Mass in an empty church at Gethsemane


At this point, we priests are getting used to celebrating Mass without a real congregation. By now, our congregations have got used to participating at virtual Masses!

Paul Sciberras_1
        Fr Paul Sciberras

In Gethsemane he, Jesus, too was alone. His congregation fell asleep; ours is not even there! ‘Congregation’ is derived from Latin con- together, and gregare > grex, flock, “those forming a flock together”, led by the One True Shepherd. The concept is very similar to the Greek (later borrowed into Latin) ekklēsía > ek– out of, and kalein = “to call out” to form a congregation. But what happens when the Shepherd is struck, by being separated from his flock? Will the sheep get scattered as a result? That is what Jesus himself predicted: Mark 14:37, quoting Zechariah 13:7!

There, in Gethsemane, Jesus chose, indeed imposed, isolation. Did he choose segregation? ‘Segregation’ and ‘congregation’ have the same source: Latin segregat- from se- ‘apart’ and grex, ‘flock’. Segregation is ‘separation from the flock’. Jesus chose to live the moment without his flock, his congregation. But only for a little while. Only for the short time when he deeply wanted to be united to the Father. He took his disciples, his congregation, with him to Gethsemane, but still he wanted to be alone, segregated, alone with the Father.  May it be over soon! May Shepherd, shepherds, and congregation come back together!

unnamed“They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’” And although he took Peter the Rock further in with him, together with James, the first of the Apostles to die for him (Acts 12:1), and the One he loved, John, yet he still wanted to meet the Father by himself. “He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.’ And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him” (Mark 14:32-35). Yes, because “throwing oneself on” the ground (épipten epí in the Greek original) (v.35) has a lot to do with fulfilling the will of the one in front of whom such a gesture is made. Remember the shipwreck account, the Apostle Paul’s shipwreck? “For last night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before the emperor; and indeed, God has granted safety to all those who are sailing with you.’ So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. But we will have to run aground on some island (eis nēson dei ekpesein)” (Acts 27:23-26) épipten epí  and eis ekpesein have the same basic verb piptein as platform.

Luke, writing the Acts account of the shipwreck, even inserts the verb of divine necessity: dei, ‘it is necessary, it has to be,’ the famous ‘oportet’ of the Latin Vulgate! The shipwreck, according to Paul, was all in God’s providence and foresight! It was necessary that the shipwreck take place. It was necessary that the plans of the ship’s owners, the captain, the soldiers and of Paul himself fall to the ground and prostrate themselves as it were so that Paul should come to Malta. Similarly, it was necessary that Jesus’ plans fall in line with those of the Father!

Jesus’ isolation and anguish and horrendous suffering, because of which he segregated himself from the congregation most dear to his heart, trickled into the cup: “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mark 14:36). He was echoing the anguish of the psalmist in Psalm 116: “I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD” (v.13). At Gethsemane, when Jesus segregated himself from his congregation to be with the Father, his cup of tribulation became the cup of salvation. “Not what I want, but what you want”, and what the Father wants is: “Have I any pleasure in the death of the sinners, says the Lord GOD, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23). Isn’t that why the Son became flesh: “the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

What in actual fact is the meaning of the cross and of Jesus’ passion and death on it? Is it the excruciating pain and horrendous suffering? Did Jesus die on the cross to please the Father in his pain? Is the Father some Shakespearean Shylock demanding his pound of flesh, exacting it from his very own Son? Or is it the incarnation of the brutality of human beings depicted in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ? Isn’t it rather Jesus himself saying loud and clear: ‘Father, I am willing to die at the hands of humanity, but will not go even one step back from what I said and did because it was all in line with your will? The truth of knowing we are doing God’s will. In Jesus we have all we need to listen to and to do the Father’s will, to glimpse into and hence know the Father’s mind for us. He himself told us: “This is my Son, the Beloved One, listen to him” (Mark 9:7). And Jesus accepted even death so that he would say, preach, teach and do each and everything  according to the Father’s will. That is why he didn’t come down from the cross when he was taunted . Till the very end, till the moment when he totally gave up his spirit and his Spirit on the cross, it was all a complete, all  embracing: “Here I am, I have come to do your will” (Hebrews 10:9).

Isn’t this the meaning of Jesus, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world? Isn’t it because Jesus was indeed the Son and Servant of the Father, two other meanings embedded in the Aramaic word tálya, besides that of lamb? (Jesus calls out Jairus’ daughter, talyethà. In John 1:34, John the Baptiser repeats his “Here is the Lamb of God,” (v.29), but this time switching to, “This is the Son of God. A family with three kids doesn’t mean a couple with three lambs but with three children. In a derogatory manner, the word ‘boy’ was used for a male servant of any age) Jesus could be the sacrificial lamb who died for and redeemed his sheep because he was the true Son in whom the Father finds his pleasure by being the perfect Servant, who does his will. “This is my Son [also, servant, lamb], my Chosen [sealed with oil of anointing]; listen to him! because he will show you my will” (see Luke 9:35). Linking the cross at the hour of glory with the Father’s will, Jesus himself exclaims: “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me” (John 8:28-29).

All this happened in the garden of Gethsemane. Gethsemane, from gat, a (wine-)press, and shemānîm, oils. Oil-presses are where olives were crushed to produce the precious oil. The Anointed Son and Servant was crushed indeed for our salvation. The Fourth Canticle of the Suffering Servant of YHWH in Isaiah 52:13–53:12 describes this crushing in vivid terms: “… he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed… He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth… Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain.”

 It had to be so, seeing that Jesus is the anointed one. Kings, priest and prophets were anointed to be consecrated for their mission. In Psalm 89:20, God himself says: “I have found my servant David; with my holy oil I have anointed him.” But then the New Testament appropriated this exclamation almost verbatim to prepare the way to Jesus himself, adding a fundamental clarification: “I have found David, son of Jesse, to be a man after my heart, who will carry out all my wishes. Of this man’s posterity God has brought to Israel a Saviour, Jesus, as he promised” (Acts 13:22-23).

Every time we celebrate the Sacrifice of the Crushing of the Lord Jesus and his Resurrection – hopefully as part of a holy congregation in the not so distant future – let us go back to Gethsemane, because it is there that Jesus’ ‘Mass’ took place in segregation with the Father for the salvation of the congregation of humanity.

By Fr Paul Sciberras

Published by

Joe Farrugia

Blog tas-Segretarjat għal-Lajċi.