Could you not stay awake with me?

Make me a channel of your peace.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
in giving of ourselves that we receive,
and in dying that we’re born to eternal life.

Many will know this hymn by Sebastian Temple based on the Prayer of St Francis. St Francis was not the only one who recognised that it is in giving of ourselves that we receive. Many others before and since him, including numerous scientific studies, have confirmed that helping others is good for us. Most of us will know this from experience too: it makes you feel good when you are able to help someone else. Many of us will also recognise the opposite feeling: the frustration and helplessness when we find ourselves in a situation where there is nothing that we can do.

Painting by James Tissot

The night of Maundy Thursday, when Christians throughout the world keep the Watch, is a strong reminder of how hard it is not to be able to ‘do’ anything. After the Last Supper, Jesus and his disciples go to the Mount of Olives. Jesus has already foretold his destiny, and there is nothing more that can be done. The only thing Jesus asks of his disciples is to stay awake with him as he prays a little distance away from them, his followers and closest friends.

However, as he returns, he finds the disciples sleeping and rebukes them. Twice more he goes away, and finds them sleeping upon his return. They just cannot stay awake and wait as the evening unfolds. It is hard to stay alert, when there is nothing you can do.

I have certainly felt this over the past year. I have found it much harder to worship and pray without being able to physically go to Church. On a practical level, surely, it should be easier, without the need to travel, to dress up warmly, etcetera. However, so often we find that it is easier to do something, than just to be. For me, this has also been reflected in other areas of life. Working from home should be easier, yet I found it much harder when I had to teach classes from my living room, or Zoom with friends rather than go to the pub.

Over the past year, certainly I have found myself struggling in a way not unlike the disciples: keeping my faith alive, keeping watch with Jesus, has been much harder than following Him in service. But watching and waiting is precisely what we are asked to do these days as we retell and relive the story of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. It is hard and we have to acknowledge our helplessness and weakness; our ultimate dependence on God. Yet, we also know what lies beyond these days. In the words of St Francis once more, it is in self-forgetting that we will find and in dying that we are raised to eternal life.

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