The Agony of Our Lord in the Garden
By Fr Charles Hyacinth McKenna O.P.
Then Jesus came with His disciples into a country place which is called Gethsemani; and said to them: Sit you here till I go yonder and pray; and taking with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, He began to grow sorrowful and to be sad. Then He said to them: My soul is sorrowful even unto death; stay you here, and watch with Me.—Matt, xxvii. 36.
WE NOW COME TO THE SCHOOL OF JESUS CRUCIFIED. We come now to study in the book of His sacred Passion. It was in this blessed book that God’s greatest servants learned their most salutary lessons; for here they found the most saving truths, the most sublime wisdom. In this school, for nearly two thousand years, heroic souls have been trained to fight on the world’s great battlefield in the cause of the Master:
— Here, weak women and tender virgins have become strong and brave: and triumphing gloriously over their enemies, have won for themselves imperishable crowns.
— Here have been formed valiant soldiers, noble generals, leaders in the army of God.
— Here theologians have acquired their profoundest knowledge of Christian mysteries: and have drunk, as from an unfailing fountain, the greatest truths of mystical theology. The Teacher is our Lord Jesus Christ, and He gives us His first lesson in the Garden of Gethsemani.
It is the First Sorrowful Mystery of the Rosary.
St. Alphonsus Liguori asks: “Who can deny that, of all devotions, the devotion to the Passion of Jesus Christ is the most useful, the most tender, and the most pleasing to God? It affords the greatest consolation to sinners, and is the most powerful means of enkindling in the heart an ardent love for God.”
From the Passion and death of Our Lord, all graces and blessings have come to us. Through its serious and prayerful consideration we are brought face to face with the manifestation of God’s infinite love for us. We behold in His mangled body the indisputable proof of that love, as well as the evidence of the enormity of our sins, which required so great an atonement. At the foot of the cross, the worst of sinners can find mercy. There they can obtain the grace of true contrition, without which reconciliation with God were impossible. There they are strengthened in their resolutions to suffer all things, even death itself, rather than again crucify the Son of God by returning to their sins. The cross of their Redeemer is their shelter, their protection, their chief ground of confidence, their glory. St. Paul, that ardent lover of Jesus Christ, cried out: “God forbid that I should glory save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the world is crucified to me, and I to the world.”
In the institution of the Blessed Sacrament, on the night before His Passion, Our Lord gave us the final and most tender proof of His love. Then it was that He raised His beloved disciples to the sublime dignity of the priesthood, and commanded them to offer the adorable sacrifice of the Mass. Then it was that He fed them with the Bread of Heaven, to support them through the trial which awaited them.
After the conclusion of that solemn and touching ceremony, He went forth from the supper chamber with His disciples, and passing over the Valley of Josaphat, and the brook Cedron, ascended the mountainside leading to the Garden of Gethsemani.
Bidding the rest of the disciples to wait, He took with Him Peter, James, and John, and entered the depths of Gethsemani, there to prepare Himself for the sacrifice. And presently, fear and sadness came upon Him, and He began to be exceedingly sorrowful. Withdrawing even from the three whom He had chosen, He went a little farther into the shadow of the garden, and falling upon His face, prayed: “Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt” (Mt 26, 39).
There is a mystery in this abyss of agonizing grief so deep that God alone can fathom it. From eternity Christ knew, as God, all that would happen in time; and as man He had seen clearly from the moment of His Incarnation the price He would pay for our Redemption; and yet, notwithstanding this clear prevision of His suffering, it was only in the Garden of Gethsemani that, by an act of His divine will, the floodgates of fear and sorrow opened and overwhelmed His soul.
As God, He was able to lay down His life and take it up again.
As man, He was prepared to take upon Himself the crimes of a sinful world, and, so laden, to offer Himself as an atoning Victim to the inexorable justice of His heavenly Father. This is what was meant by the chalice which was prepared for Him, and which He was to drink to its very dregs. And what a bitter, revolting chalice this was! It contained the sins of the whole human race, from the beginning until the end of time—all the murders, all the impurities, the sacrileges, the blasphemies, all the idolatries and outrages that ever had been offered, all that ever would be offered to His eternal Father! And for all, He, the innocent Lamb of God, must make atonement! He was to assume the sins of all humanity—to suffer as if He alone were guilty! As St. Paul says: “He put on iniquity as a garment,” since He, who is Infinite Sanctity, saw Himself enveloped, defiled, as it were, with the corruption of the whole human race. Thus covered with our crimes, He presented Himself in fear and trembling before the justice of His heavenly Father. No wonder that His soul was sorrowful even unto death! No wonder that He fell into an agony so frightful that the precious Blood oozed from every pore of His body, and ran in great drops to the ground!
Christ’s virginal human nature endured in anticipation all the shame and suffering of His Passion—the betrayal by Judas, the blows, the insults, the abandonment by His trusted disciples, the scourging, the crowning with thorns, the reviling and rejection by His ungrateful people, the painful journey to Calvary, the cruel crucifixion, with its prolonged and unspeakable torments-all were present to Him.
In those hours of agonizing prevision were condensed all the sufferings of His many martyrs and confessors, including the dolors of His Blessed Mother, all the heartfelt contrition ever felt by poor penitents for their sins.
Added to this was the torturing knowledge that countless souls would be lost, notwithstanding all the excruciating anguish that He was about to endure for their salvation. His soul was torn with unspeakable grief: and a conflict raged between His higher and His lower nature, the one urging Him to accomplish the will of His Father, the other “rebelling” against the extremity of complete satisfaction demanded by the divine justice. This conflict enables us to understand that agonizing, oft-repeated prayer: “Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from Me.” But the bitter cup was not destined to pass; both Father and Son had willed that it should be drained to the dregs. Perhaps the most grievous element in that draught, and the one which weighed most heavily upon the desolate heart of Our Lord, was the withdrawal of all the supporting consolations of the Godhead. Apparently deserted by His Father, His afflicted humanity was left to struggle unaided with the besetting powers of darkness. […]
It was then, in Gethsemani’s hour of desolation and abandonment, that Jesus sought consolation from His disciples. He, the Comforter of the afflicted, sought the help of His creatures! His lonely, overburdened heart yearned for their sympathy.
But He found them asleep, unmindful of all that He had done for them, and of what He was then enduring for the love of them. Alas, how little can we rely upon human comfort in the hour of affliction! Finding the chosen three asleep (“for their eyes were heavy” says the text), Our Lord returned again to His solitary prayer; thus teaching us that when our souls are plunged in an abyss of sorrow and suffering, we must look to God alone for relief and strength.
The Evangelist tells us that an angel now descended from Heaven to comfort our desolate Lord; and that, through that heavenly visitation, His sacred humanity was invigorated and His courage renewed to continue the dreadful conflict. Ascetic writers still further inform us that:
— the angel represented to the Redeemer the infinite glory which would be given to the Father by His sufferings and death. He placed before Him the countless multitudes who would glorify His mercy forever in heaven;
— he reminded Him that even the lost would be forced to glorify the divine justice throughout all eternity.
Let us in like manner, when we stand face to face with some supreme trial, remember the words of saint Paul: “The sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come.”
It was through suffering that God’s most illustrious servants attained their highest perfection. The Way of the Cross is the way of salvation, and the humble resignation of our souls into the hands of God in the time of affliction will not only obtain for us strength to drink the chalice even to its dregs, but increase our merits in the kingdom of Heaven. Let us learn from Our Lord submissively to accept whatever our heavenly Father may send us, whether it be mental suffering, physical pain, loss of property, the betrayal of friends, the tarnishing of our good name through the breath of calumny,— whatever it be, let us cry, ” Lord, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me”; but let us also add, after the example of Our Lord, in meek resignation, “Nevertheless, not my will, but Thine be done.” God knows what is best for our purification and sanctification. He will lead us to everlasting life, if we but follow Him in confidence and holy patience.
There is one lesson especially that Our Lord would teach us by His prayer in the Garden. It is humble perseverance in the same petition. Here we have divine warrant for repeating so often the “Hail Mary” and the “Holy Mary” in the Rosary. The Evangelist tells us that Our Lord repeated the selfsame words, again and again: “Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from Me.” Let us then persevere in our petitions, continually making known our needs, whether temporal or spiritual, to our heavenly Father. It is His wish that we should continue to importune Him, not that He may know our wants, but that we may pay Him the homage of prayer which is His due, and acknowledge that all blessings must come to us through His adorable hands.
There are many instances of the reward of perseverance in prayer:
* The following was told the author by a priest who (for several years) had been his companion on the missions. “My mother,” he said, “was a Catholic, but was unfortunately married out of the Church. My father was a bigoted Protestant, and soon after her marriage he forbade her the practice of her religion. She consulted her confessor, and he enjoined on her as a penance to recite every day a third part of the Rosary for her husband’s conversion. Further, he counseled her to bear patiently with her trials, and faithfully persevere in practicing her religion, no matter what she might have to suffer for it.” Years passed on with this worthy woman, and as her children were born to her, she carried them by stealth to her saintly pastor and had them baptized. As soon as they were able to lisp the “Hail Mary,” she had them unite with her in saying the Rosary for their father. After five years, she doubled her penance; and after five years more, she offered up daily the fifteen mysteries for that husband’s conversion. The change came unexpectedly in the end, as the priest had foretold. The husband became a convert, and lived and died a fervent Catholic and an ardent lover of Our Lady of the Rosary. The mother had the happiness of seeing her son a priest, and her daughter consecrated to the service of God among the Sisters of Loretto.
* We have another beautiful example of the power of prayer, accompanied by resignation to the will of God, in the life of the pious wife of King Louis XV of France, Maria Leckzinska of Poland. The court of Louis was most corrupt; but the pious Queen did all in her power to save her children from its evil influences. Her care was especially centered upon her son, the Dauphin, over whom she watched with unceasing vigilance. On one occasion, she learned that certain vile young men had determined to destroy the innocence of the young Prince, and for that purpose had laid a snare to entrap him. This news was as a dagger to the heart of the pious mother. She hastened to her oratory, and closing the door, prostrated herself before the image of the Blessed Mother, imploring her to save her son from the danger that threatened him. “It is to you, O Queen of Heaven,” she prayed, “that after God, I owe my son! From his youth you have protected him. I conjure you now to obtain from your divine Son his deliverance from his enemies; and, if it be necessary for me to weep for him, beg Our Lord that I may weep over his death, rather than over the loss of his innocence!” Noble sacrifice of the Queen mother, worthy to be recorded with the sacrifice of Abraham! In the midst of her ardent prayers and tears, an anonymous note was handed to her, containing these words: “Madame, be in peace. Your petitions for the Dauphin are heard.” She never discovered the writer of the note. The young Prince almost miraculously escaped the snares so maliciously laid for him, and remained faithful to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. But that grace was purchased for him by his mother’s sacrifice. Shortly afterwards the Prince became dangerously ill, and at the same time another anonymous letter was received by the Queen, which read as follows: “Remember, Madame, the request you made, and adore the mercy of God in behalf of your son.” Recognizing in the sickness of the Prince the answer to her prayer, the mother accepted the decree with true Christian resignation and prepared for the worst. When she saw her son expire, she had the inexpressible consolation of knowing that he had been received undefiled into the arms of his God. Addressing her family, she said: “Oh, my children, seek no longer to know the cause of your brother’s death. I prayed that he might die sooner than commit sin, and God has heard my prayer.”
What noble incentives to perseverance in prayer are thus given us in the life of our Saviour and His saints! Should we, too, not pray without ceasing in all our difficulties and trials, and under the pressure of the cross humbly resign ourselves continually to God’s holy will? Let us ever present our petitions through the hands of our immaculate Mother Mary. O Virgin Mother of God! teach us to repeat again and again that sublime prayer, the “Hail Mary!” Obtain for us the grace to persevere in prayer during our lives, that, at the hour of our death, we may be worthy to behold the blessed fruit of thy womb Jesus!