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Agony and Absence in the Garden of Gethsemane

March 31, 2021


It has been my privilege to have made two memorable visits to the Holy Land. Each visit, each place I went, left its mark on my faith, but in both cases, the greatest impact and spiritual intensity came during visits to the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem. During my first visit with a group of priests, we spent a holy hour of prayer inside the Church of All Nations. There, before the altar, is the rock on which Jesus fell and endured his agony in the garden on the night before he died. There, according to the Gospels, the Lord asked his closest friends to pray with him as his soul became “sorrowful unto death” (Matt. 26:38). It was here that Jesus experienced that terrible loneliness and the anguish of the human condition. These were my thoughts during that holy hour.

My second encounter with Gethsemane was in the company of a group of pilgrims from my parish. We celebrated Mass in the same chapel, and during my homily on the Gospel account of Jesus’ agony in that place, I noticed a lady in our group who was weeping. After Mass, I approached her to see what was the matter. She told me that her son had tried to take his own life earlier that year after a long struggle with depression and mental illness. Her tears flowed because of the hope that Jesus brought to her and her son by the fact that he, too, suffered silent and inward torment of the mind. In my first visit to the Garden of Gethsemane, it was the vertical experience of Jesus’ agony as Son of God that stood out; in the second visit, thanks to the story of this woman and her son, it was the horizontal experience of Jesus as the Son of Man that moved me. Here I share a few thoughts on both the vertical and horizontal implications of the agony of Jesus in the garden where his Passion began.

The Vertical

St. Paul teaches us that in order to save and redeem us, God made Jesus “to be sin who knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21). Now if sin is alienation from God, this means that Jesus had to experience the terrible anguish of moving into the space of sinners and into the space of godforsakenness. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, in his masterful commentary on this mystery, when Jesus’ agony in the garden began, “the full power of the abyss of destruction, evil and enmity with God is now unleashed upon him. . . . He experiences deeply all the horror, filth and baseness that he must drink from the chalice prepared for him, the vast power of sin and death” (Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, 155).

On that night, the prophecy of Isaiah was fulfilled when the soul of the innocent Lamb was “crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole” (Is. 53:5). St Peter, who was with him that fateful night, later reflected that Jesus “bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet. 2:24). Yet before he was crucified and before ever a blow was struck on his body by the soon arriving soldiers, Jesus began his Passion here as his soul and mind were plunged into distress by the prospect of his horrific death. Throughout his life, Jesus trusted the Father completely. He understood that he had been sent by the Father not to condemn the world but to save the world. But now, Jesus’ obedience to the Father had brought him to a dark place. In his agony, he cried out, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” But even in the intensity of his distress and fear of suffering, his obedience to the Father’s will still came first: “Yet not what I want but what you want” (Matt. 26:39). Here Jesus shows us the way of complete abandonment to God’s providence. Faced with death, the Lord continued to trust that this was part of the Father’s plan for his saving mission and that because of his obedience and even in the face of imminent death, God’s plan of salvation for the world would still be accomplished.

Can we, like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, submit to doing God’s will even in the midst of suffering? If the answer is “Yes,” then we unite ourselves intimately by faith to Jesus and the power of his Resurrection.

The Horizontal

Then there is the horizontal dimension of this first sorrowful mystery where Jesus entered the dark space of all who suffer emotional, mental, and spiritual pain. The mother’s tears over her son brought me closer to this truth, as did Pope Benedict XVI, who points out that in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was exercising his priesthood by interceding for all humanity before the Father: “In the garden, Jesus takes up the cause of all who are struck down in the course of history. . . . It is through his cries, his tears and his prayers that Jesus does what the high priest is meant to do: he holds up to God the anguish of human existence. He brings man before God” (Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, 150, 163-164).

So who are those Jesus brought before God in his anguish when his soul became “sorrowful unto death” (Matt. 26:38)? Who are those he continues to hold up to God today in loving mercy? After the Mass in the Church of All Nations, I thought of the mother’s son who tried to take his own life. To him and others who are struggling to live, the Son of Man draws close as a brother and friend.

To those trapped in the slavery of addiction who can see no way out, Jesus goes to them and assures them: “I am your freedom and hope.”

To those whose self-esteem and confidence have been crushed or destroyed, the Lord comes with his assuring words: “I love you, and I am here to heal you.”

To those who suffer from loneliness and isolation, Jesus enters their space and says to them: “Think of my agony in the garden. I know what it is to be lonely. Courage, it is I. You are not alone.”

Because of his agony in the garden, Jesus understands those feeling disconnected, having experienced Peter, James, and John falling asleep and then his disciples running away when he was arrested and needed them most. Because of his agony in the garden, I believe that the Lord Jesus is moved with pity for people who suffer from sleepless nights, depression, grief, fear, or any kind of emotional pain. In his love and solidarity with us, he takes all these experiences and brings them into the heart of God, into the life of the Holy Trinity, where they are transformed and redeemed.

I often watch the faces of the people who walk along the streets of our cities. And as I do so, I cannot help but notice people who look sad and unhappy. As we approach the Triduum, and listen once more to the Gospel accounts of the agony of Jesus in the garden, or as we pray the first sorrowful mystery of the rosary, may we ponder the love of God that descended into the sadness of the human mind in order to reach those in the darkest of places.

When the shadows fall on our spirits and we are fearful of danger, may we abandon ourselves to God’s providence with Jesus and pray that the Father’s will be done. And may this first sorrowful mystery bring hope to the millions of people who suffer silently and internally every day.