The scene in Gethsemane is one of the most poignant in all of literature. The man who is proclaimed as being the ultimate representative of God–the Son of God, the Messiah, the Son of Man who will come in glory–is now shown groveling on the ground, distraught, not wanting to die. Mark pulls no punches. The image is shocking.
Jesus and his disciples arrive at a place called Gethsemane, which probably means “olive press.” Presumably, this was somewhere on the slopes of the Mount of Olives. It may have been a usual place for Jesus and his disciples to camp out when they were staying in Jerusalem for festivals (how else would Judas know where to find Jesus?). Tourists today are shown a small olive grove near the base of the Mount of Olives as the traditional site of Gethsemane.
Jesus tells his disciples he wants them to keep awake (and stand guard?) while Jesus goes off by himself to pray. The usual posture for prayer in the ancient world was standing, with arms held out to the side, or up, with palms facing up. But Jesus throws himself on the ground. It is a shocking image of anxiety. He has already told his closest disciples that he is deeply grieved “even to death.”
Jesus cries out to God, “Abba!” This is a highly unusual way to address God in prayer. “Abba” is in the Aramaic language used by Jesus; it is the intimate word one uses for a father (or perhaps for a beloved teacher). Jesus’ use of this address for God was so novel that the earliest disciples adopted it–and spread its use to all churches, even those that spoke Greek. Jesus addresses God as one who can do anything; nothing is impossible to God. And so it is possible for God to change the plan, and for Jesus to avoid death. Shockingly, Jesus begs for this to happen. The one who so resolutely told the disciples on numerous occasions about God’s plan for his upcoming death, now cries out to change it. Yet, Jesus concludes the prayer by asking for God’s will, not Jesus’ will.
For Mark’s readers, who have gone through–and are probably still going through–times of tremendous pain and persecution, Jesus’ prayer must have been a source of comfort. Even Jesus felt distraught; even Jesus wanted to avoid death. Jesus’ prayer serves as a model for expressing honest pain and desire, while at the same time making a commitment to accept whatever God brings. Although the Gospel of Mark never mentions “the Lord’s Prayer,” this prayer echoes it: “Father” (Abba), “thy will be done,” and “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
For those who make the simple equation that Jesus during his earthly life was God, this prayer doesn’t make sense. This prayer assumes that Jesus has his own personality and wishes; he, like all other human beings, must make a choice whether to align his will with God’s will.
Mark never tells us why Jesus must die; we are only told that his death will be “a ransom for many.” In other words, through Jesus’ act of obedience and ultimate self-emptying, humanity can be saved from its own selfish and self-destructive bondage. Mark never explains how this happens. He has no theory of atonement. He simply makes the deep connection between Jesus being a self-giving servant, our following that example, and the salvation of humanity.
Jesus repeats his prayer three times, and each time finds his closest disciples sleeping when he returns to them. Their sleep is a prelude to their abandonment of him. Symbolically, their sleep can also be understood as: depression, or ignorance of what is happening, or unconscious disengagement from a too stressful situation, or a need to look away from the embarrassing and terrifying image of Jesus being in such distraught pain and anxiety. These same disciples went up another mountain with Jesus and saw him transfigured in glory; now they go up the Mount of Olives and see Jesus transfigured into pitiful weakness. Then, God spoke; now, God is silent. Aside from the crucifixion itself, Mark could not give us a more powerful image of how glory and salvation must first come through utter loss and humiliation. This is true for all of humanity; not just Jesus. To gain all, we must first lose all–and accept that loss. Only God can be God.
Judas arrives with police. In a world without photographs or other means of identification, Judas must point out (with a kiss of greeting) which person in the crowd is Jesus. (Jesus was not distinctive looking.) The chaotic nature of the situation is shown when someone tries to stop the arrest by resorting to injury with a sword. Unlike the other Gospels, Mark calls this person someone “who stood near”–not a disciple, but a person in the larger crowd of pilgrims who are camping on the hillside and who are attracted by the spectacle of an arrest. Jesus assumes that the attacker is not one of his disciples when he taunts the police by asking them why they need swords and clubs to arrest him. Jesus specifically denies that he is “a bandit”–a term used for violent revolutionaries. Mark seems to be purposely making a distinction between Jesus and the Zealots who revolted against Rome (causing the destruction of the temple). The way of the Zealots is “salvation” through violence. The way of Jesus is salvation through self-giving servanthood.
Mark is the only Gospel to mention a young man who initially follows the police, but then runs away naked in the night when they try to grab him. Many suggestions have been made as to why this strange incident is in Mark’s Gospel: 1. Mark includes this simply because it happened; it has no other meaning than that an unknown man did this. 2. The young man is actually the author of the Gospel (according to second century tradition, John Mark, Peter’s interpreter and sometime companion of Paul). 3. The young man is the same young man who is at the tomb in chapter 16. The linen cloth he leaves behind in the hands of the police is a shroud (representing death), and the white robe he’s wearing at the tomb represents his new life in baptism.
Most scholars reject all of these interpretations. Instead, a growing number of scholars believe that the young man is a poignant symbol of the failure of the disciples. He flees in shame. He represents all the disciples (including, perhaps, the women who will run away too terrified to tell the good news at the end of Mark’s Gospel).