The first Sorrowful Mystery, The Agony in the Garden

Anthony Zimmerman
January 27, 2003
Reproduced with Permission

Highlight of the Mystery: When praying the First Sorrowful Mystery together with Mary, we sympathize with Christ by recalling how He voluntarily took our sins upon Himself and offered Himself for our Redemption. We give ourselves to Him in response and offer our sufferings for ourselves and for the Church. "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church" (Colossians 1:24). We ask for strength to accept and carry our crosses: "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:29-30).

At Cana Jesus had told His Mother that His hour had not yet come. Now, after having instituted the Holy Eucharist and the Priesthood at the Last Supper, He headed with His disciples to the Mount of Olives to begin there the performance of His finest Hour, that is, His passion, death, and resurrection.

The hour of Christ's battle and victory: "And he came out, and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. And when he came to the place he said to them, 'Pray that you may not enter into temptation.' And he withdrew from them about a stone's throw, and knelt down and prayed, 'Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.' And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, and he said to them, 'Why do you sleep? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation'" (Luke 22:39-46).

Clearly, Jesus wanted His disciples to pray, for one thing to demonstrate their solidarity with Him, and for another, to help them pull through their own temptations successfully. He wanted especially Peter, the head of the disciples to pray: "And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, "So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Matthew 26:40).

Praying one hour with Jesus: We are not much better than the disciples when we fall asleep instead of praying. But Friday is a good day of the week to remember Christ's request: "Could you not watch with me one hour?" Many good people make it a point to spend an hour with the Lord on Fridays, whether in church or at home.

By kneeling down, Jesus expressed the intensity of His petition to the Father: "If thou art willing, remove this cup from me." What was in he cup to cause Jesus such revulsion? Two things especially: 1) The sheer sufferings that lay ahead: getting slapped in the face, the scourging, the thorns that pierced the skull so painfully, bearing the cross, thirst, and hanging on nails for a full three hours until the end came. 2) The shame of our sins which He took upon Himself to redeem us. He wallowed in the cloaca of our misdeeds. Sheer revolting and nauseating ugliness covered Him from head to foot. So great was the shame that God had revealed this to Isaiah 700 years before it happened.

Christ clothed Himself with the ugliness of all sin in the world: "Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Isaiah 53:4-6).

How we squirm when we are found guilty, or when we confess our sins to a priest. We prefer to put on a good face, to hide our wrong doing and lies, our indulgence, our unjust treatment of others, our cheating, whatever we do that is below human dignity and is shameful for a member of God's household. Shall we not look on Christ, on His knees, and admit our guilt to Him, and to the priest at Confession?

Why Christ had to suffer is a mystery: So why did the Father not remove the cup from Jesus, instead of insisting that He quaff it to the bitter dregs? Good question. We stand before two profound mysteries. 1) The mystery of evil. Evil needs to be punished because it is wrong, is out of place for children of God, because it stinks and would nauseate all the angels and saints in heaven if we entered there unredeemed by Christ. Because evil is rebellion against God and against our created nature, and associates us with the devil who bedevils himself with dissent and disobedience and ugliness for ever. The ugliness of our rebellion against God's arrangement for us must be deleted by the willingness of Christ to be obedient even unto death.

2) The second mystery is goodness. What reason did Christ ever have for taking our sins upon Himself: "Having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross" (Col 2:14). God is Goodness without end, oceans of it, deeper and wider than the cosmos, and Christ bears this ocean of goodness within Himself as man. Sheer goodness, without other reason, made it proper for the Father to not take away the cup from Christ, and made it proper for Christ to complete His prayer with the supreme act of obedience: "Nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done."

There is a conceptual affinity between evil and the suffering of pain. By willingly accepting pain in response to our sins, Christ explodes the evil and deletes it. We are good once more, thanks to His sufferings - provided we accept Christ as our Savior.

Christ hits bottom: The revulsion of Christ against becoming a sinner in our place, and the dread of the sufferings that lay ahead did not lose its force as Christ knelt there; rather, things were going from bad to worse. Things had come to an impasse. The disciples only slept, the Father said nothing. It was then that Jesus burst out into a bloody sweat. The Father came to His rescue:

"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" (Luke 22:43-44).

Strengthened finally to accept the cup, He rose from His knees, went to the sleeping disciples and told them to get up, then walked to His rendezvous with Judas and the soldiers and guards who had come to arrest Him. He was ready now. Christ, for whom and in whom the world was created, steps forward now to redeem it so that the gates of heaven will be opened for His people. Had Christ not done this for us, the world may not have created in the first place. Cardinal Ratzinger related what follows, which is true of Christ before it can apply to Abraham and to Peter.

Christ made the creation of the cosmos possible: "A Rabbinical text is enlightening in this regard: "Yahweh said, 'How can I create the world, when these godless people will rise up and revolt against me?' But when God saw Abraham who was to come, he said, 'Look, I have found a rock on which I can construct and establish the world.' For this reason he called Abraham a rock, 'Look to the rock from which you were hewn'" (Is 51:1-2). By his faith, Abraham, the father of all believers, is the rock which supports creation, pushing back Chaos, the original flood which imminently threatens to ruin everything.

"Simon Peter, who was the first to believe in Jesus as the Christ and was the first witness of the resurrection, with the Christological renewal of a faith worthy of Abraham, now becomes the rock which stands against the filthy tide of disbelief and its power to destroy all that is human" (see Osservatore Romano, Weekly Edition in English, 8 July 1991.)

Christ allowed the filthy tide of disbelief to nail Him to the cross, and He did not resist. Thus the way was opened for God to create our cosmos.

What Christ's Agony means to us: When Christ accepted the shame of our sins upon Himself, and put an end to that shame by putting it to death in Himself, and transformed it into glory by His resurrection, He merited for us the grace to go and do likewise. Whatever the evil is that we have done, Christ can truly say to us: "Been there. Done that. What else is new?"

Is someone in deep despair and ready to end the quarrel by divorce? Kneel down and pray with Jesus, "Not my will, but thine be done." Then rise and face the situation as He has already done for you. Be reconciled to your spouse and grin and bear it together. Did the stock market crash take all your money? Don't despair. Go to the garden and pray with Jesus. Did you, in a fit of anger, or in full malice, commit murder? Jesus will give you a new start in the confession box. Did you cheat on your spouse? Go and sin no more. Have you neglected your Christian duties and blamed the Church or left it? Rise again with Jesus who takes your sin upon Himself and helps you walk through the consequences.

In Christ we can do all things: Christ took upon Himself the shame and the pain of our sins during His agony in the garden, so that He can help us through any and every difficulty in life. He is now our strength and our victory. When we receive His help, we can do as the heroes in the plane hijacked by terrorists did on the morning of 9/11. We can rise with Christ and say: "Let's roll!"