Ashley Makar poignantly reflects on how her cancer diagnosis changed her perspective on the story of Jesus and his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane:
I used to identify with the disciples in this Bible story. By the time they got to the Garden of Gethsemane, they’d followed Jesus all over Galilee, healing the sick and feeding the hungry, standing up to the Pharisees. They were on the run from the Roman authorities, and they must have been exhausted, collapsed at the feet of the olive trees. But Jesus wouldn’t give his friends a break. Watch and pray with me, he said, demanding vigilance, when I imagine they could hardly keep their eyes open. For years I’ve wanted to talk back to Jesus on behalf of the disciples: Let them have a nap, I’ve wanted to say. And stop making me feel guilty about all the times I’m too tired to be vigilant in the face of others’ pain.
I’m still a sleeping disciple, prone to compassion fatigue, much of the time. But since my cancer diagnosis, I’m beginning to empathize with Jesus at Gethsemane: Just as he’d gotten his life’s work going, just as he was planting the seeds of a new society, just as he was gaining followers willing to give up everything for justice and love, he found out he was probably going to die, at the age of 33. I can imagine Jesus, dashing his knee on the rocky grounds of Gethsemane, the garden it could be—the Kingdom of God on earth—if only he didn’t have to die early.
Just as I’d begun following my vocation to work with refugees, just as I was finding ways to write about God, just as I’d begun living into beloved community, I found out I have incurable cancer, at the age of 33. My life’s work would only be a drop in the bucket of the radical transformation Jesus was trying to make of the world. And I won’t suffer like he did: Cancer is no crucifixion. But sometimes I stomp my feet on the ground of all I feel is being taken from me.
(Image: Agony in the Garden by Andrea Mantegna, 1460, via Wikimedia Commons)