “yet, I want your will to be done, not mine.” Peter’s eyes feel like heavy wooden doors. His head is pounding and his thoughts are impossible to catch. Against his will, he drifts into a fitful sleep with vivid and tormenting dreams.
Peter wakes to Jesus standing over him, shaking him gently with searching eyes. “Couldn’t you stay awake for even one hour? Keep me company and pray with me a little while so you won’t be tempted. I know your spirit is strong, but your body is weak.” Even here in Peter’s first betrayal, Jesus is his friend, caring for him, watching out for him. A stab of regret goes through Peter and he shakes off the tangled cobwebs of sleep.
Jesus goes to pray again, the same words, the same groaning, the same requests going up to a silent heaven. His body is shaking and his words come in sobs. His clothing is drenched and clinging to him, and appears strangely dark. It’s too much to take in…too much for Peter to grasp. Fatigue and confusion descend on him like a curtain, and he falls asleep again.
Once more Jesus shakes Peter and pleads with him. “Stay awake with me, Peter. I don’t want to be alone. Please pray with me.” Peter lifts himself up and sees that Jesus’ clothing is soaked with blood but there are no wounds to make sense of this. Then he sees the beads of sweat tinged dark red across his face and he understands, and this knowledge comes with the terrifying certainty that Jesus is actually going to die. Peter and James and John promise to stay awake, and they huddle together for warmth as Jesus goes one last time to pray.
When Peter wakes the third time his heart sinks with the knowledge that he has already begun to deny Jesus. He hears the sound of a crowd in the distance and sees the glow of fire flickering off of the leaves of the olive trees. Jesus has changed somehow. He’s calmer now and he speaks the words, “Look, my betrayer is here.” Peter shivers as Judas approaches and kisses the face of Jesus, the sweat and blood leaving their mark on his lips. Jesus glances at Peter, and there is a kind reassurance in his eyes as the soldiers lay their hands on him.
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Where are you in this story? What is Jesus’ invitation to you?