Easter Homily by W. Glenn Empey
Gethsemane is an interesting place. Well, better said, Gethsemane is an interesting concept to explore. Gethsemane is a place of darkness and anguish. For Jesus it was where he was betrayed by those closest to him, especially the one who worked out his strategy in his own kind of darkness. It was a place where his disciples couldn’t stay awake while he prayed. It’s a place that quickly led to trial, humiliation, and crucifixion.
Gethsemane was a place of suffering. And Gethsemane is still a place of suffering. Gethsemane is a key component of the Paschal Mystery. Without Gethsemane, there would have been no suffering in darkness, no crucifixion and therefore no resurrection, no Easter. And Easter – the Paschal Mystery – is the absolute core of the Christian faith.
When I have found myself in my own personal Gethsemanes at stages in my life-experience, I have come to see those moments as a reality of a spiritual journey.
For me, in times of darkness and anguish, the experience has eventually led me to see the suffering as an opportunity for discovery. These are moments when I have looked back on my life, decisions that I made, dreams that I had, vocational commitments I have made. The moments in the darkness of Gethsemane have allowed me – or maybe required me – to take time for purposeful meditation and reflection on life and the journey of faith– the what’s-it-all-about kind of questions that to ponder means being spiritual.
Over the years, I have probably become quicker at recognizing Gethsemane. St. Paul referred to something like that in his experiences, something he called the thorn in his side. I wonder if that was similar.
I wonder if any of this sounds familiar to your experience in any way. Perhaps you have identified moments like Gethsemane in your own journey. Maybe you also have learned new things by seriously reflecting on the particular experience. Or maybe this is a new concept. If it makes any sense to you, it could be worth exploring. Certainly, every person encounters struggles of one sort or another in life. And, from a spiritual perspective, it might be helpful to see those moments as being in some way like Gethsemane.
Gethsemanes can come from all sorts of things. Dealing with the loss of someone with whom you’re close, a loved one. Dealing with a serious illness. Having to sell a home and dealing with future plans. Dealing with the loss of anything that’s important to you. Dealing with the consequences of strained relationships. Dealing with the outcome of divorce. Lots of things could feel like being in Gethsemane.
In the midst of any experience of Gethsemane, I think feelings become more evident. And they’re worth examining, it seems to me, because feelings can be messages to which to listen and to pay attention. Feelings are different than thoughts. Feelings are neither right nor wrong: they’re feelings. Sometimes, I wonder if listening deeply to what feelings are telling us is a way of hearing the Holy Spirit.
The way beyond Gethsemane is to listen to those kinds of things, to embrace a new life, new direction based on the deep reflection and insights gained. I call that a spiritual way of living and of seeing life as being informed by an explored journey of faith, scripture, prayer and reflection.
So, Gethsemane and the experience of Gethsemane may offer a new way for understanding ones experiences and journey. It leads to the future. It leads to decisions. It leads beyond its inherent darkness and shadow of the ups-and-downs of life into a new kind of life. When it can’t bring complete changes, it can enable us to cope in better ways, with a growing sense of peace.
And that, I believe is the closest anyone can get to experiencing the Resurrection while being still physically alive. It’s a taste of the Eternal Banquet and knowing Christ’s promise from the cross and beyond. And again, that’s what faith is all about, right.
The effort to identify and the hard work to examine an experience of Gethsemane can lead you to steps forward, positive changes, new ways of seeing things, new ways of coping, new ways of putting prayer into action, new ways of seeing beyond the self.
I can hardly imagine the kinds of Gethsemanes some our brothers and sister live in each day in places such as Kenya, Egypt and elsewhere in the world where they live in constant threat of persecution. But, I wonder right here if a sense of Gethsemane can help us to see the wider picture.
The Church (capital ‘c’) is changing. In many ways it has already changed significantly. The Church capital ‘c’ is the Body of Christ. The reality is that the Church is the Body of Christ which is the community of faith. It is the people of faith. The Body of Christ is the people, the creatures of God in the wider world.
Many communities of faith are being creative in the ways they envision the Church as the Body of Christ and in the ways do ministry. It is all about people, especially the poor in need beyond themselves. It is about others. It’s about understanding in new ways. And it is indeed a challenge to see things anew.
I wonder if, through a new attitude from knowing what Gethsemane feels like, we can seek a wider vision about what it means to be the Church. For example by seeing a wider picture and putting prayer and compassion into real action from a deeper identification with what our sisters and brothers are experiencing in those places such as Kenya, Egypt, the Middle East and elsewhere where they face persecution every day of their lives. And the poor and the persecuted are also closer by. As Jesus said, “They will be with us always.”
Now some may wonder how this fits for an Easter Sunday homily.
Here’s how: It seems to me that Gethsemane is an essential part of any understanding of what the Resurrection means. The fact is that it’s not about the darkness of Gethsemane. It’s about where it leads. It’s about where it led Jesus. It is part of the model of any journey in life both at an individual level of experience and in the experience of any community of faith.
Gethsemane is the essential part of the Easter experience since it is the place to learn about becoming more selfless and letting go – just as Jesus modelled for us by what he gave up for us.
And again, without Gethsemane, there would have been no suffering in darkness, no crucifixion and therefore no resurrection, no new life, no Easter, no Paschal Mystery.
Easter is about moving out of worry into new life. Easter is a flesh and blood experience. Easter is about new creativity, new ways of coping, new vision, new hope, new focus.
When you look carefully you can see that the Body of Christ – the Church — has always been evolving and being re-shaped along the steps from Gethsemane to that very first Easter and ever since.
It evolves because it remains forever alive. It rises from any death with a newness of life likely different than at first expected. The hard part is in reaching an understanding of what that mystery means. Over the millennia, its form changes.
The New and Risen Life is always because of the steps, one at a time, from Gethsemane to the Cross, and from the Cross on to the Resurrection into the everlasting Mystery of Easter.
* * *