And He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but Thine, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening Him. And being in an agony He prayed more earnestly; and His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down upon the ground.
–Luke 22:41-44 RSV
The First Sorrowful Mystery
The First Sorrowful Mystery of the Rosary is the Agony in the Garden. The Agony in the Garden is the beginning of Christ’s Passion. It is where Our Lord first begins to suffer. The bloody sweat recorded by Saint Luke are also the first drops of blood shed by Our Lord.
Saint Luke, who is believed to have been a physician, describes an actual medical condition known as hematridosis. It occurs when capillary blood vessels burst, causing them to fill the sweat glands with blood. It is extremely rare and is only caused by extreme physical and emotional stress. In Gospel according to Matthew, Christ tells His Apostles that He is “sorrowful, even to the point of death.” Thus, the stress to his soul was so great that His capillaries burst, causing Him to sweat blood. Even before His Crucifixion, Christ was undergoing the most intense suffering and anguish known to man.
Why was Christ in such great anguish?
Saint Luke writes that when the time approached for Jesus to travel to Jerusalem for the final time, that He “set his face” (some translations include, “like flint”). The image brought to mind is of a person who knows that he is about to undergo something painful but who resolutely sets himself to do it and endeavors to not yet his pain or trepidation show in his face. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus prophesies His Passion in words that make it clear that He knows exactly what is in store for Him. Thus, He was no doubt inwardly preparing Himself for His Passion for a long time.
Yet, on the night before His death, His resolve seems to falter. He prays, “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but Thine, be done.” He does so not once, not twice, but three times. He is not rejecting His saving mission but He is asking His Father if there is not some other that it can be accomplished.
Truly God and Truly Man
There are those who reject the idea that Jesus was afraid on the night before His death. The main reason is that to fear would be to doubt and that as the Son of God, Jesus would never doubt. This has led to such ludicrous explanations as Jesus actually praying to His Father to keep Him alive until His crucifixion, because he was in danger of dying in the Garden (which clearly goes against the plain text of Scripture).
To enter fully into the mystery of the Incarnation is to understand that Jesus was fully human. Not only did He have a human body, but he had a human mind and soul, human emotions and a human will. (To deny any of these is to embrace heresies that have long been declared anathema by the Church.) All of these were of course hypostatically united to His divine will which was itself in perfect union with that of His Heavenly Father but that does not mean that Jesus, as a human, did not fear the excruciating pain of a crucifixion.
Yet, none of that means that He was unwilling to undergo His Passion. Nor does it somehow diminish His Passion and Death for us. If anything, it amplifies it. Our Lord asked His Father if there was another way. When His Father answered there was not, He willingly and fully submitted Himself to His Father’s will and went to meet those who were sent to arrest Him.
In this, as in all things, Christ sets a powerful example for His followers. He said, “If anyone wishes to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” However, we are not to seek out suffering and certainly not martyrdom. Suffering is something that we accept, not something that we are to seek. If it is God’s will that such things befall us, we should, as Our Blessed Lord did, pray, “Not my will, but Thine be done.”
When Saint Christopher bore the Christ Child across the raging river on his shoulders, the Child grew so heavy that the exceedingly strong Christopher could barely carry Him. When Christopher to the Child that He felt as heavy as the whole world, the Child responded that was because he “bore the sins of the whole world.”
In the Song of the Suffering Servant, the prophet Isaiah prophesies of Christ, “On Him was laid the iniquity of us all.” In order for the death of Christ to serve as atonement for sins, He had to take on the guilt of those sins. This was every sin that had been committed up to that point and every sin that would be committed from that point until the end of time, from the most banal venial sin to the most heinous of mortal sins.
Saints have hypothesized that in the Garden, Christ witnessed all these sins at once as He accepted the burden of them upon His soul. Sin not only offends God, but it grievously wounds His Heart and this pain must have been intensely overwhelming for Our Lord. In addition to this, sin separates the sinner from God. Upon accepting the guilt of these sins, it stands to reason that Jesus would have felt an intense separation for His Father, made all the more excruciating as He prepared to endure His Passion.
Could It be…Satan?
In his Gospel, Saint Luke records what I consider to be one the two most terrifying words in Scripture, “And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.” One needs only to look at recent cinematic portrayals of the life of Christ to see that many have interpreted the “opportune time” to be Christ’s agony in the garden of Gethsemane. Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, the CBS television film Jesus, and the stop-motion animated The Miracle-Maker all include Satan in the Garden of Gethsemane, tempting Jesus to despair, abandon His saving mission and flee from His imminent crucifixion.
Interestingly, in none of these portrayals is there an angelic appearance to counteract the demonic, despite the mention of an angel in the Gospel according to Saint Luke. The Gospel according to Saint Matthew mentions angels coming and ministering to Jesus after His temptations in the desert. While we might be tempted to think of the angelic presence as a soothing comfort from Christ’s agony, Saint Luke writes that the angel was sent “to strengthen Him.” I believe that this is a hint of Satan’s presence in the Garden, with the angel being sent as “back-up” (so to speak) for Jesus in His conflict with the Tempter. One wonders as well if perhaps the “twelve legions of angels” that Our Lord reminds His Apostles He can call upon His Father to send to His aide were not actually present, invisible, waiting for their Lord’s command to drive off the demonic powers arrayed against Him.
New Adam, New Eve
Satan’s presence in the Garden also fits into the understanding of Our Lord as the New Adam and Our Lady as the New Eve. The temptation scene in The Passion of the Christ ends with Christ stomping on the head of a snake that has slithered out of the robes of Satan. While not mentioned explicitly in Scripture, this scene is an obvious reference to the Protoevangelium: “I shall put enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring and her’s. He shall crush your head while you strike at his heel.”
The Church Fathers saw Our Lady as the New Eve because Our Lord is the New Adam. The twelfth chapter of the Apocalypse, famous for its depiction of the “Woman Clothed with the Sun,” also explicitly identifies Satan as the “that ancient serpent…the deceiver of the whole world.” Whereas the original Adam and Eve rejected the will of God out of disobedience and thus fell to sin and death, the new Adam and Eve obediently accept the will of God.
Mary did this first at the Annunciation with her fiat (“Let it be done to me according to thy word”) and Christ does it now with His words, “Not my will but Thine be done!” In the Garden of Eden, the first Adam rejected the Will of God and disobediently stretched out his hand to the tree and brought sin and, as a result, death into the world. In the Garden of Gethsemane, the new Adam accepts the Will of God and will obediently stretch out His arms upon the tree to erase sin and give life unto the world.
Lord Jesus Christ,
Grant us, we pray, the grace to be truly sorrowful for our sins, for which you suffered so greatly and which caused you such bitter agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. Amen.