Behold the Bridegroom cometh in the middle of the night, and blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching, but unworthy is he whom He shall find in slothfulness. Beware, therefore, O my soul, and be not overcome by sleep; lest thou be given over to death, and shut out from the kingdom. But return to soberness and cry aloud: Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou, O God; through the Theotokos, have mercy on us.
~ “Behold the Bridegroom Cometh,” Bridegroom Matins
Tonight we had our first Bridegroom Matins of Holy Week. One of at least two recurring hymns at these services, which we observe Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday night, this hymn highlights the central importance of the discipline of watchfulness: “blessed is the servant whom [Christ] shall find watching.”
The hymn is in part based upon the story of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane:
Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and said to the disciples, “Sit here while I go and pray over there.” And He took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee [James and John], and He began to be sorrowful and deeply distressed. Then He said to them, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death. Stay here and watch with Me.”
He went a little farther and fell on His face, and prayed, saying, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.”
Then He came to the disciples and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, “What! Could you not watch with Me one hour? Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
Again, a second time, He went away and prayed, saying, “O My Father, if this cup cannot pass away from Me unless I drink it, Your will be done.” And He came and found them asleep again, for their eyes were heavy.
So He left them, went away again, and prayed the third time, saying the same words. Then He came to His disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going. See, My betrayer is at hand.” (Matthew 26:36-46)
Jesus here exhorts Peter, James, and John to “watch and pray,” lest they “enter into temptation.” At the same time, Jesus here models the practice of watchfulness, which unlike the Buddhist and now generally trendy practice of mindfulness, is typically coupled with prayer. The goals are quite similar, from the little I know, but the context of prayer definitely adds a unique element.
So what does Jesus do? How might we, following him, be “the servant whom He shall find watching” rather than “he whom he shall find in slothfulness” … or sleeping, as the case may be?
First, Jesus practices solitude: “Sit here while I go and pray over there.” Yet, he does not for that forsake community: “And He took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee.”
Second, he is honest about his emotional state, even to the point of revealing it to his closest friends: “He began to be sorrowful and deeply distressed. Then He said to them, ‘My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death.’”
Third, he does something about it. In fact, he asks for help: “Stay here and watch with Me.”
Theologically speaking, we may be tempted to say that, of course, Jesus didn’t need their help, but on the other hand, theologically speaking, Jesus is fully God and fully human. So he doesn’t pull the “I’m the Son of God” trump card when he wants to model for us what we, as human beings, are supposed to do. In this case, he is showing us that being watchful sometimes means confiding in other people and admitting when we need their help.
Fourth, Jesus practices solitude again, praying and prostrating himself before the Father: “He went a little farther and fell on His face, and prayed.” He didn’t just pray with words, but with his body as well, in a posture of utter submission.
Fifth, Jesus faces his anxiety about his coming passion (suffering) and death: “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me.”
Sixth, Jesus faces the possibility, indeed likelihood, even certainty, that he must suffer and die and accepts it as the will of God: “nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.”
One of the most seemingly esoteric dogmas of the Church is that Christ has two natural wills: human and divine. This follows from the confession that he is fully God and fully human, and also for a very existential need of ours. As St. Gregory the Theologian so perfectly encapsulated the entire mystery of our faith: “that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved.” So too, if our human wills need salvation (and mine, at least, does) then Christ must have one of those as well.
So here he prays, “not as I will, but as You will” from the fullness of his humanity. That he is also the Son of God is clear from his address: “O My Father,” but that he is human like us and showing us how to watch and pray, he shows us in the prayer, “not as I will, but as You will.” Indeed, through his struggle at Gethsemane, he saves our wills as well.
As I wrote in my last post, acceptance of all things as God’s will is a common exhortation from the fathers. It factors into the practice of watchfulness inasmuch as it means to take all that we experience, “favourable or unfavourable,” without judgment. Christ’s prayer in the garden shows us that part of the life “in Christ,” to use the favorite phrase of St. Paul, is to continually pray, as Christ himself taught us, “Thy will be done.”
Seventh, Christ wakes his disciples up. Left to themselves, they are weakened by their weariness: “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” We must be vigilant, watchful, like the night watchman on a guard tower. We must watch and pray, or we will succumb to slothfulness and fall into temptation (or “trial,” as the word can also be translated).
Eighth, though previously Christ allows himself to pray for what he knew to be impossible, he now returns to solitude in full acceptance: “O My Father, if this cup cannot pass away from Me unless I drink it, Your will be done.”
Ninth, we are generally terrible at watchfulness, but God is merciful: “And He came and found them asleep again, for their eyes were heavy. So He left them.”
On the one hand, this should serve as a warning: if we fail to watch and pray, if we fail to be truly awake, Christ will come to us and leave, and we will not even notice. On the other hand, sometimes Jesus knows that, in our weakness, we may just need some rest.
Tenth, repetition: Christ “prayed the third time, saying the same words.” Sometimes people with little spiritual experience will say that there is no point in repetitive, meditative prayer. The sentiment seems to be that God heard you the first time. But by that logic, we need not even pray the first time, for God knows all things.
But if prayer is about relationship, and if it is for us, then it is something we should do often. Just as a father never tires of his son’s “I love you’s,” so also we need not fear that God would grow tired with us. And since we are, after all, human, we should take advantage of our natural tendency to learn new habits and ways of thinking through repetition.
So I pray the “Our Father” at least twice a day and the Jesus Prayer often. I’ve even heard of a comical bumper sticker: “Honk 40x if you’re Orthodox,” playing on the many times in Orthodox prayers that we pray, “Lord have mercy,” forty times in a row. It may seem like overkill, but my mind is so prone to wander that it usually takes at least thirty “Lord have mercy’s” before I really wake up and truly know and mean what I’m saying—if I even get there at all.
Lastly, Jesus wakes his friends again. Some rest is fine, but rest is meaningless without work. And our work, the work of our whole lives, is to “watch and pray” lest we “enter into temptation.” In this way, we may say that watchfulness is our way of life. Or, at least, it ought to be.