Gethsemane

Nikolai Gai

I do not want them for my disciples, Abba.

Pressing, these hours that remain, with cold, pricking fingers extending a cloak of heaviness to me, knowing I must take it.  I feel the weight of it on my shoulders, the weight that burns torturously slowly.  Soon I will be covered, enshrouded, and my place in time will no longer matter.  The hours will have done their duty with me.  Like the soldiers who will soon inflict their torments, they will take their time, but then they will march on and swallow whole another.  Tonight, under their pressure, I am no different from any other being born of woman.

If I fall asleep, Abba, my hair will be cut off and my strength will leave me.  If I look to those I love now, I will have to sacrifice them for love of you.  If I run, you will find me, even if I draw my terrified breaths inside the belly of a fish. You are demanding, Abba, and so relentless, the thing that all men fear, yet also making yourself known in that fear when it springs forth.  Any fire we start, there you are.  All of our passions, our desires, our every color filling our delicate lattice of veins – you are there, within us, within them, creating opposition and flowering harmony.  You are in our storms that you alone can calm.  You demand much, expect much.  You demand from me my last Passover.

Could I just smear blood across my lintel and close my eyes in wait, knowing – but not really knowing – that the Angel will pass over me, I would.  Take any blood, call it whatever you wish, but just don’t make it mine. Why was the lamb good enough for Moshe, whose tongue you gave even more power than you did his staff, but not for me? The Jews call on Moshe.  They believe (if sometimes only in word alone) that he was doing your most just bidding.  He freed your people and told them how to ensure the sparing of their lives when your judgment descended upon Egypt’s fertile land.  The lambs without blight were good enough.  But I have my blights, Abba… only you do not understand them. My yearnings, especially for what is impossible for me, are not something you must know, Abba, or else you would not ask this of me.

But is that not why you sent me?  To bridge your breath and all that it animates?  To be the chasm filled with all that is yours and all that is theirs and make it all one again?

The feud is constant, and this night it reaches its climax.  My everlasting wars with my fallible; my life combats my death.  The hours continue their march and toll their bells of imminence, and what can I do but wait?

I can beg you, my good and loving Abba, for another way.

I can hear you now, whispering to me that my will is my own, that even the Son of Man is not shackled as nature is to your explicit command.  The wind rustles the nearby trees, like a caress that intends gentleness but wounds – wounds so thoroughly – and in the wind I hear your still, small voice.  You tell me that the choice is mine, that all I have to do is get off of my knees, walk through the garden gates, and never speak a defiant word again, but Abba, don’t you know the impossibility of this temptation?  I am the Word, the first and last.  I could never live as anyone other than the one they all hunt this night. So do not whisper with love in your silent voice that the choice is mine, because to hear you, the Word beyond all words, fill my body with such strange, unknowable truth such as this, it begins my crucifixion.  It betrays me as Isaak was betrayed, as Avraham was betrayed.  You do not understand, o font of truth and being, what it is to ache for you.  How it is the first and the last.  How it is the root of all sacrifice, and thus all love.  How we are restless until we rest in you.

I have no choice. Even if I walked away and left all your sheep scattered…

Oh.  Oh, Abba.  The sheep. The sheep.  Even if I were the proper shepherd to call them all back to you, I would not want them as my flock.

I do not want them for my disciples.

You have given me much over the years, and when I speak what you give me, I mean to bathe the world in light as you did on that first day.  I let it all go, all these seeds, willing them of my own love and joy to flower and bear magnificent fruit.  But so often the ground is rocky, unsuitable; so often the terrain yields nothing, the way hard in their hearts and minds.  I give unceasingly, until there is little man left to me, but they only understand what hits their ears easiest.  I am given hope by their furrowed brows, and all I wish to do is put my hand to their eyes and take down their barricades.  Why, Abba, oh why the barricades?  Why the choice, if the way is so treacherous to them?

Only once in a great and terrible while does my own clarity come back to me in their eyes. Only seemingly rarely, among so many who want and need me desperately, do I witness the kindling of the grasp inside their minds.  And it consumes, Abba, that joy at our touch, for that moment, that one brief, beautiful moment when our angels do not wrestle but embrace in reconciliation. But even then, Abba, I am not guaranteed that what has been sparked will remain as I left it to them.  I am guaranteed nothing of their seeing that spark on its way to a true fire, least of all their fealty to it.  To me.  To us. I give them the Word, but even when they hear, they can exercise this will with which you say you gifted even me. I fear so greatly for the abandonment of the Word to all these fractured vessels surrounding me.  Perhaps it is the fear you have known since you fashioned our form from the complacent dust.  But Abba, know that it is also very human, to fear like this.  To want what is best and good and still leave it to destruction because you have been told – because you know – that it is right.

My sweat hurts as it never has before.  Flames lick at my scalp and my spine, and in their deaths they turn cold, are buried within my unwelcoming body.  My every hollow is haunted by my own fears coming to claim me.  My doubts ravage as they haven’t in years.  My regrets flood and leave so little left to be salvaged. My love for all these poor creatures has been sacked and given to the fire, the charred remains sowed with salt. Even those this broken heart you gave me has loved best of all, those who have been friends and now sleep nearby, careless – even those I want to reject.  So much is coming, my Abba, so much.

Simon, my Cephas. He is my warrior always.  He has proven much to me, and my whole soul is tender towards him.  His love is fierce and his eyes are kind.  My defender.  The rock upon which I lay down all my burdens and ask that he help me carry them, even if he does not understand what causes them and why they must be borne.  But I have seen the one who tempts in his face and have heard his dark promises in his voice.  Get behind me, I tell him.  Come out of this man.  Cephas, Cephas… oh, if I could only call you Simon again, bid you to follow so that you might fish for men.  If only those men were worthy.  If only the rock you are to me would not shake the entire earth.  If only where you sleep now would remain of grass and the silver of fallen olive leaves, not of gold, not of blood.

Abba, my brother Cephas, I do not want others like him.  I want no one who bears his name.  Take his crown and throw it to the swine, drive them off the cliff.  Do this for your only son.  They will build an empire from his bones and then forget that I have touched them.  They will do the unspeakable in my name, and they will do it with the power of my love for him.  I would not… I could never deny my love for him, even as he might for me this coming dawn, but I would, Abba, I would deny it before your starry crown if it meant that those men would not be able to bring hell to the surface because of the words I have given Cephas.  Bid the throat of the simple cock to crow; I will deny, deny, deny.  I will take that most glorious beam of light from his eyes – oh, his eyes, mercifully shut now – and break all of my promises.  I will douse, if only so the fire does not consume.

Cephas tries but fails, forgets when he should remember, rages when he should submit to calm.  He is all of them, Abba, and I do not want them. Do not give me another one who loves me, another whom I love as I do him.  Do not give me another Cephas.

The hours have set their old hounds on me.  It is as if blood drips down my agonized face and they know the scent of it.  They come now, they let me know.  Soon, beloved son, soon we will take you.  This is your last night.  Embrace the darkness, inhale its cold, deep escape.  This is it.  This is the way.

How many nights have I had like this one, Abba?  Since I was a boy, when I should have been sleeping, I escaped the meager clutches of my house and home and searched the hills of Nazareth, looking for you. Everyone else slept.  No one else had storms behind their eyes.  No one else looked toward the horizon as if they heard the trumpet sound.  No one, Abba. But I, I was up at night, braving the Galilean midnight, though I had much to do as soon as the sun rose.  I was full of storms, and to me, the horizon was on fire, yet no one else seemed to notice.  I used to listen to the raggedy zealots that came through looking for soldiers for the Lord; for an ignorant time, I imagined that they might be my brothers, but as soon as they spoke I knew that either they or I was blind. What they thought was coming was not what my whole body anticipated.  They wanted to fight to wrestle our country back from the heathens’ bloody grip, and Abba, to be truthful, as you have taught me to be, I wish that that had been my way.  At least then, had I been put up on a cross, I would have died a nameless rebel, one of thousands with unachievable dreams.  No one would have remembered my crucifix.

I am no zealot, and it drains me.  I have actually tamed a zealot, and now he looks at me with dreamy embers in his eyes, calling me his way and truth and life.  I have taken simple men and hated men, family men and those who thought themselves alone in the world, and I have made them all brothers.  I told them what I knew.  I said, look, over there, just over that hill that seems to be sleeping, do you see it?  Do you see that light that is fighting to take us under its wing and shield us from the storm?  Do you see how all of nature gives way so that the path might be ready?  And they all nodded, yes, yes Rabboni, we see, we understand, we will be at your side when it all happens.  But they didn’t see.  They don’t understand.  They try, but it is not good enough, the effort wasted, the time all for naught. At least the zealots thrust their curved swords into bodies.  At least the priests who hate me have the Temple to fortify them.  I have this desolate garden.  I have people whom I have healed of their afflictions.  But who heals me, Abba?  I have no one.  The hours are approaching, my solemn, expert handlers, leading me to the Place of the Skull, where they will take full charge of me once I have been handed over. Once you have handed me over.

My friends sleep, their stomachs full of my sacrifice.  I have shared with them, but they do not share with me, not at this hour of the unholy.  As always, they have submitted to their exhaustion while I am kept awake, knowing too much.  Should I pray for them, Abba?  Should I pray that they understand when I am no longer here to keep the watch for them? They sleep, and I pray, and this is the way.

I might have loved this garden had the hour not been nigh.  Even in the dark I see she is beautiful, a remnant of Eden spread out before my wearied sight.  Have you left it here for me, all this time, preserving it for me on this night, my last before the bloodletting?  Sin could not take this place.  That is my overindulgent dream now, a respite from my all-consuming ache.

The olive trees used to give me so much peace. I cursed the fig tree, judging it, withering it for all time, but the olive tree anointed me.  Gave me shade.  The fig tree is like my brother, who fights the others to sit at my right hand when I am no longer divided but whole.  The fig tree is cursed.  But the olive tree is like my sister, who cries for my coming descent, who perfumes my ravaged body, who will stand tall when the others are cut down or housing hanging bodies.  When I look out from my own broken bough, I will see a helpless grove of olive trees before me, my sisters, their glittering leaves the tears they shed for me. Their branches, extending peace to me, but I will not be able to reach for it, not with the nails that hold me in place to my brutal, eternal kingship.

The wind is bitter; dawn must be approaching.  She must be waking beyond all sight from the bed you have made for her in the east. Does she know she takes me today, or do I look the same to her as any other man?  Perhaps it is that way, for she will not stall in her coming.  The wind blows, and I feel your hand in it, your breath that has filled me with life only to send me to death.

Were the tree I lean against Miryam, the beloved Magdalen, she would know the words to say to stop my shaking.  Were it really my sister, she would pray on my behalf so that I might sleep.  My sister… must I undergo the test, drink from this fatal cup, before I see you fully again, and not even then be able to touch you?

Abba, please, consider… please see to it another way…

From beyond there comes a gloom I know.  My brother, is that you, sent from the one who tempts to deepen my agony tonight? Come, join in my dance.  Taste in my sorrow.  Our combined voices will create a dirge for the ages.  Come, Thomas, come out from where you hide so that we might doubt together.

I see him in the shadows that drift among the trees.  Since the beginning he has been practical, full of reason, open to me because he desires to know how I know.  In Thomas there is no pretense.  Because of this I have held for him much admiration, for he is open, as available for assessment as he strives for it in all things.  Thomas is the filter through which my ministry has passed; his hands have held more than their share.  And now all of which he is capable circles me slowly, stalking in its solemn, unobtrusive kind of way.  He is the motions.  Around me always, circling, never reaching out to touch what hurts.

It is in man’s nature to doubt, but woe for the thousands upon thousands of sons and daughters of Thomas that will fill the halls they build for me.  Doubt in the face of no miracle; doubt under the miracle’s recognizable sheen.  Reason’s ugly coupling with emotion’s unforgiving headiness, spiraling out into urgency, sweeping over the ruins, over this garden.  In his moment Thomas will be as I am now, but there is nothing for me to reach for as an answer.  The dawn, with its wounds that bleed sure, steady breakage across an undisturbed sky?  Is that my consolation?  The coming day, without the slightest postponement?  Is that my reassurance?  The day that comes on the heels of the persistent hounds is my last, my most difficult, my end, my moment of peace in the torrent.

Abba, leave me no peace if that be of this design I hastily stitch, but do not fill this world with those you have made in the same manner that you have made Thomas.  They will see past all understanding in trying so earnestly to do just that.  They will make quarrels among their brothers.  They will be among the first to forget my face though it stares at them through the shattered glass of the ages.  To doubt in the face of that which can only be known with fullness stutters the spinning of your aching world.  The hesitation is what brings forth the tidal waves.  My own earthquakes, Abba?  What cuts through my bedrock are my most pristine streaks of doubt, fanning out into rollicking waves of miscommunication that devastate. They will all model themselves after me, and my example a hundredfold will send tremors where only stillness is wanted.  Not peace, but a sword.  Not remembered, but forsaken.

Where Cephas is my fierce love, Thomas is my body full of unanswered questions.  Take my body, then, that the questions are silenced and asked no more.

No more, my God, no more.

The children, they sleep. They have given up their homes and families for me.  Good men, in their moments of summer, men I have loved above all others, though you sent me for all of them.  And good women, too, who will walk my road with me once the sentence has been passed.  I’d always liked to imagine that we’d freed each other, they relieving my burdens and awarding me love and friendship – the simplest pleasure, the true fruit of the tree – and I bringing them out of their houses and into the sun.  We all walked along free together, invincible for what felt like one hour, and now it seems that an eon of darkness comes for us. I tried… I tried to tell them, tried to use even our last breaking of bread together as an opportunity for them to understand that the waving of the palms, the adulating crowds, the swelling belief that seemed to overcome poor Jerusalem… that all of it is about to be eclipsed.

Call off the angels, Lord.  Send them elsewhere.  Yes, this night will be difficult, a burden too great for any man, and tomorrow will be what they will call the last of the great blood sacrifices.  And it will be my blood wetting the earth, darkening Adam’s ashes, daubing his skull.  But it is not tomorrow that we all need fear.  No, tomorrow will be wept over for millennia to come.  They will remember how I died and use it like an impossibly heavy stone tablet to break bones and crush each other into dust.  What will I be then?  Only the merciful wind that comes in too late, wiping them off the face of the earth with the little dignity I can offer them.

I will not be the last of the great blood sacrifices – I will be the first.

Take this cup, Abba. Do not let me drink!  Drain it in the sea, I beg of you!  Have I ever denied you anything?  Have I ever ignored your call?  You say gather the flock and I gather them.  You say command the dead to rise and I put my own grief aside to scream against the howling winds of a nightmare, Lazarus, you sorry son of Adam, come out!  You say forgo the love of your mother and go without complaint into the lions’ den, and Almighty God, I go!  You tell me to become the new manna and I will, feeding them though they will bow down nightly to the golden calf.  You tell me to shoulder my cross and die, and I will, becoming the new golden calf of the coming ages, one among many they will fashion to ease the awfulness of being human.

I am the most loyal and faithful son.  Obedient until death, even death on a cross.  You call out to me from your elusive precipice and I say hinneni, Abba, here I am, ready, right now.  And I have asked you to give sight to the blind and strengthen the legs of the lame and place babes in the arms of the barren – never saying why, Abba, why were all of those gifts not theirs to possess in the first place?  Because of one woman in one garden?  One woman who just wanted to know you better? – I asked on behalf of these innocent, ignorant children.  And now I ask you, lying prostate before your power and grace, to spare them their wicked fate.  Abba, let this cup pass from my lips, for it is what you will, not I.

I see it all clearer the more I cry these desperate, pleading tears.  If I die as you wish – what you will, not I – they will always be broken.  This land will never know peace.  Great kings and warlords have always attempted possession of Canaan; if I say nothing to Caiaphas, and Herod, and Pilate, kings and warlords and disillusioned desert fools will do the same until the end of time.  If I say nothing, Lord, and accept this fate like a suffering servant, the milk will sour and the honey congeal.

If I let them scourge me, Lord, they will wear my banner and slaughter in my name.  If I take my lashes, never speaking my own innocence, the world will be branded forever with In hoc signo vinces.  Conquer, kill, rape, destroy – do it all for the God who has died for you.  Decimate the innocent with your crosses held high, sing your hymns and finger your threaded beads while you drown them in baptismal waters.  Kill your own brothers, forsake your own fathers, because you warring little devils believe that I condone one of your above the other, love one of your offerings more than the other.  Cains and Abels to the end of days!  Sons of Thunder, all of you!  Those elders who hate me and condemn me now will one day wear my robes.  They will point to your wailing Chosen and say all Twelve Tribes held me down and nailed me to the wood.  The soldiers who break open my flesh will do the same to those I would bring instantly into my company, and they will do it while saying the very prayers that I have given my most destitute.

If I do not beg for my life before the prefect, they will place blame on each other beyond any measure of time.  They will avenge their God though their God has commanded you, all of you, from all ends of the earth, love one another.  If I can love you, you wicked, broken beings, then you should love one another.  But they will ignore the decree of their God. They will instead take the written words before them, raise them on the pedestal, and bow down as they swear their oath.

They will jump into the nets I cast, and though it would be appear my boat grows ever bigger, it sinks with each new fish.  They will clamor to be near me.  These unfit fish that spurn the replenishment of my grace but leap out of the water and into the burning sun for my power.  They will cling like barnacles to my brothers and say to all the others, look, we are descended from him directly, we know his will.  And then they will build these magnificent halls with more gold than any man needs.  You have one Temple, Lord?  Well they will give me seventy times seven for each of your Temple’s doomed columns. I wanted to rebuild the Temple, but if it means that to do so one thousand new ones will go up in its place, I will not.  Let it all fall into rubble with me, Abba.  They’re not ready; they don’t understand.

You remember how Yohanan used to speak at the river’s bend, Abba?  Oh, it was your most beautiful voice.  The strength of all four winds and the power of all four rivers; the heat of the sun and the pull of the moon; the depth of the sea and the vastness of the desert – all in Yohanan’s voice.  Not even I, the Word, could have anticipated the glory of you to be found in him when I saw him that day.  Prepare the way of the Lord, he would cry, but when he looked at me, I looked right back him and saw you.  Paradise. And when he pulled me free and new from the water I promised him that I would make of him a prophet, and I did so because of the tear of joy and wonder and exultation in his wild eye.  But those eyes have been left to the crows outside of Machaerus.  And when they split his head from his neck, that voice came screaming out and fled in ten thousand different directions.  Many men, Abba, many men will believe they have caught in it their throats and speak as if they know me and see me coming.

They stand high and they point and cast out fire from their hands.  I can see them now, Abba, and I am frightened to my soul of what they say with such hate in their eyes.  They fling rocks and condemn innocent hearts like a scorch that destroys the lilies of the field.  With all of this corruptible heart you have placed inside of me, I have loved so ardently so many women and men, and when their likeminded and same-bodied children come before those creatures of fire, they will be cast down.  And with their casting my name will ring out, as if it is I who rejects them.  Oh, how freely they will all use my name, the one the angel whispered to my mother, the one she whispers against my tired brow when I feel as though I have nothing left to give.

My mother… they will crown my mother.  Blessed among women.  My mother will be their hero, a mother to all of them, and my God, that would be good, a balm to any orphaned world, but my God, if I would not have to do this, I will spare her the crown!  Let her be as all other Nazareth widows are, perishable, an extinguished flame after death. My God, my mother’s grief will echo throughout the earth, but it would not have to if you relieved me of this task.

The hours breathe upon my neck, but my God, I am not finished.  Listen… listen while there is still breath in me, while my lungs have not yet been pierced… I beg of you, Abba, call off this maddening hunt.  For my every lash there will be countless offenses committed because I bore them.  In this darkness, under the light of my very last moon, I see all the ways they will die because I die, and Abba, I am man and God and I cannot bear that it will all come from me.  This world is a womb full of warring nations, and were it my will that decides all things I would not birth them and their troubles.  But you do not change your direction or choose another way.  You whisper My son, my son, my only begotten son, but my sorrow is the sin of their inheritance, and you will not quell the sin’s spread.  Under my cross they will wander, forty years our forever, drowned in the sea in their gleaming chariots as they try to chase after me.

Cephas, the siphon of all the fleeting power I ever had –

Thomas, the hole of demand that will never be filled by enough proof –

The zealot, and the just, and the beloved disciple, who have carried out every sentence with a conviction that I do not even feel is mine –

Miyram, sweet Miryam, who will not even recognize me though her desire is so strong, who will try to cling to such a transient thing as a prophecy and a memory –

Yehuda… Yehuda, their prince, their crowning fault, the resting place of their every false kiss, the brother they damn even though he wears all their faces –

Take them all. Take all of my love and lead it to the mountaintop for its akedah. What you will, not I.  You call me, Lord, and I go, and maybe, unlike as it was for my father Avraham, my desire to reject you will be remembered. Like my body and blood, all for the consumption, promised to be remembered forever.  I love them all as you have so graciously let me – they as much a blessing to me as I will ever be to them – and you say sacrifice them.  If I die tomorrow, I bind them.  I sacrifice them all.  But unlike Avraham’s trial, no beast of burden shall be offered instead. No angel shall stay the murderous hand. It will all come to pass.  There is no test now, Abba.  There is submission, and then it is finished.

The hours are at the gate, gray-faced, and they carry with them the day’s first lights.  So greedy are they, grabbing up my last lights. Tainting them with my sadness.  I am overcome.  They have brought with them their man.  He will scrub the blood from my lintel.  I will not be passed over.

None of us will, my children.  I die, and all you poor innocents of Egypt die with me.

I stand, though I shake. And my human mind wonders, helplessly, how will they record this?  Will they even say how I wept?  Will they say I went bravely?  Should it matter to me at all?  I stand, and the world readies its neck for the blade I bear.  The cross awaits us.

When they hate you and persecute you because of me, know that you were at my back in this garden.

 

Originally written in 2012.  Image: Nikolai Gai, 1888, Christ Praying in Gethsemane.

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