“They came to a plot of land called Gethsemane, and He said to His disciples, ‘Stay here while I pray’.. And He began to feel terror and anguish. And He said to them, ‘My Soul is sorrowful unto death. Wait here and stay awake.. ‘Father’, He said, ‘For You everything is possible. Take this cup away from Me; but let it be as You, not I, would have it’..” (Mk.14, v32-37)
“Then an Angel appeared to Him, coming from Heaven to give Him strength. In His anguish, he prayed even more earnestly, and His sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood.” (Lk.22, v43-44)
Scripture provides an endless supply of subject matter for prayer and meditation. Even a few verses provide enough material to ponder on at great length, constantly looking for insights and different perspectives – from the text itself or the characters who form part of the scene recounted in the text. The two excerpts above are a good example of this.
In them, the main figure and sole focus is the Lord Himself, although the disciples are also mentioned, and then there is the appearance of the Angel. But one single spotlight is shining here, in the darkness of Gethsemane, and it is on the Lord.
And the Lord is in His Agony, as the text makes clear. It is the beginning of the Passion, the Lord having celebrated the Last Supper shortly before the moment described in the verses above.
What strikes me here more than anything is the sense of desolation; although the disciples are physically nearby, the Lord is entirely alone in His Agony. And this Agony is spiritual more than physical, although it has a clear physical effect on Him.
However, I suspect He was not entirely alone spiritually; I am certain that somewhere not too far away, the Blessed Virgin was deep in prayer at that moment, supporting Her Son. Perhaps it was as a result of those heartfelt pleas to Heaven that the Eternal Father sent an Angel to the Lord in Gethsemane. The Blessed Virgin knew Her Son had to do this alone; but that did not mean She could not do whatever was in Her power to support Him.
I wonder what was the reason for the mortal agony the Lord experienced in the garden of Gethsemane? Was it simply the thought of what was to follow, or was it more than that? The Lord knew perfectly well precisely what would follow, and He submitted to all of it willingly. Indeed, the Gospel recounts His saying that it was for this very reason that He came into the world. I don’t doubt the thought of His Passion was certainly terrifying – but I think this isn’t the full reason. I suspect there was something else at work here. The clue is in the verse telling us that He prayed, and the later one adding that He ‘prayed even more earnestly’.
What was He praying for? Himself, for the strength to undergo His Passion? Almost certainly, yes. But more than this – I think He was praying for those for whom He would undergo His Passion; in other words, in the Garden of Gethsemane, as His Passion was beginning, His prayer was for us.
Perhaps, in those silent and lonely moments in the cool of that evening, He was acutely aware of the sins of all mankind, and – consequently – of our need for redemption by means of His Passion, for only He could obtain it for us. But He had always known this – this is why He would soon say it was for this reason He had come into the world. So there has to be more – but what could it be?
Perhaps it was His knowledge that there would be many for whom His Passion and Death on the Cross would simply not be enough – not because of anything lacking in this most supreme sacrifice, but because of the refusal of some souls to be saved by means of it. I think it was for this reason that He was ‘sorrowful unto death’. I also think this was the reason for His words on the Cross a few hours later – “I thirst”. He thirsted for the salvation of souls, even while knowing that some would reject Him despite His Death being offered willingly for them. And that, surely, is the cruellest rejection of all – and the precise reason why His Heart was ‘sorrowful unto death’.