Let’s begin praying with a reading from the Holy Gospel according to Matthew. Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to feel sorrow and distress. Then he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch with me.” He advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.” When he returned to his disciples he found them asleep. He said to Peter, “So you could not keep watch with me for one hour? Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Withdrawing a second time, he prayed again, “My Father, if it is not possible that this cup pass without my drinking it, your will be done!” Then he returned once more and found them asleep, for they could not keep their eyes open. He left them and withdrew again and prayed a third time, saying the same thing again. Then he returned to his disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Behold, the hour is at hand when the Son of Man is to be handed over to sinners. Get up, let us go. Look, my betrayer is at hand.” The Gospel of the Lord.
During this season of Lent, when praying the Sorrowful Mysteries, I’ve been thinking about the first Mystery: Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he died. It struck me that he must have been feeling weighed down by three strong emotions that all of us experience at times in our lives; maybe even more so now in this time of crisis in our Church: fear, loneliness, and a sense of failure.
So powerful were those feelings that, as the Gospel of Luke tells us, “His sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground” (Lk 22:44).
That’s not a figurative description, it’s actually a medical condition: Under severe emotional stress, the small capillaries can become so filled with blood that they burst, allowing blood to seep into the sweat glands. Knowing what was ahead of him, it’s understandable that Jesus – in his human nature – would be overwhelmed by his emotions. Luke’s description of this scene, by placing us in the middle of this most private time of Jesus, invites us to engage in deeper reflection and consider times when we, too, have given in to our feelings.
When Matthew describes this scene as was just read, he says that Jesus “began to feel sorrow and distress” (26:37). But I think that, even before those, his first emotion would have been fear. Like all Jews at that time, Jesus was all too familiar with the very public Roman way of execution: death by crucifixion.
It was an incredibly cruel and brutal manner of putting someone to death. First, there was the scourging of the body with whips that tore the flesh and weakened the victim, then forcing the criminal to carry his own cross through the streets of the city, despite the loss of blood. Finally, the criminal was fastened to that cross, forced to hang there until his legs could no longer hold him up. Unable to breathe, the victim slowly died of asphyxiation. The soul of Jesus must have been shrinking with fear as he thought of facing those terrible physical tortures.
But Jesus didn’t allow his fear to turn him from his mission, which included his passion and death. Instead, he made the decision with seven simple words: “Not my will, but yours be done!”
We’ve all experienced fear and anxiety: taking a wrong road at night and losing our way; worrying when we or our loved ones have a serious illness or accident; feeling anxious about losing our job; fearing not being accepted by our peers. But the word of God constantly challenges us to look beyond our fear and anxiety. I once heard a Scripture scholar say that the words “fear not” or “do not be afraid” appear in the Bible 365 times—once for each day of the year!
But that doesn’t mean that we won’t experience these emotions or that we should run away from them: Because we are fragile human beings, because of the many dangers in the world around us, because of all the uncertainty, it’s just impossible to be free of all fear and anxiety. Both are normal and natural responses to threats or danger and, under many conditions, they’re there to protect us from harm, the classic “fight or flight” impulse.
Instead, we should understand “do not be afraid” to mean, “do not let fear determine your choices.” I’m going to say something that may surprise you: many sins, I believe, are driven more by fear than by a desire to do evil. For example, people often tell lies because of the fear of looking bad or being criticized rather than with the intent to harm others. Or they insult or ridicule other people out of fear, of not being accepted by those around them. Even sexual sins are often driven more by the fear of not being loved than by lust.
Returning to Jesus’ agony in the garden, the Gospels describe Jesus who is so overcome with fear that it actually causes a bloody sweat. But, despite that, Jesus didn’t allow his fears to turn him away from his mission, his passion and death. Instead, he made the decision with seven simple words: “Not my will, but yours be done!”
The second strong emotion Jesus experienced in his agony was a profound loneliness. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all state that Jesus asked Peter, James, and John – his three closest friends, ones whom he had taken in a very special and personal way to the major events of his public life; we’ll hear about one of those in this weekend’s Gospel, in fact – to accompany him into the Garden and to keep watch and pray with him. But each time he rose from prayer and went to them, he found them sleeping. His disappointment was obvious: “So you could not keep watch with me for one hour?” Then, in the compassion that only Jesus is capable, he adds, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt 26:40–41).
But it was obvious: Jesus couldn’t count on the emotional and spiritual support of even his best friends. He would have to face his sufferings alone.
Isn’t that something that we see all around us today? All over the news we have how large numbers of people in our nation experience strong feelings of loneliness—this coming at a time when communication through social media, opportunities for travel, or connecting with people on the Internet have been more abundant than ever. I once heard someone put it like this: “We’re now so well connected, but we’ve never before been so alone.”
Adult children so often leave their families to find jobs in places far from home. I know that I, and many of you, can recall so many friendships formed in high school or college that didn’t survive the many moves that we or they have made. Romantic relationships can be strained or broken when new jobs require cross-country transfers. And hearts are broken when those dreaded words are spoken: “I just don’t think we are a good fit. But we can still be friends, right?” Add to this the huge numbers of people whose marriages have been broken by separation or divorce.
So it can be very spiritually helpful to reflect on the loneliness of Jesus, during his agony in the garden, and how he dealt with such feelings. As he became aware that he couldn’t rely on human support, he turned to his Father in heaven. Without doubt, he thought about those two powerful moments in his life—his baptism and his transfiguration on the mountain— when he heard the voice of his Father: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17). He was strengthened by the comforting message: “I love you. I am with you. I will never abandon you.”
The Church teaches us that God has spoken the same words and made the same promise to each of us at our own Baptism: You are my beloved son/daughter. In you I take delight. “I will never forsake you or abandon you” (Heb 13:5). Loneliness isn’t a disease. It’s a painful situation that may just have to be endured. That doesn’t mean that we’re powerless at such times: sometimes it can be ended when we try to reach out and make connections with others. But, in the meantime, we can try to find comfort in the fact that Jesus, our savior, has shared—that he understands—our pain. During this Lenten season, we can draw spiritual strength and inspiration from walking with Jesus during his agony in the garden.
The third source of suffering for Jesus in his agony, I think it’s not unreasonable to consider, was a sense of failure. With a few exceptions such as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, he hadn’t been able to convince any Jewish religious leaders that he was the long-awaited Messiah, the Meschiach, the Christos, the Christ, the Anointed One in whom God’s promises would be fulfilled. And, being one who could read hearts, he knew that even the common people who had welcomed his teachings, who were thrilled at his healings and other miracles would soon join the crowd calling for his death. And, maybe worst of all, even his chosen apostles and friends would abandon him in the end.
Again, isn’t that often our own experience? We work so hard and put our best efforts into some important project, only to see it fail or be rejected. Or we try to reach a certain goal or dream in our lives, only to see ourselves fall short. Parents can feel a deep sense of failure when one or more of their children get into trouble with the law, become addicted to drugs or alcohol, get divorced, drift away from the practice of their faith. Most of the time, parents have no reason to blame themselves for these problems, but they may feel responsible—along with a deep sadness and a sense of helplessness. So it can be helpful for any of us who experience failure to recall that Jesus, our Savior, truly understands what we are going through.
But there’s hope. In the midst of his feelings of fear, loneliness and failure, Jesus is given consolation: As we hear in the Gospel according to Luke: “To strengthen [Jesus], an angel from heaven appeared to him” (Lk 22:43). What comfort did this messenger from heaven provide? I’d like to think that the angel revealed to Jesus the billions of people who would come to believe in him, who would receive Baptism and the other sacraments, and live faithful lives of love and service, many even to the point of sharing in his sufferings through their own martyrdom. Not that such consolation would help much in the immediate situation, but that – in the very long run – it was worth it.
During this Lenten season, we can draw spiritual strength and inspiration from thinking about Jesus’ agony in the garden. Maybe we can learn to embrace our own times of agony together with him, so that those times can be sources of spiritual growth for ourselves and for the people the Lord brings into our lives. Who knows, it’s even possible that our prayer on this mystery will inspire us to act as comforting angels to people around us who are hurting or bearing heavy burdens in their own lives?
My dear brothers and sisters, my fellow Cursillistas, you may have heard the saying that there’s no Easter Sunday without Good Friday. We couldn’t celebrate our Lord’s Resurrection if He hadn’t given up His life for us! That might be something to remember as we continue to go through such difficult times in this period of history and the Church. I’d like to close with a Prayer to Agonizing Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, taken from a Eucharistic Vigil Guide that was published several years ago:
O Jesus, Who in the excess of Your love to win hearts, do give abundant graces to those who meditate on your holy passion in Gethsemane, I pray You to lead my heart and soul to think often of the most bitter agony You suffered in the Garden, to pity You and to join with You completely.
O most Holy Jesus, Who bore during that night the weight of all our sins and paid for them, please grant me the great gift of contrition for my many sins which caused You to sweat blood.
Most Holy Jesus, by virtue of the terrible struggle You endured in Gethsemane, give me the power of complete and final victory in the temptations that beset me, especially those to which I am most often subject.
O my Jesus, by virtue of the anxieties, fears and the unknown but intense pain which You suffered on the night in which You suffered on the night in which You were betrayed, give me the light to follow Your holy will and to think upon and to understand the enormous effort and formidable struggle You endured victoriously in fulfilling not your will, but the will of the Father.
Praise to You, O Jesus, for the agony and the tears poured out during the Holy Night, for the sweat of blood and the deadly distress You endured, that solitude more frightful than man can imagine.
Praise to You, most sweet but vastly sorrowful Jesus, for the prayer at once human and divine which poured forth from Your agonized heart during that night of ingratitude and of treason.
Eternal Father, I offer to You all the Holy Masses of this moment, of the past, and of the future, united with Jesus in agony in the Garden of Olives.
O Most Holy Trinity, cause the knowledge and love of the Sacred Passion of Gethsemane to be diffused in the world.
And, O my Jesus, may those who love You and look upon the crucifix remember Your incredible pain in the Garden, and may they follow Your example, learn to pray well, to fight and overcome so they may eternally glorify You in heaven.
De Colores! Father Ed