26 March 2024

Jesus prays at Gethsemane.

Mark 14.32-41.

St. Francis’s stations of the cross begin with when Jesus is given his cross. (Duh; it is the stations of the cross.) But Jesus’s suffering actually began earlier, so St. John Paul’s list also begins earlier—with Gethsemane, the olive garden on Mt. Olivet, where Jesus prayed he might not go through the crucifixion.

Mark 14.32-41 KWL
32 Jesus and his students come to a field
whose name is Gat Semaním/“oil press.”
He tells his students, “Sit here while I pray,”
33 and Jesus takes Simon Peter
and James and John with him.
He begins to be distressed and troubled.
34 Jesus tells his students, “My soul
is intensely sad, to the point ofdeath.
Stay here and stay awake.”
35 Going a little further, Jesus is falling to the ground
and is praying that, if it’s possible, the hour might pass him by.
36 Jesus is saying, “Abba! Father!
For you, everything is possible!
Take this cup away from me!
But it’s not what I will,
but what you will.”
37 Jesus comes and finds his students sleeping.
He tells Peter, “Simon, you’re sleeping?
You can’t stay awake one hour?
38 Stay awake and pray!—
lest you come to temptation.
You have a truly eager spirit—
and weak flesh.”
39 Going away again, Jesus prays,
saying the same words.
40 Coming back again, Jesus finds his students sleeping,
for their eyes are very heavy.
They didn’t know how to answer him.
41 Jesus comes back a third time,
and tells his students, “Sleep the rest of the time.
Get your rest.
It’s enough.
…The hour comes.
Look, the Son of Man is betrayed into sinners’ hands.”

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

John 18.1 KWL
Upon saying these things,
Jesus goes with his students over the Kidron ravine,
where there’s an olive garden.
He enters it,
and his students follow.

John Paul recognized this is the beginning of Jesus’s passion, not when he was sentenced to death later that night. ’Cause that’s what the gospels depict: He went into the garden to pray, and suddenly it’s like he’s 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 which marks where Jesus’s suffering 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 of that gospel 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 multiple times 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 (I’ve yet to find a bible translator with the nerve to render it, “pass over me.” It’s right there.)

Determinists like to claim God’s plan for the universe is certain and fixed. If that’s so, Jesus sure doesn’t act like it! He asked his Father to change the plan. And he knows the Father better than anyone, so why bother to pray for change, if no such change is 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. No; he really wasn’t. In all the synoptics, Jesus reiterates he’s never gonna do as he willed: Only what the Father wills. He never lost faith in the Father. He obeyed his will, 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. Which means 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 sorely 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 blinding 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 even 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.