My favorite mystery of the rosary has always been The Agony in the Garden. It returns me to those Holy Thursday evenings of my youth. After the celebration of the Holy Thursday liturgy we would return to the church between the hours of nine and midnight to “watch one hour with me.” (Matthew 26:40, Mark 14:37). The understanding of my child’s heart was that we were really there with Jesus during his time of agony in Gethsamane, and that my being there mattered to him. Perhaps I had lost that sure sense from my childhood a bit. But when I first began to recognize how true is it that God is outside of time, that awareness returned in a single moment one day while praying the Rosary and meditating on the Agony. Like a lightning bolt, the question was there – Jesus, do you really know I am here? All of those centuries ago during your passion – do you know that I am here today, now, watching and waiting with you? And the answer is yes he does. And that strong sense has never again left me.
I’ve mentioned that because we live in a very Protestant culture, we can often absorb thoughts and ideas that aren’t Catholic without realizing it. One is the idea that somehow Christ dies “all alone.” This can be dramatically portrayed in songs by Protestant composers that are embraced – “why must he suffer and die all alone?” But in reality, Christ doesn’t die all alone. It is true that many of his dearest and closest companions abandon him. Christ foretells that at the Last Supper when he tells the apostles they will scatter, “yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me.” (John 16:32). Not only does the Father not abandon Christ, we also see at the foot of the cross Mary, many of the other women who had followed him, and St. John the apostle. What an insult to our Blessed Mother when we profess that Christ had to die all alone! Her faithfulness to him never wavered.
It is also important for us to both understand and remember that we don’t leave him to die all alone either. Many of our great saints have understood that through the mystery of the timelessness of God we can console Christ during his passion. We see this in the writings of St. Faustina, and so in the Divine Mercy novena we pray “Today bring to Me all Devout and Faithful Souls, and immerse them in the ocean of My mercy. These souls brought me consolation on the Way of the Cross. They were a drop of consolation in the midst of an ocean of bitterness.” While the Divine Mercy meditation is based upon private devotion, we also see this truth expressed by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical “Mystici Corporis Christi.” He writes that “In the crib, on the Cross, in the unending glory of the Father, Christ has all the members of the Church present before Him and united to Him in a much clearer and more loving manner than that of a mother who clasps her child to her breast, or than that with which a man knows and loves himself.” Christ does not die all alone. He is comforted by not only the presence of His Father, but his mother Mary and those handful of devout souls who made it to the cross. And they stand there along with us, the Church.
So why in the garden do we see Christ in agony? One of the arguments I have seen to try to prove the idea that the Father is going to turn his back on the son is found in his agony in the garden. The point is made that we see great saints who were martyred going to meet their death with great joy. Christ’s fear by comparison at meeting death must hold something much more terrible than simply his physical suffering. And they conclude the only thing that could possibly cause him such agony is knowing he will be abandoned by his father.
“Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me.” (John 16:32). These words of Christ’s compel us to not accept an understanding that his fear is rooted in any such thought that the Father is going to leave him during his passion. So why is his agony in the garden so profound that he even sweats blood? (Luke 22:44)
The catechism in paragraph 612 offers this brief insight – “he expresses the horror that death represented for his human nature.” We can turn to the writings of the early church fathers to perhaps help us better understand that horror. Over the centuries many have meditated on this time of Christ’s life and united themselves to him at this moment of his passion.
One thing to carefully note is that Sacred Scripture does not say that Jesus is “fearful.” It says he is “sorrowful.” “And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zeb′edee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.’” (Matthew 26:37-38). But we are not specifically told in Sacred Scripture the reason for his deep sorrow.
Two thoughts emerge from the writings of the early Church on the reason for his deep sorrow, and they are not mutually exclusive but can be seen as complimentary to one another. The first is his horror not of what will happen to him, but rather of what his creatures are capable of doing. The betrayal of Judas yet to come. The brutality of the temple guards as they torture him. Those who will mock him as he hangs on the cross dying. His sorrow can be seen in knowing that for some, his suffering will be in vain. Christ lamented over Jerusalem “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Matthew 23:37). Though his suffering will be for all people, Christ knows that some still will be lost, and it is certainly possible this is part of his deep sorrow.
But that does not necessarily explain why Christ asks for this cup to be removed from him (Matthew 26:39, Mark 14:36, Luke 22:42). Another insight of the early Church may shed some light on this. They recognized that Christ’s suffering does not eliminate suffering from the lives of his followers. It does redeem suffering, and when united to his it is transformed into a deep mystery of grace and power. But in the eternal mystery of the plan of salvation, the suffering of those he loves is not eliminated, and often because of their union with him it is increased. While he chastises Peter for not being able to stay awake and watch with him, he also knows that Peter will one day meet his own merciless fate on a cross.
The conclusion of Pope Leo XII is that “It was not for Himself that He prayed thus, for He feared nothing and needed nothing, being God; He prayed for us, for His Church, whose prayers and future tears He already then accepted with joy, to give them back in mercies.” St. Hilary of Poitiers professes this understanding as well – “His whole fear then is for those who were to suffer, and therefore He prays for those who were to suffer after Him, saying, ‘Let this cup pass from me.’” But he concludes with “He says, ‘Not as I will, but as thou wilt,’ because it is the Father’s will that strength to drink of the cup should pass from Him to them, that the Devil might be vanquished not so much by Christ as by His disciples also.”
What a profound insight — Christ’s request that the cup be removed from him was so that we should also not have to drink of it. Yet the Father’s answer was rather than we should be given the strength to drink it. We see St. Paul reflect this reality that we participate in the battle against Satan when he writes to the Romans that “I would have you wise as to what is good and guileless as to what is evil; then the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” (Romans 16:19-20) Everything Christ does for us, he also does with us. He recognizes by accepting the cross as the Father’s will he is not just accepting it for himself but for all who are called to be his disciples and take up their cross and follow him (Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 14:27). And this could certainly help us to understand why he experienced such deep sorrow at the thought of his passion.
We may never completely understand the depth or reasons for Christ’s sorrow in the garden but we can spend a lifetime in uniting our heart to his in that time and place. What we can be assured of however is that he is confident of the love of his Father as he moves on into his passion – “yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me.” (John 16:32)
So how do we reconcile Christ’s cry from the cross with an understanding that the Father in no way ever abandoned the Son or turned his back on Him? I’ll explore that in my next post.