We continue our Patristic Rosary Project today with the:
1st Sorrowful Mystery: The Agony in the Garden
As the Passover approached, the Lord would enter into His Passion, from Latin patior, "suffer". After the Last Supper, where Christ washed His apostles feet and preached and instituted the Eucharist, thus ordaining them the first bishops of the Catholic Church which He founded, He went out to the Garden the Gethsemane. There He would pray and suffer and experience the bitterness of betrayal.
St. Jerome (+420) writes of the garden:
Gethsemane is interpreted as the "very fertile valley" where the Lord ordered His disciples to sit down and wait for Him to return while He prayed alone for everyone. [Commentary on Matthew 4.26.37]
Origen (+254), the creative writer of Alexandria, speaks to why Christ went from the Upper Room to a different place to pray:
… because, after He was betrayed, He did not want to be arrested in the same place where He and His disciples had eaten the Passover. Even before He was betrayed, however, He thought it fitting to choose to pray in places devoted purely to prayer, for He knew that some locations are holier than others, as it is written: "The place where you are standing is holy ground" (Ex 3:5; Acts 7:33). [Commentary on Matthew 89]
Some things are indeed set apart for God. There are sacred objects, persons and places. This observation of Origen, however, brings to mind the tension we have in life between the active and contemplative dimensions of our lives as praying, working Christian Catholics. We should make more holy all that we do by prayer, but we should have those special times set aside for holy things. It is hard to find space in busy days. All the more reason to have special times which help us to make even the busy times prayerful. Having a place to go, precisely for silence and calm and contemplation, is a very helpful tool of the spiritual life. You can also use the gentle repetitions of the Rosary to make a break from the pressing details of life and then bring those details back into prayer.
In the garden the Lord experience a horrific sorrow. Peter, John and James were in the garden with Him, as they were with Him during the Transfiguration (one of the Luminous Mysteries). Here is St. Hilary of Poitiers (+367):
When we read that the Lord was sad, we must examine everything that was said to find out why He was sad. He previously warned that they would all fall away. Brimming with confidence, Peter responded that even though all the others might be alarmed, he would not be moved (Mt 26:33), he who the Lord predicted would deny knowing Him three times. In fact, Peter and all the other disciples promised that even in the face of death they would not deny Him. He then proceeded on and ordered His disciples to sit down while He prayed. Having brought with Him Peter, James and John, He began to grieve. Before He brought them along with Him, He did not feel sad. It was only after they had accompanied Him that He grew exceedingly sad. His sadness thus arose not from Himself, but from those whom He had taken with Him. It must be realized that the Son of man brought with Him none but those whom He showed that He would come into His kingdom at that time when, in the presence of Moses and Elijah on the mountain, He was surrounded by all the splendor of His eternal glory. But the reason for bringing them with Him both then and now was the same. [On Matthew 31.4]
St. Jerome also addressed the matter of the Lord’s sorrow in the garden:
It shows that the Lord, to test the fidelity of human nature He had taken on, truly felt sorrowful. However, lest the suffering in His soul be overwhelming, He began to feel sorrowful over the events taking place just before His suffering. For it is one thing to feel sorrowful and another thing to begin to feel sorrowful. But He felt sorrowful, not because He feared the suffering that lay ahead and because He had scolded Peter for his timidity but because of the most unfortunate Judas and the falling away of all the apostles and the rejection by the Jewish people and the overturning of woeful Jerusalem. Jonah too became sad when the plant or ivy had withered, unwilling to have his booth disappear. [Commentary on Matthew 4.26.37]
Things do pass. As I write I see out my window how incipient winter is killing the plants. My booth is shifting from the Sabine Farm back to the City now, and winter seems to reflect what I feel as I begin to be sorry to leave. But think of the Lord’s sufferings, with his human intellect informed by His divine knowledge, over what will happen. What is our sorrow in the face of His? Is there sorrow like unto His sorrow? (Lamentations 1:12) In a sense, our sorrows can be like His when we join them to His sufferings. They are transformed, just as the little bit of water we add to the wine in the chalice in preparation for its transubstantiation.
Our tendency is to draw back from pain, and rightly so. Some pain, however, cannot be avoided and must be embraced willingly. The Lord teaches us about pain and St. John Chrysostom (+407) comments:
By saying then, "If it be possible, let it pass from me," He showed His true humanity. But by saying, "Nevertheless not as I will, but as You will," He showed His virtue and self-command. This too teaches us, even when nature pulls us back, to follow God. In order to make clear that He is truly God and truly man, words alone would not suffice. Deeds were needed. So He joined deeds with words in order that even those who have been highly contentious may believe that He both became man and died. Admittedly, some still do not believe that this was so. But many more would have been unable to have believed if His face had not been seen at Gethsemane. See in how many ways He shows the reality of the incarnation. He demonstrates both by what He speaks and by what He suffers. [Gospel of Matthew, Homily 83.1]
The Great Leo, Bishop of Rome (+461) says:
The disciples were admonished, and the Lord beseeches the Father that they might confront the force of present temptation with watchful prayer: "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless not I as will, but as You will." The first petition arises from weakness, the second from strength: He desired the former based on our nature and chose the latter based on His own. Equal to the Father, the Son knew that all things were possible to God; rather, He descended into this world to take up the Cross against His will so that He might suffer through this conflict of emotions with a disquieted mind. But in order to show the distinction between the receiving nature and the received nature, what was proper of humanity desired divine intervention and what was proper of God looked upon the human situation. The lower will yielded to the higher will, and this demonstrated what the fearful person may pray for and what the divine Healer should not grant. "For we do not know how to pray as we ought" (Rom 8:26) and it is good for us that what we want, for the most part, is not granted. God, who is good and just, shows mercy toward us by denying us those things we ask for which are harmful. [Sermon 4.3.2]
God answers our prayers, sometimes with a "yes", sometimes with a "not yet", sometimes with "no", or even silence. God knows our true needs better than we do.
Eventually, we face moments of truth. The Big Moment of Truth comes for us all, of course. In the meantime, the clock ticks and moments come that we know we are going to have to face, like it or not. We must approach them in the proper spirit, in conformity with God’s will, in the tangle of our minds, but with the help of grace and authority and our virtues/habits. The ever interesting Origen has this to say:
"Look! the hour is approaching, and the Son of man ill be delivered up into the hands of sinners." It is also in view of this hour, I believe, that He said to his mother, "My hour is not yet come" (John 2:4 – The Wedding at Cana, the 1st Luminous Mystery). And now He declares that with the hour approaching, "the Son of Man will be delivered up into the hands of sinners." Would that only into the hands of those sinners had Jesus been delivered up! But now I believe that He is delivered up always "into the hands of sinners" when they who seem to believe in Jesus have Him in the hands since they are sinners. Indeed, as often as a righteous person indwelt by Jesus has fallen under the sway of sinners, Jesus is delivered up "into the hands of sinners".
"Rise, let us be going; see my betrayer is approaching." After He has awakened them from that sleep we spoke about, He says to His disciples, "Rise, let us be going." And seeing Judas in His mind, who was approaching Him to deliver him up and who was not yet seen by His disciplines, He says, "See, the one who will deliver me up is approaching." I believe, however, that "see, he is approaching" and "see, the one who will deliver me up is approaching" are not equivalent. Furthermore, the traitor, who had separated himself from Jesus by his sins and his betrayal was not simply "approaching" Jesus, but "he is approaching" to deliver us the Son of God, whom he already betrayed. Plainly, all wrongdoers first betray Jesus; then they deliver Him up. [Commentary on Matthew 97-98]