The Agony in the Garden: The Place to Sweat Blood

Ronald Rolheiser
Second in a lenten series of seven
Reproduced with Permission

In describing Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Luke says this: "In his anguish he prayed even more earnestly, and his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood."

Biblical scholars agree that the accounts of Jesus' death do not highlight so much his physical suffering as his emotional anguish and how his decision for love, to respond to a higher moral call, left him lonely, humiliated, misunderstood, prostrate in pain. It's Jesus, the lover, who sweats blood in Gethsemane.

What, more precisely, was his anguish? What is the lover's anguish?

Some years ago, there was an American TV series entitled, Thirty Something. One episode went this way: A group of men, all married, had gathered for a men-only evening at a downtown hotel. One of the men, several years married, found himself attracted to one of the hotel managers, an attractive woman, with whom he had to deal all evening in terms of arranging food, music, and drink. She was attracted to him too and, though nothing other than practical talk passed between them during the evening, the romantic chemistry intensified. Gender-magic was doing its old tricks.

As the evening was ending, both did what comes naturally, they lingered near each other, not knowing what to say, but sensing a special connection they were reluctant to break off. They covered this by making practical talk about cleaning-up the room and settling the bills. Finally, the moment came to part. The man stalled, thanking her yet again for her help and graciousness, and she, not wanting to lose the moment said to him, "I very much enjoyed meeting you. Would you like to get together again sometime?" The man, guiltily fingering his wedding ring and apologizing for not being more forthright earlier, did what few of us have the moral courage to do. Not without sweating a little blood, he said: "I'm sorry. I'm married. I should have made that clearer. I need to go home to my wife."

My dad, perhaps the most moral man I've ever known, used to say: "Unless you can sweat blood, you'll never keep a commitment, in marriage, in priesthood, or anywhere. That's what it takes!"

He was right. One of the great lessons of Gethsemane is precisely that. To keep any commitment, we have to sweat blood because, like Jesus in the Garden, there comes a time when we have to enter into a great loneliness, the loneliness of moral integrity, the loneliness of fidelity, and the loneliness of responding to a higher will and a higher eros. And that, as Jesus showed, requires a painful emotional asceticism, a certain romantic fasting, which can almost crush the spirit.

To make commitments and to remain faithful to each other requires being willing to experience what Jesus experienced in the garden, namely, emotional crucifixion. Scripture says he gave his will over to his Father, but it was a very particular part of his will that was undergoing struggle and resistance in Gethsemane, namely, that part which stewards freedom, opportunity, romance, pleasure, and embrace. The lover in him had to let go of some things. The same is true for each of us:

*Whenever you stop flirting with an attractive romantic possibility because you are already committed to someone or something else, when you go home because that's where fidelity calls you, you sweat blood in the garden and feel what Jesus felt in Gethsemane.

*Whenever you willingly, without resentment, give up some of your freedom, renounce dreams for a career, accept that you will never now be able to achieve some of the things you might have accomplished, because children, family, church, and other needs have their conscriptive rope around you, whenever you accept the burden of duty, you sweat blood in the garden and feel what Jesus felt in Gethsemane.

*Whenever you willingly, without resentment, accept that some wonderful, legitimate opportunity for pleasure and enjoyment cannot be yours because something else is calling you to a deeper place, when you accept to settle for less because of the demand of higher things, you sweat blood in the garden and feel what Jesus felt in Gethsemane.

*Whenever you decide to do something purely for the sake of conscience, to do what is right even when everything inside of you screams against its unfairness, you sweat blood in the garden and feel what Jesus felt in Gethsemane.

*Whenever you experience an emotional crucifixion for the sake of truth and fidelity, you sweat blood in the garden - and you also create a place where God can enter into the world and transform it because this kind of blood is what takes tension out of the community.

Goethe, in his poem, The Holy Longing, suggests that there comes a time in life when "a desire for higher love-making" sweeps you upward to a place where you become "insane for the light". That describes both Jesus in Gethsemane and the invitation he left us.