Icons open forever onto Gethsemane
In this section you’ll find a few key words that will sum up Jesus’ way in Gethsemane. We believe them to be dimensions that will live forever, just like open icons are for those who look into - regardless of their proneness or intention to penetrate mystery – and are mysteriously encountered by the Person of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God.
Jesus, following his last supper with his disciples and after entrusting his last farewell words to them (Jn 17), leaves the Cenacle and descends towards the Kidron river to start the way that will culminate on the cross. He gets to a garden that Mark and Matthew call Gethsemane (Mc 14,32; Mt 26,36). This place was probably cultivated land with a drystone wall all around it, just like any other land that can still be found today in the Holy Land.
John says that Jesus often met in that garden (greek: kêpos) with his disciples (Jn 18,1). Jesus like Adam is tempted in a garden and a garden is also the burial place where there was the tomb for the resurrection. The theological theme of Jesus as the new Adam, that St. Paul deals with in the Letter to the Romans (Rom 5,12-21), is closely connected with what occurs in the garden of Gethsemane.
God creates Adam, the first man, in his image and according to his likeness, and puts him in the garden of Eden, the place where he gets tempted and where he sins eating of the forbidden fruit (Gen chapters 2 and 3).
Adam’s sin spreads to all humankind, generating an evil condition in man. But God puts another man in the garden: his son Jesus. It’s in the garden of Gethsemane that Jesus, as the new Adam, is tempted by evil: a temptation that fills him with anguish and makes him urge his disciples to pray “that you may not come into the time of trial” (Lk 22,40). Jesus shares man’s misery, weakness and the dual condition of good and evil. But it is in his obedience to the Father’s will and in winning sin in himself that Jesus becomes the new Adam (Heb 10,5 ff), who saves the whole humankind and gives back man’s likeness of God.
Now Jesus reopens this garden, a place that God had intended for man, that is the location of the Song of Solomon: where the bridegroom encounters his bride. And the garden that Jesus reopens is also a place in which the encounter with God turns into love and becomes a new covenant.
The only time when the evangelists use the term “anguish” attributing it to Jesus is in the Garden of Olives, when “He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated” (Mk 14, 33). The disciples that Jesus took with him were the most intimate, who had witnessed his splendor manifested on the mount of Tabor, and, made strong by what they had seen, should have been able to sustain the vision of Jesus in the grip of anguish without losing hope. They should have accompanied him with their prayers, watching over him.
The anguish that Jesus endured was very real as he himself says: «I am deeply grieved, even to death» (Mk 14,34). Jesus uses elements from the Psalms: «I am deeply grieved » (see Ps 43,5) and the phrase «even to death» echoes experiences lived by many of those in the Old Testament that God had designated as messangers, who had invoked death to bring relief due to the hostilities they had suffered during their mission assigned by God (Nm 11, 14-15).
We can say that if there is a specific moment and a place where Jesus’ humanity is unequivocally demonstrated, that is in the Garden of Olives on the night when Jesus was betrayed by Judas.
In this place, where Jesus is troubled, it is his weakness that seems to prevail. Luke describes him «in his anguish»: Jesus, like Job suffering, is gloomed and shadowed facing the fear of death (Lk 22,44). This feeling troubled and frightened is a human reaction when someone is facing the fear of death, whereas anguish denotes the state of being lonely, forsaken and abandoned which is typical of a man living the silence of God.
Whereas John does not provide a description of Jesus’ tragic interior battle at Gethsemane, he does not fail to take notice of the Master’s troubled soul. In fact, after the «Hosanna» shouted by the great crowd at Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, John puts the announcement of Jesus’ glorification (Jn 12,20-36). Jesus, while being sought by some Greeks, who ideally represent the pagan world, understands that the hour of the Father has come, that is his death on the cross is approaching: «Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself» (Jn 12, 31-32). Here Jesus is troubled: «Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say – Father, save me from this hour? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.» (Jn 12,27).
Yet, in John Jesus is not left alone in his anguish. Just like the other times when Jesus speaks to his Father, the Father, who is listening, answers: «Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”» (Jn 12, 28).
Unlike, in the Synoptic Gospels Jesus’ experience at Gethsemane is of extreme loneliness. Here the Father remains silent. And Jesus’ anguish and loneliness is not exterior, like that of a witnesses, but it is interior and very profound, in his inner being he is the most lonely man of all and the most forsaken, he is put to the test in his flesh that «is weak» (Mt 26, 41), meaning in his most profound humanity. Luke only puts an angel by Jesus’ side to comfort him (see Lk 22, 43).
Jesus fights his weakness by clinging to the Father in prayer. Jesus’ whole life is an intimate relationship to the Father. After Jesus withdraws to desolate places and prays to be alone with God on a hill or in the desert and later meets up with his disciples, he never says a word about his conversation with the Father.
Likewise in Gethsemane – a place where he would go because there he could find solitude and silence - Jesus withdraws to pray. Here his prayer gets more intense than ever. It is the prayer of a man sentenced to death pleading for his life.
Was Jesus aware of everything that was going to happen to him? The Synoptic Gospels say that after Peter acknowledges him as «The Messiah of God» (Lk 9,20), Jesus foretells that «The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised» (Lk 9,18-22; see also Mt 16,13-21; Mk 8,27-31). Jesus often helps his disciples interpret the Scriptures and understand the words of the prophets announcing the coming of the Messiah that is fulfilled in Jesus also through his inglorious death.
After the institution of the Lord’s supper and the Eucharist at the Cenacle and before getting to Gethsemane, Luke says that Jesus speaks about his passion as a part of the plan of salvation, just as Isaiah predicted: «For I tell you, this Scripture must be fulfilled in me, “And he was counted among the lawless”» (Lk 22,37). Unlike, Matthew and Mark place Jesus’ prediction about how the disciples will react to his arrest - just as prophet Zechariah foretold: «You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the lock will be scattered.” But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee» (Mt 26,31-32; Mk 14,27-28), - on the way from the Cenacle to the Mount of Olives.
Jesus knew all that was going to happen to him and his prayer in Gethsemane was trying to fill the gap between the refusal of extreme suffering ending up in his death and on the other hand his will to learn obedience to the Father. Basically, this is what Jesus’ prayer to his Father, «Abba» is: a request to faithfully adhere to the Father’s will which, in that dramatic circumstance, is obscure and difficult for Jesus to accept. On the other hand, Jesus himself on several occasions said to his apostles to be prepared and ready to do the will of the Father: «For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother» (Mt 12,50).
Jesus falls with his face on the ground: this is a posture of prayer denoting obedience to the will of the Father and confident abandonment to him. In this weird and contradictory destiny of the Messiah come to save humankind and yet forced to suffer death, Jesus saw the secret for a radical renewal of the human and world’s condition. Even the night of the agony in Gethsemane is part of God’s plan of love for man and Jesus’ prayer is for anyone to cling to when suffering dramatic moments of obscurity.
As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said quoting the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Jesus brings to fulfilment the plan of love of the Father and takes upon himself all the troubles, all the petitions and intercessions of salvation history. He pesents to the Father who accepts and answers, beyond all hope, when he raised him from the dead” (General Audience Feb 1, 2012).
Jesus intends to be the Messiah of his people: but he refuses to achieve his purpose exercising any form of political, economic or religious power. He accepts to become a victim of power and believes that this is the destiny of the Messiah and he mustn’t escape it. Consequently, John says, it is Jesus who comes to Judas.
E così, è lui ad andare incontro a Giuda così come ci racconta Giovanni.
Judas, a devout Jew, was awaiting the Messiah, but his ambition brought him to interpret the teaching of his master narrowly, in a simplistic and material way, and therefore completely lost confidence in Jesus. On that night Jesus, coming up to Judas and calling him “Friend”, makes use of his gentleness and sweetness and puts all his efforts to win the heart of the apostle, but without forcing his freedom. Nevertheless, Judas had already made his own choice. That kiss, a gesture of love turned into vile betrayal, hurts Jesus even more.
In John’s gospel, after washing the feet of his disciples - a gesture of humility and service - Jesus announces that Judas’ betrayal is about to take place (Jn 13,21-30). But even before then, at the end of the account of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, John places Jesus’ first statement of the upcoming betrayal of one of the twelve (Gv 6,70-71). The Gospels all agree on the inevitability of the betrayal that will lead to Jesus’death.
Despite the various reasons suggested for Judas’ betrayal, the Gospels insist on one particular point: John explicitly says that Satan entered into Judas, filling his mind with an evil passion and led him on to betray Jesus. Similarly with Luke (Jn 13,27; Lk 22,3).
Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, was the treasurer of the group. Again, it is John that provides some kind of information about him saying that he was a thief and explains that «he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it» (Jn 12,4-6). Like the twelve, he knew very well the place called Gethsemane, where the group often met. He «began to look for an opportunity to betray him» and in exchange for thirty pieces of silver – which was the price of a dead slave according to the law of Moses (see Ex 21,32) -, came to Jesus in Gethsemane guiding a detachment of guards in the pitch of the night (Mt 26,14-15; Lk 22,3-6). Maybe Judas did not suppose that his betrayal would have resulted in his master’s death.
As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI remarked: “When we think of the negative role Judas played we must consider it according to the lofty ways in which God leads events. His betrayal led to the death of Jesus, who transformed this tremendous torment into a space of salvific love by consigning himself to the Father […]. In his mysterious salvific plan, God assumes Judas' inexcusable gesture as the occasion for the total gift of the Son for the redemption of the world” (General Audience Oct. 18, 2006).
This human weakness leading to a betrayal is not only manifested in Judas, but in Peter as well: among the apostles he is the chosen one to strengthen and gather the disciples together after Jesus’ death. Unbelieving and self-confident, Peter does not even consider the possibility of him denying Jesus after the last supper when the master warns the apostles, and Peter first, of Satan’s demand to sift all of them like wheat (Lk 22,31).
Peter, following the arrest of Jesus, denies knowing him different times (Mt 26,69-75; Mk 14,66-72; Lk 22,54-62; Jn 18,12-27). Despite Peter following his master at a distance, the fear of him being recognized as one of Jesus’ followers, leads him to deny to know him. The crowing rooster brings Peter back to reality and to acknowledge his incapability to remain loyal. Peter’s acknowledgment and his bitter weeping in the synoptic gospels denote a second conversion, which, unlike Judas, will support him in his role as first among the apostles and will make him choose to be martyred to follow Jesus’ example.
- Bibbia CEI, La Bibbia, Via Verità e Vita, ed. San Paolo, 2009
- Severino Dianich, Il messia sconfitto. L’enigma della morte di Gesù, Cittadella Editrice, Assisi 2009
- AA.VV, La passione di Gesù. Trasmissioni della Radio Vaticana per la Quaresima 1986, Editrice Rogate, Roma 1988
- Benedetto XVI, Udienza Generale, 01 Feb 2012. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/audiences/2012/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20120201_it.html
- Benedetto XVI, Udienza Generale, 18 Ott 2006. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/audiences/2006/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20061018_it.html
- Studi sul nuovo testamento: http://www.homolaicus.com/nt/vangeli/tradimento_giuda.htm
- "Compendio del Catechismo della Chiesa Cattolica", n. 543. http://www.vatican.va/archive/compendium_ccc/documents/archive_2005_compendium-ccc_it.html