The Agony in the Garden, the First Sorrowful Mystery, is a painful scene in the Passion of Christ, but in each of the Synoptic Gospels the Apostles slept through it.
It seems so long ago now, but a few years back I wrote a post that stunned some TSW readers out of the doldrums of a long nap in the Garden of Gethsemane where, sooner or later, we will all spend some time. That post was “Pentecost, Priesthood, and Death in the Afternoon.”
It was about one of our friends, a middle-aged prisoner named Anthony, and his discovery of having terminal cancer. Anthony was one of the most irritating and obnoxious individuals I had ever met. He was the only prisoner I have ever thrown out of my cell with a demand that he never return. Very few people have had that kind of effect on me, but Anthony was masterful at it.
But then Anthony discovered that he was dying. As an unintended result of our “falling out” he believed that he could not come to me. He was Pornchai Moontri’s friend but the story of his impending doom was my comeuppance. I cannot forget the day that Pornchai told me, “You have to help Anthony. He is going to die and he doesn’t know how.” After a long sleep when the priest in me had succumbed too much to the prisoner, that was my awakening in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Over the next 18 months, Pornchai and I took care of Anthony for as long as we possibly could before handing him over to the prison version of hospice from where we would never see him again. But before that happened, Anthony became a Catholic, was received into the Church, and had a transformation of spirit that, in the midst of death, proclaimed an incomparable stress on life.
Pornchai and I were eyewitnesses to how all the things that once took priority in Anthony’s life just fell away. He became, in the end, like “Dismas, Crucified to the Right” of the Lamb of God. It seemed so ironic that it was his impending death that opened up for Anthony a world of faith, hope and trust that overcame all other forces at work in his life. In the end, I no longer, recognized the man I had once so disdained.
Not long after leaving us, Anthony died in the prison’s medical center where a small group of hospice volunteers took turns being with him around the clock. I once wrote of Anthony’s death, and of an event that shook our world back then, but it’s a story worth telling again. I told it at a brief memorial service for Anthony that was attended by about sixty prisoners, twice the normal for such things.
At the service in the prison chapel, those attending were invited to speak. So Pornchai nudged me and said, “Tell them about the book.” I told those in attendance that Anthony left this world having committed a second crime against the State of New Hampshire: an unreturned library book. The rest of the story generated a collective gasp.
The Library where I work has a computer system that tracks the 22,000 volumes from which prisoners can select and check out books. When a prisoner is released from prison without returning a book, an alert would come across the screen a week later to give us a last chance to find and retrieve a book left behind.
I had no knowledge that Anthony ever checked a book out of the Library. I never saw him there, and he never asked me for a book. But a week after he died, this appeared on my screen:
“Anthony Begin #76810 – Gone/Released – Heaven Is for Real.”
THE AGONY IN THE GARDEN
Heaven is for real, but for it to be a reality for us required an Exodus from the slavery of sin and death. That second Exodus commenced in the Garden of Gethsemane, and in the course of it, God exacted from Himself the same price – the death of His Son – that he imposed upon Pharaoh to bring about the first Exodus.
The Biblical account of Jesus and His Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane opens the Passion Narrative of the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In the Gospel of John (18:1), the place is simply referred to as “across the Kidron Valley where there is a garden.” John, writing from a different tradition, cites only the betrayal by Judas there whereas the other Gospels precede that betrayal with the agony of Jesus at prayer.
Almost immediately preceding this in each of the Synoptic Gospels was the Institution of the Eucharist at what has been famously depicted by Leonardo Da Vinci as The Last Supper. This was the decisive turning point in Salvation History:
“Drink of it, all of you, for this is the blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink of it anew with you in my Father’s Kingdom.” (Matthew 26: 28-29)
Following this in the account of Saint Luke, Jesus addresses Peter about the spiritual warfare that is to come:
“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.’ And [Peter] said to him, ‘Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.’” (Luke 22:31-34)
Peter’s “readiness” for prison and for death will soon become an issue. From here the scene moves to the Mount of Olives where Jesus went to pray “as was His custom” (Luke 22:39)
Only the Gospels of Matthew and Mark name the place “Gethsemane.” Once there, Jesus withdrew from His disciples to pray. As you already know, the suffering and death he now faced would be set in motion by the betrayal of Judas who provided “the more opportune time” that Satan awaited when the Temptation of Christ in the desert failed (Luke 4:13), a scene depicted in “Forty Days of Lent in a Church Wandering in the Desert.”
Jesus, fully human in his suffering by God’s design, recoils not only from the image of suffering he knows to be upon Him, but also by the weight of the Apostolic betrayal just moments away. The betrayal by Judas is intensified by the dreadful weight of humanity’s sin for which Jesus is offered up as the Scapegoat – the Sacrificial Lamb of God – for the sins of all humanity.
For Hebrew ears, the account of Jesus at Gethsemane is a mirror image in reverse of a scene that occurred at this very same site 1,000 years earlier. It was a story not of a son obedient unto death, but of a son who betrayed his father. It was the agony of King David and his flight from his son, Absolom, and his traitorous revolt. As David learned that his trusted counselor, Ahithophel, had betrayed him in league with Absolom…
“David went up the ascent of the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went, with his head covered and walking barefoot, and all the people who were with him covered their heads and went up, weeping as they went. David was told that Ahithophel was one of the conspirators with Absolom.” (2 Samuel 15:30-31).
And, as with Judas 1,000 years later, Ahithophel hanged himself when the consequences of his betrayal weighed upon him.
In Saint Matthew’s account of the Gethsemane scene (26:37), Jesus left His disciples and brought Peter, James and John with Him to the place of prayer. Note that Peter, James and John witnessed Jesus raise the daughter of Jairus from death (Mark 5:37) and they were also witnesses to His Transfiguration in the presence of Moses and Elijah that I wrote of during this Lent in “Turmoil in Rome and the Transfiguration of Christ.”
In the Gospel of Luke (22:31ff) Jesus is alone and apart from the others as He prays in agony in the face of death: “Father if you are willing, remove this chalice from me; nevertheless not my will but yours be done.” I cannot tell you how often I have prayed that same prayer in the last 25 years. I pray it still.
In the Gospel, God answers the prayer of Jesus, not by removing the suffering, for His suffering is to be our Exodus, but by strengthening Him to endure it. And He will endure it unto death:
“There appeared to him an angel from heaven to strengthen him. And being in agony, he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down upon the ground.” (Luke 22:43)
In each of the Gospel accounts, Jesus returned to His disciples to discover that they have all slept through His agony. None were there to console Him except the angel sent from heaven while humanity slept.
CONSOLING THE HEART OF JESUS
The Gospel of Saint Mark presents a more vivid account of the inner suffering that betrayal and death brought to the heart of Jesus. Mark describes that Jesus “began to be greatly distressed and troubled” (Mark 14:33). The Greek of Mark’s Gospel used the terms ἐκθαμβεῖσθαι and ἀδημονεῖν which vividly express in Greek the depth of distress and anxiety that came upon Him. The comfort the angel brings is reminiscent of Psalm 42:
“Why are you cast down O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” (Psalm 42:12)
The coming betrayal by Judas marks the climax of the ministry of Jesus who has left hints throughout the Gospel of Mark:
“And he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly.” (Mark 8:31)
“The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” (Mark 9:31)
“Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles, and they will mock him, and spit on him, and scourge him, and kill him, and after three days he will rise.” (Mark 10:33-34)
So how do we, His disciples by Baptism and by the fidelity we claim, how do we console the heart of Jesus at Gethsemane? For the answer, I am indebted to Father Michael Gaitley, M.I.C. for his profound book, Consoling the Heart of Jesus which was the text for a six-week course offered here by the Marians of the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy.
Like many, I believe I learn the most from Sacred Scripture when the circumstances of my life force me to live it. So picking up this book for the first time, I asked myself, “How can I console Jesus, who is happy in Heaven, while I am stuck in this hellhole called prison?” That’s what Pornchai Moontri called it in these pages in his post, “Imprisoned by Walls, Set Free by Wood.”
Father Gaitley has an answer called “Retroactive Consolation” that comes from the theology of Pope Pius XI and the Dominican theologian, Réginald Marie Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. who Father Gaitley quotes:
“During his earthly life and particularly while in Gethsemane, Jesus suffered from all future acts of profanation and ingratitude. He knew them in detail with a superior intuition that governed all times… Thus his suffering encompassed the present instant and extended to future centuries. “‘This drop of blood I shed for you.” So in the Garden of Olives, Jesus suffered for all, and for each of us in particular.” (Consoling the Heart of Jesus, P. 394).
So, if His suffering is projected into the future, how can our consolation of Him at Gethsemane become retroactive into the past? What will awaken us from our sleep in the Garden of Gethsemane? Jesus Himself provides that answer, and it has something to do with our story about Anthony that began this post. It is laid out powerfully in the Gospel of Matthew:
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and care for you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:37-40)
Now, “Arise. Let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.” (Matthew 26:46)
Editor’s Note: Please share this Holy Week post with your contacts on Facebook and other social media. To prepare for a meaningful Holy Week and Easter, you may also like these other posts from along the Way of the Cross at These Stone Walls:
- Judas Iscariot: Who Prays for the Soul of the Betrayer?
- The Chief Priests Answered, ‘We Have No King but Caesar’
- Behold the Man, as Pilate Washes His Hands
- Simon of Cyrene at Calvary: Compelled to Carry the Cross
- Dismas, Crucified to the Right: Paradise Lost and Found
- Mary Magdalene: Faith, Courage, and an Empty Tomb