by Maria Evans
Daily Office Readings for Friday, September 1, 2017:
In our Gospel reading today, our tendency is to link “denial” and “betrayal” with the number three. Jesus tells Peter he will deny him three times. The disciples fall asleep three times. Yet, what gets lost in the story is what Jesus himself actually does in this story, partially because we have to look at the parallel to this story in Matthew 26:31-46 to fully grasp this. He prays for relief from what is about to come, and “not my will, but yours” three times. The same words. In a way, Jesus introduces us to repetitive prayer–and for many of us, repetitive prayer is a tried and true response to severe stress.
Whether it’s the orthodox “Jesus prayer” with or without beads, or repetitive prayers such as those one can say with a set of Anglican prayer beads, people who engage in repetitive prayer practices often describe a sensation of their mind disengaging from the stress. Studies have shown that one’s heart rate and blood pressure drop in a variety of repetitive prayer practices across a variety of religious traditions.
Additionally, MRI studies of the brain show that prayer–any kind of prayer–stimulates the same parts of the brain that conversation with other human beings do. Our conversations with God are read by our brain as no different than our conversations with one another. Even if we become discouraged that “I pray, but I’m not sure God really listens”, our brains behave as if someone IS listening.
But back to our Gospel…What do we learn from this? Certainly, Jesus must have been suffering greatly that night from all the emotions we all suffer when we sense betrayal. Earlier that evening, at supper, he had announced that he would be betrayed by one at his table. In our reading today, he foretells both a general betrayal by his disciples, and a more personal one by Peter…and even the act of those closest to him being unable to stay awake in his anguish must have felt like betrayal heaped upon more betrayal.
Yet, when the hour comes, Jesus is ready to face what is to come. We sense a calmness and readiness on his part–a far cry from the Jesus who fled north when the Pharisees and scribes were dead set on persecuting him. Although the story describes only three times he prayed those words (the times associated with looking to see if the disciples are awake or asleep), I wonder, really, if he prayed those words many more times than what is recorded–my hunch is, he did.
I think of it in terms of the most common prayer Christians pray–the Lord’s Prayer. Like Jesus, we ask that God’s will be done. We ask it to happen on earth as well as in heaven…and somehow when we pray something over and over, I believe, the “earth” of our very human frailties–fear and anxiety–are transformed into something heavenly–and we become capable of something that before we started praying, we were certain we could not endure. We may even face it with calmness.
When is a time you were so afraid, all you could do was pray something from memory–over and over? How did that change you? How do those memories continue to change you?