Jesus prays at Gethsemane.

by K.W. Leslie, 05 April
Mark 14.32-41 KWL
32 Jesus and his students came to a field
which was named Gat Semaním/“oil press.”
Jesus tells his students, “Sit in this spot while I can pray.”
33 Jesus takes with him Simon Peter, James, and John.
He begins to be surprised—and greatly troubled.
34 Jesus tells them, “My soul is deathly sad.
Stay here, and stay awake.”
35 Going a little ahead, Jesus is falling to the ground,
and is praying that, if it’s possible, can this hour pass him by?
36 Jesus was saying, Abba! Father! Almighty you!
Take this cup away from me!
But not what I want. What you want.”
37 Jesus returns and finds his students sleeping,
and tells Peter, “Simon, you sleep? You can’t stay awake one hour?
38 Stay awake and pray!—lest you might come to temptation.
A truly eager spirit—and weak flesh.”
39 Jesus goes away to pray again,
praying the same words.
40 Returning again, Jesus finds his students sleeping,
for their eyes are very heavy.
They had not known what to answer him.
41 Jesus returns a third time and tells his students,
“You sleep now and rest. It’s enough.
The hour comes—look!
The Son of Man is handed over to sinful hands.”

The first of St. Francis’s stations of the cross was when Jesus was given his cross. (Duh.) But Jesus’s suffering began earlier that day, so St. John Paul’s list also began earlier—with Gethsemane, the olive garden on Mt. Olivet, where Jesus prayed he might not go through the crucifixion.

It comes up in the synoptic gospels. It’s not in John, whose author had to do things his own way:

John 18.1 KWL
When he said this, Jesus with his students went over the Kidron ravine,
where there was a garden. He and his students entered it.

John Paul recognized this is the beginning of Jesus’s passion, not when he was sentened to death later that night. ’Cause that’s what the gospels depict: He went into the garden to pray, and suddenly he was blindsided with emotion. It freaked him out a little. He wanted to pray; he wanted his kids to pray for him. But as people do when they’re up past their bedtime praying (and not just kids; don’t just blame this on their spiritual immaturity), they fell asleep on him. Three times.

Still, Jesus was really agitated, and John Paul recognized it’s this psychological trauma that marks where Jesus’s passion began. Not just when he was taken away to die.

The beginning of Jesus’s passion.

You’ll notice John skipped the story of the prayer. The author was more interested in what Jesus had to teach his students before his arrest. But the other gospels focused on Jesus, here freaking out over what he knew was to come.

Yeah, he knew it was coming. He’d warned his kids it was coming. Now the time had arrived… and understandably, Jesus didn’t want it to. He’s no masochist. He didn’t wanna be tortured to death. Who would? Since it was Passover, hey, maybe the Father could make this pass over. In fact that’s how Jesus phrases it in Matthew: “Let this cup pass from me.” Mt 26.39 KJV

Determinists like to claim God’s plan for the universe is certain and fixed. If that’s so, Jesus sure didn’t act like it. He asked his Father to change the plan. And he knows the Father better than anyone: Why bother to pray for change, if no such change were possible?

Since this plea of Jesus in Gethsemane dings their theology a bit, various Christians insist Jesus was only having a crisis of faith here. He really wasn’t. In all the synoptics, Jesus reiterated he was never gonna do as he wanted: Only what the Father wanted. He always had the faith to follow the Father. Even unto death.

But like he told Simon Peter, flesh is weak. Even his own. ’Cause like all humans, Jesus could feel pain, and pain is a powerful demotivator. Jesus could bleed, break, and die, and before God the Son became flesh, Jn 1.14 he never had this sort of weakness. Flesh wants to be comfortable, not suffer. So of course his flesh was tempted. But Jesus mastered his own flesh long before, and his will overruled any comfort and safety his flesh craved. It would die. And we would live. Forever.

Lots of us Christians like to describe Gethsemane as “the last temptation of Christ,” ’cause we imagine when he freaked out and started to pray really hard, we figure it’s because he was tempted to cut and run. No he wasn’t. At every point in Holy Week—heck, at every point from when he left the Galilee to come to Jerusalem—he could’ve put a stop to everything. He could still stop everything if he chose; as he pointed out to Simon Peter, all he had to do was say the word. Mt 26.53 And I’m sure in every jolt of pain, he was tempted to summon his angels and make it stop. But Jesus’s will is iron. Humans constantly break. Easily. Yet Jesus never broke. His will is mightier than his suffering. He’s a brilliant example of resolve under pressure. May we, with the Holy Spirit’s power, be even a fraction as strong.