On this evening, we remember (and in some places, re-enact) the night of our Lord’s communion with his disciples, his temptation in the garden, and his betrayal. It is the night on which the fellowship breaks, as the weakness of men is revealed.
The central drama of the evening happens not in Jesus’ arrest, however, but in Jesus’ wrestling in prayer with the Father. It is there that the threat of the curse grows strongest, for the chief sin of Adam was not the eating of the fruit, but his disobedience and distrust of his Father in heaven. Jesus, as the new Adam, must walk the same path.
And he must walk it alone, for the flesh is weak. The meaning of Matthew’s use of ‘flesh’ is unclear. From a broader theological perspective, it’s clear that the whole person is indicted. The spirit–if we have one–is just as unwilling as our physical bodies.
But it is easy to read it with a narrower meaning: Jesus has just returned and found them asleep, despite his request that they intercede with him. Jesus issues what seems to be a gentle indictment of their inability to overcome their bodily limits and habits: however much the disciples want to watch and pray, they succumb to their bodies’ needs too readily. They sleep, because they have always slept.
This weakness of men in the garden is, according to Romans 8, a weakness that pervades the whole creation. And it is remedied only by the empowering presence of God Himself in the Holy Spirit, a presence whose first activity is prayer. In prayer, we are confronted by the creator of the universe, a creator who calls being out of non-being and is able to make the barren have children.
In our conversation with Him, he not only rearranges the contents of our minds, but retrains and rehabituates our bodies so that the renewal of the creation is inaugurated in our own lives–so that we too experience the sufferings of Jesus and his resurrection power.
On this night, then, watch and pray. For though the flesh is weak, Spirit is with you.