If my own experience is any indication, anxiety and time can be a taxing mixture. I so often fill up any "free" time with worry, overlaying unnecessary structure upon anything that feels too loose, too flexible. As we all grapple to adjust our lives to the structures demanded by the COVID-19 moment, and perhaps even the newfound time that attends these days, I began to reflect on some of the ways the truths of Scripture address and understand our fears.
On an anxious Thursday a couple of months back, I found myself doing what I sometimes do in periods of worry: scanning the Internet. Through an inexplicable sequence of clicks, I suddenly found myself on WebMD, where I was reading up on "hematidrosis," or "the very rare medical condition that causes you to ooze or sweat blood from your skin when you're not cut or injured." I was reading about hematidrosis because on the eve of his crucifixion, Christ found himself "in agony," so much so that the disciple-physician Luke observes, "his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground" (Luke 22:44). Luke's vivid description of Christ's emotional and mental turmoil is frequently quoted as evidence that he understands our anxieties, our fears, our inner pain. More painful than that inner unrest is the fact that he faces loneliness in the midst of his trial. In the next verse, Christ goes to his friends—James, John, and Peter—who have fallen asleep at his side. While the Good Shepherd sweats blood, they are counting sheep.
Suffering is made greater when we are made to feel alone, and thus drawing near to someone like Christ, who knew the depth of that loneliness, can be a balm to comfort our weary souls. But Luke 22 is about far more than this. It can be tempting to turn every gospel story into an allegory in which we become the protagonist, the one who is seen by virtue of Jesus' suffering and mission. So, what would it mean if we kept Jesus at the center, and simply acknowledged that, physically and emotionally, the God of the universe bled himself dry to redeem a people who demanded that sacrifice in the first place? What would it mean if we saw in ourselves not the anxious sufferer of hematidrosis, but rather the decidedly casual disciple sleeping at his side?
If we keep Christ at the center, then we can see more clearly the model he was trying to instill in his followers (then as now). In so doing, we can address our collective anxiety in a collective manner—by patiently, wakefully praying alongside one another. Christ came to remind us that we are not alone, and then he modeled his high idea of community by desiring to pray with his friends, even in his most painful hours. Perhaps this is a strange conclusion to reach in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, but I believe that now, more so than ever, we must be a people unified in supplication. While we may be limited in our mobility, how fortunate are we that we worship a God who is not limited by the physical world, and yet also a God who would willingly make himself vulnerable to the exposures of that world through the work of Christ?
As Christians, we are equipped to imagine a wakeful, prayerful community that is not limited by the discrete circumstances of the world. And so, in the spirit of Lent and in the spirit of the one who overcame all our suffering, I turn again to the model Jesus sets before us: of prayer with friends in the gardens of this world. Consider this a humble call to community, an evolving sense of community in uncertain times. Consider this a call to collective prayer.