by Carl Bloch
The Agony in the Garden refers to the events in the life of Jesus between the Last Supper and Jesus' arrest. According to all four Gospels, immediately after the Last Supper, Jesus took a walk to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane, accompanied by St. Peter, St. John and St. James the Greater, whom he asked to stay awake and pray. He moved "a stone's throw away" from them, where he felt overwhelming sadness and anguish, and said "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by. Nevertheless, let it be as you, not I, would have it." Then, a little while later, He said, "If this cup cannot pass by, but I must drink it, your will be done!" (Matthew 26:42). He said this prayer three times, checking on the three apostles, between each prayer and finding them asleep. He comments: "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak". An angel came from heaven to strengthen him. During his agony, as he prayed "his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down upon the ground".(Luke 22:44).
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.
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.
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 for him.
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.”
The unbearable pain of abandonment in the face of impending death...