Each issue carries an imprimatur from
the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
Agony in the Garden
Understanding the Passion of Jesus
by Ronald Rolheiser
The Agony in the
in the Garden of
Gethsemane, is one of the
great texts in Scripture.
You’ll find it in Luke 22,
Matthew 26 and Mark 14.
Many will know it as one
of the Sorrowful Mysteries
of the Rosary. It’s also one
of the major Christian
icons, one that’s just
etched into our psyche.
That’s because it’s a deep
text, one loaded with
meaning. In this Update,
I’d like to break open this
text a bit for us, and show
how Jesus’ encounter with
this sacred space can be a
key for our own encounter
with the sacred.
It’s a moment, the few hours after the Last Supper, that Jesus had to prepare
for his death. That’s a lot of pressure, the kind that brings life sharply into focus.
What would you do if you knew you were in your final hours? Or, better yet, how
could that type of insight affect the choices you make between now and then?
That’s what the Agony in the Garden is all about.
In this Update we’ll look at three major aspects of the scriptural text. First,
we’ll talk about the Passion of Christ, the context for the Agony in the Garden.
Then we want to enter with Jesus into the Garden. What is the real drama of the
Garden of Gethsemane? Finally, we’ll take a look at some of the deeply moving
images that are written into this text.
The Meaning of Agony
The word agony is not just a pious term
from the Rosary or other traditions;
it’s a term from Scripture. In Greek
they talk about Christ’s agonia. We
know what agony means in English, but in Greek,
at the time of Jesus, it was also a technical term
for what athletes did warming up for the Olympic
Games. During that warm-up, the Greek athletes
would produce a certain sweat which would warm
up their muscles and ready them for coming combat.
That sweat, that lather, was called their agonia.
Luke is telling us that Jesus does an agonia to get ready for his passion. In essence, Luke is
saying, we don’t move from being self-pampering
to dying on a cross without some preparation.
The Agony in the Garden is the warm-up, the
readying, the agonia for the Passion that follows.
But what is the Passion of our Lord Jesus
Christ? The English word passion gives you a
false image. In English the word passion refers
to something that’s very deep in terms of feeling
love. But although you certainly can have passion
and love, you also can have passion and suffering.
When we think of Christ’s Passion, we think
of all the suffering that Jesus did. It’s more a
sense of passivity, or passiveness.
In Jesus’ passivity he gives his death for us,
unlike during all his active life up until the Agony
in the Garden, when he gives his life for us. We
often lump these together and miss the distinction.
Christ gave his life and his death for us. We give
our lives for each other in our activity; we give
our deaths for each other in our passivity.
When blood and water poured out of the
crucified Jesus (see John 19:31-37), we see not
only a sign of Baptism and Eucharist, though
clearly that is part of the story. We see also
another sign. What are blood and water? Blood is
the life principle that flows between us, it makes
us alive. Water washes us. So what the evangelist
is saying at another level is that Jesus died in
such a way that it makes us freer. We’re able to
live life; life flows more easily and we’re able to
live cleanly. That is when we are free of guilt.
Drama of the Garden
Do you ever wonder why that drama
happens in a garden? It’s the Agony
in the Garden, it’s not the Agony in
the Temple, the Agony in the Synagogue,
or the Agony on a Mountaintop, or in the Boat at Sea. In Scripture, where something takes
place is always much, much more than geography.
At a deeper level, the geography is spiritual; it’s
a place in the heart.
Why the garden? Gardens don’t appear that
often in Scripture, but they’re very important.
In spirituality, gardens have nothing to do with
cucumbers, radishes, garlic. Gardens are where
lovers go. That’s very important in getting to
the drama of the Agony in the Garden. This is a
drama inside of love. That’s why the beginning,
where Scripture opens up, we’re in the Garden
of Eden. In the garden you can be naked.
There’s no shame in the garden.
Where does Mary Magdalene, who was the
great lover in Scripture, find Jesus on Easter
Sunday, in the morning? In a garden. Remember
the wonderful old gospel hymn that Elvis Presley
famously recorded: “I come to the garden alone,
and he walks with me, and he talks with me, and
he tells me I am his own. And the joy we feel
when we tarry there... .” That’s Jesus as a lover,
and he calls us into the Garden.
Nothing against Mel Gibson’s film The
Passion of the Christ, but Jesus wasn’t a
physical athlete. The evangelists don’t emphasize
the whips, the beatings, the thorns, the blood,
the nails. They emphasize he was alone, betrayed,
humiliated, hung out to dry. Nobody stood up
When you read Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is saying
in the Last Supper that he is dreading what’s
going to happen. He doesn’t speak about the
ropes and the whips and the chains, he doesn’t
say, “You know, I’m really going to get beaten
up out there.” He says, “You’re all going to
betray me. I’m going to be alone.”
Three Tests of the Garden
I remember a teacher I had in grade school
who explained Jesus’ sweating blood as a
kind of pious moment for a Jesus who knew
how everything would turn out. But it’s
more than that. Sweating blood in the Garden is
about the drama inside of love—the drama that’s
deepest inside of your loneliness. What’s happening
in the Garden is a test of love. In essence
there are really three tests that tie together into
one test in the Garden:
1. Lose the Resentment
The first test is: Can you give your life over in
love without resentment and bitterness? Henri Nouwen says: “The sensitive world is not bound
up between those who are bound to duty.” You
know we have to take care of sick mothers and
work inside the Church and take care of kids and
take care of parishes and cook the holiday dinner
because nobody else is going to do it. Now all
sensitive people are bound to duty—some do it
with resentment; others give it over freely. See,
the first part of the major drama in the Garden of
Gethsemane is that Jesus has to give himself over
to this death, which is hard, which is suffering,
which is sacrificial. But he has to do it without
resentment. He has to carry the cross and not
send the bill.
Jesus was going to die anyway. But his great
gift was that he could die, he gave his life over
without bitterness, without price tag, without
anger, without resentment, with complete
forgiveness. The Resurrection is all about
forgiveness. Jesus came back and he never
challenged anybody with, “Where were you
when I needed you?” He came back just in
pure grace, transforming suffering into deeper
2. Face Humiliation
But tied to that, Jesus has to face a powerful
humiliation. We don’t get the drama of the
Crucifixion unless we really enter into this
powerful humiliation of Good Friday. Consider
what the risen Jesus tells the disciples on Easter
Sunday in the morning on the road to Emmaus
Luke says on that morning two disciples
are walking away from Jerusalem. Jerusalem
was the Church. It was their faith dream but it
was also the place of humiliation. And they
are walking towards Emmaus, a spa. Today it
would be like Las Vegas. The disciples are going
for some human consolation and they meet Jesus
on the road, yet they don’t recognize him. Why
not? Because they have written him off, because
they’ve seen him humiliated.
Then Jesus says to them: “Wasn’t it necessary?
Wasn’t it necessary that the Christ should
so have to suffer and enter into his glory?”
What’s the necessary connection? Essentially
what Jesus is saying to the disciples on the
road to Emmaus is that you can’t get Easter
Sunday if you don’t get the humiliation of
What suffering or humiliation does for us,
if we get it right, is to give us moral intelligence.
You learn it from your own humiliations. I
remember one lecturer, James Hillman, who
said, think of all the things that have made
you deep in your life. In virtually every case,
you know what brought that depth into your
life? Some humiliation you wouldn’t want to
talk about. You know, some powerlessness,
whether it was being beat up on the playground,
being the girl who was never asked to dance,
having a fat mother or alcoholic father, being a
victim of sexual abuse when you were a child,
whatever—powerful sufferings. They have
made you deep. They have given you character.
We see the same in the lives of many of our
saints who suffered. They, like Jesus before
them, allowed suffering to bring them to
compassion; not to bitterness. That’s the test.
3. Sacrifice for the Greater Good
The final test is this: Can you give your life
over and sacrifice today—your career, pleasure
and everything else—for something that’s
more long-range? Jesus had to die at age 33.
That’s not easy to do: It’s not easy to die at
any age. Yet to give his life over in trust for
something long-range, where it wasn’t going to
pay off today, is the opposite of despair. That’s
what real hope is.
So many of our sins are sins of despair.
They’re not sins of malice; rather, they’re what
I call practical despair. They’re sins where we
say, “Given my life, I’m going to settle for
second-best or third-best because ‘first best’ is
never going to happen for me anyway.”
My dad wasn’t very educated, but he knew
the Agony in the Garden. There was always a
picture hanging in our house of Jesus in Gethsemane.
My dad always told me, “If you’re going
to be faithful in anything, whether you’re going
to be a priest, whether you’re going to be married
or whatever, you better learn how to sweat blood
because that’s what it’s going to take.” Truly,
if you’re going to be faithful to anything—to
marriage, to a priestly or religious vocation,
to anything—learn how to sweat blood, because
that’s what it’s going to take.
What we get in the Garden of Gethsemane,
is Jesus, deeply. That’s because Jesus is our
model. He is the person we all look up to when
we suffer—we know we’re not praying to somebody
who didn’t taste it in all its darkness.
Remember the old translation of the Our
Father? In place of “and lead us not into
temptation,” we used to say, “and do not put us
to the test.” What is the test? We’re telling God
something like, “God, in my life I know you can test me the way you tested Jesus. I know you
can make me sweat blood, but cut me a little
slack. Make these things a little easier for me in
my life so I don’t have to taste that complete
darkness.” See, though, that darkness is the test
of the moral athlete, inside of our moral loneliness.
It’s not the test of our physical capacity to
That’s why we need to move beyond the
scourging metaphor of the Stations of the Cross.
There’s much more to the Stations. The Passion
is not about the blood and the ropes and the
whipping and how much Jesus endured. It’s
about something we’re meant to imitate. It’s
about our moral and emotional athleticism the
next time we have temptation. It’s about the test
inside of love, and it happens in a garden.
The Sleeping Apostles
We have examples in Scripture
of the rich things in the Garden.
Luke’s Gospel, for
instance, says, “Jesus went
into the garden and he told his disciples, ‘Pray
that you may not undergo the test’” (Luke
22:40). Rather than telling them to join in his
prayer, we’re supposed to learn something by
watching Jesus. Then he has this drama in the
Garden and finally gives his life over to his
Father. He says: “Not my will but yours be done.”
Then he turns around and, as Luke says,
“they were all asleep.” Out of what? Tiredness?
No. Luke says they were asleep out of grief
(22:45), sheer sorrow. That’s an incredible
line. They were asleep out of what? They
were asleep out of depression. It was just too
depressing to get the lesson. Most of the time
when we’re asleep, we’re not asleep physically.
When we don’t get something, it’s just too
depressing to get.
The Moment of Grace
About a month before Dr. Martin
Luther King, Jr., was murdered for
his moral bravery, he recounted one
of the many threatening phone calls
he received. He said the phone rang and a person
said, “If you come here we’re going to kill
you.” And he said, in telling the story, that he
had heard those life-threatening calls many
times before, “but that night, for whatever reason,
it shook me to my roots. I couldn’t go back
to sleep. I brewed some coffee. I drank the
whole pot.” He said: “I began to cry at the
kitchen table, and I lost all my courage.” He
said: “I put my head in my hands and I thought,
I can’t do this anymore. I don’t want to die.”
And he said: “At that moment I felt this
strength in me that I had never felt before. I knew
what to do, what I needed to do.” You see the
Agony in the Garden, and it’s only after the
agony that the angel can come. See, then Jesus
got up. Then he was the athlete who was ready.
Then he could walk to his passion.
When Jesus left the Last Supper room,
he couldn’t do it. That was the great transition.
Only after he had broken down, had sweated the
blood, had told his Father many times, “I don’t
want to do this,” he finally broke down and
accepted it. How many of us, in our own way,
experience that frustration, that same sense of
abandonment? Yet, at the moment of acceptance,
God’s liberating grace flows. As Luke
says of Jesus in the Garden, the angel comes.
That’s a deep theology of grace.
NEXT: Divine Mercy Sunday (by Alfred McBride, O. Praem.)