As we draw nearer to Holy Week, I’m thinking of one of the most poignant events in the story of our salvation: the Agony in the Garden. It marks the beginning of the Passion and death of Christ, the first step Christ takes on the road to Calvary. It reveals much about Jesus, especially how alone he is in his suffering and how human he is.
Thinking about Gethsemane helps me to observe Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday with more understanding.
When he is in Gethsemane, Jesus has not yet been physically assaulted. The brutal attacks on his body, with their unimaginable pain, are yet to come. But the mental and spiritual suffering of the Passion begin in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was there that Christ wrestled with his determination to do the will of the Father and his horror of what that would cost. The Gospel of Luke tells us that an angel came to strengthen him, but of human consolation he had none. The only friends he brought with him had fallen asleep.
St. Mark names Peter, James and John as the Apostles whom Jesus brought into the garden. He was depending on their prayers in that dark hour. When Jesus found them sleeping, he asked, “Could you not watch one hour with me?” I ask myself what I would have done if I had been there. I am sure that I, too, would have fallen asleep. And I think about the times when I was too busy or too preoccupied or too tired to pray, or to do something for someone else in Jesus’ name.
Though centuries have passed since Jesus prayed in anguish in Gethsemane, it is still possible to support him—to “watch one hour”—through prayer or works of charity.
Jesus did not seek suffering; he did not want to undergo his Passion. He prayed, “Father if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.” It seems to me an urgent plea. Jesus, like all the Jews of his era, knew how the Romans punished those they deemed criminals. He knew what he was facing.
He begged his Father to deliver him from it. The answer was silence.
When I face something difficult that I don’t want to do, I tell myself, “There’s no way out but through.” I try to accept whatever it is I have to do, and do it. Thinking about Gethsemane, I wonder what it was like for Jesus to ask his Father for deliverance and to be denied. I try to imagine how profound the love was that enabled Jesus to submit his will to the Father’s and go forward into the horror of his Passion, for me and for everyone who ever lived, or ever will live.
Before Christ’s sacrifice, all of us were in a “no way out” situation. The sin of Adam and Eve had broken their union with God, and ours too, as their descendants. The hope of salvation was gone, and there was nothing that they, or we, could do to restore it. Only God could do that.
Jesus left Gethsemane and went on to Calvary and his agonizing death to secure for us the way out of sin, the way to God, the way back to God’s grace. We who had no way out were saved because Jesus, who could have taken a way out, accepted his Passion and won our spiritual freedom.
The events that we commemorate on Good Friday are painful to think about. It helps me to remind myself that Jesus suffered willingly, out of love for me and for every other person. I know that I need to keep that love always in mind, and to return it as best I can. One way is by loving others, even those I find it hard to love. I remind myself that Jesus hung on the cross in bitter agony for three hours because he could not bear the thought of eternity without me. Or without them.