The Agony In The Garden

We tend to misunderstand "the passion of Jesus." Spontaneously we think of it as the pain of the physical sufferings he endured on the road to his death. Partly that misses the point. Jesus' passion should be understood precisely as passio, a passivity, a certain submissive helplessness he had to undergo in counter-distinction to his power and activity. The passion of Jesus refers to the helplessness he had to endure during the last hours of his life, a helplessness extremely fruitful for him and for us.

The first component in that helplessness begins in the Garden of Gethsemane immediately after he had celebrated the Last Supper. The Scriptures tell us that he went out into the garden with his disciples to pray for the strength he needed to face the ordeal that was now immanent. It's significant that this agony should take place in a garden. In archetypal literature (as this Scripture is), a garden is not a place to pick cucumbers and onions. A garden is a place of delight, a place of love, a place to drink wine, the place where lovers meet in the moonlight, the place of intimacy. The garden is paradise. That's why Adam and Eve in their paradisiacal state are described as being in a garden.

So it's no accident that Jesus ends up having to sweat blood in a garden, for it is precisely as a lover that he is in agony there. The Jesus who sweats blood in the Garden of Gethsemane is not the great King, full of pain because the sheep will not heed the shepherd. Nor is he the great Magus (Wise One), full of sorrow because no one wants to pick up on the truth he's revealed. Nor is he even the great Warrior, frustrated in his efforts to defeat the powers of sin, death and darkness. These pains and frustrations mostly take place elsewhere : among the crowds, in the Temple, in the desert. The garden is for lovers, not for kings, magi or warriors.

It's Jesus, the Lover, the one who calls us to intimacy and delight with him, who sweats blood in the garden. That's why, in describing his suffering during his passion, the evangelists focus little on his physical sufferings (which must have been horrific). Indeed, Mark puts it all in a single line: "They led him away and crucified him." What the Gospel writers focus on is not the scouring, the whips, the ropes, the nails, the physical pain : none of that! They emphasize rather that, in all of this, Jesus is alone, misunderstood, lonely, isolated, without support. What's emphasized is his suffering as a lover: the agony of a heart that's ultra-sensitive, gentle, loving, understanding, warm, inviting, hungry to embrace everyone, but which instead finds itself alone, hated, brutalized, facing murder.

That's the point that has been too often missed in both spirituality and popular devotion... In Gethsemane we see Jesus suffering because he is a lover. His agony is not that of the Son of God, frustrated because many people will not accept his sacrifice. Nor even is his agony the all too understandable fear of the physical pain that awaits him. No, his real pain is that of the Lover who's been misunderstood and rejected in a way that is mortal and humiliating.

What Jesus is undergoing in Gethsemane might aptly be paralleled to what a good, faithful, sensitive and deeply respectful woman or man would feel if falsely accused of pedophilia, publicly judged as guilty, and now made to stand powerless before all : family, friends, loved ones, the world! Such a person too would surely pray, "If it is possible, let this cup pass from me!"

The agony in the garden is many things. Yet first of all it is Jesus' entry into the darkest black hole of human existence: the black hole of misunderstanding, rejection, aloneness, humiliation and the helplessness to do anything about it. His agony in the garden is the black hole of sensitivity brutalized by callousness, love brutalized by hatred, goodness brutalized by misunderstanding, innocence brutalized by wrong judgment, forgiveness brutalized by murder, heaven brutalized by hell. This is the deepest black hole of loneliness; it brings the lover within us to the ground in agony, begging for release.

So whenever our mouths are pushed into the garden dust of misunderstanding and loneliness inside that black hole, it's helpful to realize that Jesus the Lover was there before us, tasting the very same dust.

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