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Good Friday

22 March 2024

Isaiah 15.13-end of 53; Psalm 22 (or 22.1-11 or 22.1021); Hebrews 10.16-25 (or Hebrews 4.14-16, 5.7-9); John 18.1-end of 19

Alamy

Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane

Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane

WHEN we read any one of the Gospel Passions, we bring to that reading all our other times of reading, hearing, or singing them. Bible scholars mostly agree that they were the earliest parts of the Gospels to be compiled, and that their content (though not the final form given to them by the Evangelists) became fixed and familiar among the first Christians at an early stage in the development of the New Testament.

Good Friday may seem like a time to put passion before scholarship, but, in fact, the two strengthen each other. To get the most out of Good Friday, as we enter into the Lord’s Passion, we need to be passionate ourselves — about every tiny scrap of information, every jot, every tittle. Something tiny but new has just jumped out at me. Not having noticed it before, I had obviously not thought about it before, either.

It is natural, when reading the Gospels devotionally, to merge the details into a single continuous story. The first Christians gave serious thought to merging the four Gospels into a single book. It is good that they did not. So, here is my new observation, with apologies to any reader who noticed it years ago: of the four Gospels, only John says that both the scene for the betrayal, and the scene for the resurrection, was a garden.

Mark, followed by Matthew, refers to a place called Gethsemane, on, or near, or most likely at the foot of, the Mount of Olives. Even today, the Mediterranean gives some idea of how it might have looked. In a dry landscape, olive trees are marvellously green. Oil from their fruit clinches their miraculous status. Surely, most gardens near Jerusalem would have included olive trees and vines.

Mark and Matthew do not refer to Gethsemane as a garden. For them, it is a place of refuge and struggle. There, shockingly vulnerable, Jesus wrestles with his Father’s will and his own feelings about what is to come. Luke calls it neither Gethsemane nor a garden. For him it is simply, “the place” on the Mount of Olives where Jesus went every evening at that time (21.37).

So, John’s insistence that it is a garden stands out. Saying that Jesus led his disciples to it “across the brook Kidron” fixes its location more precisely. Christians soon connected the place by the Mount of Olives (Luke), called Gethsemane (“oil press”: Mark, Matthew), with John’s garden. The name was probably as self-explanatory as “Mile End”, “Mill Street”, or “Brookfield” would be to us. The mountain’s foot was the best place to gather and press the olive harvest.

Connecting Gethsemane with the garden is a guess, but a good guess. Next, John takes us beyond guesswork into the realm of cosmic meaning. His Gospel began by recalling Genesis (“In the beginning”). Important things happen to human beings in gardens, according to the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. John evokes that primordial beginning by explicitly locating Jesus’s betrayal, and burial, in gardens. He also makes a garden the place where Mary Magdalene is the first to witness Jesus’s resurrection.

John has one last thing to say about gardens as places where cosmic meaning is disclosed. It is another one of those details that look so simple, but mean so much. While Peter is sneaking about, hoping to see what is happening, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off asks him: “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” (18.26).

In the garden of Eden, the man and the woman both transgressed by doing something that God had commanded them not to do. If God saw that as a betrayal, he did not say so. A price had to be paid for the disobedience (Genesis 3.15-19); but God was still their protector, because he was first their creator. It is as if, by the acting of creating humankind in the first place, God has made himself eternally responsible for our well-being.

Like the man and the woman in Eden, Peter has a chance to live up to the best that he was meant to be. Unlike them, he had even promised to do so (John 13.36-38). But he failed, denying that either Jesus or the garden were anything to do with him. In a garden, he is about to discover that failure is not the end of the story.

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