The First Station: Jesus on the Mount of Olives
He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” [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.] When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.”
Growing up as a Christian, I always found the scene of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane to be a comforting one. My feelings were shaped less by the actual story in the Gospels and more by a popular representation of the scene, first painted by Heinrich Hofmann and often reproduced by other artists and in other genres. As a boy, I once purchased a small wooden plaque with a reproduction of Hofmann’s original. I was reassured by the serenity and strength of Jesus in the Garden, whose halo reflected the light of God shining down upon Him. My plaque sat alongside my bed for many of my young years, encouraging me to pray and to trust God more.
I still love that classic image by Hoffman, perhaps because it reminds me of my early devotion to Jesus. But, as I have studied the Gospel texts that describe Jesus in the Garden, I’ve come to believe that Hofmann’s image doesn’t capture the full reality of the scene. To be sure, in the end, Jesus accepted the Father’s will and faithfully chose the way of suffering. But his time of prayer was anything but serene.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke emphasize the agony of Jesus in the Garden. The Gospel of Luke specifically mentions Jesus’ “anguish” or “agony” (using the Greek word agonia, which can also mean “struggle”). Moreover, Luke adds that Jesus was so intense in prayer that his sweat became like drops of blood. In the other Gospels, Jesus explains that he is “deeply grieved, even to death” (Mark 14:34; Matt 26:38). Those Gospels also show Jesus as praying more than once before he was ready to accept the Father’s will. He was indeed struggling in the Garden. (Verses 43-44 are in brackets in the NRSV to indicate that they don’t appear in all ancient manuscripts. Some scholars believe that the verses were excised by certain scribes because of their shocking portrayal of Jesus. The majority of scholars hold that these verses were added later, and came from some tradition about Jesus that was not in the first edition of Luke.)
Although I am still fond of Heinrich Hoffman’s painting of Jesus in the Garden, another image now captures my imagination as I reflect upon the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ agonizing prayer. This image comes, appropriately enough, from the actual Garden of Gethsemane. Last summer, I was able to visit this site in Jerusalem, including the Garden, which has been wonderfully preserved. (You can see some of my photos of the Garden here.) One of the walls of Gethsemane, which is part of the Church of All Nations, includes a small sculpture embedded in a wall. It could easily be missed. Yet, I’m so glad I didn’t overlook it, because it offers an image of Jesus that fits what we see in the biblical Gospels. Here we sense the agony of Jesus as he struggles with his Father’s will.
A struggling Jesus? A Jesus who at first wants something other than his Father’s will? A Jesus who wishes to pass on the cup of suffering? If you’re a Christian who believes that Jesus was not just a human being, but also the unique Son of God, the Word of God in flesh, then the scene in Gethsemane is shocking. It stretches our understanding and boggles our simplistic explanations of who Jesus really is. In Gethsemane, perhaps more than in any other scene of the Gospels, we see the fully human Jesus, the One who “in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
This means, among other things, that Jesus understands when we are tested, when we are weak, when we aren’t sure we want God’s will for our lives. In Jesus, we have, not a god who is watching us from a distance, but One who knows our every weakness, and who is there to help us in our time of trial. Indeed, Scripture teaches that Christ himself intercedes for us (Romans 8:34).
Whatever picture of Gethsemane you keep in your mind, may you let the text of Scripture fill out its meaning. May you be encouraged to come before God with complete honesty, holding nothing back. May you pour out your heart to the Lord. May you wrestle with God’s will for you. As you do, know that Jesus understands, and is there to help you.
Lord Jesus, as I reflect upon your experience in Gethsemane, I am once again astounded by your utter humanness. You are not God-in-flesh-well-sort-of, but truly God in human flesh. You are Emmanuel, God with us. Thus you are also God with me. You understand me. You stand with me in hard times. You encourage me when I wrestle with the Father’s will. And you intercede for me. How I thank you, dear Lord, for who you are, for what you have done, and for what you are doing in my life today.