The Agony of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane

by New Hieromartyr Archpriest John Vostorgov 

Today is the feast of the Pro­ces­sion of the Life-Giv­ing Wood, one of three feasts of the Holy Cross that the church marks through­out the year with par­tic­u­lar solem­ni­ty, bring­ing the Cross into the nave of the tem­ple for ven­er­a­tion. In hon­or of this feast and to mark the begin­ning of the Dor­mi­tion fast, which mir­rors Great Lent in strict­ness if not in length, we offer this archival mate­r­i­al from a past issue of Ortho­dox Life. This ser­mon was deliv­ered on the Third Sun­day of Great Lent (the Ven­er­a­tion of the Cross) in 1901 in the Tiflis Mis­sion Church. A biog­ra­phy of Fr. John, mar­tyred August 23, 1918 (o.s.) by the Bol­she­viks can be found in Ortho­dox Life, No. 5, 1980.

In a let­ter to his dis­ci­ple Tim­o­thy, the Apos­tle Paul gives as his last will and tes­ta­ment this admo­ni­tion: Remem­ber the Lord Jesus Christ. (II Tim.2:8)

The Holy Ortho­dox Church always con­tend­ed and con­tin­ues to strive as often as pos­si­ble to instill in Her chil­dren the ful­fill­ment of this apos­tolic com­mand­ment. If every day and at every gath­er­ing of prayer She presents before the spir­i­tu­al eyes of the faith­ful the image of our Lord Jesus, then dur­ing Great Lent She applies this with par­tic­u­lar zeal. In these days our atten­tion is direct­ed specif­i­cal­ly to the image of Jesus Christ the Pas­sion-bear­er. The very thought of our Holy Redeemer suf­fer­ing and dying in unspeak­able tor­ment for the sins of mankind is capa­ble and pow­er­ful enough to cause even the most stony-heart­ed to reflect on the destruc­tive­ness of sin and thoughts of repen­tance, to which we are called dur­ing the fast. Since we find our­selves, dear lis­ten­ers, in the mid­dle of the fast, I feel today it is appro­pri­ate to draw your atten­tion to one of the final, griev­ous moments in the sor­row­ful life of our Lord Jesus Christ — His prayer in the Gar­den of Geth­se­mane. This event in par­tic­u­lar has always attract­ed the rev­er­ent gazes of the faith­ful who love the Lord Jesus Christ: the Chris­t­ian heart can­not imag­ine, with­out trep­i­da­tion and com­punc­tion, the Divine Suf­fer­er alone in the Gar­den of Geth­se­mane, in the depth of the night, in anguish, exhaust­ed by the extreme bur­den of some incom­pre­hen­si­ble inner tor­ment of the spirit.

For His suffering is the very essence of redemption, the essence of Christianity, the cornerstone of the Church, the foundation of salvation.

Yet for some, those who are the ene­mies of Chris­tian­i­ty, the Geth­se­mane strug­gle of our Sav­ior, in its very mys­tery and incon­ceiv­abil­i­ty, has often evoked per­plex­i­ty, and some­times, sad­ly, even a sense of revul­sion. We will not repeat or trou­ble our­selves about this rejec­tion by those of lit­tle faith. We look upon the prayer­ful Lord Jesus in Geth­se­mane not with the eyes of Judas, peer­ing through the trees of the gar­den, but with eyes of faith and love, devo­tion and rev­er­ence, with the eyes of the Apos­tles, in the light of Divine Rev­e­la­tion in the light of the Chris­t­ian mys­tery of redemp­tion. In this light much will become more famil­iar, clear­er, and instruc­tive for us.

If suf­fer­ing is always instruc­tive, always attracts our atten­tion, would this not be espe­cial­ly so in the case of the suf­fer­ing of the sin­less Son of Man, Who is at the same time the Son of God, Jesus Christ? For His suf­fer­ing is the very essence of redemp­tion, the essence of Chris­tian­i­ty, the cor­ner­stone of the Church, the foun­da­tion of sal­va­tion. Con­se­quent­ly, it is noth­ing less than the turn­ing point in the life of the world. So what were these sufferings?

The Evan­ge­lists describe them with unusu­al sim­plic­i­ty and brevi­ty, yet with such great awe that every read­er of the Gospel is entranced by them. There is a sense that some­thing tru­ly great is tak­ing place before us, a unique event nev­er to be repeat­ed. Piec­ing togeth­er the accounts of all four Evan­ge­lists, one com­ple­ment­ing the oth­er, we arrive at the fol­low­ing: (Matt. ch. 26; Mark ch. 14; Luke ch. 22; John ch. 18) Only the vers­es will be indi­cat­ed below:

Fol­low­ing the Mys­ti­cal Sup­per and His farewell con­ver­sa­tion with the disciples:

It was night (John 13:30) and He [Jesus] cometh unto the dis­ci­ples (Matt. 40) over the brook Kedron where was a gar­den (John 1) unto a place called Geth­se­mane, and He saith unto the dis­ci­ples, Sit ye here, while I go and pray yon­der. And He took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee (John and James), and began to be sor­row­ful and very heavy (Matt. 36, 37) and sore amazed. (Mark 33) Then saith Jesus unto them, My soul is exceed­ing sor­row­ful, even unto death: tar­ry ye here, and watch with Me (Matt. 38) Pray that ye enter not into temp­ta­tion (Luke 40) And He went a lit­tle far­ther (Matt. 39) about a stone’s cast (Luke 41) and fell on His face (Matt. 39), on the ground (Mark 35) and prayed, say­ing (Matt. 39) Abba, Father, all things are pos­si­ble unto Thee (Mark 36) if Thou be will­ing remove this cup from Me, nev­er­the­less, not as I will but as Thou wilt. And He cometh unto the dis­ci­ples, and find­eth them asleep, and saith unto Peter, ‘What, could ye not watch with Me?’ ‘Even one hour?’

Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temp­ta­tion: the spir­it indeed is will­ing, but the flesh is weak . He went away again the sec­ond time, and prayed again say­ing, my Father, if this cup may not pass away from Me, except I drink it, Thy will be done. And He came and found them asleep again: for their eyes were heavy. And He left them, and went away again, and prayed for the third time, say­ing the same words (Matt. 39–44) And there appeared an angel unto Him from heav­en, strength­en­ing Him. And being in agony, He prayed more earnest­ly: and His sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground . And when He rose up from prayer, and was come to His dis­ci­ples, He found them sleep­ing for sor­row (Luke 43–45) and saith unto them, Sleep on now and take your rest (Matt. 45) it is enough (Mark 41) behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sin­ners. Rise, let us be going: behold, he is at hand that doth betray Me (Matt. 45, 46)

In this man­ner the Evan­ge­lists recount the Geth­se­mane prayer. Undoubt­ed­ly, they pre­served for us only a gen­er­al sense of the event, and not an exact­ly lit­er­al or com­plete account. This is evi­dent from the Savior’s rebuke of Peter: What, could ye not watch with Me one hour (Matt. 26:40); how­ev­er, to pro­nounce the words of prayer as set forth in the Gospel account would take much less time. So we can see that the word “hour” in the Savior’s reproach is not to be tak­en lit­er­al­ly. In any case, over­come by an inex­plic­a­ble drowsi­ness, the Apos­tles have left their Teacher in ter­ri­ble and utter lone­li­ness and there­fore only man­age to hear His very first and loud­est excla­ma­tions of prayer. But we can be sure that if any fur­ther details were nec­es­sary for us, the Holy Spir­it, promised to the dis­ci­ples by Christ for their guid­ance in all mat­ters of truth (cf. John 14:16, 17–26; 15:26) would have inspired them thus. Nev­er­the­less, this brief descrip­tion cap­tures the moment for us in all its awe­some­ness and mys­ti­cal grandeur.

The Lord Jesus, accord­ing to His own words, came down to earth to save peo­ple through the path of suf­fer­ing (cf. John 3:17 Mark 10:45). At the very start of His min­istry, while alone in the desert, He encoun­ters the tempter who offers Him access to the world, not by way of low­li­ness and humil­i­a­tion, but through the path of glo­ry and pow­er. The Son of man brave­ly and stead­fast­ly rejects this temp­ta­tion by oppos­ing the words of seduc­tion with sub­mis­sion to the will of His Father (cf. Matt. 4:1–11; Luke 4:1–13). The dev­il then leaves Him for a sea­son as the Gospel states (Luke 4:13). Lat­er in His con­ver­sa­tion with Nicode­mus the Sav­ior explains the essence of His mes­sian­ic min­istry by indi­cat­ing the cross as the means for His work of redemp­tion. He answers the secret thoughts of Nicode­mus con­cern­ing the Mes­si­ah as an earth­ly ruler by say­ing, And as Moses lift­ed up the ser­pent in the wilder­ness, even so must the Son of man be lift­ed up (John 3:14). Many times in His pub­lic min­istry the Sav­ior open­ly told the Apos­tles and those gath­ered around them about His forth­com­ing suf­fer­ings, always speak­ing calm­ly and con­fi­dent­ly as about an irrev­o­ca­ble deci­sion, (Matt. 16:21; Mark 8:31; 9:12); on occa­sion He explic­it­ly terms His future tri­als a cup (Mark 10:38; Matt. 20:23) and express­es His great desire to drink from this cup as soon as pos­si­ble. Final­ly, we find the Sav­ior at the Mys­ti­cal Sup­per only hours before the Geth­se­mane prayer. Here, in the words of Saint John the The­olo­gian Jesus knew that His hour was come that He should depart out of this world unto the Father (John 13:1) and He clear­ly reveals to His dis­ci­ples that one of you shall betray Me and that his time is at hand (Matt. 26:21, 18). He express­es His desire to eat this Passover with you before I suf­fer (Luke 22:15), for this will be the final time on earth that He par­takes of bread and wine, the fruit of the vine (Luke 22:18). In relat­ing all this, what peace and calm­ness He radi­ates, His every word demon­strat­ing His readi­ness to fol­low the path of suf­fer­ing, what con­vic­tion of necessity!

Take eat, this is My Body…; drink of this all of you, this is My Blood. ..This com­mand­ment is uttered with such divine tran­quil­i­ty that per­haps it is in light of this very tran­quil­i­ty that the dis­ci­ples do not dis­cern what an unspeak­ably dif­fi­cult strug­gle lies before their Teacher; but even after the Sup­per, the thought of His immi­nent death nev­er leaves the Sav­ior. Chil­dren, He implores in His farewell dis­cus­sion, lit­tle chil­dren, yet a lit­tle while I am with you … A new com­mand­ment I give unto you, that you love one anoth­er (John 13:33, 34), and as they near the Mount of Olives He fore- warns them, All ye shall be offend­ed because of Me this night (Matt. 26:31). In reply to His favorite disciple’s assur­ance of devo­tion and will­ing­ness to lay down his life for Him the Lord states that he will deny Him three times (cf. John 13:38). It is clear that the Sav­ior went to Geth­se­mane fol­low­ing the Mys­ti­cal Sup­per ful­ly aware that there He would be betrayed into the hands of His ene­mies. We must rec­og­nize, though, that these will­ing and con­scious suf­fer­ings of Jesus Christ were not insti­gat­ed by the pow­er of His ene­mies or by the shame­ful betray­al of Judas, but were a result of the exalt­ed “self-giv­ing” of the Son of man to the will of God. Since He had fore­told what would occur this night and ful­ly under­stood it to be His call­ing, from a human per­spec­tive we might expect it all to be accom­plished with­out the need for tears, groans, or bloody sweat. This was not the case. With our mind’s eye let us fol­low our Sav­ior into the Gar­den of Gethsemane.

On the east side of Jerusalem, just out­side the city, on the slope of the Mount of Olives, one finds vine­yards and olive groves. One of them, called “Geth­se­mane,” which in Hebrew means “house of olives” or olive press (i.e., the place where they make olive oil) was a favorite spot of the Savior’s where He liked to be alone and pray when He was in Jerusalem (John 18:2).1 This site lends itself to con­cen­tra­tion and feel­ings of piety. Noth­ing can be seen to the west save the high city walls of Jerusalem, the rooftops of the sacred build­ings of the Tem­ple, and the drea­ry Anto­nia Citadel. To the right ris­es mourn­ful­ly bare Mount Sco­pus, and to the left lies the Val­ley of Jehosophat [Kedron Val­ley] dot­ted with its tombs and grave stones.

It is here, at a dis­tance from the city, that Jesus wished to spend His last night, shroud­ed in deep silence amid the mys­te­ri­ous twi­light of the garden’s shad­ows. It is here that He wants to endure all the bur­den of sor­row which engulfs Him, not unlike the olives under the press of Geth­se­mane. With His eleven dis­ci­ples He enters the gates lead­ing into the gar­den. Night cov­ers the earth, nature is silent. After the labors of the day the need for rest appears, but the eyes of Jesus do not close in peace­ful sleep. He knows that the com­ing night will be a turn­ing point in His life. The next day will bring an unjust tri­al and con­dem­na­tion, spit­ting, scorn, every con­ceiv­able tor­ture and taunt­ing, whip­ping, a dis­grace­ful, ago­niz­ing death on the cross, and the tomb. This unprece­dent­ed act of evil is now set in motion. “Dark­ness will rise against light, iniq­ui­ty laughs in the face of virtue, hypocrisy and treach­ery will tri­umph over truth, dark ingrat­i­tude and base betray­al will over­whelm count­less great works of love and mer­cy…2 The ful­fill­ment of His pur­pose for com­ing into the world, for being here in the days of His flesh (Heb. 5:7), in the depths of redeem­ing humil­i­a­tion, now stands before Christ the Savior.

He gives Himself to prayer, totally exhausting Himself to the point of sweating blood, an extremely rare occurrence, a precursor of death.

The time has come when, as the Teacher fore­saw, His dis­ci­ples might be scan­dal­ized because of Him — and not only His dis­ci­ples who had not yet wit­nessed His Res­ur­rec­tion and Ascen­sion — but even many of those lat­er fol­low­ers who had seen the glo­ry of the Cru­ci­fied One. The God- man is sor­row­ful, tor­ment­ed, and ter­ri­fied, and the dis­ci­ples have nev­er seen their Teacher like this before. That seren­i­ty which had so recent­ly per­me­at­ed the essence of Jesus sud­den­ly left Him; His coun­te­nance dark­ened and tears filled His eyes, His whole being trem­bled in grief and anguish. In His own words His soul is sor­row­ful unto death and in such a state He wished to pray, to speak with His Father. The human soul of Jesus now, more than ever before, thirst­ed for com­mu­ni­ca­tion both with God and with peo­ple. Here the tru­ly human nature of Jesus Christ appears in its full­ness, “show­ing that He is a man”3 as the Church often phras­es it. Jesus fears lone­li­ness, and seeks the sup­port of His friends, the par­tic­i­pa­tion of the dis­ci­ples. He not only cries “be with Me,” but implores them “pray with Me,” for love for one anoth­er is expressed to the great­est degree through the act of pray­ing togeth­er. Choos­ing His three clos­est dis­ci­ples He enters deep into the gar­den with them for prayer­ful lamen­ta­tion and inner rend­ing of the spir­it. Present at His glo­ry on Tha­bor, observ­ing Him as Mas­ter over death when He res­ur­rect­ed the daugh­ter of Jairus, they, more than the oth­ers, are capa­ble of wit­ness­ing His agony in Geth­se­mane with­out being offend­ed. Jesus, dread­ing total soli­tude, asks them to join Him in prayer, but not wish­ing to be in their imme­di­ate pres­ence, He goes deep­er into the grove, a stone’s throw away, yet with the apos­tles still in sight. There He gives Him­self over to the first prayer. Deep sor­row over­whelms the soul of the suf­fer­er. “A dual night of ter­ror reigns: one in the sur­round­ing nature, the oth­er in the soul of Jesus. This night emerges as if from the abyss of dark­ness with all its hor­rors, and fear besieges not only the small flock of Christ in Geth­se­mane, but the Divine Shep­herd as well.”4 Through prayer the dis­ci­ples should have been able to see through the dark­ness of the night and find sup­port and help from the heav­en­ly world, but alas, as the Evan­ge­list keen­ly observes, they fell asleep from sor­row.5 Christ prays alone. He casts His face to the ground (cf. Matt. 26:39); and kneels (cf. Luke 22:41), giv­ing Him­self over com­plete­ly to prayer to His Father with tears and fer­vent lamen­ta­tion (cf. Heb. 5:7), seek­ing relief from the tor­ments of His soul. But some immea­sur­able bur­den weighs heav­i­ly on His spir­it and He can­not be com­fort­ed. Once, twice, and final­ly a third time He gives Him­self to prayer, total­ly exhaust­ing Him­self to the point of sweat­ing blood, an extreme­ly rare occur­rence, a pre­cur­sor of death. Thus, as one of the Evan­ge­lists expressed it, He was in agony yet, in this con­di­tion He prays even more fer­vent­ly, and final­ly His spir­it is light­ened, He shakes off the dark­ness, and is imbued with that vivid for­bear­ance which will so amaze us at the judg­ment and on the cross.

Jesus Christ is the Redeemer of mankind Who bore our sins and the punishment for them, our afflictions

What is the mys­tery of His sor­row unto death? What brought Him to such a state of prayer, what is the rea­son for His tor­ment­ed soul, His hor­ror and grief and anguished heart? The ene­mies had not yet touched His body in order to nail Him to the cross. Did He real­ly suf­fer so much at the antic­i­pa­tion of death? Did He tru­ly fear it? If so, then it is here, as the Lord fore­told, that we have the pos­si­bil­i­ty of being offend­ed by Him, for his­to­ry offers thou­sands of exam­ples of inno­cent peo­ple meet­ing death face to face, bless­ing their suf­fer­ings, and coura­geous­ly going to the site of exe­cu­tion. Ful­ly aware of the com­ing tor­ture, they peace­ful­ly, some­times even joy­ful­ly, await the fate­ful blow. Look, for exam­ple at Christ’s own dis­ci­ples, Stephen, stoned to death; Peter, cru­ci­fied upside down; Andrew, James, Paul, and many, many oth­ers. Did they not aston­ish the world as they fear­less­ly faced death? Thou­sands of mar­tyrs, thou­sands of heroes, and not only Chris­tians; pagans con­sid­ered dis­dain for death to be par­tic­u­lar­ly hero­ic. Nero was scorned by his con­tem­po­raries not so much for his evil deeds as for his cow­ardice in the face of death.

When con­tem­plat­ing the Geth­se­mane strug­gle there are two main themes to keep in mind. First, Jesus Christ is not only per­fect God, but per­fect and com­plete man, as the Church has always clear­ly con­fessed. He is a man pure in body and sin­less in spir­it, in all things like us save sin.6 The sec­ond point is that Jesus Christ is the Redeemer of mankind Who bore our sins and the pun­ish­ment for them, our afflic­tions (Is. 53:4; See whole ch.). There­fore, the soul of Jesus was not only oppressed by the knowl­edge of His impend­ing, ago­niz­ing death, but by an incom­pa­ra­bly greater bur­den, that of being the Redeemer. This weight so over­whelmed Him that He sweat­ed blood and was brought to a state of com­plete exhaustion.

He sees and knows that they want to kill Him, that He will be mocked, slapped, and spit upon, beaten mercilessly. His enemies will take hellish delight in devising every kind of mockery and derision to inflict upon Him

As a man, the Sav­ior could not be com­plete­ly indif­fer­ent towards death; if the thought of death is ter­ri­fy­ing and unnat­ur­al for a sin­ner, how much more so for the sin­less Jesus, the most per­fect man. God did not cre­ate death and man was cre­at­ed for incor­rup­tion (Wis­dom. 2:23). Death appeared as a result of sin, as a pun­ish­ment, and passed upon all men (cf. Rom. 5:12–15). The ear­ly Gospel com­men­ta­tor, Saint John Chrysos­tom, as well as Saint Theo­phy­lact of Ochrid (who draws heav­i­ly on the works of Saint John) remark: “Death did not enter into mankind by nature, there­fore human nature is afraid of it and flees from it.” A more recent com­men­ta­tor, the well-known the­olo­gian Bish­op Michael, clar­i­fies this idea with respect to the per­son of Jesus Christ. “Death,” he writes, “is the result of sin, hence the sin­less nature of the God-man should not have been sub­ject to it. For [His nature] death was an unnat­ur­al phe­nom­e­non, so it stands to rea­son that the pure nature of Christ is trou­bled by death, and is sor­rowed and anguished in the face of it.” As we look upon Jesus in His sor­row unto death we must not for­get that He is with­out sin and all-pure. We must not for­get that He can­not be com­pared to any oth­er human being, for no one among men is sin­less. In the first place every sin­ner is sub­ject to death in accor­dance with the mor­tal­i­ty of his nature. Sec­ond­ly, because of man’s inher­ent sin­ful­ness no one can in the full sense of the word be con­sid­ered an inno­cent suf­fer­er. Only the suf­fer­ings of Christ were inno­cent, for only He in the words of the ancient prophet prac­ticed no iniq­ui­ty, nor craft [lies] with His mouth (Is. 53:9; see also 1 Pet. 2:22). More­over, His whole life and min­istry, His mir­a­cles, His teach­ings, His love for peo­ple, all of this inspired only love, only devo­tion, only respect for Him, not dis­grace, not flog­gings, not the cross. Real­iz­ing all this, how can it be pos­si­ble for us to equate the afflic­tions of any man, even one unjust­ly con­demned, with the bit­ter­ness of the Lord’s suf­fer­ings. After all, suf­fer­ings them­selves become an accept­ed aspect of our sin­ful nature, but to the sin­less and all-pure flesh of Jesus they are com­plete­ly alien, inef­fa­bly repul­sive. It is not easy to suf­fer for our mis­deeds, not easy, dear lis­ten­ers, to look into the abyss of hatred that oth­ers have for us even if it is ful­ly mer­it­ed. How dif­fi­cult it is to accept when one wish­es us evil or when we are scorned or dis­dained. Yet none of us can claim that we are not guilty of wish­ing some­one evil, and at times, the truth forces us to admit that peo­ple treat us bet­ter than we do them, and here is Jesus, antic­i­pat­ing the near future. He sees and knows that they want to kill Him, that He will be mocked, slapped, and spit upon, beat­en mer­ci­less­ly. His ene­mies will take hell­ish delight in devis­ing every kind of mock­ery and deri­sion to inflict upon Him. Herod, the high priests, the scribes, the peo­ple, the sol­diers, the thieves, and Judas. What has the Divine Pas­sion-bear­er done to them? Why such hos­til­i­ty towards Him? Why this betray­al? Why the cross and death? A dread­ed pic­ture of the next day’s hor­rors unfolds before the eyes of Christ. How is He, the inno­cent and all-pure One, to view this mael­strom of hatred swirling about Him? Tak­ing into con­sid­er­a­tion only the human nature of Jesus, even in this case His suf­fer­ings, the like of which have nev­er been seen before, are so great that we can­not even begin to imag­ine them in all their hor­rif­ic bit­ter­ness — to do so one must be a per­fect man as Jesus Christ was. “Here Jesus has divest­ed Him­self of His super­nat­ur­al pow­ers and expe­ri­enced the infir­mi­ty of man to its fullest extent.“7 It could not have been oth­er­wise; if His self-giv­ing was accom­plished in any oth­er man­ner, could Jesus as per­fect man serve as a mod­el for all mankind? Can the dis­pas­sion­ate be an exam­ple to the pas­sion­ate? The strong to the weak? How then could all who lack the stead­fast­ness to ful­fill their duty to the end, all who lack the resolve to sub­mit their will to the will of God, look to Jesus in their strug­gles as the pro­to­type of endurance of suf­fer­ings? In reply to the call to imi­tate the exam­ple of Christ would they not argue that He passed through His tri­als with­out a bat­tle, that it all came eas­i­ly to Him. Not eas­i­ly, dear lis­ten­ers, not eas­i­ly! Why else do the Scrip­tures pro­vide us with this eter­nal pre­cept: Christ also suf­fered for us, leav­ing us an exam­ple, that ye should fol­low His steps (I Pet. 2:21). And let us pon­der the deep sig­nif­i­cance of the fol­low­ing inspir­ing words of the Apos­tle Paul:

But we see Jesus … Who for the suf­fer­ing of death, [was) crowned with glo­ry and hon­or;… for it became Him for Whom are all things, and by Whom are all things, in bring­ing many sons unto glo­ry, to make the cap­tain of their sal­va­tion per­fect through suf­fer­ings … He par­took of flesh and blood that through death He might destroy him that had the pow­er of death, that is, the dev­il, and deliv­er them who through fear of death were all their life­time sub­ject to bondage… Where­fore in all things it behooved Him to be made like unto His brethren, that He might be a mer­ci­ful and faith­ful high priest in things per­tain­ing to God, to make rec­on­cil­i­a­tion for the sins of the peo­ple. For in that He Him­self hath suf­fered being tempt­ed, He is able to suc­cor them that are tempt­ed (Heb. 2:9–10; 14–15; 17–18).

Death is not so frightening for those who correctly view life as an entrance into heaven, a step into eternity

It would be a grave mis­take to explain the suf­fer­ings of the Sav­ior in Geth­se­mane sole­ly in terms of His antic­i­pa­tion of Gol­go­tha, that is, from the per­spec­tive of Jesus Christ only as a man, and for­get­ting about Him as Redeemer. This view is not only unwor­thy of Jesus but is a mis­lead­ing and inad­e­quate expla­na­tion: He Who expe­ri­enced such fear at only the antic­i­pa­tion of death, yet the same One Who pos­sessed such divine tran­quil­i­ty and main­tained it through­out His suf­fer­ing — dur­ing the tri­al, in the midst of mock­ery, and on the cross, here even refus­ing to drink the gall that might numb His pain. Dis­cussing the life of the Sav­ior and reflect­ing on His prayer in Geth­se­mane the British the­olo­gian Far­rar remarks, “There are some peo­ple who have the pecu­liar habit of derid­ing every­thing sacred, who dis­cerned faint­heart­ed­ness and timid­i­ty in the Lord’s agony in Geth­se­mane. Faint­heart­ed­ness and timid­i­ty! Could He Who preached life and immor­tal­i­ty, patience and courage in the face of evil, and Who from the very onset of His pub­lic min­istry spoke of His death as an inescapable neces­si­ty could He real­ly be so afraid of death? Could He Who retained an irre­proach­able seren­i­ty of spir­it dur­ing fif­teen hours of tor­ment, who kept majes­tic silence dur­ing an unjust tri­al, who endured the ene­mies’ mock­ery, dis­grace, and the death pangs on the cross with­out the slight­est mur­mur or com­plaint, and who with heav­en­ly good­ness of heart prayed for His per­se­cu­tors and opened the gates of Par­adise for the repen­tant Thief could He real­ly be so afraid of death? Could He in Whose name nine­ty year old men, weak women, and small chil­dren coura­geous­ly went to their death, could He real­ly be so afraid of death? Death is not so fright­en­ing for those who cor­rect­ly view life as an entrance into heav­en, a step into eter­ni­ty.” But there are expe­ri­ences even more try­ing than death; such was the cup the Sav­ior drank from in the gar­den of Geth­se­mane. In order to ful­ly com­pre­hend this we must recall the point raised ear­li­er togeth­er with the recog­ni­tion of the human­i­ty of Jesus Christ, name­ly, that Jesus Christ is our Redeemer.

All of this amassed evil, all the sins of mankind were poured into the bitter, dreaded cup which the Son of God was called upon to drink.

The Sin­less One had to bear all the wrath of God for sin­ners, all the pun­ish­ments which the sin­ful nature of mankind mer­it­ed. All of the chas­tise­ments and heav­en­ly wrath which the world should have endured for its sins were tak­en on by the Redeemer of mankind alone. Sev­en hun­dred years before the birth of Christ the Prophet Isa­iah spoke of this redeem­ing min­istry: the chas­tise­ment of our peace was upon Him; (Is. 53:5). The pun­ish­ment which would return to us the peace with God which we had lost was borne by Him. This peace was bro­ken by the sin of Adam, the first cre­at­ed man, and mag­ni­fied and repeat­ed over and over again by the indi­vid­ual sins of each man born on earth. The right­eous­ness of God demand­ed pun­ish­ment for the sins, and the Redeemer, the Son of God, took that pun­ish­ment on Him­self.8 Pun­ish­ment for sins man­i­fests itself in two ways: inter­nal­ly, in the con­science of the sin­ner, and exter­nal­ly through phys­i­cal afflic­tions. Inner tor­ments, such as those expe­ri­enced by Christ in Geth­se­mane, are more ago­niz­ing and tor­tur­ous. The accu­mu­lat­ed sins of every age, of every man, placed an inex­plic­a­bly great bur­den on the con­science of Jesus. He had to bear the pangs of con­science as if He Him­self were guilty of each sin. In the words of the Apos­tle, For He hath made Him to be sin for us, Who knew no sin; that we might be made the right­eous­ness of God in Him (II Cor. 5:21). All athe­ism and unbe­lief, all pride, all wicked­ness, all mal­ice and ingrat­i­tude, lies, decep­tions, sen­su­al­i­ty, and every sort of offen­sive self-love, every vile and igno­min­ious char­ac­ter­is­tic of sin past, present, and future, from the fall of Adam until the last moment of the earth’s exis­tence — all of this pressed on the sin­less soul of the God-man. With­out a doubt, He envi­sioned the assault on virtue, the per­se­cu­tion of His fol­low­ers, the rivers of blood of the mar­tyrs, the mock­ing of believ­ers, the enmi­ty against the Church; He beheld he entire abyss of wicked­ness, pas­sions, and vices which until the end of time would per­vert and dis­tort the divine­ly giv­en and redeemed human soul, which would cru­ci­fy the Son of God afresh, and put Him to an open shame (Heb. 6:6). All of this amassed evil, all the sins of mankind were poured into the bit­ter, dread­ed cup which the Son of God was called upon to drink. This is some­thing far beyond our com­pre­hen­sion. “It was some­thing more dead­ly than death” (Far­rar). “It would not be an exag­ger­a­tion to say that it was the cul­mi­na­tion of all the suf­fer­ings and deaths of all mankind. This inner anguish must have been as fierce as the tor­ments of hell, for if even the most base of men are exhaust­ed by the bur­den of their tor­tured con- sci­ence (e.g., Cain and Judas), tor­ment­ed only by the thought of their own sin­ful life, how excru­ci­at­ing it must have been for the most pure soul of the God-man to endure the weight of all the sins of the world, and in such a con­di­tion, to ascend the cross and bring redemp­tion through His blood”.9

But sin is dif­fi­cult not only because of the gnaw­ing con­science: sin gave birth to the curse, to being ban­ished from God, toward Whom, nev­er­the­less, mankind has always strived and will strive. The Geth­se­mane pas­sion bear­er expe­ri­enced this exile, this aban­don­ment by the Father. For His sin­less soul, which was accus­tomed to con­tin­u­ous union with God which tast­ed and knew the sweet­ness, beau­ty and com­plete­ness of this union, this sep­a­ra­tion was, of course, inex­press­ibly dif­fi­cult. It was the hell with which God threat­ens the impi­ous, the hell which we sim­ply can­not begin to imag­ine, the depri­va­tion of life with God. It was this sep­a­ra­tion which pro­duced the soul-shat­ter­ing lament of the Suf­fer­er on the cross: My God, My God, why hast Thou for­sak­en Me? (Matt, 27:46). Thus, Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, He being made a curse for us… (Gal. 3:13).

Jesus is alone no one can hear His deep, sorrowful sighs, His faint voice, weakened by the battle in His soul, and His prayer is burning, it is aflame.

And so Jesus, as if He were the worst and most hard­ened sin­ner (c. II Cor. 5:21), was for­sak­en by the Father; like the Israel of old (Jacob), the new Israel is alone in His strug­gle. Min­gled in His bit­ter cup is the curse of God which hung over mankind.

Jesus is alone… with strong cry­ing, accord­ing to the Apos­tle (Heb. 5:7) He flees to the Father cov­ered in the sins of man which He has tak­en upon Him­self, total­ly spent by the moral tor­ment for their sins… The ter­ri­fy­ing dark­ness of the gar­den and the silence of the night encir­cle Him. His dis­ci­ples, Whom His soul sought and thirst­ed to be with, sleep near­by. They are asleep, as if to indi­cate the weak­ness of human nature. Jesus is alone… no one can hear His deep, sor­row­ful sighs, His faint voice, weak­ened by the bat­tle in His soul, and His prayer is burn­ing, it is aflame. Again and again He calls out: “Father! Father!” No answer. “Simon, are you sleep­ing?” No response. The prophe­cy of Isa­iah is ful­filled to the end: I have trod­den the wine­press alone, and of the peo­ple there was none with Me. (Is. 63:3). And I wait­ed for one that would grieve with Me, but there was no one; and for them that would com­fort Me, but I found none (Psalm 68:25).

In the midst of this agony, while alone in the gar­den, it is pos­si­ble that a meet­ing took place between Christ, as the new Adam, and the ancient tempter. We say it is pos­si­ble because the Gospels do not men­tion any such event specif­i­cal­ly, but putting togeth­er var­i­ous excerpts from the Gospels we can speak of the like­li­hood of a temp­ta­tion in Geth­se­mane. Fol­low­ing the first temp­ta­tion in the desert the dev­il left Jesus for a while (Luke 4:13) and imme­di­ate­ly before His agony in Geth­se­mane Christ open­ly says to His dis­ci­ples: The prince of this world cometh, and hath noth­ing in Me, indi­cat­ing what the temp­ta­tion will be. Then we hear of the tri­umph to come: That the world may know, the Sav­ior con­tin­ues, that the world may know, that I love the Father; and as the Father gave Me com­mand­ment, even so I do (John 14:30–31). Where else if not here in Geth­se­mane would the prince of the sin­ful world, the dev­il, con­front Jesus in order to tempt Him, yet be defeat­ed because of the Savior’s love and devo­tion to the will of the Father? Here in this most try­ing of sit­u­a­tions the temp­ta­tion would be espe­cial­ly powerful.

Freely, steadfastly, and without hesitation He offers Himself as a sacrifice. Thy will be done.

Man is test­ed by two forms of temp­ta­tion: glo­ry and suf­fer­ing. The Son of man reject­ed the first kind in the desert, the sec­ond was to be defeat­ed in Geth­se­mane. Bit­ter, inef­fa­bly bit­ter was His cup. With all of His strength, the God-man fends off the shame of death which was so com­plete­ly unnat­ur­al for Him, and repuls­es the bur­den of sins tak­en upon Him­self, so abhor­rent to His pure and sin­less soul. At this time, as quick as a flash, could not the thought have occurred in His human con­scious­ness: “In the wis­dom and omnipo­tence of the Father is there real­ly no oth­er way to save mankind, except to lift His Son upon the cross? If it is already not pos­si­ble to com­plete­ly remove this cup, can­not these hours of agony be delayed?” Alone in the gar­den such a thought could pro­voke the Son of Man, exhaust­ed by the weight of His inde­scrib­able tor­tures, to con­sid­er aban­don­ing the strug­gle. In the first, most strained prayer we heard Father, Father, every­thing is pos­si­ble for Thee!  Pos­si­ble, that means it is pos­si­ble to save the Son from these unbear­able tor­ments: If Thou be will­ing, remove this cup from Me! In the sec­ond prayer this idea is weak­ened: Father, if this cup may not pass away form Me, except I drink it, Thy will be done! The third prayer, uttered with the same words, res­olute­ly strength­ened Jesus in spir­it, but brought His body to a state near death, a symp­tom of which, in some rare cas­es, is bloody sweat.10 Even before the tri­al and the cross He could have died from this spir­i­tu­al ten­sion, but now as He over­comes the temp­ta­tion an angel is sent to refresh Him. Aris­ing from prayer Jesus is stead­fast in spir­it, con­vinced of the neces­si­ty and benef­i­cence of the suf­fer­ings to come. The spir­it is will­ing, but the flesh is weak, from where did He derive this strength of spirit?

The idea of the all-might­i­ness of the Sav­ior is con­trast­ed to anoth­er one rever­ber­at­ing as clear as thun­der through all three prayers: Thy will be done. “The cup which is pleas­ing to the Father as the only fore­or­dained means for the sal­va­tion of man is now pleas­ing to the Son.”11 Now is man­i­fest that which Jesus spoke of all His life — that He came not to do His will but the will of the one Who sent Him, the Father. Freely, stead­fast­ly, and with­out hes­i­ta­tion He offers Him­self as a sac­ri­fice. Thy will be done. This is exact­ly what the first Adam did not ful­fill, inflict­ing suf­fer­ing on the whole of mankind because of his dis­obe­di­ence. But now the sec­ond Adam ful­fills it and by His obe­di­ence saves mankind and opens the locked gates of Paradise.

The Geth­se­mane strug­gle is fin­ished, but who can mea­sure its depth? Who can com­pre­hend its soul-shak­ing, lim­it­less tor­tures? We stat­ed ear­li­er that to be able to under­stand it from only one point of view one must be a per­fect man; but to under­stand it in its entire­ty this is not enough, to do so one must be the God-man. This world has been home to many tears, many sighs and mis­for­tunes, but all of them tak­en togeth­er do not fill the cup which Jesus drank. This cup was drunk once and nev­er will be again. The Geth­se­mane strug­gle is fin­ished. The betray­er draws nigh. The Son of Man gives Him­self into the hands of sin­ners. The pas­sion on Gol­go­tha begins and will fin­ish with Jesus tast­ing of death. On Gol­go­tha He will serve as that same sur­ro­gate for sin­ful mankind. He will suf­fer in body and spir­it for the sins of the world, as if they were His own. But now we can be assured about the out­come, for we know that after Geth­se­mane the Pas­sion-bear­er can endure all, ful­fill all, and accom­plish all to the end.

He knows the cup is bitter and speaks openly about it; He is fully aware of the entire horror of it, but through prayer and union with the Father He draws the courage and steadfastness to drink that cup to the very last drop

This is your hour, and the pow­er of dark­ness, He said as He gave Him­self into the hands of the ene­mies (Luke 22:53). But out from the mist of that wretched dark­ness aris­es the image of the suf­fer­ing Jesus which shines forth and will con­tin­ue to shine forth now, and until the end of the ages. Behold the Man. This is the image of what a man should be. In His suf­fer­ings no hyp­o­crit­i­cal dis­dain of death, no hard­heart­ed mal­ice towards His per­se­cu­tors, no cold­ness, no haughty pos­tur­ing, no weak­ness, no renun­ci­a­tion of duty, no los­ing one­self in some sort of exalt­ed fanati­cism can be found. All of this would have been unnat­ur­al to the Sav­ior and unwor­thy of Him. “Insen­si­bil­i­ty is always low­er than self-denial” (Bl. Augus­tine). On the con­trary, we find in Jesus the image of tru­ly suf­fer­ing “man”: He knows the cup is bit­ter and speaks open­ly about it; He is ful­ly aware of the entire hor­ror of it, but through prayer and union with the Father He draws the courage and stead­fast­ness to drink that cup to the very last drop, to ful­fill the high­er will to the end. His Pas­sion was with­out prece­dent, a mag­nif­i­cent, mys­te­ri­ous, divine solem­ni­ty nev­er wit­nessed before in the world, a mir­a­cle of the infi­nite love of God and His com­pas­sion for mankind. It will nev­er be repeat­ed again. For all those who suf­fer, He serves as a sup­port, a com­fort, and an exam­ple of faith­ful­ness to one’s call­ing and to God. He is an exam­ple of self-denial and love. He does not judge or reproach His dis­ci­ples for their infir­mi­ty, but sym­pa­thizes with their weak­ness of flesh; but by this He serves to remind them and us that vig­i­lance of spir­it, prayer, and devo­tion to God and His will should nev­er leave a man. All of this He as Chief and Leader demon­strat­ed first of all. The Geth­se­mane agony is the apogee of the moral great­ness of mankind found in the per­son of Jesus Christ. It is the crown of His per­son­al des­tiny and per­fec­tion, the foun­da­tion of His right to save sin­ners (cf. Heb. 4:15). Hav­ing passed through suf­fer­ing unto glo­ry (cf. John 17:1–5) the Sav­ior has indi­cat­ed to us the way to this glo­ry (cf. Rom. 8:11, 34, 37). And the Apos­tle Paul, who espe­cial­ly under­stood the pow­er of the cross, i.e., the mean­ing of Christ’s suf­fer­ing, concludes:

Who in the day of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and sup­pli­ca­tions with strong crying and tears unto Him that was able to save Him from death, and was heard that He feared; though He were a Son, yet learned He obe­di­ence by the things which He suf­fered. And being made per­fect, He became the Author of eter­nal sal­va­tion unto all them that obey Him (Heb. 5:7–9).

Trans­lat­ed from “The Col­lect­ed Works of Arch­priest John Vos­tor­gov,” Vol. II, (St. Peters­burg, 1995), pp. 26–44.

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