Friday, March 16, 2012

Hymns for Lent II: Go to Dark Gethsemane

[NOTE: The second in a series of seven blog posts on Lent. The full series is available here. Enjoy!]

Maundy Thursday is pretty much the only big Holy Week day, other than Holy Saturday, that doesn't get much in the way of an official observation.  We have church services on Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, of course, and lots of churches have some sort of church service or gathering for Good Friday, but Maundy Thursday services are fairly rare in the Protestant denominations (though they're increasing in popularity for some reason).  But the events of Good Friday--Christ's sacrificial death on the cross--really start on Thursday night, in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Go to dark Gethsemane, ye that feel the tempter’s power;
Your Redeemer’s conflict see, watch with Him one bitter hour,
Turn not from His griefs away; learn of Jesus Christ to pray. 
See Him at the judgment hall, beaten, bound, reviled, arraigned;
O the wormwood and the gall! O the pangs His soul sustained!
Shun not suffering, shame, or loss; learn of Christ to bear the cross. 
Calvary’s mournful mountain climb; there, adoring at His feet,
Mark that miracle of time, God’s own sacrifice complete.
“It is finished!” hear Him cry; learn of Jesus Christ to die. 
Early hasten to the tomb where they laid His breathless clay;
All is solitude and gloom. Who has taken Him away?
Christ is risen! He meets our eyes; Savior, teach us so to rise.
After gathering with his disciples in an upper room to celebrate the Passover (Matt. 26:17-20), wash their feet (John 13:1-17), out Judas as his betrayer (Matt. 26:20-25), and institute the Eucharist (Matt. 26:26-29), Jesus and his disciples relocated to the Garden of Gethsemane, at the foot of the Mount of Olives. (Matt. 26:30, 36)

Once in Gethsemane, Jesus leaves the companionship of his disciples for the comfort of solitary prayer.  (Matt. 26:36-39) In preparation for the climax of the Incarnation--indeed, the climax of history--he spends time with the Father. This is not the fleeting prayer for strength that we so often utter--Jesus is "overwhelmed with grief to the point of death." (Matt. 26:38) He knows what is coming.  He pleads for the cup of God's wrath to be taken from him, but submits his will to the Father's.  (Matt. 26:39)  He is so distressed, he sweats drops of blood.  (Luke 22:44)  While the physical torment had yet to begin, Jesus spends Maundy Thursday night in emotional and spiritual torment unlike anything you or I could ever imagine.

So our hymn admonishes us, when we feel the power of the Tempter, to ponder Christ in the Garden, struggling against the apparent temptation to avoid the excruciating spiritual consequences of the cross--to say nothing of the physical agony.  Like the disciples, we are encouraged to spend a bitter hour with Christ in his time of utmost conflict.  Indeed, some sects have speculated that the real sacrifice was not on the cross  but in the garden, and that the blood shed for the forgiveness of sins was the blood he sweat that night.  (For the record, this explanation does not line up with the rest of the Bible's teaching; the wages of sin is death, not merely anguish.)  As we see Christ face death and God's judgment, we learn that we too are strengthened in times of trial by prayer.  After all, if Jesus--who was God--needed prayer to sustain him in his darkest hour, how much more do we need to come before the throne of grace when faced with temptations on every side.  (Heb. 4:16; II Cor. 4:8-9)

The hymn doesn't stop in Gethsemane, however--it moves on to Christ's judgment and torture at the hands of the Roman soldiers.  Here, we see the Son of God beaten, stripped, spat upon, and mocked, the crown of thorns on his head a mockery of his claim to kingship. (Matt. 27:27-31)  Although he had the power to call down legions of angels, he steadfastly endure the shame and suffering so that we might be dead to sin but alive to God.  (Rom. 6:11)  When we meditate on his passion--in the old, Latin sense of the word--it becomes easier to bear the comparatively minor crosses of this life for his glory.

Thence on to Calvary, where we worship at the foot of the cross, in awe of the great work of the Gospel--God's greatest miracle, the Triune God ensuring the eternal salvation of his wicked, treacherous people by taking upon himself the penalty for their numberless sins.  We are reminded that with the death of Christ, our salvation is finished--our justification is complete, and we do not need to add a single iota to it to ensure our redemption.  And yet, because of his death, we die with him, and so die to sin and the old self.  (Rom. 6:1-14)

But we can't stop on Calvary--the story doesn't end there.  Instead, we are bidden to the tomb, where we see the risen Christ, victorious over sin and death, and we know that just as we have shared in his death, we will share in his resurrection.  (I Cor. 15:51-55; Rom. 8:1-2)

Thus, as we meditate on the crucifixion during this Lenten season, the hymn admonishes us to use those meditations as a catalyst for prayer, self-sacrifice, mortification of sin, and joyful hope in the life to come.  I can think of no better summary of the meaning of Lent.

(Honorable mention--that is, another Gethsemane hymn I love: Lead Me to Calvary. 'Lest I forget Gethsemane / Lest I forget Thine agony / Lest I forget Thy love for me / Lead me to Calvary'.)

Although this hymn walks us through the whole Passion--from Gethsemane to the tomb--it focuses more on Maundy Thursday than a lot of Passion hymns.  In our next few entries, we'll focus more on the events of Good Friday--the trial and crucifixion of Jesus.

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