It’s 7:03 a.m., and I’ve already hit snooze twice. The alarm buzzes again. As I try to rouse myself after another late night, the day’s tasks pour into my mind. My wife and I gear up to make breakfast for four hungry kids—one’s hollering from behind a closed door to be let out.
We’ve been in diapers for six years running at our house. Needless to say, sleep is a luxury. So why is it that I often wake up feeling guilty for sleeping? Maybe you’re not like me, but so often I feel like I should have redeemed the time I spent passed out in bed. I could have read something, answered emails, or ticked something off the infinite house chore list.
Our culture would appear to be brimming with people who survive on coffee alone, squeezing every ounce of productivity from the day. Shouldn’t I be one of them? Less sleep is more, I tell my weary bones morning after morning.
This Easter I pray that’s going to begin to change. This Easter, may Christ change the way I sleep.
Sleeping in the Shadow of Death.
What has Easter to do with sleep? Cultures have recognized the close relationship between sleep and death for millennia. Nas quips in his track “NY State of Mind” (1994), “I never sleep, cuz sleep is the cousin of death.” Homer and Virgil call sleep (hypnos) and death (thanatos) brothers. In the Bible, sleep is often a euphemism for death. The psalmist writes, “Light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death” (Ps. 13:3 ESV). Jesus himself made use of the poetic connection when speaking of Lazarus: “He went on to tell them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up’… then he told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead’” (John 11:11, 14).
The world is in denial about the final state of man apart from the Cross, so naturally it also resents death’s cousin. Congregationalist Horace Bushnell (1802–1876) commented, “It is even one of the saddest known facts of the world, that it sleeps badly…gnawed by care, racked by ambition, bittered by the gall of envy, sensual, selfish, fearful, hateful.” Perhaps this is one of the reasons pop culture tells us to party all night. No one wants to sleep when it means being left alone for eight restless hours in the claustrophobia of his or her sinful mind.
Moreover, the need for sleep is seen as a sign of weakness. Even Jesus pointed this out to his disciples in Gethsemane: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38, emphasis added). There was an urban legend while I was at Southern Seminary that our president Albert Mohler only slept four hours a night. Was it true? No matter; it was whispered from student to student with an air of aspirational zeal. If only we could all power through our own weak propensity for sleep, we too could accomplish more. And so, morning by morning, we woke feeling guilty for the few winks we’d stolen against our better judgment.
All of this baggage we bring to the Passion narrative as it begins on a sleepy Thursday night. We follow 12 shadows under a full moon as they bob slowly up the well-worn path to the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus and his disciples are headed to their favorite spot for late night prayer.
Literarily speaking, Gethsemane is the true climax of the Passion narrative in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. For a brief moment, we see the Incarnate Son alone with his Father. He prostrates himself begging, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). The stress drips through the text: “And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44).