Last year I was asked to write something as part of a Church Easter programme. My task was to write as if I were the Apostle James, watching Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. The writing below is the outcome of that effort. Although I tried hard to use the scriptural account from the New Testament gospels as the starting point, it is of course a work of fiction, but is how I imagine one of the Apostles might relate the events of that evening.
How grateful I am that we have witnesses both past and present.
A Chosen Witness
I am James. I was one of his disciples: an Apostle. Together with Peter and my brother John I was chosen to help lead the Church following His resurrection.
Chosen so many times! “Why me?” I have often wondered.
Three years before I had been chosen – although scarcely could I have known what that would mean. My brother and I were repairing our fishing nets with our father when He called us to follow Him. I remember looking at my father: the loss of my brother and I from the boat would mean so much more work for him, but he smiled his approval, and my brother and I leapt out of the boat to heed His call.
Then, three glorious years in His presence! I watched His every loving act; listened to His every word. And everything He had taught pointed to that very night, though I had understood it not.
Ah, that night. Forever etched on my memory. A moment so sacred I dare not tell it all. A moment so profound it is impossible for tongue to accurately describe. But of those things which I am permitted – and capable – of speaking, I shall do my best. For I am one of His witnesses, and my soul delights in declaring my testimony of Him, as with the sound of a trump, and will continue to do so through all eternity.
That night… He led us from the upper room into the night. We crossed the Kidron brook and then to the Mount of Olives. There were many olive gardens on the hillside, but one in particular was His preferred. He would often retreat there for some peace and solace; for prayer and communion with His Father. Little did we know that His prayer on that night would be so…. would be so…. How can I describe the indescribable? His prayer would be like no other – incomprehensible to the mortal mind.
As we walked towards the garden, something strange happened. Looking back on it now, I know it was the adversary. If only he could prevent this night from happening, all would be lost. I know now that he marshalled all his forces to try to destroy the great purposes that were intended for that night. I did not know this at the time, however. I knew then only that a darkness had descended upon me. For three years, I had eagerly fed at His feet, and yet at this moment I began to doubt. Was He really the promised Messiah? No shadow of doubt had ever entered my heart, yet at this moment, I questioned whether He really was who He claimed to be.
Oh, how could I doubt? And He knew. He knew that for a moment I had doubted. He looked at me with those penetrating eyes – eyes filled with a love that I did not deserve. His rebuke was gentle, and yet I immediately felt ashamed to have had just a moment’s doubt. The darkness fled and I knew once again that I stood in the presence of Israel’s Redeemer.
And then I was chosen. Again, I was chosen. He told the Apostles to rest amongst the trees in the Garden. But Peter, John and I were chosen by Him to go further with Him into the Garden. We three had shared sacred moments with Him previously, but never here. Never before in this place had He separated us from our brethren.
Why had He chosen me to join Him now? What was about to happen? What was He about to share with us?
I barely had time to allow these questions to enter my mind, than a change came over Him. His countenance became sorrowful – more sorrowful than I had ever known. When His friend Lazarus had died He wept; but this – this was different. More profound. More… uncertain?
I had never seen Him like this, and my heart ached to do something – anything, that would help alleviate whatever burden He was carrying. Little did I know that the burden He would carry – the reason He had come here – had not yet begun.
We continued in heavy-hearted silence for a few minutes. And then He stopped. He paused for a moment, and then stated what we had felt, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death.” I had seen His sorrow, but unto death!? How could the Master feel so? He who calmed the seas with a simple command. He at whose word the dead had risen; the blind and the maimed made whole. Surely nothing could cause such great sorrow in His bosom as to be unto death?
I looked in His eyes, and I could see the lament. I had seen His eyes many times before over the previous three years. Eyes filled with righteous indignation when the Priests had turned His Father’s House into a den of thieves. Eyes filled with laughter and joy when He spent time with His friends. Eyes filled with compassion when people came to Him pleading for healing – healing of body or of soul. Eyes filled with love – always filled with love.
But now, His eyes were a reflection of His statement. They were sorrowful – unto death. What unimaginable horror could cause this Lion of Judah to feel so?
Then He spoke again, “Tarry ye here, and watch with me”.
Watch? What were we to watch? As He walked a little further into the Garden I did not know whether I would be able to watch. My heart was already bursting at the sight of the God of Israel suffering so in anticipation of what was to happen. In anticipation! If such suffering was felt in anticipation, how awful was the reality to be? How could I bear to watch?
But He had commanded. I had been chosen. I would watch.
I watched. I watched as He first knelt upon the ground… and then prostrated Himself. I watched Him plead to his Father that this bitter cup be removed from Him. Never before had I conceived it possible that the Son of God would – could – find anything so daunting that He ask the cup be removed. But the pain. I could see the pain in His body, I could hear it in His voice. The tears streamed from my face as I watched – chosen. I closed my eyes – just for a moment – to steel myself; to prepare to continue to watch. I did not realise that in the seconds I had closed my eyes I had fallen asleep.
He woke me. Somehow during the agony He was enduring He had seen me, asleep. How could I fall asleep? He was suffering so much – He did not ask me to suffer, only to watch, and yet I had fallen asleep.
He could see into my soul, as He always could. He knew I had not intended to fall asleep. “The spirit indeed is willing,” He said kindly, knowing my intent, “but the flesh is weak”, He added, knowing my inability to conquer my bodily needs.
Again He commanded, “Watch”, but knowing better than I my weakness, He this time added, “and pray, that ye enter not into temptation”. He was so wise, and even here in this time of His greatest pain and sorrow He knew what I needed. I would continue to watch, but this time, rather than look away if I felt unable to bear the sight, I would pray for added strength.
And so once again I watched – chosen.
Again I watched as He fell upon His face, pleading with His Father. I do not know what words He had spoken while I was asleep, but as I watched I noticed His pleadings had changed. Where previously He had asked – begged even – the Father to remove the cup from Him, now He meekly, courageously, proclaimed, “Thy will be done”. This Man of Men, this Lord of Lords, the Creator of the earth and all things in them, willingly submitted to pain and suffering unspeakable, because it was His Father’s will. I was with Him for 3 years, and always He sought His Father’s will, and still in His time of greatest sorrow He sought to do the will of His Father.
Again the tears came unbidden from my eyes. Never before have I witnessed such majesty and humility at the same time in the same man. And I knew that having accepted that this bitterest of cups would not be removed, the moment would shortly come that He would have to drink it.
How could I watch? I had already failed my friend and Lord once, and the greatest pain had not yet commenced. He had instructed me to pray for strength and so I closed my eyes to do so, and as I pled with my Father and His Father, my heart and eyes aching for the tears that had fallen, I again fell asleep.
When He awoke me again, I could not find any words to say – to justify – my failure to keep His simple command. He did not rebuke me as I deserved, but rather looked kindly at me – as a parent who knows His child has failed despite his best efforts.
As He walked back to the spot He had chosen to speak to His Father, I watched once more – chosen.
The sorrow, the pain, the suffering, the pleading, that had already taken place were as nothing compared to the agony He now endured. I could see in the distance the olive press used to crush the oil from the olives grown in the Garden, and instantly I could sense the crushing weight of eternity on His shoulders, bearing Him down. But He did not faint under the pressure.
I began to see blood on His skin. At first I thought He must have cut Himself on the nearby tree as He fell to the earth, but then realised that the blood was covering His body. The pressure of the universe was literally squeezing the blood from His body. How could this be?
And suddenly I understood.
All the years He had taught, and healed, and blessed, were shadows and types of this moment. I had always believed that the Messiah would redeem men from their sins; that He would give comfort to those in need; that He would alleviate pain and suffering. Now I witnessed the cost of His love. “Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…. He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him: and with his stripes we are healed.” With His blood we are healed. With His love we are healed.
I do not know when I again fell asleep. But when he awoke me the third time, I could see that His ordeal was finished. He was triumphant! And though I had three times fallen asleep, I knew that I had watched sufficiently. Despite my weakness and my mortal frailties I had not failed Him. I had witnessed!
And today I stand before you as a witness. Let no man talk of these things as idle fairy tales, or invented imaginations! I saw with my own eyes the Great Redeemer suffer what no man can suffer. I know, in a way that I cannot describe, the power of His triumph.
Jesus of Nazareth bore your sins and mine, your pains and mine, your infirmities and mine. I saw it! And I cannot deny it – nor would I wish to, for it is the most glorious message of love the universe has ever known.
This is my witness.