With Jesus in Gethsemane
All three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) give us a detailed account of Christ’s agony in the Garden of Olives, known in Hebrew as “Gethsemane”, which means “the garden of the oil press”. My purpose in this meditation is to select three passages from the Gospel narratives of Christ’s agony, quote the words in each case, and then apply the inspired words to ourselves. In each case there will be a brief subtitle.
Prayer Under Trial
And they came to a country place called Gethsemani, and he said to his disciples, “Sit down here, while I pray.” And he took with him Peter and James and John, and he began to feel dread and to be exceedingly troubled. And he said to them, “My soul is sad, even unto death. Wait here and watch….Watch and pray, that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
What do these inspired words from the event of Gethsemane tell us? They tell us several things. First of all, they show how truly human Jesus was. He dreaded the prospect, not so much of death itself, as of death under such circumstances: death through a gross miscarriage of justice; death at the hands of the very people He had done so much good for; death with such ignominy and disgrace. It is terrifying to talk to people, famous people, who have lost their reputation.
And Jesus dreaded the prospect of death for sins He had not personally committed but that others deserved to expiate themselves. And most mysterious of all, because He foresaw the future, He saw that not all whom He would suffer and die for would profit from His Passion. There is nothing more sad than wasted suffering.
These inspired words further tell us that Jesus suffered intensely, and that is why He prayed. Two words that never should have been separated since Gethsemane are suffering and prayer. The one for all times should evoke the other, should be almost a condition for the other.
Even as we say this, however, we have to carefully distinguish. We ask, “Did Jesus need to pray, so that unless He had prayed He would not have obtained the grace He needed to go through His Passion?” Emphatically, no! As the Son of God in human form, there could be no question of His having to ask for what He was already assured from the Father in virtue of the Incarnation. But, as on another dramatic occasion when at the tomb of Lazarus He prayed in order to teach the bystanders, this time He prays to teach the bystanders of all future history. He wants to make it clear that we are always to pray, but especially when we are in trial or under duress or under temptation; when faced with a problem or confronted with a difficulty; when oppressed by sorrow, crushed by some injury, or saddened by misfortune. We can safely say that God sends us sorrow, trial, and difficulty in order that we might pray.
By and large, people who have never been sick or never seriously disappointed, those who have never failed in enterprises they had undertaken but see everything they touched seem to turn to gold-with some notable exceptions, those people forget God. How wise God is! And if we sometimes wonder why we have whatever trials the Lord sends us, here is a reason: it is His way of flashing a big, red neon sign, “Pray! Will you please turn to me!” It is God’s way of arousing us from the stupor of our self-conceit.
Moreover, the Savior’s exhortation to the disciples is not as obvious as it may at first seem. It is meant for all of us: “Watch and pray, that you may not enter into temptation.” Now he does not mean that if we watch and pray we will not have temptation; that is too obvious. He means, rather, “Watch and pray that you may cope successfully with temptation.”
Notice however, that the Master (that means Teacher) says not only “Pray” but “Watch and pray”. What does He mean? He means that to cope successfully with temptation, we must do two things. First, we must watch, do our part, that is, be prudent; anticipate, watch out; be careful not to expose ourselves unnecessarily to temptation; avoid the occasions of sin. Remember the teaching of the Catechism? Human nature has not changed. We must not dally with a temptation or admire a temptation: “What a nice looking thing you are!” First, then, watch.
Second, pray. Ask God for light and strength to meet the trial you are undergoing. Why ask God for both light and strength? Because we need both. When tried or tempted, it is not only willpower that we need to overcome temptation. For example, we are tempted to resentment. We need light to find out why we are resentful. It may be very obvious-“I envy her. I’m sorry that she is 20 years younger than me!” You can’t do a thing about it! Or unchastity. The eyes are the window of the soul. No one remains chaste unless they keep modesty of the eyes, and that is not a pious phrase. Or with a temptation to laziness or pride. We first need light. We denote that this is a temptation. The more pious people are, the more pious the temptations will be-more holy water, more holy pictures, and all the trimmings of spirituality. We also need light to know how to deal with a temptation. Pray, first for light.
We also need prayer to then have the willpower to especially withstand recurring temptation, and I would say especially temptation to discouragement and sadness. The spiritual masters are surely right when they say that the single most devastating solvent of the highest spiritual ambitions is discouragement. And in a way it adds up. The more we know about the spiritual life as we read the lives of the saints and of the great heroes and heroines of sanctity, we look at “poor me”, and we’re scared. Who wouldn’t be? Two pages of John of the Cross is enough to paralyze anyone with fear. We need strength, being sure, however, that provided we first watch, God will not tempt us beyond our strength.
Before I leave this, I want to add one more important item. It deserves repetition. Whatever the trial or seduction may be, whether it is inside of us, or from the evil spirit or the world, does it necessarily mean that the moment we are tempted we have all the grace we need to overcome the temptation? No. That can be scary, because it means that we certainly must imitate Jesus in the way He prayed. This is the one time we are told that Jesus went down on His knees, which tells us what to do. We must get down on our knees, in spirit first and then in body, to obtain the additional strength we need. That little nuance can save more than one soul: we do not have the assurance of the grace we need when we meet a temptation. We don’t-unless we pray when we are tempted.
…And he himself withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and kneeling down, he began to pray, saying, “Father, if thou are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but thine be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven to strengthen him. And falling into an agony he prayed the more earnestly. There is no single passage in the New Testament that more acutely depicts how truly human Jesus was. We touch here on insoluble mystery. The mystery is this: since Christ was human indeed, but also true God, how could He have suffered the way He did? Why should there have been, as Saint Luke calls it, “an agony”? “Agonia” in Greek is the strongest term which that richest of all human vocabularies had for “struggle”.
Was He struggling with the Will of His Father? It seems impossible that Christ could have, for even a moment, doubted or debated whether He should go through with the Passion. It was impossible; and that was not the agony. It was an agony all right, but it was a conflict with His indeliberate natural human feelings-not rebelling, but manifesting the natural repugnance of human nature to pain, and not just pain in the body. Hence, the beautiful prayer which completes the sentence, “Yet not my Will but thine be done”.
What will did Jesus refer to when He said, “my will”? It was His human will as man. What will was Jesus referring to when He said “thine be done”? It was the divine will of His Father. How grateful we are for this momentary insight into Christ’s perfect humanity.
God tries different people in different ways. By the way, we must never wish that we were someone else-little do we know! But those whom God most loves, He most tries. That is a divine aphorism. And it is in this context that we are consoled to realize that sometimes doing God’s will is not easy. Perhaps we should qualify that “sometimes”. Sometimes God’s will is not pleasant, not appealing; it may even be positively repugnant to our nature. But so what! That has absolutely nothing to do with doing God’s will. No need to worry. The essence of holiness is in the will. People who feel holy, aren’t. The heart of Christian virtue is in our free wills. Provided we want to do God’s will and freely choose to do so, it does not matter how we feel; in fact, the very repugnance in our feelings adds to our merit.
This bears far more emphasis than many otherwise good writers on the spiritual life give it, namely, that we please God and grow in His love often in spite of desolation and dryness. Nor should we make the mistake of somehow equating the service of God with consolations or spiritual enjoyment. Don’t misunderstand me. There is and always will be a deep down interior peace, but so deep down you have to look and peer-“Where is it?”
Finally, The Bloody Sweat. “…and his sweat became as drops of blood running down upon the ground.” This short sentence has been commented on now in thousands of pages over the centuries and will receive exegetical and mystical commentary until the end of time. It has challenged the Church’s scholars and inspired her saints.
The bloody sweat of Jesus in the Garden of Olives reveals, in the words of the physician Luke, the intensity of Christ’s agony. Known to medical science, it is the most extreme form of suffering of which a human being is capable. The bloody sweat was induced by interior suffering, which is always the worst. Animals can have pain, but it is all in their bodies. Strictly speaking, only the human spirit can suffer because, even when the pain is bodily-caused, it is the soul that experiences the pain. But when the source of the suffering is from within, this is the acme of human endurance.
We are bidden by Saint Paul to join our sufferings to add, supplement, the sufferings of Christ for the redemption of the world -mysterious words. Among these sufferings that we are bidden to share with the Savior, let us be sure we include the spiritual tribulations to which human nature is always subject. The more sensitive the nature, the more intense the suffering, and today it is raised to an acute degree.
Think of the sorrow of parents seeing their children lose the Faith in which they were reared. “Why did I bring him or her into the world, when from all appearances their souls are estranged from God?” mothers will ask. Think of the sorrow of a husband over his wife’s infidelities-pure suffering, because he loves her, but evidently she does not love him; or a wife’s sadness at her husband’s drunkenness or debauchery or sheer irresponsibility.
Think of the sorrow in so many Catholic hearts today, seeing their priests unfaithful to their calling. Sometimes as I stand at the altar, I think to myself for just a moment, “How is it possible for a human being who believes what he is-a priest of God!-to give this up? For what? Or think of the anguish of the faithful at seeing so many religious turn their backs on the Spouse to whom they had vowed themselves until death.”
Think of the sorrow of uncertainty, and that caused by the betrayal of friends. Think of the sorrow of millions of our fellows Christians, suffering persecution for the Name of Jesus. Add to all these sufferings all that we know from experience, and we begin to better understand why Jesus sweat blood. He foresaw all the sins of all mankind from the dawn of history to the end of time.
Let us not forget that the Precious Blood that poured out of the skin of Christ was the blood of the Son of God. It was hypostatically united to the Word of God. Every single drop of that blood was adorable; it was united to the divinity. And it is this blood that, because of the miracle of the Holy Eucharist, we are privileged to worship today on our altars and at Communion receive into our veins.
I would like to close with just a few invocations from the Litany of the Precious Blood. They bring out the Church’s clear understanding of what this blood that Jesus poured out of His body really means. In the mind of the Church, the blood of Christ stands for the Incarnate Son of God, suffering for our sins.
Blood of Christ, only begotten Son of the Eternal Father, save us.
Blood of Christ, Incarnate Word of God, save us.
Blood of Christ, of the New and Eternal Testament, save us.
Blood of Christ, falling upon the earth in the agony, save us.Almighty and Eternal God, you have appointed your only begotten Son the Redeemer of the world and willed to be appeased by His blood. Grant, we beg of you, that we may worthily adore this price of our salvation, and through its power be safeguarded from the evils of this present life, so that we may rejoice in its fruits forever in Heaven, through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
transcription from a retreat that Father Hardon gave to the Handmaids of the Precious Blood