While I've been getting death certificates and financial papers in order, I've also been thinking about the upcoming Passion Week, the High Holy Days of Christendom. In particular, I've been thinking about Holy Thursday and the events in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Like a lot of Catholics, for me Holy Thursday has been a day when the emphasis is on the institution of the Eucharist and the foundation of the priesthood. Gethsemane is sort of an "add-on" that happened, but not much attention is paid to it. It's sort of like Gethsemane is the transition between the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, with not all that much happening.
Oh, yes, there's that whole "Your will not mine" episode and the betrayal of Judas, but those things often get sort of swallowed up in the following events: the trial, the scourging, the via dolorosa, the crucifixion and the burial.
That's why I think we need to take a new look at Gethsemane. The events in the Garden are, to my mind, exquisitely poised to help those of us who are living in these times cope with the stresses and pressures of our times. A new kind of meditation, one that is centered on Gethsemane, might be just what the modern world is seeking.
Let's begin with the first and perhaps most startling revelation I had. It was in the Garden that the First Blood of the Passion was shed. We talk about the "Blood of the Lamb" in reference to the Crucifixion, but it was there, under the olive trees that Jesus first began the Passion. Luke 22 says, "And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground."
Now for most of my life, I sort of assumed that this bloody sweat was unique to Jesus, but it isn't. Other people, most notably a young girl terrified of the World War II air raids in Britain, have experienced it as well. It's called hematohidrosis and according to wikipedia:
Dr. Frederick Zugibe (former Chief Medical Examiner of Rockland County, New York) stated: "The severe mental anxiety...activated the sympathetic nervous system to invoke the stress-fight or flight reaction to such a degree causing hemorrhage of the vessels supplying the sweat glands into the ducts of the sweat glands and extruding out onto the skin. While hematidrosis has been reported to occur from other rare medical entities, the presence of profound fear accounted for a significant number of reported cases including six cases in men condemned to execution, a case occurring during the London blitz, a case involving a fear of being raped, a fear of a storm while sailing, etc. The effects on the body is that of weakness and mild to moderate dehydration from the severe anxiety and both the blood and sweat loss."The key here is severe mental anxiety. Jesus was so terrified of what was coming, his blood vessels hemorrhaged. I don't know about you, but I've never considered that the calm, in control Jesus that we always portray going to his death experienced such "severe mental anxiety" the night before that he, quite literally, panicked. And in his panic, he shed the first blood of the Passion.
This seems to me to contain a powerful lesson and example for us. Stress, anxiety and panic are so common that millions of Americans take drugs every day to cope. To think that Jesus was subject to the one of the greatest maladies of our time gives me pause.
I have more to say about this tomorrow, but for now, just consider for a moment that of all the events of Jesus' Passion, the one that we can relate to the most in our day and age happened in that time we so often gloss over--in the Garden of Gethsemane.