At the Foot of the Cross 2007

Watch And Pray - Vigilance

However did we get here? However did we get from the Institution of the Holy Eucharist to the foot of the Cross in 15 hours? What happened between the passing of the sacred cup from Jesus to his Disciples in the reverence of the upper room and this dismal scene, as we watch the blood of Jesus ebbing away? 

As we begin our contemplation at the foot of the Cross, as we keep watch as the drama reaches its climax, the first episode of our story today takes place in a garden, probably a patch of scrubby grass with some olive trees; quiet, away from the city. 

This was the moment of truth, the moment when Jesus prayed for the strength to die in obedience to the Father. And he asked his most intimate friends, Peter, James and John, to pray with him. Even at this point it is impossible to say whether they knew what was going to happen. By then they would have discussed the sudden disappearance of Judas but how specific their conclusions were it is impossible to say. Here they were, in the cool of the evening, praying after their dinner, perhaps a little confused with all the emotion and the wine. And they began to pray with Jesus whose outline they could make out in the middle distance. And then their minds wandered and their heads nodded; and they woke with a guilty start, and a jerk of the head, and the brief pretence that they had not really fallen asleep. 

"Watch and pray" is such an easy instruction in theory but, as we will all find this afternoon, the concentration level we need for prayer is enormous. 

And as the Apostles fought and lost, Jesus was fighting and winning. Jesus was confronting His human fear of pain and death; but He, who always found time to pray, no matter how hectic His public mission, was now praying the prayer of His life; the prayer of obedience which begged for courage. Jesus, with the intense power of the spiritual person, knew in His human nature what the pain would be like before it happened. His imagination was living the pain even before it was inflicted. 

Meanwhile, the Apostles were trying but failing to watch and pray. A more dramatic way of phrasing the injunction occurs at the beginning of Compline: "Brethren, be sober, be vigilant; for your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour, whom resist, steadfast in the faith." This is taken from the first letter of Peter and there is no greater a guide than he when it comes to vigilance; because, as we have just noted, Peter was one of those who fell asleep in the garden. 

My only doubt about these words is that my experience of the devil is anything but that of a roaring lion. Watching for a lion in the middle of the night may not be altogether easy but at least you know what you are watching for and where you need to look. For me the devil does not really come from outside, he does not come in the shape of some loud mouthed tempter who invites me to steal or hit somebody; the devil is inside me, right inside, persuading me that my own personal preference is also the right course of action. 

More often than not the devil needs to do very little. The apostles in the garden simply lost concentration, their minds wandered from their prayers and we, too, easily lose concentration. Such lapses are not fatal, they simply weaken our resolve; we do not do anything terribly wrong, we are just less well equipped when we face difficulties. We do not so easily notice the traps that we are being led into because we live in the false self confidence that we are far too smart for the devil. But if I were a betting man I would put money on the devil every time. 

What did the Apostles do to bring about the death of Jesus? Well, nothing really. Admittedly Judas went to the authorities and told them where they might find his Master late at night without a crowd to protect him but if the authorities had wanted Jesus that badly they would have managed perfectly well without Judas. If we look through all of the Gospels, Acts and the Letters of various followers of Jesus you do not get a very vivid impression of any of the Twelve except for the occasional blunderings of Peter. The Apostles, in other words, were very much like us. Left to themselves they would have just gone along with the prevailing wind, enjoying the celebrity, taking too much credit for it, a little frightened when things seemed to be getting out of control, sometimes wanting a little peace and quiet. Overall the impression we get from reading the Gospels is that most of the time they were in a bit of a blur; they never quite knew what was going on. They only really come into their own when they are absolutely, literally, fired up by the Holy Spirit. 

It is an awesome thought that if the incarnation had turned out differently, we might have been the Apostles. But, of course, in our own way we are Apostles, and so we should be able to identify with those Apostles who could not watch and pray on the most fateful night of their lives. 

Jesus died to free us from the imprisonment of sin; and we are sinners; so it follows that we are the root cause of the death of Jesus. We are the reason that we are now at the foot of the Cross; and on the way here the single factor which has undone us is carelessness, a lack of vigilance, being a little slapdash about our prayer, a little inattentive in our worship, a little too busy to give time to the Holy Spirit. 

To be vigilant in a material world where the Devil comes in all sorts of pleasing guises, is a never ending task because our danger lacks the sharpness of crisis. 

We are small people whose minds wander, who sleep too easily, who think it will be all right. The Apostles did not pay enough careful attention to what Jesus told them, day by day, as they walked together or sat together at the end of the day. If it was difficult for the Apostles to follow the real Jesus, how much easier is it for us to lose concentration. If they could lapse then so can we. 

There is another kind of vigilance which we ought to think about as we stand here. We spend quite a lot of our watching energies, as did the Apostles, watching other people, eager to spot their shortcomings as if Jesus could not see these for himself. As we contemplate the dying form of our Saviour, let us focus relentlessly on ourselves, let us recall those times when we have not kept watch or when we have been too concerned to watch others to the neglect of our own spiritual safety. 

We were chosen to follow Jesus and we have chosen to follow Him. That is why, in spite of all our hesitations, we are here with Him now. We may feel uncomfortable that we are part of the reason that we have to be here but at least we are here; we are watching now where we failed to watch before; we have chosen to be with Jesus now when we failed to be with Him on easier days; we have failed before but we are here now. 

Prayer: Lord, Jesus Christ, forgive us for all the times when we have failed to watch and pray. Give us insight to resist the subtleties of evil and the strength to elevate your will over our desires. Amen.