Terry Eagleton in Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic.
Since both Mark and Matthew have it that “their eyes were heavy,” it seems clear the Gospel writers want us to believe that Peter and the other disciples succumbed in Gethsemane to good old-fashioned fatigue. While they sleep, Jesus asks God whether there might possibly be some other way to expiate the sins of the world, because although this will make for a good story it does seem a tad excessive. It’s easy to see where Jesus’s coming from. In a fiction workshop, the passion would probably be labeled “heavy-handed” and the writer encouraged to re-craft something a bit less over-the-top.
This “exchange” between Jesus and God is of course important enough that the words reverberate in every thinking Christian’s mind still here now centuries later. Because no where is Jesus’s humanity more clear than when he questions suffering’s necessity.
Again, however, the fact that the disciples fall asleep particularly horrifies because they do so precisely while their friend greets inconceivable pressure with simultaneously the weakness of a human and dignity borrowed from God–the kind of literally universe-shattering moment that all people and things should hark to–that we still hark to with a special reverence reserved for a special time of year. Jesus did it alone, the way we all sometimes have to face our deepest fears.
Eagleton begins his book on tragedy asking secular literary theorists to focus on this moment in order to remember that Jesus did not willingly give himself bodily up because he knew the glory he would later achieve would far outstrip any passing satisfaction or pleasure he got from being living flesh. Actually, Jesus seemed to be pretty into the body. He healed the sick, the blind, the leprotic so they could more fully participate in their communities, which community he also valued.
Nevertheless, we grow tired. Our fatigue matters because the passion is both pre-ordained and contingent at the same time.
We can ask “What if Peter hadn’t fallen asleep?” and can even wish he hadn’t even though we understand it probably wouldn’t have mattered the same way we can wish the short-skirted young lady in a horror movie doesn’t open a particular door even though we know she’s going to open it.
We succumb to sleep, to base and stupid desires, to worthless wants, while others writhe in anguish. This is another hard lesson. The difficulty of the Gospel is convincing yourself whether falling asleep matters. As with any truly valuable story, the passion so closely approaches an abyss that you can almost smell the emptiness.
Sometimes that abyss is inscribed in the seeming significance of the everyday.
Other than the Gospels, I typically review the Dilsey section of The Sound and the Fury each Easter. Only an old black simple courageous woman seems to have the strength to face it, in Faulkner’s book, and through her the Compsons are redeemed. Benjy and Dilsey attend “colored” Easter services and the preacher “witnesses” each part of the story. After Jesus’s death, he “sees de darkness end de death everlastin upon de generations.”
A full experience of this darkness is necessary for his rising – and by a full experience I mean experienced by us. In other words it’s dependent on us. Jesus’s return, which causes the preacher to further witness: “I sees the resurrection en de light…i sees de doom crack end de golden horns shoutin down de glory” – is contingent, and is also destiny. Which is about as hard to think about as it should be.
March 23, 2008