The day was hot, the sun scorching, and throughout my weeklong trip to Israel, I had been reminded that I typically handle blazing heat with the same grace and poise my Northern European ancestors would have. In other words, I was dripping sweat and praying for shade.
The walk down the Mount of Olives, while beautiful and another I-can’t-believe-I’m-here experience, had been crowded with pilgrims and beggars and with the noise of street vendors selling religious trinkets. On this last day of our tour through Israel, I had been hoping for some peace and quiet and some room for spiritual reflection. I hadn’t found them yet.
The week in Israel had stimulated my intellect (remembering thousands of years at the center of human history), appealed to my senses (beautiful country, incredible food), deepened my biblical understanding (I’ll never read the Bible in the same way), and elicited a rainbow of emotions (from the Sea of Galilee to Nazareth, the Western Wall, and Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial). It had been an incredible trip that deepened my spiritual understanding, but I didn’t feel as if I had really encountered God himself in a special way. I was hoping to do that on the last day as we visited the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane, walked the Via Dolorosa, and saw The Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Garden Tomb, two different places revered as the spot where Jesus was buried and resurrected.
So I was glad when we entered the Garden of Gethsemane and discovered a place of peace, relative quiet, and mercifully, shade. I started to pray for a spiritual experience that would top off this incredible week, for a sense of God’s presence, for a revelation of some kind.
We had a few moments to sit alone: just what I needed. I looked around at the olive trees, smelled the plants and flowers next to me, and thought about Jesus and his disciples coming here to watch and pray. I thought about how the disciples kept falling asleep and missing the significance of what Jesus was telling them. And then my mind–like the disciples’–started to wander, and I realized the place wasn’t quiet after all.
I heard traffic–with horns honking–on the busy street outside the garden. I could still hear the crowd and the street vendors on the other side of the wall. The fact that I had come to Israel and was ready for a spiritual experience that day didn’t matter to anyone else. Life was going on. At first I found this annoying–it didn’t fit my idea of the sacred; it wasn’t conducive to what I wanted to experience with God. I wanted to imagine Jesus sitting in this very garden, and the noise of life was messing with the authenticity of my experience.
But then I realized that the noise and the crowds and my wandering mind made this a supremely authentic experience. Back in the first century, the world didn’t stop and wait for Easter. Besides Jesus, no one was preparing for the incredible spiritual battle that would take place when he was arrested, beaten, and led like a lamb to slaughter. Not even Jesus’ closest friends and devotees caught on when he said, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch.” Yet Jesus went through with his plan to carry the weight of sin for all of us–whose minds wander, who make too much noise, who trample the sacred and overlook the presence and plans of God.
If Jesus had chosen to come to earth in our time instead of 2000 years ago, would he come to the Garden of Gethsemane and declare it unfit for his night of sorrow? Would he ask everyone around to please keep it down so he and his disciples could watch and pray and have a “spiritual experience” in peace? No, he would do what he did then: go to that garden to pray amidst traffic, honking, street vendors, and beggars. He would come, as he did then, to people who do not recognize him and who fall asleep when he asks them to be vigilant.
I don’t know about you, but I tend to picture “Bible times” the way they’re presented in movies, primarily made in the 1970s, with Jesus staring off into the distance while everyone around sits quietly and listens. How silly, and what a trivialization of Jesus’ sacrifice. Jesus came, unappreciated, to a real place at a real, chaotic point in time, to real people doing real life. He doesn’t need a perfect backdrop to work. In fact, he seems to do his best work when life is at its worst.
Ultimately, that’s one of my favorite things about Easter. When life was at its worst–the brutality of a crucifixion, the spiritual grief and separation inherent in bearing the weight of the world’s sin, the apparent death of hope that Jesus was the promised Messiah, the fear of arrest and death for Jesus’ followers–God did his best work. He conquered death, tore right through the power of sin, and poured out his love on all people at all times.
I sat in the garden waiting for a “spiritual experience” and listened to life go on around me. I walked away remembering that the power of Easter is that its hope permeates all of life. Ours is the kind of world that needs Jesus, and it’s the kind of world Easter was designed to redeem. We spend one day a year affirming and celebrating Jesus’ death and resurrection–and even then we get distracted by colorful eggs, pretty baskets and bonnets, and ham. Thank God that he loves us with Easter-level love every day.
© 2013 Amy Simpson.