Mary Oliver places this poem just after The Poet Thinks about the Donkey. Clearly an invitation to compare them. My comments follow.
The grass never sleeps.
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.
Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.
The cricket has such splendid fringe on its feet,
and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.
Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did, maybe
the wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn’t move,
the lake far away, where once he walked as on a
lay still and waited, wild awake.
Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be a part of the story.
© 2006 by Mary Oliver, published by Beacon Press in Thirst, p. 45
This one stings. How many vigils have I slept through? Or how often do I look the other way when injustices are playing out before my eyes.
When I was growing up, I had nothing but scorn for those three sleepy, self-absorbed disciples who couldn’t stay awake and keep watch for their friend Jesus. Surely they believed him. They’d already shown themselves capable of going to extreme lengths on his behalf.
Mark 14:32-42 doesn’t say Peter, James and John were reluctant to stay with him and keep watch. It says they couldn’t keep watch as Jesus asked them to do not once, but three times. Meanwhile, Jesus is left alone to face his coming betrayal.
In contrast, all nature (except human nature) was wide (wild!) awake that night. The only witnesses to Jesus’ agony, betrayal, trial, and eventually death on a cross outside the city of Jerusalem. The same city that welcomed him on the little donkey not a week earlier.
Mary suggests the stars and moon, trees and insects all kept watch that night. I like to think they offered some peace, perhaps even solace as he prayed, weeping and agonizing for all of us and for himself.
In the final stanza Mary offers grace to them, to herself and to us. The three disciples were “dear bodies” and “utterly human.” They weren’t deadly co-conspirators. They were human, just as we are. Weary.
Praying we’ll be as understanding about Jesus’ three companions as we are about ourselves, even as we lament Jesus’ coming betrayal by Judas, also one of his chosen disciples.
© Elouise Renich Fraser, 1 April 2021
Painting found at touchstonemag.com