Sermon for Maundy Thursday. The Agony in the garden of Gethsemane.
Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.
When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow. “Why are you sleeping?” he asked them. “Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.”
by Ksenia Smykova
You know these situations of anxiety when you’re approaching something that is absolutely necessary - and painful. Like going to the dentist. You’re waiting for your appointment in the hospital parlor on pins and needles, your stomach turns upside down. At the same time, you know that at the end it’s all going to go well. The doctor is a real professional, so no worries. Just take courage and make that step over the threshold of the treatment room from where you will soon be released better than you were before.
You know the situations I’m talking about? – Well, this is what is not happening in the garden of Gethsemane.
The garden was a place familiar to Christ and his disciples. Luke mentions that it was His custom to come and pray there. It was the usual place. A place where so many hours were spent in peace and silence or good conversation.
After the Passover meal Christ takes His disciples up here to pray. Gospel says that He started to get anxious. In His anguish Jesus prayed more earnestly. The Greek word in the text that stands for anguish is agonia. It can also be translated as battle or struggle. This outwardly peaceful place becomes a background for the inner battle. What kind of battle is it?
The old world is going to an end, while the new one is not yet born, but the birth pains have already begun. The moment Jesus is living through is pregnant with the future that is to come. Yet – the struggle is not with the future that is supposedly already predicted, but with Himself. He Himself becomes the battlefield. The desire for the cup to be removed - on one side, the desire to fulfil Father's will - on the other. They clash, creating a conflict so intense that it makes Jesus sweat blood.
His own will, His freely taken decision is the only thing that is able to resolve it now. Christ’s own will is the only thing that separates the present moment from the future. It is Christ’s personal drama that we are witnessing. The struggle with His freedom. His relationship with the Father is not the one of submission, but one of loving trust. Paradoxically, in this moment of pain and in the Passion narrative in general the nature of that relationship shines through ever more brightly.
All along His ministry Christ was quoting the Torah and the prophets, that allude to His crucifixion. He was talking about the temple of His body that is going to be raised. The same prayer at Gethsemane is preceded by the institution of the Eucharist where He already commands the disciples to celebrate what is about to happen.
But at this moment in the garden, we have the things put into a new perspective. Jesus does not feel bound by anything. Nor by the Scriptures, nor by the prophecies, nor by the anticipated gift of himself at the Eucharist. His dialogue is only with the Father for whom everything is possible. Everything that the Son asks. When later that night Jesus is arrested and Peter takes out his sword, Christ rebukes him: “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then will the Scriptures be fulfilled..."
Yes, He chooses to suffer so that the Scriptures be fulfilled. But He does not suffer because the Scriptures have predicted it. He is not bound by them. God is not God of Fate. "Fate" is not a Christian word. It does not exist. God is God of freedom. But what does freedom mean – that He shows us with his own example.
Many people before and after Christ have been tortured and martyred, in ways more violent than the crucifixion. But Christ is the only one who could have stopped it at any moment. He could have actually decided at any moment not to continue on the way of the Cross.
It means that the agony of Christ is the agony of someone who in the course of hours moment after moment does not simply face something that is going to happened to Him anyway, but consciously decides to go on until the end. This is the most amazing thing: the reason the Passion and the Resurrection happen is not because there is a script already ready. It is exclusively because of God’s love and faithfulness. Because “Thy will be done” is more important to Christ than anything else.
His freedom - the real freedom - is not being yourself an obstacle on the way of love.
Christ’s Passion is not going to the dentist knowing with absolute certainty that everything is going to be alright. By choosing to assume human nature he accepts all the suffering that we can potentially experience, every sin afflicting the mankind. The totality of obstacels that separate us from God. All of the human terror of doubt and uncertainty, of loneliness. The fear of abandonment, the extreme form of which is death. Death is as real for Him as it is for us.
We are very used to glorious images of Christ Resurrected, Christ the king, Christ in His godliness and power. It makes us doubt the completeness, the truth of his humanity. Does He really know things from within, does He know how it feels to be me? Does He know what it is to act by faith, not knowing whether any good will come out of our effort?
He knows it very well. He has lived through all of this. He knows what is solitude. When, despite the efforts of the people around us, we feel alone. He knows how does it feel to be confronted with feelings that are unutterable. So deep and so intimate that they cannot be shared with anyone. In fact, he doesn’t just know it. He is not a psychotherapist that just listens to our complaints and gives counseling. He chooses to bear our burden with us.
He has entered in the intimacy of our battle against ourselves. In this battle He fights on our side. On the side of real us. The honest us, the caring us, the merciul us. The true us that have that freedom not to be an obstacle on the way of love.
Becoming your true self sometimes can a real agony. But this is the way of doing the Father's will. This is the way of freedom. This is the way of the Resurrection.
May your heart and mind find be filled with His presence as we approach Easter. The peace of the Lord is with you.
Arkhip Kuindzhi, Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane