Walking out of the Lion's Gate at the eastern part of the Old City of Jerusalem, Jesus could see a fascinating vista spread before him: the very steep Mount of Olives, which stands between Jerusalem and Bethany, and at the bottom of the Mount, the Garden of Gethsemane, only a short walk from Jerusalem, which lies in the valley between the Mount and Jerusalem. Farther to his right, in the Kidron Valley, he could see the Jewish cemeteries. Leaving the room of the Last Supper, Jesus sees the tombs shining in the moonlight, reminders of death, reminders of the agonizing choice before him.
"Do you really want this, Father? Do you really want my death right now?"
What should Jesus do? It would be easy for him to flee into the open desert. He had chosen to escape from death before. In Nazareth, when an angry crowd sought to throw him off a cliff, he had escaped. Another time, when the crowd was ready to stone him for saying "Before Abraham was, I Am," he hid himself and later slipped out through the Temple. Considering his friends' reactions when he had predicted his suffering and death before, they would both praise him and be relieved if he would initiate an escape plan from Jerusalem this time as well.
Jesus is young, only thirty-three. He's collected a group of friends and followers, and has begun to see the results of a fruitful ministry of preaching, teaching, healing, reconciling people to his Father, even raising some from the dead. Perhaps he hopes at this point for a few more years of ministry. But he sees the signs of the times: Jewish and Roman leaders are at the boiling point. A disciple who has betrayed him to the Jewish authorities, has promised to lead them to him.
Jesus has often taken time to pray privately. Before every major decision in his life, such as choosing his disciples, Jesus has prayed. Now, after the Last Supper, the Washing of the Feet, his beautiful last talk to his friends, he sees the darkening of the night, senses the darkening of his spirit, and Jesus knows that he needs to pray. So he leads his three closest friends, Peter, James, and John, to the Garden of Gethsemane, where they have often met in the past. If Judas looks for him, with the guards, he will surely look here. But this is the place where Jesus chooses to go.
Jesus has always been the leader, the one in control. Suddenly he falls apart before his friends. Maybe they're the only ones he trusts enough to show them his agitation and fear. He becomes distressed, agitated, grieved, stricken with that terrible sense of isolation that we feel when we are suffering. He says to his friends "My soul is sorrowful unto death." His sadness over Judas' betrayal of him, maybe even his intuiting that the other disciples will almost all leave him when he is captured, the thought of the physical and psychic pain awaiting him - all leave him with a sadness so intense that it feels as if it will kill him.
He asks them to stay with him, to stay awake. And then, he throws himself on the ground and prays, collapsing from the terrible strain he is experiencing.
How often have we collapsed under the strain of sudden, overwhelming tragedy? How often have we felt isolated by grief in a room full of friends?
"Abba, Father, for you all things are possible. If you are willing, remove this cup from me."
Jesus speaks words from the Old Testament, for the prophets used the word "cup" to refer to suffering. Jesus also uses the affectionate Aramaic word, "Abba," that a child uses for his Father. Even in great distress, facing the cup of suffering, Jesus remembers and invokes his relationship of trust with his Father. And Jesus is hoping his Father will change his mind about the impending death of his Son: "Do you really want this, God?"
He weeps, even sweats drops of blood. He speaks the words every human soul speaks sooner or later:
"God, Father do you really want this to happen?
- for my husband/father/mother/sister/brother/friend/ child to die?
-for me to die - now?
- for my spouse to leave?
- for me to lose this job?
- for me to have this chronic or life-threatening illness?
"God, Father, does this really have to happen now? I know the inevitability of it, but all things are possible for you."
Jesus obviously does not want to die now. He bluntly says so to his Father because he knows that in this most intimate of relationships, he has to be honest. If he hides what he is experiencing, if he puts on a false face to his Father, their relationship will become false, distant. Jesus laments as the writer of the psalms laments. He is filled with confusion.
Then Jesus says the most important words: "Yet, not what I want, but what you want."
Fr. James Martin, S.J., in "Jesus A Pilgrimage," says these profound words about Jesus' prayer:
"One cannot separate Jesus' actions into human and divine; the two "natures" of Jesus are always united. But this passage may offer us a privileged glimpse of both natures. 'Remove this cup' is an utterly human request. 'Yet, not my will but yours be done,' is an indication of Jesus' complete union with the Father. Anything one can say about Jesus' humanity and divinity will fail to explain this great mystery. But here, even in the midst of unimaginable psychological torment which almost drives Jesus to the ground, one might say he expresses human emotions while being fully united with the Father's will.
"Why doesn't he hide himself now? Why doesn't he pass through their midst? Why doesn't he do what the disciples must have wanted? Because at this moment, he was able to see that, as far as he could tell, this was what the Father had in mind. This was the future that God had in store, and it was to this that he now surrendered."
Which is what, after our panicked tears, our hopeful cries that God will change God's mind, that we so often end up doing, perhaps even from our place lying on the floor: Surrender to God, through the Grace of God. Even if we feel unable to endure what's coming. Because, like Jesus, with surrender comes trust that somehow God our Father will help us do it all, see us through it all, once we freely walk forward to meet the storm which is barreling our way.
Even if our friends are lying sleeping on the ground, like the three disciples were, our heavenly Father, our Counselor, our Comfort, our Strength, will be with us. Even if another friend, like Judas, enters the Garden of our life only to betray us, we can remain at peace. Like our brother Jesus, every time our hour comes, even if we don't understand what is happening to us, if we choose to pray and stay in relationship with his Father and our Father, we will know what to do.