Ecclesiasticus 4:28

"Fight to the death for truth, and the Lord God will war on your side."

Ora pro nobis,

Most Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Francis de Sales, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Dominic. Amen.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The First Sorrowful Mystery

The Agony in the Garden

Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee,
Blessed art thou amongst women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
A Reading from the Holy Gospel According to St. Luke (22:39-54a)
He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, "Pray that you may not come into the time of trial." Then he withdrew from them about a stone's throw, knelt down, and prayed, "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done." Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground. When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, "Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial."
While he was still speaking, suddenly a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him; but Jesus said to him, "Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?" When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, "Lord, should we strike with the sword?" Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, "No more of this!" And he touched his ear and healed him. Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders who had come for him, "Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!"
Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest's house.
The Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ.

I love Mel Gibson's depiction of Jesus' agony in the garden in The Passion of the Christ. The moment when Satan, trying to dissuade Jesus from the Cross, has discouraged Him with agonising temptations to give up on His hopeless mission, he sends a snake toward Jesus, who, regaining some strength and focus as it approaches, rises, and decisively crushes the head of the serpent under His foot.

This beautifully symbolic scene not only sets the movie's theme that it is in Christ's suffering that He (and we) emerges victorious, it also very concretely illustrates the truth behind the scenes of what is taking place in the Garden during Jesus' agony--that is, Jesus, in Gethsemane, is doing right what Adam did wrong in Eden. Christ's victory recapitulates the Fall of Man. As Archbishop Fulton Sheen wrote in his book, Life of Christ,
As Adam lost the heritage of union with God in a garden, so now Our Blessed Lord ushered in its restoration in a garden. Eden and Gethsemane were the two gardens around which revolved the fate of humanity. In Eden, Adam sinned; in Gethsemane, Christ took humanity's sin upon Himself. In Eden, Adam hid himself from God; in Gethsemane, Christ interceded with His Father; in Eden, God sought out Adam in his sin of rebellion; in Gethsemane, the New Adam sought out the Father in His submission and resignation. In Eden, a sword was drawn to prevent entrance into the garden and thus immortalizing of evil; in Gethsemane, the sword would be sheathed (p. 334).
Whereas while Adam was in the Garden of Eden, he enjoyed perfect bliss, Christ, upon entering the Garden of Gethsemane, began His agony and passion. Christ's agony went far beyond physical pain. It was even greater than the knowledge of the coming pain of the Crucifixion--though that was indeed part of it, for sure. His agony was strengthened by the inability of His closest friends to keep watch with Him, but not caused by it. The fact that one of His own disciples was the one to betray Him--with a show of feigned friendship, no less--surely augmented the pain He felt. But the true source surely was the spiritual pain of becoming our Scapegoat.

In the Old Testament, the Law prescribed that, on the Day of Atonement, the sins of the nation be spoken over, and thus transferred to, a particular goat, who would then bear them out into the wilderness and away from the people. At the same time, a second goat would be sacrificed on the altar to atone for the sins of the people, and its blood would be sprinkled on the Ark of the Covenant (cf. Leviticus 16:5-16). Through His Crucifixion, Christ would fulfil completely the roles of both these sacrifices, which we will discuss in greater detail in later posts--but it was here, in the Garden, that Christ began to bear upon Himself all our sins, as our ultimate Scapegoat. As Archbishop Sheen again writes,
This was the moment when Our Blessed Lord, in obedience to His Father's will, took upon Himself the iniquities of all the world and became the sin-bearer. He felt all the agony and torture of those who deny guilt, or sin with impunity and do no penance. It was the prelude of the dreadful desertion which He had to endure and would pay to His Father's justice, the debt which was due from us: to be treated as a sinner. He was smitten as a sinner while there was no sin in Him--it was this which caused the agony, the greatest the world has ever known (ibid., p. 338).
It was this agony which caused Christ, for the second time in His recorded life, to shed His blood, which poured from Him mingled with His sweat. It was this agony which attempted to tear a rift between His Human and Divine Natures--His human will to live recoiling from His divine will to obey the Father. And so He prayed, not once, but three times, that He might escape from the Cross--and just as quickly each time, that He might submit Himself to it and cling to the Father's will more steadfastly. Adam, in the Garden, doubted God's Goodness, and thinking that there was greater pleasure in disobeying, rebelled against God, and brought death to mankind. Jesus, knowing that His obedience to God's Goodness would cost Him further excruciating pain, nevertheless trusted Himself to that Goodness, and submitted to the will of His Father, and through His obedience, brought Life to mankind.

And through it all, His closest friends slept. For a long time, I couldn't believe that Peter, James, John, and the others could actually be able to sleep during this dark time. Even if they were tired, could not the importance of the event, the despair on our Lord's face, the warning to watch and pray, could these not motivate the disciples to stay awake? Were they so apathetic? Were they so lazy?

And then I reread St. Luke's account in preparation for this meditation, and I saw something I had never noticed before. Luke, in his thoroughness and charity, gave us the reason for the disciples' sleep. "When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief" (Luke 22:45). Perhaps grief does not have the same effect on you that it has on me. Perhaps in your anguish, you do not feel the irresistible urge to curl up and fall asleep. I do. It's not a very practical response--especially when one is arguing with one's wife. Especially when that one happens to be in the wrong, and rather than sleeping, should be working to make amends. Nevertheless, I've found that in my own life, just that seems to happen. In my most despairing moments--even in the midst of personal conflict, particularly with my wife--I get drowsy. I can literally barely keep my eyes open. And so, as much as I, like any other devout Christian since Peter himself, think that, had I been there, I would have gone with Christ bravely right to the Cross--in my humbler, saner moments, I know that, had I really been there, the disciples would never have been sleeping through my own snoring. I certainly do not intend to defend their deplorable behaviour, but instead, to keep us, so distant from the events, from judging them too unfairly, thinking that we were somehow the better Christians. Or, just maybe, I'm the only one who ever has thoughts that sound like "Well, if I had been there..."

And so, Jesus rouses His disciples, reminding them to keep watch and to pray, that they would not fall into temptation. Perhaps, had they stayed awake and done as He told them, they truly would not have run away in cowardice. Perhaps Peter would not have denied our Lord those three times. We'll never know, but it makes one realise the importance of persevering in prayer, instead of giving in to our baser instincts. The final time, though, Jesus knows it is too late for prayer. Judas has come, and brought guests to the party, and so He sarcastically quips to his followers that they can sleep on now--the real cause of grief has arrived. Chagrined by His words, the disciples rise up and prepare to fight--because having slept through Jesus' prayer, they have lost sight of the mission. Jesus, however, steps out to meet the crowd of soldiers, asking whom they are seeking. When they reply "Jesus of Nazareth," according to St. John, Jesus replies, saying simply, "I Am." These two words more than identified Jesus as the one for whom they were looking, but more, being God's own self-designation in the Old Testament, Jesus is identifying Himself as God Himself--and the force of His words, and the majestic authority behind them, cause all the guards to step back and fall to the ground (John 18:3-6). As Sheen points out, "His humanity was never separate from His Divinity, as never the Cross without the Resurrection. A moment before He had been undergoing the agony; now the majesty of His Divinity shone forth" (ibid., p.342).

Judas, formerly His friend, kissed Jesus, and the guards, recovering from their introduction to real authority, led Jesus away to the earthly authorities, who would sentence the Lord of Life to death--the death which would give all who embraced it eternal life.

As we meditate on Christ's agony, may we keep watch over our own hearts, that we do not fall into temptation. Amen.

(Category: Catholic Devotions: The Rosary.)

1 comment:

Melissa said...

Wow! Sweetheart that was really cool. You laid everything out so clearly and it was very moving.