BY: Mr. Mark Connolly, OP
Deep calls to deep at the thunder of thy cataracts; all thy waves and thy billows have gone over me.Psalm 42:7
As a child, the Agony in the Garden held a special mystery. If Jesus is God, and God knows everything, and is all-powerful, then what was he worried about?
It took many years for me to realize he was not worried. This mystery is not called The Worrier in the Garden. Jesus demonstrated many emotions throughout the Gospels. Anger. Sorrow. Compassion. But never worry.
Ok, so if Jesus is God, and God knows everything, and is all-powerful, then what was He in agony about?
I think the answer to my question is found through the contemplation of the First Sorrowful Mystery. As I mentioned in the introduction to this series, the fact of mystery is the first clue toward understanding the mystery. One of the first things we glean from studying this Mystery is its relation to the mystery of the Incarnation. The Incarnation is God’s response to The Fall. Careful contemplation of the Agony in the Garden will give us some insight into the visceral consequences of that response.
Think about The Incarnation for a moment. Try to think of it as if hearing it for the first time, not having been taught it as a child, not simply accepting an astonishing claim. Let me quote a lengthy passage from GK Chesterton:
We should have a worse shock if we really imagined the nature of Christ named for the first time. What should we feel at the first whisper of a certain suggestion about a certain man? Certainly it is not for us to blame anybody who should find that first wild whisper merely impious and insane. On the contrary, stumbling on that rock of scandal is the first step. Stark staring incredulity is a far more loyal tribute to that truth than a modernist metaphysic that would make it out merely a matter of degree. It were better to rend our robes with a great cry against blasphemy, like Caiaphas in the judgement, or to lay hold of the man as a maniac possessed of devils like the kinsmen and the crowd, rather than to stand stupidly debating fine shades of pantheism in the presence of so catastrophic a claim. There is more of the wisdom that is one with surprise in any simple person, full of the sensitiveness of simplicity, who should expect the grass to wither and the birds to drop dead out of the air, when a strolling carpenter’s apprentice said calmly and almost carelessly, like one looking over his shoulder: ‘Before Abraham was, I am.’“Everlasting Man” – GK Chesterton
To aid in our study, the readings for the First Sunday of Lent from Cycle A are worth a short review. They can be found here.
Gn 2:7-9; 3:1-7 recounts the Fall. Main points to recall:
- Adam and Eve were created, man from earth, woman from man.
- They were tempted by Satan.
- They fell and were expelled from the Garden.
In Rom 5:12-19, Paul explains the consequences of the Fall, and what is necessary to set things right. Main points to recall:
- Through one man sin entered the world, and through sin death.
- Death reigned, even over those who had not sinned through direct disobedience as had Adam.*
- Just as through the disobedience of one man, the rest were made sinners, through the obedience of one, the many will be made righteous
Mt 4:1-11 tells us of the first temptation of Christ by Satan. Main points to recall:
- Jesus was led into the desert by The Spirit – to be tested by the devil
- Hungry, he was first tested with food – a basic human need. Subsequent tests addressed the human need for recognition and power. (It is worth pondering how these human needs are perverted by the Devil.)
- Jesus sends him away. Luke tells us that Satan left “until an opportune time.” (Lk 4:13)
This is a pretty complete backdrop for the Sorrowful Mysteries, and will be referred to throughout this series.
Back to my original questions, “Why was He in agony?”
First, what is “agony?” The word comes to us from ancient Greek, and means struggle. It is the final struggle of a person at the point of death. The struggle to stay alive.
Consider that Jesus was the first complete human since Adam. After the Fall, all creation was out of balance. But Christ, born of an immaculately conceived woman, born of The Holy Spirit and not sinful Man, was perfect. A man in as complete a union with God as a living human being can be.
How much more attuned would Jesus be to the needs of the body? How much more precious would be the gift of life? The gift of existence? How much stronger the human desire to live?! In his hour of suffering He prays in the Garden to His Father. Abba. He calls him Daddy. Please Daddy, he asks, let this cup pass from me.
Consider that death, brought into the world by sin, is an unnatural state. We all sense this. Most people want to live at all costs. The urge to survive is seen all through nature. How much more would this urge, this need, this yearning, be in someone fully and completely alive?
It is thought that Christ, being God and Man, could have suppressed his human suffering, or simply taken it away. Go through the motions, so to speak, but experience no discomfort.
But what kind of cheap God is that?
Jesus experienced agony because He was fully human. He would die as humans do. He would pay the price. He chose to experience it completely and possibly more fully than any human before him. Add in his divine nature, with foreknowledge of what was about to happen, and you can see, this was no mindless fear due to imagination. This was complete recognition, precognition, of what was to happen.
There is another piece to this. Recall that after Christ was led into the desert, specifically by the Spirit to be tested, he passes the test, and as Luke tells us, the Devil left for an opportune time. That opportune time is in the Garden.
As a side note, Gethsemane, the name of the garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives, means olive press. The place where pressure is put on olives to yield olive oil. The place where Jesus felt so much pressure he sweat blood.
You will recall that Jesus prays in the Garden. Perhaps you missed the same thing I missed all these years until I stopped to consider this mystery deeply. There is more to the request of Jesus than the simple ask to let this cup pass. We see in Lk 22:42-43 that Jesus says “…nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done. And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him.”
I never recognized this part of his prayer, “not my will, but thine, be done,” as Jesus asking for help. But see how his prayer was answered. Jesus prayed, and his Daddy sent an angel to strengthen him. Just like after his first test in the desert.
In closing this reflection, please consider that Jesus Christ, God made Man, suffered, and when he suffered he asked for help. There is no shame in suffering, no shame in being overwhelmed, no shame in asking for help. Consider that He experienced a complete suffering, mind, body, and soul. When we break our arm, we go to the doctor for help, and we don’t count it as weakness. When we break our union with God, break our souls, if you will, we go to the priest who in the person of Christ repairs that break, and we should not count that as weakness. When we have any brokenness of any kind, we can and should ask for help, and never count it as weakness. Jesus asked for help in his hour of need. So too should we.
Next up: The Scourging At The Pillar
It is a Dominican practice to contemplate the mysteries of God, and to share the fruits of our contemplation. I hope you found this fruit tasty and good to eat. But I ask for your help. If contemplation is the nurturing and harvesting of this fruit, then the comments and additional thoughts of others are the fertilizer, the water, the weeding. This is part of the pillar of Community. Please help deepen my understanding of this mystery with your comments.
*This will be explored further in the subsequent mysteries.