Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday, Gethsemane and the Garden of Paradise

(Good Friday-Year A; This homily was given on 10 April, 2009, at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; See John 18:1-19:42)

If you go all the way back to the beginning of the Scriptures, to the opening pages of the Book of Genesis, you will find there God’s dream for the entire human family. It is God’s one great desire for the whole created world, presented to us in the image of a garden.

In that garden we discover a man and a woman, and they are in love; they are in love with each other, and in love with God. There is perfect harmony between the man and the woman; between them and our Lord, and there is a deep harmony between them and all creation.

But we need only look a few pages further, and in the pages of the Scriptures after that, to see God’s dream shattered and broken by selfishness and sin (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #400).

Suddenly Adam and Eve are cast out of that lush and fertile garden and introduced to a very different landscape. It is one marked by resistance and toil; there is pain and sorrow and the ground is stained with blood as Cain kills his brother Abel. Soon nations rise up against nations; there is destruction, devastation, division. It is a very dark place indeed compared to that Garden of Eden where it all began.

That is where our story picks up this evening as we read St. John’s account of the Passion of Christ. John begins by saying “Jesus went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to where there was a garden” (John 18:1).

Matthew, Mark and Luke have already told us how Christ knelt down in that garden, called Gethsemane. He knelt down in the dark and in great anguish and surrendered Himself to the will of His Father in order to regain all that had been lost by sin.

Recall back in Genesis how Adam and Eve had been told that they could eat from any of the trees in the garden, except one. God forbade them to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but they had defied Him and done so anyway. In essence they had said, “No, this is what we want, and we will do what we have chosen, not what you want.”

Now Jesus Christ kneels down in the Garden of Gethsemane and expresses from the depths of His being that He does not want to suffer and die…but, He says to His heavenly Father, “nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42).

We gather together on this Good Friday night to kneel down with Christ in that garden and recommit ourselves to Him. There is a beautiful poem written by Ella Wheeler Wilcox that describes the unavoidable encounter with the will of God that we must all face in that garden. The poem is called Gethsemane, and Wilcox begins:

Down shadowy lanes, across strange streams
Bridged over by our broken dreams;
Behind the misty caps of years,
Beyond the great salt font of tears,
The garden lies. Strive as you may,
You cannot miss it on your way.
All paths that have been or shall be,
Pass somewhere through Gethsemane.

All those who journey, soon or late,
Must pass within the garden’s gate;
Must kneel alone in darkness there,
And battle with some fierce despair.
God pity those who cannot say,
“Not mine but thine,” who only pray,
“Let this cup pass,” and cannot see
The purpose of Gethsemane.

—Ella Wheeler Wilcox

We are here tonight to recognize and acknowledge the purpose of Gethsemane and to recommit ourselves to that beautiful plan and dream of God that began so long ago. We are here to do what we could never have done before, but now have the power to do as baptized Christians: to say most completely, “Yes,” to the plan of God for our lives. We come here to be strengthened by Christ in the Eucharist and to echo His words to the Father: “Thy will be done.”

We must be careful, however, not to think that this is a one-time effort. God challenges us to constantly recommit ourselves to Him and to be open to His will every moment of each day in our lives.

About a year and a half ago I had one of the greatest opportunities of my priesthood, to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a group of very dear friends, the Franciscan Sisters and Brothers of the Eucharist. At one point in the pilgrimage we were able to go inside the very Garden of Gethsemane, and it was there that I chose to kneel down and pray, wide open to whatever the Lord wanted to say to me in that moment.

What a privilege, I thought, to kneel right here in this place and say those same words of Christ. And do you know what I felt at that exact moment? Nothing! I did not have a supernatural experience or an overwhelming emotional sensation.

Surrendering ourselves to the will of God is not about feelings and emotions, nor is it a one-time event that we can go through, and then be done with it. No, we must repeat to God, thousands of times throughout our lives, “Thy will be done.” It is within a lifetime of surrender, in particular situations and across many years, that we submit ourselves to the grace of God and allow Him to regain in us all that has been lost by selfishness and sin.

Nor should be surprised when things do not immediately get better when we do so! We may not experience the fruits of our surrender to God in a quick and obvious way. Surrendering to God’s will is sometimes difficult and challenging. Sometimes it may seem that things have become worse.

Look at Christ in the Gospels. No sooner has he spoken the words, “Thy will be done,” then Judas enters to betray Him. He is dragged out of the garden, beaten, mocked and scourged. Finally, they crucify Him between two thieves. And just when things could not possibly seem worse, we are told by St. Matthew that the thieves themselves began to revile Christ, even as they were dying next to Him!

But suddenly, in that darkest moment, hope springs eternal. One of the thieves has a change of heart. He turns to Christ in a moment of faith and says, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). And Jesus’ response, of course, is both breathtaking and life-giving: “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

That word, paradise, comes from the ancient Persian culture (modern day Iran) and means, literally, a walled-in garden or enclosed park.

It was customary for the Persian King to allow only a select few subjects of the kingdom to walk with him in that enclosed garden; such intimacy was reserved for only those closest to him. It was a great honor to walk with the king in paradise.

Jesus Christ is inviting that thief into the garden of eternal life, to an eternal relationship of love with Him. It is the same invitation that He is extending to us this evening, and one that He desired for all of those at the foot of the cross that Good Friday afternoon.

But, sadly, they missed it. They did not understand what He was doing or all the things He had told them about His suffering and death. So they did the very best thing they could do; in great sorrow they took His dead body down from the cross, and because it was late, they laid Him in a tomb nearby.

St. John tells us, at the very end of that passion narrative, that the tomb where they laid Him was located in, of all places, a garden. There they placed Him, in the ground, in the midst of a garden…

But of course, that is not the end of the story. There is so much more to the story than that, and if we want to hear the rest of it, we have only to wait three days.