In the little mill church where I grew up there always hung a very nice reproduction of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. You've probably seen it because for a while it was everywhere. In homes, in Sunday School classrooms and in those tiny leaflets they gave us at the end of that long Sunday School hour. But this particular picture hung back of the choir, directly over the pulpit on the back wall of my home church. Heinrich Hofmann painted this picture of Jesus kneeling in the Garden. It is said to be one of the most copied paintings in the world. The bearded Jesus kneels with his hands folded on a rock. His face is turned heavenward and a radiant light shines from above. In the background of the original painting three disciples sleep. Further away you can make out faintly the walls that surround the city of Jerusalem. But the central focus of this painting is Jesus kneeling in the darkness.
Sunday after Sunday I would make my way up the street of the cotton mill village where I lived. I would walk pass the mill, go two blocks and turn left. I would walk another short block until I came to the steps of my church with its tall white columns. I would enter the vestibule and slip into the Sanctuary always on the left side about half-way back. And I would look up, Sunday after Sunday at that painting--Jesus praying in the Garden. I remember that some Sundays after everyone had left the church making my way up through the choir loft and just standing and looking at the picture up close. I can even remember reaching out and gently touching the painting and marveling at its wonder and strange power.
All those years, hard cotton mill years--Jesus was there in the Garden. When the war came and I had nightmares about Hitler and the Japanese and somehow the Indians got mixed up in it all--Jesus prayed in the Garden. As a teenager there were Sundays when I would giggle so hard at nothing I would have to cram a handkerchief in my mouth and hide down low so the preacher would not see me. Jesus still prayed in the Garden. I remember weddings and funerals . I remember soldier boys from Fort Benning came to our church and became our friends and Jesus prayed in the Garden. I remember the day that FDR died up the road in the Little White House. I remember hearing a newspaper boy yelling: "A-Bomb dropped on Japan." It was there that I slowly grew up. Through those painful teenage years and wondering who I was really and what I would do. And through it all Jesus prayed in the Garden.
I was asked to go back and preach in my home church years and years later. I wondered what would be appropriate. And then it hit me, I would preach on Jesus kneeling in the Garden. And I told them that sunny Sunday morning that through it all Jesus knelt in the Garden.
Mattie Mae our oldest member was there and would die within a month. Tempie who began work in the mill at age nine and could not read or write was there. Bessie, our youth leader who scandalized everyone with a divorce came back. The first girl I kissed was there. And Mary Helen near blind told me later I could not see you but I heard you clearly. Scottie came on crutches and Estelle, my mother's best friend who lost a son my age, was there blinking back the tears. And that morning I told them that through it all--the good, the bad, the hard and the ugly Jesus knelt in the Garden.
Even after all these years I now know that through all my dangers, toils and snares--that Jesus knelt in the Garden for the likes of me. And in a week we call holy I bow my head and thank God that once upon a time Jesus really did kneel in the Garden for us all.