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Our Lady of the Rosary - Marian Retreat

Sorrowful Mysteries

Christ's Agony in the Garden

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

He Became Man to Suffer for Our Salvation

With the present conference we begin the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, and the first, of course, is Christ's Agony in the Garden. We begin by observing that there is a profound sense in which Christ began to suffer for the salvation of the world from the moment of His conception in Mary's womb. Moreover, we can legitimately speak of Christ's Passion as beginning, already, with the Last Supper and then ending with His death and burial. Traditionally, however, the Passion of Christ with His Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane and ended with His Crucifixion on Calvary. Altogether there are forty-four verses in the four Gospels describing Our Lord's Agony in the Garden. The most detailed in the sheer number of words are Saints Matthew and Mark. St. John is the shortest. It is well to note, however, as we begin reflecting on the sorrowful mysteries that the Passion of Christ is itself the most detailed and exhaustive narrative about Christ's life anywhere in the gospels. Evidently the Holy Spirit considered the Passion of Jesus as the single most important element for us to learn in our reflection on the Incarnate Son of God during His visible stay on earth. The single most important aspect of the Incarnation, so we are led to believe, is the long, detailed description of Christ's passion, suffering and death. No single period in Christ's life and stay on earth in His visible form is more acutely and subtly described than the few hours between Gethsemane and Calvary. Surely, the Holy Spirit wants to teach us something, namely the consummate importance of understanding that when God became Man, He became Man to suffer for our salvation.

At this point in our reflections I would like to make a chronological review of what transpired once Jesus left the Upper Room and began His Agony up to the point where He was actually betrayed by Judas. After the Last Supper and I will count these items as we go along. Item #1. We will have if you please, thirteen.

Item number one. After the Last Supper, Jesus took His now eleven Apostles minus Judas to Mt. Olivet.

He Would Be Abandoned - They Would Be Scattered

Item two. Here He told them all, that He would be abandoned and that they would be scandalized because He, the Shepherd, would be smitten and as a consequence the flock, that's they, would be scattered.

Peter - You Will Deny Me Three Times

Item three. Peter protests not he, though the other would lose courage, he would not abandon the Master – that's Peter. When Jesus told Peter, "But Peter you will deny me three times before the cock will crow twice," Peter argued, "No not me! Though everyone else abandons You, I won't." That's Peter.

Sit Down and Pray

Fourth Item. Then Jesus left the other eight Apostles. He already, mind you, at Mt. Olivet then called just three of the eight, pardon me, the three besides the eight namely Peter, James and John and took them within the confines of Mt. Olivet to the Garden of Gethsemane. Meanwhile Jesus told the Apostles to pray. It's comforting to note that He told them "sit down and pray."

My Soul is Sorrowful

Item number five. As He took Peter, James and John along with Him toward the Garden of Gethsemane, His soul became sorrowful. Then He repeated more emphatically, this time just to the three, "My soul is sorrowful, ready to die with sorrow. Do you abide here. Watch with me." Both imperative verbs are important. Abide, stay with me; and watch with me.

Item Six. Then Jesus fell on His face in prayer and prayed, "My Father if it is possible let this chalice pass from me, only as Thy Will is and not as Mine.

Watch and Pray

Item Seven. Then Jesus returned to the three apostles who He left behind and found them asleep. So He spoke not to all three but to Peter. "Had you no strength to watch with me, even for one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter in temptation. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak." More than one Roman Pontiff in history has recalled those words of Jesus in His agony to the first Pope, "Watch and pray that you might not enter into temptation." The spirit is willing but the flesh, even of the Vicar of Christ, is weak.

Thy Will Be Done

Item eight. A second time Jesus came back to pray saying the same words, "My Father if this chalice may not pass me by but I must drink it, then Thy Will be done. After the second prayer Jesus returned to the three Apostles, found them once again sleeping. This time He did not disturb them. We're told their eyes were heavy but the Evangelist Mark says, (strange statement) "they did not know what answer to make to Him." Mark, being the disciple of Peter must have got it verbatim from Peter. It seems that Jesus did speak to them but they were so drowsy, they didn't know even what to answer. It must have been Peter's explanation to his disciple Mark.

Item ten. For the last and third time, Jesus prayed to His heavenly Father and we're told in the same words.

Christ is in His Agony - Right Now

Item eleven. After His third prayer Christ returned to the once more sleeping Apostles. What a commentary on fallen human nature including, my friends, our own. Christ was in His agony in Gethsemane and His chosen, most chosen, among His chosen Apostles were fast asleep. Christ, the Mystical Christ is now in His agony. Right now. And so many and we've got to admit including ourselves; and we are asleep. After His third prayer, then, when Jesus returned and found the Apostles sleeping, He told them, told them five things.

I might add, by the way, this is the way I was trained from the first days of the Novitiate – count the items in the life and passion of Christ especially His words. If we are so spontaneously prone to count everything in the material world – we count the number of times we eat during the day. Can you imagine? People are now counting the calories, why not? Why not count the words of God who became Man to speak in human language, whose words could be counted?

First statement of Jesus for the last time to His disciples – I like this translation: "Sleep and take your rest hereafter." There's a time for sleeping which is not the time. How all of us beginning with the speaker have got to examine our consciences on how awake we are during the day when we should be alert to the Presence and prompting of Christ in our hearts.

Second statement. "Enough," that's all. Remember, every single event in the life of Christ was mysteriously planned by Him including the things that other people would willfully and even criminally do to Him. All of that, He saw and mysteriously fore-ordained. Enough, My agony is over. Now My condemnation and crucifixion are to begin.

The Son of Man is to be Betrayed into the Hands of Sinners

Third statement. "The time draws near when the Son of Man is to be betrayed into the hands of sinners." He was just minutes away. Christ knew exactly what was going to happen. And notice He identified Himself as the Son of Man. He knew perfectly well who He really was – He was the Son of God but He became the Son of Man; in other words, became the Son of Mary to take on a human nature in order to make His passion and death and our salvation possible. We don't know what might have happened had God not become Man. All we know is that God became Man in order to undergo His agony, to be condemned and to die on the Cross. That's why God became, as He identified Himself, the Son of Man. Notice what He added. "The time draws near when the Son of Man is to be betrayed into the hands of sinners."

Every Sin is a Betrayal of God

Every sin is a betrayal of God. What do we do when we sin? Not just our Faith but even our reason tells us, except for God we'd be the empty space around us. Everything, everything we are, everything we have, everything we hope to be and everything we hope to possess, everything comes from the loving, almighty, loving and voluntary Will of God. What then do we do? Remember and the Church over the centuries has never wearied repeating; and Christ said that He was to be betrayed into the hands of sinners. It was not just Judas, or Caiphas, or Annas, or the Sanhedrin, or Pilate or the executioners. It is every sinner, and I repeat, including us until the end of time.

What is Betrayal?

What is betrayal? Betrayal is denying what is really true and selling out someone whom we should love. Why? Because of our idolatrous love of self. Those thirty pieces of silver, oh they were real pieces of silver but they symbolize the heart of everyone who loves himself even – St. Augustine's favorite definition – who loves himself even to the rejection of God. There are ultimately only two loves in competition in the universe. Self-love and the love of God.

Judas is the Symbol of Every Sinner

Fourth Statement of Jesus to the Apostles after His third prayer. “Rise up, let us go on our way." That was an invitation. We can honestly say that Christ wanted, oh how He would have wanted his Apostles to go with Him. Let us go, on our way. Even as He said that He knew. As He had said three hours before – "you will abandon Me." Finally Jesus said, "Already he who is to betray me is close at hand." Judas is the symbol of every sinner from the dawn of history until the end of time.

An Angel Consoled Him

But I still have, covering the narrative items twelve and thirteen. What more is there? Well it happens that St. Luke adds what the other Evangelist do not say. And St. John adds also what the other three do not say. What does St. Luke add? Three things. St. Luke recalls that Jesus at sight of an angel encouraging Him and as the Church's tradition tells us, much of Luke's Gospel was told him by Mary. We may be sure that Our Lord after His Resurrection told His Mother an angel consoled Him. It is well for us to hear that. This is one of the purposes for having an angel. Angels, at large, and a specific individual guardian angel who we may call our consoling angel; all I know is, all I know is there are times we sure need someone to encourage us especially when, as in Christ's case, human beings failed Him.

External Evidence of Christ's Internal Suffering

St. Luke also adds a second item. In His agony, says Luke, Jesus prayed the more earnestly. What are we being told? The more deeply Christ suffered, the more earnestly He prayed. There's such a thing as praying and praying and with a thunderous voice, praying! We may safely say in God's all-wise Providence that is why He sends us, in greater or less measure, some slight corresponding, agonizing experience; corresponding in our lives to Christ's agony in the garden so we too, like Him, might not just pray but pray from the depths of our being. I hope I'm talking to the right audience. The more God loves us, and surely there no one whom the First Person of the Holy Trinity loved more than His Only-Begotten Son become Man. The more God loves us the more (what am I saying?) privilege He will give us to share in Christ's own agony. I didn't talk this way thirty years ago, I do now. It's real. Still St. Luke, Luke the physician, the only one who notes; His sweat, Luke says, fell to the ground like thick drops of blood. In other words Jesus not only agonized but His agony was so profound that He not only sweated but He sweat blood, indeed, thick drops of blood external evidence of the depths of Christ's internal suffering.

Satan Entered the Heart of Judas

Item number thirteen. St. John adds I quote: "Judas the betrayer knew the place well, period. Jesus and His disciples had often foregathered there," unquote St. John. This is the same John who describing the Last Supper says that Satan entered the heart of Judas. Judas was possessed by the same devil who tempted Christ at the beginning of His public ministry, but failed. Very well, very well, said the devil to himself, I've not been able to break down Jesus' strength of will. I'll do the next best thing I can – I will cause His death and cause His death through the betrayal of one of His chosen followers. How we need, how we need to hear this today! And how we should pray with all the earnestness of our hearts for strength and courage to the chosen followers of Christ especially the bishops, especially the priests, and especially the religious chosen by and consecrated to the Heart of Christ that they, let me change the pronoun, that we might not betray Jesus Christ. And if there is one class of persons that the devil specializes in using , it is particularly those who, then, specially called by Jesus to follow Him; and the worst agony of the Mystical Body of Christ has been the results of the betrayal of those whom Christ has chosen to be His most intimate companions and followers.

Some Insights of the Great Devotees of Our Lady

Having gone over the narrative we now have what I call some selected facts and corresponding implications for our spiritual life. First important fact. Notice what I'm doing. I'm going back over the whole narrative and in doing this, by the way, I'm also sharing with you some of the insights of the great devotees of Our Lady over the centuries in their recitation of the Rosary and their meditation on the Sorrowful Mysteries beginning with Christ's Agony in the Garden. Choose and pick, select certain facets of a long narrative to concentrate on, pull them out for doctrinal reflection, and apply them to our spiritual lives.

Our Heaviest Cross is in the Heart

First; Christ's agony in the garden came between the Last Supper and the actual betrayal. This has profound implications. Question number one. Might Christ have finished the Last Supper and on His way somewhere with the Apostles been confronted by Judas and betrayed? Neither have been, absolutely speaking, an agony in the garden. Well no, but why, why was there an agony in the first place? And why did all four Evangelists, I counted the verses, forty-four verses describe the agony. To teach us and this is where Our Lady comes in deeply, to teach us that the hardest and the most difficult fulfillment, God's Will, is within us! The heaviest cross we have to carry is not on our shoulders. Our heaviest cross is in the heart.

Christ's Deepest Suffering was His Agony - His Suffering Within

The external sufferings of Christ would be narrated at great length by the Evangelists but before they began Christ wanted to make sure and the Holy Spirit who inspired the Scriptures wanted to make sure that we realized that Christ's deepest suffering, listen, was not His crucifixion; it was His agony. Sure, Sure, He suffered in body. He was a Man with human flesh and blood but Christ also and mainly and most profoundly suffered in spirit. What spirit? The human spirit – the human soul that God assumed, how liable we are to forget this. God became Man, He didn't just become a human body. He assumed a human soul so that He might redeem the world, first and primarily and most deeply by His suffering within.

The Principal Source of Grace is Prayer

Second aspect of Christ's Agony that bears special emphasis. Nothing in Christ's life more clearly reveals His humanity than what Jesus endured and even articulated during the three hours agony in Gethsemane. There was His natural human dread of being betrayed, abandoned and then suffering in His body. And as we know the anticipation of pain can be more dreadful than the actual experience itself. Again the realization, this is Christ teaching us that human nature; Christ was teaching us – absolutely speaking did Jesus have to pray? Absolutely speaking. No. Did He pray? He sure did, earnestly, to teach us the more we anticipate (as Christ was anticipated) the heavy hand of God on our shoulders and our souls, the more we must pray to obtain the grace we need to be able to cope with the trials of life. What are we being told? It is impossible and the word is impossible! I don't say to thrive, even to survive while trying to remain faithful to God given the heavy price God will demand of our weak, very weak human nature. We need help and make sure we know this (this is an article of faith) we are never, never guaranteed that at a time when we have a temptation or a trial, or some tragedy enters our lives; we never have the guarantee of the grace we need then and there to cope with the trial or resist the temptation. Am I clear? We only have the grace but better use that grace; we only have the grace to pray to get the grace to cope. And the principal source of grace in our lives is prayer. Those who pray, and this is an infallible teaching of the Church, those who pray will reach heaven, period. Those who do not pray will be damned, period.

Not My Will But Thine Be Done

We're still on the second aspect of the agony that so reveals Christ's humanity. In Christ being human there was what we may call His instinctive human dread of suffering. Notice, instinctive, spontaneous, and theologically we add the word, involuntary. We don't have to decide, I didn't have to school to learn to be afraid. Am I clear? Christ's dread of all that He would have to undergo and not only that – the sorrow that He felt being Man, over so many in the centuries to come – not benefiting from the graces He won for them by His passion and death. He was sorrowful. He was frightened. As Luke tells us "He sweat blood." But here's the key: and in teaching Christology to my Jesuit students, I told them; there is no contradiction, whatever, it is no indication of His not being pleasing to God because we sometimes find doing God's Will or carrying God's Will into practice a frightening experience. Christ, the Son of God had the experience. Ah! But whatever name we give that faculty in our human nature that reacts thus terrifyingly, frightenly to what we just don't want. This same human nature has a free will! What Christ experienced He wanted us to learn from Him when then He told His Father, "Not my will, but Thine be done." The "My will" that Jesus referred to in speaking to His Father was that spontaneous, instinctive, perfectly human dread, agonizing pain that Christ's human mind told Him is the Will of the Father. What mistakes we can make in misinterpreting what it means to do the Will of God. Only one thing matters, nothing else – that our free, cold, naked, voluntary will, wants what God wants even though everything else in our body and spirit may be agonizing, and not wanting what we know is the Divine Will.

His Apostles Would Be Scandalized - What's the Scandal?

Third aspect. Christ wanted encouragement from His Apostles, especially from those who were dearest to Him. They failed Him in Gethsemane. One among them, Peter was to be the Rock on which He would build His Church, was about to deny Him. Judas would betray Him. And all the Apostles as He foretold would be scandalized. What's the scandal? Strange language. What's the scandal? The scandal is the Cross! Oh how many people, how many priests, how many religious, how many mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, young people (oh! I'm a Christian in fact I'm a Roman Catholic); what so many people want is Christ without His Cross. That is not only the pseudo-Christ. That is the antichrist.

Mary Wept Bitter Tears During Her Son's Agony

Closing words on Our Lady's role in her Son's Agony. If we go to the Church's great spiritual writers, they tell us, she knew. He told her what He would undergo. And although she was not in Gethsemane in body, she was with Him in spirit. Mystics, like St. Bridget tell us that Mary wept bitter tears, during her Son's three hours agony in the garden. St Bonaventure, a Doctor of the Church, addresses this prayer to Our Lady: "You, Mary, spent the night without sleep while the Apostles of your Son slept. You remained watching in His company."


Lord Jesus, Your agony in the Garden of Gethsemane reveals more than anything else how truly, how pathetically human you really are! Protect us, dear Jesus, from ever making the mistake of thinking we are following You unless we are willing to follow in Your bloody footsteps from Gethsemane to Calvary. Amen.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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