This is the week for keeping watch with Jesus in a special way. Although God calls us to spend time with Him in prayer daily, we rightly feel that we should spend extra time with Him during Holy Week. But how should we go about it?
When I was a teenager, my family started a tradition of an all-night prayer vigil on Holy Thursday. Beginning at 10 p.m., my parents, siblings, and I took turns praying in one or two one-hour slots for the next eight hours. I loved offering this extra sacrifice to Jesus, this extra sign of love. Jesus would not be alone in the Garden of Gethsemane if I could help it.
After I graduated from college, I spent two years as a lay missionary in Japan, teaching English to support the evangelization work of an American priest. During spring break of the first year, my roommate Mary Beth and I traveled to the island of Kyushu. We planned to be in Nagasaki for Easter.
In the land of the Japanese martyrs
On Holy Thursday we were in the resort town of Unzen. Known for its hot springs, in which the Japanese bathe for health, Unzen is also the site of mass martyrdoms in the 17th century. In one of the most heinous instances of torture in history, Japanese officials hung Catholics upside-down to slowly roast over the hot springs. They punctured holes in the martyrs’ foreheads, so that the rush of blood to their heads would not kill them prematurely.
Mary Beth and I had reservations at the youth hostel in Unzen. We asked a girl at the tourist information booth for directions by bus to our accommodations. She told us which bus number to take from the depot. Unfortunately, she forgot to mention that the bus lines ran both east and west from there. Too late we discovered we had gone the wrong direction.
We listened for the bus driver to call out the name of our stop, as the sky grew darker and every passenger but us got off the bus. Finally he stopped, and told us in Japanese that we were at the end of the line.
We realized then what had happened. We debarked, thinking we would just wait for the next bus going the other way. Then we looked at the bus schedule on the sign at the bus stop and discovered we had taken the last bus of the evening. So now we were stuck on the outskirts of town somewhere.
Stranded on Holy Thursday night
Not far from the bus stop was a small public park. We left our luggage there under a tree, which you can do in Japan without fear of anyone’s touching it. We explored the neighborhood. Houses occupied most of the streets. Then we saw a brick building with the word “Church” on it in English.
“I don’t care what kind of Protestant Church it is,” Mary Beth said. “I’m sure they’ll take us in.” I agreed. But as we approached the building, we read the full name: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. We kept walking.
Seeing no alternative, we decided to spend the night in the park. We bought snacks at a 24-hour convenience store and spent some time browsing and reading magazines. Then we returned to our luggage.
“It can’t get any worse.”
The park had two cement benches. As the night grew later and our eyes refused to stay open, we each took one bench and stretched out, trying to doze on the hard surface. And then, the old punchline happened. It started to rain.
We had our umbrellas ready. But it’s not easy to hold an umbrella and sleep at the same time. We sat for a while with the handles between our knees and the tops resting on our heads. But as the rain came down harder we looked for another option.
Next to the park stood a small apartment building with a covered porch. We lugged our suitcases over and sat with our backs against the wall. We didn’t really expect to sleep, but at least we could stay dry.
Then someone came out of the building. We kept our eyes closed, pretending to be asleep, as two male voices addressed us. Was someone going to kick the suspicious-looking foreigners off their property?
When they touched our shoulders, we had to look up. We saw two teenaged boys. They invited us inside, and since this was Japan, we accepted the invitation. The boys happily practiced English while we all drank tea. No adults were home. When the sun had risen, we thanked them and left, returning to the bus stop in time to catch the first bus of Good Friday.
Unexpected opportunities to watch with Christ
I didn’t plan an all-night vigil for Holy Week that year. But God did. Sometimes we plan our sacrifices. Other times, God surprises us.
Do you have plans for spending more time with Jesus this week? What if His plans are different from yours? Will you watch with Him in the trials He allows you to experience? Or will you be spiritually sleeping though them? Can you be His companion in unexpected moments, as well as scheduled ones?
We can watch with Jesus all day, as well as all night. We need to keep our eyes open, or we might not even know He is there. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
Watch and pray.