Tuesday, April 7, 2009


“They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,’ he said to them. ‘Stay here and keep watch.’ Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. ‘Abba, Father,’ he said, ‘everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.’” (Mark 14:32-42)

Easter Sunday is the day on the Christian calendar that celebrates the joy and mystery Christ’s resurrection. That is preceded, however, by a week-long remembrance of Jesus’ suffering and death, known as Holy Week. Before the promise of new life as pictured in the resurrection, and ritually commemorated by many—mostly unconsciously—with Easter egg hunts and bunnies and baby chicks, there is an extended meditation on the fact of suffering and death in human life. This juxtaposition is essential. One cannot fully experience the meaning of the resurrection until they have experienced the full impact of sorrow and loss.

The story of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane is, for me, one of the most poignant and moving of the whole of the gospel. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” It tells the story of a man who not only suffered physically, but was in emotional agony as well. Jesus prays in words every human being has spoken or thought at some point: “Please, don’t make me have to go through this. Spare me from this.” If there is truth in the Christian message, it is here in this story that teaches that God gets it. God knows the suffering and the sorrows that are a part of every human existence because he has felt them deeply himself.

My four year old daughter recently learned the Easter story and has begun to ask about dying. “But nobody in our family is ever going to die!,” she pleaded with me through tears. “Father, take this cup from me.” Every day as I watch my children grow up, my heart breaks a little. Every time they learn something new, some sweet, earlier version of them is gone forever. I glory in their growth, but I’m sad at the loss of little things, like the mispronunciation of a word—‘waboo’ becomes ‘water’ and all of sudden my little girl is no longer a baby. When my daughter asked about death, I felt I'd never be able to put my heart back together again.

I cannot save my daughter from the reality of death, as much as I wish I could. All I can do is hold her close, tell her I love her, and pray that my love is a reality that will outlast my body, that will cling close to her and to all the people that I love, long after I am gone. And I cannot save myself from the reality of death. Too soon (it’s always too soon), people that I love will die. It is a thought that is, at times, more than I can bear. “Abba, Father, take this cup from me.”

When things are more than I can bear, I turn to poems and stories. The stories that the Great Religions tell I have found to be helpful, like the one of Jesus in Gethsemane. Here is a poem by Mary Oliver that, I believe, gets it exactly right:

In Blackwater Woods

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.