Holy Thursday Reading


Mark's interest in the scene focuses on three dimensions of the experience of Jesus: the pain, the prayer, and the process of enlargement of his personality. We will look at all three.

The pain experienced in Gethsemane is described by Mark in terms of total shock, or a sense of the arrival of a negative eschaton. It was as if Jesus stood out of his very self, in a bad kind of ecstasy, and stood into nothing that was positive. Matthew uses the verb lypeisthai, meaning that there was no joy in him, as there was none in Adam and Eve after their first paradise had collapsed. Mark uses the verb ademonein, to indicate that there is something demonic about it. He also uses the verb ekthambeisthai. It suggests an astonishment, an amazement, an aghastness at the brusk invasion of terror into his whole being. He has entered into fright itself. Luke calls it agonia : it is a dynamic and fruitless anxiety, where there is constant struggle, but no possible assurance of victory. It is a fighting anguish. John (in a parallel text, in chapter 12) says that he trembled in spirit (taraxomai). The epistle to the Hebrews, in another parallel text, in chapter 5, tells of loud cries and silent tears. There are other images : he is being sifted like wheat, being baptised, drinking the cup, entering the hour...

It is a sense of excessive Evil, that is annihilative and deconstructive of his very being. This Evil is much more than a privation of good. It is a vast, threatening, even 'positive' thing, that paradoxically is the arena for a positive transformation of the person who enters it. It takes him beyond all maps, beyond all reference points, and leaves him utterly alone. Here there is no such thing as thesis and antithesis, and there is no possibility of synthesis. Here we are beyond the sort of world where things correspond with each other and explain each other. Other gospels than Mark, and the letter to the Hebrews, develop this primordial experience in their own way, and amplify the sense of pain beyond all possible articulation and description. It is beyond all possible healing. It is beyond every project and every future. It is a silence beyond all systems and all proportions. The disproportion presses and constrains and urges anyone who enters it, and decentres them beyond the possibility of finding a new centre. It is more like a non-world than a world. Even 'non-world' is not adequate to express it. It is beyond even the possibility of comparison with 'world' of any kind.

It is wrong to see the experience of Gethsemane as a temptation. It is rather a trial. A temptation is a hesitation in the face of alternatives, one attractive, the other unattractive but obligatory in conscience. A trial is rather an ordeal, when one comes face to face with a crisis in which there are no alternatives whatever. It is a putting to the test of one's pure faith and trust, without options. Jesus is on trial in the Gethsemane experiences. His trial is that of a person who has gone beyond the possibility of being heroic, and the possibility of being helped by divine intervention. He cannot be heroic, because he cannot handle the situation, and yet he must remain in it. He cannot expect divine intervention and help, because any kind of God who might so help, has definitively and irrevocably deserted him. There can and will be no angel to comfort him (as Luke later inserts into the account), no Elijah, no apocalyptic intervention. There are no conscious disciples who can help. There is no succurrence, no help, and in effect, there is no 'God'. Even God disappears in this strange arena where images are impossible. You cannot live in this death, and you cannot die out of it. You cannot face it, because it has no face, and you lose your own face when you meet it.

It is at this point that Jesus prays. Mark has him begin his prayer with the word, 'Abba!'. It has been suggested, in the wake of Joachim Jeremias, that this is beautiful child-like spiritual language, and that it is unique to Jesus in his speech to God in prayer, and central to that prayer. These claims have rightly been questioned in recent years. In Mark's dramatisation of Gethsemane, the use of the word 'Abba!' is rather a regressive act, triggered by Jesus' profound resistance to the situation in which he finds himself. He makes a deep counter-wish to the reality before him. He then, regressively, has recourse to the language of infantile seduction of a loving parent, in a final attempt to change the mind of the 'God' who seems to have allowed and even created this negative situation. The attempt fails, and Jesus is left with just the undiluted reality. He is literally deserted by all gods of the kind whose function is to move in to help people out when they are in trouble. He is left totally alone, alone and impotent in the face of what is and cannot be removed. No one goes into a Gethsemane : rather, it comes to someone, exactly in the fading away of all that is known and familiar.

This is precisely where a process takes place, that is profoundly formative of his personality. He realises that he is being betrayed, not just by Judas, but by God. He is being betrayed into the unresolvableness of the crisis. There is recognition that the true reality-God, encountered here, has indeed mastered him, as the fantasy-God who might help him disappears entirely. The reality-God, and not the fantasy-God, is recognised as the true author, artisan, and indeed artist of the new situation. Jesus can cry, in the words of Hopkins (in The Wreck of the Deutschland), 'Thou mastering me !'. Jesus may indeed pray, and that more earnestly, as Luke puts it, but he is in reality the prey of the situation. He is neither priest nor victim here : all such categories are left well behind. That sort of temple has been destroyed.

There is recognition of the true character of the reality-God, now disclosed in the complete absence of the false one. At that point there is what has been called (by Antoine Vergote) a dialectical diagenesis of a new sense of God, and of a new sense of self, in a new kind of relationship that is not one of dependency. Jesus must never have felt less like a 'Son of God' (that is, like a protected-privileged child of the now recognised-as-unreal 'God'). Here he is free from all 'nice' gods, and in that freedom he is 'gifted' with a new kind of 'agnosticism' and even, in its own sense, 'atheism'. He is free from Delphic oracles, divine imperatives, and wills of that sort of God. His attitude, and the real God's attitude, to the situation are now one, and are thoroughly and utterly real, without cover-ups. Jesus can then face all that is real for him : he can lay down his life of himself, knowing that no one, not even a 'god', can take it from him. He has the capacity to dispose of his own very being, his life itself, as his own. He has become his own person. At the moment when he can do nothing as a result, he has come to self-possession and self-mastery. He has an unbrokered immediacy with reality. His is now the powerlessness without which there is no grandeur. It is a relationship with the true God, in the difference of distance, in the communion of two persons who do not try to identify with each other, and who, together, do not try to change the nature of things. From now on, Jesus can look at death purely and simply as death. He can realise now that he would not be facing death had he not adopted certain positions of solidarity with the little people of Galilee, and challenged the temple practices that seemed to exclude them. He can stand tall, in his freedom, and the foundations of his own powerless courage.

This is clearly Mark's Jesus, and his Gethsemane scene is not accidental to the formation of Jesus' character. It is the real climax of its development. Jesus has been baptised, so to speak, from the Jordan encounter with John, into the Spirit of Gethsemane, and it has progressively made him this kind of emptied-out man.

The fundamental conflict which Jesus has negotiated here is not a political one between various human groups. Nor is it a psychological one, between himself and various forms of human megalomania. It is not even, directly, a historical one, for it is much more than a questioning of his life-commitment to the poor of Galilee. It is a profoundly spiritual, theological, even mystical one, between himself and every previous conception of God that he has formed. It is the failure of every possible 'fantasy' about God and about his own identity with God. It is only the full acceptance of that failure that makes him who he really is, a man ready for the passion and death that await him.

This failure of fantasy is in particular the failure of his imagination about the kind of God he had experienced in Galilee as adventing to the anawim through the healing miracles. That kind of God is now no more for Jesus, and there will be no more advents like that. At that time, in Galilee, Jesus could well have conceived his identity as the Son of that kind of God, indeed as his anointed one, or Messiah. Now, in the dark purification of Gethsemane, he has to relinquish all such images of his, and his God's identity and relationship. There is a double paradox here. He is truly human now, when at last he has lost all the 'advantages' of humanness. He is truly divine now, when at last he has lost all the 'advantages' of divinity. It is only at such a price that humanity and divinity, in their full and real sense, can belong to a single person, and it is only at that price that a human being can become, psychologically, that kind of incarnate person. The definition of Chalcedon should be read in the experience of Gethsemane.

At the Galileean 'moment' of his life, when the Kingdom broke into the human world, Jesus grasped his God as always active in the cause of those who were marginalised and discriminated against, and actively intervening in their favour. It was a 'romantic' vision, not without its permanent truth. At Gethsemane, he discovered what that truth really was. God did not have to intervene in favour of the poor, to be on their side. God could move against discrimination, but would not move against nature. When, in the normal course of events, in the nature of the case, and in the natural flow of their history, the poor got into trouble, God would be with them in the trouble, but would not intervene to get them out of the trouble. When death looked them in the face, God would let them meet that death, and be with them there, in it all, without intervening to make them immortal. God was indeed a God of the poor, but a God of the poor in the cosmos.

This insight has always been at the heart of the christian message, especially in the new testament writings. The challenge there presented, is that one cannot become graced with participation in the divine filiation of Jesus, without going through a similar Gethsemane experience of one's own, and losing what one thought was one's previous identity, and one's previous God. Paul grasped it. He spoke of the 'crucified' Christ : his word for 'crucified' is estauromenos, which means, opened out, into an unboundariedness, through the entire experience he abbreviates in the word, crucifixion. Mark grasped it. He spoke of the Christ who gave his life as redemption for many, that is, in his marvellous Greek here, gave his psyche as down-payment for the hoi polloi, the nameless multitude. Matthew grasped it. He spoke of the ultimate mystery of the child who alone enters the Kingdom of heaven. He did not mean 'child' in its 'nice' symbolism which we spontaneously imagine, but the child as symbol for the nobodies who have no rights and have no title to exist that they can erect from their own fantasies. John grasped it. He spoke of the Spirit flowing through the opened-up-ness of the crucified Christ, to and for others, and set up the eternal icon of the opened-up, stigmatic Jesus, and all of the little ones who are also opened-up as he was, as the source of authentic mystery and life for the world. Luke grasped it. He dared to have Jesus proclaim a never-ending Jubilee of Israel and the nations together, a cosmic process of transfiguration, that would come only from Jesus and those who were interiorly changed in the full experience of unjust condemnation and extinction of all the life they thought was in them. The church is intended to be a community gathered together, of those who have been participants in the mystery of Gethsemane. They are, as Thomas Merton once put it (and he, a monk of Gethsemane), 'the hollow men'.

But they are not just that. Jesus encountered the mystery of law in Gethsemane. There are three kinds of law. There is the law of the land (nomos), and when one breaks it, one is in a situation of lawlessness (anomia) and injures the common good. There is the law of the gods (dike), and when one breaks it, one is in a situation of iniquity (hamartia), and runs counter to the will of Zeus. But there is a further law yet, the law of another order beyond the order of the gods themselves, and one cannot break it. Rather, it demands that one who encounters it submit to its unyielding, and unbreaking, demand. That demand is one of darkness and strife (nux, scotos, eris). The pain is quite peculiar here. In part, it is the opening up of a gap (aporia) hitherto unknown, and in part it is a death deeper than any previous conception of death (thanatos). The pain is located in the midst of these two experiences. Between the perception of abandonedness and the consciousness of an ultimate death to consciousness. Between Eros and Thanatos. This is both the agony (where the protagonist cannot win), and the emptyness (where the nothingness pervades everything). It is at this point, and only at this point, that there is a release into the Real, that there is a meeting of reality in itself (Das Ding), where there is no seeking of a lost object but a finding of a Realness that can never be an object. In this extreme katharsis of one's subjectivity, there emerges a new and grand Desire. It does not attempt to possess anything, or to be what it is not. It allows itself to be drawn into, and immersed in the Beauty of a different Order, that now surrounds and penetrates it. And in that baptism, there is a shining, an eclat, of the identity that has been slowly forged in the entire process. Gethsemane has been a mystery of transfiguration. Not a transfiguration that happens on top of Mount Tabor, but one that is always there, if one goes to the bottom of the Mount of Olives and crosses the Kedron valley. After that, Calvary is not a further tragic moment, but a continuation of the real. Easter is not a compensation for the experience, but its eternalisation in and for the sake of the whole real cosmos.

It could be said that this Jesus has entered into conflict with, and emerged differently from, all known versions of the Hero Myth. It could also be said that his experience has transformed the meaning of the Tragic. It is not easy to grasp his identity without turning him into some kind of tragic hero : Gethsemane demands that we do so, and that we do better than that. In comparison with these values, the actual circumstances that led to Gethsemane, and followed it, matter relatively little. None the less, it is in their banality that Jesus' real Gethsemane began. Such is the strange demand of Incarnation. Perhaps it is even appropriate that we know so little, rather than much, of the external details : the centre could easily be obscured by the periphery.

Once Gethsemane has done its work in the formation of Jesus' personhood, he remains, as person, in the reality of the real. So does his God. Both are different.

We can look at the therapy practised by the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma (for survivors of mass violence and trauma). It comes from Fritz Redlich and Richard Mollica, originally at Yale in the early 70’s, and now at Harvard. Mollica acknowledges indebtedness to Margaret Farley and Henri Nouwen, at Yale. The group was founded in 1981 and Mollica is its present director and professor of psychiatry at Harvard. The focus has been on south-east Asian refugees. The range of interest has extended to other major situations (like Bosnia), and to all internally displaced persons and asylum seekers.

The approach is sometimes called ‘phenomenological’. The aim is to set aside, and suspend, all presumed knowledge of such experiences, and so to attend to what is presented without bias of any kind. Attention is given to the story as told. It usually conceals a secret. This will become the centrepiece of the therapy. A number of psychological and emotional states are present (such as humiliation, anger, revenge/hatred, hopelessness/despair) but they coalesce into a ‘firestorm’ within (that can lead to post-traumatic-stress-disorders and/or depression). The ‘life-world’ is damaged. At the same time, there is paradoxical resilience in these people. They respond to work, to altruistic behaviour, to spiritual issues, to problems of learning and using a new language. A certain obsessiveness has been noticed in traumatised people of this kind, about telling (or hiding) their stories. Their stories are always individual, but very often are linked to the historical memory of their people or nation/culture. What they want from the hearer is not analytic description, but a way to live in the truth of it all. Extreme violence creates a new historical space for them. All ordinary experiences and daily activities are transformed into something radically new – the old ‘reality’ feels like an illusion. There are invisible wounds. Think of Hiroshima, Pompeii, 9/11, Mandela. Think of trauma stories that are manifested much later in time, like rapes in Bosnia, murders of children in Afghanistan. Think of public responses to television images of beheadings, of the tsumani, etc.

Trauma creates an new anthropology for the traumatised person. It is concealed in the story, and in its telling. How?

The story is actually a cover-all art-form to summarise what is going on. It has three components. First, there is the expression of emotions. This leads, secondly, to symbolism and key images. This, in turn, leads to the manifestation of a ‘style’ that the person uses, and that manifests the person. In looking at all of this, and in quest of the ‘style’, there are several steps. First, we hear the alleged facts. Secondly, we perceive the cultural meaning of those facts for the person. Thirdly, we can, at special moments, see through the curtain and – with the person – experience something of a ‘revelation’. Fourthly, we center into the listener-story-teller relationship on the basis of that given ‘revelation’. [Simply to stay with the facts, and immediate emotions created by them, is counter-therapeutic and pathogenic.]

How does that ‘revelation’ occur? It is the traumatised story-teller that teaches the listener (who is encountering that trauma for the first time). Traumatised persons don’t like having their stories (or their selves) interpreted: there is something in them that they know transcends all interpretation. This is why they do not express transference. It is not just that they are too brutalised to express it, or that love-overtures have been killed by the violence. It is more that there is something going on that is larger than all transferencing. It is tempting to a listener to want to fix it, or do something with it, but that is inappropriate, and the listener has to learn to stay with an arena in which counter-transference is ‘wrong’. Because it is beyond all words.

This is the crucial point. The touching of the More is not a seeking of catharsis. (It is interesting that in some cultures that have experienced massive trauma, such as Cambodia, there is a cultural avoidance of catharsis.) (It is interesting that in American culture, there is a massive need to try to repeat catharsis, endlessly, interminably.) The touching of the More without attaching meanings to it is not the same as denial. (Some cultures and people actually need denial, therapeutically.) The telling of the story without touching the More can be toxic. When that happens, the story often becomes Protean and takes different shapes to fit in with different environments and expectations. It loses its true role as the mid-wife of transcendence.

It is important to note that the revelatory transcendence of the More is beyond normal ‘ethics’. It is in that sense, a morally ambiguous situation. People form support groups around it to enable them to sustain the ‘beyondness’. Together with them, they establish some kind of provisory standards of living with a new vision in a new blindness. The revelatory situation is also a defusing of all systems of power, as it is beyond them.

To come back to the simple model introduced above, what happens through this ‘revelatory’ point, shared with a new kind of listener, is a change in the ‘style’ of the storying person, in the direction of a new gentleness, that is born out of the depths of the violence. It is a transfiguration of both healing and survival, in their usual meaning.

My interest is in using this approach to help understand participation in the Eucharist. I see the last supper of Jesus as seminal to any understanding of Eucharist.

The real situation of Jesus at the supper is one of trauma. He is facing the actual reality of immediate death by crucifixion. It has been pointed out that such an encounter with death brings to the surface two contradictory dynamics in the psyche. One is aggression (the desire to fight it and win), the other is gentleness (the willingness to let go and accept the reality). The tension between these two, divides and breaks open the personal self (symbolised in Jewish culture as the ‘body’). It exhausts and pours out the life-energy (symbolised in Jewish culture as the ‘blood’ – the life is in the blood). That is the trauma. Jesus, at the supper, has already moved from step one (the facts), to step two (the cultural meaning of the facts), to step three: he has already pierced the curtain and ‘seen’ a reality-strength in himself that can undergo the passion and the cross. It is indeed, as Mark said, all over. He has touched a transcendence. It is a kind of ‘transfiguration’ (without the side-effects). He is a ‘different man’. The ‘style’ of the man has changed.

At the supper, and at the Eucharist now, he goes into step four, and tells his trauma story to his ‘listeners’. He asks their Amen. He invites their identification with it. He asks them to face the facts of his death, and eventually their own, if like him, they stand up for the oppressed poor. He asks them to understand the brokenness and the exhaustion of doing so. He asks them to go through the trauma to the transcendence. To be transfigured beyond all words and all expectations. To change their ‘style’.

And if they do, they have life in him. They find the More. The More has found them.

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